Americans received a steady diet of glamor and glitz during the Oscar night blitz, but according to Arizona author and motivational speaker Chris Benguhe, the fame and fortune of Hollywood isn't all it's cracked up to be.
And Benguhe should know.
In the 1990s he was a top reporter for some of the country's most popular tabloids, until covering everyday people at the scene of a national tragedy shook him to his core.
Benguhe's Hollywood journey actually started when he was a student at Arizona State University. He won a national writing contest, which he entered on a whim, and was soon on his way to Los Angeles, where he hoped to become a writer for the likes of the L.A. Times.
He applied for every writing job he could think of but offers were slow to come, until the day he received mysterious phone call from the editor of The National Enquirer.
"And so I'm at the interview and they asked me three questions: 'Would you be willing to take a punch for a story’ and, I said, sure. And then they asked, 'Would I go to jail for a story' and again, I assured them I would. The last question though was the one that gave me pause. 'Would you sleep with someone to get a good story?' Well, I was 21 at the time and I said that seemed like a good idea!"
Benguhe says that interview set the stage for the next 10 years of his life.
"It was a fascinating time. There was sort of a change between the old guard and the new guard of Hollywood. The old guard, stars like Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Stewart, were still around, but their day was passing, and you had this whole new breed that was up-and-coming and they weren't so nice, and they weren't so elegant," he said.
"Following around Sinatra and Stewart involved going to very nice restaurants. Following around these other stars, the Shannon Dohertys and the Brad Pitts, would often involve doing a lot of stuff that was pretty dangerous, pretty seedy -- a lot of dirty grimy stuff that I didn't expect to be doing. But, all of a sudden, there I was,” Benguhe said. “All of a sudden, that was my life."
"I spent a week following Brad Pitt. I felt like I was his best friend. I followed Tom Cruise, Michael Jackson, Farah Fawcett. I was the only reporter that was able to sneak inside the intimate confines of the restaurant were Oprah held her 40th birthday party. I was there for half-an-hour before anybody noticed. Fortunately, Hollywood people love to talk about themselves, so they never bothered to ask who I was," Benguhe said.
"I once chased Roseanne Barr through Beverly Hills after she got a terrible dye-job. She kept throwing things at me out of her car," he said.
But the Hollywood scene wasn't always so light hearted. A pre-dawn phone call in the summer of 1994 put Benguhe in the middle of one of the biggest stories in L.A.'s sordid history.
"It was very early in the morning and I got the typical 5 a.m. phone call that I would get from my assignment editor and they said there were some bodies on Nicole Simpson's lawn. Could I run by and check it out?"
"I lived pretty close, so it didn't take long to get there,” Benguhe said. “The only people there were from the coroner's office. I asked the police officers what was going on and they were hush-hush. Now, if it's an everyday crime, involving everyday people, the police in L.A. would tell you anything. If it's a crime involving a celebrity they'd hush-up immediately."
"The extraordinary thing I was able to see when I first got there were the body bags. They were right there,” Benguhe explained. “They were wide open and I could see the mangled bodies. It was something out of a 1950s movie. I could see the bloody paw prints from the Akita dog up and down the street. These were the things I was able to see because no one was there yet."
"Within hours, hundreds of people were on the scene and it became a free-for-all. It was madness, and provided a funny little aside on how tabloid journalism trickles down into mainstream journalism. There I was, the first on the scene and 150 journalists started interviewing me. 'What did I know? When did I get there?' I thought it was pretty hilarious that the main street media was willing to take the word of a tabloid journalist," he said.
Five years later Benguhe had moved on. He was no longer with The National Enquirer and was working with People Magazine. He was covering the Columbine massacre when he had a life changing revelation.
"The precipitating factor was that I had spent years pushing the stars and I didn't mind doing that so much because it's a game and the stars know it's a game,” Benguhe said. “But here I was in this situation where I had to push everyday people who had been through a horrible tragedy. So in the midst of this kind of questioning this woman
just breaks down and starts crying hysterically. Now for years in my life if somebody cried I'd get a big smile on my face, because I really had them in a vulnerable place. It's a horrible thing to admit, but it all hit me at that moment. I always say my Catholic upbringing got a hold of me right then and there, and I suddenly realized this isn't right."
"So, I hung up the phone and I went into my boss and said 'I can't do this anymore.' And he said, 'What do you mean, you can't work on the story?' And I said, 'No, I don't think I can do my job anymore.' I quit that very day," Benguhe said.
It was a pivotal moment for Benguhe. He left the tabloid world behind him and began writing his first book. His focus was ordinary people facing extraordinary challenges. Among his best received stories, a Texas man who emerged from a coma and spoke to his family for the first time in two decades.
"For 17 years the father had devoted himself to that son,” Benguhe said. “They developed an incredible relationship. Seventeen years later the son gets up from a routine operation, turns his head for the first time, and speaks the first words he's spoken in 17 years, 'I love you, Dad.'
"It was an incredible story. I ended up interviewing the family and they said the secret of their being able to deal with this was the father saying he had more of an opportunity to love his son more than most dads will ever get. And then the son said to me, 'I felt more love than most sons ever have. Even though I went through all this, I feel special. I feel lucky.'
"I started to think about what these people had versus what the celebrities had,” said Benguhe. “So many of the celebrities I interviewed for years were so miserable, even though they had everything. These people had so little, and yet they were so happy. They felt so fortunate. And I said, 'God, I want to know more about this.' And God really did transform my life."
Chris Benguhe is a now a motivational speaker and consultant. He also writes for the Catholic Sun newspaper in Phoenix, as well as for the Saturday Evening Post. To learn more about him click on the following link: firstname.lastname@example.org