The Beautiful People's Court
When stars go to court, Celebrity Justice is thereBy Claudia Rosenbaum
It's another hot, sunny November day in Southern California, but it's even hotter at the Beverly Hills Courthouse, where reporters from around the world have gathered to hear the verdict in the Winona Ryder shoplifting trial.
From the bench, Judge Elden S. Fox lays down the law. Any outburst from the crowd, he warns, could lead to contempt charges. And it's enough to make an impression too. For when the verdict is read and Ryder is found guilty of two felony counts for ripping off $5,560 worth of merchandise from Saks Fifth Avenue-including a $760 cashmere Marc Jacobs sweater and several Frederic Fekkai hair adornments worth about $600-the reaction is unnaturally muted. Even the starlet, who is dressed in an understated wine-colored suit, retains her composure. Hands folded on her lap, she reveals nothing.
Once the jury departs, decorum ends, and reporters scramble for the doors to be the first outside with their microphones. Wires and cables are everywhere. I see Marcia Clark of O. J. fame. I also see two fresh faces in the fray-Ross McLaughlin and Pat Lalama-correspondents for the newest news magazine on television: Celebrity Justice.
Lalama is wearing a black, fitted button-down shirt over tan pants with a pair of black, strappy heels. She has a cell phone in one hand and a black briefcase in the other and, I must say, she shows amazing grace as she makes her way over the labyrinth of cables. Lalama's covered it all-politics in Boston, crime in Chicago, the standoff in Waco, riots in Los Angeles-before landing a gig with America's Most Wanted. As a correspondent and producer on that program, she reenacted child abductions, rapes, and murders for three years before joining Celebrity Justice.
Now, in front of this courthouse, Lalama demonstrates to me what's so special about this business: Fame not only begets more fame but also has a tendency to wash off on others. At least that's how I interpret it when I see Lalama herself being pulled aside for an interview with Connie Chung.
"Let's be honest," she says moments before her satellite interview with Chung. "People are interested in celebrities, and people are interested in the law. It's like with children. If you want to make them do their homework, you have to make it fun. On Celebrity Justice you get to learn about your stars, and you get to learn about the legal system. And it's fun as long as you don't kill yourself on the cables."
Meanwhile, just a few yards away, McLaughlin is doing stand-up analysis, and field producer Christine Albice, formerly with Masry & Vittitoe (where Erin Brockovich works), is interviewing the court's public information officer, who is in turn surrounded by eight other reporters. Celebrity Justice is "in the zone."
Of course, it's not every day that CJ gets to sink its teeth into something so substantive. Yet, since its debut seven months ago, this nationally syndicated show hasn't had any trouble filling its half-hour slots, five times a week. But watching the show on television is one thing. Seeing how the sausage gets made-that's quite another.
It's around 7 a.m. that the bleary-eyed Celebrity Justice crew begins to trickle into their cubicles at a windowless production studio near Glendale. Theirs is a cozy newsroom-especially when compared to the one downstairs, which is occupied by a veritable army of reporters from Extra, the Hollywood entertainment news show that's produced by the same company, Telepictures Productions. Computer screens flicker to life with the New York Post's Page Six gossip column, which on the day of my visit mentions a Celebrity Justice story on Ivana Trump's refusal to pay a $205,000 judgment that was levied against her by an Arizona clothing manufacturer. Page Six headlined the story: "Ivana says, 'Owe? No!' "
By 7:20 a.m. enough warm bodies have arrived to begin the scheduled 7 a.m. story meeting. The staff, squinting at the unforgiving glare of fluorescent lights, marches into the beige conference room. Once all the seats at the long oval table are filled, spots are taken on the floor, while others stand. Harvey Levin, the show's dark-haired, 52-year-old executive producer, takes his seat at the head of the table. At his side sits the supervising producer, Lisa Hudson.
Levin begins the meeting with news of yet another exclusive for CJ. It seems that Dick Van Dyke inadvertently spilled his Starbucks coffee on an excited fan in the cafeteria of the UCLA Medical Center. That fan, Levin says, turned around and sued Van Dyke, UCLA Medical Center, and Starbucks for $50,000. No joke, Levin says in an attempt to quiet the raucous laughter. According to CJ's sources, the case ended up settling for $7,500.
Levin spends the next few minutes of the meeting talking to correspondent Jane Velez-Mitchell about getting burn pictures from the victim's wife. "She'll talk. Whether or not she'll play ball ... you've got to work her," Levin advises. He then instructs Cathleen Brown, the show's 25-year-old clearance supervisor, to get a video of that famous Dick Van Dyke Show opening scene, in which Van Dyke trips over an ottoman. Brown, however, looks confused. Does Van Dyke trip over the ottoman at the beginning of every show? she asks.
"Except for the season when he walked around it," jokes court researcher Bill Normyle.
Mention is also made of a rumored child-custody settlement between Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee. Levin assigns a crew to check it out. Also, there is talk of a follow- up on Ivana's unpaid bills. "We told you she stiffed a dressmaker," the announcer will say. "Now we find that's just the tip of the iceberg." According to CJ's sources, in spite of a reported $25 million divorce settlement with Donald Trump, Ivana is late in paying a slew of bills, including one from a private investigator she had hired to spy on "The Donald" during their divorce.
Another story in the pipeline involves a group of derelicts paid to fight each other for a video titled BumFights. Sure, it's a stretch for a celebrity show, but it sounds too good to pass up. And then there are the criminal fraud charges brought against psychic Miss Cleo's hotline operators. "Miss Cleo might need a hotline to jail ... to talk to her boss, that is" becomes the teaser used for that segment.
All in all, it looks like a promising show.
As good as this show ever gets, though, it's a wonder it made it on the air in the first place. In fact, when Levin got together with Extra's senior executive producer, Lisa Gregorisch-Dempsey, for a pitch meeting with the president of Telepictures Productions, Jim Paratore, Celebrity Justice wasn't even on the list. Instead, they had high hopes for a new reality show idea they cooked up called Fat, So? They also had two other reality shows they wanted to talk about: How Pathetic Is My Life? and We Need Professional Help. At the time, none of those ideas caught Paratore's fancy, however. Then, almost on a whim, Levin and Gregorisch-Dempsey mentioned Celebrity Justice-an idea Levin had been trying to sell since 1996. But since they had no formal pitch sheet prepared, Levin had to go over to a secretarial cubicle and type one out. Paratore was intrigued, but he was doubtful the concept could sustain a show on its own. So he decided to try it out as a regularly scheduled spot on Extra. After a year he concluded that there was indeed a market.
"It's the insatiable appetite for watching your heroes fall" that will keep this show in business, boasts Gregorisch-Dempsey. But for all the Robert Downey Jr. arrests, Diana Ross DUIs, and stories of stars possessing child pornography, it certainly wouldn't be the same without Levin at the helm. A graduate of the University of Chicago Law School, Levin taught law before becoming a litigator, then returned to teaching. He also began doing a radio talk show on KMPC that dealt with legal issues, which aroused the interest of an executive who called him one day to ask whether he'd be interested in coming to work for a new show called The People's Court. For 15 years, Levin worked first as a consulting producer and then as co-executive producer for the show.
Now, in his present job, Levin works the phones with evident skill, sweet-talking publicists and lawyers alike. He also fine tunes the scripts and keeps the staff jazzed with a constant supply of sardonic humor.
At 8:30 a.m., an impromptu group of reporters, producers, and production assistants gather in Levin's corner office to watch a series of segments edited the night before. The first is about a dispute between Vancouver prostitutes and Hollywood movie crews. It seems Hollywood's late-night filming is putting the kibosh on the prostitutes' client development. The contents of the candy bowl on Levin's table gradually disappear before the tape moves onto the next segment: "Pet Theft." "Actress Linda Blair lost her dog but found a cause to fight for" intones the voice-over. As the story goes, when Blair's dog, Sheba, was taken from her home, Blair did what any self-respecting actress in dire need of a cause célèbre would do. She joined Last Chance for Animals, an animal- rights group founded by a former General Hospital star that focuses, in part, on stolen pets.
"It's a really good story," Levin says, his voice tinged with sarcasm. "The first six months of it are really compelling."
Next on the screen is a "teasable" segment called "There Oughta Be a Law," in which celebrities come up with laws they would like to see implemented.
It was for one of these segments that James Hyde, of NBC's daytime drama Passions, said "there oughta be a law that women should only be allowed one pair of shoes." Rebecca Romijn-Stamos from Femme Fatale said it ought to be illegal for people to scrape their silverware on plates. "I hate that. Please stop," she pleads. And Ming-Na from ER expressed an interest in pressing charges against anyone who goes up to a celebrity and says: "You know, you look so much prettier in person." Apparently, it's happened enough to give her a complex.
When I emerge from Levin's office, the newsroom is bustling. Shant Petrossian, 27, an associate producer and booker for the show, is calling the corporate division of Starbucks trying to get an official comment for the Van Dyke segment.
"Three sources have confirmed that the coffee dispenser at UCLA was an illegal vending machine," he says to me in a conspiratorial whisper.
Minutes later, though, there's some bad celebrity news when the crew assigned to the downtown courthouse reports no sign of Pamela Anderson or Tommy Lee. Apparently the hearing was handled by attorneys through a conference call, which means no salacious shot of Anderson busting out of a low-cut dress. As it stands, the show is already four minutes short. Levin emerges from his office, and after some quick calculations decides to put Pamela and Tommy on the air anyway with some archived video footage. Levin will also start making calls himself to get a picture of the judge handling the case.
For the Ivana story, a second crew is dispatched to Rodeo Drive to get an interview from a ritzy store owner, manager, worker, or anyone who will talk on camera about other celebrities who don't pay their bills.
In the hall, segment producer Joe Tobin, formerly a freelance producer at 20/20, interrupts Levin to report he has tracked down an attorney for the men who appeared in the BumFights video and "got the go ahead" for an interview tomorrow. According to a San Diego deputy district attorney, ever since the video makers were charged with promoting illegal fighting, they kept the subjects of the show hidden in a Las Vegas hotel.
"Great. Great. Love it. Love it. Love it," Levin enthuses.
At around 10:00 a.m., a staff member invites me downstairs to the Extra set for a surprise. There, in the celebrity preshow waiting room, I find myself standing in a sea of borderline celebrities: reality-show winners and losers alike from Survivor, Big Brother, and even a few Temptation Island castoffs. They are biding their time, trading war stories while they wait to be called to the set of a talk-show pilot, hosted by Ben Stein. In the meantime, CJ's Marci Koch, the show's general counsel, is not about to let all this talent go to waste. With camera crew in tow, she elbows her way into the room for a few "There Oughta Be a Law" interviews. One is with Dr. Will Kirby, the handsome winner of Big Brother 2, who seems to want to tell anyone who will listen (few do) that he has a new television show in the works. "There ought to be a law against euthanasia," Kirby ventures. "I mean those people should not be allowed to get driver's licenses."
Dumbfounded by Kirby's response, Koch moves to another castaway, who says "there ought to be a law against reality people ever being on camera again."
By the time I make it back to the CJ newsroom, Levin is standing at Petrossian's desk with a phone in one hand and a bottle of Perrier in the other. He has turned on the charm to convince Dick Van Dyke's publicist, Bob Palmer, to have his client talk openly about his coffee spill. "This is not a case where anyone is a bad guy," Levin assures. "It was an accident. I wanted to call. It's an interesting case. I'm a huge fan of his, whether it matters." But when it becomes clear that Palmer isn't biting, Levin abruptly changes his tone. "We have a shot, and we are cleared to use it. Let me know if there is anything you want to add that would be perfect. I just wanted to make the offer," he sniffs.
At 1:00 p.m., I hear the supervising producer yelling at Levin that he needs to sign off on the script because people need to start editing.
"Got to go!" Hudson says as she walks into Levin's office, pointing her finger at the Van Dyke script while Levin scratches in his last-minute wording.
Meanwhile, the very neat correspondent, Ross McLaughlin, dusts off his desk for the second time of the day. A red-headed Canadian, McLaughlin studied broadcasting at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Calgary. He started his career in broadcasting as a radio DJ in Medicine Hat, Alberta, which brags that it is the home of the world's largest tepee. From there, he moved to a television station, also in Alberta. Eleven years later he moved to Seattle and worked as a consumer investigator for KIRO TV. He says he was passionate about solving people's problems, but after six years all
the stories started to blur together. When the offer from CJ came along, McLaughlin didn't hesitate for a moment. He moved to Los Angeles last summer. "My mom has hopes of me being on 60 Minutes someday," he admits.
As the countdown continues, a small cubbyhole of a room buzzes to life. It's inhabited by a hairstylist, a makeup artist, and a wardrobe person-all jammed up against
a rolling rack of clothes. Lalama plops down in the makeup chair exhausted from covering the "Pet Theft" segment, which required her to cuddle up to an adorable pooch.
"We have this lean staff," she sighs. "I have never seen such a small team work so hard, because we have to go out, research, and shoot our stories. We come back looking like cattle."
Then in walks Holly Herbert, the show's dazzling platinum-blonde host. There is no mistaking her for an ordinary reporter. A native of Los Angeles, Herbert seems to have been genetically designed for anchoring. With gleaming white teeth, a smooth complexion, and perfect vocal delivery, she moved up from a small television station in Scottsbluff, Nebraska (population: 14,732), to a succession of larger markets, including Bangor, Maine; Palm Springs; San Diego; and Miami until she finally ended up back in her hometown.
Bold colors show best on television, I'm told, as Herbert's eyes are rimmed with "blueberry" eyeliner. Everyone in the room, after considerable prodding by the wardrobist, admits Herbert looks good. After the cloud of hair spray dissipates, I ask Herbert about her job. "The way we see it, we are doing a hard-news show," she tells me. "I've been involved in hard news my entire career." (In fact, she was reporting for an ABC news affiliate in Los Angeles when she got the call from Levin.) "We are dealing with lawsuits and facts. We are not gossiping," she insists. "This is a real news show. It's like our lives, but richer."
When I leave makeup, it's apparent from the screams of "get into editing now!" that it's crunch time. Under pressure, Velez-Mitchell is hurriedly working with an editor to make a shot of a cup of steaming coffee dissolve right into a picture of the coffee-burn victim's arm.
But in the ice-cold control room, I find there is an eerie calm. In the studio itself, the big letter E for Extra has been moved aside and a giant Celebrity Justice star hangs in its place. Herbert is practicing a vocal exercise while clothespins are attached to the back of correspondents' suit jackets for the perfect on-air fit. At this point, all Levin can do is hope the segments are edited on time. The set is lit, and the countdown's on: ten, nine, eight, seven ...
Standing alone, Herbert is "cued up" but flubs her first line. Rob Dorn, the associate director, jokingly asks Levin, "Is that one okay?"
"Why are you even asking me that?" Levin frowns.
After the first line is edited out, the show goes off without a hitch. The edited tapes of "Star Bucks?" (Van Dyke), "Boatload of Bills" (Ivana Trump), and "Pet Theft" (Linda Blair) have been brought in from the editing room, and the show is rolled in the control room by the director and studio crew. The clockwork is so smooth that at the back of the control room people actually seem more interested in the ball game playing on one of the monitors than in the show.
Back upstairs there is barely a moment to rest before it's on to the next day's stories. By tomorrow the Van Dyke coffee story will be cold. So the CJ crew will likely head south to San Diego for the BumFights story. Some might call it sad or sensational or trivial. But around here it's called "an exclusive."
Claudia Rosenbaum is a lawyer and freelance writer based in Southern California.
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