Madonna joins galaxy of stars who call Miami home

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Forget paradise lost. Forget a city beset by drugs and violence. The headlines that used to give image-makers headaches can now proclaim Miami the newest Tinseltown.

The ultimate proof?

Madonna, the world's most material girl, just joined a growing galaxy of stars who have bought or are buying homes in greater Miami.

Among them: pop singer Whitney Houston, Italian movie goddess Sophia Loren, rapper Vanilla Ice, Spanish crooner Julio Iglesias, Broadway impresario Harold Prince, Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, designer Paloma Picasso, author Anne Rice and Bee Gees Robin, Maurice and Barry Gibb.

Madonna picked up her new abode, a 1928 Mediterranean Revival mansion just north of the Vizcaya palace and gardens, for a cool $4.9 million, the highest price ever paid for a home in Dade County. The six-bedroom house wasn't for sale, but the megarich megastar apparently made the owners -- Burdines executive James Gray and his wife, Sheila -- an offer they couldn't refuse.

Just four years ago, the Grays paid $2.15 million for the estate.

Another Mediterranean-style gem in Miami Beach recently caught the fancy of Gianni Versace, the flamboyant Italian fashion designer who created the Don Johnson "Miami Vice" look. Versace just offered $2.9 million for the Amsterdam Palace, a 1930 villa-turned-apartment-house on South Beach's trendy Ocean Drive.

Filled with bas-relief and built around a courtyard, the Amsterdam was modeled after a Santo Domingo castle built by Christopher Columbus' son Diego.

In a way, the stars' trek to Miami seems like the ultimate paradox. As Dade County's crime rate remains the highest in the state, as Miami takes its place among the poorest cities in the nation, as the refugee influx and white flight continues and as the snooty, who-wants-to-live-there attitude prevails in the rest of Florida, celebs and trendsetters who could live anywhere are choosing Miami.

"It's becoming like a second Hollywood," said Lina Otegui, office manager for Wimbish Realty, which deals almost exclusively in high-end, waterfront properties.

In large measure, it is the existence of a rapidly shrinking bounty of architectural treasures -- combined with the tropical clime, the trendy cafes and the chichi night life on South Beach -- that makes many stars want to roost here.

The glitterati don't see the stark, inner-city poverty that one county official compares to that of the Third World. They don't drive through the neighborhoods where concrete blocks are hurled through windshields and where purses and jewels are snatched from startled motorists.

Rather, they stay in lushly vegetated, walled estates with service entrances, in guarded enclaves with breathtaking vistas of Biscayne Bay, in a Mediterranean-style waterfront village with cobbled streets and on private islands where it's no big deal to buy a house just to tear it down and build another.

And, according to Wimbish president Carlos Justo, the big names are snapping up magnificent residences -- many of them just vacation getaways used a couple of times a year -- for a song.

jTC "Buying here is dirt cheap," Mr. Justo said. "The same home Madonna bought for $5 million here would cost $10 million anywhere else."

Professional party-giver Louis Canales, a South Beach public relations guru, agrees that bargains are prompting the "in crowd" -- those who do New York, Los Angeles and Europe like most people do lunch -- to discover Miami.

"They come here to visit, but they fell in love with the energy, the narcissism, the scene on South Beach -- and the prices!" Mr. Canales said. "They can't believe you can get a one-bedroom condo here with an ocean view and air conditioning for $90,000. You can't get a closet in the East Village in New York for that."

Whatever the reason, Miami's image-makers are almost giddy about Madonna's leading the parade of stars who occasionally call Miami home.

Bill Cullom, president of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, doesn't know much about the ambitious blond -- except that "she wears those funny-looking cones over her breasts" -- but he definitely knows good public relations from bad.

Years after Time magazine proclaimed Miami paradise lost and The New York Times branded it a city beset by drugs and violence, Mr. Cullom still has trouble persuading executives who relocate companies to Miami to actually live in Dade County. He said he thinks Madonna's presence will help.

"The word will spread, and people will be curious why she chose Miami," Mr. Cullom said. "They'll find out what we all know: We look better from the inside than we do from the outside."

About the only Miami booster with mixed feelings about Madonna's new residence is historian Paul George, who conducts walking tours. He, too, said he thinks Madonna will help the city's fragile image, but he said he doubts that she'll continue a practice begun by the Grays.

Once a year the Grays used to invite one of Mr. George's groups up their palm-lined drive to tour their home and feast on a catered lunch.

"I can't see her inviting us, but if she does we'll have 5,000 people," Mr. George said. "It would be my most successful tour."

Miami homesteads

Following is a list of where the stars have settled in Miami:

* Madonna, in a 1928 bay-front mansion on Miami's historic Millionaires' Row.

* Italian movie queen Sofia Loren, in a Mediterranean-style village she helped design on Williams Island in north Dade County.

* Pop singer Whitney Houston, also on Williams Island.

* Former "Miami Vice" star Don Johnson and his movie-star wife, Melanie Griffith, in north downtown Miami's The Grand, a high-rise hotel-condominium.

* Home-grown pop singer Gloria Estefan and husband, Emilio, in a mansion on Miami Beach's Star Island.

* Rapper Vanilla Ice, also on Star Island.

* Spanish crooner Julio Iglesias, in the Indian Creek Village, which has only 32 homes.

* Broadway impresario Harold Prince, on Miami Beach's North Bay Road.

* Bee Gees brothers Robin, Maurice and Barry Gibb, in three nearby estates, also on North Bay Road.

* Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, on Miami Beach's La Gorce Island.

* Paloma Picasso, daughter of Pablo Picasso, in Coconut Grove.

* Author Anne Rice, in the South Pointe condominiums in Miami Beach.

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