Trapped in Fame : Besieged by Media Hordes, Modern Celebrities Insist They Must Retain Some Right to Have a Private Life

Times Staff Writer

Star magazine, the gossipy grocery store tabloid, had a tip Cher was about to marry Rob Camilletti, her live-in boyfriend. Free-lance photographer Peter Brandt got the routine assignment to watch the actress’ house just in case.

What happened next is in dispute. Camilletti claims he tried to dodge Brandt and another photographer but his car brakes locked, causing him to slide into Brandt’s Honda. Brandt claims Camilletti tried to run him down. Both cars were damaged; Brandt’s camera was smashed; Camilletti was arrested and booked for investigation of felony assault with a deadly weapon.

While the altercation caused no injuries, it has fueled a dispute that raged long before actor Sean Penn raised his fists at a camera: Are the media, especially photographers, invading celebrities’ right to privacy in pursuit of stories--or are those in the public eye unwilling to accept the press scrutiny that comes with fame?


Appetite for Names

The question now touches on telling changes in celebrity life and the booming, voracious industry for news about names.

Discussion of the issue of late also has taken on a new urgency, as it recently seems to have been promoted solely through whirring helicopters, flashing tempers and flying fists.

“I know that I have to give up lots of my rights, that people can write in a magazine that I, you know, don’t have my rib cage, or that this is not my chin, or these are not my cheeks,” Cher said at a press conference after Camilletti’s release from jail on $2,000 bond.

But she added: “I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and so I’m pretty much used to having my private life destroyed and lies told about me. . . . It’s something that you pretty much have to get used to. After a while it really bothers you and disrupts your family life. . . . I’m usually pretty good about it. (But) I’m getting really, really angry.”

She is not alone:

- Actor Sean Penn, who has spent time in Los Angeles County Jail for assaulting a picture-taking movie extra and reckless driving, last month allegedly kicked the car of a New York Post photographer. He also allegedly attacked a cameraman at the Mike Tyson-Michael Spinks match in Atlantic City. His pop star wife, Madonna--who he married in a closed ceremony that was observed by hovering helicopters--has defended Penn, saying his actions were provoked by photographers who baited him with cruel remarks.

- Two bodyguards for rock star Prince were sentenced to 100 hours of community service after pleading no contest to misdemeanor battery charges last month for assaulting two photographers in a 1985 incident.

- Meryl Streep objected to a photographer taking pictures of her and her children as they entered a theater in Chatham, N.Y., the New York Daily News has reported. After the July show, the photographer claims, Streep tried to take his camera and hit him on the side of the face.

- Michael J. Fox and Tracy Pollan were married last month at a Vermont inn in a no-press ceremony. Six helicopters, however, cruised the site from above, while security forces hunted for pesky reporters and photographers in nearby woods.

Camilletti, who is pursuing an acting career but is usually described as a former New York bagel maker and pizza chef, said in a statement prepared by his attorney that his crash was the culmination of weeks of frustration at being dogged by the press.

But Brandt insisted he was within his rights in staking out Cher’s house from across the street of her Benedict Canyon home.

“The magazine felt that it was warranted in covering the story,” he said. “Whoever is in the limelight, people are going to want to know about them. I just do my job, I’m a news photographer. I wasn’t going to do anything illegal.”

Most celebrities accept the trade-offs that accompany their fame. But they still think a line must be drawn.

“You accept that the public may be curious about you,” said actor Tom Selleck, speaking by phone from a movie set in Baltimore, “and that public curiosity obviously creates a marketplace . . . I don’t think that necessarily translates directly into the public’s right to know. Basically what we’re getting more and more of are stories to verify a preconceived notion, whether it be true or not.”

When in public, he explained, he stops and poses for pictures. “In return I’ll ask them to behave responsibly,” he said of photographers. “And I’ll say, look, ‘I’ll pose for pictures, but no shots of me getting into the car or in the back seat.’ They’ll say OK, then they’ll do it anyway.

“When reporters have followed me around,” he added, “I usually make it a point to stop and tell them that I consider their behavior abnormal and a threat to my well-being and my family; I will proceed accordingly.”

While saying most photographers and reporters he deals with are “very fair,” Selleck still believes, “We’re talking about a problem that is going to become everybody’s problem more and more as electronic media become more sophisticated and more people get a camera stuck in their face during moments of grief. Somehow we’re going to have to reconcile what the public’s right to know is. . . .

“I’m very grateful for my fans,” he said. “I know that photographers have a job to do, and if I come out of a restaurant and they want to take my picture, if you have to use that awful phrase, it ‘goes with the territory.’

“But how far up my gastrointestinal tract is a photographer allowed to go? The freedom of the press is not a license for anarchy and irresponsibility.”

Arsenio Hall, an actor and comedian, saw his friend Eddie Murphy experience the media scrutiny that comes with fame long before he came into his own.

Unfunny Screaming Matches

“I canceled my press junket for ‘Coming to America,’ ” Hall said, “but my manager convinced me that it was the wrong move. But I had friends who seemed to get burned and go through changes, and my philosophy is that my work speaks for itself. . . . Eddie and I were at dinner at Spago, and once a photographer intentionally pulled Eddie into conflict, they got into a screaming match. To this day (the photographer) thinks it’s funny. It’s not.

“I don’t mind the interest in my private life,” he said. “But what bothers me is the intrusion. It’s like, OK, you won’t give us an interview, so we’ll go through your trash can.”

Penn declined to discuss his relationship with the media but his attorney did.

“Does he feel trapped? I don’t know if trapped is the right word,” lawyer Howard Weitzman said. “I know he definitely feels imposed upon. I think there is a happy medium that can be achieved. But the truth is the press creates the need for the interviews, the photographs. I don’t think the public cares about seeing Cher go into her house. I don’t think you have a public out there starving for the pictures. There are plenty of pictures to be gotten without running alongside a car or camping outside a house.”

If Star editor Richard Kaplan had two pictures of Penn, one of the actor smiling, the other with his fists upraised, which would he run?

“Sean has such an established persona. If you’d asked me before all this started, I would have run the picture of him smiling,” he said. “Now, I don’t know, maybe I’d run the one of him smiling because people would be so amazed. People expect brawling pictures of Sean, and he obliges them. I have never, ever wanted a photographer to provoke him, ever. It’s not my style and it’s not this publication’s style. . . . It’s a pity that it has to be an adversarial relationship as often as it does. We don’t want it to be that way. We’d rather run nice pictures of Fergie and her baby.”

But the battle continues. Tense relations exist not just between photographers and celebrities but among photographers themselves--some like Brandt do not consider themselves paparazzi and do not condone the ways of their less scrupulous brethren--and between photographers and press agents.

In the last five years, publicists increasingly have sought the right to approve which pictures of their clients could be used and they have tried to control photographers’ access to certain stars, trotting them out only when they have something to promote, said photographer Brad Elterman. That has created more demand for photos, especially candid shots, of certain stars.

But, said veteran publicist Lee Solters: “My relationship with photographers happens to be a good one only because they have to rely on me to be invited to all these functions. If they cross me, I’ll bar them (from future events), and they run the risk of losing a lot of money.”

Publicist Jeff Ballard coaches his clients--including teen heart throbs Charlie Sheen and Johnny Depp--on paparazzi etiquette. He said, “It doesn’t take more than two or three minutes to take the shots.”

Of Michael J. Fox’s wedding, he observed: “It was his option not to have any press there. On the other hand, he chose to be a public figure. He could have posed for a picture or made conditions about posing. It’s a trade off. But I feel bad for the kid.

“Charlie and I were discussing it, and I told him, ‘When you get married, let them take pictures so you don’t have to deal with helicopters.’ ”

Sheen, he added, has his own philosophy about popping flashbulbs: When they stop, that’s when you worry.

Decades ago, when the studios reigned, actors early on were taught on how to deal with aggressive photographers and inquiring reporters. Now, said Kaplan of the Star, “The studio system has deteriorated, and you’ve got a million little stars sort of swirling around in their own orbit. I think a lot of the press agents they hire are there to avoid publicity. It’s a new world out there, and it makes it difficult to run a personality magazine.”

The market for celebrity photos and exclusive stories extends far beyond the tabloids; competition for exclusives is intense. Foreign media have grown enormously interested in Hollywood. There is a voracious need for material for personality magazines, other publications relying on the draw of celebrity covers, as well as the new “infotainment” shows like “Entertainment Tonight” and the new “People Magazine on TV” and “USA Today.”

“There are only so many celebrities,” Kaplan said, “and we’re all after them. We all want the big names.”

The public also hasn’t hit the saturation point on personalities.

Publicist Elliott Mintz said of client Don Johnson, “Out of 300 requests for interviews that I get for him, 50 have to do with his work, and 250 are about his personal life, especially Barbra Streisand (the actor’s current flame). In a year, I wouldn’t be surprised if all the requests were to do with his private life.”

No informal truce in the matter has been called so it’s anyone’s guess how long the controversy will continue. “I think these incidents occur by coincidence,” said photographer Brandt. “It just happens that way. Maybe next year we’ll see none of this.”

There also may be a glimmer of hope for a reconciliation, as actor Johnny Depp observed: “I always thought it would be interesting to do a film about (paparazzi) to see exactly what that life is about. It’s very fascinating.”