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The allure of the '10-grand set'

For the adrenaline-craving paparazzi, Hollywood is the next best thing to war.

November 18, 2005|Chris Ayres | CHRIS AYRES is a Los Angeles correspondent for the Times of London and the author of "War Reporting for Cowards" (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005).

THE FEAR was instantly familiar: a triple-shot of adrenaline, downed in one. We were deep in hostile territory and our target had just moved into the open. I was sitting in the back of the off-roader, muscles tight, watching the action unfold through the windshield as though it were a movie screen. In the driver's seat was the shooter: finger resting lightly on the trigger, right eye straining through the lens.

"Hold on," he muttered, without breathing, as the target moved farther from cover. "Keep walking ... keep walking. That's my boy. Here we go." And then disaster. The target froze as he glimpsed us. Of what followed, I can recall only one detail: the look of weary recognition on the target's face just before we captured him.

So where did this heart-thumping showdown unfold? Baghdad? Kabul? Islamabad? Not quite. It took place in the gentle, spa-scented city of West Hollywood, outside the lobby of the Sunset Marquis Hotel. The off-road vehicle, a blacked-out BMW, was owned by Jeff Rayner, a 30-year-old British paparazzo.

And the target was Colin Farrell, the Irish-born actor. He had just emerged from the hotel clutching his baby son, James. It was a moment that the paparazzi like to call a "10-grand set," meaning the price the photo could fetch at auction.

But why was I -- a correspondent for the serious-minded Times of London -- in the car? Curiosity, I suppose. I had worked with Jeff before on a more worthy but less lucrative assignment (if a story about a Nevada brothel counts as worthy) and wanted to explore the darker side of his work. I wanted to see the front lines of Hollywood.

There was another reason. I had returned a few months earlier from Iraq, where I had earned the dubious honor of being the first "embed" to flee from battle. The assignment had been something of an accident -- the result of my editor's mistaken belief that the embedding scheme was a giant Pentagon bluff.

He envisioned journalists sipping martinis in five-star hotels and being handed press releases by Army officers. The London Times' "proper" war correspondents shared this vision, choosing to go it alone. Thus an ill-prepared metrosexual, more used to red carpets than carpet bombings, was dispatched from Hollywood to Iraq, equipped with an electric toothbrush, a yellow tent (purchased in Beverly Hills) and 20 times the regulation amount of underwear.

When I returned to Southern California after a month in the Middle East (and nine terrible days as the reluctant embed in a forward reconnaissance unit of the U.S. Marines), I was relieved to be alive, yet strangely bored.

And then I remembered what Norman Schwarzkopf had written in his memoir about returning Vietnam vets driving on the wrong side of the road to relive the strange, euphoric terror of battlefield survival.

I didn't start driving on the left (which, for a Brit, would have been easy), but I did start hanging out more with Jeff. He introduced me to a thrilling, Chandleresque subculture of car chases, bribed maitre' ds, private detectives, stakeouts and publicists who plotted to get clients photographed in ratings-boosting embraces only to later complain about privacy rights.

The paparazzi I met were young, smart, fashionable, ambitious and overwhelmingly British. Many had been lured to Los Angeles with the promise of covering "serious" news stories.

Some, like Jeff, wanted to be combat photographers (an ambition he later achieved, sort of, by covering the Superdome tragedy in New Orleans).

Others, like Lee Madden of the British-run Splash news agency of Santa Monica, had been to war -- as soldiers. Madden, a onetime Royal Marine who was introduced to celebrity journalism when he met a female reporter for Britain's Sun newspaper in Afghanistan, was arrested in 2003 for climbing aboard Michael Jackson's private jet as the singer gave himself up to the authorities. Press reports of Madden's arrest don't mention his military history.

So what did I learn from my days as a paparazzi groupie? Most strikingly, that there is not as much difference between Hollywood and Iraq as you might think. Both datelines attract reporters who work for the thrill as much as the check. But war is a deserving subject; celebrity is dumb, right? Perhaps. But celebrity sells the myth of Hollywood to the rest of the world.

Here's something else I learned from Jeff: The most successful paparazzi don't brawl outside nightclubs, run starlets off the road or thrust cameras into celebrities' faces. They are sharpshooters who stalk from a distance. They get the 10-grand sets. And they are rewarded with the glamour that follows danger wherever it goes.

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