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Ready for your close-up now? Hire a personal paparazzo

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Kevin and Jennifer Hagedorn on the cover of a fake gossip magazine, made just for them. A growing number of average Americans are hiring personal paparazzi for special occasions. (Photo by Tania Cowher, Courtesy of Celeb4aday)

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James and Tania Cowher, the owners of Celeb4aday, cover a bachelorette party in downtown Austin on Jan.5, 2008. A growing number of average Americans are hiring personal paparazzi for special occasions. (Photo by Shawn Lloyd) (Courtesy of Celeb4aday)

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Kevin and Jennifer Hagedorn are blinded by paparazzi camera flashes outside Hickory Bar and Grill in downtown Austin. A growing number of average Americans are hiring personal paparazzi for special occasions. (Photo by Tania Cowher) (Courtesy of Celeb4aday)

Kevin Hagedorn was nervously waiting for the signal as he sat across from his wife two months ago at the Hickory Street Bar and Grill in downtown Austin, Texas.

At 9 p.m. his cell phone finally rang. Hagedorn paid the bill and led his wife toward the exit. He knew the show was about to start, though even he had no idea what was in store.

As they stepped outside, the Hagedorns were blinded by camera flashes and surrounded by paparazzi yelling: “Look over here! Look over here!”

The traffic along Congress Avenue came to a standstill. Passengers were jumping out of their cars to snap a picture of the couple while others screamed: “Just leave them alone!”

“I go: ‘Surprise, honey, this is for you,’” Hagedorn recalled telling his wife, whom he affectionately calls “mama.”

He arranged the fake media blitz to celebrate the news that they were having a boy. “She was happy as pig in poop,” Hagedorn added with a laugh. “She smiled through the entire thing.”

In an age of seemingly omnipresent media, Hollywood stars often go out of their way to avoid the obsessive attention of paparazzi. But like the Hagedorns, a growing number of ordinary Americans are eager to step into the celebrities’ designer shoes to get a taste of fame.

To satisfy the demand, companies catering to these limelight-hungry average Joes have mushroomed--debuting first on the West Coast and gradually spreading east.

At least a half-dozen firms and individual photographers now provide paparazzi-style services in California, Texas, Nevada, Pennsylvania and New York.

“It really does stem from just wondering what is it like to be a celebrity,” said Tania Cowher, founder of Celeb4aday in Austin, Texas.

“The good thing about us is you get your time slot to experience it and then you get to go back to your life without the madness 24 hours a day,” she said.

Hagedorn, a dot-com real estate consultant and radio host, spotted Cowher’s ad in a local magazine, and said he knew it was exactly what he needed. He visited the Web site www.celeb4aday.com and picked the basic paparazzi package.

“I really wanted mama to feel special,” Hagedorn, 41, said, affectionately referring to his wife, “because we really felt we’re having a second girl, and then--a surprise!”

Packages provided by paparazzi companies vary from simple, wedding-style photography to over-the-top publicity stunts, complete with stretch limousines, hulking bodyguards and a team of shutterbugs and adoring fans.

Celeb4aday, which also has branches in Los Angeles and San Francisco, offers its customers three packages: “A-List,” “Superstar” and “Megastar,” which vary in price from $249.99 to $2,499.99, depending on the desired features and the location.

The VIP service King of Clubs in Las Vegas also offers a “Celebrity for a Day” experience. The company’s founder, John Theiss, started his business five years ago and added the paparazzi component in 2004, catering to folks with deep pockets.

“It’s a high-price ticket item,” Theiss admitted. “It’s not for everybody.”

Theiss’ celebrity packages start at $1,500 and can go as high as $24,000, if the customer wants to involve additional characters like as a publicist or a crazed fan who would ask for an autograph during dinner.

“The ruse is really on the general public that’s watching all this thing,” Theiss said.

The clientele of personal paparazzi companies includes people from various backgrounds: college girls at a bachelorette party, a corporate executive celebrating a year of good business, or a senior couple enjoying a night on the town for their wedding anniversary.

Even the paparazzi, however, are sometimes stumped by their clients’ requests.

Reggie Waller, 27, founder of Private Paparazzi in San Diego, Calif., said that one of his photographers was asked to cover a childbirth once. The client even gave a specific instruction to record the moment of his baby’s head crowning.

“The idea is to have your personal photographer at any point, for everything,” Waller said.

But not everyone agrees that such a paparazzi experience is merely a harmless and fun way to mark a special occasion.

“I think there are too many weird variables in this that just feel like a recipe for disaster,” said Laura Young, 45, a life coach from Chicago.

Young added, “I think that it is a natural outgrowth of an increasingly sensationalized culture, where we don’t know how to deal as effectively with normal, everyday, boring life.”

Often people get the wrong impression that being photographed equates to being genuinely famous, explained Dr. David Marshall, professor of new media and cultural studies at the University of Wollongong in New South Wales, Australia.

That is why for the past 10 years, the paparazzi industry had dramatically expanded, taking advantage of this new state of mind, shaped by tabloids and reality TV.

The Internet had also played a major role in the popularization of the idea that it is not only acceptable, but necessary to document one’s life and present it for public view.

“We are in an era of presentational media,” Marshall said. “We can see this most clearly in the emergence of social network sites such as Facebook and MySpace.”

But for the Hagedorns, their brush with fame was a thrill of a lifetime.

E-mail: sf2345@columbia.edu