Forget Miami – Tampa Bay gets its fair share of celebrities, too

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click to enlarge Neil Diamond - Pr Newswire Photo Service/newscom
Pr Newswire Photo Service/newscom
Neil Diamond

If you can't get out of the bright lights of downtown to see Orion or the Ursa Minor, you can always stay in town and watch for a different type of star — the elusive celebrity.

Visiting musicians, athletes, actors and dignitaries have to go somewhere when they're in Tampa Bay. If you know where to look for them — and you don't resemble Mark David Chapman — you might just find yourself starstruck.

Eddie Holt, a bell cap at the Westin Harbour Island Hotel, is often one of the first people to spot incoming celebrities. For the last 22 years, this high-class hotel — adjacent to the Tampa Convention Center and blocks from the St. Pete Times Forum — has attracted all sorts of singers, politicians and movie stars. And Holt has been right there to greet them, take their luggage and bring whatever else they need to their room.

"We really don't say no to people for anything they ask for unless it's illegal," Holt says. "Sometimes it really gets elaborate."

Like the bulletproof glass for Bill Clinton's windows. Or Neil Diamond's request that all air condition filters be changed and the windows blacked out.

"And everybody has a certain kind of water or a certain kind of food," he adds.

Although Holt says he hasn't been starstruck in years, he has enjoyed some of the more colorful experiences through the years. Like the time Faye Dunaway stayed at the hotel ("she's pretty notorious — she pretty much curses like a sailor") or when Bob Hope came to the employee Christmas party and performed a 20-minute standup comedy routine. And he'll never forget Axl Rose.

"The only person I think really damaged a room was Axl Rose in his heyday," Holt says, describing the time the Guns N' Roses frontman threw a television set through a wall and smeared spaghetti all over his room. Eventually, security had to be called, Holt says, and the rambunctious rock star was two hours late to his show. On the other hand, Kiss or ZZ Top were basically model citizens, he says.

Of course, Holt isn't the only one who knows celebrities stay at the Westin.

"We do get people looking," he says. "People will hang out to get autographs, but we don't allow them to rush the celebrities or anything like that."

Any fan who enters the hotel is immediately escorted out, he says, and if the crowd outside gets too large, the hotel will put out ropes to create a barrier between gawkers and superstar. But that didn't stop fans of tennis heartthrob Andre Agassi a few years ago.

"A lot of girls were trying to sneak up the stairs to get into his room," Holt shares. "Even the front-desk girls liked to bring his mail to him because of some rumor that he opened his door in his underwear."

And when the Backstreet Boys were still a hot item, Holt says management had them come through a secret back door to avoid the swelled crowds.

But at the end of the day, after they've gotten their special kind of food and water, Holt says celebrities are just like you and me.

"Most of the them are pretty down to earth," he says, "and when you talk to them, they really are just people."

So where do celebrities go when they aren't hanging out in their rooms at the Westin Harbour Island Hotel, the Don Cesar resort, the Vinoy, the Hiltons or the Marriotts? The same places any other tourist goes — downtown St. Pete, Channelside, International Plaza and Clearwater Beach. Here's a brief star-spotting guide:

Downtown St. Petersburg: Ever since the 'burg's downtown renaissance, celebrity sightings are becoming more and more common. Don Shea, president of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, says on any given weekend all sorts of high-society types can be seen at Parkshore Grill and Café Alma. And if you hang out on the Vinoy's veranda, you might catch members of a visiting sports team or a musician set to play Jannus Landing. Shea says even the Saturday Farmers' Market is a draw. "I swear to God I saw David Letterman there a month ago," Shea says.

Splitsville in Channelside: This upscale bowling alley, billiard room and bar has attracted all sorts of celebrities, from actors Jenna Elfman and Susan Sarandon to NFL players and recording artists like DMX. A Saudi prince even rented out the place after hours last year.

Seminole Hard Rock Hotel: The Hard Rock chain is known to attract stars no matter where it's placed in the country. Jessica Simpson and Vince Neil have both landed at the Tampa location.

Clearwater Beach: Home to Scientology's spiritual headquarters, Tom Cruise and John Travolta both have homes here. And even though Hulk Hogan began shooting his reality show at his Miami home last year, he still owns a mansion on Belleair Beach.

International Plaza: Erika Llenza, university relations coordinator at USF, says this upscale shopping mall near Tampa International Airport attracts all sorts of celebrities, especially sports stars, like Derek Jeter, Bobby Bonilla and Jason Giambi (the Yankees frequent the mall in the spring, she says). She's also seen her fair share of pro-wrestling stars like "Macho Man" Randy Savage, Test, Edge, Jericho and the female wrester Tori Wilson.

Ybor City: Although the party district's popularity tends to wax and wane, myriad celebs have been spotted along Seventh Avenue, frequenting the higher-profile clubs like Prana. Cameron Diaz was once a semi-regular at LaFrance, a vintage clothing store on Seventh.

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