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Malibu's celebrity surf and turf war

June 24, 2008|Martha Groves and Harriet Ryan | Times Staff Writers

The summer surf is up in Malibu, and that means competing cultures are colliding with more zest than usual: surfers who jealously guard their favorite beaches, locals who want Malibu to remain a West Coast Mayberry and younger celebrities who love to hate their attendant paparazzi.

Case in point: Over the weekend, obscenities, fists and video equipment went flying in two incidents involving paparazzi, celebrities and surfers, capturing the attention of Internet junkies around the world.

The paparazzi -- also fixtures in Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Brentwood and West Hollywood -- say they are just doing their job and insist that some younger celebrities such as Matthew McConaughey, whose surf outing first drew the crush of paparazzi to Malibu on Saturday, welcome the attention. But many Malibu locals resent seeing hordes of photographers, who frequently sell their shots and videos to websites such as and, stake out their favorite haunts. They say the aggressive shooters pose a safety hazard and are spoiling the sophisticated ambience that has drawn residents and millions of visitors to Malibu.

Can Malibu -- which routinely endures wildfires, mudslides and cellphone dead zones -- survive the age of TMZ and X17?

Malibu Mayor Pamela Conley Ulich is working with Kenneth W. Starr, former White House independent counsel and dean of Pepperdine Law School, to research the possibility of crafting a law to regulate paparazzi.

"The city of Malibu will do all it legally can to protect and preserve the natural beauty and tranquillity of our town," she said in a statement Monday.

Brian Pietro, owner of Malibu General Store in the Trancas area of west Malibu, echoed the opinions of a number of other residents in describing the ubiquitous paparazzi basically as unnecessary evils. Thanks to the nation's insatiable appetite for celebrity nuggets, however mundane, the paparazzi invasion "has exploded" in the last few years, he said.

"The general sentiment around here is that any time a paparazzo gets his camera smashed or gets popped in the face or gets dunked in the water, we're all for it," Pietro said.

Paparazzi have all but driven actor Pierce Brosnan and his wife, Keely Shaye Smith, out of Malibu, Pietro said. Last October, the erstwhile James Bond was briefly under investigation by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department for allegedly hitting a paparazzo in the ribs outside a trendy Malibu eatery.

"Everywhere he goes, there's someone in his face," Pietro said. "He's a pussycat until you cross him, and then he's an Irishman."

Customer Dona Bigelow, a 40-year resident of west Malibu, said, "Celebrities are just regular people. The reason they like Malibu is that's how we feel about them. We don't welcome the paparazzi."

Many celebrities shop at Hows grocery store, which shares the corner of Pacific Coast Highway and Trancas Canyon Road with Malibu General Store. Pietro said he has an arrangement with his friend "Pamela Sue," a.k.a. Pamela Anderson. If he spies her leaving the market, he runs and stations himself with his back to any cameras so that she can unload her groceries in peace.

A few weeks ago, Julia Roberts could not leave the market's parking lot because of the paparazzi swarming around her car. Pietro said a young male emerged from a crowd of onlookers and nudged the most aggressive photographer away, spoiling his shot. Many bystanders broke into applause.

That response speaks to the paradox of beachgoers shouting out insults to paparazzi even as they sit reading People magazine. Even loyal celebrity junkies seem to revile the messengers who bring them their daily doses.

The weekend excitement started when celebrity photographers staking out McConaughey's rented Point Dume home spotted him heading for the water with a yellow surfboard. The shooters followed in hot pursuit and spread the word to colleagues by text message and cellphone calls.

As the actor paddled out at the Little Dume break, a dozen paparazzi were training long lenses on him from behind a rock at the edge of the beach, seeking the elusive "body" shot of the actor, who is often pictured bare-chested in celebrity magazines.

Videos posted on two celebrity websites showed a group of surfers approaching the photographers and ordering them to leave.

When the paparazzi refused, things turned ugly.

Photographers said they were punched and kicked and their equipment stolen or thrown into the water.

A video shows two men chasing a paparazzo, tussling with him and throwing him into the surf, apparently wrecking his camera.

Alan Nierob, McConaughey's publicist, said the actor did nothing to encourage other surfers to attack the paparazzi.

"He wasn't aware that anything was going on . . . because he was in the water surfing," said Nierob, who added that the incidents would not dissuade the actor from visiting the beach.

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