Human Guinea Pig

Russell Crowe in My Viewfinder

My brief career as a paparazzo.

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I had to be in Los Angeles for a few days, so I wanted to capture the Hollywood experience for Human Guinea Pig—the column in which I do things other people have too much dignity to stoop to themselves. I didn’t have time for breast implants and liposuction. I’m also the only person in America who has no screenplay idea to pitch. But ultimately Los Angeles is about celebrities, and I decided to see if, armed only with a Canon digital PowerShot SD200 and comfortable shoes, I could track down any of them. I would become a paparazzo.

Being a paparazzo (the eponym comes from a photographer in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita) is not the most reputable of professions these days—although it’s a growth industry given the voracious desire for the product. Actresses Lindsay Lohan and Scarlett Johansson crashed their cars as they attempted to flee photographers. Then there is the case of the super creep paparazzo who assaulted a child attending a birthday party for Reese Witherspoon’s daughter at a theme park. (His decomposed body was recently found in his Brentwood apartment.) California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, himself a paparazzi victim, recently signed a bill tripling the damages that celebrities injured by paparazzi could collect.

But paparazzi fulfill a deep—well, maybe a shallow—human need. This is the need to look at celebrities. Just how fundamental this is was revealed by a study done last year by neuroscientists at UCLA and Caltech who discovered that the human brain is full of individual neurons dedicated solely to specific celebrities. For example, when the scientists flashed a picture of Halle Berry or Jennifer Aniston at their subjects, a unique neuron lit up for each actress.

This study revealed much about our celebrity-obsessed culture. First it explained why our students do so poorly in math compared with Hungarians and Latvians. Hungarians and Latvians don’t have any celebrities, so they can use their neurons for quadratic equations! It also explains why we consume so much useless information about celebrities. Once you’ve got all your neurons occupied by them, you’ve got to do something to keep your brain active.

To help me spot celebrities, my sister Liz, formerly a casting director, joined me. We decided on a circuit: Beverly Hills, Sunset Boulevard, etc., hoping to catch celebrities in their natural habitats: shopping, drinking coffee, letting their cellulite show—the money shots of the business.

Our first day was not promising. L.A. was cold, overcast, and windy. Celebrities don’t like to get their hair ruffled, and there was no one anywhere we went in Beverly Hills. Late in the afternoon we drove to the Fred Segal clothing store on Melrose Avenue. As we walked up we saw a slim, dark-haired, handsome guy standing in front talking on his cell phone.

Tim Daly

“That’s Tim Daly!” my sister said. Tim Daly starred in the sitcom Wings and has a guest role on The Sopranos as a writer with a drug problem. What made this fortuitous was that Tim and my sister knew each other in college. She approached him, he recognized her, and they embraced. Then she presented him with her moral dilemma. Even though he was a celebrity and an old friend, and it’s gauche to ask for a picture, she explained that I was a paparazzo and would like a shot. He graciously agreed, and I placed him in front of the Fred Segal sign. Then something happened to me that has probably never happened to any other paparazzo. I got a “no memory card” message from my camera. With sudden clarity I saw my memory card exactly where I left it—in my printer, 3,000 miles away.

I was in a panic. What if Tim Daly was the only celebrity I saw and I didn’t even get his picture? I asked him to wait while I went to my car and drove off in search of a memory card. I bought a $40 one at Samy’s Camera then raced back to Fred Segal 25 minutes later. Tim was still there! In the meantime, my sister had seen Patricia Arquette inside the store. We walked past her, but I was too worried that if I snapped her, security would confiscate my camera and muscle me out of the store.

The next day we parked in Beverly Hills, scanned all the coffee shops (I had seen a picture in Us Weekly of Sharon Stone coming out of the local Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf), and walked over to the William Morris Agency. Almost immediately, around the corner came a young man with a hip haircut and cell phone earpiece. I recognized him as the guy from that show, the guy who played the older brother on What Was It Called?

“Hi—you were on—” I sputtered.

He took the bait. “The Wonder Years. I’m Jason Hervey.”

Jason Hervey (The Wonder Years)

I explained I was a paparazzo for Slate, and although he had no idea what Slate is, he agreed to let me take his picture. Jason is mostly in the business side of show business now. He was a producer of I Want To Be a Hilton, and he’s working on a reality show with D.J. Quik. (He’s a rapper; I looked him up.)

Brian Grazer (in background)

Soon I spotted Brian Grazer. He is not a celebrity in the George Clooney sense, but he is one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, producer of everything from the The Da Vinci Code to A Beautiful Mind. He looks more hungry than powerful, a skinny guy with a hairdo reminiscent of Edward Scissorhands. He had a headset on and was wandering around, slouching in doorways, making deals for his next hundred movies. Terrified he had security goons lurking, I snapped a few long-distance shots. Then my sister placed herself in front of him as a decoy, and I snapped a picture of her with him in the background.

As we wandered Beverly Hills, I was distressed by the number of tourists carrying cameras just like mine. I don’t want to be lumped in with these lumpenproles—I was a professional pap. We tried to get away from them by walking up Two Rodeo. This is a grand, outdoor minimall filled with expensive stores such as Tiffany and Versace. But it was crawling with tourists from all over the world, some with camcorders at the ready. Liz and I were baffled—tourists couldn’t afford these stores, but what celebrity would walk these cobblestones lest they be assaulted by Japanese schoolgirls? We spotted no one.

Red Buttons and the author

We gave up and decided not to even look for celebrities that night. Instead we went to the unchic Factor’s Famous Deli. While we were waiting for our matzo-ball soup, I saw a young man escorting a delicate-looking old man with a patch of bright, red hair. Red Buttons! My late grandparents would be so thrilled. I went to his booth with my camera and introduced myself, not as a paparazzo, but a fan. He had me sit next to him and had his companion take our picture together. I asked if he was still working—he’s 87—and he nodded yes. He wasn’t exaggerating. He recently guest starred on ER.

The next day we went to the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf on Sunset Boulevard. We did a couple of perimeter searches and found no one, but on my third sweep a redheaded man in his 30s sitting on the patio asked if I was looking for him. I asked if he was a celebrity and he told me he was Butch Bradley, a comedian, who was waiting for an appointment with someone he’d never met. He was just back from entertaining the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and you can hear his take on it here.

As Liz and I were about to leave, I saw a tall man wearing a cap get in line for coffee. He was famous! Only I couldn’t remember his name. I waited until he sat outside with his friends then went up to him.

“You’re an actor,” I said.

“Yes,” he replied.

“You played that horrible husband of Julia Roberts in that movie,” I persisted (Sleeping With the Enemy).

“I’m a very bad person,” he concurred.

We were at a standoff, so I finally just asked his name.

Patrick Bergin,” he said.

“I knew it!” I said. I explained that I was a paparazzo and he let me take his picture.

Then back we drove to our stronghold, Beverly Hills. While we were walking around the corner at Rodeo Drive, we saw a group of about eight young tourists jumping and twittering like a covey of sparrows that has just spotted a hawk. There had to be someone nearby. We scanned the horizon—nothing.

Duck! It’s Russell Crowe!

Then the door to the Vilebrequin swimwear store opened and out came Russell Crowe, his young son in his arms, his pregnant wife by his side. My heart started hammering. This was the big time, but I was afraid that, given his reputation, if I were to take a picture of him, he’d punch me in the face. I didn’t want to get hit—although I also knew that suing him for having to get my jaw rewired could be lucrative in the long run. While I was figuring out what to do, the family turned and climbed the stairs to that tourist mecca, Two Rodeo. At the top of the stairs was a man with a Rod Stewart shag leaning against a banister holding a telephoto lens. Russell and family then sat down at an outdoor cafe abutting Tiffany’s, while the real paparazzo calmly took dozens of photos. As I contemplated why an A-list star who supposedly guarded his privacy would sit there, I ran back and forth—keeping more than an arm’s length away—snapping the group.

After they had their drinks and moved on, I talked to the paparazzo. He refused to give me his name and said he wasn’t a paparazzo: “Paparazzis are a——-.” He said he was a photographer. I asked how he knew Russell Crowe would be there. He told me he got tipped by someone who worked at one of the stores. Store employees call paparazzi—I mean “photographers”—with sightings, and if the photographs get published, the tipster gets 25 percent of the sale. The photographer told me that since this was an exclusive of Crowe with pregnant wife and child, he’d probably get $2,500 for the shot. Then his cell phone rang.

“A Desperate Housewife? Which one? The redhead—got it.”

Michael Caine

It was another tip—Marcia Cross was just around the corner. Liz and I started running to find her when I saw in my peripheral vision a group of three men walking up Two Rodeo. One had on a Windbreaker and baseball cap and a scruffy gray beard. I turned back and ran alongside him and got a profile shot. For years I have had a neuron devoted exclusively to Michael Caine, and it was happily firing away in my head.

Thanks to Karen Duryea for suggesting this assignment.