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I’ve been pushed, struck, shoved, screamed at, driven off the road, and stepped on by strangers more times that I can count. I’ve seen children sobbing while their parents beg for just a moment of peace. I’ve been showered with saliva as an obviously unstable man threatened to hurt me.
I thought it was normal. And it sort of was. This is the way Hollywood works, you know. These are the paparazzi, whose livelihoods depend upon landing a really valuable shot, and most of the time it seems they don’t care who gets hurt along the way. A photo of Blue Ivy Carter can allegedly fetch $500,000, and rumor has it that a photo of Brad and Angelina’s upcoming wedding could win a lucky pap around $2 million.
Most photos sell for significantly less, but the allure of that payday comes into grotesque focus as we examine the death of 29 year-old Chris Guerra, who crossed 4 lanes of traffic on Sepulveda Boulevard in LA last week to snap a shot of Justin Bieber being arrested. Turned out, the driver of the Ferrari wasn’t Bieber, and Guerra was directed by an officer to return to his car. While crossing back, he was struck and killed by an SUV.
Sadly, there are sick human beings who are reveling in the death of this young man. Regardless of who he was as a person, the reason he was working as a pap, and what good things he may have done in his life (all of which we do not know at this point), people feel justified in condemning him based upon just this one choice -- to pursue and photograph a teen heartthrob. And that’s just wrong.
Casey Brodley is right, the paparazzi exist because of our culture’s insatiable hunger for celebrity news.
I know first-hand how obnoxious the paparazzi are, and despite my compassion for Guerra as an individual, I still hold the more audacious members of this network in contempt. I’ve just seen too much shit not to.
I used to work for an awesome little store called Lisa Kline, on celebrity-filled Robertson Boulevard in LA. Our daily clientele ranged from Saudi royalty to Paris Hilton. I even once saw Al Gore mobbed by paparazzi on Robertson.
Being as Lisa Kline was private property, we had every right to tell the paparazzi to leave, but we couldn’t keep them from blocking the front doors. When we’d turn our backs, a few would inevitably sneak back in. The owners always stressed that we shouldn’t put ourselves in danger, but we tried our best to keep the photographers out.
In doing that, we were called “f**ing bitches” or “f***ing whores” so often that we learned to just laugh it off. Once a pap grabbed my shirt and swung me into the dirt. It wasn’t a big deal at the time -- almost a merit badge -- but I was pissed that my tank top was stretched out.
It became easy to spot a celebrity coming toward us. Relative quiet would turn to a rustle, and next thing you knew the paparazzi were running across the street and over the hoods of cars like a pack of hyenas yelping on the hunt. They would mob around the celeb, shoving pedestrians out of the way. SUVs with tinted windows would screech down the street and squeal to a halt, or drive in reverse as long as they could, all while snapping photos.
When you heard that sound, you knew you better get your ass out of the way. It was all in a day’s work. And it was sorta fun.
Until one day it wasn’t. A high-profile actress who was in the middle of a love-life drama crossed the street into our store with a new guy, leaving a mob of paps salivating at the door. One particularly belligerent creep kept stepping deeper into the store, ignoring my requests to leave, until I got in his face and screamed “Get the hell out of the store! Now!”
He leaned over me, turned red with a rage I had never truly come face-to-face with in real life, and screamed, “FUCK YOU BITCH! I’ll come back here and fuck you in your ass!”
Against all good reason, I continued after him until he left, screaming obscenities and threats at me as he stomped toward his car. Then I called the cops, which I’d never done before. Something in this guy’s eyes scared the living shit out of me. I’d yelled at paps and they’d yelled at me, but this threat felt real. As I was dialing 911, he jumped into his truck, slammed his bumper into the car in back of him, smashed into the car in front of him, and squealed away.
The next morning, the store’s owners, Lisa Kline and Robert Bryson, came to talk to me about it. Robert was fuming. A hulking and warm-hearted Southern gentleman, Robert felt it was his duty to protect all of us ladies, and so he convinced me to walk up the street to The Ivy restaurant, across from which all the paparazzi hung out, waiting for their next payday from the celebrity lunch spot.
From a safe distance away, I pointed out who had threatened me. Robert grabbed his own big camera and crossed the street to get a photo of the guy to show the cops. The guy got in Robert’s face and Robert told him to never go near me, or the other ladies, again. The guy spit at Robert as he walked away, but at least we had his photo.
This did not deter the pap. He spent the entire day camped outside of the store, snapping photos of me and making threats through the glass. I called 911 again, and this time they came fast. He ran away, and I had to ride in the patrol car to help find him.
As they cuffed him, I sunk down in the back seat and crept away. Turns out he was a really bad guy, with a rap sheet they described as “longer than your arm” including multiple assault charges.
Getting a restraining order against the guy was a coup larger than I expected. The distance he was ordered to keep from me, and all the stores I worked at (there were 3 at the time), kept him off Robertson Boulevard and out of the Malibu Country Mart, which were his two main sources of income.
Apparently he switched his focus to snapping photos of celebs at Disneyland, where he allegedly mowed down some children in an attempt to photograph Reese Witherspoon and her kids. The case was set to go to trial, and I was supposed to testify as to his ruthless nature.
As we prepared for that trial, I got a letter in the mail with an ominous return address. It was from the LA County Coroner’s Office. I opened it with shaking fingers, terrified by what it might contain. I scanned it, and saw the paparazzo’s name in bold. He was dead. Why was I receiving this? When I read the letter more thoroughly, it became clear that I was the only “next of kin” they could find in relation to him. Me.
It was tragic and bizarre. Apparently he had died in his own apartment, and laid there for about a week before anyone discovered him. I was flooded with guilt. I still have no idea how or why he died, whether it was suicide or drugs or natural causes, but I felt somehow responsible, despite every rational part of my brain telling me I wasn’t.
After that, the paparazzi’s motivation came into clearer focus. They always say, “I’m just doin’ my job, lady.”
But is not just a job. While the majority are respectful, they seem to be thrill-seekers by nature. They live an unstable lifestyle, never knowing exactly where their income will come from, and being rewarded for taking the most risks. Inherently, this is going to encourage dangerous or even violent behavior, without regard for others’ safety.
We hear too often about high speed chases and accidents caused by pursuing celebrities for that oh-so-valuable shot, but for those of us who have been in the center of that mayhem, there’s nothing glamorous about it. Innocent people are harmed by our celebrity-worship culture.
Consider the woman who struck Chris Guerra on New Year’s Day. You could argue she should have been driving more carefully, and you could argue that the cops shouldn’t have sent him back across the road. Perhaps that’s all true, but for the rest of that woman’s life, she will be burdened with the knowledge that she took a 29 year-old man’s life. A life he risked for a photo of a teenager driving a Ferrari.