In the opening sequence of our profile of Michael Phelps, you'll find the Olympic champion on the red carpet at MTV's Video Music Awards flashing a smile for photographers, signing autographs for screaming fans and stopping for quick soundbites with reporters. It looks dizzying on TV but the red carpet is actually a well-orchestrated ritual in which everyone knows his prescribed role and nobody - or almost nobody - steps out of bounds.
We stopped by the Paramount lot in Hollywood early that morning to pick up our red carpet credentials. Just getting this far had involved a few rounds of telephone negotiations with MTV's public relations department. The early word was that we could have absolutely no access; the red carpet was already too crowded with photographers and the addition of our crew would constitute a fire hazard. We explained that Michael had invited us to tag along on his post-Beijing victory tour and made our pitch that walking this carpet was an important leg of the tour. It was agreed that we could take up a position among the dozens of other photographers behind the barricades lining the red carpet but there would be no special treatment for our cameras and certainly no following behind Michael. Fire Marshals would be on hand to kick us off the lot if we tried. We wondered why it was easier for us to take our cameras inside the Prime Minister of Iraq's home than backstage at the VMAs but we weren't in a position to argue the finer points of Los Angeles fire code so we took what we could get.
Later that afternoon, we made our way to the top of the carpet, set our camera down behind the barricade and waited for Michael's arrival. In the intervening hour, rockers, rappers and pop stars poured out of a stream of black SUVs. They made last-minute hair and wardrobe adjustments before being scooped up by the young MTV employees dressed in black and talking into headsets who would escort them down the carpet. Under the LA sun, it looked to the naked eye like these celebrities had got it wrong, like they were wearing too much makeup, too much hairspray and too much metallic spandex. Of course, none of it was for the benefit of the naked eye. Anyone with a publicist knows the most important lens on a red carpet is the camera's. As each star struck a pose, one hundred photographers snapped exactly the same shot. We got a little worried. We had wanted to see what the red carpet was like from Michael Phelps' perspective and that would simply not be possible from behind the barricade.
That's when we struck up a conversation with the Fire Marshals. Maybe it was because they had been holding us hostage behind metal gates for so long or maybe it was the heat but as soon as we introduced ourselves, the Marshals seemed to be afflicted by a sort of reverse Stockholm syndrome: "You guys are with 60 Minutes? What are you doing here?" We were working on a profile of Michael Phelps, we explained, and we really needed to get on that carpet with him. Then one of them said the magic words: "I watch 60 Minutes every Sunday. I can escort you down the carpet. It won't be a problem." So, Inspector Gerald Travens of the LAFD informed the headset-wearers that our crew would be following Michael on the red carpet and that he would take full responsibility for us.
Walking the carpet behind Michael, we got what we came for: a taste of what it's like to be him these days. Everyone wanted his picture, his autograph, his handshake. Just being beside the man whose name everyone was screaming freaked us out a little. We could only imagine what it must be like when the name everyone is screaming is your own. For an unassuming swimmer who was still getting used to being the epicenter of attention, Michael seemed pretty cool about it all. But not too cool to stop and sheepishly say hello to Kobe Bryant, who was making the rounds of interviewers himself. Kobe gave Michael a high-five, complimented him on his sunglasses and introduced him to his wife, Vanessa. It was hard to tell which one of them was the fan in that encounter and, as you saw in our story, they're now starring in Guitar Hero commercials together.
When we came to the end of the carpet, we said goodbye to Michael and watched him disappear behind the VMA stage door. An MTV staffer approached to ask us if we got what we wanted. That was our cue to disappear too. Before we left, we looked for Inspector Travens but he was gone, probably putting out another red carpet fire hazard. We never got a chance to thank him for escorting us so we hope he's as big a fan of our website as he is of our show: Thanks, Inspector Travens.
Written by Nathalie Sommer