Written by Jon Ronson and Originally Published in GQ in June 2013
Paparazzi and crazed fans are pursuing me down Hollywood Boulevard. They scream out my name and that of my 14-year-old son, Joel. And we're just trying to have some private time! Curious bystanders ask my bodyguards for permission to have their photographs taken with me. I sullenly agree. No one suspects this is fake—that the people chasing us are actors hired by a company called Crowds on Demand—because what idiot would pay for this? But it is fake. Idiots do pay for this.
And not just here in Los Angeles. In New York and Philadelphia and Austin and Delaware, people are shelling out hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars to be hounded by fake paparazzi. Some people do it simply to add a frisson to their bachelorette parties or bar mitzvahs. I understand that compulsion, even though the thought of it chills me to the bone. Others do it for darker reasons. I suspect GQ chose my son and me for this assignment because we are socially awkward introverts who hate nothing more than being the center of attention.
Our ordeal began an hour ago, when we met up with the youthful founder of Crowds on Demand, Adam Swart, and our fake entourage outside Hollywood High School. "Oh God," Joel whispered as we turned the corner.
Adam had really gone to town for us. There were nineteen of them, all smiling expectantly. Adam fussed about, giving orders. "Ladies!" he said. "Your instructions are to fawn over this guy."
"Can we have a safe word in case it all gets too much?" I said.
"We have a safe word!" Adam called out. "If he says watermelon, walk away from him. Ignore him."
"What's our cover story?" I asked.
"Royalty?" said Adam.
"He's a king," one of the extras alerted the others. "A European king."
"Good idea," someone called back. "Nobody knows what they look like."
Half the actors were dispatched to mingle among the tourists near the theater where they host the Oscars, about a quarter of a mile away. Their job was to spot us in stages. Then Adam yelled, "Let's go!" and we surged forward onto Hollywood Boulevard.
For a few seconds, all is quiet, like when you've been horrifically injured and for a hopeful moment you feel no pain. But then the shrieking begins.
"NO TOUCHING!" shouts my fake personal assistant, LoriLee, at a passerby. The woman looks baffled, because she evidently has no intention of touching me. "Oh my God oh my God it's him!" yells a fake fan. "It's King Jon of Wales!"
Crowds on demand is the newest company to offer this service, but it's far from the only one. There's Celeb 4 a Day: "Just think about how much more fun it will be when your personal paparazzi are actually calling out questions about you and your life—just like they do with Lindsay, Brad, and Britney!" There's PMZ Paparazzi: "The paparazzi will ask...questions such as: Who are you with, What are you wearing...and some other questions that we might surprise you with!" But Crowds on Demand seems to be the most ambitious, offering a range of extravagant—and extravagantly priced—"experiences." We went with the Celebrity Shopping Experience—"Other shoppers will attempt to discern your identity as you revel in opulence"—which lists for $4,999. (Adam gave us a media discount of about 30 percent.)
Adam's entrepreneurial epiphany occurred last September, when he was on vacation in Estonia with his mother. As they got off the plane, he saw "VIPs getting all this VIP treatment. I told my mom: 'I don't even know who they are. Why don't I get that kind of treatment?' She said, 'Because you're not important.' I said, 'What if you pay to be important?' She said, 'You may have a business, then.' Much to everyone's surprise, I created a business."
Adam is a former reporter, and I get the sense that Crowds on Demand is a reflection of his jaded feelings toward celebrity. "In Los Angeles, I see a lot of people I don't recognize being chased down the street," he says. "There are a lot of people you hear are celebrities...." There's a slightly contemptuous tone to Adam's voice. It's all smoke and mirrors, he's saying. He can make a nobody appear to be a somebody because the somebodies are basically nobodies, too.
On Hollywood Boulevard, the fake paparazzi rush toward us in a jumbled mass of cameras and limbs.
"Ready?" says Arthur, my gigantic bodyguard. "It's like jumping out of a plane."
"You're nervous?" I ask.
"Ah, I equate jumping out of a plane with feeling nervous."
He shrugs. "I wouldn't do security if I felt that way."
"So you do security in real life?"
"No," he says.
"King Jon! King Jon!" the paparazzi yell. "Just stop for a picture, King Jon!"
I look at Joel. "How's your self-esteem?" I whisper.
"Lower than ever," Joel whispers back. He looks sad. "It's horrible for the photographers who have to pretend to be excited."
"I bet this is what visiting a prostitute is like," I say. "It's probably worse. At least with prostitutes you get some privacy."
Still, the charade is convincing the passersby. They throw their arms around me as their friends take pictures. They grin fawningly at Joel.
"Oi!" hisses Joel at me. "You're doing that thing you did in Norway."
Joel is alluding to a New Year's Eve party on a ski slope that we attended some six years ago. Revelers had been setting off fireworks not only into the air but also straight at the faces of other revelers. I'd grabbed Joel to keep him safe, but I'd clutched him from behind, effectively making him my human shield. The incident has gone down as one of my worst parenting moments. And now I am doing the same thing. I am crouched behind Joel, basically waving him like a white flag.
"What are you doing in L.A.?" a fake journalist shouts at us. "We've been hiking in Runyon Canyon," Joel says.
"Awesome!" The journalists applaud.
Joel and I cautiously smile at each other. Another fake journalist fires another fake softball at us, and soon we're grinning. It turns out that we very much enjoy flattery and sycophancy, even when purchased.
The next hour is fun. At Chick-fil-A, an employee takes our picture. "I knew I recognized him," she tells my fake P.A. after learning I'm the King of Europe. Then she frowns. "But what are they doing on Hollywood Boulevard?"
"Just seeing the sights," LoriLee replies. "Just a dad and his son."
"Aw, that's nice, though!" she says.
We stop next at a dodgy bong store on a sleazy part of the strip. We have to cross the road to get there. "Wait until the traffic stops at the red light," says LoriLee. I stop. The traffic stops. "Walk now," she says.
This is authentically weird P.A. behavior. The same thing happens to me on book tours. "This is your train ticket," a book publicist once told me as she put me on a train. "When the ticket inspector asks to see your ticket, show him this." Sometimes I think a conspiracy is afoot to infantilize the talent. If your management treats you like a baby, you become helpless and you'll be too afraid to leave them.
We spend a lot of time in the bong store. When we finally exit, our paparazzi have attracted scores of rubbernecking tourists. Given our location, I'm surprised that none of them look even a little bit suspicious. But they don't. This seems to validate Adam's view that celebrity creation is depressingly easy: Just drape some glitzy flimflam over any old fool and everyone goes berserk.
"What's your favorite color?" a fake fan yells at me.
"I don't know," I say.
"Are you releasing a single?" someone shrieks at Joel.
"No," he mutters.
We're both sounding meaner. Maybe we're tired. We've been traipsing up and down Hollywood Boulevard for hours. All of a sudden, something that feels like a gob of saliva lands on my head. "Did someone just spit on me?" I exclaim.
Then, to my horror, two more gobs appear on the sidewalk in front of me. I look up. There's a stairwell upon which I spot the blurry figure of a teenage boy.
"That boy just spat at me!" I repeat.
There's an awkward silence. "Someone did it earlier," admits LoriLee.
"But...why?" I say.
Actually, I kind of know why. People do like to spit at celebrities. I was once trailing a famous and beautiful British TV presenter named Zoë Ball. She signed autographs for forty-five minutes, then she said she needed to go. "Just one more!" called a man. "Please, Zoë, just one more! I love you!"
"I really have to go!" Zoë pleaded apologetically.
"CUNT!" the man screamed.
A few moments later, just as we turn off Hollywood onto North Highland Boulevard, I hear a loud bang. I look over my shoulder. Two cars have collided. Real ones. I realize in an instant that it's not serious—both cars are dented, bodywork will be required, but that's all—and that it definitely occurred because of us.
"Ha ha!" says Adam, unsurely. "The King makes car crashes! That's how important..." He trails off.
"Will we just keep walking?" I say. "Or...?"
"Shit," says Joel.
We call it a day.
When I get back to New York, I telephone a man named Brett Cohen, a 22-year-old who goes to school upstate. He, too, has been a fake celebrity. Nobody spat at him. It was much worse than that.
Last summer, Brett was doing an internship in Manhattan. He was walking past NBC headquarters in Rockefeller Center when he thought, "There are so many tourists here. If I walked out that door with bodyguards and a photographer with a flash, I bet people would go nuts."
Brett found some actors on Craigslist, and he hired a video crew so he could put his stunt on YouTube. And then they stepped out into the New York night.
"At first it was like, 'Wow!' " Brett tells me. "I couldn't believe it was working so well. They were like sheep." A trickle of bystanders quickly turned into a throng. Word spread that Brett was either in Spider-Man or he was Seth MacFarlane.
"There was a huge thrill getting all that attention," Brett says. "Girls are getting excited. The fame is very addicting. But then the crowd got so big we couldn't move. Obviously the emotions change. I smiled for over 300 pictures that night. My face was killing me."
I ask Brett whether he felt a gnawing emptiness because he wasn't the amazing person everyone assumed he was. I hear him swallow. "The most depressing thing..." He falls silent. "We put the video out a couple of weeks later, and I was doing a media tour within twenty-four hours." His video, "Fake Celebrity Pranks New York City," became a viral sensation (nearly 5 million views).
"I was on Good Morning America, the Today show," he says. "The Jeff Probst Show flew me out to L.A. I was getting attention for a real piece of work rather than for doing nothing. I was loving it. Everyone was, 'Oh, Brett's getting his fifteen minutes.' And I was like, 'No! I'm going to do more things from this.' " He pauses. "But no. Unless you strike while the iron's hot, it goes away. That was the worst part. You're getting treated like royalty, and then it just stops. I went back to being me. I fell back down to where I was before. And all of a sudden, it wasn't good enough." He sounds incredibly upset.
So he's intent on recapturing the world's attention with a follow-up video. In this one, "Fake Singer Pranks America," he records a deliberately bad pop song. "It's doing pretty well," he says. It has about 60,000 views.
Times Square, New York City, a few weeks after our L.A. experience. This time Joel and I are being pursued by Celeb 4 a Day. The company's founder, Tania Roberts, is a pioneer of the fake-celebrity world. She dreamed up the concept back in 2007. She and her crew are veterans, and you can tell. There's none of Crowds on Demand's ostentatious pizzazz—no bodyguards, no fake assistants or fans. They're just four authentically ratlike paparazzi snapping frantically away, zipping through the crowds like Rizzo from Midnight Cowboy. They wear beanie caps and army jackets. They've done this a million times.
"Who's that?" I overhear some girls ask the paparazzi. They're pointing at Joel.
"He's like the Justin Bieber of Britain," one of the paps replies.
"Well, we're British and we've never even fucking heard of him," snaps one of the girls. They walk away, befuddled and unsatisfied.
A stranger sidles up to me. He looks like a wealthy lawyer. He nods derisively in the direction of my paparazzi. "They're vultures. They're the scum of the earth, the lowest of the low in our society." He gives me a sympathetic smile.
"You are vultures!" I tell the paparazzi. "You should be ashamed of yourselves."
"Thank you, sir," says Tania to the man.
Tania and her crew hound us for a half hour. At the beginning, we're too considerate. We deliberately walk slowly so as to give them an easy time. But then we realize we can make this more excitingly cat-and-mouse, so we start running, forcing them into hot pursuit. Now they're the considerate ones—delightedly trailing us with big, thrilled smiles. But then we run so crazily, one of them nearly gets run over by a cab, trying to keep up. So we start walking slowly again. Then we all go off for a juice together.
Tania tells me they do this about five times a week, in New York City and Los Angeles and San Francisco. About 80 percent of their bookings are surprises. One of her favorites, she says, was a particular bachelorette party: "It was a surprise, but the girl caught on quickly. When we'd be around people, she'd cuss us out: 'Get away from me! No fucking pictures!' Then, when nobody was around, 'Thank you so much! This is so nice!' Then, as soon as someone was back, 'Get out of my fucking face!' "
"How did you feel when that man called you the lowest of the low?" I ask. "Did a part of you think, 'I know I'm only pretending, but maybe I am'?"
"I thought it was hysterical," Tania says. "Nobody's ever been that abrasive before."
"What went through your mind?" I ask.
"That the joke was on him," she replies.
"I felt sorry for him," I say. "And I felt sorry for you. And I felt sorry for us. I felt sorry for everyone in that moment."
I am suddenly feeling very down about the whole thing. At this moment, in this Times Square juice bar, celebrity— real celebrity, fake celebrity, what's the difference?—seems to be all about being spat on and called a cunt and causing car crashes. But then Tania smiles at me. "I got a call from a mother once," she says. "Her daughter was turning 16 the next week. None of her friends could come to her birthday, and her father had just died the week before. She was desperately looking for something to make her daughter's birthday special."
"And did the girl like it?" I ask.
"She loved it," she says. "So I like to think I do this for the opposite reason than real paparazzi."
That's true, in a sense. Tania and Adam are paid to give people the attention real celebrities don't want. The desire to be considered special and noteworthy runs so deep in our psyches that Tania has five bookings a week! But why? Why are we so intent on having strangers perceive us as being important, if only for just a few minutes?
I remember something a psychotherapist named Brad Blanton once told me. "A lot of people move around in life chronically ashamed," he said. "It's like a permanent adolescent concern. Adolescence is when you're totally concerned about what other people think about you." To Blanton, the most evil word in the world is status. He thinks people should be delighted to have no reputation or celebrity. When we stop caring about what other people think of us, he says, we're free to live in the moment. People should be more like dogs, he says. Dogs don't crave renown.
Interestingly, Tania says she gets very few return bookings. There used to be a kid in Los Angeles who would hire her every time he was taking a new girl out on a date. It was his shtick—his thing to impress the girls. But she remembers him so well because he was so rare. Most people who run their own companies would be reluctant to divulge that they don't get much repeat business. But not Tania. She seems to consider it just a natural result of the service she provides. "A lot of our clients, they get it out of their systems and think, 'I couldn't do this,' " she says. She's showing people that what they thought they wanted, they don't want. To learn how great it is to be a dog, she's effectively saying, just spend half an hour as a celebrity.