By Jill Serjeant
LOS ANGELES, Feb 23 (Reuters) What do you get for the star who apparently has everything? How about a diamond-encrusted bra and panty set? Or a 22-carat gold leaf and crystal hammer, value 2,500 dollars? These are just some of the goodies being sent to Oscar nominees this year in an explosion of celebrity gifting by companies hoping for the kind of publicity that money can't buy -- a star seen using their phone, wearing their purse or gushing about their coffee machine.
What started out in 1989 as a discreet thank you gift from Oscar organisers to the (unpaid) presenters of the Academy Awards has turned into a multimillion-dollar industry that has spawned a wave of freelance gifting and the arrival of the ''gift lounge'' at most of Hollywood's movie and music awards ceremonies.
''It's certainly something that the Elizabeth Ardens and Casios and Procter&Gambles of the world have seen and deemed to be so valuable that they do it year after year,'' said Lash Fary, owner of Los Angeles-based Distinctive Assets.
Fary, whose company has a reputation for ''impressing the seemingly unimpressible,'' said his first gift bag -- for Grammy presenters seven years ago -- was worth 5,000 dollars. Companies pay a hefty fee to Fary to have their items included as gifts.
This year his Grammy gift basket was worth about 65,000 dollars including a guitar and a coupon for Lasik eye surgery. His Oscar ''loser bag,'' to be handed out after the March 5 award show to the non-winning Oscar nominated actors, actresses and directors, ranges from the sublime (three days in a private suite at a Las Vegas hotel) to the mundane (a stain removing pen and a tin of breath mints).
''Seven years ago it was a much harder pitch ... (but) our industry has been fueled by pop culture magazines. They need celebrity content,'' Fary said.
The payback for this year's Victoria's Secret gift to the best actress Oscar nominees -- a 15,000 dollar bra and panty set embellished with a (removable) Chantal Thomass gold and diamond brooch -- is less tangible.
''It may not be something that you will see as obvious on the red carpet but (lingerie) is something that is very close to every woman,'' said Victoria's Secret spokeswoman Sara Tervo.
''We're not about exploiting exactly what bra and panty some celebrity wears but we do have a lot of celebrities that like our products. For us it is always valuable to have high-profile women that are fans of our brand,'' Tervo said.
'IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS' Swag is not always about lavish items like the 22,000 dollars cruise to Antarctica, which was included in the Golden Globes gift basket. One recent gift lounge -- a private room where celebrities are introduced to their swag and its makers -- featured 1,000 dollars worth of Tupperware and a single cup coffee maker.
''When you have everything at your disposal, it's sometimes the little things that mean more,'' said Fary, who said most celebrities are both genuinely grateful for the gifts and happy to work without charge when they turn up at awards shows.
Some commentators have criticised the ethics of showering already rich stars with free stuff but Fary says they are confusing philanthropy with marketing.
''The only backlash is one of misunderstanding,'' he said.
''It's no worse than Budweiser buying an ad at 1 million dollars for 30 seconds at the Super Bowl.'' In a twist to the gifting explosion, a Website Swagtime.com was launched four months ago to allow non-celebrities get their hands on some of the goodies.
Billed as ''what was exclusive is now inclusive,'' the site tells consumers what was in those celebrity baskets and where they can buy the next big thing. It also auctions gift bags for charity and promotes the smaller businesses pitching their wares to the stars.
Fary sees no sign of the gifting phenomenon ending any time soon. ''It's just like taking a bottle of wine to a dinner party. It's just polite. It's never going to go away.'' REUTERS CS BS0915