One thing I've never done, in more than a dozen years of traveling to Los Angeles to cover the TV industry, is get an up-close look at who covers the folks I'm covering:
The celebrity news hounds.
So I e-mailed the dean of Hollywood muckrakers, TMZ founder Harvey Levin. He wasn't in town, according to a reply from his publicist. (Curiously, this is the third time Harvey hasn't been available when I've been in Los Angeles; is he trying to tell me something?)
So I did the next best thing. I took the TMZ Tour.
Forget about stumbling through Bel Air or Beverly Hills with a $20 guidebook and a few press clippings. TMZ offers a two-hour guided bus tour through all the celebrity haunts made world-famous . . . by TMZ.
The tour is the brainchild of Levin himself, no stranger to self-promotion and building a celebrity brand. Why not cash in on visitors' yen for a real-life look at the star-filled absurdity they unveil on the Web and syndicated TV everyday?
The tour's website sets the stage. Clips of D-listers such as rapper and reality TV star Flavor Flav visiting TMZ buses set expectations high. If there's a celebrity tour where you expect to encounter famous names, it's the one from the guys who make a living stalking the well-known. Right?
So I booked a 9:30 tour on a Saturday night, the perfect stalking time (usual cost $53, less for booking online). I actually left an event where there were real celebrities — the TV Critics Association Awards at the Beverly Hilton, where Mad Men's Jon Hamm and the cast of Friday Night Lights were among the attendees — so I could get a glimpse of this new form of journalism up close.
Walking past the kiosk at the touristy Hollywood shrine that is Grauman's Chinese Theater, I see our chariot: a gigantic monstrosity of a bus with open-air windows and an electric cherry-red exterior.
Emblazoned with the TMZ logo trumpeting "sports and celebrity hot spots," it's a rolling billboard that will brand all inside as hopeless rubes willing to pay Levin for an experience we could have on our own just walking down Rodeo Drive. If we're lucky.
A group of liquored-up tourmates, some fresh in town from Texas, files into the bus, along with a snarky tour guide armed with a video camera and touchscreen computer triggering more than two dozen TMZ-style videos rigged to display on large TV screens inside the bus.
This can't end well.
• • •
For early help celebrity-spotting before the tour, I turned to an expert: Us Weekly writer Wynter Mitchell, a former agent's assistant at the William Morris Agency.
"You'd be surprised at how much information people are willing to give you if you have a relationship," said Mitchell, a relentless networker who scoffs at the idea of paying for information. As proof she takes me to the Chateau Marmont hotel, a networking mecca for mid-level Hollywood.
Plopped at Hollywood's western edge, the collection of bungalows at the 80-year-old Marmont has a storied history. It's where F. Scott Fitzgerald had a heart attack, James Dean auditioned for Rebel Without a Cause, Saturday Night Live star John Belushi died of a drug overdose and actor Evan Rachel Wood met the man of her nightmares, fright rocker Marilyn Manson.
The night we arrive at the pool area, Carrera sunglasses has commandeered the space for a party, offering free samples for the price of a promotional photo. The swagfest has drawn a trickle of C-level talent, from former Lohan flame and DJ Samantha Ronson to Real Housewives of Beverly Hills castmember Brandi Glanville.
"Anyone can be famous, and it's diluting the whole idea of celebrity," Mitchell told me before we arrived. "It actually makes our job a whole lot harder."
Tanned and toned in a skimpy black top that looked more like sleepwear, Glanville praises the way Bethenny Frankel, from the show's New York edition, turned her fame into a multimillion dollar career.
"She had a game plan going in . . . but they won't let us do anything," sighs Glanville, best known as the ex-wife of Playboy Club actor Eddie Cibrian, whose marriage dissolved when he began seeing country star Lee Ann Rimes. "I can't say anything, but the other girls on the show were acting totally crazy around me."
It is a place to be photographed and seen, hyping the celebrities' own brands even as they hype the free sunglasses. Mitchell is so tired by the night's end, she passes by Men in Black II and Unstoppable star Rosario Dawson without a glance.
Writing may be tough, but schmoozing is even harder.
• • •
On the bus, we meet tour guide Alex, an ex-waiter who sometimes looks like he'd rather be hefting platters again for overfed studio executives. Showing off a small black camera, he notes that his job requires jumping out to try to film any celebrities we encounter.
Not only will we get to see famous people, but we'll get to see them ambushed, like on TV!
As the bus rolls through its early stops, we see the El Pollo Loco where Brad Pitt once wore a chicken costume as an employee, the stretch of Sunset Boulevard where Hugh Grant was busted for picking up a streetwalker, and the Laugh Factory, where Seinfeld co-star Michael Richards slung the n-word at a black man in the audience.
Occasionally Alex presses a button on his touchscreen and a cheeky, TMZ-style dissertation on a landmark or location unspools on the video screens, filled with percolating graphics and in-your-face commentary.
We're told you can't see Motley Crue at the Seventh Veil strip club where they filmed their Girls, Girls, Girls video, "but you might get a staph infection." Later, we're asked to guess whether celebrities will wave or give the finger to TMZ photographers before a video clip of the encounter is shown (to get a nifty black TMZ T-shirt on your trip, remember that Keanu Reeves flips the bird).
But as long stretches of time go by without a celebrity sighting, the fans from Texas start grumbling, already irritated that Alex wouldn't let them pile into one row of seats. He makes it worse by tossing not-so-playful wisecracks: "Are the strip clubs bigger in Texas?" he asks a woman. "Is that where you work?"
As we pass L'Ermitage Beverly Hills Hotel, where Verne Troyer filmed his sex tape, it's clear: The bus is the biggest star on the road tonight.
Plowing through Hollywood's nighttime traffic, the vehicle draws waves and shouts or profanity and bird flipping from passers-by. Most gawk at those of us piled inside as if we were the celebrities, giving us all a taste of the high life, if only a few steps removed. It's a fleeting lesson on how transitory celebrity can be in a land where anyone with a good sex tape or YouTube video can land a TV deal and speaking tour.
By the ride's end, a video of Levin asking riders to tip Alex grates on an ornery group that hasn't seen a single celebrity in two hours. "I've got a tip for you," says one of woman. "Get a new (expletive deleted) job."
Such are the hazards of bringing civilians along on the celebrity hunt. Especially when all they find are wisecracks and video clips in a land where stardom seems to sprout on every street corner.
Eric Deggans can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8521. Blog: tampabay.com/blogs/media. Twitter: @Deggans.