Prologue: In which we meet one Ed Dellis, a gentleman whose name you have not previously known, but his occupation being one of which you are likely already jealous.
Photographer Ed Dellis never stops smiling, and if you lived his life, you wouldn't either. From the exhaust—swept pits of the Indianapolis 500 to the boudoirs of Little Saigon, he's been everywhere a red-blooded heterosexual male has ever wanted to be—and put smiles on plenty of faces just by making his living.
That grin doesn't even disappear when he says, "I'll show you where I got killed."
Dellis is driving past white, generic-looking, one-story buildings in the shadow of the 22 freeway, with its attendant dirt mounds on either side, separated from the buildings by chainlink fencing. They had just started widening the 22 here three years ago when it happened—New Year's Eve, at precisely 4:32 p.m. (he knows this because his watch froze).
"I was shooting with a Vietnamese model for a motorcycle organization, and I remember the client asked for a picture of the model on the dirt bike in the dirt when we had gotten done with our studio work," Dellis recalls. "So I decided to fire up this motorcycle. I looked for a hole in the fence to get over onto the dirt. I remember turning around and getting in second gear, and next thing I know, I'm waking up in a very strange room with tubes and wires coming out of me, and things weren't adding up."
Dellis would later find out he'd been hit by a drunk kid in a truck, that he'd been pronounced to have no vital signs by the police who arrived on the scene and on the hospital-entrance report. Dellis refers to the incident as a "whack and back" and has even set up a website, whackandback.com, for people to share stories of near-death experiences, though all that's up there currently is a photo of him in his coma.
When Dellis regained consciousness, he had a permanent ringing in one ear—and a new outlook. "Life is intended to be a process that's meant to be enjoyed, so you can't be focused on goals," he says, noting that prior to the accident, everything for him was "black and white, and you set goals, and you achieve them at any cost. The type of lifestyle that methodology led me through is not something I want to do here in the second half. I wanna enjoy it because you never know when you're gonna get that tap on the shoulder."
So what does Dellis enjoy? Fast cars and hot chicks. With a newfound vigor, Dellis was determined to make his post-coma living from these indulgences. And he's done just that, carving out what he calls a very comfortable living by shooting pictures of beautiful women in nude and semi-nude states, as well as occasionally teaching his other passion, stunt driving. An 11-year resident of Tustin, he has now made enough money that he plans to relocate to the Turks and Caicos Islands in the West Indies, near Dellis Cay (yes, it was once owned by his family).
He's living a dream. But he had to die to make it happen.
* * *
Chapter the First:In which young Edward uncovers the raison d'tre of his life, determines to mold all items of tangibility to suit his form, and somehow wins the Indy 500, kinda sorta.
Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Ed Dellis wasn't always a photographer. He graduated from the University of Florida with a B.S. in mechanical engineering, specializing in vehicle dynamics for race cars. But as much as he loved engines and fast vehicles—his official biography boasts that he had more than 40 traffic tickets by his 17th birthday—something wasn't quite right.
"I knew from watching the other engineering students that I didn't wanna be like them," he says. "They were too left-brained." Determined to be more of an artist, he tried painting. "I picked up a brush, and I realized I couldn't paint, so then I added a mechanical element to the brush, and I bought an airbrush, and I realized I couldn't do that either!"
But there was one last option for merging machinery and art: photography. "Back then, photography was very expensive, so my first purchase after I graduated was a Canon camera, and I started processing my own film," he says. Living in Pittsburgh in the late '80s, he managed to arrange exhibitions of his work for auto magazines, the second of which was attended by Barry Bonds and the Pennsylvannia attorney general. "It was a good opening," he says. "That's when I realized that my interpretations might be something other people might find attractive and want to buy."
Dellis also began writing about racing for Roundel magazine, with a column called On Driving. This led to a job at Automotive Engineering, which, he says, "was reserved for people with engineering Ph.D.s, but because I was such a gearhead and built my own engines and raced my own cars, they saw value in that. So for two-and-a-half years, I flew around the world, testing cars on the Arctic Circle and on the autobahn in Germany, and I got a chance to see why I got my engineering degree—to find out how cars were put together."
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."
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 SexyGlamourShots.com.
"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.
"There's nothing you could say or do that would shock him," Darla Haun says of Dellis.
When pressed, Dellis admits to a few "surprises" at his private shoots. In what sounds like euphemistic language, he says, "I've had situations where their interpretation of what is sexy didn't match mine, and that was actually at the point where I realized I needed to be doing interviews."
Nowadays, he makes sure that he and his potential clients meet over lunch first, so he can see if they're a good fit, make sure they don't have any psycho ex-boyfriends who'll be mad about the pictures, and that he finds them attractive in some way. (Ed's not into obese girls, he says.) He turns down more than half of the people who come to him: "You can't cover it all; you've gotta go on your instincts at that point. You get a feel for who the person is, what their motivation is for coming and wanting to see that side of themselves."
* * *
Chapter the Third: In which the master of his domain instructs a new disciple on the need for speed while seated in a vehicle so expensive you should be charged for even thinking about driving it.
It's a sunny Friday morning at Coast Automotive in Costa Mesa, the only auto shop, Dellis says, that he'll allow to lay a hand on his 1958 blue Lister Corvette. Dellis' pride and joy—"It's a sexy car. All curves"—is the one with which he set the quarter-mile speed record in the Cannonball One Lap, a week-long race in which competitors not only race for speed on closed tracks, but also compete to see how quickly they can drive cross-country to the next track.
Today, the shop owner's teenage nephew, Max Bolanos, will get to do more than that: He's getting a full-on driving lesson from Dellis, who bills himself as "the DAM driving school"—Defensive Assertive Methods, or, as Dellis points out, if you don't like his philosophy, "you can start your own DAM driving school!"
Dellis specializes in teaching people how to handle fast, expensive cars. "A lot of times what happens is, guys will buy these Corvettes, or they'll buy a Ferrari or a Lamborghini," he says, "and they think, magically, that they can defy the laws of physics." In addition to teaching them safety, Dellis also follows what he considers the "unwritten" rules of driving—like how, in California, it's okay to speed so long as you're safe.
"Every time I've gotten a ticket, I've deserved it" he acknowledges. "But there have been situations where I've come up on highway patrols, exceeding the speed limit, but because I was driving in what I call a professional manner—being polite and not infringing on other people's rights to enjoy the roads—they let me go."
He's quick to qualify to his students that it depends on the driver, saying, "Your job, if you're driving a high-performance vehicle, is to explore the personalities of the people around you. You take in information off their cars. You know: Is it a clean car? Is it a trashed-out car? Is it set up properly, suspension-wise? And does it sound like the engine's maintained? Then you know the chances of that person being a good driver are improved. And you watch the way they move in the lanes. You sniff out all this information constantly.
"You take the right-of-way when it's yours, and if everybody does that, we'll all get there safer."
The first order of business is finding out what young Bolanos wants to learn most. "Releasing the clutch on time, like on these race cars," he responds.
They strap into Dellis' Lister. Asked how he feels, Bolanos answers with a nervous smile: "Lousy."
Dellis assures him that's normal. As the engine growls to life, the Lister heads out the front gate . . . and stalls, prompting Dellis to laugh. The false start makes Bolanos even more nervous. Finally, they're off.
"Too much adrenalin, man!" yells Bolanos, as they accelerate onto the freeway.
A video camera is rigged up behind his head, and you can see Bolanos is enjoying it on some level. Dellis offers a running commentary throughout, noting such things as "you sit real close to the ground, you can communicate with the earth—you really feel everything. In a regular street car like your Eclipse, you're isolated, you have to use your other senses more.
"You're getting a lot of information through the steering wheel," Dellis says. (And yes, the car's steering wheel is fitted with a Personagrip.) "You notice that when you turn, it sort of fights you a little, but when you get to the limit, that resistance you feel is going to go away."
"I think he felt the effect, and I could see the smile," says Dellis. Now it's over to Bolanos' Mitsubishi for some steering-wheel techniques. The key is to keep both hands on the wheel, at opposite sides, and pull, rather than push, when making a turn. In practice, this looks almost like a karate lesson from Mr. Miyagi. "Go back to the straight-line position. Okay, now, you do it on your own. Okay, now wait—stop. Go back. This hand. Wait. Keep your hand there; move this hand up. That's the first thing. Then this hand pulls, and that hand slips. And then when you get to that position, exactly across, then that hand grabs, and you finish the turn. Now wait, grab the steering wheel—it's okay to cross—at the end. Wait, keep going."
The routine perfected, Dellis makes Bolanos do it five consecutive times to create a muscle memory. Then it's on to a "heel-and-toe" technique to keep the RPMs high and revving while stopped.
This is what the lad wanted to learn the most, and he seems to get it pretty quickly.
* * *
Epilogue: In which a man who lives in the present looks to the future while quoting ancient Chinese philosophy.
Dellis believes that the need for alternative energy sources in cars will soon make obsolete the kind of loud, macho revving he loves, but car fanatics need not worry too much, he explains. "I got the privilege of driving in the Tesla Roadster up in the Bay Area. That was powered by an electric motor. And it was knockin' on the door of the Lister's performance," Dellis says. "The car was designed by Lotus. It's assembled here in the United States, and there are components from all over the world in that thing. But lithium-ion batteries power it, and it's got about a 200-mile range, and its 0-60, I think, is in the four-second range—so that's no slouch."
So guys who like their muscle cars will still have their options when we switch to alternative fuels?
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"I think so. We may end up going out there and puttin' cards in our spokes so we can hear 'em—but for the most part, yeah."
Fast cars, beautiful nude women and athletes all over the country still ordering Personagrip. Does Ed Dellis have the best job in Orange County?
"What is it Confucius says? A man who loves what he does doesn't work a day in his life," Dellis says. "And that's one thing I've decided to do."