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A Proposal for the Care and Feeding of Celebrities

Several recent events have forced us all to confront the profound burdens of celebrity in the modern age.

I’m referring to a series of fender-benders involving luxury automobiles driven by Hollywood starlets, supposedly while they’re being pursued by baying packs of paparazzi. Along with an episode where Koi, a trendy restaurant on La Cienega, called the cops to control a gang of celebrity photographers, these encounters have produced a cry for new laws regulating paparazzi. Cindy Montanez (D-San Fernando), an assemblywoman who evidently has too much time on her hands, has introduced just such a measure.

As befits a surreptitious consumer of People magazine (isn’t everybody?), my sympathies in this debate lie mostly with the paparazzi. Along with the celebrities and the “trendy” restaurants and clubs, they are participants in a mutually profitable collaboration. The shooters get pictures to sell, the celebrities get exposure and adoration far out of proportion to their talent or value to civilization, and the venues get their names in the papers and patronage from more celebrities. That’s why publicists and maitre d’s always keep the paparazzi agencies’ phone numbers at hand.

Sometimes this arrangement gets messy. “There comes a point where they don’t so much lose control, but where a situation arises where they want more control,” Frank Griffin, co-founder of Bauer-Griffin, a leading paparazzi agency, told me. A drunk celebrity needs to be escorted quietly off the premises, for instance. The bouncers are deployed or the cops summoned and a melee ensues, followed by complaints that there oughta be a law. (For some reason, it’s always the paparazzi who get blamed.) Next thing you know, Assemblywoman Montanez is on the case.

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Her bill would allow anyone to file a suit against a paparazzo who “creates ... a reasonable apprehension of offensive or harmful contact” in the act of trying to take a picture. This sounds as though a photographer merely hoisting a camera within eyeshot of a celebrity who’s not in the mood to be photographed could be mulcted for stiff damages. Local courthouses could be inundated with nuisance lawsuits, at considerable cost to the taxpayers.

In a legislative statement supporting her measure, Montanez observes that some paparazzi have taken to “assaulting” celebrities to secure their photographs. She doesn’t cite any case in which this has conclusively occurred. In any event, assault is well covered by the criminal code, even when the victim isn’t a celebrity.

But criminal charges are sometimes tough to establish. Montanez’s bill would lower the evidence threshold needed to hale paparazzi into court by giving celebrities grounds to sue photographers, instead of waiting for the D.A.

No one would claim that paparazzi are above acting boorishly, menacingly or even dangerously. On the contrary, they’re capable of behaving every bit as contemptibly as, um, celebrities. (For every photographer in a scrape with a starlet’s car, one can find a celebrity launching a telephone at a hotel concierge’s forehead.) But it’s also conceivable that in at least some of the fender-benders that celebrities claim were provoked by paparazzi, the real cause is just sloppy driving.

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That said, I’m willing to concede that celebrities may occasionally need a hand from the law. I’m just not eager to foot the bill.

So to protect the public purse, I propose a system of licenses and fees to cover the enhanced pampering embodied in anti-paparazzi legislation. (Movie companies shooting on public streets, after all, pay a fee to cover police protection.)

The California Celebrity Protection Act would state that any individual who has been the subject of three or more items in People, Us Weekly, the New York Post’s Page Six, or OK! Magazine over any six-week span must apply for and receive a state celebrity license before appearing in public. The fee would be $5,000, unless any of the articles was a cover story, in which case it would be $15,000. Two cover stories -- $25,000, and so on.

We can be flexible: Those whose renown derives solely from TV reality shows would be eligible for junior six-month licenses, in recognition of their shorter fame arcs; for ex-TV sitcom stars attempting comebacks by hosting syndicated talk shows there might be provisional permits covering, say, the three-week period between their shows’ premieres and their return to the obscurity of infomercials.

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Any venue hoping to establish itself as a celebrity hangout would also need a permit. Clubs might pay $50,000 for permission to have up to 10 licensed celebrities simultaneously on the premises between 10 p.m. and closing, although higher fees might be levied on venues where authorities deem the bathroom stalls sufficiently private to allow surreptitious drug use, especially by the underage siblings of actors and actresses appearing on teen dramas on Fox or the WB.

I’m not married to these figures. Let Gov. Schwarzenegger negotiate them with the legislative leaders. If they can’t come to an agreement, however, I am prepared to sponsor a petition campaign on behalf of a ballot initiative, the Put Our Celebs First Act, for which I hope Lindsay Lohan, Reese Witherspoon and Scarlett Johansson will do the TV ads. Given the urgency of the issue, I’m sure the governor would be delighted to call a special election to pass it.

Golden State appears every Monday and Thursday. You

can reach Michael Hiltzik at golden.state@latimes.com and read his previous columns at latimes.com/hiltzik.

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