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Shutterbug captures famous faces
"The world of celebrity magazines beckoned every time Michelle LeClech's family sat down for a dinner of baked beans bought with food stamps or when her stepfather told her she couldn't play with someone because they were not white.Flipping through the glossy pages of the magazines as a teen-ager, LeClech discovered places where people dined on filet mignon and mingled at parties with seemingly no regard for race.Her fascination with celebrity began when she was 13. Then, it was the Beatles. She plastered posters of them around her bedroom, mooned over crush Ringo Starr (her girlfriend picked cutie Paul McCartney before she could) and watched Hard Days Night at least 30 times.As LeClech reached her 20s, when many people grow out of their all-consuming intrigue with famous people, her fascination didn't wane. Instead, it expanded to include politicians and movie and television actors. She started to meet them. A lot of them.It became an obsession to see what it's like to be around rich and famous people, she said.The 49-year-old Federal Way woman knows better than most how easily a hobby can turn into an obsession, and what risks people take to satisfy their obsessions. When LeClech decided she wanted to meet a famous person, neither security guards nor potential rejection could deter her.Her days of hunting down celebrities have passed, though she holds out slim hope she will someday meet Tom Selleck. She doesn't work but receives disability for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, a condition that makes it hard for her to concentrate and sit still on the job, she said.Her disorder probably contributed to her obsession, she said, causing her to crave non-stop excitement and to not fully consider the consequences of her actions before jumping into a situation. Even now, she talks fast and flits from topic to topic, though she especially enjoys talking about the celebrities she met.Whatever the cause, the obsession made her incapable of accepting defeat. She would get the photo of a favorite celebrity, she told herself to get motivated for any challenge she might face during a sortie into the glitzy lifestyle. I don't take 'no' for an answer, she said.Growing up, LeClech learned to selectively listen. The delusions of her alcoholic father, who downed whiskey every night and then saw ants crawling everywhere. The racist comments of her stepfather, whom her mother married a few years after divorcing LeClech's biological father.Her father had been a kind man, and even after downing whiskey cracked jokes rather than lashing out in anger. Her mother taught them to love everybody, so their stepfather puzzled them with his admonitions to avoid people with different color skin.LeClech ignored him. She befriended a black girl, Rose, who remains a close friend. One day she got tired of him using racial slurs to refer to her black friends, she called him a dumb honky while he was driving. He lashed out verbally, threatening to dump her out of the car.I was getting defiant, she said.That defiant attitude aided her as she started to meet famous people as a teen-ager. When she about 15, she arrived early for a Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and Stevie Wonder concert. Just before the show started, she slipped backstage with her camera and found the performers willing to be photographed.Besides photos, LeClech ended up with a free high.It was a rush, she said. I thought it was cool to get a photo with famous people.But it wasn't until the '80s, when LeClech worked secretarial jobs for the federal government in Washington D.C., that her obsession ran rampant. From 1984 to 1986, LeClech estimates she attended about four parties a month. She'd scan newspapers for information about the next weekend's parties, including the celebrity guests expected. LeClech would wear a dress or slacks and a blouse and come armed with her camera, several rolls of film and the government identification badge she wore at work that resembled a media badge.The biggest surprise? How easy it is to get in if you act like you know what you're doing, she said.At some parties, guests were required to sign their name but nobody checked to make sure they were invited. Other parties featured tighter security and she'd get sneaky. She occasionally snuck into parties through the kitchen, where the door was often unlocked. More often, she snagged an ice-filled glass somebody had abandoned in the lobby and refilled it with water in the bathroom. When she walked into the party, she'd shake her drink with a smile at the security guard and he'd believe she had just stepped outside for fresh air.When she arrived at U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater's retirement party, which then-President Ronald Reagan was attending, a Secret Service agent told her she couldn't come in because she wasn't on the guest list. LeClech made a fuss, grumbling, 'Well, it's got to be,' before he directed her to the stairs. Then, instead of using the stairs the agent indicated, which would have taken her outside, LeClech slowly headed for another set of stairs that led to the ballroom where the party was being held. When another Secret Service agent questioned her, she told him, He told me to go up the stairs, and gestured toward the first agent. He waved her on and she got her photos.Often, the most difficult thing about her hobby was picking the party to attend. Robin Williams' or George Bush's? Billy Crystal's or Barry Goldwater's? If she missed a party attended by a particular celebrity she never knew if she'd ever have the chance to meet them again.Once in the party, she usually had a wide variety of celebrities to get photos with. Most parties boasted about 10 politicians and 10 movie stars apiece. I'd just be like a little kid with Santa Claus, she said. It's like hitting the jackpot.The next day at work, co-workers would excitedly ask whom she had met and LeClech delighted in detailing the previous night's party. People's interest provided her only reward. She sold just one photo - a photo of Anne Jillian (It's a Living TV show), Robert Blake (Baretta) and Ed Asner (Mary Tyler Moore Show) for $75 to The Washingtonian. People seldom asked her to identify herself in the party. If they did, she said she was a freelance photographer with The Washington Post. Only real newspaper photographers gazed suspiciously at her cheap Kodak Instamatic camera; no one else seemed to notice.It wasn't enough for her to take photos of the celebrities interacting with other people, though she did that, too. She wanted photos with them so no one could doubt she had met the people she claimed to meet. She used two magic words to convince them - May and quickly - as in May I quickly get a photo?LeClech's photos fill several boxes. On a large board hang the best ones, which she hopes to publish in a book describing her party crashing years. In one, she is leaning her head on movie star Vincent Price's shoulder. In another, Russian comedian Yakov Smirnoff is putting an arm around her shoulder. In another, director Steven Spielberg holds his hands up to her face as if framing it for a movie still. LeClech's mother, Kay Harkins, says she was most impressed by her daughter meeting Mother Theresa. She realizes not everyone could comfortably enter a ballroom full of the rich and famous and start clicking away.A lot of people might like to do something like that but they don't have the nerve, Harkins said. They're not gutsy. Most celebrities agreed to be photographed as long as they didn't think LeClech wasn't going to take much of their time. But she had no qualms about lying - including saying the photo was for a sick nephew or her dying father - to get what she wanted. For a few years, she spent more on photo processing than on food. She estimates she has 80 to 100 photos of herself with famous people and hundreds more of just the celebrities. She did, however, irritate a few of them.Comedian Bob Hope once glared at her when she wouldn't stop taking photos of him at a party. At another party, action movie star Sylvester Stallone became aware of her constant snapping of him and said, That's enough. She stopped because she didn't want to get kicked out of the party but she didn't blush.I don't get embarrassed, she said. It's why friends call me 'crazy Michelle.' Now she leads a decidedly normal life. Instead of sipping wine with the rich and famous, she spends time with her 13-year-old son, D.J. Her apartment contrasts with the mansions owned by those she used to meet. But she says she's able to content herself with the quiet of ordinary life remembering the regular thrills she experienced in the mid-80s.I think I'm over it now, she said. It took me 30 years to stop being curious. It was fun while it lasted. "