For as long as I can remember, I have been obsessed with entertainment and celebrities. In lieu of candy or toys, I would ask my mom to buy me the latest copies of tabloid magazines at the store. I could come home and feverishly pour over copies of People, US Weekly, or Star. I would read about the hottest totally untrue gossip or look at the copious photos of celebrities doing stuff just like me: taking out the garbage, eating dinner, or going to the beach! (The biannual issues that showed the worst pictures of female celebrities in swimsuits definitely did not give me a skewed body image.) I was addicted to getting this faux inside look into the lives of the rich and famous: I want to be them, look like them, and one day see my own scandal on the glossy cover.
But, as I grew older, I realized that this obsession was, yes, fed by the allure of the celebrity, but also would not exist without the paparazzi. Sure, they’re seen as money-hungry villains looking to stalk celebrities and monetize their personal lives, but they also give fans an inside look into their worlds that goes deeper than the facade of celebrity. They give an unfiltered and sometimes unwarranted look into fame that is unmatched in Hollywood, a way to connect to our favorite stars. They are just as much of a celebrity as anyone else.
When thinking of celebrities, you think of those flashing lights; the red carpets; the crowds. This is the marker of the paparazzi: those flashing lights, hoards of men in fedoras holding bulky cameras wearing ill-fitting jeans. The paparazzi are so commonplace that we’ve forgotten that there are real people behind the pictures. It’s become universally accepted that celebrities should have every last crumb of their privacy evaded; the world learned their name and, now, the world deserves to know everything else about them. While often overlooked, in many ways, they are the subculture that is the backbone of the celebrity and of Hollywood.
This is why the paparazzi are so incredibly fascinating to me and why I’ve chosen them for my subculture. Sure, most of the time, what they do is a complete violation of privacy and often creepy, but, like the rest of us, have a job that they’re just trying to do. While a seemingly stagnant profession, the paparazzi continues to evolve with the expansion of the world celebrity and the dominance of internet culture. Through exploring the sensationalized celebrity-obsessed culture that created and continues to foster paparazzi, as well as the countless scandals and infamy that casts a dark shadow over the profession, I aim to answer this question: in an age where a celebrity’s privacy has essentially been vanquished by social media, is it hypocritical to still villainize the paparazzi? If not, where do we draw the line between privacy and celebrity, unfiltered and Instagrammable; and what side of the line are the paparazzi on?
I’ve separated my findings into three sections based on Stefani Germanotta’s hit 2008 song, “Paparazzi,” and her first three albums: The Fame, The Fame Monster, and The Fame Monster (Deluxe Edition). This section aims to dissect the history of the profession, its evolution, and how the paparazzi came to become so famous (and infamous) in our culture.
The official title ‘paparazzi’ derives from Federico Fellini’s 1960 Italian film La Dolce Vita, about a disenchanted tabloid reporter who skulks around Roman nightlife on the prowl for his next story with his partner in crime, photographer Paparazzo.
Paparazzi have been around since at least the 1950s as celebrities rose to a god-like prominence and tabloid magazines were looking for unstaged celebrity photos to give fans an intimate look at their favorite stars and to stir up a little controversy. Two years earlier marked the first recorded paparazzi photo, taken by Tazio Secchiaroli in Rome, of King Farouk of Egypt with two women that were very much not his wife.
As a self-admitted and prideful history geek, this timeline intrigued me. The emergence of the paparazzi and the rise in public fascination with celebrities came as televisions were ushered into homes all around the world, making the celebrity closer than ever. The first colored television was released in 1953 at the tail-end of the Korean War and nearly a decade after World War II ended. During this decade, the American economy grew by 37%, American households had 30% more purchasing power than they did the decade prior, and unemployment was a record low of 4.5%. Less than two decades out from the Great Depression, America was thriving economically and that meant there was more time to focus on entertainment (and that there were funds to do so.) Plus, with the release of the first polaroid camera in 1948, the paparazzi could bring it to them easier, quicker, and in larger volumes than ever before.
So, with these technological advances, Hollywood had become much more accessible. There were hoards of entertainment to consume and Americans were hungry for it. But, as the 20th Century steamed ahead, the days of Hollywood glamour were fading. The Vietnam War had begun and the anti-war and Civil Rights movements were on the rise. The President was shot, along with countless Civil Rights leaders. The innocence of the 1950s had essentially vanished. When it came to the celebrity, much like everything else in American culture, greed soon set in and people wanted more and more access to the rich and famous. What began as just an extra peek into celebrity life became more intense. It was no longer the red carpets, award shows, and glamorous parties. As the world was technologically advancing at a rapid pace and people were consuming content more than ever, a craving to see a celebrity’s authenticity and the pressure to get the perfect candid photo was also rapidly advancing.
What was also rapidly advancing was the volume of celebrities and how the term continued to evolve. In the 1950s, it was mostly movie stars like Marilyn Monroe or crooners like Frank Sinatra. The 1960s saw the rise of the boyband with the “British Invasion” as rock bands grew rabid fan bases and the “rock star” was born. Child actors were also becoming increasingly popular, with family shows like The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family churning out celebrities that all members of the family across the globe could relate to. There were the soap opera stars, the lovable sitcom casts, the teen heartthrobs, young beautiful starlets, etc. Even the children of politicians and the politicians themselves were becoming less of public servants and more of celebrities after the Watergate scandal of the early ‘70s erased the untouchable superiority of our government officials. Everyone and anyone could be considered a celebrity and the paparazzi were there to capture it all.
Thus, as the 1950s fueled the image and allure of the celebrity, the subsequent decades that had long shed the post-World War II glow fueled the meteoric ascent of the paparazzi. By the dawn of the new millennium, tabloid magazines were more popular than ever, with an average of $10 billion in revenue in the 2000s, hitting a peak in 2005. The paparazzi were more profitable than ever, with a paparazzo receiving anywhere between 20% and 70% of the royalties the picture earns, depending on the photographer and the deal he or she negotiated with the agency. Peter Grossman, former US weekly editor, was quoted as saying he paid “mid-six figures” for a series of photographs of actress Kristen Stewart in a passionate embrace with Rupert Sanders, the married director of her film Snow White and the Huntsman.
As the increasingly lucrative career hit a stride in the 2000s, social media was on the rise with popular sites like Facebook and Myspace. Social media stars emerged and the definition of celebrity began to evolve along with the definition of the paparazzi. The paparazzi began to shift from solely tabloid magazines to, presently, things like Hollywood Fix, a Youtube channel run by a paparazzo who follows around and interviews social media influencers. The channel, created in 2014, has 1.86 million subscribers and their most popular video garnered over 16 million views. On social media, we can access our favorite people at any given moment. We need to constantly know their every move and, with things like Hollywood Fix, we can. The fan/celebrity relationship is more intimate than ever. While celebrities began elusive figures, they are now like our friends (i.e. they post relatable videos in their messy bedrooms). But, like always, where the celebrity stops sharing about their personal lives in the press or online, the paparazzi begin. But when you can know everything about a person from the click of a button, what else is there for the paparazzi to uncover?
Despite the evolution of the celebrity and the uncertain future of the profession, the paparazzi have become a fixture in Hollywood. What would a celebrity be without the paparazzi to heighten their aura of elusivity and glamour or without a crowd of people running after them to get the perfect shot? However, as the demand for paparazzi and revenue increased through the second half of the 20th Century and beginning of the 21st, the paparazzi attained a level of iconicity, along with a slew of controversies, scandals, and damaging notoriety.
The Fame Monster
This section aims to delve into the most notable scandals and controversies surrounding the paparazzi and the potential hypocrisy in the harsh critiques of them by celebrities and fans alike.
In 2003, Ellen von Unwerth did a cover shoot for Q Magazine inspired by the paparazzi in which David Bowie and Kate Moss shielded themselves from the camera, hiding from the lens as though protecting their privacy from the paparazzi. By this time, the paparazzi had become celebrities in their own right but had also become villains. There were lawsuits, accusations of invasions of privacy, questions of morality. They were seen as ruthless enemies of the famous, driven to get the best photo with the highest price point by all means necessary. This photo shoot is the perfect example of the hypocrisy in this argument. The paparazzi were seen as lowly and malicious, but the idea of them had become glamorized by two of Hollywood’s biggest stars. The elite attacked the paparazzi but could use them for inspiration as long as they benefited from it. However, while it is hypocritical, it doesn’t mean that the paparazzi are always angels and it certainly doesn’t mean that the opposing argument doesn’t have its own validity.
It would take pages and pages and days upon days to list every controversial paparazzi tale, so I’ll only list the most famously infamous, beginning with actress Anita Ekberg. Ironically, Ekberg was the star of La Dolce Vita but, a few years after the film’s release, frustrated with the paparazzi camping outside of her home, went on to her front lawn with her bow and arrow and began shooting at the ground. She is my hero. There are also stories like Lindsay Lohan totaling her car in an attempt to speed away from the paparazzi and Kanye West assaulting a group of them and destroying all of their equipment.
There are also numerous paparazzi v. celebrity lawsuits, including, in 2008, when George Clooney sued a paparazzo for trespassing on his private lawn (Clooney won) and Kate Middleton won a number of civil cases against the paparazzi leading up to her wedding. The most famous lawsuit is from the 1970s when the famously private former First Lady Jackie Onassis Kennedy sued a paparazzo for following her around New York City and taking unwarranted pictures of her. Kennedy won and successfully got a restraining order against the man. On the reverse of this, lawsuits filed by the paparazzi have recently been a relevant topic in the media. Multiple celebrities have posted photos taken by the paparazzi at either events or candid photographs on their social media without compensating or crediting the photographer. This was even a hot topic at one of my internships this semester, as one of our clients was being threatened with a copyright lawsuit for a paparazzi photo we posted on Instagram. This is another shining example of hypocrisy when it comes to the treatment of the paparazzi: don’t photograph and make money on my personal life but, if it’s flattering, I can make money on your photograph.
Along with lawsuits, legislative action was taken against the paparazzi. Along with no being able to trespass on private property or falsify the identity of a subject, in 2013, there was a law passed in Los Angeles that made it a misdemeanor to photograph a child without parental permission. This law was lauded by celebrities and residents of Los Angeles. In a Loyola of Los Angeles Entertainment Law review in support of the law, Dayna Berkowitz went as far as to call the paparazzi “Nazis”, adding “My daughter doesn’t want to go to school because she knows ‘the men’ are watching for her. They jump out of the bushes and from behind cars and who knows where else, besieging these children just to get a photo.” While this may be a bit extreme, despite the unspoken rule that, once you become relevant, you consent to all parts of your life on display, the children of the famous are not only are they minors but cannot consent to the fame or to having a stranger use their picture for profit. The child’s exposure to the world should be controlled by the parents and, eventually, themselves. This law did upset members of the paparazzi due to the potential loss of revenue, however, no one should be haunted by unwarranted pictures of you as a toddler at a juice place in Studio City.
With that, it’s also important to note the tragic stories concerning the paparazzi that have brought the issue of morality to the forefront. Two of the most famous are the Britney Spears incident of 2007 and Princess Diana’s death in 1997. The Britney incident has been turned into a joke by the internet and “Britney in 2007” has become a mainstay in American pop culture. However, that incident was instigated and fueled by the paparazzi. They refused to leave her alone after she asked repeatedly; they kept taking photos of her that were mocked in the press and on the internet; they were running every aspect of her life and she hit her breaking point. Now, with the release of the Hulu/New York Times documentary on Britney and her conservatorship, this issue has been brought to light again. Though people began to feel remorse for the way they treated Britney Spears, the paparazzi involved who were featured in the documentary still see themselves as the victim for how it affected their career and how they were treated. It is a horrific example of a person being seen as a dollar sign rather than a human being. Britney Spears was seen as a pawn to both the press and the people close to her. It is a horrifying situation and really calls into question: When someone is at their breaking point, is the money really more important?
Princess Diana’s death is also a tragedy at the hands of the paparazzi. While a lot of details were at play in the cause of her death, the main factor was the paparazzi hounding her, chasing her car as it sped to get away, and tragically crashed before she could escape. After the tragedy, paparazzi across the globe were legally not allowed to pursue subjects in cars. Of course, a human life was not worth the shot or worth the money, but this incident marked a point of no return for the paparazzi. They weren’t just ruthless money-hungry pests; they were murderers. They murdered one of the most famous and prolific women of all time.
Thus, the paparazzi, with their solidified villain status, became the symbol for greed, and for a depraved lack of morality. While I do believe some of it is justified, I also believe that a celebrity’s invasion of privacy is an oxymoron. Unlike you’re someone like Daniel Day Lewis, you chose this lifestyle in part for the recognition, the fame, the idea that everyone in the world could know your name. Like any other job in the world, it may have its downfalls like the constant exposure, but it’s a part of the description. I like to imagine it’s in the contract you sign in when you become a celebrity, filed under “selling your soul to Meryl Streep.”
Despite this, celebrities continue to treat the paparazzi like the devil. As a result, a lot of fans also have this negative connotation about them due to seeing their favorite celebrity say how awful the paparazzi are. But the fact of the matter is that both of these groups need the paparazzi. Fans need it to see what their idol is up to every second of every day and the idol needs it to stay relevant. Because while you have to have a certain amount of relevancy to complain about the paparazzi, the paparazzi is what keeps you relevant. In fact, most celebrities even work with the paparazzi. Nowadays, these is predominantly influencers, who will call the paparazzi to their location so they look important with a hoard of cameras following them, have them take professional-looking photos they can post on the internet, and both parties benefit monetarily. A great example of this is social media influencer Madison Beer. She got negative press back in June for calling paparazzi to take photos of her at a Black Lives Matter protest. The photoshoot stopped traffic and caused a spectacle. After it was over, Madison promptly left the event, went home, and posted the photo to her Instagram proclaiming her support for the movement. Much like most of the criticism of the paparazzi, her activism was performative, artificial, and downright embarrassing.
Truthfully, I didn’t realize until recently how often things like this happen. Fans are kept in the dark about celebrities working with paparazzi, so they really think that their idols are being harassed by the paparazzi and have no moment of peace. In actuality, most photos are manufactured and even the supposed candid authentic ones have some teams of managers with big bank accounts and even bigger connections behind it. But in Hollywood, do you expect any less? Yes, the paparazzi aren’t saints; in fact, their sleazy reputation is justified. When watching videos from the Hollywood Fix, I feel like I need a shower after just hearing the guy’s voice. But I think that celebrities droning on and on about how horrific they are is absurd. It’s like me saying I don’t like Dunkin Donuts. Yes, they take all of my money and, yes, my order is only right one out of ten times, but we both need each other in order to succeed.
It’s also important to note that the performative activism of Madison Beer and countless other influencers and celebrities bleeds into the villainization of the paparazzi. In the article “Performative Wokeness / White Victimhood: The Hypocrisy of Celebrity Villainization,” Vanessa Díaz suggested that it’s an issue with roots in race. Celebrities are routinely hostile towards the paparazzi, who are predominantly Latino men, and the critique of the paparazzi often comes in the form of a narrative of white women’s victimhood from celebrities who express fear of the photographers they frame in stereotypical gendered and racialized terms. Celebrities are notorious for performative activism, for putting on a front of being so welcoming to all people of all backgrounds. Obviously, this isn’t true and, more than anything, celebrities just like to make things about themselves (think: the “Imagine” video.) Celebrities are so out of touch that they couldn’t even begin to grasp that not only is their hypocrisy towards the paparazzi classist, it’s also racist and littered with inherent biases.
The Fame Monster (Deluxe Edition)
So, yes, the paparazzi are a vital fixture in Hollywood. They are utilized by the celebrity for their own personal gain just as much as a paparazzo would do the same. The photographs and videos produced by the paparazzi have taken the form of tabloid fodder, lawsuits, successful social media platforms, tragedy, even entertainment itself. Look at TMZ; it’s an internet tabloid built on gossip, scandals, and candid paparazzi photographs that has aired on Fox since 2007. (Much to my horror in researching this paper, it is still running. This piece of information caused me to audibly gasp.)
That being said, as we have seen the rise of the paparazzi, we are now seen what could be their fatal fall. The rise of social media has been a primary factor in their demise. With apps like Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok, we can see unfiltered photos and videos of our idols in an instant (I say unfiltered with a large grain of salt.) Even better, this content comes straight from the source. We can watch their every move across the internet, read their thoughts on current issues and upcoming projects, and the faux fan/celebrity friendship feels more real than ever. Why do we need the paparazzi to take a photo of Blake Likely at SoulCycle when I saw she posted about it on her story three days ago? We are constantly perceiving and being perceived on social media. There is no real privacy anymore and social media fuels that consumer greed for an incessant flow of content.
Another factor that has contributed to the fall of the paparazzi is the sheer controversy that surrounds them. It’s hard to make a respected living when you’re seen to be the most hated subculture in Hollywood, hated the most by the people in charge of Hollywood. Paparazzi scandals and controversies have led to aforementioned laws and lawsuits that have heavily prohibited where the paparazzi can go, when they can go there, and how long they can be there. They have to choose between the best photograph or potential prison time. They are being policed more than ever before and obtaining six figures for a shot is nearly unheard of anymore. Additionally, the paparazzi have been negatively impacted by the paywall. Subscription services for news publications led to a decrease in sales, which led to a decrease in how much content tabloid magazines were buying, which led to a great loss for the paparazzi. Furthermore, with a lot of these publications with subscriptions feature paparazzi photos, the material may be more expensive, but the paparazzi get no cut of the money made from subscriptions, which is infuriating, unjust, and capitalist greed at its finest.
The fall of the paparazzi predates the pandemic. In fact, it can be traced back to the economic recession of 2008. However, of course, like most work, the paparazzi have also suffered greatly in the past year. The economy has been poor, meaning less funds to purchase photographs, and celebrities just aren’t going out as much. They are not red carpets or fabulous after-parties. The famous are nestled away from the bulb in the Hollywood Hills, away from the fame and away from aiding the bank accounts of struggling paparazzi.
However, despite all of this talk of their demise, do I think the paparazzi will ever truly go away? Absolutely not. For every staged inauthentic paparazzi photo, there is one legendary one that keeps them in business that will continue to fuel the industry (think: the multiple paparazzi photos of Ben Affleck dropping Dunkin coffees, some of my favorite photographs to ever exist.) There are also the legendary and wholesome photos of Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield leaving lunch holding pieces of cardboard over their faces, acknowledging that they’ve seen the paparazzi and would like to take this opportunity to shed a light on a non-profit organization. And that’s what fans want to see. Despite social media vanquishing our privacy, fans still want to see celebrities unfiltered, they still want to see what celebrities are doing outside of their clean-cut Instagram accounts. What do they really look like without FaceTune and a team of people to pose, edit, and upload it? Because of this, while it may never get back to what it was once as social media continues to dominate our culture, fans can never get enough content of their favorite celebrities. Especially content that is so mundane, like taking or the trash or going to dinner. It’s the “I do that!” mentality: paparazzi photos make fans see that their idol is just as human and boring as they are. And relatability never goes out of style.
To address the second half of my research question: Where do we draw the line between privacy and celebrity, unfiltered and Instagrammable; and what side of the line are the paparazzi on?, to be quite honest, I don’t believe there is one right answer. I think that the line between privacy and celebrity was exterminated with social media and it’s nearly impossible to find anything truly unfiltered on Instagram anymore. With the paparazzi themselves taking the stage with TMZ and Hollywood Fix, they’ve established that they can stand on both sides of the line. And, no matter what, there will always be a demand for them. More than anything, Hollywood loves itself and they will never stop having the opportunity for fans and the paparazzi to treat them as the ever-important narcissistic people they are. For the paparazzi, it’s a monetary boost. For the celebrity, it’s a monetary and ego boost. What could possibly go wrong?
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