Clint Brewer is striking a pose.
The paparazzo has just parked a black BMW sedan in the middle of Otsego Street in North Hollywood. He hops out to get a quick photo when Britney Spears enters her favorite dance studio.
Then two police cruisers pull up. As a stern-looking LAPD officer writes a $50 parking ticket, the blonde British photographer’s colleagues and competitors are playfully snapping away. At him.
“Over the shoulder!” JFX Direct shooter Ulises Rios calls out. Brewer obliges with a red carpet-style turn. He smiles and pulls a hood up coyly to his face.
The photographers that trail Spears day and night are no longer faceless pack animals; they share in a growing edge of her spotlight. Police and deputies are keeping an eye on them, making arrests in recent weeks when paparazzi block sidewalks or disrupt traffic. An LA city councilman is proposing a “personal safety zone” to keep them away from targets.
Newcomer Hollywood.tv is making waves with a splashy Lamborghini-driving founder and brand-building business plan. One of the most well-known agencies, X17, faces questions about its aggressive tactics.
(Their current relationship status is unclear. “Everyone thought at first that it was a setup, but he really cares about her,” JFX co-founder Arnold Cousart said of Ghalib, a competitor and friend.)
Plenty of people have been riding “the Britney wave,” in the words of Hollywood.tv founder Sheeraz Hasan. (“It’s been a big blessing,” he said.) Despite her appearance on “How I Met Your Mother” and release of a new music video, her most-viewed online videos remain shaky street footage that often features as much of the swarming photographers as it does of Spears.
There’s still good money in it. One agency leader said two of his paparazzi made $100,000 each last year, solely through sales of Spears photos.
Though paparazzi are disparaged by mainstream media, discouraged by the cops and despised by the same public that consumes their product, there’s at least one person who may not want to see them go away: Spears herself. The fallen pop star knows some paparazzi by name, and occasionally sends shout-outs to specific agencies. They are part of her everyday life and, strangely, part of her social circle.
Their images captured her spectacular free fall: The no-underwear car exit, the umbrella attack, the head shaving, the hospital gurney ride (posted on JFX paparazzo Galo Ramirez’s MySpace page with the caption “cha-ching! cha-ching!!”).
Lately, they’ve shown the beats of her recovery: Shopping for jeans, teaching kids at Millennium Dance Complex, scoping out designer gown shop Monique Lhuillier on Melrose Place.
And here’s how the Brit Pack knew she was headed all these places: They never stopped following her. Most paparazzi, in Los Angeles and worldwide, zero in on celeb whereabouts by cruising the streets, soliciting tips from valet parkers and waiters, or camping outside a trendy restaurant or nightclub.
The approach to Spears is different.
At least four of the celebrity photo and video agencies — JFX, X17, Hollywood.tv, and Finalpixx — have for at least six months directed their shooters to park along scenic Mulholland Drive and wait for her to leave her home in a hilltop gated community called The Summit. It’s a tactic called “doorstepping,” taken to 24/7 extremes for Spears.
They leave engines running for hours on end, ready to give chase if Spears’ vehicle is spotted heading down the curvy roads into Beverly Hills or the San Fernando Valley. The men inside stare blankly into rearview mirrors, ready for pursuit.
At just after 1 p.m. on a recent weekday, two men recline in one of five SUVs parked on a shoulder west of Spears’ home (more vehicles are to the east). Electronica blasts from its open windows. The passenger, thin with bags under his eyes, says they’d been on the job for 20 hours.
“We can’t really talk,” he muttered. “We’re too tired.”
When they do talk, nearly all use “chirp” functions on cell phones that allow instant communication. During the down periods, there’s friendly chat: The TMZ guy calls the Hollywood.tv guy to find out the latest rumors, for example.
But when a chase is on, competitive juices flow, and information flows solely inside agencies.
Sandro, a Brazilian photographer for X17 who refused to give his last name, sat in his black two-door Ford on Mulholland when two SUVs on either side of him suddenly made U-turns and sped off.
He sat mystified for about 20 seconds, then got a chirp — “Laurel Canyon” — and zipped off after them.
A cop following a Spears paparazzi chase simply wouldn’t know where to begin. Sandro zipped past two cars in the middle of a narrow Mulholland intersection. Later, a green SUV with a massive dent on the passenger side passed several cars on the crowded two-lane road.
“The chases are ridiculously dangerous,” Hollywood.tv paparazzo Craig Williams acknowledged. His boss purchased a Volkswagen Beetle for use on the job. Others drive rented SUVs or leased BMWs with free maintenance, handy because the downhill racing necessitates constant brake work.
“Sometimes we do have to take a yellow or red (light), but you know, to me it looks like a centipede,” said Sergio Huapaya, the 34-year-old co-owner of JFX Direct. He said his car is heavily damaged from chase accidents.
Camera memory cards and mini-DV tapes are dropped off with runners immediately after any Spears sighting, to be processed at agency offices.
Outlets are free to run the footage free of charge in exchange for including the Hollywood.tv logo. Funded by 22 investors from LA, London, India and Dubai, the 33-year-old entrepreneur pays his paparazzi at least $7,000 a month, and is known to make secret payments to rival agency photographers in exchange for Spears information.
He’s burning through money, but said he hopes the Hollywood.tv brand will soon become so valuable he can sell it off for “over a billion.”
As Hollywood.tv has come to dominate video coverage with its business model, X17 dominates photo coverage of Spears with sheer numbers. Run by Francois and Brandy Navarre, it consists of dozens of street-smart former valets or waiters, many from Brazil.
Rivals say X17 is responsible over the last four years for making old-school undercover paparazzi — using stakeouts and long zoom lenses — largely irrelevant. It’s a rare moment nowadays that Spears doesn’t know she’s being photographed. Instead, X17 and other new-school shooters swarm and shove to get the best shots.
This L.A. story merges with another one: immigration.
“There’s a lot of illegals out there, and X17 has a lot of them,” said Morgan of Splash. Francois Navarre has said that many paparazzi are in the process of becoming legal immigrants.
“It used to be all white guys,” Cousart said. “Now it’s like ‘We Are The World’ out there.”
“I call them knuckle-scraping mouth breathers,” Griffin said. “They can either make $1,500 a month running around with cameras, or they can go rob a 7-Eleven.”
“We see them as the scourge of the problem,” Cousart said in one breath, before acknowledging in the next that his guys join in the scrum: “We’ve got to play or we’re going to starve.”
They won’t — so long as there’s interest in the pictures they provide.
‘Leave her alone’
Spears is shopping with her mother at the Miss Sixty jeans store at the corner of Melrose and Crescent Heights. Twenty-six paparazzi line up against store windows, pointing cameras inside from every possible angle.
Catcalls come from passing vehicles: “Get a life!” and “Leave her the (expletive) alone, you idiots!”
But also, over and over again, there’s the question — the one that stems from the same curiosity keeping glossy celebrity magazines alive: “Who’s in there?”
One photographer responds: “Who do you think?”