Shoot to Thrill

Fast cars, naked women: Ed Dellis loves his work

Then inspiration struck. Driving at 139 mph on a turbo-charged motorcycle, he got a hard bump while wearing a moldable mouthpiece. He wondered why he couldn't have handlebars that molded to the contours of his hands, as the mouthpiece did to his teeth. As soon as he got home, he learned that no such product existed—yet—so he began working on a concept and filed a patent for what became known as the Personagrip.

Asked if it's made from the same material as the mouthguard, Dellis replies, "It's compounded of six different materials, and I could tell you what it is, but I'd have to kill you."

His invention paid off when Emerson Fittipaldi took a Personagrip steering wheel to victory at the 1993 Indianapolis 500. "The wheel was stolen at the victory banquet," recalls Dellis. "I couldn't have designed a better publicity coup . . . and no, I had nothing to do with it."

Dellis: Speed freak
John Gilhooley
Dellis: Speed freak

Having decided that TV was the next step in getting the word out about the Personagrip, he attended an infomercial trade show in Las Vegas, where he met actress Darla Haun (Sunset Beach, Power Rangers), who introduced him to some producers. But they weren't much help, he says.

"They all said the same thing: 'Give me $100,000, and we'll get it on TV.' But by that time, it had won the Indy 500 three times, been in the hands of Formula One racers, the U.S. Olympic cycling team, world champion racquetball players . . . I thought it was time to get back to photography."

Chapter the Second: In which the Grim Reaper comes a-knockin', and Ed's world starts a-rockin'.

Christina Pham, a former Miss Vietnam ("It was just my lucky day!" she says of the pageant) wasn't greatly impressed with Dellis when she first met him in the mid-'90s. "One of my girlfriends threw a party in Irvine, and I think he came with one of his friends," she recalls. "He introduced himself as a photographer, and I was like, okay, whatever—because I do meet a lot of photographers, and they always try to hit on me."

Still, there was something about him that kept her from blowing him off completely, and they stayed in touch—he generally asking to photograph her and she responding in the negative.

But then came the motorcycle accident. When Pham heard about Dellis' crash, she visited him in the hospital, and, she says, her heart went out to him.

"I like to reach out and help people, especially when people have some medical condition," she says.

Dellis remembers, "She was the first person I remember when I came out of the coma, so no matter what, I'm always gonna have a soft spot in my heart for Christina. She was there taking care of me, as a friend. And, you know, how can you forget that?" He's coy on the nature of their relationship, saying only that they're "good buddies" and not a couple.

At the very least, though, she served as his muse. She finally agreed to let him photograph her, and when she saw the pictures, her reaction was strong. "I went, 'Oh. My. Gosh. We need to do something about this.'" She was so impressed by the shots that she insisted he pursue sexy photography full-time, with a little help. She came up with the idea for

"Asian girls, they can get very uncomfortable, because they don't want their pictures to be circulating around," she says. But, she notes, Dellis was more professional than any other photographers she had met, and she spread the word among her friends who might not otherwise have been comfortable with a white man. Pham says she knew she could trust him when she asked to see some of his other photos, and he refused to show her any that hadn't been cleared for sharing by the models themselves.

Dellis had done sexy shots before—some nude, some not, and others in a gray area. One of his favorites is of a female biker wearing a leather jacket and nothing but gold-painted skin underneath, with the shadow of her nipple reflecting on her leg, though her actual breast remains hidden. After the accident, he says, he noticed a change in his perceptions: "I see shadows now. When I'm moving the lights, the lights are the byproduct of how I see shadows. Every woman has her own sense of propriety, and she might not want to show a certain part of her body, and rather than have her edit during the photoshoot by posing, what I do is that I manipulate the lights, so that there's shadow, and therefore mystery, in areas that causes the viewer to go deeper into the picture and want to see more, when indeed they can't."

It's this atmospheric style that endears him more to female clients now. Prior to the crash, he says, his style was "patently obvious."

"I enjoy the mystery now."

Business is generated almost entirely by word of mouth via previous clients, and he doesn't come cheap. "Other photographers use the Internet to make up for the time and money they lose shooting on the cheap," he says. "I charge enough so that I don't need to do that." Clients can be as modest or wild—or as anonymous—as they wish. And if she wants to go for the full nudity, he delivers three separate photo CDs: one suitable for public viewing, one for close friends only, and one called "private eyes," which he says is normally reserved for lovers.

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