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Who Needs the Paparazzi When Celebrities Can Publish Photos Themselves?

The era of tabloid dominance ended when the social media age began. But even now, the famous can be trapped by their fame. Just ask Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

Getty 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 8, we’re considering where tabloids stand today, after the internet, media consolidation, and the end of the monoculture have chipped away their power.

The biggest change to the celebrity media ecosystem has undoubtedly come to the industry that lies at the foundation of everything: the paparazzi. Their jobs have fundamentally changed over the last 10 years.

“Now, everyone’s a paparazzi these days,” Us Weekly alum Jen Peros said. “They’re going to post it on their Instagram Story, their Snapchat, their Facebook, their Twitter immediately, so it makes it really hard for entertainment outlets to break a story and also sell magazines.”

“My most recent stint at Us, that was 2017, 2019, so definitely the days of throwing big, big money for photos were over by then,” she continued. “But I would say today, if there was a good set of real paparazzi photos, they would probably sell anywhere from $30,000 to $50,000.”

Back in the day, those shots were probably priced more in the six-figure range. When I asked Jen what kind of photos might fetch a $30,000 to $50,000 price tag these days, she said it would be something that confirms a big rumor. The first images of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez or Irina Shayk and Kanye West walking together in France.

Celebrity control and Instagram are huge reasons photos go for less these days—simple supply and demand. And today there’s not nearly the paparazzi industry that there once was. One person told me there were maybe 20 regular paparazzi photographers working L.A. these days.

Randy Bauer, a paparazzi agency owner, told me that paparazzi made bad business decisions during the rise of the internet and set standards for themselves that would ultimately make their work much, much harder to sustain. You could also say that the change was inevitable. As in all parts of the modern economy, corporate consolidation came to the paparazzi business, and they didn’t see what was coming for them until it was too late. Magazines and websites that were owned by large companies didn’t want to negotiate for every picture that appeared.

“Eventually the websites that were owned by these big publishing conglomerates and they wanted to make a big push, they decided on some type of a model, which was the subscription model,” Bauer said. “Which was, ‘We don’t want to do all this accounting for all these hundreds and thousands of images.’”

Websites wanted to pay a monthly flat fee for unlimited access to photos. No more big bidding wars over exclusives. It was a great deal for the publishing conglomerates and a bad deal for the agencies and photographers.

“The thing is, most of the players in the business were not good businessmen,” Bauer said. “Most of the photographers, most of the agencies, are not good businesspeople at all. There have been numerous times where there was an effort made to not unionize, but to have the major agency players have an agreement and stand by it with the publishers.”

That standard-setting tactic by the paparazzi agencies never really panned out. Randy said the cutthroat, competitive nature of paparazzi meant that none of them really trusted each other. They couldn’t help but screw each other over.

Eventually, a lot of photographers got out of the game. The industry remains in trouble.

Perhaps no two people have campaigned harder against the paparazzi industry than Prince Harry and Meghan Markle over the past few years.

Splash News, once one of the biggest paparazzi agencies, declared bankruptcy in the spring of 2021 after being sued by Meghan Markle for photographing her with her son Archie while on a walk in a park. In fact, Harry and Meghan have gone on something of a lawsuit spree against the tabloids. They’ve sued numerous British papers for defamatory coverage, much of which felt freighted with racist undertones.

For Prince Harry, the demise of the paparazzi and tabloids is nothing but personal, given the way his mother died.

Here he is speaking about her in a BBC documentary.

In 2019, he wrote: “I’ve seen what happens when someone I love is commoditized to the point that they are no longer treated or seen as a real person, I lost my mother and now I watch my wife falling victim to the same powerful forces.”

That commodification of famous people that Harry is talking about here is very real. Harry and Meghan have made for a fascinating, if at times confounding, example of modern fame by both participating in and pushing back against that commodification.

The couple’s desire for privacy runs headlong into their need to make money and maintain a platform for their charitable work: The fame that they seem to hate so much also allows them to lead a very nice life, which involves chickens and a sprawling Montecito estate. For me, Harry’s story is a perfect encapsulation of the tortured way so many of us look at celebrity. You’ve got real sympathy for Harry, the human, wanting his privacy. But then he’s also penning a tell-all book for large sums of money and doing an explosive prime-time special with Oprah.

Harry and Meghan don’t exactly act like people shying away from the limelight, from the commodification of fame. They hate the system, but they’re also trapped in it by need. And the fame system needs them too—one thing you can probably say for sure about Harry and Meghan is that they’re among the few celebrities who elicit strong opinions across vast swaths of the population. Old, young, liberal, conservative—people have feelings about them. They are among the last vestiges of the monoculture.