L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, the disowned Democrat turned Fox News favorite decrying mask mandates, police defunding and zero-bail policies, exchanged his trademark cowboy hat for a sport coat on the evening of Dec. 13 at a $1,000-per-person fundraising reception for his re-election. At Avra, a glitzy Greek restaurant in Beverly Hills, the controversial lawman listed what he deemed to be his first-term accomplishments — touting the implementation of body-worn cameras, an increase in diversity hiring and kicking ICE out of department jails — while also assailing his enemies, including progressive Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascon.
Villanueva then moved on to the L.A. Board of Supervisors, whom he called “people that worship on their altar of woke-ism.” The board, which funds the Sheriff’s Department and appoints commissioners that oversee it, has called for Villanueva’s resignation, citing his resistance to structural reforms and rehiring of deputies with troubled histories. At a Jan. 26 candidate debate, the contenders seeking to replace Villanueva all focused on his acrimonious relationship with the board. His prime competitor, Cecil Rhambo, a former assistant sheriff in the department and currently LAX’s police chief, has called Villanueva “the Donald Trump of L.A. County.”
A canny populist now courting Republican Party leaders and affluent citizens after the local Democratic Party renounced him in 2021, Villanueva also made ample room in his stump speech to address what he knew was one of his audience’s own primary grievances: the region’s homelessness crisis.
As the sheriff spoke, top entertainment publicist Jessica Meisels looked on. She’d helped organize the fundraiser, and she was responsible for the sizzle reel which had screened minutes earlier, spotlighting the sheriff’s homelessness task force. It featured deputies walking in slow motion through encampments to Rachel Platten’s pop hit “Stand by You.”
Long known for her acumen in shaping celebrity narratives and marrying A-listers with brands — as when, in 2016, she populated outrageously expensive penthouses and mansions with the likes of Beyoncé and Jay-Z, generating media coverage about “Airbnb Luxury Retreats” — Meisels, 44, has turned unexpected political fixer. Fueled by her own fears and frustrations over the homeless encampments near her home, she’s emerged as a key figure in Villanueva’s re-election bid, through both her media outreach on behalf of the sheriff and her work for Families for Public Safety, a front group whose ostensible mission, according to its website, is “to raise awareness about rising crime” but primarily serves as an instrument to support Villanueva’s agenda. (The group was launched by his campaign manager prior to officially joining the re-election team.)
The homelessness crisis is at the forefront of every major Los Angeles-area election campaign, including the wide-open competition for the mayoralty, and tensions over how best to go about dealing with it have deepened fault lines between the entertainment industry’s centrist-liberal and progressive factions. (The county’s unhoused population reached more than 66,000 in 2020, compared to more than 44,000 in 2015, according to an annual count conducted by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority; no tally occurred in 2021 due to the pandemic.)
Hollywood figures have lately tried to intervene in high-profile ways: Jeffrey Katzenberg drew attention for his private audiences with a number of L.A. City Council members; in November 2021, Kanye West staged a photo op at the L.A. Mission on Skid Row, where he dropped off 1,000 meals and promised additional support during a speech in which he spoke of trauma, the devil and those who “step over homeless people to go to the Gucci store.”
At Avra, Villanueva touted the work of a Sheriff’s Department task force dedicated to eliminating encampments, which he ramped up over the preceding year. “We have a formula that works,” he claimed. “We’ve been in the riverbeds, under the bridges, in the canyons.” Villanueva continued, “You go to Hollywood, [only] not to be discovered. Then you’re on the street. Then you become human-trafficked. That’s not success. We got them the help they needed. And how many arrests did we make? Zero.”
Meisels, who’s not formally a member of Villanueva’s re-election campaign staff, has quickly become something of a secret weapon. Speaking from the West Hollywood offices of her 19-year-old firm Fingerprint Communications, Meisels touted a “deep network that can potentially help move change” that she’s built during her career brand-building for clients that have included Ciroc vodka, Nobu’s hotel division and the Kardashian Kollection fashion line. (She currently represents Snoop Dogg’s line of gin and Jermaine Dupri’s vegan ice cream brand.) Meisels sees her newfound work as a political operative as borne out of an acute concern for personal safety, which she believes others increasingly share. “This is across all of Angelenos right now,” Meisels explains. “People that did not care about politics, like me, were like, ‘How can I help?’” (Meisels has also begun working as communications director for a longshot mayoral candidate, independent Craig Greiwe, chief strategy officer of Rogers & Cowan/PMK, the corporate marketing and public relations giant.)
Villanueva’s detractors are alternately amused and dubious of Meisels’ involvement. Says Adam Ruins Everything creator Adam Conover, who volunteers with SELAH Neighborhood Homeless Coalition, “When you’re the most hated man in Los Angeles, you probably need a pretty good Hollywood publicist to dig yourself out of that hole.”
A week prior to the Avra fundraiser, Villanueva and Meisels invited members of the press to a bleak block of Cesar Chavez Avenue, a few hundred yards from downtown L.A.’s Union Station, site of the 2021 Oscars telecast. The sheriff was checking in that morning on his Homeless Outreach Services Team, which had been working in tandem with other government agencies to clear an encampment, largely by urging the sidewalk dwellers to accept assistance: reconnection with family members, medical treatment or shelter someplace else.
With tents and their struggling inhabitants as backdrop and a phalanx of deputies flanking him, Villanueva spoke to The Hollywood Reporter of “open-air asylums” and teed off on the “homeless-industrial complex,” an agglomeration of government-backed nonprofits “not delivering results — and we do.” He also scoffed at the contention that increased budgets for housing and social services may better tackle the problem than spending more money on law enforcement. Those harboring such views “are sitting very comfortable in the ivory tower,” he explained. “They’re not here on the street.”
A few paces away, Meisels recounted another recent task force engagement, during which the residents of the so-called “Veterans Row” in Brentwood were moved within the gated bounds of the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Photos were circulated to the media after the unhoused were offered beard trims and haircuts from in-demand industry groomer Jason Schneidman, whose clients have included Jonah Hill, Hugh Jackman and James Corden.
Meisels, an intense personality even at ease, also had her own beef to share: The snubbing, she claimed, of the homelessness task force’s work by the Los Angeles Times, which has regularly covered scandals at the Sheriff’s Department, including the persistence of violent deputy gangs and the high rate that Latino bicyclists are stopped and searched. The paper has also run scathing editorials about Villanueva’s stewardship. “They purposefully won’t write anything positive,” she said. “They’re supposed to be writing about things that are happening in the city. What the sheriff’s doing [with the task force] is relevant news. As a publicist, I don’t understand.” Meisels added that the paper has declined to publish his op-eds. (The Times has reported that he’s refused to answer questions from its LASD beat writer.)
For their part, many homeless advocates deride Villanueva’s approach, which they characterize as a crackdown. These critics note that the hotel rooms and subdivided warehouses promoted as interim housing are better characterized as detention centers, since admission includes severe restrictions on personal freedom. They also dismiss the sheriff’s oft-repeated contention that the task force’s members have never used force in their dealings with the unhoused, observing that intimidation by armed deputies and the prospect of jail time is its own threat.
“They’re forcing people out at gunpoint,” says Tommy Kelly, a Hollywood resident and organizer with Street Watch, which is associated with the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. As for the Sheriff’s Department outreach, Conover explains, “the main concern is the people who have to walk by these encampments rather than the ones who live in them.” Adds Brittani Nichols, a writer for Abbott Elementary and organizer with activist group Ground Game L.A.: “His goal is photo ops and courting the vote of people who want people to be disappeared.”
While Villanueva clashed with retiring progressive City Councilmember Mike Bonin over the task force’s work in his district near the V.A. and, earlier in the year, at Venice Beach (where the LAPD has jurisdiction), the Sheriff found an ally on the downtown initiative in City Councilmember Kevin de Leon, a top-tier mayoral candidate and former California State Senate leader who lost a 2018 U.S. Senate race running to the left of Democrat Dianne Feinstein. Like Villanueva, he criticizes the County Board of Supervisors for not building better capacity to address mental health needs, as well as activists “who fight for the perfect and, long-term, hurt our homeless community.”
Speaking in January, de Leon claimed that more than 90 people had been housed in the Union Station-adjacent relocation effort to date, and that those who remain were especially difficult to help, since they suffered from severe mental illness and/or addiction, typically crystal meth and fentanyl. “This is triage,” said de Leon, who was appointed chair of the City Council’s Homelessness and Poverty Committee in November 2021. “This operation is really a model for how we can house people with compassion and clean up our streets and neighborhoods.”
Meisels forged her career at the turn of the millennium working with a trio of hard-charging, clout-wielding women who ruled an exclusive niche of entertainment PR: First in Manhattan under events maven Lara Shriftman, then moving to L.A. to open a West Coast outpost for influential nightlife specialist Lizzie Grubman during Grubman’s partnership with screenings queen Peggy Siegal. (Grubman would soon after achieve infamy, and go to jail, for backing her SUV into 16 people in the Hamptons; Siegal’s own career was derailed due to her professional association with Jeffrey Epstein.) In 2003, Meisels founded Fingerprint, a 15-person P.R. shop where she has perfected a profitable blend of marketing and merriment: Cool-chasing corporate clients like Polaroid sign off on renting out prime real estate for party-house “brand activations,” and then VIPs such as Paris Hilton and Matthew McConaughey are invited over for a memorable time. Her firm has also spent a decade organizing gala events in Park City for Operation Smile, chaired by Amazon Studios chief Jennifer Salke.
While Meisels, as president of Fingerprint, still regularly texts with the likes of TAO Group founder Jason Strauss (a Venice resident and Villanueva supporter), she now perhaps most principally identifies as a working mom. Divorced in 2017 from a racecar driver, she’s raising her two kids, a 7-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter, on her own in the affluent Valley suburb of Sherman Oaks. It’s through this perspective that she views the world — especially an encampment near her home that began, by her account, in the Van Nuys Boulevard underpass of the 101 Freeway with several tents in the fall of 2019 and has since shifted and expanded into what she terms a “small city” of at least 40 people on the banks of the adjacent L.A. River. Meisels says she doesn’t feel safe walking with her children in the area anymore.
Since 2019, according to LAPD data, homicides in the city are up 46.7 percent and car thefts 53 percent through Nov. 27. Meanwhile, burglaries are down 7.7 percent, robberies 3.3 percent and property crime 2.2 percent during the same period. Much of the violence continues to occur in low-income communities and among the homeless. Overall, local crime rates remain significantly beneath the highs of decades ago.
Meisels notes she volunteered with Coalition for the Homeless while attending New York City’s elite Country Day School, so “I was taught to talk to people by name, look them in the eye, whether you can help them or not. I’m the first person to go buy them a sandwich outside of a grocery store when they’re out there starving.” She says she has been transformed both by her experience with her nearby encampment, which she says is a nexus of anxiety and dismay among her neighbors (“I probably have 3,000 messages on my Nextdoor”), as well as by frustration with the government entities with jurisdiction over it who she claims have shown themselves to be passive or negligent. When an unnamed friend and onetime client who’s close to the sheriff suggested she turn her agita into action by supporting Families for Public Safety, she signed on. “I spent days watching how [the Sheriff’s Homeless Outreach Services Team] works and I’m like, ‘Why’s there not more of you [deputies assigned]?” she recalls. “I’m still begging them to come over to my area.”
Meisels has brought several of her industry friends on board for Villanueva. Fashion stylist Amanda Reno says the sheriff’s task force changed a situation close to her for the better. Reno describes how, while shopping for clients’ Halloween costumes on Hollywood Boulevard this past fall, she befriended a wheelchair-bound woman who’d been repeatedly sexually assaulted. Reno had unsuccessfully sought help from an array of government and nonprofit entities before Meisels connected her with the Homeless Outreach Services Team. “[The woman] was taken from the streets,” Reno says. “She’s stayed in her program. She’s been working through her stuff in treatment. I get updates on how she’s doing.”
Meisels’ friend Sydney Holland — a producer best known as Sumner Redstone’s onetime girlfriend whose epic legal battle with his daughter Shari precipitated the 2019 ViacomCBS merger — left town last year with her three children for San Diego, after selling her $11 million Pacific Palisades home out of a dystopic sense that the city has become dangerous. “I think it’s going to be that certain people will have to get their own security, and what about the people who can’t afford that?” Holland says.
The Brentwood-adjacent encampment at the V.A. had troubled Holland as she drove to her daughter’s dance class. (“There were needles on the street.”) To Holland, its eradication is a sign of progress. So, the sheriff, with whom she’s breakfasted, “seems to be the most proactive person in the political landscape right now.”
Veteran writer-producer and outspoken industry progressive voice Mike Royce (One Day at a Time) sees the tension over the homelessness crisis, and Villanueva’s positioning of himself at its center, as telling. “He’s become Sheriff Trump,” says Royce. “He’s made the age-old calculation that people are pissed off and he’s riding the anger.”
Villanueva’s supporters often entwine their concerns about what they perceive to be rampant crime in the region with the crisis of the unhoused. “We don’t want to live in Gotham,” explains entertainment attorney David Hochman, a co-host of the Avra fundraiser. They’re also quick to argue that recent high-profile L.A. killings, including those of Beverly Hills philanthropist Jacqueline Avant and UCLA student Brianna Kupfer, a Palisades local, are the fault of his nemesis Gascon as well as proof of an ever-widening civic disorder. La La Land producer Gary Gilbert, another Avra co-host, is succinct: “We have to be safe.” As for the sheriff’s scandals? (The latest of which, now under review by California’s attorney general, is that Villanueva abused his power by initiating retaliatory investigations against his critics, including the county’s inspector general.) “A lot of noise,” he says.
As a window into this worldview, Meisels directed THR to an Instagram account with more than 272,000 followers called Street People of Los Angeles. “Just interesting content,” she explains. It’s a curated collection of local TV news clips highlighting smash-and-grab and follow-home robberies with found footage of, for example, shopping carts aflame in front of the landmark Vista Theater in Los Feliz recently purchased by Quentin Tarantino, or a disturbed man writhing and shouting between traffic lanes in Sherman Oaks. (The footage is scored to the Cranberries’ “Zombie.”)
Andres Dae Keun Kwon, policy counsel at the ACLU of Southern California, which has joined an alliance of progressive, labor and civil-rights organizations calling itself the Check the Sheriff Coalition, sees the professed distress of Villanueva’s re-election backers as revealingly narrow. He points to a lack of apparent outrage over killings of Angelenos by deputies on patrol in less-affluent and less-white areas of the county, which have increased under the sheriff’s leadership, as well as a record rate of in-custody deaths at Sheriff’s Department jails, numbering more than 90 over the past two years, according to inspector general reports. “The level of violence and impunity is incredible,” he says.
On Cesar Chavez Avenue, Villanueva took a moment to discuss how he’s used the Oscar-winning 1989 film Dead Poets Society, starring Robin Williams as an inspirational instructor, as a training tool at the Sheriff’s Academy. “It has a very fundamental message,” he explained in his booming voice. “You have to seize the moment to effect change. If all you do is follow the routine of everybody else, you’re only going to get the same thing as everybody else. So, I break all the political rules. Anything that’s been created by the establishment is worthy of breaking because the establishment is responsible for the shithole that we’re in right now.”
Meisels looked on, hands clasped, nodding.