Thanks to several days of some of the most dogged and diligent reporting ever to happen within the city of Los Angeles, we now know all we ever needed to know about Heidi Fleiss--from the color of her eyes (green) to the inch-count of her high heels (five) to the name of her St. Bernard (Plato).
When it comes to the case of the 27-year-old accused madam to the stars, journalistic enterprise seems to know no bounds. KCAL-TV (Channel 9) managed to unearth a 1975 health food magazine article about the Fleiss family, showing that the accused madam grew up in a strict, vegetarian home, with a father who had a strong aversion to drug use.
CNN sent no fewer than four crews to Fleiss' arraignment Monday in Los Angeles Municipal Court. The Los Angeles Times touched off the media inferno on Aug. 1 with a Page 1 story and has run something about Heidi almost every day since, including three front-page photographs.
Still, even amid this blitz of information, two questions remain unanswered in the Heidi spectacle: Just exactly who \o7 were \f7 the (alleged) customers, and what on earth came over the media?
"It just seems wildly overplayed," Tom Goldstein, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley, said of the story that has spread like a virus across America, over to Europe and on to Asia.
Said Jonathan Alter, who covers the media for Newsweek: "It seems to me that whores in Hollywood is like mob violence in New Jersey or 'Man Goes Berserk in Post Office.' Everyone's at the beach. This is a lame excuse for a scandal."
This town has witnessed some media circuses in its time (the Rodney G. King beating trial, the Zsa Zsa Gabor cop-slapping episode) but few, it seems, like the one that has set up its tents around Heidi.
Spilling over onto the talk show circuit, the Heidi scandal has inspired weighty meditation on social morals and nowhere was that more evident than on CNN. On Tuesday she was the topic of CNN & Co., a sober-minded talk show with mostly female guests. She surfaced again an hour later on "Sonya Live" where a psychiatrist expounded about why men patronize call girls and someone from Spy magazine was asked to decide whether Hollywood is a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah.
Some of the nation's most respected publications have found themselves sloshing around in the same muck as the supermarket tabloids. Newsweek magazine ran a picture of Heidi sunbathing poolside, \o7 sans \f7 bra, offending body parts blurred out. The London Sun ran the same picture, \o7 sans \f7 blur.
At a Los Angeles court arraignment last Monday, where Fleiss pleaded not guilty to charges of running a high-class prostitution ring, everyone from "Hard Copy" to the New Yorker was represented in the media pack.
KTLA-TV Channel 5 and KTTV-TV Channel 11 interrupted regular programming to carry the arraignment live and were forced to do some embarrassing ad-libbing when Fleiss showed up 40 minutes late. (When the Channel 11 anchor tried to fill time by asking the on-the-scene reporter for a chronology of Heidi events since her arrest June 9, the reporter shrugged meekly: "I was in Yosemite last week.")
News crews crawled over each other for a glimpse of her taupe mini-dress. Even they were embarrassed by the scene that ensued. "I think all the worst cliches about media behavior came true today," NBC's George Lewis told KTLA.
Still, the public tuned in. KTTV's 45 minutes of live coverage drew ratings 4 1/2 times that of its regularly scheduled morning newscast. "All the stations, including our own, are guilty of milking this story for everything it's worth because people are talking about it," said KCOP-TV news director Jeff Wald.
At the outset, there was something irresistibly funny, even pathetic, about Hollywood caught with its pants down. But in retrospect, it would seem that never before has there been so much alluded to and so little specified.
Either the media have gone bonkers, or, as many observers say, it's just summer. After all, August has come to be known as the month when weird things happen. (Elvis died, Nixon resigned, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, Woody and Mia launched their own war, all in the month of August.) In August, 1991, the media occupied themselves with the movie theater misfortunes of Pee-wee Herman.
Lending credibility to the midsummer madness theory is the fact that earlier stories about Fleiss have appeared before in The Times and other publications and nobody seemed to care. Last March, Harper's Bazaar ran a story on Fleiss, dubbing her "the Generation X madam." On the supermarket tabloid front, the Globe, based in Boca Raton, Fla., reported last year that Fleiss had been expelled from a posh Cancun hotel after she showed up in the company of several other alleged call girls. (The Globe plans to run some of the Cancun photos again next week.)
But this time around, the story took off, making headlines as far away as Japan, where the color pink has come to symbolize sex: "Pinkgate! American Uproar!! Hollywood Whore Scandal. The Madam's True Record. In A Movie. A Book. Is There a Director or Actor Not Involved?"
Back on the home front, Vanity Fair writer Christopher Hitchens says that an overcovered story is a sure sign that reporters know more than they are at liberty to tell.
"There is likely someone who knows who is in her notebook and for what; who likes to be pelted with the cream buns and who likes to apply the riding crop," he said.
Monday's arraignment was a zoo, but by Thursday, the Heidi storm seemed to be abating. She lost her spot as the lead to most local newscasts; some programs didn't mention her at all. It seemed a stronger force had captured the nation's ear--Pope John Paul II.
Times staff writer Steven Herbert contributed to this story.