Splashing around in the water, kicking her feet up above the sand, Mischa Barton's the flesh-and-blood version of the buff, blond babe David Lee Roth crooned about in "California Girls." Smiling, laughing, casually flipping through a book, she looks as if she doesn't have a care in the world.
You'd never guess she had just been sentenced to three years' probation for driving drunk. And that's the point.
The former "O.C." star was photographed frolicking in Malibu Thursday, the same day she pleaded no contest to charges stemming from her December 2007 arrest. The pictures came from Pacific Coast News, a paparazzi agency known for setting up highly styled, supposedly candid shoots of scandal-ridden stars -- they previously shot Barton exiting church days after her arrest, virginal white dress flowing, church brochure in hand.
Barton's publicist said he "didn't know about the photos until they appeared." And a representative for Pacific Coast News said its photographers "just happened to be there at the right time."
But the scenarios -- Barton kneeling in the sand and reading, gritting her teeth and tugging at her bikini bottoms -- seem about as real as Heidi Montag's breasts. It's all too much of a coincidence to not be a publicity ploy, some observers said.
"It is stylized, definitely," said Evangelia Souris, image consultant and president of the Optimum International Center for Image Management. "Even the less-posed poses, you can tell they're prompted. They're not natural. Her hair looks really good. It looks like she just had it done. Whose hair looks like that when they go to the beach?"
Celebrities usually flee from the paparazzi. But Barton's far from the first starlet to go running in their direction. Pacific Coast News captured Paris Hilton toting around a Bible after her 2007 stint in jail on DUI charges. OK! magazine shot club-kid Lindsay Lohan flipping through an AA tome and twisting herself into yoga poses shortly after checking into rehab at Utah's Cirque Lodge.
"It's a tactic that's becoming increasingly more common," said publicist Michael Levine, whose past clients include Demi Moore and Michael J. Fox. "Celebrities are understanding that the best defense is an offense. Mischa Barton is an example of that; Rob Lowe's an example of that."
"I've done this a thousand times," he added. "You arrange a location, you invite a photographer or two, and there you go."
The message Barton's trying to send is clear: "Look at me! I'm happy, I'm healthy! Put me in your next project!" (Since leaving "O.C.," Barton's most meaty role has been serving as the spokeswoman for Keds sneakers.)
But is it wrong to try to trick the public into thinking that Barton just happened to be on the beach looking so beautiful, that Hilton's really committed herself to Christ or that Lohan loves the lotus position more than lines of cocaine?
"It's no more unfair than media outlets printing innuendo about celebrities," Levine reasoned. "Just like both sides are allowed to have their case in court, in the court of public opinion, both sides are allowed to have their say."
But the potential for stupidity is high when scandal-ridden stars attempt to talk about their mistakes. (Referring to her arrests and stint in rehab, Lohan recently told Harper's Bazaar, "It's like, what was I thinking?")
So for them, the old adage has never been more true (stick to the nude pictorials, Linds).
"Sometimes it's better to keep your mouth shut," image consultant Souris said, "and to just let the visuals send their message."