Mobbed by the media, masked by dark glasses and quaking in her spike-heeled pumps, alleged madam to the stars Heidi Fleiss pleaded not guilty Monday to felony charges stemming from what police say was one of Los Angeles' most exclusive call girl rings.
In a brief hearing before Municipal Court Commissioner Abraham Khan, Fleiss stood quietly as her lawyer, Anthony Brooklier, entered not guilty pleas on her behalf to five counts of pandering and a single count of possession of cocaine for sale.
Behind her, in row after scribbling row, scores of journalists packed the courtroom gallery for their first live glimpse of Fleiss, offering themselves as an unintentional Exhibit A to the attorney's argument against an increase in her $100,000 bail.
"My client is a virtual prisoner in her house since the publicity started in this matter," Brooklier said, referring to the paparazzi who have kept an around-the-clock vigil for the past week outside Fleiss' Benedict Canyon home. Khan agreed that Fleiss' bail should not be raised, and ordered her to appear in court Sept. 10 for a preliminary hearing.
Afterward--dressed in a taupe Norma Kamali mini-dress that she said was the most conservative item in her wardrobe--Fleiss struggled through the gantlet of klieg lights, now mugging, now ducking behind Brooklier's pin-striped back.
As she slipped down a stairwell and into her lawyer's black BMW, the pack of reporters turned on two of Fleiss' friends, chasing actresses Victoria Sellers and Bonita Money, who said they had come to court to offer moral support.
Later, in an interview at her home, Fleiss told The Times that she had been terrified by the media crush, which courthouse employees said was one of the largest in recent memory. Outside the downtown courthouse, TV vans were jammed bumper to bumper for a full block; inside, camera crews clattered into elevators and down stairwells, microphones aloft.
"I was, like, almost trampled to death," said Fleiss, shaking her head as she and her lawyer watched a big-screen video playback of her court appearance. "There was a motorcycle parked outside, and the cameramen just knocked it over. Cameras were swooping in under my face. Someone was pulling my hair. I was panicked. I thought someone was going to pull my clothes off."
The crush was so violent, Brooklier said, that he decided to renege on an earlier promise to make Fleiss available for a hallway news conference.
"I was prepared to make a statement, but they treated my client with no respect," Brooklier said. "I'm just returning the favor."
But journalists--many of them equally stunned at the onslaught of media attention--defended the newsworthiness of Fleiss' story.
"It's not a natural disaster, but it is a terribly interesting story and I think our viewers would have liked to have known what she looked and sounded like in court," said Warren Cereghino, news director of KTLA-TV Channel 5, one of two local TV stations that broke into regular programming to broadcast the arraignment live.
Jerard Evans of the London-based Today News agreed.
"It's the silly season, you know, the summer months and nothing is happening," Evans said.
A CBS News reporter, however, was more cynical: "I feel so cheap," she snapped, jostling for space amid the media crush.
At home sitting on her pillowy living room couch, lounging in a denim work shirt and exercise tights, Fleiss said the experience left her uncertain whether to laugh at the absurdity of the scene or cry about the seriousness of the charges against her.
Despite her complaints about the media onslaught, Fleiss did not seem to shrink from the attention. Late last week, she had a facial and a manicure, and summoned her hairdresser to her home for a last-minute trim. The accused madam appeared mesmerized as she watched the playback of her moment in the international spotlight.
She, for one, saw no mystery in the hoopla about her case.
"Sex sells," she said, shrugging with a lopsided smile.
Fleiss, who was arrested June 9 in the wake of a police vice sting, has been accused of operating a prostitution ring that serviced some of the world's wealthiest and most famous men. Her case, however, attracted little attention until an Aug. 1 story about Fleiss in The Times detailed the attempts by Fleiss' friends and enemies to leak the names of her high-priced clientele via anonymous tips and tape recordings of her telephone conversations.
Publicity was heightened when Fleiss lost her temper with a Variety reporter and blurted a threat to tell all for $1 million--an offer she says she did not mean.
Then, just as the story seemed destined to die down, a Columbia Studios executive denied any involvement with her--even though he had never been publicly accused. And the New York Daily News published a page from a so-called black book that was given to them by Fleiss' ex-lover, Ivan Nagy, immediately upon his arrest on charges that he was running a competing call girl ring.