April 6, 2008

Focusing on 'The New Paparazzi'

This month, a paparazzo's picture of Britney Spears appeared on the cover of the venerable Atlantic Monthly - the 150-year-old magazine that published Emerson and Twain and Hawthorne - which caused an outbreak of hand-wringing and brow-furrowing among the sort of people who habitually keep an eye out for signs of the incipient fall of Western civilization.

Britney on the cover of the Atlantic - another omen of the apocalypse?

Relax, hand-wringers, the Atlantic has not become a cheesy checkout tabloid. The April issue contains no celebrity diet tips, no Brangelina updates, nothing to interfere with your enjoyment of Christopher Hitchens' literary essay on Ezra Pound. And the cover story isn't really about Britney. It's about the photographers who stalk her, chronicling the soap opera of her horrific descent into madness.

"Between 30 and 45 paparazzi work Britney on any given night," writes David Samuels, a veteran magazine writer with a sharp eye for the ridiculous. "History's best-publicized celebrity meltdown has helped fuel dozens of television shows, magazines and Internet sites, the combined value of whose Britney-related product easily exceeds $100 million a year."

Samuels spent several long days and nights with what he calls "the new paparazzi." These are not the grizzled tabloid photographers of yore. Many are young Brazilian immigrants who were working as pizza deliverers and valet parkers until they were recruited as Britney-stalkers by Francois Navarre, the French photographer who founded X17, Hollywood's biggest paparazzi agency. It was an X17 photographer who shot the famous photo of Britney shaving her head in an L.A. hair salon. Another X17 shooter snapped the picture of an enraged Britney attacking his SUV with an umbrella.

Samuels hung around with the X17 shooters while they hung around waiting for Britney to stop hanging around her house and take a ride in her white Mercedes. When she did, they followed her through Los Angeles. One afternoon, they chased the Mercedes "at a scarily high speed" while Britney blared her new album on the car stereo and sang along.

One day, a mob of 50 paparazzi loitered outside a Los Angeles courthouse, waiting for Britney to show up at a child-custody hearing. A passerby spotted them and yelled, "Leave that poor, poor girl alone."

It was the voice of reason, but of course the photographers ignored it. They were too busy working to fulfill America's pathetic desire to watch high-flying superstars crash and burn.

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