Click here to read an accompanying slide-show essay about the anatomy of a tabloid photo.
"This is the five minutes I love the most, when it's just me and my scooter," Seth Browarnik yells back to me over the whine of his Vespa's accelerating engine. "Right now is the only time that's really peaceful," he adds with a laugh, as I nervously grip his waist. Peaceful is the last word I'd use. Browarnik ignores my protests and continues answering calls and scanning the incoming stream of text messages on his cell phone, pausing only to maneuver his speeding scooter between a large puddle and an even larger SUV.
Nearly half of greater Miami is without electricity on this late Friday night—the result of Hurricane Katrina's initial landfall. But here on South Beach, the MTV Video Music Awards are hardly interrupted. After a round of rescheduled flights, young Hollywood and much of the music industry have finally converged on the area, which means it is time for the 27-year-old Browarnik, one of Miami's best-known celebrity photographers, to go to work.
As we pull up in front of Privé, an exclusive Miami nightclub, Browarnik looks particularly focused: Starlets Jessica Simpson and Pamela Anderson have been sighted. A half-dozen other photographers have already staked out the site, but Browarnik dismisses them as mere "paparazzi"—stalkers with zoom lenses who remain stranded on the sidewalk. Meanwhile, he pulls out his own digital camera from under his scooter's seat and wades into the scrimmage. After being spotted by the club's guards, Browarnik is waved past the velvet rope.
Privé, like many of South Beach's tonier nightspots, keeps Browarnik on an exclusive retainer, hoping that when his celebrity pics are featured in tabloids, the club's name will appear in the caption. Occasionally, Browarnik has to remind his clients of the benefits of their relationship: "One of [them] started complaining, 'You're making all this money [from the tabloids] off photos from our club, and we're paying you on top of that. How does this benefit us?' Are you kidding me? I'm getting your name in Us Weekly every week and you're still not happy?" The celebs themselves, at least those with films or fragrances to promote, are happy to play along with this business arrangement—as long as they're being photographed by someone like Browarnik, whose self-described goal is "to make people look even better than they do in real life." Indeed, according to Browarnik, it was one of Anderson's companions who texted him the group's exact itinerary. After all, Anderson does have a new book to plug, and with Browarnik there's no need to worry about "gotcha" shots. Browarnik is comfortable with this implicit role as a part of the army of handlers that carefully manages a celebrity's persona. By staying on the inside, he distinguishes himself from the paparazzi. In fact, Browarnik often spends as much time worrying about hidden photographers as the celebrities themselves, lest he catch the blame for an unflattering image that makes the tabloids.
Inside Privé, we head to the VIP section. Browarnik confers with a hostess and then grimaces, visibly crestfallen. Jessica Simpson has already left. His only consolation is a shot of a woozy Anderson kissing the towering drag queen Elaine Lancaster, a colorful personality in her own right, but ultimately too little-known beyond Miami to excite editors in New York. And for Browarnik, wowing the editors at Us Weekly and People is what this weekend is all about. The money he makes from tabloid sales—averaging from several hundred to several thousand dollars for a hotly desired exclusive picture—is important. But so is building a reputation—Browarnik ultimately hopes to join the rarified ranks of celebrity photographers David LaChapelle and Patrick McMullan.
He's on his way: What began as a hobby after he dropped out of Florida International University six years ago has become a lucrative career—and an implicit rebuke to the photography professor there who told him he lacked the discipline to go pro. On most nights, Browarnik races among the high-end lounges, restaurants, and hotel bars that have come to define South Beach as an adult playground. MTV's decision to stage its awards show in Miami has merely sent his typically frenzied weekend into overdrive.
By 3 a.m. Sunday we find ourselves inside the Setai hotel's sumptuous penthouse, where the vibe is promising. Rap beats boom and the air reeks of marijuana. Yahoo! foots the bill for the evening: The company has corralled hip-hop producer Pharrell into hosting a fete for its new downloadable music service, and Browarnik's been hired to document the shindig. He couldn't be happier—there in the middle of it all sits the A-lister he has been hunting, Jessica Simpson, flanked by her husband Nick Lachey and the actress Carmen Electra.
He immediately launches into a playful banter, putting the three at ease and asking for permission before even raising his camera. Electra tests a sultry pout, and actor Jeremy Piven leans in, egging her on: "Own it! Own it!"
Electra, a South Beach nightlife veteran, is familiar with Browarnik, so little ice-breaking is necessary. But for those meeting him for the first time, it's often the hulking security crews who smooth the way. Earlier that day, Browarnik had backed off of a skittish Hilary Duff. Not 15 minutes later, he found himself pulled into her hotel room. Her new bodyguard had previously worked for Diddy, and since he vouched that Browarnik had photographed his old boss's Miami visits for years, Browarnik was deemed safe.
After a rapid-fire series of pictures, Browarnik bounds from Electra to an adjoining couch, perching at the feet of Paris Hilton and hip-hop producer Scott Storch. Next to them, Nicky Hilton parks herself across the lap of her current boyfriend, Entourage actor Kevin Connolly. Within moments, they too offer up their best come-hither looks.
Browarnik makes his way back to me, beaming. I nudge him in the direction of a striking blonde attempting to swallow the tongue of a well-known star—who is most definitely not her "official" paramour. Browarnik takes a sidelong glance and simply shrugs, keeping his camera at his side. It's a moment tailor-made for the gossip pages, yet Browarnik doesn't appear titillated. "You're not going to take that picture?" I ask.
He rolls his eyes: "My whole career is based on trust. If I took a shot like that, my reputation would be tarnished. Over!"
"What if you saw a shot the tabloids would pay a million dollars for? You could be set for life in five minutes."
"I'd rather make that million dollars the right way, by becoming friends with the celebrities, getting them comfortable, taking the picture whenever they're ready. I've worked too long to throw it all away for one shot."
"You've never even been tempted?"
Browarnik has just enough time to stare back incredulously before running off again. Gwen Stefani has arrived.