Paparazzi invasion of Malibu leads to brutal beach battles

by Paul Harris

MALIBU, Calif. — The beaches of Malibu are famed for their beauty and their surfers. So when Diana Lundin needed some nature shots recently for a photography evening course, a trip to Malibu seemed like a good choice. But when Lundin arrived at sunset with camera gear, she was surrounded by angry young men, demanding to know if she was a paparazzo.

“They just treated me like I was trash,” said Lundin, a Web site editor. “I felt very nervous. I had to get out of there.”

Now is a bad time to carry a camera on a Malibu beach. A bizarre conflict has broken out in this sleepy seaside city that perhaps plays home to more celebrities per square mile than any other place on the planet. Malibu has become the frontline in the battle against the paparazzi.

The residents have long been accustomed to the rich and famous living among them on this stretch of southern Californian coast, and to the inevitable photographers who chronicle their lives. But now, in the face of an exploding market for celebrity snaps and the growing horde of paparazzi taking them, some citizens have resorted to brutal vigilantism to get rid of the scourge.

The violence peaked last month. Moments before Lundin set foot on the beach, a group of locals had attacked paparazzi following up rumors that Irish actor Colin Farrell was nearby. A day later, as photographers tried to grab a shot of actor Matthew McConaughey surfing, groups of young men struck again. Video footage of the incident showed one photographer being beaten with his tripod and tossed into the sea.

These incidents are far from isolated. In recent months Malibu has become less of a luxury enclave and more of a free-for-all boxing match where the contestants are paparazzi, movie stars and citizens. Piers Brosnan hit a photographer in the ribs; Julia Roberts was rescued from a car park paparazzi scrum by an outraged local who pushed an aggressive photographer to loud cheers; Brad Pitt has built a tarpaulin over his beachfront mansion to keep out prying lenses. Paparazzi are now regularly booed and insulted when they appear on Malibu streets or beaches. In one incident, a group of paparazzi stalking Jennifer Aniston saw a wildfire break out on a nearby hill. They took shots of the fire, then returned to their celebrity stakeout. “None called 911,” reported the local newspaper. The footage of the attack on a photographer chasing McConaughey has been greeted with barely disguised glee by many locals.

The clashes sound bizarre, but for Malibu it is a serious issue. In a city where celebrities are commonplace and ignored by locals, the photographers are a menace. They break speed limits down the city’s single main road. They skid and screech round corners. They drive while taking pictures. They hassle locals. “It is scary. Yes, we have celebrities here. But we are also just an ordinary working-class beach town,” said Veronique de Turenne, a writer who has lived in Malibu for 14 years.

Indeed, for Malibu the paparazzi are the big disturbance in an otherwise surreal but idyllic haven. The city of millionaires and surf bums is some 34 km long but often only a block or two wide. Its eclectic mix of residents means that it supports both a Scientologist mission and a branch of Taco Bell. It boasts the ultra-posh Nobu restaurant and a KFC. While famous residents include Jim Carrey, Bruce Willis and Dustin Hoffman, the city is also small enough that a caller to City Hall will hear a cheery answerphone message recorded by the mayor herself.

Not that Mayor Pamela Conley Ulich is in a very good mood at the moment. “There seems to be a new breed of paparazzi who act with reckless disregard for the safety of residents, visitors and children,” she said.

Ulich is now stepping in to address the issue legally. She has turned to the unlikely figure of Kenneth Starr, the lawyer who hounded President Bill Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky scandal and who now works at the nearby Pepperdine University, and other legal experts to see what local laws could be passed to control the paparazzi. “I’m grateful that they are volunteering to help us,” said Conley Ulich.

Changing the law may not be easy. Even California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger — who knows a thing or two about celebrity — failed when he tried to introduce an anti-paparazzi law in Los Angeles. But Malibu feels it has a chance. Its lawman, Sheriff Lee Bacca, believes some form of licensing might work. “They are a business, which means they should be licensed. We don’t believe we can arrest our way out of this,” he said. In the meantime, he has his hands full investigating the beach punch-ups and preventing more anti-paparazzi fisticuffs.

But the real issue goes far beyond local policing or the efforts of a man like Starr. It goes to the heart of the modern cult of celebrity. The media age has given birth to a lucrative celebrity industry open to all. New technologies mean celebrities can be snapped with a mobile phone and posted on the Web in seconds. Mass demand has seen a boom in celebrity magazines and Web sites like TMZ. The right photo at the right time could means hundreds of thousands of dollars for anyone walking by or patient enough on a stakeout — worth a fine or a few days in jail for a speeding offense.

Conley Ulich is right when she warns against a new breed of paparazzi stalking Malibu. They are young, freelance and aggressive. They led the recent circus stalking singer Britney Spears. Huge convoys of paparazzi would chase her down Malibu’s main road. De Turenne saw it: “Britney Spears lived across the street and it was just dangerous. It was insane,” she said.

The new breed are unlikely to be deterred by a few dust-ups on the beach. Lundin, who says she will return to Malibu but without a camera, admits sympathy for the surfers who wrongly identified her as a “pap.” “What has happened with the paparazzi is so out of control, I know why people hate them,” she said.

She also identified the root cause of the problem: Many of the people relaxing on Malibu’s beaches are perusing the same celebrity magazines that are at the heart of the fame industry. “The public is complicit. I am too. I read (the celebrity blog) Perez Hilton. It’s embarrassing to admit.”