Starless Night 

It's tough to be the paparazzi in a city without celebrities.

Virgil Wilson's website is a high-tech spin on the old Social Register. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Virgil Wilson's website is a high-tech spin on the old Social Register.
For weeks, society photographer Virgil Wilson had been hearing rumors that House of Blues' Naughty Christmas party was going to be rather, well, naughty. Promoters promised a drunken Santa Claus, lingerie-clad "elves," and lots of alcohol. Wilson pictured hot, scantily clad girls in Santa hats, rocking out to the Strokes.

But when he arrived at the club with his Nikon camera slung casually over his shoulder, he found no near-naked women. In fact, he found barely any women at all. The place was more deserted than a school-sponsored after-prom party. Which, for a photographer trying to capture Cleveland's beautiful people, is very bad news indeed.

"What a disappointment," Wilson said, packing up and leaving one hour after he arrived.

Such is the life of Cleveland's only self-appointed paparazzo. Despite the loaded name -- "paparrazo" was the last name of a photographer character in Fellini's La Dolce Vita, but it might as well be Italian for scumbag -- Wilson insists that he started the photo site clevelandpaparazzi.com for altruistic reasons.

"I wanted to make Cleveland look somewhat hip," says the photographer, who's sometimes mistaken for a Cavs player, due to his lanky 6-foot-7-inch frame and frequent presence at late-night clubs.

Wilson fashioned his site after such popular nightlife websites as Miami2night.com and newyorksocialdiary.com. They're a high-tech spin on the old Social Register. Photographers head out nightly to exclusive clubs to capture outrageous, spontaneous pictures of the city's elite. Getting on the sites is considered an honor.

But it seems that the Midwest isn't ready for its close-up. "A lot of people in Cleveland don't like their picture taken. They don't want to be noticed," says Wilson. "Unlike in Miami or New York, where people like to be seen, everyone here's like, 'Who are you? Why are you taking my picture?'"

Unlike the celebrity stalkers who inspired the name of his site, Wilson obliges when people don't want their pictures taken. "I don't want to upset anyone," he says.

Recently, Wilson has found more reason for worry: competition. Other paparazzi-like outfits such as Trends After Dark and Plugged In Cleveland keep showing up at the events he's covering. "There's not that much going on here in the first place," Wilson complains.

In January, at a private party for R&B artist Javier, Wilson found himself competing for prime shooting space with a sharp-elbowed photographer from church-sponsored Fellowship magazine. "What the hell?" Wilson thought. "Now I have to compete with a Christian magazine?"

Wilson might give the whole thing up, if it weren't for those rare rock-star moments. In December, Kanye West held an exclusive after-party at House of Blues, and Wilson was the only photographer allowed to take pictures. When Kathleen Murphy Colan, a photographer for The Plain Dealer, tried to get a shot, her camera was taken away and she was kicked out of the club. "It's always cool when you get to hang out with a celebrity," Wilson says.

Wilson, a Warrensville Heights native whose ex girlfriend called him "The Tourist" because he always had a camera, received his formal training from the Olan Mills portrait studio. In 1997, after a decade as a studio photographer, he started down the celebrity path, taking head shots for models at local agencies like Taxi, Docherty, and Stone Models. At night, he ingratiated himself with the Warehouse District regulars, getting to know the bar owners and promoters.

"Everyone knew Virgil," says Marcus Sims, a West Sixth Street habitué and the author of Jet, Set, Go, a popular nightlife listing guide. "But that might be because he was so tall."

At around this time, Wilson got to know Arnold Hines, a Cleveland promoter, who has arranged parties for such clubs as Spy Bar, Cloud 9, and Bossa Nova. Impressed with Wilson's knowledge of Cleveland's hot spots, Hines asked the photographer to provide pictures of some events for use on the bars' promotions and on their websites.

"As a photographer, he was great," raves Hines. "I'd always tell him, 'Make sure you capture the beautiful people.' He always knew what shots I was looking for."

Before long, Wilson started putting the photos up on his own website as well, and Cleveland Paparazzi was born. Among a small, society-conscious crowd, the site became an immediate hit.

"I always want to see where the people are at," says Brian Asquith, a technical writer who frequently visits Wilson's site. "The only problem with it is trying to spell the bloody thing."

Every paparazzo worth his shutter knows that sex sells, so in January, Wilson headed to the Ron Jeremy Rockstar Players Ball at the Hi-Fi to get a few shots of the infamous porn star with his fans.

At 9:15, the portly actor, whose red face and sweaty forehead gave him the appearance of having just emerged from a sauna, appeared onstage to introduce the contestants in a banana-eating contest. Wilson took out his big lens and started clicking as Jeremy handed a girl with a high blond ponytail a banana covered with whipped cream. "I can't eat that," the girl said. "I'm lactose intolerant." Click, click.

After the competition, Wilson made his way through the pierced and hair-sprayed crowd, looking for the, ahem, money shot.

"I spotted some real lookers earlier," he said, cornering two curly-haired girls in half-shirts, who eagerly posed for the camera.

Afterward, Wilson handed each of them his business card, which reads: "You've been stalked by the paparazzi."

"The paparazzi's in Cleveland?" one girl asked, clearly confused. Then, turning to Wilson, inquired, "Did my hair look OK?"


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