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.
“Yayo, what’s going on? What’s going on?” he says. When he gets off the phone, he shrugs. “I’m getting crazy, working this,” he says. “I don’t give a fuck, man.”