I, Claudia

TVK-TV's Claudia DiFolco reaches for my hand and gently brings it to her face. Sliding my forefinger under wisps of hair, she says with a coy smile, "I've got something for your story." She blinks her eyes and they reveal a bright, mirthful innocence.

Her cameraman, standing off to the side, rolls his eyes in mock jest. She presses my finger to the center of her cheek. There, hidden beneath a thick coat of tawny base makeup, is a lump. A hard, nuggetlike knob the size of a raisin. A giant pimple. I instantly jerk my finger away.

DiFolco busts out a huge, childlike laugh, a sixth-grade playground hoot. "It feels like it has a bone in it, doesn't it?" she cackles, bending over like she's just been punched in the gut. "Isn't that gross? It feels like there's a bone in it!"

You may know Claudia DiFolco as an itinerant, on-the-scene entertainment reporter on Channel 3's hourlong 10 p.m. program, NewShow.

The comely Canadian-born Italian ignites public imagination -- she's either loved or loathed. Viewer response runs the gamut from "slut" to "news goddess." Her job description, meanwhile, spurs debate over the future of TV journalism.

She stands in the shadow of the KTVK van at the entrance to Desert Sky Pavilion on a particularly muggy July evening. Britney Spears is to perform soon.

The show is sold out, and the area teems with glistening preteens, pubescents and grown-ups, all queued in long, disorderly lines, awaiting access to the 20,000-seat outdoor amphitheater. A local radio station is drenching the scene with distorted teen-a-rific radio fare. The throng whoops whenever a camera or mike is pointed in its direction.

Everybody, it seems, except for the ruddy-faced dad here, or the overwhelmed single mom there, wants to be on TV. Smiles are big and fat.

The entertainment in the pavilion's main entrance is, apparently, Claudia DiFolco. And DiFolco -- who arrived in Phoenix in October, an alumnus of Canada's version of MTV -- is not doing anything. She's just hanging around the van, waiting to go on air. A wait that lasts hours.

Young girls saunter by. Some perched perilously on platform shoes, with belly piercings, garishly tinted hair and nails. Lips are greased in hues of crimson and pink. A few girls have DiFolco-esque bullion-colored streaks in their hair. There are leopard tops and leatherette trousers and schoolgirl uniforms with hems edged high. Some snap bubblegum to a rhythm of their hips.

Hundreds of girls recognize DiFolco. They stop in their tracks, nudge their friends, then approach for an autograph. They advance slowly, as if approaching royalty. Some even gasp. The littlest girls -- many no older than 5 -- burst forth and shriek at the top of their tiny lungs. "We looooove yooou, Claudia! We loooove yoooou!"

Boys, too, graceless with mushrooming hormonal hankerings, bony elbows and distressed complexions, notice the reporter, and stop and stare. They just stare, adoration and yearning playing across their faces.

Grown men with tractor-soled shoes become instant fanboys and ask their companions for permission to approach DiFolco, a few for an autograph. Others offer embarrassing whispers based on some perception of DiFolco's TV persona. Eyes belonging to balding, beer-bellied dads make clumsy thrice-overs of DiFolco's frame.

A willowy African-American woman, late 30s, approaches. She grasps DiFolco's hand, bends forward to her ear and, shaking her head slowly, says, "You are one of the most beautiful women I've ever seen." DiFolco's olive skin turns the color of a strawberry smoothie.

She scribbles autographs on arms, shirts, hats and napkins.

On a local scale, Claudia DiFolco is a full-on rock 'n' roll star. You'd think she was Britney Spears herself. She has that kind of celebrity. Yet she doesn't sing, dance or play an instrument. She's famous for being seen. A woman known, as Daniel Boorstin would say, for well-knownness.

Not everyone is in love with her. And she doesn't care.

"Celebrity journalist" was a phrase coined in 1986 by journalist/author/speechwriter James Fallows to describe reporters famous for who they are as opposed to what they report. The idea took root after reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein helped topple Richard Nixon. That was nearly 30 years ago.

As in any major U.S. metropolis, faces of local TV journalist/media goobs are ubiquitous in Phoenix. Waxen visages stuck to billboards abutting freeways, above Dairy Queens, adjacent to gas stations. Faces that coast effortlessly in airbrushed glory on sides of buses. Faces that throw puppy-dog preens from print ads.

Entertainment Tonight was the salvo that shaped the feel and look of scores of newscasts across the country. Journalists with personal hair stylists were coifed and molded into "personalities" when, in fact, they often lacked personalities. Loads of these pop star/newscasters will barely outlast their youth.

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Brian Smith
Contact: Brian Smith