By yesterday afternoon, some five days after the new issue of the Atlantic Monthly had arrived in my mailbox, a fair number of media types had weighed in on the magazine's controversial April cover story on Britney Spears. For those who aren't dedicated media observers, here's the backstory: The Atlantic, a 150-year old, high-minded journal of left-leaning, East Coast intellectualism and Serious Issues had, in a supposed attempt to increase its flagging fortunes, headed westward (and more importantly, downmarket) with "The Britney Show", a densely-packed, 12-page cover story by journalist David Samuels about America's most famous celebrity trainwreck. What became clear, however, is that not many of those media people had actually read it.
Let me rephrase: Not many people had both read it and parsed it. (Unfortunately, and strangely, the story is not yet online. Update: Now it is. ) Samuels' piece, unlike Vanessa Grigoriadis' think piece in last month's Rolling Stone, is not so much the tale of an American tragedy as the tale an American economy. (Photo agency X17 estimates its 2007 Britney-related gross to be some $3 million, or 25% of its entire revenue.) Nor is it, as one blogger attests, the "worst piece by David Samuels I have ever read." In essence, it is a nice bit of gonzo journalism (without the fear and loathing) centered around cars: fancy ones, and the money it takes to buy them (achieved via Hollywood stardom, or the pursuit of and profit from that stardom); fast ones (used to either flee or follow, depending on one's place on the Hollywood food chain); and fatal ones. (Britney's death by car is foreshadowed some four times in the article.) For whatever reason, it reminded me of Tarantino's Death Proof — one paparazzo's car is described as a "stripped-down steel cage that looks ready for Le Mans or Dakar" — with a lot less blood, fewer laughs, a phalanx of burly Brazilians standing in for Kurt Russell and a star-turn by a whiter, more drugged up, more famous radio star.
The conceit is simple: Samuels, who has also written for Harper's and The New Yorker, embeds himself with a team of paparazzi employed by X17 (whose pictures this site publishes dozens of times a week) and assigned specifically to Britney Spears. (The total number of paparazzi following Spears on any given day, Samuels reports, is upwards of 40.) The team is made up of an eight-member, mostly Brazilian team of shooters known as "MBF" who seem alternately bemused and beleaguered by their jobs. (They can make between $800 and $3,000 a week plus bonuses.) The story's supporting cast includes X17's owners, Francois and Brandy Navarre, their $5 million Pacific Palisades mansion (Adam Sandler is a neighbor), and a host of angry, mostly-black office workers who admonish the paparazzi as they lie in wait for Spears outside a Los Angeles courthouse. (Britney's reported lover, paparazzo Adnan Ghalib, also makes a brief cameo).
And of course, there are the cars. In pursuit of Britney, Samuels and his borrowed band of merry thieves go from on-the-street stakeouts high in the Hollywood Hills to the parking garages of fancy hotels and the exteriors of downtown Los Angeles court buildings with their automobiles: black Audis, Ford Crown Victorias (car of choice for the LAPD), Porsche Cayennes, BMW trucks, silver Mercedes', Land Rovers, Ford Explorers (one of which was famously attacked by a bald, umbrella-wielding Spears in February 2007) and of course, Britney's white Mercedes SL65. Interestingly, many of the paparazzi are former valet parkers; one owned two used car lots in his native Brazil. But back to the cars:
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 shes' 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.
Britney's death — or near death — by car is the piece's thru-line, to borrow an industry-phrase from Hollywood. The paparazzi, Samuels intimates, are excited by such a scenario:
The potential upside of waiting 12 or 14 hours a day, six or seven days a week, is the chance that one day Britney will roll her car into a ditch.
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.
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.
"When I ask [paparazzo Luiz Betat] what the pictures the pack is waiting for next, he shrugs. 'Now I think she can have a little car accident," he says simply.
When not imagining — or instigating — an end to Spears in a heap of twisted steel and exploding gas tanks, the paps throw around industry lingo ('door stepping': "the practice of sitting right outside the entrance to a star's house"; 'giving it up': "working with the paparazzi to create memorable shots"; 'heroes': "bystanders who use shouts and curses, and sometimes bottles and fists, to keep the paparazzi from their prey") and reminisce about their best, or rather, most iconic shots: Britney shaving her head; Britney attacking that Explorer with her umbrella. (Interestingly, no mention is made of the period-panty photos.)
Britney, claim the paps, is in on all of it, as does TMZ's Harvey Levin, although he is careful to qualify that assertion by saying that she is also "seriously mentally ill". Her manager, Sam Lufti, tells X17's Brandy Navarre that Britney reads the message boards on photo agency's blog, X17 Online, and comments on the pictures they post of her. (There is also a rumor that when she's unhappy with the shots, she goes out a few days later and restages them.) There is no evidence that Britney restages driving shots, but it's likely that even she — in her drug-addled and/or mentally ill mind — has enough sense not to restage high speed chases down Mulholland Drivea and become another Princess Diana. Likely.
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."
Related: Atlantic Assures Fans It Hasn't Sold Its Soul [AdAge]
Related: Everyone Officially A Tabloid Or About To Become One [Gawker]
The Lady Doth Protest Too Much [Gawker]
Britney For Smart People [Huffington Post]