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TV reporter Lu Parker plays by her own set of rules

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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.”

She paused before adding, “I know I’m not going to make everybody happy. I never have. I just always try to find the positive side in everything I do. I just know I’m very happy.”

Villaraigosa declined comment.

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Still, Parker said that being under a microscope has brought moments “when I felt like I had been punched in the gut.” One of the hardest times came when their relationship went public in March 2009 and some observers mocked the romance. Times columnist Steve Lopez urged her to call Salinas “for some quick counsel… there are not a lot of safe landing spots for Parker should she and the mayor break up, although with a Miss USA title behind her name, she could probably catch on at one of the singing or dancing shows as a judge.”

Recalled Parker: “I knew there would be a reaction, but I didn’t expect that kind. It was horrible. I hadn’t done anything wrong. But it was just one of those things, part of the journey. Lesson learned.”

The heat intensified when the mayor this year became a target in an ethics investigation due to his failure to report his acceptance of dozens of free tickets to concerts and Lakers games, where Parker sometimes would be at his side. The mayor maintained his attendance was in an official capacity, and did not require reporting. The state Fair Political Practices Commission in September ruled that Villaraigosa and other officials must disclose their receipt of free tickets to events that they attend as part of their ceremonial duties.

The couple supported each other during the investigation. “We’re a team,” Parker said. “You’re protective of the people you love. Getting criticized is all part of the world of politics. But Antonio is a tough cookie. He can handle it all. I don’t think you can be in politics if you don’t love what you do, and he truly loves what he does. That’s what makes him a great politician.”

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KTLA executives praise Parker, who joined the station in 2005. “She’s as authentic as they come,” said news director Jason Ball. “She brings that quality to every story and everybody she meets.”

Some media critics weighed in after Parker in May 2009, while working as a weekend anchor, read a story about the possibility of Villaraigosa running for governor. The two had been dating for a few months.

But Ball said he saw no conflict: “We are conscious of what stories we put her on.”

Parker grew up in Charleston, S.C. After her stint as Miss USA, she worked for two years as a reporter at CBS affiliate WCSC in Charleston. After two years, she worked as an anchor at Fox affiliate KABB in San Antonio. She later hosted “Good Day S.A.” at CBS affiliate KENS in San Antonio.

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While her website identifies her as an actress in shows such as “Commander in Chief” and the upcoming “Green Hornet” movie, she has appeared only as a reporter in short scenes.

Still thrilled about her day job, Parker said her ultimate goal would be to host a talk show to discuss a variety of topics. But for now, she said she could not be more content. More importantly, the slings and arrows no longer bother her: “I feel everything has culminated to this point. Both feet are on the ground. My soul is full and my heart is full.”

greg.braxton@latimes.com


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