Shooting Britney

How a French journalist recruited a posse of Brazilian parking attendants and pizza-delivery guys and helped create Hollywood’s most addictive entertainment product
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"Britney Spears beat up my truck, bald-headed and everything,” Dano tells me as we lurk on the Valley side of Mulholland Drive in his silver Ford Explorer, which became famous when the out-of-control pop star attacked it with an umbrella. The night is darker than usual, owing to smoke from over a dozen wildfires that are burning as close as Malibu and around Lake Arrowhead. The air is so bad that several paparazzi have gone home sick. We are waiting for a white two-seater Mercedes SL65, Britney’s turbo-powered sports car, or the black Audi driven by her friend Sam Lufti.

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David Samuels interviews Brandy and François-Regis Navarre of X17, Hollywood's biggest paparazzi agency, about a selection of recent celebrity photographs taken by X17's photographers on the streets of Los Angeles.

Slideshow: The Celebrity Hunters

Between 30 and 45 paparazzi work Britney on any given night. The expensive cars they drive reflect the fact that Britney Spears—her marriages, custody battles, fights with her mom, new boyfriends, Starbucks runs, trips to the hospital—is a bigger and more lucrative story than Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton or John Lennon and Yoko Ono. History’s best-publicized celebrity meltdown has helped fuel dozens of television shows, magazines, and Internet sites, the combined value of whose Britney-related product easily exceeds $100 million a year, and helped make Britney Spears the most popular search term on Yahoo once again in 2007, as it has been for six of the past seven years.

Dano, a sweet-faced but cynical Angeleno of Mexican extraction, has been part of the Britney show for three years. His employer, X17, is the biggest agency in the Holly­wood paparazzi business. Nearly every famous picture of the world’s most famous imploding pop star—Britney driving with her son on her lap, Britney in rehab, Britney without underwear, Britney shaving her head—was taken by X17’s “shooters,” or “paps,” who work in teams under the direction of X17’s owner, François Navarre, a graduate of the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, who moved to Los Angeles in 1992 and covered the L.A. riots for Le Monde before embracing his destiny as a freelance celebrity photographer. Navarre operates under his middle name, Regis. He is roundly despised by more traditional Hollywood paparazzi, who accuse him of having destroyed their highly individualistic business by hiring gangs of immigrant kids with digital cameras purchased on credit from Best Buy to do the work of the heroic lone photographers who once lay in wait with telephoto lenses, stalking Jackie O.

Most of X17’s paps, who number between 60 and 70, depending on the day and who quits or gets fired, are paid a stipend of $800 to $3,000 a week plus the occasional four- or low-five-figure bonus in exchange for global rights to their images, which Regis owns lock, stock, and barrel. X17 also pays weekly stipends to a dozen dedicated tipsters and occasional fees to 500 or 600 parking-lot attendants, club kids, and shop girls in and around L.A. X17 licenses its pictures to celebrity skin magazines like Us Weekly, People, Life & Style, and In Touch and their associated Web sites; to celebrity-oriented television programs like Entertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood, Inside Edition, and Extra; as well as to newspapers and magazines in England, Australia, Germany, Japan, Hong Kong, mainland China, Israel, Dubai, and dozens of other countries; to major television news networks like CNN, ABC, NBC, and CBS, and nearly everyone else in the media business who needs pictures and video clips of Paris Hilton’s arrest or Brad and Angelina’s kids or Britney’s latest courtroom drama, which is to say nearly every major news outlet on the planet.

“We would normally spot her coming down towards Beverly Hills, past where Jessica Simpson lives,” Dano explains, rubbing his palms on his navy Adidas tracksuit. “This is really old-school.”

The main X17 team working on Britney these days is MBF, a secretive group of eight Brazilians plus floaters like Dano. Tonight the team leader, Felix Filho, has decided to try to lure the pop star outside by pulling his photographers from their usual curbside spots above and below the Summit, the gated community at the top of Mulholland Drive where she lives. The practice of sitting right outside the entrance to a star’s house is known as “door-stepping,” and it takes its toll on paparazzi and their subjects alike. The potential upside of waiting 12 or 14 hours a day, six or seven days a week, is the chance that one day Britney will roll her car into a ditch, or be taken away again strapped to a gurney. “You’re telling a little story in a 15- or 20-second clip,” Dano explains, resting his right hand on his Panasonic DVX 100B three-chip broadcast-quality video camera. “You need an establishing shot. You need an action. And then you need it to resolve.”

The evolution of Hollywood paparazzi from a marginal nuisance to one of the most powerful and lucrative forces driving the American news-gathering industry is a phenomenon that dates back to March 2002, when a women’s magazine editor named Bonnie Fuller took over a Wenner Media property called Us Weekly, which had drifted along since its founding in 1977 as a rival to the fantastically successful People magazine franchise. What Fuller brought to Us was a keen understanding of her audience. “Every day, we’d look at tons of pictures that came in and lay them all out on a conference table,” Fuller remembers. “And what was interesting to me was to look at celebrities going to the dry cleaners and pumping gas. I loved looking at these pictures of celebrities who were just like us.”

Fuller’s trademark front-of-the-book photo-feature, “Stars—They’re Just Like US,” created a lucrative new market for Hollywood paparazzi, whose output had formerly been limited to tabloids like the National Enquirer and the Star. It was not unusual in the Fuller years for a set of high-quality snapshots to rake in $100,000 or more in secretive bidding wars that began on Thursday night and ended Monday evening, when Us and People were put to bed. Insiders could keep score by looking at the small-print photo credits in Us, People, In Touch, InStyle, and half a dozen or so newly minted competitors to see which of the paps hit the jackpot that week. It could be Bauer-Griffin, the union of the British rock-and-roll photographer Frank Griffin with the ex–New Yorker Randy Bauer; the daredevils at INF or the British expats at Splash and Fame; Eric Charbonneau and Kevin Mazur at Wire­Image; Alex Berliner, who for years had a lock on Vanity Fair’s Oscar party at Morton’s; the infamous Louie De Filippis of LDP Images; Phil Ramey, the legendary old-school hack who ruled Page Six and caught Johnny Carson stepping out on his wife with Sally Field; or three unknowns who got lucky that week and snapped a celebrity hottie with her new boyfriend or someone else’s spouse.

The genius of Bonnie Fuller’s new approach was that almost any picture of a celebrity doing something ordinary would do, with a little help from an inventive caption writer who could come up with a snappy one-liner like “Who Wore It Best?” (three happy stars wearing the same outfit) or “Can-Do Couples” (three couples smiling) for a quickie photo-feature to accompany newsier fare like “Angelina’s Web of Lies.” It was easy to imagine legions of Internet-era Andrew Marvells staying up late in fluorescent-lit cubicles appending metaphysical exclamation points to celebrity photo captions that would rocket readers ever closer to the celestial objects of their desire:

They Buy Bottled Water!

They Pick Up Presents! They Love to Buy Handbags!

They Fix Flat Tires!

They Can’t Get Their Straws in Cans!

The front-of-the-book snapshots in People and Us cost $50,000 to $75,000 per issue, to say nothing of the attention-grabbing exclusive photo-features on Brad and Jen’s divorce or the latest Friends wedding, which averaged in the low-to-mid six figures. When the spending became impossible to sustain, the magazines slashed their photo budgets and stopped buying exclusives. The larger photo agencies like X17 and Bauer-Griffin then found that they could make even more money by selling a single set of pictures 15 or 20 times over, to eight or 10 magazines, five or six television programs, and Web sites. And so the industrial phase of paparazzi production was born. (X17 estimates its take from the sale of Britney-related images last year at $3 million, or 25 percent of the company’s gross revenues from the sale of celebrity photos and videos.)

The result of this happy convergence, the 24/7 Britney-­Paris­Nicole­Lindsay­Lohan­ Maybe­Did­Coke­Brad­and­ An­gel­ina­Save­the­World­OneChild­ata­Time­Brad­and­ Jen­Ben­and­Jen­Poor­Katie­ Holmes­Married­ Tom CruiseWho­Is­an­Alien Celebrity Reality Show, was a distinctive new kind of participatory media experience resulting from the cold fusion of the old-school paparazzi business with the new wave of celebrity magazines and Internet sites. The proximate models for this new celebrity infotainment were the artfully staged “reality shows,” like The Real World or The Bachelor or I Love New York, that have taken over the channel-clicking space once occupied by music videos and sitcoms. Where reality television was most often a highly edited and stylized version of an artificial ecosystem inhabited by good-looking pharmaceutical sales reps and tattooed baristas, the new reality shows did not require the active and willing participation of their central characters. The online communities that formed around news-driven celebrity dramas fed the buzz that drove the sales of the magazines and the ratings of the television programs that paid the paparazzi.

Where old media imposed a polite and deadening specta­torial distance between the reader and the medium to buttress the authority of the message handed down from on high, the online convergence of instant images and dramatic story lines encouraged the idea that the news was filter-free and that readers were part of the story. Online communities became gladiatorial forums where pseudonymous participants sallied forth to trade insults and shred the toilet-paper-thin reputations built by studio publicists and New York magazine editors with a vulgar and highly sexualized avidity that recalls the frenzied mob scene at the end of Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust.

The brightest star on the world’s newest stage won her first professional role acting in the off-Broadway comedy Ruthless! at the age of 9, after her mother moved her from Kentwood, Louisiana, to Manhattan. Britney was enrolled at the Professional Performing Arts School, where Lynne Spears struck the fledgling school’s administrators as the very model of an obsessive stage mom. Her daughter impressed everyone she met early on with her fabulous work ethic, which landed her a spot on The All New Mickey Mouse Club at age 11 with future pop stars Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake, and future actor Ryan Gosling. “You had to sing and you had to dance … and it was every night,” she later recalled of her career as a teenage pop star. “I kinda got tired.”

At 17, she was shot for the cover of Rolling Stone by David LaChapelle with her bra and panties showing to promote “ … Baby One More Time,” the breakout single that made her a star. Five years later, on January 3, 2004, after releasing the platinum-selling albums Oops! … I Did It Again, Britney, and In the Zone, and signing a multimillion-dollar endorsement deal with Pepsi, she married a childhood friend, Jason Alexander, at the Little White Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas. Her handlers portrayed the marriage as a prank, and it was annulled. On October 6, 2004, she married Kevin Federline, a fecund chorus boy, and a year later she gave birth to their first child, Sean Preston Federline. A year after that, on September 12, 2006, she gave birth to a second son, Jayden James. Less than two months later, she filed for divorce. As her public behavior became more erratic, it was reported that Spears’s father was an alcoholic and that her grandmother committed suicide by shooting herself in the chest with a 12-gauge shotgun on her infant son’s grave.

For a host of reasons (Britney’s days as a Mouse­keteer, her failures as a parent) feverishly speculated upon by message-board experts, Us Weekly, and E!, the star’s outlandish attention-seeking behavior helped drive the celebrity skin trade like no other story, and produced dozens of often unappetizing and iconic pictures. Together, these images constitute a very public and oddly intimate deconstruction of the persona that the singer and her surrounding machinery had created.

Of all the highly intrusive pictures that have made Britney Spears the reigning goddess of poor life choices and bad parenting, it is impossible to ignore the surpassing weirdness of the image of the world’s biggest pop star seated in front of a mirror in a Ventura Boulevard hair salon on February 16, 2007, electric razor in hand, looking blindly at the camera while shaving off all her hair. Her look was at once vulnerable and wildly alienated, the expression one might expect to see on the face of a young cult member who had just set fire to her birth certificate on the sidewalk. Subsequent shots in the series showed the star smiling and making faces in the mirror as she tried and failed to convince herself of the virtues of her radical new haircut.

It is hard to overstate the impact of these photos on the Britney story. With their worldwide publication, Britney Spears departed the planet of normal bubblegum celebrity story lines and entered the heavenly realm of pop myth. America’s sweetheart had dramatically and publicly un-edited herself, removing the customary trappings and protections of celebrity to reveal the damaged psyche of a fractured person who was no longer able or willing to regulate her public behavior. “It was completely arresting,” remembered Bonnie Fuller, who left Us in 2003 to become the editorial director of American Media, which publishes the Star. “You don’t expect to see a celebrity, especially a celebrity known for their beauty, poise, and glamour, shaving their head in public and clearly in need of some kind of help.” After that day, it became nearly impossible to find exclusive shots of Britney Spears, because there were so many shooters. When exclusives did come along, no one could afford them.

The Nextel walkie-talkie on the dashboard crackles.

“Where are you?” asks Felix. “We could put somebody by Beverly Glen,” Dano answers, “but you never know with Britney.” The heavy pall of smoke from the wildfires is everywhere, making the evening stakeout particularly unpleasant. Dano leans back in the darkened interior of his plush SUV, keeping an eye on the road in the hope of spotting the star’s white Mercedes. “You became famous because of the people who buy your albums or pay to go to your movies,” he says. “Now those people want to know about you. Who’s your girlfriend? What’s your favorite kind of shoes?”

Some stars hate the paparazzi. Others use them to reinvent themselves or increase their fame. Working with the paparazzi to create memorable shots is called “giving it up,” a sexualized metaphor that neatly captures the masculine-feminine romantic dynamic of need and reluctance that characterizes the relationship between celebrity photographers and their subjects. Paris Hilton is the Queen of Giving It Up, Dano says. “She creates the beautiful shots that we need. She is the one who wants it.” Another favorite is Lindsay Lohan. “Lindsay’s OK, but she’s kind of strange, because she can be high, or in a weird mood,” he says. His least favorite subjects are surly male stars like Leonardo di Caprio, Ben Affleck, Justin Timberlake, and Tom Cruise. “Jessica Simpson, she’s really sweet, she’ll give it up. Gwen Stefani is nice. She’ll give it up.” But no one in the business compares to Britney.

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