LOS ANGELES — Rich, blonde, bronzed, boarding and bitchy — but Orange County is not totally as seen on TV.

“The OC,” Fox network’s prime-time debut Tuesday night that promises to do for Orange County what “90210” did for Beverly Hills, is obviously an idealized snapshot of this sprawling suburb 45 miles south of Los Angeles proper, melodramatically camped up in the hopes of lasting beyond the pilot.

Sure, it’s common to spot high schoolers barreling down Pacific Coast Highway in their own tricked-out SUVs. Like the premier showed Tuesday night, social-climbing moms do get bent out of shape over what designer their daughter will wear in a charity fashion show.

Regardless of that reality, there’s a larger picture shaping the county, say locals, from a much more racially diverse population to innovations in fashion, furnishings, biotech and automotive. It’s why outsiders are taking a closer look at the county and why, like it or not, the Fox show is yet another sign of how the real O.C. is on the wider pop cultural radar.

“From a business and cultural perspective, O.C. is coming of age,” observed Dick Baker, president of Op, based in Santa Ana. “I grew up in Southern California in the Sixties and Seventies and Orange County was considered another planet. But the influence of its youth culture around the world can no longer be denied.”

Today’s Orange County is as much St. John as it is Paul Frank. It’s the Roxy surfer girl icon as muse to London and Paris designers, MTV fodder and a symbol of post-riot grrrl power. It’s more urban-informed brands such as Hurley, Stüssy and Volcom, embracing their surf roots and concrete jungle sensibilities. And it’s an army of teens and young adults who shun all that the above represents.

“I laugh when I hear that Orange County is getting hip or all popular,” Gwen Stefani said. Among the county’s best-known exports, No Doubt’s front woman has strutted and posed in what’s become three decades and counting of signature O.C. style staples — bondage pants, slashed ribbed tanks, studded belts and a mishmash of designer, street and vintage. Even her recent line of Olde English-lettered bags for LeSportsac, which she paired with a Dior dress this past weekend, are a nod to the tattoos prevalent throughout the county.“I grew up in Anaheim, and while it wasn’t the coolest place in an obvious way, there were really cool, creative people, clubs, a scene. I loved growing up there.”

“O.C. has a lot more flavor today than what I’m seeing from the [series’] ads,” said Mossimo Giannulli, raised in the very affluent Newport Beach neighborhood the show aims to portray. Besides, he demanded, “who even says ‘the O.C.?’”

With median family income at about $73,000, per 2002 studies, and house prices averaging $332,000, Orange County isn’t so much about the idle rich as it is a middle class that allows its youth the idle time to start clothing lines, recording studios, high tech companies, video productions and rock bands in the family garage. O.C. is DIY central. A sign the county’s punk rock populace is grown up but not gone: Jack Grisham, the lead singer of TSOL, a pioneer of the West Coast punk movement in the late Seventies, who is still performing, insists he’s earnestly after the California governorship in the state’s recall effort.

The oft-repeated phrase, “behind the Orange Curtain” — referring to the county’s bastion of conservatism — has died quickly in the last decade, thanks to a growing cultural and ethnic diversity among its 2.9 million residents.

Countywide, the ratio of Republicans to Democrats remains at 2 to 1, yet the party of John Wayne — whose towering statue greets travelers at the airport in Irvine named after him — no longer has an absolute majority here, with a voter share hovering at 49 percent.

Latinos — who elected the first O.C. resident of Hispanic heritage, the St. John-clad U.S. Rep., Loretta Sanchez, to Congress in 1996 — are registering Democratic by a ratio of 9 to 1 here. Even traditionally conservative enclaves such as Vietnamese Americans have gone from 58 percent Republican in the early Nineties to 39 percent in 2000, according to state voter registration data.

Caucasians continue to represent 51 percent of the county’s population, particularly along its 42-mile coastline. Yet the 2000 census and other studies indicate whites are now the minority in 10 of the county’s 34 cities. And population statistics indicate the dramatic shift should continue: Of county youths ages 17 and younger (a group accounting for 27 percent of the total county population), 46 percent are Latinos and 12 percent Asian, while young Caucasians represent 40 percent. As with the rest of the nation’s ethnic transformation, those are numbers marketing experts and retailers can’t ignore.Economically, thanks to less dependency on the high tech industry than Silicon Valley, “Orange County and Southern California generally did much better than the state as a whole,” said Esmael Adibi, director of the A. Gary Anderson Center of Economic Research at Chapman University in the city of Orange. And while job formation, the key to spending, doesn’t bode well in 2004 with an uptick to 2.1 percent compared with 1 percent this year, Adibi pointed out the area’s weak unemployment rate of about 4 percent. By contrast, the state is at 6.7 percent, and nationally it’s at 6.2 percent.

The low unemployment rate, observed Howard Roth, chief economist with the California Department of Finance, “also tells what the labor market looks like for those living there. It’s the ‘last in, first out’ issue for many who commute from neighboring, more affordable counties.”

Still, the increase lies in service, not manufacturing, a fact that is criticized, if not misguidedly, said Adibi. “Some believe the increase in service jobs means more hamburger flippers. But service also means information technology, health care, education — particularly private, business, retail and legal.” Services account for about one-third of the county’s job force.

While the services sector added nearly 30,000 jobs from 1995 to 2001, manufacturing lost 37,000 slots. And apparel production jobs continue to disappear. New orders and employment have continued to fall in the first half of 2003, even as other reports indicate that, post-9/11, there was a move in the region to find locally based manufacturing. The effort proved fruitless due to a dwindling pool of sewing machine operators after years of such jobs leaving the U.S.

“St. John is doing fine because it’s on the luxury side of the market,” observed Adibi. And despite a booming action-sports industry, estimated at around $3.5 billion in annual sales, he cautions manufacturing “in swim and sportswear still has competition from foreign markets.”

Retail in the county is beginning its recovery, albeit at a slow pace. “It will have to go up to 3 to 4 percent to have real growth,” observed Adibi. “Most of the jobs are being generated in the southern part of the county. We have big retail areas — South Coast Plaza, Irvine Spectrum —and more projects set to break.” The former 4,700-acre Tustin Marine base, shuttered in 1993 and embroiled in three lawsuits, mostly by neighboring residents opposed to its plan for an airport, will instead finally be developed with homes, parks, offices — and shopping malls.But it’s middle-market retailers such as Target and now Kohl’s — with eight of the 28 units it opened in Southern California in March in Orange County — that are tailor-made for the legions of soccer moms here, no matter what language they speak. Kohl’s and Mervyns post Spanish-language signage, and it isn’t difficult to find Spanish-speaking sales assistants at big-box retailers like Wal-Mart, Target or Costco.

The county’s total retail sales are expected to be $30.39 billion in fiscal 2003, rising to an estimated $31.76 billion in fiscal 2004, according to the most recent data.

Tony Cherbak, partner in the consumer products group at Deloitte & Touche in Costa Mesa, believes that, despite the glut of shopping centers, “there are still opportunities here as long as it’s the right mix of retail and entertainment. The economy in the last three years has been pretty rugged and that has had some impact on Orange County. But the retail landscape here has been pretty resilient.”

And then some, according to Erica Berge, owner of Erica Dee along Pacific Coast Highway in scenic Corona del Mar.

With 20 percent sales increases each month, the local retailer is ready to begin looking for a second location for her handpicked supply of Juicy Couture, Marc Jacobs, Theory, Paper Denim and Cloth, Citizens of Humanity and Diane Von Furstenberg. The only O.C.-based brand among the mix is the chic streetwear line, Modern Amusement. And she has competition. Six other stores like hers have opened in the surrounding area since Erica Dee bowed in June 2001, lured by the potential of $700 to $900 in sales per square foot (nearby South Coast Plaza is in the $700-a-square-foot sales range).

For fashionistas here, that means fewer hours spent on shopping jaunts to Los Angeles. “There are very cool-looking girls here who look no different from the girls in L.A. or New York,” observes Wende Zomnir, creative director of the beauty brands, Urban Decay and Hard Candy. With headquarters up the hill from her oceanside Newport Beach home, she’s able to meet up with husband, Volcom chief financial officer Doug Collier, and their infant son in time to hit the beach before dinner. Bronzed, brunette and a surfer, Zomnir is frequently photographed because she represents the perfect melding of Orange County’s surfer past and more sophisticated present.“Are there still people here who scare me? Money doesn’t buy good taste and there is a lot of money here,” Zomnir continued. “But I think it’s definitely getting better. You have this awesome quality of life, yet have complete access to what L.A. and the rest of the world has to offer. People can think what they want, but people down here have it dialed.”

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