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

The intimate and terrifying world of celebrity gossip sites like PerezHilton.com, TMZ.com, and X17online attracts much of its traffic during the corporate lunch hour, from women between the ages of 16 and 34. The granddaddy of the Web gossip sites, PerezHilton, was founded only three years ago by a young Miamian named Mario Laven­deira, who rocketed to Internet fame by retailing celebrity gossip with bitchy comments scrawled in digital Magic Marker on photos he appropriated from X17 and other agencies by a variety of means, which informed sources say included gaining the passwords to newswires, photo-agency accounts, and the photo departments of major magazines.

What was most striking about Lavendeira’s site was not the quality of the gossip but the way a few lines casually written on a celebrity snapshot and then expounded upon by a few hundred anonymous or pseudonymous commenters could tear down reputations that took millions of dollars to build up. In addition to costing the photo agencies a fortune in lost fees, Lavendeira exposed the traditional cozy alliance of star publicists and studio heads and their lapdogs in the magazine industry. Where Bonnie Fuller’s “Stars—They’re Just Like US” made celebrities seem normal (while suggesting that even their least significant daily activities were worthy of full-color glossy photo spreads), PerezHilton depicted movie stars as freaks and delighted in being nasty.

The success of PerezHilton led to the rise of the gossip site TMZ, which gained major media traction in 2006 when it published a police report with the details of Mel Gibson’s DUI arrest. (TMZ stands for “30-mile zone,” meaning the Greater Los Angeles area as defined by the film and television production guilds.) The site is owned by the giant media conglomerate Time Warner and edited by a pixieish attorney and former TV producer named Harvey Levin. “It’s old-fashioned journalism,” Levin says of the way that celebrity Web sites gather news. He suggests that the kind of aggressive Web-based coverage that TMZ and other prominent sites have pioneered has obvious applications beyond the world of celebrity, in areas like politics and sports. “I see lots of opportunities,” he says. TMZ originally paid X17 for most of the pictures and video footage featured on its site, a relationship that cooled considerably after X17 launched its own gossip site, X17online, a little over a year ago to compete directly with TMZ and PerezHilton.

Offering paparazzi photos accompanied by gossip items updated as many as 20 times a day, all three sites encourage visitors to become part of the story by defending their celebrity favorites, spewing bile, and attacking each other in obscene and frequently scatological terms whose proper interpretation often requires an anatomy textbook and a dictionary. In the dark sewer of misanthropic, gynophobic, and Rabelaisian epithets running through the comments section of celebrity blogs, one can also find gems of authentic emotional connection to celebrity foibles from readers who have suffered tragedies of their own, or been drunk, high, or on pills and up way past their normal bedtimes. A good number of readers seem to write in the openly delusional (yet not entirely impossible) belief that if their post is sincere or hateful enough, the walls separating their own lives from the lives of celebrities will dissolve, transporting them from the backlit world of their LCD screens to the super- pollinated atmosphere of the media daisy chain.

The staff bloggers at the heart of X17online are USC film-school graduates who prefer to conceal their real names in order to preserve their future viability in the rapidly disintegrating Hollywood system. The house style is a kind of effervescent sugary sweetness that allows for wholesale insincerity without compromising the relationship between a given celebrity and X17’s photographers. “We’ll put up a picture that’s so obviously negative,” Brandy admits, “and we just write something so completely ignorant of the focus of the picture and let the commenters online take care of it.” It is impossible for anyone who has spent even a modicum of time in the comments section of a celebrity blog to look at paparazzi pictures the same way:

I love these two pics of Britney

The first one really shows off how disgusting her skin is. And her new lips just make her look dirty or like she has a moustache. Too bad you can’t also see the nasty individual greasy extensions to show what an unkempt slob she really is.

And in the second pic, she seems irritated with the paps. If she wasn’t such a trainwreck, they wouldn’t be following her around like they do.

An attention-grabbing picture can receive as many as 400 comments a day.

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David Samuels is a regular contributor to The Atlantic.

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