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By Entertainment columnist
msnbc.com
updated 10/20/2006 1:25:54 PM ET 2006-10-20T17:25:54

Cameron Diaz and her boyfriend, Justin Timberlake, were leaving a friend’s Hollywood Hills home in September when a photographer jumped out of the bushes and tried to take their picture. It didn’t go well for either the photographer or the stars.

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Diaz filed a lawsuit accusing the photographer with “assault with a deadly weapon, a vehicle.”

The photographer also is suing, accusing Diaz’s entourage of verbal and physical assault and entrapment when he tried to flee.

The confrontation itself was unremarkable — just the latest skirmish in the long- running battle over how far is too far when it comes to chronicling the lives of stars in pictures and in print. But it clearly illustrates the escalating nature of hostilities between the celebrities and those they consider threatening stalkers.

While most Americans don’t have a media horde following them every time they set foot outside the house — and possibly even photographers crawling through the bushes when they’re home — celebrities’ privacy is being eclipsed by the same technologies that are eating away at everyone’s ability to be left alone: long-lens cameras, listening devices, pretexting, etc.

In some ways, stars can be considered the canaries in the privacy coal mine, feeling the effects of intrusions into their already-diminished private space well before the rest of us.

High profile an invitation to crooks
Because of their high profiles, for example, they may be more vulnerable to identity theft.

Several years ago, a Brooklyn man used the information in an issue of Forbes’s "400 Richest People in America" to obtain financial info on a number of celebrities, including Steven Spielberg, Martha Stewart, Oprah Winfrey. (This case is chronicled in detail in the book "Your Evil Twin," by MSNBC.com's Bob Sullivan.)

Golf legend Tiger Woods and other sports figures also have been hit by identity thieves in recent years.

Perhaps more surprising, the celebrities aren’t above committing identity theft themselves.

This year, Beverly Peele, a former top model from the 1990s, was convicted of identity theft after pleading guilty to buying $10,000 worth of merchandise with someone else’s credit card.

According to investigators, Peele — who appeared on more than 250 magazine covers — found a purse and returned it to the owner, but not before she copied down the credit card numbers and charged more than $10,000 worth of merchandise.

She was sentenced in August to three years' probation and 300 of hours of community service and ordered to pay $5,000 to the victim and American Express.

While Hollywood’s elite are occasionally victimized by a regular-joe sort of crime, however, their greatest privacy fear is unquestionably the ever-more-aggressive media.

It’s a central dilemma for the famous that to remain on the A-list, you have to be in the public eye. But increasingly, celebrities complain that — in a world filled with online celebrity blogs and aggressive tabloids that traffic in embarrassing candid shots and scandalous stories — their privacy is being invaded in ways that were inconceivable even five years ago.

“There’s a level of familiarity with celebrities that’s implied by this tabloid world,” says Catherine Olim, a publicist with the PMK-HBH agency who represents such stars as Nicole Kidman and Glenn Close. “It’s very scary. And it can literally put celebrities’ lives in danger.”

No quarter from paparazzi
Many observers believed the tragic death of Britain’s Princess Diana and two others in a 1997 car crash in a Paris tunnel while being chased by photographers would lead the paparazzi to back off. But there is no indication that’s happening:

  • Mayhem erupted learlier this month in the western Indian city of Pune when Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and their children fled in a motorized rickshaw to escape a media horde. A few days earlier, reporters and a photographer complained that they were manhandled by guards protecting Pitt and Jolie.
  • Jennifer Aniston last year sued a photographer who she said used “invasive, intrusive and unlawful measures” to take topless pictures of her in 2005 at her Hollywood Hills home. The suit was later settled.
  • A photographer’s minivan plowed into Lindsay Lohan’s Mercedez Benz in May 2005 when she made a U-turn while trying to escape pursuing paparazzi. Authorities said that the photographer was “most likely driving carelessly” but did not file charges. 

The celebrities aren’t the only ones endangered by the media’s aggressive behavior or the stars’ evasive measures:

A photographer was charged with assault after allegedly hitting a 5-year-old girl with a camera and shoving two other people at California’s Disneyland in September 2005 when he tried to take pictures of Reese Witherspoon and her 6-year-old daughter. Britney Spears — whose mother Lynne once tried to run over a gaggle of reporters and photographers — drove off with her infant son in her lap in February after being surprised by paparazzi outside a Starbucks in Malibu, Calif.

Those celebrity chroniclers who defend their aggressive coverage argue that stars make a Faustian pact in which they trade away their privacy for the perks of fame, then cry foul when they realize the price they have paid.

And they reject the notion that in the “good old days,” celebrities were able to cavort and carry on without press scrutiny. As long as there’s been a movie business, they say, writers and photographer have been feeding the public’s fascination for the people who appear on the silver screens.

That argument is partly true.

Early chroniclers worked with studios
Movie magazines and gossip columns proliferated in the 1930s, but journalists worked hand-in-hand with the studios to publicize stars through fawning coverage, promote phony romances and cover up scandals.

And while early gossip columnists such as Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons wielded astonishing influence, they were often doing the bidding of the studios. Like stern aunts, they often scolded the ones who violated the studios’ strict morality codes, packed on weight or dated someone the suits felt could damage their image.

When the studio system collapsed in the mid-1950s, a new, aggressive style of celebrity reporting emerged, spearheaded by a salacious magazine called “Confidential.”

It “outed” gay celebs (“Liberace’s theme song should be ‘Mad About the Boy,’” chortled one headline), reported on extramarital affairs, drug use and interracial dating. After a number of stars sued the tabloid for libel, it was financially crippled and, for more than a decade, celebrity scandal went underground.

It didn’t resurface in a big way until “The National Enquirer,” a tabloid previously devoted mostly to blood and gore, refocused on celebrities in 1971 and quickly built one of largest circulations in the country.

When Time Inc. launched “People” in 1974, it brought celebrity reporting back into the mainstream. Other publishers quickly followed.

Television entered the fray in the late 1970s, first with segments and then entire shows dedicated to celebrity news.

Greater reward leads to more risk
The rapid growth of the market upped the ante for photographers and writers who suddenly discovered they could make a financial killing with an exclusive picture or a story about a sought-after star. This led to more-aggressive pursuit on their part and increasing pressure on the stars’ privacy.

In recent years, the issue of how much privacy celebrities have a right to expect has been further blurred by exhibitionistic stars like Paris Hilton, Anna Nicole Smith and Madonna and celebrity reality shows.

Nicole Richie, for instance, has blamed her recent startling weight loss on anxiety provoked by the constant buzz of paparazzi, but she still continues to appear in a reality TV show.

Some stars, including Britney Spears, argue for their right to privacy even as they set up Web sites featuring pictures of them at home and post tidbits about their supposedly private lives.

Others have been known to publicly complain about their loss of privacy while simultaneously leaking their stories to the tabs.

Celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio and Jodie Foster, on the other hand, routinely refuse to answer any questions about their personal lives.

Nothing underscores the different tolerances for publicity among celebs more than weddings.

Some stars go to great lengths to keep the press away, John F. Kennedy Jr.’s super-secret nuptials to Carolyn Bessette being a famous example.

Others invite the media, though usually with a price tag attached.

Wrong rag bags nuptials
When Catherine Zeta Jones and Michael Douglas sued UK celeb mag “OK!” for crashing their wedding and taking pics, the issue was exclusivity rather than privacy. The couple had sold exclusive rights to photograph the event to rival tab “Hello!”

Some who invite the media behind closed doors later regret it.

Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey have said that allowing the public to watch their marital spats — whether real or staged — during the reality show “Newlyweds” helped lead to the failure of their marriage.

“I learned it's a real premium to keep some of your personal life personal,” Lachey said recently. “When you're able to ... go home and have a life separate from your job, it's a real blessing.”

Whether burned by experience or simply turned off by the relentless hounding, other celebrities have tried to fight back, with mixed results.

Sylvester Stallone attempted to organize a celebrity boycott of paparazzi. The photographers retaliated by refusing to take his picture when he appeared at press events.

Actor George Clooney regularly assails the paparazzi and the tabloid media.

“George’s philosophy is simple: If it happens in public, then it’s fair game,” explains his spokesman, Stan Rosenfield. “But if it happens in private, it’s private.”

Clooney also has gone underground to fight the likes of Gawkerstalker.com (a celebrity-crazed Web site that reports tidbits such as: “Faye Dunaway is shopping at Duane Reade at 57th & Sixth right now")  by encouraging others to send in fake sightings. The reason, Rosenfield explains, is that such reports can bring out the crazies.

‘Pit stops ... in the soap opera of life’
“We’re talking about people’s lives here,” he says.

Beyond the issue of safety, some stars believe the wall-to-wall coverage of their personal lives can overshadow their on-screen characters.

“I think more and more people pay attention to actors’ private lives (and that) makes it difficult to suspend disbelief when you are going to watch their movie because really what you are thinking about is whatever you have read about them in a magazine rather than the performance they are giving,” Ben Affleck said recently while promoting his movie “Hollywoodland.” “The movies become incidental pit stops and commercial breaks in the soap opera of their life.”

In an interview with National Public Radio, Affleck said that the tabloid hysteria surrounding “Bennifer” — the nickname applied to his now-kaput romance with Jennifer Lopez — reached a level that was deeply disturbing. “(Strangers) know details about a relationship,” he said. “You can't believe other people know those sort of things about somebody else. It's like stuff I don't know about good friends of mine.”

Some who make their living covering celebrities and their foibles argue that such protests often are disingenuous, since the celebrities often seek the very publicity they end up criticizing.

“I respect celebrities who are consistent about issues of privacy, but it’s very disheartening to sit down with a star who announces, ‘I’ve just decided to stop talking about my private life,’” says celebrity profiler Degen Pener, who has interviewed some of the biggest names in Hollywood.

Suddenly, ‘My private life is sacred’
“It’s difficult when a celebrity who’s in the news for a high profile relationship or break-up says, ‘I just want to talk about my craft.’ … There are celebrities all too happy to talk about their private lives when everything is going well, but the minute things start to sour, you hear, ‘My private life is sacred.’”

Those hired to look out for celebrities’ interests say such ruses are only natural, given the increasing assault on their privacy.

Other stars are opting for tougher responses, hiring super-protective publicists to keep the press at bay and acting quickly to threaten and file lawsuits.

And when conventional methods fail to keep snoopers away, some may resort to extreme methods.

Security consultant Anthony Pellicano, known as “private investigator to the stars” as well as “thug to the stars,” reportedly was sometimes hired by celebrities who wanted to keep their troubles out of print.

Earlier this year, Pellicano was indicted on 110 charges, including wiretapping, witness tampering, destruction of evidence, and racketeering. Prosecutors contend that Pellicano illegally tapped the phones of Hollywood stars such as Sylvester Stallone and bribed police officers to run the names of more than 60 people, including comedians Garry Shandling and Kevin Nealon, through government databases.

First the cash, then the bat?
One former associate also claimed that Pellicano would attempt to buy tabloid reporters’ notes and tapes before the stories appeared in print. If that didn’t work, others said, he was not above threatening them, with one noting that he liked to brag that he kept a baseball bat in the trunk of his car.

Pellicano is currently jailed on different charges and scheduled to go on trial Feb. 13.

While not endorsing such tactics, power publicist Olim says it’s understandable that celebrities are lashing out against the unrelenting intrusions they are subjected to.

“More and more, I’m seeing stars who are refusing to be photographed in their homes, who absolutely do not want their children photographed,” she says.

And what of those who say that the loss of privacy is the price of fame?

“I’ve always resented this notion that people are fair game,” she counters. “They’re not public servants. They’re in the entertainment business. Movie stars should be allowed to have private lives. That doesn’t seem too much to ask, does it?”

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