Lu Parker, perhaps the splashiest reporter in local TV, smiles as she marches through the South Los Angeles animal shelter. By her side on a leash is a mixed pit bull fresh out of the shelter's cages.
"Aren't you the lucky one?" Parker, who reports for KTLA-TV Channel 5's evening newscasts, coos to the muscular pooch she has recruited for a photo shoot showing her love for animals. She flashes a poised cover-girl style pose for the camera even though her frisky accomplice is being less than cooperative.
This isn't just another visit to the shelter for Parker, a regular volunteer at the facility. The session is one way to draw attention to her commitment to animals, and promote her nonprofit Lu Parker Project geared to helping at-risk youth and homeless animals: "This is my way of giving back."
Getting the word out also means coming out of the shadows to deal with what she acknowledges has been a hot-button subject — her nonprofessional celebrity profile. While a full-time reporter for KTLA (which, like the Los Angeles Times, is owned by Tribune Co.), it's her status as the striking girlfriend of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa that has gotten her the most attention — and attracted more than a little flack for both of them. Critics say she's trading on her fame and dishonoring her profession; she maintains they don't appreciate the way journalism has changed over the years.
The romance developed a few years ago after the collapse of his 2007 extramarital affair with KVEA-TV reporter Mirthala Salinas — a scandal that derailed Salinas' career and may have seriously damaged the mayor's possible aspirations for higher office. When word of the new romance got out, some media observers joked about what they called his apparent obsession with glamorous young TV reporters. The couple came under more scrutiny this year due to an investigation into the mayor's acceptance of free tickets to events, where he often took Parker.
Parker, 42, has not previously spoken publicly at length about Villaraigosa; arrangements by her publicists for an interview several months ago were abruptly halted without explanation. But in a recent wide-ranging interview, she displayed a disarming openness about her personal and professional life.
"I've never felt more fulfilled in my life," she said, sitting in the lobby of the shelter. "I'm in a great relationship, I have an amazing family and amazing friends. I love my job." She's particularly excited about this Sunday's Dodge Rock 'N Roll Los Angeles 1/2 Marathon, which will benefit her nonprofit foundation. "Things are great."
The photogenic couple has attended numerous events including concerts ("I'm at the U2/Black Eye(sic) Peas concert with Lu and the world is watching. I love L.A.", the mayor tweeted last October) and the recent opening of the Resnick Pavilion at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
But Parker has also drawn flack for the relationship and her website (luparker.com), which contains photos of her in a bikini and other revealing outfits. She is billed as an "Emmy award winning journalist, actress, author, former Miss USA and a former teacher." Blurbs appear for her book, "Catching the Crown: The Source for Pageant Competition," written after she was crowned Miss USA in 1994.
"It speaks to the evolving standard of journalism," said Loren Ghiglione, a professor of journalism at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. "Lu Parker is creating a brand, hustling herself and her book. Her station should be nervous about the presence of her with a newsmaker on her website."
Judith Marlane, author of "Women in Television News Revisited," added that the relationship and the website have tainted Parker's credibility as a journalist. "This speaks to how far the level of journalistic integrity in TV has fallen," said Marlane. "The mayor is an elected official in a newsworthy position. She had to make a choice, and it's clear from her website that she's not out to further her journalism career."
Parker, who recently co-anchored a prime-time special on the environment, "Heal the Bay," and who has done stories on a variety of issues including the city of Bell scandal and investigative pieces on dog breeding, countered that those critical of her website don't understand her or the evolving state of journalism.
"Times are changing, media is changing," she said. "I just felt it would be a great thing to show the lighter side of Lu Parker, let people get a little insight into my life. Why not put it out there? If I have joy in my heart, or see something that inspires me, why not let people know about it rather than just letting it sit under a rock. I love to inspire people. Journalism is only about a fifth of my life."
As for the pictures: "I'm not posing nude or doing anything salacious. I have modeled. If I thought it undermined my credibility, I wouldn't do it."