Lake Como, Italy has long been a haven for celebrities seeking reprieve from the spotlight. It is not uncommon to see Catherine Zeta Jones, Robert De Niro, or Madonna dining at a local restaurant. But when George Clooney fell in love with the place nine years ago, the tiny town was transformed from casual celebrity hangout into a paparazzi paradise. It might never be the same.
Gallery: George's Lady Friends
When Clooney bought his fabulous 18th-century Villa Oleandra here in 2001, it was part of the Heinz ketchup family estate. The estate has 25 rooms and abuts the lake in Laglio, a tiny hamlet of less than 900 a few kilometers from the Swiss border. He also purchased two adjoining properties to use as an editing suite and garage for his motorcycles. The acquisition upended everyone’s existence, including the actor’s.
"What changed my life in a very pleasant and unexpected way was buying the villa in Laglio,” George, as the locals call him, told reporters at a press conference promoting his new movie The American on September 2. “That was a pure investment decision. I thought maybe I would spend a few weeks vacationing there. But then I realized how beautiful life was in Italy and how it really helped calm me and not feel so pressured.”
"Local paps camp in the parking garage across the street from his home; he can’t even go for a bicycle ride without an entourage. Clooney responded last summer by building an egg-throwing apparatus that hurled raw eggs at boats that got too close."
And this summer, Clooney-peeping reached its highest levels yet when his Italian girlfriend Elisabetta “Eli” Canalis, became the princess in this fairly-tale village. Everyone knows what they are up to, whether they are out cruising the lake with friends, dining out, or riding bicycles around town. Clooney has clearly embraced la dolce vita, and Canalis, herself a local celebrity, completes the equation.
Even though Italian designers Donatella Versace and Giorgio Armani both have equally lavish villas on this side of the lake, neither attracts the same attention as Clooney. During the summer months, when his famous friends like Uma Thurman, Brad Pitt, and David Beckham were visiting, boats and helicopters swarmed the area. When Clooney’s friends John Krasinski and Emily Blunt were married on the grounds in July, local police had to set up road blocks and close off the air space above to try to control the paparazzi.
But the locals don’t seem to mind a bit. In fact, chasing George Clooney is a local pastime that they blatantly capitalize on. Local boat tours offer “Clooney sighting” tours of the lake, taking visitors within a few meters of the star’s home. Guidebooks and restaurant reviews of the area’s tony eateries almost always include a Clooney endorsement. George chose this peaceful lake because the adoring attention he received was nowhere near the invasive barrage he was used to in Hollywood. But that may be changing.
His home is ultra-accessible, protected from the public by only a wrought iron fence, thick hedge, and surveillance camera. Local paps camp in the parking garage across the street from his home; he can’t even go for a bicycle ride without an entourage. Clooney responded last summer by building an egg-throwing apparatus that hurled raw eggs at boats that got too close. Local mayor Roberto Pozzi is worried that Clooney and his clan will soon grow tired of the growing attention. “We will always welcome you with affection,” the mayor said during a speech in July when false rumors that Clooney was selling his lakeside mansion swirled last spring. “Please don’t go.”
At 6 p.m. on a late-summer evening, a Harley Davidson motorcycle that looks suspiciously like one of Clooney’s was parked outside Harry’s Bar in Cernobbio here on Lake Como. Harry’s Bar is one of the American actor’s favorite spots, according to, well, everyone who lives here. The bar is in the chain of the famous Harry’s Bar in Venice that was frequented by the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Ernest Hemingway, and Truman Capote. Cernobbio’s version has the same star power, attracting celebrities like Denzel Washington and Brad Pitt along with Clooney and his VIP guests. When he’s not out on his boat for a late afternoon “booze cruise,” Clooney has his aperitif here. But not this time. “It’s not his motorcycle,” said the owner, Pietro Sacchi. “But George and Eli were here a couple of days ago.”
Though the lake’s 17th and 18th-century villas are owned by the likes of Donatella Versace, Giorgio Armani, and Sly Stallone, Clooney has been forced to take extra measures to ensure his privacy. Recently, he built a walking bridge over the main road between his properties and planted it with ivy to be able to move between his properties undetected. A red chain fence is strung across the main entrance to the villa; off to the side, a statue depicting a group of embracing children greets visitors. Sculpted gardens sprawl down to the water’s edge, and a rectangular swimming pool visible from the lake is lined with lounge chairs. Villa Oleandra was famous even before Clooney bought it. The Heinz family had crafted the 25-room villa into a sanctuary for artists and writers, hosting Nathanial Hawthorne in 1850, just before he wrote The Scarlet Letter.
Stroll around today, however, and you’ll quickly see that Clooney has become the main attraction. There are pictures of him everywhere—paintings of his villa in the breakfast rooms of hotels, Clooney calendars for sale in the tobacco shops, and almost every restaurant worth its salt has a photo of him standing with the owner. “He brings all of his famous friends here,” boasts Fausto Fontana, the owner of the ultra-chic il Gatto Nero restaurant high above the lake, pointing to several pictures of himself with Clooney. Clooney, who is fond of classic Italian dishes like squid pasta and porcini mushrooms, has his own table with a view over the lake. “He brought his girlfriend here last night. He said he would be back in a few months—he didn’t mention whether Miss Canalis would be with him.”
Miss Canalis, Clooney’s yearlong girlfriend, was already a local somebody before she and the Hollywood superstar hooked up. She grew up in Sardinia and took the road most travelled by gorgeous Italian women, becoming a “velina,” or showgirl, starting her career by dancing and posing on Italian television. She then became a television presenter, jumping around the stage on popular Italian programs about soccer and fashion. She dated soccer stars like the legendary Bobo Vieri, with whom she made a much-lauded porn video. She also dated Gabriele Muccino, a director who teamed up with Will Smith for the weepy film The Pursuit of Happyness. She met Clooney at a restaurant at the Hotel Majestic in Rome last summer after professing to friends that her life dream was to meet and date George Clooney.
That dream may soon become a nightmare. When she met Clooney she was living in Milan, where she was often paid to show up at popular nightclubs, à la Paris Hilton. And, not unlike Hilton, Canalis was recently named in a criminal investigation. It involves two Milanese nightclubs that were closed in late July after allegations that the clubs’ owner dabbled in drug trafficking and prostitution.
Canalis will have to testify in the continuing investigation this fall, but until then, she is focused on her career—and her love life. She just finished shooting TNT’s Leverage. In her first American interview, she oozed on about how dating George Clooney is “better than plastic surgery.”
But in early August, she may have sealed her fate when she hinted to the Italian edition of Vanity Fair in an interview she gave at Clooney’s lakeside estate that she and Clooney were very much in love and that this might be ”it.” Few of Clooney’s now ex-lovers survived a major tell-all interview. And during the Emmy awards, Canalis barely made a ripple and was seen in only a few photos with her date, who, when asked who she was, failed to name her and instead said, “She picked me up in Italy.” While Clooney was giving interviews backstage about his Bob Hope Humanitarian award and his new movie, Canalis was said to be slumped in the corner, sending text messages and visibly “bored” according to the Italian press.
Clooney’s sweetheart may be the master of her own demise. Over the summer, Canalis jokingly held up her left hand adorned with a glittery napkin ring on her ring finger to the paparazzi stalking them at a restaurant, in what seemed like an obvious ploy to spur marriage rumors. Clooney’s rep quickly dismissed the allegations that the terminal bachelor might be settling down. And while Clooney himself also admitted this week, “I even have a bit of a personal life these days,” he still remains steadfast in his promise never to marry again. Whether Canalis, at 31, may prove him wrong is anyone’s guess.
Barbie Latza Nadeau, author of the Beast Book Angel Face, about Amanda Knox, has reported from Italy for Newsweek Magazine since 1997. She also writes for CNN Traveller, Budget Travel Magazine and Frommer's.