My brief career as a paparazzo.

Humiliating myself for fun and profit.
March 31 2006 6:07 AM

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.

Emily Yoffe Emily Yoffe

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

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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. Click image to expand.
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.

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