From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
AS INVESTIGATIVE EXPOSÉS GO, IT was hardly heart-stopping. Still, when the television tabloid show Hard Copy ran a 75-second segment last September showing George Clooney, 35, and his girlfriend Céline Balitran on the set of Clooney's forthcoming film Batman and Robin, the ER hunk launched a code blue. The actor objected to the invasion of his private life by so-called stalkerazzi—a new breed of relentlessly intrusive, often abusive, still and video photographers who make their living by cursing out, spying on, shoving or even spitting at celebrities and then selling the resulting images to tabloid TV and magazines. He fired off a blazing letter to the Paramount television group, which produces Hard Copy. They had violated a six-month agreement to refrain from airing segments on the actor. In the missive, Clooney vowed to boycott its sister show Entertainment Tonight until Hard Copy stopped its invasive coverage. "So now we begin," wrote Clooney. "No interviews from this date on.... Maybe other actors will join me."

Did they ever. As pied piper of the peeved in Hollywood, Clooney has inspired, among others, his ER cast-mates as well as Superman's Dean Cain, Whoopi Goldberg, Steven Spielberg, Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman and Madonna to join his campaign. "I just don't feel I can afford to continue to put money into Paramount's pocket," Goldberg wrote ET, "knowing that Hard Copy can buy videotapes that I'm in.... We are no longer going to be part of this until something is done."

"Clooney has raised the stakes," says Richard Masur, president of the Screen Actors Guild, which supports its members' efforts to protect themselves. Some would say it's high time, given the lengths to which many paparazzi go to get exclusive, emotion-filled shots that can fetch fees as high as $200,000. This summer, for example, Kidman and Cruise were surrounded by a mob of lensmen at an airport in Europe. According to Cruise's publicist Pat Kingsley, one of them knocked down Nicole, who was carrying one of the couple's two children. Less terrifying but equally overwhelming was the swarm of shooters camped outside John F. Kennedy Jr.'s Manhattan apartment after he returned from his honeymoon with Carolyn Bessette Kennedy. On Oct. 6, Kennedy addressed the group, imploring them to "give Carolyn all the privacy and room you can." Says Richard Wiese, a local TV weatherman and longtime Kennedy pal: "It's disruptive to his marriage and his life."

The courts would seem to agree. Princess Diana was so frustrated last August by a motorcycle-riding paparazzo, Martin Stenning, whom she called her stalker and blamed for making her "a prisoner in my own home," that she sought—and won—a court injunction forcing him to stay 300 meters away from her at all times. Last year, Alec Baldwin slugged photographer Alan Zanger, who had tried to shoot Baldwin, his wife, Kim Basinger, and their newborn daughter as they arrived home from the hospital. In the trial that followed, Baldwin was acquitted of misdemeanor battery charges after testifying that the altercation ruined "the happiest day of my life."

Few, though, are as familiar with the stalkerazzi as Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee, whose wife, Pamela, of Baywatch fame, is always a popular target. When Tommy, who has had several run-ins with paparazzi, caught a photographer outside the window of their former Malibu condo last year, he chased the man off their property. "The guy stopped and threatened to spray me with Mace," recalls Lee. "These guys are hurtful. Someone wrote to me on the Mötley Web page that the photos are 'tolerated vandalism.' I couldn't agree more."

An intolerance for such invasiveness is perhaps the only thing Mad About You's Paul Reiser and Lee have in common. "Having someone sneak around your home to photograph your child makes you feel violated," says Reiser, who, with his infant son, was surreptitiously filmed by a lurking long-lens photographer last year. "Those who take these pictures and those who are entertained by them know in their heart that certain intrusions are just wrong."

Not necessarily. "This [stalkerazzi] story is being made up by the publicists," insists E.L. Woody, a freelance tabloid photographer. Not all his colleagues are so dismissive. Says Diane Cohen, another freelancer: "I struggle with the ethical dilemmas of breaking into someone's privacy. [But] it's a battle of survival for myself."

And one that the celebrities might ultimately win. Even studios are fighting back. On Oct. 19 three freelance photographers with hidden cameras were arrested on the set of Batman and Robin after they were caught taking illegal pictures (which were sold to Inside Edition) of a Batsuited Clooney. On Nov. 5, Paramount unfurled its white flag by announcing that Hard Copy would no longer air footage in which insults and harassment were used "solely to provoke a reaction," nor would it use "unauthorized footage" of stars at home or "footage that is known to have been obtained illegally."

Clooney, while cautious, is relieved. In a statement he called the company's actions "a tremendous leap forward." But he added, "I'll tape Hard Copy. And if what they promise comes true, I will be the first to end this boycott."

He may not get the chance. Alec Byrne, a seasoned tabloid still and video photographer who sells his merchandise to TV tabloid shows, foresees a different ending to the imbroglio. "If the show goes soft and the ratings go down," says Byrne, "their option is to say, 'Okay, let's let the show go into the toilet because we don't want to upset George Clooney' I don't think so. It will be back to business as usual soon enough."

PETER CASTRO
KEN BAKER, TODD GOLD, JOHN HANNAH in Los Angeles and LIZ MCNEIL in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Ken Baker,
  • Todd Gold,
  • John Hannah,
  • Liz McNeil.