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'Hussein' sends paparazzi on special ops mission

Us Weekly's Ken Baker defends photographers we love to hate in a satirical novel.

October 12, 2005|Chris Lee | Special to The Times

Christina Aguilera wouldn't pull over.

Nevermind that a crowd of scene makers and boldfaced names including Donald Trump, Hilary Duff and Jeremy Piven had already crammed into Hollywood's club LAX as guests of Us Weekly's "Young Hollywood Hot 20" party. And nevermind that Ken Baker, the magazine's West Coast executive editor, who was overseeing VIP arrivals on that evening, makes it his business to fill Us Weekly's pages with salacious details and candid pictures of many of these celebrities' guarded lives. Aguilera's main worry at that moment was of being upstaged. Her limo circled the block for nearly half an hour as her publicist furiously text-messaged Baker in an attempt to seize the limelight -- in other words, to time Aguilera's arrival after Paris Hilton's.

"You don't go to journalism school to become a traffic cop for famous people," Baker said, just as Hilton roared into view in her Ferrari Spider, prompting a paparazzi stampede one evening last month. "The glitzy events and celeb wrangling is about 1% of my job."

Yet here he is, earning a six-figure salary chronicling the nonstop bonfire of celebrity vanities that has made the celeb magazine genre one of the most lucrative -- and crowded -- branches of publishing amid an industrywide slump.

Baker, 35, has been covering the beat since 1996. His musings on the insider machinations of Hollywood -- and specifically what he calls "fabloid journalism" -- infuse his first novel, "Hollywood Hussein." Published last week by Verona Publishing Inc., a small, independent Minnesota imprint, the political satire tells the story of a thirtysomething celebrity journalist who is reluctantly conscripted by the National Security Agency to help capture Saddam Hussein in Iraq with the help of some hard-charging paparazzi.

"Hussein" wound up at Verona Publishing after being rejected by the top publishers in New York, several of whom wanted Baker to change the book's first-person "documentary film" narrative format. Unwilling to make the changes, the author considered self-publishing "Hussein" before ironing out an unusual deal with the small press for which he will take almost 50% of the book's net profits.

Although the paperback has yet to crack any bestseller lists and won't likely prompt any literary hosannas, earlier this week the production company the Idea Factory optioned "Hussein" for television. And the book has become cocktail party conversation since the New York Post's gossip column, Page Six, heralded it as a kind of "The Devil Wears Prada" for the celebrity magazine world.

With its "lad-lit" sensibility and self-consciously slapstick tone, "Hussein" has prompted a guessing game among the chattering class about the true identities of certain characters -- particularly the Machiavellian fabloid editor, Tom Peppers. He utters lines of dialogue such as "Power is an aphrodisiac" and, while contemplating having an affair with an employee, admits: "Being somebody's boss never stopped me before."

At a time when paparazzo tactics are viewed as dangerously invasive, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently signed a bill tripling the financial penalties a famous person can win from paparazzi if assaulted during a photo shoot, "Hussein" makes a strident, if ironic, defense for the aggressive photographers.

Actually, it goes further than that. "Hussein" refers to the paparazzi variously as "heroes," "truth tellers" and "the last remaining symbols of truth, justice and the American way." In the book, Peppers asks, "What group more symbolizes the Constitution in action than photographers breaking down the artifice of propaganda by snapping images of public people in real situations?"

Although Baker insists that he feels "conflicted" about their confrontational methods, he may be alone in feeling the paparazzi deserve credit for a job well done. What's more, he suggests, their actions are fueled by the public's seemingly insatiable demand for every tidbit about the celebrities they love, and love to hate.

Though many would see it as preposterous, Baker insists that the plotline of "Hollywood Hussein" isn't all that far-fetched.

"There's a lot of vitriol directed toward the paparazzi," said Baker. "But everyone wants to see the results of what they do, to look at pictures of Britney [Spears] looking humongous during her last days of pregnancy. They don't want to think about what it takes to get that image. No one's captured the magnitude of what these people are doing. The level of sophistication of their information-gathering abilities, the dedication to their trade -- it's not such a stretch that they could actually find Saddam."

Baker is a frequent commentator on E! Entertainment Television, "Entertainment Tonight" and "Extra" -- precisely because of such grandiloquent statements. He's a native of Buffalo, N.Y., and a graduate of Columbia University's prestigious journalism school. He got his start as a desk assistant for ABC News in Washington, D.C.

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