LOS ANGELES — “Who here likes hookers?”
The 10 people on the TMZ Hollywood Tour van looked at one another uneasily. But Adrienne Camille, their highly caffeinated guide on this late August day, didn’t wait for an answer. “Well, we know Hugh Grant does, and right here on this corner is where he got caught in his car with one,” Camille said brightly.
One passenger, a lawyer from Australia, craned his neck for a better view. The others, including a 10-year-old girl, stared in silence. With that, the cherry-red TMZ van lurched into traffic and drove on — to the hotel where Paris Hilton filmed a sex tape, the spot where a drunken Halle Berry crashed her car (into a liquor store) and the mental ward where Britney Spears was held.
Maps to the stars’ homes? How quaint. Having supercharged celebrity gossip and news, first on the Web and then on television, TMZ is now doing the same thing to the venerable sightseeing tour. TMZ’s open-air vans and snarky guides popped up here last year and have become hotter than a paparazzo’s flash bulb. More than 6,000 people took the tour in July, up from about 2,000 in the same month a year earlier, according to a spokeswoman. Now TMZ is bringing its tours to New York. “That’s exclusive news, nobody else knows that yet,” said Harvey Levin, TMZ’s scoop-obsessed founder. Test runs are under way, and Levin expects the tours to be up and running early next year.
You can still see the celebrity sights in Los Angeles the old-fashioned way, paying $6 for a foldout map. You can also book a relatively staid Starline bus tour, operating more or less in the same fashion since 1935. But there aren’t as many megawatt stars as there used to be, and the ones that do remain have gotten better at hiding. These days you’re lucky to see celebrity concrete — a curb and the lip of a driveway, ending at a towering gate.
So TMZ simply goes straight for the gutter and stays there, seven days a week, up to 11 times a day. The 24-seat vans are equipped with four 26-inch screens, which at various locations play videos using material from TMZ’s television show. Tours last about two hours, depending on traffic. An adult ticket costs $49; children ride for $39.
‘’We’re going to show you things you actually want to see,” Camille shouted as a tour began last Thursday afternoon. Using a headset microphone, she proceeded to point out where the singer Avril Lavigne “got beaten up in a street fight” (the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel), where Jennifer Lopez supposedly goes for margaritas (a sad country bar on the Sunset Strip) and Chateau Marmont, identified as the hotel where Josh Hartnett was staying when he called 911 to complain of severe diarrhea.
‘’Now you know how we felt after watching ‘Pearl Harbor,’ Josh,” the narrator of a video segment intoned as the van idled outside.
TMZ, which consistently beats its celebrity-news competitors (its scoops include the news of Michael Jackson’s death and, this month, publishing nude photos of Prince Harry), has made its tawdry debut on Hollywood’s tourism scene at a time when tours here are mushrooming.
Thomas J. LaBonge, a Los Angeles councilman who is the chairman of the city’s Trade, Commerce and Tourism Committee, estimates that there are now 30 tour operators plying their services along Hollywood Boulevard near Grauman’s Chinese Theater; he said that a decade ago there were fewer than 10.
Leron Gubler, the chief executive of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, said competition for customers is so intense that as many as 70 different sales agents wander the area’s star-emblazoned sidewalks armed with brochures. “This is not the image we want to project,” Gubler said. “Tourists have been complaining.” (Gubler added, however, that the TMZ tours, which are operated in partnership with Starline, are among the best.)
Last week LaBonge hosted a meeting with tour operators and community members to discuss ideas including rewriting municipal codes to prohibit sidewalk salespeople, forcing tour vans and buses to drive specific routes, and limiting the use of audio equipment. “There has to be greater regulation, at the very least a code of conduct,” he said, noting that some tour vans stop in the middle of intersections to allow riders to snap photos. “It’s an accident waiting to happen.”
Officials theorize that tours are increasingly popular here because of recent efforts to turn Hollywood from a sketchy neighborhood to a shopping and nightlife district, an uptick in tourists to Southern California and a down economy that has prompted unemployed workers from other industries to go into the tour business.
Levin said that younger people have rediscovered the venerable Hollywood tour because his option offers information about the current crop of famous people, even if it is Snooki or Lindsay. His tours are also geared to the attention-deficit generation. Instead of sitting passively on a bus, patrons on one of TMZ’s tours are asked to pretend that they are members of the paparazzi, and guides are equipped with cameras. If anyone spots a famous person — and the bar is low (a Real Housewife here, a Pawn Star there) — the group stages an ambush.
‘’I wanted to have not just a tour but a show,” Levin said. “It’s also very good for us to have all of those eyes on the street.” Footage shot on the tours “can be on our site by the time the group is back to home base.”
TMZ’s style was readily apparent at one stop on the Sunset Strip. On the left side of the van was the Sunset Tower, where legend holds that John Wayne kept a cow on his terrace and Vanity Fair hosts its annual Oscar bacchanal. But nobody looked in that direction, and Camille didn’t mention the hotel. She was too busy pointing out Saddle Ranch across the street, a bar with a mechanical bull where Fred Durst, the Limp Bizkit lead singer who had his own sex tape scandal, once gave a waitress a $2,000 tip.
‘’Cool,” said Luke Cohen, 16.
Not just any bad behavior makes TMZ’s cut. The spot where Sharon Osbourne lobbed a baked ham into her noisy neighbor’s yard? Skipped. But passengers were quizzed about which celebrity has frequented Larry Flynt’s Hustler store, which includes something called the Porn Star Walk of Fame.
‘’Fergie?” guessed Amber Mahoney, a 10-year-old from Yorba Linda, Calif., referring to the Black Eyed Peas singer. Camille said that was correct.
‘’That’s my kid,” said Selena Mahoney, her mother.
TMZ did include one or two sights tied to Hollywood’s more golden years. The Roosevelt Hotel, for instance, was noted as the place “where JFK would allegedly sneak through the laundry room to hook up with Marilyn Monroe.” It happened, according to the video, “back in ancient times.”