The Outer Banks have long been a refuge for those seeking quiet, privacy, and a simpler way of life, including celebrities. However, the first “celebrities” to take shelter on the Outer Banks were infamous rather than famous, including pirates such as Calico Jack and Blackbeard. From the 1600s to the late 1800s the islands were isolated and desolate, though they attracted scrappy, hardworking folks who began to form the unique Banker culture.
After the Civil War, sport hunters from the North began to trickle in, attracted by the large migratory bird populations that moved through the Atlantic Flyway. Fishermen followed the hunters, eager to fish the teeming waters and inlets of the Atlantic. Locals, who were eking out a difficult existence logging or fishing, realized there was money to be made from tourism.
A grassroots hospitality industry sprang up in the form of food stands, tour guides, and basic lodgings. Interestingly, the hardscrabble past of the Outer Banks kept simplicity high on the list of values for locals, and that began to attract stressed-out Industrial Revolution moguls.
Tourism saw a sharp uptick in the 1920s, when vacations near the sea became an obsession for wealthy (and overworked) Americans. Edward Collings, a New England industrialist, was the first to build a massive beach home, Whalehead, in Corolla. At 21,000 square feet, Whalehead hosted so many glamorous parties that it became a private hunting club. (Today it’s a museum.)
In 1927, President Herbert Hoover visited the Outer Banks to dedicate the Wright Brothers National Memorial and recognize the 25th anniversary of flight. In 2003, President George W. Bush attended the Centennial of Flight celebration at the memorial, accompanied by celebrity aviation enthusiasts such as John Travolta.
As word got out about the peace and seclusion of the Outer Banks, the vacation industry grew, and locals reacted by refining their shops and accommodations. Roads were installed through the woods and trails, a dunes system implemented to protect beach homes, and bridges began to span the islands.
Since the Outer Banks has a long history as a safe haven and private respite for the rich, famous, and stressed out, modern dignitaries and celebrities are frequently spotted walking the beaches, shopping at small groceries, or enjoying watersports just like everyone else.
The Outer Banks’ most beloved celebrity resident was actor Andy Griffith, famous for his roles on The Andy Griffith Show, A Face in the Crowd, and Matlock, to name a few. Andy lived on Roanoke Island and was often seen at the Ace Hardware, local restaurants, or the Island Pharmacy.
Other TV and movie megastar sightings include Michelle Pfeiffer, Michael J. Fox, Whoopi Goldberg, Lynda Carter, Sandra Bullock, Kevin Costner, and Rob Lowe. Ed O’Neill of Modern Family and Married with Children fame is a frequent sighting when he visits family here.
Richard Gere and Diane Lane were regulars around town when they filmed Nights in Rodanthe. In 2008, Jon and Kate of Jon and Kate Plus 8 filmed an episode of their show in Corolla.
Famous musicians are also frequent visitors to the Outer Banks. Tim Reynolds of Dave Matthews Band fame has a house in the Outer Banks and occasionally can be found playing casual gigs at local bars. Other rocker sightings include Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters, Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones.
NASCAR drivers such as Sterling Marlin, Ward Burton, and Jeff Burton have been known to slow down in the Outer Banks. Dignitaries also love the anonymity of the Outer Banks. Melinda Gates has been seen vacationing here, as well as astronaut Michael Collins and President George Bush, Sr. The Outer Banks still attracts industry giants. You may just see the CEO of Popeye’s, Papa John’s, Dollar Tree, or Best Buy kicking back on the beach.
No discussion of celebrities on the Outer Banks would be complete without covering the legend of Tom Cruise. For years, rumors that Tom Cruise owned a secluded house on the Outer Banks have vacationers guessing.
Some locals say it’s a tall tale made up by time-share companies; others say he did shop for a house here many years ago but never bought. Either way, the story took on a life of its own. Despite the fact that sightings pop up on message boards every year, it’s unlikely that Tom Cruise owns a house in the Outer Banks. (If he does, he’s a master of stealth.)
The Outer Banks have been a peaceful playground for the rich and famous since the 1920s. For some celebrities, the islands are convenient to East Coast homes or family connections, for others the natural beauty, warm ocean breezes, and laid-back vibes are an irresistible antidote to hectic Hollywood life. What should you do if you see a celebrity vacationing in the Outer Banks? Just smile, wave, and play it cool.