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

A cluster of some 50 photographers has gathered around the corner at the loading-dock entrance to the courthouse on West 1st Street. Prancing in the center of the driveway is Larry Mays, 59, a wiry black man in a white shirt and tan pants, and a baseball hat that says “Man of Faith.” He brandishes a bedsheet banner that reads “Ask Jesus to Save You Now.” The paparazzi talk among themselves. “I’m gonna fall in front of her car, and she’s gonna run over my foot,” one pap jokes, foreshadowing what will in fact happen to a different photographer a few hours later.

Eventually, the combination of Mays’s religious enthusiasm and the 97-degree heat and their heavy gear begins to wear, and they start bickering and shoving for position. Felix is on the phone across the street directing six X17 photographers, who already know that Britney is driving herself and are betting that she will make a right-hand turn into the driveway.

“All right, she’s coming,” someone yells.

“Right there!” another shouts, pointing to the Mercedes convertible, which stops at the median, speeds up, and turns the corner, heading toward the courthouse’s front entrance. The paparazzi break ranks and start running, carrying Mays and his banner with them. Britney pulls up to the entrance, rolls down her window, and starts talking with a female police officer. There’s a little orange plastic Halloween pumpkin hanging from her rearview mirror, and five or six more pumpkins are scattered on the dashboard. The pop star is wearing wraparound Gucci sunglasses and eating junk food from a bag.

The police scream at the paparazzi to stay back. “Keep your fucking hands off my camera,” one of the photographers yells. Britney rolls up her window and loops back around the block. The paparazzi run into the street to get the shot, but she keeps her window shut. As she turns into the loading dock on 1st Street, one of the paps loses his balance and falls heavily against the side of her car. She opens the door and steps out as the police hold the pack at bay.

“That’s the shot right there,” someone says. Across the street, Felix is uploading some video clips to the X17 Web site, squatting by the curb and linking his Sony HDV cam to his laptop.

Leaning against the fence is Luiz Betat, one of the founding members of MBF, a balding crew-cut man in his mid-30s with big gray eyes and a large nose. He wears a black T-shirt and blue jeans and a power pack on his hip. Whereas Felix is talkative, Luiz has been avoiding me during my nightly pilgrimages to the top of Cold­water Canyon Drive. Luiz is famous for getting pictures of Britney playing outside her house with her kids and other intimate shots that would appear to indicate an old-school talent for climbing fences, evading security guards, and sitting in ambush for days with a telephoto lens. Now that I am here, and he is here, in broad daylight, he offers me a crooked smile and motions me over.

“I never talk to anyone, so it’s nothing personal,” he says. He is a former motocross champion from Porto Alegre. In Brazil, he owned two used-car dealerships and carried a gun. He moved to America to work in a valet-parking business. When Denis Castro came to America, Luiz took him in. “My first day, I got Britney exclusive,” he remembers of his first outing with Castro. “It was at a restaurant on PCH, near Cross Creek in Malibu. We got $20,000 for that shot. After 10 days, I was working by myself.”

It’s easily over 100 degrees in the sun, and the photographers are begging for water. Tomm, X17’s field general, stands on the marble deck in an X17 hat and T-shirt, directing the photographers to stand closer or farther in order to get the widest range of angles. Inside the courthouse, a distraught Britney Spears has yelled “Eat it! Lick it! Snort it! Fuck it!” at a reporter who asked her how the custody hearing was going. “Eat it! Lick it! Snort it! Fuck it!” will be the new vulgarian mantra for the Britney-obsessed for a week at least.

After two and a half hours of waiting, a bell rings. The doors to the loading dock crack open, and the photographers all move their arms and shoulders to get another few inches of shooting space. Britney runs over a photographer’s foot, can’t seem to decide whether she is turning right or left, and blunders into the median strip. She rolls down her window for a quick second and looks around, confused, then lurches forward, nearly colliding with another car. The photographers run for cover.

“Is Britney gone?” someone asks. The CNN cameraman is talking on the phone. “She almost killed about a hundred photographers,” he says breathlessly. The hearing ended without the pop star’s getting her children back, an event that in the greater scheme of things seems increasingly unlikely. Two months later, the star will be removed from the Summit strapped to a gurney by police officers at the end of a three-hour siege during which she locked herself and her son Jayden James in her bathroom. According to police sources, the pop star yelled at the police officers who put a sweater over her shoulders, “Don’t cover me up. I’m fucking hot!”

On Thanksgiving Day, I eat a slice of pumpkin pie for breakfast and take a taxi up to the top of Mulholland. The late-morning air is crisp and clear. By the side of the road is a neat little offering of orange juice, ginseng tea, and coffee. None of the Brazilians particularly like turkey. All eight members of the MBF team—Fabricio, Max, Sandro, Luiz, Felix, Eduardo, Ismael, and Carlos—are on duty. Sandro, a short, middle-aged guy with brown puppy-dog eyes, brings over one of those super-size chocolate bars you buy in airports and offers everyone a piece. In Brazil, he worked for the federal police. The part of the new job he still can’t get used to is running red lights and trespassing. “I feel bad,” he admits. “Eight years ago, I put guys in jail for this. But I have to take care of my family.” Parked behind Sandro is Maxi Rinaldelli from Buenos Aires, a member of X17’s West Coast Pix team. Behind him are a French pap from Splash and a Salvadoran from Fame.

Carlos, a curly-headed Brazilian charmer from Porto Alegre, is killing time in his tricked-out Land Rover LR3, which he pays for on the installment plan. Fabricio joins him. “Come out, Britney, come out come out,” Carlos says.

“She’s sending text messages on her phone to Kevin. ‘Keep the babies. I don’t want the babies.’”

“‘I want weed. I want coke.’”

At 4:44, the radio crackles. “She’s out! She’s out! She’s out!” I jump into Fabricio’s car and we drive fast down Coldwater Canyon. “Don’t tell me she’s going to Four Seasons again, or I will kill myself,” Fabricio moans. Maxi, the Argentinian, is driving like a maniac in the wrong lane and trying to cut back into the queue. “He’s new, so he’s totally desperate,” Fabricio says. “He’s an amateur.” He radios ahead for directions. Britney is at a record store. As everyone jumps from his car and rushes to the store window, I follow two of the paparazzi into a parking garage. A door opens, and I find myself standing next to her.

“Hi, Britney,” I say. She looks at me and smiles brightly. “Hi,” she says. “Happy Thanksgiving.” One of the photographers asks her how her Thanksgiving is going so far. “Good,” she says. Her eyes roll back in her head as she smiles. A Brazilian pap lowers his camera and opens her car door, as if he is still working at valet parking. The pop star gets into her car and starts driving straight toward a concrete wall.

“No, no, no!” one of the photographers shouts. He bangs on the trunk of the car to get her attention. Britney stops and rolls down the window. “This is the exit, right here,” he says, pointing. The paparazzi stop shooting and form a human chain to guide her toward the exit. Britney laughs a carefree, crazy-person laugh. When the photographers finally succeed in getting her into the right lane, approaching the tollgate, the moment of human connection ends. She rolls up her window. The photographers pick up their cameras and start shooting.

On my last night on Mulholland Drive, Luiz finally agrees to let me ride with him. The inside of his two-seater Mercedes is a stripped-down steel cage that looks ready for Le Mans or Dakar. He has mounted a Sony video camera on his dashboard. As we drive down Coldwater Canyon in hot pursuit, he shows me some footage from the camera. “This is the day that she bought her new car,” he says. When I ask him what pictures the pack is waiting for next, he shrugs. “Now I think she can have a little car accident,” he says simply. “Lindsay had an accident in that same car.”

We arrive at the Four Seasons Hotel and wait outside the parking garage for two hours. When Britney’s car appears at the bottom of the ramp, the paps all shoot and then run like hell to their cars. I jump in Luiz’s car, and as I try to swing the heavy door shut it catches on the grass and the lining comes loose. I have to hold the door shut for three blocks until we hit a red light, but Luiz barely registers the damage. He is focused on his job. The faces of the drivers in the cars behind us show cupidity, avarice, dopey interest, fierce intensity. Some are high as kites. “What makes me feel very good is if something I do will be remembered forever,” Luiz tells me as he drives.

The dividing line between the Britney Spears story as it exists today, with a pack of photographers trailing behind her, and Britney Spears as a normal star in the Hollywood galaxy, was the night that she shaved her head. After we park at the top of the canyon, Luiz decides to give me his account of the most famous shot from the most lucrative story in the history of the paparazzi. “OK, I’ll show you,” he says, flipping open his laptop and propping it up on his knees.

A team from Bauer-Griffin was on Britney at her home in Malibu, and X17 jumped their story. The pop star came out, drove around, and then drove back inside her gate. When she left her house again, after 6 p.m., there were maybe 20 photographers in the chase.

Luiz shows me the pictures from his camera, with time and date stamps offering the exact model of the camera and the settings that he used for each shot. In the first images, the pop star is wearing a dark-gray sweatshirt with the hood up. As she entered the salon, Luiz tried to get a good angle by the door. “I saw I’m not gonna have a great shot,” he said. “I realize maybe the place have other windows, other doors.” He drove around to the back, where he found a sliding glass door that was blocked by a plastic curtain, through which he saw a sliver of light. “You can see on my pictures, there is black in the side,” he says, pointing to the dark margins. “I got all these pictures through a one-inch space.”

Beyond the glass door, the pop star was sitting no more than four feet away. The 70-200 mm lens on the camera he held in his hands was too long to get the shot. “Fortunately, I was carrying two cameras,” Luiz says. He switched to his second camera, a Canon Mark IIN with a short 24-70 mm lens. He turned off the flash and started shooting. At first, he thought she was putting in extensions. “But a second after, I saw the machine in her hands, and I realized she was shaving,” he says. “For sure I get excited, but I don’t have a shaking legs or bullshit like this. I just realize I had a second to do my job. You can see from the first frame that she never saw I was there.”

In the first photograph, the star looks happy, anticipating her actions. After a while, her mood sags. The key shot comes in the middle of the sequence: the pop star is alone with her own reflection in the mirror. “She was surprised, like me,” Luiz says.

“I feel glad,” Luiz says, when I ask him how he feels about never getting credit for the most famous paparazzi picture of the past decade, which a more enterprising photographer might have sold to X17’s competitors for several hundred thousand dollars. “I’m glad that I gave a bunch of pictures to a guy like Regis. He did the work before me. He dreams about the perfect shot. He keeps living and thinking about the shots, like me. I can’t tell my son, ‘One time I was working for a guy who gave me a great opportunity when I was working in valet parking, he taught me a great business and a fun business, and you know what I did? When I got a great picture, I turned my back and I sold to a guy I never sold to before!’ If I told this thing to my son, he won’t want to tell to nobody that I’m his dad.”

The marriage of Britney Spears and the paparazzi is a marriage made in heaven, which is to say that it is as tawdry and upsetting as any other marriage. It is possible, even likely, that soon Britney Spears or some other big star with 15 or 35 photographers in hot pursuit will roll their car down the side of a mountain while on pills or drunk, and then there will be a righteous outcry against the paparazzi and the people who publish their pictures. In the rush to accuse and make sense of the moment, we will forget a simple truth. The paparazzi exist for the same reason that the stars exist: we want to see their pictures. Happier, wealthier, wildly more beautiful, partying harder, driving better cars, they live the lives that the rest of us can only dream about, until the party ends and we are confirmed in our belief that it is better, after all, not to be them.

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