January 16, 2006

When the celebrity radar goes off, you must answer the call

(Copley News Service Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge)LOS ANGELES - They prefer to hunt lucrative "exclusives," but midafternoon, paparazzi partners Arnold Cousart and Sergio Huapaya leave Ben and Jen's Brentwood neighborhood for the "hot zone," which is moored by celebrity-trodden, boutique-lined Robertson Boulevard.

During the 20-minute drive over, Huapaya's eyes dart as he recognizes umpteen paparazzi, all in dark SUVs, passing each other on the streets of Brentwood, Beverly Hills and West Hollywood.

"There's the guy who was run over by Britney's mom," Huapaya mentions as a black 4-by-4 crosses an intersection. Lynne Spears apparently mowed over a shutterbug in 2004 after a crush of paparazzi surrounded her car when she and Britney went puppy shopping at a Santa Monica pet store. The photog suffered minor injuries.

On Robertson Boulevard, the late lunch crowd jams the Ivy, a celebrity hangout with ever-present paparazzi on the sidewalk.

"Hold on, something's happening right now!" Huapaya barks, as he cruises past the famed restaurant.

"It's coming south," he relays over his two-way to Cousart, who is about a block away. Huapaya circles back through an alley, stops at a red light at a corner and grabs his camera from the back seat. In a split-second, he's aiming out the driver's side window at the Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson, who just emerged from the Ivy and is basically in his face.

The Weight Watchers spokeswoman has shed more flab and apparently wants to flaunt it. With a gaggle of paparazzi on her heels, Fergie opts not to duck into her chauffeured black Denali at the curb, but to milk a photo-op toddle down Robertson.

Huapaya is wheeling around the block to get back to Fergie when his celebrity radar buzzes. About 30 feet away, he spots a black Range Rover at a gas station. "Is that Kimberly Stewart?" he asks out loud, referring to rocker Rod's party-girl daughter.

Like other paparazzi, he's memorized a long up-to-date list of license plates and makes of celebrity-owned cars.

He soon parks and rushes out in front of strolling Fergie, who ridiculously pretends to act casual and chatter to a friend with a half-dozen photogs at her toes snapping away. As Huapaya ambles backward with camera to his face, Cousart, at the other end of the block, yells into the two-way radio: "Turn around! Turn around!"

Behind Huapaya is Stewart, frozen in the crosswalk and nearly trampled by the Fergie stampede. When the photogs notice her, the blonde tart bats her eyes and taunts, "Bye guys! I'm going shopping."

She skips across the boulevard like the Piped Piper, literally stopping traffic, with panting paparazzi in tow. When she enters the trendy Madison boutique, the shutterbugs frantically press their cameras to the store windows.

Huapaya isn't among them. He's across the street because his radar rang again. At the Lisa Kline boutique, the motorized black "paparazzi curtain" has been dropped in the front window to shield prying lenses. On the sidewalk outside, Huapaya recognizes the bodyguard of Grammy winner Alicia Keyes, who it turns out is shopping inside.

"Can I ask you to not take a photo?" the bodyguard nicely asks Huapaya.

"Sorry, can't," Huapaya politely answers.

"Thought I'd ask," the bodyguard shrugs.

One of Huapaya's two cell phones beep. "Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes got married at the Scientology Center today," he blurts out after disconnecting. On the paparazzi Richter scale, it's a magnitude 10. (And it'll turn out, not true. Another paparazzi agency, meantime, rents a helicopter to fly over the Scientology Center and Cruise's home.)

Nearby, Cousart, who dumped his SUV at a red curb, squawks into his cell. "Mandy Moore is on the move! She's going north on Laurel Canyon!"

Moore appears headed to the home of "Scrubs" star-boyfriend Zach Braff. "If we get a kissing shot, we're breaking a story," Cousart excitedly says.

Keyes slips out the boutique's back door, shrouded by employees who act as a human paparazzi curtain. Huapaya splits for the Scientology Center in Hollywood and Cousart leaves to check on one of his agency's photogs now parked a house down from what is believed to be Braff's canyon home. Moore's black BMW X5 is in the driveway.

En route, Cousart spots the SUVs of rival paparazzi parked on the Sunset Strip outside the castle-like Chateau Marmont hotel. The much sought-after, tabloid-fodder Jessica Simpson is having drinks inside.

It's now nightfall and cold. A dozen paparazzi line up on a strip of sidewalk across from the Marmont, legendary because John Belushi OD'd in one of its rooms. Over the next three chilly hours, there's no Jessica.

At one point, a Range Rover pulls into the valet.

"It's Lindsay!" a photog shouts.

Lohan's passenger-seat companion hides his face with a Chanel paper shopping bag, an unintentionally hilarious sight. As the camera-clicking paparazzi rush in the dark to the edge of the hotel driveway, the "Herbie: Fully Loaded" hipster exits her SUV and appears to deliberately turn toward the frenzied pack for a sec.

Once Lohan sweeps into the hotel, it's navel-gazing time again. Oscar-winner Cuba Gooding Jr. eventually trots up the sidewalk and a few paparazzi flash in his cursing face.

After he leaves, they gripe his picture probably won't sell.

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