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Authors: Todd Strasser

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BOOK: Famous
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I KNOW IT SOUNDS LIKE A CLICHÉ, BUT I FEEL NAKED WITHOUT MY CAMERA.
Or even worse than naked, since these days who cares if you're naked? The camera represents who I am. It's my identity. With it, I'm a sixteen-year-old celebrity photographer. (And maybe something of a celebrity myself?) Without it, who am I?

What am I?

The answers to these questions will have to wait. Right now I just need to find my Nikon. I try to remember last night. Not that it should be difficult; it's just that out here, day and night, and day after day, blend together into a sort of nonstop repetition of the same thing over
and over again. Last night was a party. But even on nights when there's no “official” party there's a loose semiparty atmosphere. People come and go, appear and disappear—Willow's friends, gofers, security guard, personal assistant, therapist, masseur, agents, magazine photographer (me!), pool guy, gardeners, cook—in an unending looping parade.

As best as I can remember, I had my camera with me early this morning when I came upstairs to find a place to sleep. Before that I'd gone out to the guesthouse—where I'd been “assigned” when I first arrived earlier this week—but the door was locked, so I'd wandered back to the main house and found this room. Normally I would have put the camera on a night table or dresser, but since there is no furniture in the room, I left it on the floor beside the mattress, and close to the wall so I wouldn't accidentally step on it if I got up in the middle of the night, or day, or whatever.

So where is it? I check the bathroom. Not there either. I walk barefoot out into the hallway with the straps of the Manolos hooked through my fingers, then downstairs and out across the grassy lawn to the guesthouse (whoever locked me out last night has now left, leaving beer cans, cigarette butts, and an unmade bed) to put on a pair of sneakers. Leaving the guesthouse, I'm once again struck by the clarity of the air this morning. Perhaps I just didn't realize before how much the famous LA smog
filtered and softened the light. But today every detail—every leaf, blade of grass, and ripple in the pool—feels extra crisp. If only I had my camera! I head toward the pool, where Zach, the house boy, and Daphne, the house techie, are straightening up from last night's frolic.

“Either of you see a camera?” I ask.

“Think I saw one on the kitchen counter,” Zach says.

The kitchen counter?
That's weird. I don't recall even being in the kitchen last night. I was mostly out around the pool.

Passing through the French doors, the aroma of fresh-brewed coffee is in the air, and there on the marble kitchen counter, where I swear I wouldn't—couldn't—have left it, is my Nikon.

“Buenos dìas, Miss Jamie. You like some breakfast?” Maria, the Mexican cook, hands me the mug of coffee she knows I crave. “Fresh fruit maybe? Eggs over easy?”

“Fresh fruit sounds great, thanks.” I sit down at the counter and gaze out past the shimmering crystal blue pool to the unused tennis court, the perfect lawn, and the tall green hedge that hides the twelve-foot-high wall around the property.

Maria slides a bowl of fresh strawberries, pineapple, melon, and orange slices in front of me. I thank her and wonder if today will be any different from the previous days. To an easterner, the weather out here has an uncanny consistency, which only adds to the endless sameness.

The camera rests on the marble counter beside me while I sip my coffee. Now that it's back in my sight, my anxiety has evaporated. I didn't take many shots at the party last night. Willow asked me not to. Does that sound crazy? After all, I'm here on assignment, right? Document a week in Willow's life, they said.

But “they” are Willow's management, and “they” have made it clear that my assignment is to show the world the Willow Twine “they” want it to see—the sweet, girlish pop star (her true age, twenty-one, is a more closely guarded secret than the president's personal cell phone number) whose recent stint in rehab was due to an “accidental,” “once in a lifetime” blunder, the “innocent mistake” of falling under the toxic spell of the rakishly handsome, extremely ne'er-do-well breaker of hearts, destroyer of hotel rooms, and wrecker of fast cars, Rex Dobro.

All I'd taken the previous night were a few innocent party shots—nothing that wouldn't fit comfortably on the
Christian Science Monitor's
website—and had intentionally not taken the shots that editors everywhere would have paid major league money for. As a result, this morning I'm in no rush to review what's in the camera's memory. I finish the fruit, take another long sip of coffee, and wonder if I can really make this idea of staying here in California work. It's not
that
crazy, is it? After all, Avy's done it. He's been out here for almost eight months trying to make it as an actor. (But where is he, anyway? I've been texting him all week and he hasn't answered.)

Most important, I've now got this huge opportunity. I've earned the trust of Willow Twine, one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. She's already introduced me to a bunch of her actor friends and has promised to hook me up with even more. If I stay, I have a chance to become the Annie Leibovitz of the LA young actor scene. I could grow with them. I could be their favorite go-to photographer for decades to come.

But what about Nasim? My insides clench and my heart corkscrews when I think of him and the fight we had before I left New York. I would so hate to lose him, but I know what my father would say: You're young, you can't let a guy influence the direction of your career. Back in New York, all I've got is this weird sort of slowly diminishing quasi-celebrity for being successful at such a young age. But in two or three years that won't matter anymore. By the time I'm eighteen I'll be just another shutterbug in a city teeming with them.

So, if I do decide to stay, that's got to be the argument I use—that my future is out here, where I have a real chance at having a lifelong career as a celebrity photographer. Like Avy, I can finish high school at the Los Angeles Professional Children's Academy and live in an apartment with a chaperone. It's all about who you know. And right now who I know is here in LA, not there in New York.

Bare feet pad along the floor behind me, and into the kitchen trudges Rex Dobro, the precise persona who, according to Willow's management, is seriously non grata in her life. The cause of her recent flirtation with ruin and rehab that nearly destroyed her career. And, as a result, he is the person whose reappearance in her life must be kept an absolute secret.

I can't help but feel shivers each time I see him. Rex is dangerously alluring, long and lanky, tattooed and pierced, dark stubble covering his chin, dark hair falling down his face, past his eyes, strands of beads and medallions hanging from his neck, leather and silver bracelets around his wrists. He enters the kitchen bare-chested, a pair of torn jeans hanging provocatively low on his skinny hips. Believe me, once you've met this man you won't blame Willow for her “innocent mistake.” This is a guy whose animal magnetism is on par with the megagravity of a black hole.

Willow may be more famous, but Rex is way, way more thrilling.

“Hey,” he mutters with a raffish smile as he slides onto the stool beside me, planting his elbows on the counter and running his fingers through his hair. Even though I myself have been featured in magazines and on TV, I cannot get used to the idea that I am sitting next to someone this famous, even if all he's really known for is drug abuse, on-stage brawls, hotel room destruction, and numerous
arrests for assault, public lewdness, and disorderly conduct.

“Good morning, Mr. Rex,” says Maria. “You like coffee?”

“Morning, Maria. Yeah, lots of it, strong and black.” He turns to me. “How'd you sleep?”

Each time he levels his gaze at me I feel like I'm melting into a pool of jiggling goose flesh. “Okay, you?”

The smile increases, and he gets a dreamy look in his eyes. We both know where he spent last night (well, actually, this morning), and the look he gives me is just so sheepishly filled with wonder, delight, and happiness. Rex Dobro, animal magnetic love puppy.

If only the world knew. . . .

But the world must never know.

I like the contrast of what I'm seeing—the soft, relaxed happiness of Rex's face here in the kitchen set against the background of this morning's extra-bright light glinting off the surface of the pool.

“Hold that,” I tell him, and reach for the camera. “Just one for my personal collection, okay? I swear no one will ever see it.”

APRIL OF TENTH GRADE, ON THE TIJUANA TROLLEY

THEY CALL IT A TROLLEY, BUT IT'S REALLY A FIVE-CAR-LONG
, modern electric street train. On board are maids, cooks, and gardeners headed home for family visits, tourists on day trips, amped college kids eager to sample the illicit pleasures on the other side of the border, and European adventurers lugging backpacks. The trolley also carries people like me, who would just as soon not say where we're going or why.

Tijuana only an hour's ride south from San Diego, and not the most comfortable when you've got thousands of dollars taped around your waist. And they always have the air-conditioning on way too high. We're
only halfway there and already I'm shivering.

Good thing I only have to travel this way for the trip down. In a few weeks, when my new calves have healed, I'll catch a ride on a private yacht on its way back to America's Finest City from a fishing trip along the Baja. In the unlikely case that we get stopped by the Coast Guard or DEA, it'll look like I'm just some rich guy's kid. (Hey! Know what's funny? I actually
am
some rich guy's kid!) Anyway, I don't exactly fit the profile of a drug smuggler's mule. From San Diego I'll catch a bus to LA, deliver the goods to Bernie, and walk away with a new pair of calves all paid for. Not bad for less than three weeks' work.

And then I'll go back to New York, deal with my parents, and hang with Jamie.

MARCH OF TENTH GRADE, FIRST DAY OF SPRING VACATION IN LA

N,

Hi from La-La Land. No texts or e-mails from you :-(. Please write and don't be angry. Like you said last night, you can't expect me to know more about you if you don't tell me, right?

Anyway, I couldn't believe the man outside Willow's--his name is Sam--was serious. Weapons? Drugs? Sorry, just cameras.

The inside of Willow's mansion is all marble, glass, and dark wood. Lots of
beautiful blue and yellow Spanish tile. I met Maria, the cook, and Daphne, who's in charge of everything technical, from the TVs and computers to Willow's BlackBerry. I'm staying in the guesthouse behind the mansion (there's also a pool house and a gardener's cottage--it's a HUGE property).

I unpacked and took a walk around the pool, tennis court, and grounds. Then a large cream-colored Mercedes convertible pulled up in front, and Willow got out wearing a short white poofy dress with big bright flower patterns, cinched at the waist with a thick pink belt and a matching pink hair band. Zach grabbed red, blue, and yellow shopping bags out of the trunk. Willow blew kisses to two women in the car, then went inside, with Zach staggering behind with the shopping bags.

I went into the front room with Sam. Willow was going over her schedule for the rest of the day with Doris, her personal assistant, who looks like she's in her early thirties and is kind of dowdy. Willow shot me a high-voltage smile. “Jamie! I am so happy you're here.”

Is it possible for human beings
to radiate? If so, Willow does it.

“I am dying to get in the pool,” she said. “Let's go!”

Of course, what's the one thing I never thought of packing? A bathing suit. So Willow told Doris to call someone named Bobby at Le Tuc, then headed upstairs, saying she'd be back “in a flash.”

After a while a green jaguar came up the driveway and a skinny guy wearing all black came in with a dozen swimsuits still on hangers. I picked the cheapest one-piece ($289!), plain black. When I tried to pay, the guy looked at me like he didn't know what money was.

I changed into the suit, and Willow
still
hadn't come downstairs. I guess here in La-La Land “a flash” is more like “the time it takes a glacier to travel across Greenland.” Next a bright red Lexus convertible came up the driveway. The raven-haired driver got out. With a big frown Sam gestured at her shoulder bag, emptied its contents on the car's hood, and inspected them. The dark-haired woman had her hands on her hips, and even though she was wearing
sunglasses, you could tell she was seriously PO'd.

Still waiting for an e-mail from you. Come on, N. You know how stressed I was last night. I said I'm sorry. xoxoxo

BOOK: Famous
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