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

Regis and Brandy first met in Frank Sinatra’s driveway, when they were both covering his funeral. “I rode around with him a lot to try to understand what he was doing,” Brandy says of their early dates in the summer of 1998. At the time, she was living on the beach in Venice above Figtree’s Cafe in a one-bedroom apartment on $450 a week. When her roommate left, she moved in with Regis. “He’d be walking around the pool and he’d be making a sale, and it was $800 or $1,500 or sometimes $2,000,” she remembers. “And I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is a dream life!’ Although from the very beginning, I always hated the fact that he was on the phone and I could never finish a sentence without being interrupted by that ring. And he would never turn it off, and he would never really apologize for it.”

Regis and Brandy seem to have an ideal marriage. They spend a lot of time together at home and both feel liberated by their work, though it does have its drawbacks. “You know,” Brandy sighs, “I want to get my kids into the good private schools around here, and I don’t want them to know what we do. But we probably won’t get in, so it probably doesn’t matter.”

Regis drops Brandy off for a meeting at E! and we take a drive to Malibu. On the dashboard of the car is the monthly accounting of X17’s sales to Germany, which amount to 40,000 euros. The largest sale is for 360 euros, confirming that this is a volume business. The biggest market for paparazzi photographs is the U.S., followed by the U.K. and Australia. Regis checks his phone again. In the last hour, he has received 36 voicemail messages from people asking for pictures. Acting as the guiding spirit and brain for 60-odd photographers means that Regis comes as close as he can to the paparazzo’s dream of never missing a shot.

“Ubiquity, being everywhere, always, that’s a dream,” he says. “It’s true that from the beginning, I have struggled with the fact that in this business, you are always at the mercy of the factor of chance. Eventually, I realized there was a way to solve this problem, if I let go of my ego.” As photographs, most paparazzi pictures impress him as hopelessly banal, but he is not without a sense of purpose.

“I don’t want to say anything, but in a way, X17 put three stars into rehab, if not in jail, this year,” he says as we pull into the parking lot of the Malibu Country Mart. As we are talking, Shirley MacLaine materializes out of the fog, like a ghostly, withered apparition of celebrity past. It takes Regis a moment to remember her name. “She is the actress from the ’60s whose brother is a famous actor,” he says. “She is the one who is seen when there is nothing to shoot in Malibu.”

It’s late in the afternoon and all the paps from Mulholland are hanging out by the entrance to the underground garage at the Four Seasons, waiting for Britney, a scene that has taken place at every hotel in Beverly Hills. “At first it was the Bel-Air, then it was the Peninsula, now it’s the Four Seasons,” says Felix Filho, the team leader of X17’s top Britney-stalkers. Known in the business as “the Brazilians,” the eight ranking members of MBF have logged over 40,000 man-hours watching Britney while taking perhaps $6 million worth of often exclusive pictures. When Britney Spears fulfills her apparent fate and dies in a fiery car crash or overdoses on prescription medication, it will be surpassingly strange if MBF misses the shot.

Suddenly, a pair of headlights appears at the bottom of the ramp. The photographers start shooting, and then they run for their cars. Felix drives a new BMW truck. I jump inside, and as the pack swings up Coldwater Canyon at a scarily high speed, the other MBF drivers box out the competition so Felix can pull up alongside Britney and shoot video. The star is blasting a song from her new album, Blackout, through her open passenger-side window and singing along. She looks lost in her own world, a rich girl singing to herself in a white Mercedes. “Britney is unpredictable,” Felix shouts, as he films her driving. “She might stop and take her clothes off, I don’t know.”

The Mercedes disappears inside the Summit and the photographers park their cars farther up Mulholland Drive, near Mischa Barton’s mansion. “To be a pap, you have to be ready to do anything, legal or illegal,” Felix says. He agrees to tell me the story of how the Brazilians came to dominate the trade in pictures of Britney Spears. Before he became a photographer, he says, he worked in valet parking and then as a delivery boy for Domino’s, the pizza chain. One evening, he delivered a pizza to Denis Castro, a Brazilian photographer who worked for X17, who had a very serious case of the munchies. Denis was thrilled to find out that Felix was from his hometown of Porto Alegre. Because his license had been suspended, he had already hired another Brazilian from Porto Alegre named Luiz Betat to drive him around to his assignments. He gave Felix a camera, and Luiz taught him to shoot. Eventually, Denis started sending Felix, Luiz, and another Brazilian named Ismael Marchi out on assignments and selling the pictures to Regis while he stayed at home and smoked dope. The original three members of MBF (the first letters of their last names) stayed with Denis for three months before they went out on their own.

The only way to learn to be a celebrity photographer is to spend time out in the field. “You look at what they shoot and how they shoot it,” Felix says as the lights twinkle through the haze in the valley below. “You find out how to be sneaky.”

A dark-haired photographer in a silver Mercedes zooms by, parks by the side of the road, and idles for a while. He has been on Britney, on and off, for four years. His name is Adnan Ghalib. “He’s the most cool guy in this job,” Felix says. A few weeks earlier, Britney had picked Adnan, a handsome Afghan, out of the pack at a Quiznos and invited him to join her in the bathroom. It will soon be rumored, then confirmed, that they are having an affair. It’s easy to see why Britney would choose Ghalib. He’s good-looking and stylish, he knows everything about her already, and they have the same taste in cars.

The two-way radio crackles.

“Felix,” the voice says. It’s Luiz.

“Tell me,” Felix says. The radio crackles again.

“A cop went into the Summit. I saw him go in. I saw him go in for sure. Maybe Britney overdosed.”

The cops pull up, and the paps take off. When the cops are feeling mean, they will roust the paparazzi three or four times a night. We drive around in circles for 20 minutes, and Felix is glum. “My money is going down. I feel frustrated,” he says.

In a Los Angeles Times article, Felix was identified as the shooter of the most famous Britney Spears photo of them all, the image of her shaving her head. “I was like, ‘It’s not real,’” he told the Times. “I freaked out, my legs were shaking.” When he tells me the story, his details of the night are vague and rambling. The more time I spend with Felix, the more I believe that he took credit for someone else’s picture. A great shot is almost never an accident. You need luck, skill, timing, good information, a sense of how to frame a shot, and the ability to make the right decisions under pressure. The margin for error is so small that the best paparazzi generally get the best shots. Felix’s walkie-talkie beeps again.

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David Samuels is a regular contributor to The Atlantic.

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