Pal to the stars

By HILLARY GAVAN
Senior staff writer

ROSCOE — It can be difficult for Hollywood stars to find a true friend. Sometimes, that’s Jeff Stenzel’s big Hollywood role.

While the 35-year-old Hononegah alum works updating coupons at Fat Wallet by day, he spends his spare time rubbing elbows with the rich and famous. For the past two decades he’s made more than 100 trips to Los Angeles meeting everyone from Steven Spielberg and Paul McCartney to Paris Hilton and Taylor Swift.

Stenzel writes about how he became a confidante to the stars in his new book, “Beyond the Red Carpet” available at Amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.

Sporting a polo shirt for his interview with the Beloit Daily News, Stenzel said he has no desire to move to Los Angeles, be famous, drink or use drugs. He likes getting to know interesting people and hearing their stories about the film industry. For some stars living the glamorous life, the listening ear of a Midwestern man may be irresistible.

“They get bored, and like hearing from regular people,” Stenzel said. “I’m easy to trust and talk to, and I don’t judge.”

Stenzel said he was always drawn to Hollywood and movie lore. When he was 16, he bumped into a guy at a movie memorabilia conference in Chicago who claimed he could get him face time with the stars. Stenzel and his dad Kevin Stenzel made their first trek to Los Angeles in 1999 with the man. They had hoped to attend a movie premier for “Wag the Dog” with Dustin Hoffman and the Oscars.

However, they were a bit shocked to learn the man who took them had no scruples about getting to the stars. Instead of actually having any relationship with them, he would crawl through windows or back doors to sneak a peek.

“He made it sound like he had connections, but he was basically a party crasher,” Stenzel said.

To get into the Oscars, Stenzel and his party-crashing friend told a security guard at the red carpet they had already been inside and had forgotten something. Although they got onto the red carpet and ran into Drew Barrymore and Ed Norton, Stenzel said he didn’t feel right about sneaking around.

After he returned home, Stenzel vowed to find a more ethical way to get access to the stars. He later befriended someone who designed album covers for records and had a Grammy membership. From his new friendship he gained legitimate access to LA events where he began networking with stars and others who could get him private invitations to parties as well as the Grammys and Golden Globes.

One of Stenzel’s first friendships with someone famous was with Matt Damon. Stenzel eventually worked on the set of the movie “Contagion” with Damon, helping with special effects.

“He’s a really good guy. People love to work with him. He has no ego. He just hangs out with everyone else on the set,” Stenzel said.

Stenzel also got to know Carrie Underwood after meeting her at a Grammy party.

He continued to meet stars in good times and in bad. Occasionally, he’d counsel tearful pop stars. The starlets eagerly sought Stenzel’s no-nonsense advice about life and relationships.

“They are surrounded by ‘yes’ people. They never tell them things the way they need to hear it,” he said.

As Stenzel kept meeting stars from Courtney Love to Miley Cyrus, he was content to remain a behind-the-scenes kind of guy. The lives of the rich and famous could sometimes be painful to watch. Drug temptations, unrelenting paparazzi and 22-hour days on movie sets took their toll on people. Some became shells of the people they had once been.

Stenzel recalled leaving a restaurant with Lindsay Lohan one time, as the paparazzi pounced.

Aggressive photographers went as far as propping up ladders on stars’ homes.

“Anytime they leave their house, there are 20 cars that will follow and run red lights to keep up,” he said.

Stenzel said a man trying to get an autograph passed a poster to Jean-Claude Van Damme under a bathroom stall.

“They really have no privacy. People hack into their emails and interrupt their family dinners,” he said.

Stenzel said he always refrained from pestering the stars if they were with their children or simply in a bad mood.

“Famous people still have the same problems everyone else has, paying the mortgage and relationship issues,” he said.

The senior stars had trouble with becoming more home-bound and lonely as they aged.

Stenzel was so committed to senior stars he became pen pals with a few and got invited to their homes. He stopped by Ed Asner’s home, and visited Dom DeLuise after he got his pacemaker. He recalled visiting Gloria Stuart — the older actress playing Rose in “Titanic” — before she died.

Stenzel said there are not many stars with whom he hasn’t crossed paths. Although there were a few who had too big of an ego, he doesn’t tell their secrets as he doesn’t want their high powered entertainment attorneys coming after him. His book focuses more on his journey to make connections in LA and life behind the scenes in Hollywood.

He continues to build on his industry connections and has produced or co-produced several independent films. He is currently working to pitch his film about a child abduction, “Vanished,” to Lifetime.

He may write another book and is considering auditioning for some minor acting roles.

However, his heart will remain in the Midwest. He’s engaged to fiance Tiffany Krueger and plans to put down roots in Roscoe. Not only is it expensive in LA, but the traffic is too bad. He prefers to live life to the fullest as opposed to seeing it on the big screen.

“I have no desire to being widely known. I can have all the Hollywood experience, but walk down the street and not be bothered,” Stenzel said.

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