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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When I ask Dano if he is bored with talking about the umbrella attack, he says that he has never spoken about it to the press before. The X17 guys had followed Britney to Kevin’s house, but he wouldn’t buzz her in. “She wanted to see her kids,” Dano says. “We came out and took pictures.” Then Spears and her long-time friend Alli drove around the corner to a Jiffy Lube, where Alli opened her door and asked the photographers to please leave them alone. Britney stuck her head out of the car, too. “She took her hat off, and she was bald,” Dano says, of the moment that made him the most celebrated photographer in America that week. “She was breathing like a bull. It was like smoke was coming out of her nostrils. Then she leaps out of the door, screaming ‘Motherfuckers!’”

Paparazzi prefer to work in a triangle, with the celebrity at the center and a shooter on three sides. That way, when they turn away from one camera, they are facing another, and when they turn away again, they are facing the third shooter. As Dano retreated from the enraged star, two flanking X17 photographers took stills while Dano shot video. When the umbrella-attack video went viral, Dano put his Ford Explorer on eBay. Bidding went over $30,000 before he took the car off the market. Stills and videos of the incident sold for nearly $400,000.

X17 has an office in Beverly Hills, but Regis prefers to work at home in an old T-shirt and shorts, just as he did as a lone paparazzo. Now he owns a $5 million house in Pacific Palisades, where his neighbor is the actor Adam Sandler. On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, at 7:45 a.m., he has already been up for an hour and a half reading the news and reviewing last night’s pictures. The best shots of the evening are of the very pregnant singer Christina Aguilera by a team called VWR, a designation made up from the initials of the team’s key members. “She’s holding her stomach. It’s quite heavy,” he says approvingly.

Next up are exclusives of Jessica Simpson at a bar in Los Feliz. “The story of the girl is that she’s single, so here she is in a bar,” he explains, seated in front of a computer screen with a cup of coffee. With his tousled hair and brown doe eyes, Regis, who recently turned 45, looks like the beau idéal of the modern French husband. The images will sell, but not for more than a few thousand dollars, he says. “She’s not dressed, and she is with her hairdresser, who is gay.” As he finishes his selection, he posts high-quality versions of the best sets on X17’s agency Web site, where they can be accessed by photo buyers and agents around the world but not by the general public. Low- quality versions of the most striking images are also posted on X17online.com, where they drive traffic and attract the attention of television producers and editors. Even if 50 photographers shoot the same star on the same night from different angles, Regis says, the photo buyers will mysteriously gravitate to the same shot.

Regis’s wife, Brandy, is a blonde in her mid-30s who looks like the actress Michelle Pfeiffer. Brandy has a master’s degree in broadcast journalism from USC and used to work for Reuters. Now she runs X17online. She is typing an e-mail:

Dear agents, PLEASE DO NOT post on your websites our recent exclusive shots of Britney Spears driving the toy car with her sons. DO NOT include them in your e-mail alerts. While we want to sell them, we do not want them intercepted by fan sites who will post them online.

The e-mail is signed “Kelly,” a pseudonym left over from the days when François and Brandy imagined that they might wind up doing something more conventional.

Regis is talking on the phone to the team that will be staking out Brad Pitt. “When he goes to the studio, you have to watch all the exits,” he explains. Brad Pitt is a master at playing games. One of his favorite tricks is to drive onto the Warner Bros. lot and leave the photographers guessing which of the studio’s many exits he will choose for his departure. Adrien Davis, 5, and Remy Alaska, 3, imitate their father’s French-accented English, then skitter off to the living room. Adrien pokes his head up over the back of the couch, peering first at Regis and then at Brandy through the telescopic sight on his plastic rifle.

As Regis instructs his team on the finer points of stalking the wily Pitt, he looks over a set of Paris Hilton photos taken at LAX. When he gets off the phone, he curls his upper lip in distaste.

“For me, she is slipping,” he says. “She has an expression on her mouth that she didn’t have before. She lost a little bit of something. I don’t know if it will come back.” Regis dates the decline to her recent arrest; since then, the Queen of Giving It Up has appeared chastened. In the shots, she is wearing a Japanese cartoon-print hoodie and talking on her cell phone, with a silver purse over her arm. “That’s not enough, OK?,” Regis says, drawing my eye to shots of Paris at a newsstand. “Before, she would have picked up a magazine or a big candy bar or some funny thing. She is just standing in the newsstand at the airport like anybody else.”

Regis started X17 in 1997. He had intended to call the company Photo-something, but nearly every combination with the word photo had been taken, and 30 people were in line behind him at the registrar’s office. So he asked what letter in the alphabet was the least popular, and was told “X.” The name “X17” reminded him of a secret agent from the Second World War, he says.

When the Britney shaved-head pictures arrived, Regis was about to go to bed. The intimacy of the photos was more disturbing to Brandy than to him. Still, he thought they were striking. “You feel as if she’s looking at you, trying to tell you something,” he says. “When the public saw our photos, they thought Britney Spears had gone mad.” Entertainment Tonight bought the right to air the photos for one night for a sum rumored to be $80,000.

Before Brandy and Regis left on vacation a week ago, her main source inside Britney’s camp, the Svengali-like Lufti, was obsessively text-messaging her. Now he returns her texts two or three days late. “I don’t know if that vacation weaned him off of me,” Brandy says. When Regis comes back downstairs after getting dressed, Brandy inspects him critically. “You are missing a belt loop in back,” she says. Regis adjusts his belt, and they head out together to the office.

Regis pilots his Porsche Cayenne down the hill, a sweater looped over his shoulders, his cell phone held daintily up to his ear between forefinger and thumb. “So tonight they have family therapy of the entire family,” he says, passing on his latest Lindsay Lohan tip to his team in New York. “He will be telling us where and when. We need video and stills. Shoot low light, but get something. You need a good camera, like the new Sony.” The source of Regis’s latest exclusive is the actress’s father, Michael Lohan, a failed actor who is hoping to get a celebrity gossip show on the air.

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