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No, the paparazzi who pursued Britney Spears are not sorry.
“I’m in it for the money and the history,” Los Angeles paparazzo Rick Mendoza said in a phone interview. “You think I give a f–k about somebody getting up on the wrong side of the bed, and they don’t want their photograph taken? I don’t give a s–t.”
Paparazzi literally translates as buzzing mosquitoes. None one has ever looked upon a gaggle of them and thought an empathy convention had broken out. But a widely-discussed New York Times documentary about Spears, “Framing Britney Spears,” has reactivated interest in her iconically bad—some would say triggering—interactions with the paparazzi. It seemed plausible that some of them might be having regrets.
But when Insider reached out to several of the photographers who paid their bills selling images of Britney Spears, the question of whether they are culpable in breaking the young star’s poise all but failed to register as a reasonable question.
“Hollywood used to control the market. The paparazzi took that away,” Mendoza insisted. “We made them people, too. I’ll show you when they’re taking out their garbage. I’ll show you when they’re picking their nose. Do people want to see that? Obviously yes.
“If someone’s entertained, then the system is working,” said Mendoza. (The two have a long history. Mendoza sued Spears for a 2007 incident, where he alleged the pop star had intentionally driven over his foot as she was leaving a parking garage after a judge suspended her rights to see her two young sons. The case was settled two years later, People reported.)
In the Hollywood paparazzo’s perspective, he and Britney Spears — and Christina Aguilera and Paris Hilton — were scrimmaging in a fluid, ongoing public relations tournament that fields publicists, magazine editors and entertainment show producers, too.
According to this narrative, the Princess of Pop wanted cameras trained on her, until she didn’t. And how were photographers to know the difference.
“Britney was just as involved in when and how she was seen,” insisted Meg Handler, who started seeing Britney pics while editing photos at the late-nineties Village Voice and couldn’t stop seeing them by the time she did a stint on The Star magazine picture desk. “Those photographers were called. Most of the time, her people called. ‘Britney’s going to be here.’ ‘Britney’s going to be there. That’s how it worked.”
“I think with Britney it just got out of control,” she said.
A representative for Spears did not respond to a request for comment.
THE DAYS OF PEAK PAPARAZZI
The cat-and-mouse game between celebrities and photographers dates back to 1955, when the hypeman Harry Brand alerted the media as blonde ingenue Marilyn Monroe just so happened to be standing above an up-blowing grated in a white dress. By the time Britney shaved that head, the paparazzi game had grown unsustainably filthy and rich.
It’s arguable that Opening Day of Peak Paparazzi was Aug. 28, 2003, at Radio City Music Hall. The VMAs. “Celebutants” such as Hilary Duff were getting record deals — their media queries outpacing those for actual artists — and Paris Hilton’s first album had debuted days earlier. Paparazzi crawled to fill every available space. They lined every exit as the shooters sought to capitalize on this content motherlode. Snoop Dogg was photographed leading two women by leash into Radio City, on leashes; it was not a photo op Harry Brand would have seen coming.
The 2003 VMAs are, however, best known for Britney, Christina Aguilera, and Madonna performing “Like a Virgin.” You need not have had cable to remember the pictures from when those three kissed.
“That’s when it stopped being contained,” said Julie Farman, an Epic publicist who handled Michael Jackson. “That to me was a huge inflection point.”
Not much more than a year prior, the game was smaller. Mendoza began his career photographing, printing, and mailing pictures of ’80s metal bands on the Sunset Strip. He moved on to shooting baseball players in Japan by 2000. When he returned, to focused on “all these little girls out here that were playing the game.” Paris Hilton, whom he knew, for starters.
While Mendoza was away the price of a professional-level digital camera had fallen to under $3000, down from around $20,000 when he was starting out. One shot of Jessica Simpson could pay for the investment 10 times over. Paparazzi work was now open to any hustler with an index finger and a dream.
“Photo agency owners would go around to hot spots, mainly places where they got their information,” paparazzo Giles Harrison said. “You’d find someone who was parking cars last week at Spago restaurant.”
This drop in entry barrier coincided with an explosion of outlets for celebrity photography content, such as Ok! And Hello! and an US that had just gone weekly. Just as significantly, fees for utilizing informer-style tip lines — the basis of “we caught so-and-so” stories — were going, up up, up. The-opportunist-to-Weegee ratio grew lopsided as point-and-click and email send washed away holdout craftspersons and waved in grifters.
“Some photographers are good and some are bad. And some of us were not good people,” Harrison said. “You might as well have thrown red meat to a shark,” Harrison said.
As her career exploded, Spears had a lot of competition for media attention, a wave she had learned to ride back when few believed in her. The lenses were her road companions while she was playing the malls of America. Their attention mattered no less once she had made it. And by then so many saw in her the opportunity for livelihood.
“That’s where you got that pandemonium, that fever,” said Randy Bauer, whose agency captured and sold the moment Britney Spears shaved her head, “because there was six figures, potentially, at the end of all that.”
He adds: “Those things she’ll forever be known for, that was her own doing. We were just there documenting that.”
Some of the most difficult to watch moments in “Framing Britney Spears” are from the run-up to the meltdown that would define her and lead to the conservatorship controlled by her father that’s now at the heart of the “Free Britney” movement. Vulnerability has been rarely more tangible, the celebrity machine so out of control. By then, Diane Sawyer had asked her on national television “what did you do” to bring her ex Justin Timberlake “so much pain,” and she had been dragged for her choices as a mom.
“What can you say about misogyny?” New York Times critic-at-large Wesley Morris observes in the documentary. “There’s a whole infrastructure to support it and when it’s time for people to come, in a misogynistic culture, for a woman, there’s a whole apparatus ready to do it.”
Chaotic scenes from the 2000s of photographers crowding Britney would not happen today, those who were part of it insisted. There’s better mental health awareness and more accountability for how the media behaves. Money’s the matter. Celebrity is too diffuse in 2021 to bring forth many $30,000 images, not when stars curate their own images on Instagram.
It’s worth noting that Spears’ peer Beyonce — both are 39 — managed to elude the worst of America’s celebrity obsession. The R&B star toured and shopped with mother Tina Knowles and her father, R&B music executive Matthew Knowles.
A hip-hop flack recalled watching Britney making her way alone through the Beverly Hills Mondrian lobby — alone — while “Hit Me Baby” was a hot record.”Britney had no protection,” she said.
In footage of that 2003 “Like a Virgin” performance, Beyonce can be seen in the front-row, clapping and smiling. She’s the one who got away.