Johnny Who? Los Angeles bemused as France decamps to Hallyday's bedside

Media circus at hospital treating pop star unknown to American audiences

By Guy Adams
Friday 18 December 2009 01:00

The glass-fronted complex in Beverly Hills has for generations been the pre-eminent hospital for major and minor stars of stage and screen. Kate Hudson was born there, and Frank Sinatra died there. More recent patients have included everyone from Christina Aguilera and Nicole Ritchie to Britney Spears and David Hasselhoff.

Yet the media circus that has spent the entire week camped outside Cedars Sinai is here to breathlessly follow the twists and turns in a medical drama that involves a 66-year-old man whose grizzled face means almost nothing on this side of the Atlantic, even to the feral paparazzi who prowl nearby streets. His name is Johnny Hallyday.

Hallyday, the so-called "French Elvis", has been both household name and national treasure in his native country since the 1960s. But he remains virtually unknown to American music fans. "People have been asking why we're standing out here for an Elvis impersonator," said John Debussy, one of the Gallic cameramen keeping watch. "They just don't get it."

Hallyday is coming out of a coma that was deliberately induced to help save his life, after he was rushed to the US from Paris in severe pain, following an operation on his back that allegedly went wrong.

The fate of the rocker has transfixed France, and even prompted President Nicolas Sarkozy to issue a get-well-soon message. When Hallyday was photographed looking grey and withdrawn in a wheelchair arriving at LAX airport last week, a collection of television anchormen jumped on the next flight across the Atlantic to follow his treatment.

They have since maintained a 24-hour vigil outside Cedars Sinai, breathlessly reporting even insignificant developments. On Tuesday it emerged that Hallyday was gradually awakening from his coma. On Wednesday, as his condition improved, fans learned that the singer's forthcoming "farewell tour" had been cancelled. And yesterday, the nation was agog at the news that Hallyday had decided to take legal action against Dr Stephane Delajoux, the surgeon who performed the original surgery in November.

Meanwhile, the US media is growing increasingly fascinated by the French media's invasion of Beverly Hills.

"In the last day, we've just had CNN, Fox and Reuters down here," said Chris Geerdes, a TV crew-member. "But they don't care about Hallyday. They just want to do coverage of our coverage. It's insane."

Geerdes estimates that French networks have roughly 100 reporters in town. The grass verge where they gather during the day is now covered with cardboard, after wet weather left it resembling a refugee camp.

"The hospital just hates having us here. They've made no comment about Hallyday, and won't even confirm that he's a patient," adds Geerdes. "So the ironic thing about this situation is that every bit of information is coming out of his PR agency in Paris. All the French networks really get from having us here is pictures of the hospital."

Hallyday has apparently been put into a coma in an effort to treat complications that followed surgery to repair a disc in his back, which he'd injured when falling from his yacht. Dr Delajoux has been accused of "butchery" by friends of Hallyday and was beaten up by fans of the singer in Paris at the weekend.

Nam Lee McMinn, of the Associated Press said: "Every single French network is here. We knew it had got ridiculous when they started sending out all the top reporters, journalists and correspondents from Paris."

One of those top anchormen, Baptiste Muckensturn, from France's Canal Plus, said covering the story from the street corner had been a creative challenge. "It's not very easy to work like this," he explained to CNN. "We're working like paparazzi, and we are journalists.

"I know very well the road, but I don't [know] very well the inside of the hospital, because we can't go inside the hospital. We only know that Johnny Hallyday is on the eighth floor, where the curtain is black."

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