The celebrity industrial complex shows no signs of slowing down, and the business of tracking public figures continues to be lucrative. Just ask Vlad, a paparazzo who drives a brand new Mercedes E350, which he paid for in cash.
In a lengthy, worth-your-while read at Rolling Stone, writer Stephen Rodrick spends two weeks with Vlad, following the photographer on the hunt in West Hollywood and Beverly Hills. Vlad comes off as foul-mouthed and aggressive, but generally upbeat, although his moods swing wildly as he works: He's excited and elated when he gets the shot he wants and beyond angry when he doesn't. Because there's so much money on the line. Vlad made more than $100,000 last year, which, according to Rodrick, is on the high end of the pap-salary scale. The goal is to get an exclusive shot when there aren't a ton of other paparazzi around — when you're in a mob of them, it's called a "gang bang" and the value drops.
Here's who makes money for the paps:
$100-$1000 for Kendall Jenner:
…An exclusive shot of Jenner might make you a grand; a gang-bang shot with hair in her eyes might make you 100 bucks…
$500-$1000 for January Jones in mommy mode:
Vlad might make about $500 for an exclusive Jones shot, but could make twice that for one with her kid.
$500 for Isla Fisher coming out of West Elm:
Like many famous people, Fisher has an intuition about paps and somehow sensed Vlad's presence parked outside. She induced a sales clerk to walk out in front of her and even slid in on the passenger side of her car. Vlad still got the picture.
"Bbrrraaatt," says Vlad, making a noise that sounds like semiautomatic gunfire. "That picture sold, son, for about 500 bucks." He has an imaginary conversation with Fisher. "You blocked. It sold. Clap. Thank you!"
$60 for Gerard Butler; $900 for Jessica Alba carrying a designer bag:
A good Gerard Butler shot earned Vlad only 60 bucks, but a crummy photo of Jessica Alba scored him $900 last month. Why? Alba is carrying a Christian Dior bag, and Christian Dior bought the picture.
$1,000 for Kim Kardashian at the airport:
He says he might make $10,000 once resales are factored in. This is unlikely – agencies will be flooded with gang-bang photos of Kim from LAX and will be happy to go with a slightly crappier photo to save some bucks, undercutting the value of Vlad's pristine shot. Later, once the adrenaline wears off, he admits he'll make only $1,000.
$20,000 for Kate Middleton and Prince William:
[Vlad's colleague/competitor] Top Hat Rick found himself immersed in a crowd in Hancock Park when Prince William and Kate Middleton emerged from the British Consulate General's house in 2011, and he made $20,000.
And a BIG, BIG score for Amanda Bynes:
In September 2012, he was eating at a Mexican restaurant on Sunset when he saw Amanda Bynes coming out of her gym. Bynes had her license suspended after a DUI and two alleged hit-and-run incidents, so she was hot in the pap world. Vlad grabbed his camera from the seat next to him. He ran in front of her and started shooting. Bynes was pissed and started scratching at Vlad's arms and neck. He didn't mind – he had a precious exclusive, and the photographs and video made him $85,000, according to Vlad.
But Vlad's not the only one benefitting from paparazzi shots. In many cases, the stars themselves are in on the game, and making money, eventually, in some form or another. Rodrick writes, "The ugly secret is, some stars want to be hunted." Britney Spears used to call certain paps right before making a move. "Kim Kardashian routinely tipped off the paps in her early days. Someone falling off the fame radar, like Denise Richards or Tori Spelling, will make arrangements for paps to come over and shoot them with their kids."
And that's not all:
"Sometimes publicists tip off the paps without telling their clients," says Scott Cosman, owner of the photo agency FameFlynet. "They think their client needs the hit, but the star might think it's beneath them, so they just leak the information without telling them."
Sometimes it's about reframing the narrative. Before Angelina Jolie became a humanitarian, she was best known for wearing a vial of blood around her neck and kissing her brother. After she adopted seven-month-old Maddox from a Cambodian orphanage, Jolie carefully orchestrated a photo shoot with an approved pap that repositioned her image from troubled goth to responsible adult. After she started dating Brad Pitt, it was leaked to a photo agency that they would be taking their first big vacation at Kenya's Diani Beach, not exactly a pap hangout. The pictures rocked the tabloid world. (Now the couple are among the toughest celebs to snap, vacationing where paps can't get to without an AmEx black card and a helicopter.)
Many celebs simply like the cash. Lindsay Lohan has tipped off paps about her next stop in return for a gratuity. Ryan Reynolds is known to have an antagonistic relationship with the paparazzi, but recently he has been "captured" eating Chobani yogurt, carrying a Burger King bag, smiling at a Nespresso cafe and caressing a Can-Am motorcycle, all in apparently preplanned shots. The last photo is Reynolds driving away on the motorcycle.
It's a fascinating look at who's selling, who's buying, who's feeding our culture's insatiable appetite for celebrity "news." The business is complicated, intense, competitive and dangerous — unlike the day I followed a paparazzo on a bike in New York, most of the snappers in L.A. are in cars, making U-turns, tailgating and chasing down busy boulevards. I recommend that you read the entire eye-opening article; it will make you wonder how and why we got to this place, and who's using who? And if you're not convinced that the entire enterprise is just an ouroboros of greed and cash-funneling, consider this:
TMZ has tons of [money]. TMZ has the cash to buy off valets and info like flight lists or even the limo list of what celeb is being picked up where and when. Now paps feel like they can make just as much money from tipping off TMZ as from selling their photos. [Founder Harvey Levin] has started TMZ Sports and is rumored to be trying to expand his empire, but his primary revenue is still original recipe TMZ – his website and a nightly television show that, interestingly enough, is syndicated by Warner Bros., the employer of many of the stars that TMZ stalks.
Images via Splash.