"Whoa," said Jeff Rayner, slamming on the brakes of his 4x4. "That's James Bond."
Jeff is one of the top paparazzi in Los Angeles, and I was spending the afternoon with him to learn the secrets of his trade. (Like most paps in L.A., Jeff is an Englishman, and he had no qualms about one of his fellow countrymen sitting beside him.) I had barely noticed the black Subaru Forrester speeding past us in the opposite direction, but we were on a "trawl," and Jeff was methodically checking the occupants of every car. One of the things that makes him so successful is his extraordinary vision. That and a photographic memory for faces.
He executed a U-turn, and a few seconds later we were tucked in behind the Subaru. "Now then," said Jeff, reaching back to make sure his Nikon D1H SLR digital camera was primed and ready for action. "Let's see where he goes."
When he's not doing a "day rate"—being paid by a paper or magazine to work exclusively for them for a day—Jeff spends most of his time just coasting around, looking for celebrities. A typical trawl starts at 10 a.m. and lasts until 4:30 p.m. Once he sees someone, Jeff either "paps" them on the spot or, if they're in a car, follows them and waits until they get out.
"You never know what's going to happen," he explained. "A couple of months ago I was following Courtney Cox, and suddenly this car veers into her lane and—bang." He puts his hands up to his face, forming the shape of a camera, and imitates the sound of the shutter clicking away at lightening speed. "A $10,000 set in 10 seconds."
One of the things that made these pictures so valuable is that Cox is pregnant, and she was just beginning to show. In terms of monetary value, a picture of a pregnant celebrity showing for the first time is second only to the first picture of that same star with her new baby.
One of the things I discovered from spending time with Jeff is that the world of "celebrity journalism"—and Jeff calls himself a "celebrity photographer," not a paparazzo—is dominated by its own news agenda. In this universe, if a star gets pregnant or gives birth, that's news. Often, though, what's newsworthy is determined by something less tangible. For instance, at any one time, some female celebrity or another will be rumored to be suffering from an eating disorder. If Jeff can get a picture of that person looking gaunt and unhealthy, he'll be able to sell it around the world. This week, the name in the frame is Mary Kate Olsen, and the previous day Jeff had spotted her emerging from the bathroom in the restaurant where he was having breakfast. "I sold that in Australia for $750," he said. "Wasn't bad. Paid for breakfast."
When Jeff "paps" someone—or "hoses them down," another term of art—the chances are they won't be aware of it. "I'm not one of those guys that jumps out on the street with a flash," he said, referring to the bottom feeders of the profession.
Nearly all the top paparazzi in L.A. work out of 4x4s that have been customized in special auto shops. Jeff drives a Jeep Cherokee with heavily tinted windows, and when he's "on a job," he almost never leaves the car, preferring to "hose down" his unsuspecting victim from the safety of the front seat. As we're following James Bond along Sunset Boulevard, Jeff points out all the other paps cruising the strip in their customized 4x4s and laughs about the fact that they haven't yet identified the occupant of the black Subaru. Jeff reckons there are about 50 paps at work in L.A., and he knows who all of them are. Indeed, he and his colleagues frequently photograph one another, particularly in compromising situations, and then e-mail the pictures, along with a note saying, "You have been papped!"
Even if Jeff did get out of his car, the chances are his target wouldn't identify him as a paparazzo—at least, not until the celebrity in question saw the 2-foot lens on his Nikon. Most people think of paparazzi as sleazy, overweight guys who have difficulty making friends, but Jeff isn't a bit like that. He's a good-looking, smart 29-year-old—and he doesn't seem overly troubled by what he does. He points out that most stars collude with paparazzi at one point or another, recognizing that their careers depend on getting their pictures in the press. A couple of years ago, for example, Jeff received a tip-off from the publicist of a soap star telling him which hotel her client would be staying in with her "mystery boyfriend." The celebrity duly put on a dog-and-pony show for Jeff, cavorting with her lover by the pool in a skimpy bikini so he could get the shots he needed. Only the poor chump twanging her thong wasn't aware they were being "hosed down" from a 14th-floor window.
"If a celebrity doesn't want his or her picture appearing in the paper, it's not that hard to avoid us," said Jeff. "I've never papped Robert de Niro, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, any of the top guys." The implication is clear: If you're out and about in Los Angeles, particularly West Hollywood, or Beverly Hills, you're fair game.
The reason I'm spending the afternoon with Jeff is because one of the characters in my novel is a paparazzo (see Monday's entry). In the dystopian future I describe in Starmageddon, celebrities are hunted down by the secret police and interned in concentration camps. These goon squads are referred to as "Nobodies," with the elite L.A. branch known as the "Total Nobodies." Who better to help the Total Nobodies find out where the celebrities are holed up than a pap? Jeff has a notebook that he keeps in the glove compartment of his car that lists the addresses of every major celebrity in L.A. Not only that, but he also jots down the make of car they drive—usually a Cadillac Escalade, a Mercedes MLK, or a BMW X5—and the license plate. "No one knows more about where they live, what cars they drive, and where they get their hair done than us," said Jeff. "No one."
After about five minutes, James Bond pulls into a Rite Aid and gets out of his car. Jeff paps him as he's entering the store, then repositions himself so the actor will have no choice but to cross in front of him on his way out. I'm disappointed to see that the person we've been following is Timothy Dalton, not Pierce Brosnan, but Jeff thinks he might be able to sell the pictures nevertheless.
"Here he comes," said Jeff, bringing the massive camera up to his face. "This is what makes my job fun. How many people can say they spent their day tailing James Bond? And he doesn't even know it!"