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The Paparazzi Are the Chaotic Lifeblood of the Tabloid Industry

And in Episode 2 of ‘Just Like Us: The Tabloids That Changed America,’ Clare Malone examines the extreme practices and wobbly ethics that garnered huge payouts for shots of Britney Spears, Jennifer Aniston, and other 2000s luminaries

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Bennifer. Britney. Brangelina. The celebrity gossip of the 2000s is well-documented, but what was it that kept us reaching for copies of Us Weekly and People? On Just Like Us: The Tabloids That Changed America, Clare Malone dives into the era’s celebrity obsession—from the magazine newsrooms, to the paparazzi boom, to the rise of reality television—to tell the stories behind the gossip, and what the tabloid sensation says about American culture. In Episode 2, we’re tracking the history—and ethics—of paparazzi photography, and its relationship with the tabloids.

We have Federico Fellini, the Italian filmmaker, to thank for the word “paparazzi.” In La Dolce Vita, his classic 1960 movie, Marcello Mastroianni plays a celebrity journalist who has some fun in Rome, and is often accompanied on his adventures around town by a photographer known as “paparazzo.”

“Paparazzo” is onomatopoetic—Fellini said it connoted a buzzing and hovering sound. It might have roots in the Sicilian word for a large mosquito, papataceo.

Which might tell you that even back in 1960, people did not think well of paparazzi. Back then, they were thought of as a European scourge. A Time magazine article described them as “more bullyboys than news photographers. They lounge beneath lampposts, lips leaking cigarettes, cameras drawn like automatics.”

Peter Grossman was in charge of Us Weekly’s relationship with the paparazzi during the gold rush years of the early 2000s. He drank with them at the Spotted Pig in New York, got their source tips on celebs, and bid lots and lots of money on their celebrity photo packages. He estimates that during that silly season period of the tabloid war between Us and People, he was spending six figures per issue on photos.

When Peter started at the magazine, paparazzi weren’t necessarily viewed as valued associates by the Manolo Blahnik–shod magazine editors working out of New York City offices.

“Traditionally, it had been sort of an adversarial relationship between magazines like Us, or even, to some extent, the tabloids … who worked very closely of course with the paparazzi, but there was that vendor-client relationship of like, ‘Oh, they’re trying to stiff us,’ and you know, ‘That price is too high,’” he said.

Peter is drawing a distinction here between Us Weekly and say, the National Enquirer, which was seen as more downmarket and tawdry.

Peter started putting more and more photographers on assignment for the magazine, rather than making them work on the spec—that meant freelancers wouldn’t have to pay up front for their own travel fees.

Paparazzi, he said, were often miles ahead of even the magazine’s best reporters as far as knowing what was going on in the entertainment world. Their information was crucial but they needed encouragement, just like any writer on staff.

This is maybe a good place to mention that being a paparazzo is a batshit crazy job that requires people to have some kind of chip missing in order to do it. You need a certain fearlessness, and probably a serious case of I-don’t-give-a-shit-itis. You are not cowed by famous people or awkward situations. You think nothing of hovering over a stranger’s wedding. You probably have a, let’s call it, fluid sense of ethics.

“I’ve had things thrown at me in a car while I was driving because I was on a chase with somebody else,” veteran reporter Jill Ishkanian said. “They don’t care that you’re a woman. They’ll go head-to-head with you. They’ll throw things. They’ll write things online, whatever. Great, I’ll do the same thing back, so get ready.”

Jill’s time as an Us Weekly reporter and West Coast editor actually ended in spectacular fashion. She left to start her own paparazzi agency. Then, Us Weekly staff accused her of hacking into their email to get tips, and the FBI raided Jill’s home and agency. She was never arrested or charged but she did end up suing the magazine’s owners and West Coast bureau chief for $55 million. An appellate court ultimately dismissed all of Jill’s claims.

Mostly what came from all that is Jill’s photo agency went out of business and she started working on her own as a pap. She generated some more press when she called the cops on Heather Locklear for driving erratically, then photographed the police encounter and made $27,000 off the photos.

She’s still working—a lot of times for the Daily Mail. Jill calls herself the tabloid terminator—you can’t kill her off.

You might also call her a piece of work.

“I developed the phone sex voice, and I could get people to do anything,” she said. “I could get women, men, whatever. And I remember I’d be on the phone with guys and they go, ‘You must be ... I don’t know what you look like, but your voice is so sexy.’ And I said, oh, yeah, yeah, real hot. Now tell me about blah, blah, blah.”

Jill is the kind of person who survives in the paparazzi business.

Being a paparazzo isn’t all crazy action, though. In fact, a lot of the work is pure boredom, just sitting in cars, really having to go to the bathroom and waiting for someone to come out so you can get your shot.

Randy Bauer, a former photographer who cofounded the paparazzi agency Bauer-Griffin, told me that in the aftermath of the O.J. Simpson murder trial, he was assigned to watch the grave of Simpson’s slain ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson. Editors wanted a photo of O.J. visiting the grave. So Randy hung out at the cemetery all day every day, for 14-16 hours. Nothing.

And then one day, after a month of going to the cemetery—boom. O.J. A sensational story in one simple picture.

The biggest paydays came to those who knew how to get the shot. Who knew where the celebrities would be, and when. And how to play the game.