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The Dirty Secrets of the Paparazzi

By Edward Robinson
Dallas Morning News
Sunday, July 12, 1992; Page G01

Alan Zanger crouches behind a mound of garbage. He's on assignment high in the Hollywood Hills. His job: photograph "Married ... With Children" star Katey Sagal and her new boyfriend.

As one of the most notorious stakeout specialists of the Los Angeles paparazzi, Zanger is used to waiting. Only this time he has a problem: There are no bushes to hide in, no walls to peek over and no trees to cover him. So he improvises. Across the street from Sagal's house lie two derelict cars and a dumpster. He fishes bags of garbage out of the dumpster and makes a mound to hide behind. He hides there from dawn to dusk for three days.

Finally, Sagal and her boyfriend emerge. Zanger springs up and photographs them. They are both shocked, and captured on film, and published in the tabloids. Assignment completed.

Zanger likes to think of himself as a hunter, but instead of deer he hunts celebrities. "In a certain respect, a camera is like a gun," he says, "and the stars are my prey."

Italian director Federico Fellini first used the term "paparazzi" -- literally "house pests" -- for celebrity photographers.

Recently, they've received a lot of attention. A documentary about the photographers, "Blast 'Em," just opened in New York. But much of the attention is due to Princess Diana's biographies and the tabloids' obsession to get the first "Diana crying shot" (published a few weeks ago).

Some of the mainstream media are also starting to note the tremendous growth of tabloid or "celebrity journalism" in recent years.

"We are living in an age of celebrity worship," says David Schonauer, editor of American Photo magazine, which dedicated its current issue to the paparazzi phenomenon. "There seems to be no end to the appetite (for the celebrity image)."

Schonauer describes a strange dance between celebrities and the paparazzi. Celebrities understand they need the photographers to publicize their image, yet they naturally want to preserve a degree of privacy.

Superstars like Elizabeth Taylor, Madonna, Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson are frequently praised by the paparazzi as willing subjects.

Kip Rano, a British-born paparazzo now based in Los Angeles, recalls how one day in Aspen, Colo., he got on a ski lift and realized he was sitting next to Nicholson.

"I told him I'd recently flown over his house, and that I liked the green sofas he had on his deck so much I bought some myself," Rano says. "He turned to me and said, 'You're a ... paparazzi, aren't you?'

"I asked him if he would pose for me. 'You'll have to catch me,' he said. Nicholson is a good skier, but I caught him and he posed. He gave me a wave and that great smile."

Others, however, like Marlon Brando, Sean Penn and Cher, have reputations for being difficult. Most paparazzi agree, however, that the toughest star to photograph is Prince.

Prince, says New York-based paparazzo Victor Malafronte, transforms the dance into a cat-and-mouse chase. Since Prince appears only at carefully orchestrated photo opportunities, and even those are rare, Malafronte says he was thrilled to receive some "intelligence" that Prince would be in New York, on Broadway, to catch a performance of "M. Butterfly."

Malafronte says 12 other photographers showed up at the theater. At curtain time a limousine flanked by two sedans pulled up, but just idled for 10 minutes, smoked windows hiding the occupants.

Suddenly, the limo and the sedans drove off. The photographers were stunned, but Malafronte says no one left. Then the three cars came around a corner and pulled up again. The limo's door opened.

"It was chaos," Malafronte says. They piled atop one another trying to get a clean shot.

"Get him! Shoot!" yelled Malafronte's boss. Ten bodyguards tumbled out of the limo, shoving the photographers aside.

Malafronte laughs. "Here's the punch line: They put ... {Prince} in the back sedan and snuck him in behind us. It was brilliant ... We heard him laughing at us, this high, little laugh. He skipped into the theater."

To be a paparazzo, Zanger says, you have to be obsessive, immune to insults and willing to take a punch or kick every now and then from bodyguards or celebrities. He says Michael J. Fox's bodyguards once tried to drive him off a canyon road, one of the more exciting moments in Zanger's longest stakeout -- 23 days. He was trying to photograph Fox's new baby.

You must also be free from those pesky pangs of conscience, which can make looks in the mirror a critical experience. After all, paparazzi do not rank high on society's list of professions that enrich the human race. And they know it.

"Sleaze doesn't bother me," Zanger says. "I've been cussed out, I've been spit on, I've been pushed -- that doesn't bother me one bit. I will do whatever it takes to get a picture."

Most paparazzi, Malafronte says, are actually fans themselves. Their careers are extensions of years of autograph-chasing as kids. Malafronte, 29, who worked as a news photographer for a New Jersey newspaper until he was laid off several years ago, says he became a paparazzo for the money.

At first, he says, the buzz was intense -- celebrity parties, fast money, independence. But now, six years later, Malafronte, who is the primary subject of "Blast 'Em," says he feels he is wasting his life. Extreme acts like staking out or pursuing celebrities -- like the way he chased Mick Jagger through the New Jersey woods one day -- are driving him out of his mind.

Malafronte says the business is fiercely competitive. Those who are your friends one day will stab you in the back the next. He says he is searching for any ticket out.

"We are called animals because we are made to act like animals," he says. "I study philosophy, metaphysics, cosmology -- these things engage my soul, my mind. But I'm doing a job that is so far removed from that ... and it's got ahold of me -- it's an addiction."

Elizabeth Taylor continues her reign as Hollywood's glittering goddess. Even the paparazzi do not understand just what it is about her that drives the public wild. She hasn't made a movie in years. Nor has she performed in a play or even a TV show recently. Yet her image is one of the most salable in the world.

"I don't know what it is," says Robert DeMarco, picture editor for the Star, a tabloid in Tarrytown, N.Y. "Maybe it's because she is one of the last movie stars from Hollywood's Golden Age."

One of the most provocative tabloid pictures in years was Alan Zanger's photograph of a pneumonia-stricken Taylor being moved into an ambulance on a gurney. Through sales both in the United States and overseas, Zanger reportedly collected more than $100,000 for the shot, according to DeMarco. Zanger declined to confirm the amount.

That picture, Zanger says, was one of the most demanding he has ever taken. He spent days staking out the hospital in which Taylor reportedly was a patient. Finally, he spotted Taylor's boyfriend (now her husband), Larry Fortensky, entering the hospital. He saw an ambulance pull up outside, so he barged into a doctor's office and prepared to shoot through the window. But nothing happened, and doctors and nurses chased him away.

He fled to a nearby parking garage. He saw Fortensky again, so he hid beneath a car. Finally, he made it to the roof and lay down at the edge. "I saw the bushes move, so I stood up and saw her on a gurney, and I made the shot," he says.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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