C’mon. Admit it. Every time you’re in the line at Safeway, you can’t help taking a discrete peek at the tabloids. Gotta get your fix on celebrity tittle-tattle. What’s with Brad and Angie’s breakup? Is Lindsey in trouble again? How’s Kirstie’s diet working? Today we are going to interview Jennifer Buhl, author of Shooting Stars: My Unexpected Life Photographing Hollywood’s Most Famous, published this week by Sourcebooks.
For 3 years, Jennifer was a paparazza (that’s feminine singular for paparazzi) in Los Angeles, one of the 5 women in a profession that has always been driven by testosterone. By the time she left, she was one of the most successful in the business. Her pictures of the stars have been published worldwide in the major tabloids and celebrity gossip venues. Her photographs of Paris Hilton clutching a bible and of Kristen Stewart smoking pot with her boyfriend the week of the opening of Twilight have achieved iconic status.
Of all the books that I have represented, I think Shooting Stars has been the most fun to work on. It’s filled with breathless chase scenes, sly humor, and an inside look at the real life of the celebs that is surprisingly respectful, given the bad rap on paparazzi these days. Jennifer is always a part of the story without ever hijacking the story. She conveys the enthusiasm and fun of the chase. But this book has a larger virtue as well. It’s a lot more than just a slick Hollywood tell all. More than any book I have ever read, it brings out the way celebrity works in our culture.
Jennifer stopped papping several years ago when she had a child. She lives in Boulder where she works as a photographer specializing in family photos which are stunning.
Oh, and if you want to make a movie based on Jennifer’s life as a pap, contact me.
Andy Ross: Jennifer, let’s get right down to the nitty-gritty: do the celebs want to be photographed?
Jennifer Buhl: Without a doubt, there is a symbiotic relationship between paparazzi and celebrity. At some point in most careers, the stars want it and need it. Being compliant with the paparazzi can skyrocket a no-name to fame. I watched Zac Efron and Miley Cyrus, Katherine Heigl and Hayden Panettiere go from unknown to super famous within a few months because they were available to the paparazzi and they let us photograph them. Most celebrities who are in the tabloids every week are there by choice. Period. You do not need to feel sorry for them. That said, I think celebrities want to live like normal people. They want to pump their own gas, they want to eat out, they want to go to the grocery store. — Well, I’ve never seen Paris Hilton at the grocery store, but most of them do. So there usually comes a point when a celeb is what we call ‘savaged’ so much by the paps that they just can’t take it any more, and they burn out. We expect that. No big deal. Without photos, we go away pretty quickly.
Andy: You have some wonderful (and hysterically funny) digressions where you offer advice to the stars about how to either avoid or attract paparazzi. Can you share a few tips with us?
Jennifer: When a star stops wanting to be photographed, the easiest, most polite, and most importantly, effective way to rid herself of paparazzi is to ‘cover.’ She can get out of her car with her hand in front of her face, with an umbrella, with a book. She does that 3 times in a row, and I’ll tell you, we’re not going to be sitting outside her house because we’re not going to make any money. That’s how the big celebrities — Jennifer Aniston, Ashton Kutcher — avoid getting photographed. And there are lots of other ways to avoid us: Take taxi’s, not limos. Buy a house on a busy or parking-metered street – you’ll be much harder to ‘doorstep.’ Park your car in your garage, not in your driveway – we won’t be able to tell if you’re home, so we’re less likely to wait on you. If you must fly into LAX, come in at night and not on American Airlines.
Andy: In spite of the bad reputation of paps (at one point, you describe paps as buzzards feeding on carcasses of celebs), what comes from reading your book is a very different and much more complex dynamic. It seems almost like a delicate pas de deux. Can you describe this a little?
Jennifer: I like that, a duet. It’s true, we dance together – literarily, on the street, and figuratively, which is of course what you meant. I was usually shooting the stars, not watching the paparazzi, but occasionally when I did – and it was a seasoned celebrity and a seasoned pap – it was actually really beautiful. A dance. A tease.
Andy: Who are some of the stars that are “pap friendly?” How do they manage the relationship for their benefit?
Jennifer: Lots and lots love paparazzi. Most of the stars you see over and over in the tabloids work with us. To stay hot, they must. Reality show stars – the Kardashians, the Bachelors and Bachelorettes – they often get paid a percentage of their photo sales. Then there are stars like Jessica Simpson, ones who get what they need out of us when they needs it. In the beginning, young blood is always on board – Miley loved us when she started to become famous. And still seems to! Matthew McConaughey clearly had his time with us.
Andy: And what about the pap averse stars?
Jennifer: There aren’t as many of those as you might think. Julia Roberts and Kate Bosworth, in no universe will they ever like us. Probably Kristen Stewart is in that category, too. Most stars – Katy Perry, Reese Witherspoon, Eva Longoria, even Halle Berry – are fickle and love us when they need it, hate us when they don’t. But isn’t that the way life is?
Andy: Tell us about your shot of Kristen Stewart smoking pot.
Jennifer: I shot Kristen a few days before the first Twilight came out. No one knew her. I had to look her up before I went to her house that morning. She and her boyfriend were sitting on her parent’s front stoop, a few feet from the street, smoking a pot pipe. I think she was 18. She had no idea I was there.
Andy: What stars did you like as people? And what about those who were just douche bags?
Jennifer: I lived in Los Feliz, east Hollywood, a great eclectic neighborhood which has become a hotbed for celebs. So mostly the ones I got to know were my neighbors. Adrian Grenier of Entourage. Most of the Grey’s Anatomy cast. Katherine Heigl, I loved. My shots made her ‘tabloid famous’ in just a few months. That helped her career for a long while. As a pap, you could tell so much about these people – following them around all day long – to the grocery, the gym, the manicurist. And the good ones, the good people, weren’t necessarily pap-friendly. They didn’t ‘give it up’ all the time. But that was OK. Some of my favorites were Miley and Zac. Gwen Stefani and Gavin were great. I loved Britney Spears in a motherly kind of way. I wanted see her be OK – we all did. And she seems to be now. Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, Jen Aniston were awesome only because they were so smart. They understood the media and they were fun to watch. Even though they were very hard to get.
Andy: Jennifer, true confession. My knowledge of tabloid culture consists of the 10 minutes a week I spend in the checkout line of Safeway. One of the things you said in the book was that the tabloids want positive pictures. But what I see is something quite different: horrible images of people at the point of death, fat stars on the beach with close-ups of their cellulite and butt cracks, Brad and Angie breaking up every week. Lindsay Lohan being skanky. Am I missing something here?
Jennifer: OK, these stories might make the covers – and they might be what you remember – but open the magazines and most of the printed shots are of beautiful people looking beautiful. And mostly women. Women read the tabloids, and we want to see what female celebrities are wearing, how they’ve done their hair, what their kids look like, who they’re dating and how skinny they are. We want to be them, or at least live vicariously through them. When you take a picture of a celeb looking bad, it’s usually only picked up by the international press. Europe is different. But America’s trash is things like celebrities’ botched surgeries, body “problem areas,” breakups and makeups, and baby rumors. Pictures of drugs, cigarettes, rumors of adultery are almost never shown. There are exceptions – reality show people, stars who “trash” themselves (for example, Miley Cyrus at the moment could fall into that group), but for the most part, celebs who posture themselves as “family” are portrayed that way. Under no circumstances will the media “out” someone. Even if there are pictures. Which there are.
Andy: Did you ever witness or experience incidents of violence between the paps and the celebs? We see some pretty sensational stories about that.
Jennifer: Rarely do the celebs confront us. They are rightly scared of “video.” Usually they leave it up to the police, people on the street, their bodyguards. And remember, they’re often on our side. Seal did threaten to “bitchslap” me once, and Casey Affleck, Ben’s brother, grabbed my camera. But that was because he isn’t a big celeb and didn’t really know how to react. Most of the violence in our business is pap on pap.
Andy: Let’s talk about money for a minute. How much can you make as a pap?
Jennifer: Twenty years ago, a good pap was making half a million. When I was in the biz, four years ago, I often grossed 10 or 12 thousand a month. Now, most paps will max out at 3 to 5 a month. Don’t become a pap now. It’s not worth it. Too many pictures on the market, and the magazines don’t pay like they used to.
Andy: What kinds of pictures draw big money and what kinds are less desirable? What stars bring the best money for a picture? Or the worst? And why? And what was your biggest money photograph?
Jennifer: Big shots nowadays make you about 5 to 10 thousand over a period of a year. Those are often bathing suit shots. McConaughey, I made loads of money on his Malibu shots. And Jessica Alba I once shot in a bikini and did very well. Other lucrative photos are ones that have a story associated with them, or they are rare and hard to get. For example, Britney Spears shaves her head. Rihanna after Chris Brown wacked her. Kristen Stewart cheats on Rob Pattinson. Those weren’t my shots, but the photographers made bank. Besides bathing suit shots, my big hits were Paris Hilton carrying the Bible. Kristen smoking pot. Justin Chambers – Alex on Grey’s Anatomy – with his five kids made me great money. Justin isn’t a big star, but every time the mags wanted to talk about him and his family, they’d buy that shot. Mostly, a shot will make you a few hundred though. If you make a thousand, you’re very happy.
Andy: I know you got out of the business when you had your baby. But did you like it?
Jennifer: At first, I loved it. And I knew from day one that I would write a book. I had to. I couldn’t not. It was an unbelievable world that no one understood – not even Hollywood. I was one of about six women among hundreds of men. And by the end I had become very successful, but the job had also become dark and oppressive yet terribly mundane for someone who fed off challenge. And I was ready to spend time doing the thing I wanted most in life: being a mama. Which is what I’ve been doing – and loving it!
Andy: Was it as fun being a pap as it was for me to read the book?
Jennifer: Spying, celebrities, chases, shooting, loot – for an adrenaline junkie, everything is here, and yeah, it was crazy fun. Papping was the hardest job I’d ever had, but far and away the best. It was rewarding and insanely exciting at the same time. But there was a big dark side – sometimes it was like I was working for the Mafia. Perhaps not quite as dangerous, but dangerous enough. The competition was insanely cruel. And the police were, well let’s just say, not altogether fair. And then, my desire for a family began to trump any professional dream that I might have had. When I did get pregnant, it wasn’t the way I dreamed it would be. But life is never how we dream it’s gonna be. And maybe that’s OK. I wouldn’t trade it.