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Hollywood Seen Through Paparazzi-Colored Glasses

The TMZ Tour promises "Secrets and  Celebrity Hot Spots," all seen from the comfort of a bus that seats 24.
Ben Bergman
The TMZ Tour promises "Secrets and Celebrity Hot Spots," all seen from the comfort of a bus that seats 24.

Since its debut six years ago, TMZ has fed millions of fans a steady diet of celebrity news on its highly trafficked blog. There's also the TMZ TV show, syndicated on hundreds of stations. And now, for the truly TMZ obsessed, there's a TMZ Tour of Hollywood.

The traditional Hollywood tour has been around almost as long as Hollywood itself.

For decades, tourists have come here to catch a glimpse of their favorite stars — or at least a glimpse of where they eat.

TMZ promises a tour for those who care more about Bradley Cooper than Gary Cooper, for those who can't get enough of Kim Kardashian, The Situation, Paris Hilton or Britney Spears.

Everyone Wants To Be A Paparazzo

Everyday, as many as seven times a day, a seat on the TMZ Tour can be had for just $49 for adults, $39 for kids, and a few hours of your life.

The cost includes an enthusiastic guide, Keith Jordan, who could easily be mistaken for a drive-time radio host.

He's actually the most cliched of all Hollywood cliches: the struggling actor.

"We're gonna go out where the celebrities actually go to shop, where they party, where they play," Jordan promises.

The bus is equipped with video monitors that show a constant stream of TMZ video.

But that, you can easily get at home. A big selling point of the tour is that you will not only see a celebrity, but be involved in capturing footage of him or her for TMZ.

Everyone wants to be a paparazzo these days.

As we get under way, Jordan tells the half-empty bus to be on the lookout because we will be traveling through prime celebrity habitat.

"If we see anybody while we're on this tour I want you to shout at me," Jordan says.

He pulls out a tiny video camera, telling the passengers that with one click of a button he can instantly upload the video to TMZ.com, or if he captures something truly extraordinary, the video may end up on TMZ on TV.

Lohan Party Spot? Yes. First Academy Awards? No

The first stop on the tour is the iconic Roosevelt Hotel.

Jordan plays a video that points out this is home to one of Lindsay Lohan's favorite nightclubs and where the MTV show The Hills had its finale party.

The Roosevelt is also where the first Academy Awards were held in 1929, but no time to mention that on the TMZ Tour.

We're off to the El Pollo Loco fast-food restaurant where Brad Pitt used to work, then the comedy club where Michael Richards went on a racist rant, which of course TMZ posted for all the world to see.

Don't Ask To See TMZ Headquarters

The tour includes lots of information about TMZ, how it was the first to break the news of Michael Jackson's death, and how it was responsible for introducing the Kardashians to the world.

But one thing the tour doesn't do is point out TMZ headquarters, even though the bus drives right by it.

"We don't like to ballyhoo where we are," says TMZ founder Harvey Levin, during an interview in the TMZ newsroom, "There's no signage on our building, and we like to keep it that way."

TMZ has made Levin a minor celebrity. He famously gets up at 2:45 every morning to go to the gym, before hosting TMZ on TV, which tapes at 6:45.

He doesn't find it hypocritical that TMZ doesn't reveal its own location.

"We have trade secrets," Levin says. "This is a working, functioning newsroom and we don't want it to become a tourist trap where people are coming by the window all the time."

Levin said the businesses welcome the tour bus, "because it's business for them."

Levin says he has been obsessed with starting a tour for years.

"I drive all over L.A., and every time, I look and see all these places that TMZ made famous," Levin says. "It just seemed to me that these old-line, stodgy Hollywood tours that let people know what was happening in the 1920s in Hollywood ... we could do a tour about what's happening now and who people care about now."

He says the goal of TMZ is never to be mean, but rather just to have more fun — and be less staged — than traditional celebrity news outlets like People or Entertainment Tonight.

On particularly dull stretches of the tour there is a game where passengers guess whether a celebrity smiled at the camera, or held up the middle finger.

Still, Levin argues virtually everyone he puts on TMZ wants to be there.

Tour guide Keith Jordan leads  several tours a day, and also appears on TMZ on TV. He moved to Los Angeles to be an  actor.
Ben Bergman / NPR
Tour guide Keith Jordan leads several tours a day, and also appears on TMZ on TV. He moved to Los Angeles to be an actor.

"This is a city that's all about selling tickets," Levin says. "It's all about 'Keep me relevant, make my song relevant, make sure people watch my show.' "

At Last, A Tug On The Line

We're coming to the end of our two-hour voyage and despite the tour guide's best efforts to keep everyone upbeat, it has felt like a fishing trip where you don't catch any fish.

Not a single celebrity has been seen, not even a D-lister.

But then, a tug on the line.

Jordan spots actor Ryan Phillippe getting into his car, and immediately the guide springs into action.

He orders the driver to stop in the middle of the road, which not only boxes Phillippe in, but stops traffic behind us as well.

Jordan then leaps out of the bus with his camera and tries to get Phillippe to roll down his window.

"Ryan, there's no way out," Jordan yells.

Somehow Phillippe spots an opening and speeds away.

For those watching from the bus it's a great show. They have quite a story to tell when they get home — and more important, the spectacle they just witnessed might end up on TMZ.

Still, passenger Alicia Moretto, visiting from Australia, was hoping for more.

"I wanted to see a lot more celebrities, but you really can't force them to come out," Moretto says.

Unfortunately TMZ still has not devised a way to force the famous out of hiding.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ben Bergman