One Year Later: Even celebrities face lowered expectations

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The massive downturn of the last year have been a great leveler, demonstrating that, regardless of one's position or address, the effects of an economic crisis spread across all sectors of society. As the miseries of Madoff-victim Kevin Bacon and mortgage sufferer Ed McMahon show, while fame and fortune can form a hedge against poverty, they can't insulate celebrities from having to make the same sorts of difficult decisions that are playing out in kitchens and over dinner tables across the country.

Perhaps more importantly, celebrity financial woes demonstrate two classic reactions that are available to the economy's victims. On one end of the spectrum, many consumers are trying to adapt to the new realities of the economy by changing their lifestyles to live within their now-decreased means. On the other end, some have yet to acknowledge the scope and cruelty of the economic shift, and are attempting to live as they did before. The stories of Annie Leibovitz and John McAfee nicely illustrate the point
Annie Leibovitz is not involved in finance or business, and one would think that her fame as a freelance photographer would have sheltered her from the uncertainties faced by most Americans. What's more, her commodity -- celebrity photographs -- is at least partially resistant to the whims of the economy, which means that it should provide yet another level of insulation. With this in mind, it's hard to see how the famed photographer could be undone by the financial meltdown. Even so, the economy's problems hit her with the same impact that they shared out over the rest of the country.

To the dismay of her employers, Leibovitz was never particularly careful with money, and her extravagant expenditures in the name of art had long since left her credit in tatters. However, Liebovitz's fame, combined with a day rate that ran into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, meant that, by the 1990's, she was able to begin indulging in the volatile New York real estate market. In 1994 and 1999, she bought expensive properties in New York City's pricey Chelsea neighborhood, and in 1996, she purchased a large estate in Rhinebeck, a town situated on the banks of the Hudson, north of the city. In 2002, she increased her holdings with two townhouses in Greenwich Village. During subsequent renovations, a third house in the area was damaged, and she ended up buying it for a further $1.87 million.

In addition to her property purchases, Leibovitz was also profligate in her personal spending, employing an extensive staff and indulging in outsized personal expenditures. In the heady days of the early 2000's, however, this wasn't a problem, and she was able to finance her lifestyle by taking out $15 million in mortgages.

Within a few years, however, it became clear that Leibovitz was living far beyond her means. Although she began selling some of her properties in 2004, even her massive returns weren't sufficient to service her debt. In 2008, with creditors circling and lawsuits pending, she got a one-year, $24 million loan from the Art Capital Group, a banking company that specializes in fine art. Leibovitz used her body of work as collateral, a move that has subsequently led to sticky legal battles over ownership of her photos.

The loan came due on September 8, 2009. After spending months savaging Art Capital in the press, Leibovitz has, apparently, reached an agreement with the company. She retains the rights to her photos and the deadline on her loan has been extended. Even so, given the disorganized response to her economic woes, she may have only delayed the inevitable surrender of her home and the rights to her art.

Unlike Leibovitz, John McAfee is not a household name, unless said household happens to contain a few computer experts: the 53-year-old software engineer is best known for the anti-virus software that bears his name. By 1994, when he sold his last shares of his company, he had amassed a $100 million fortune.

Over the subsequent years, McAfee invested heavily in real estate, including a 157-acre compound in New Mexico where he flew lightweight airplanes, a property in Hawaii, and a 10,000 square foot home in Colorado. Recently, he sold the New Mexico property, the last of these holdings, to pay bills. He has since moved to Belize.

McAfee, like Leibovitz, was not directly involved in business and finance, but his heavy investment in real estate and the stock market made him highly vulnerable to the vagaries of the economy. His New Mexico property, which sold for $1.5 million, had over $11.5 million in capital improvements, including hangars, a general store, and a movie theater that he built to entertain guests. Similarly, his Colorado property, which sold for $5.7 million, had over $25 million in improvements that he had funded.

While McAfee's fortune has shrunk to $4 million, the sale of the New Mexico property should help clear up his debts and leave him financially solvent, even if he must learn to live with reduced means. Presumably, his move to Belize is part of that process, as the country's cost of living is significantly lower than that of the US.

While it is easy to berate Leibovitz or lionize McAfee for their respective responses to the economic downfall, doing so misses the point. Like so many consumers, the two celebs have had to come to terms with financial problems that they never could have anticipated. What's more, their responses are also very common: even as the one has seemingly doubled down on her credit-based lifestyle, the other has chosen to rid himself of the possessions and properties that have fueled his debt. One response is based in the apparent belief that the economic downturn is a hiccup, while the other assumes that the economic doldrums are here to stay. Ultimately, it remains to be seen which conclusion is correct.

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