‘People think we are scumbags. But celebrities are ringing us!’ The changing world of the paparazzi

·11 min read

We have long lived in the age of paparazzi, yet the public in general is ignorant about the reality of how these images are created. Many people believe that freewheeling photographers happen to stumble across reality TV stars working out in full makeup, or musicians walking very slowly to their cars outside five-star hotels, or soap actors frolicking in the surf in Dubai. What the public does not see: the paparazzi who go on holiday with celebrities; the agents who have paparazzi on speed dial; the paparazzi who give a cut of their income to the people they photograph.

But recent months have seen the paparazzi thrust, blinking and unwilling, into the spotlight. In the recently concluded “Wagatha Christie” libel case, text messages were submitted to the court in which Rebekah Vardy and her former agent Caroline Watt discussed tipping off the photo agency Splash News about the arrest of the footballer Danny Drinkwater, as well as arranging for a paparazzo to photograph – without their consent – a group of footballers’ partners leaving a restaurant during the 2018 World Cup. (Splash News and Backgrid are the leading photo agencies in the industry, responsible for most of the images sold into newspapers and magazines.)

Meanwhile, the public mania for paparazzi shots continues to grow. In January, the pop star and beauty entrepreneur Rihanna announced her pregnancy with a set of staged photographs showing her walking with her boyfriend, the rapper A$AP Rocky, in Harlem, New York City. In March, the internet went into a paroxysm of nostalgia when Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck recreated a scene from Lopez’s 2002’s music video Jenny from the Block for the benefit of a conveniently positioned photographer with a long-lens camera. In June, Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling were snapped looking like a nightmare in neon while filming the much-awaited Barbie film on Venice Beach, Los Angeles.

“I think a lot of people are quite dumb to how it works,” says the Manchester-based paparazzo Aaron Parfitt. “People think we are scumbags hanging out of trees. But these celebrities are ringing us.” He estimates that 80% of his shots are set up in advance. “I’ve been on holiday with celebrities,” says Parfitt, 22. “Most of them are reality stars. We go to Spain, shoot six bikini sets and stick them out throughout the month.”

Rebekah Vardy at the high court in London on 12 May
Under the spotlight … Rebekah Vardy at the high court in London in May for the ‘Wagatha Christie’ trial. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

A culture of omertà prevails. “No one wants to talk about it,” says Malin Andersson, a 29-year-old influencer and mental health podcaster from Bedfordshire. “But I have done it. I openly admit to that.” After leaving Love Island in 2016, she routinely posed for arranged shots. “It was so fucking weird,” she says. “I’d pretend to be on my phone. I felt so awkward doing it. But then it became a norm.”

Fellow Love Island alumna Rachel Finni, 30, remembers the moment she was inculcated into this secret practice. She was having dinner with a minor celebrity, having just left the show. “He said: ‘I am going to text the pap guy.’” Finni was confused. “He said: ‘Honey, paps only come if you call them!” Over the next few months, she routinely let paparazzi know her plans. “Seeing yourself in the papers and magazines every other day is the most incredible feeling,” she says.

Finni and Andersson are not alone. “When you come off Love Island, you have a year to cash in until the next season,” says Jesal Parshotam, 32, a paparazzo who works in London and LA. “The people who make it are the ones who are regularly appearing on MailOnline. Love Island people go out to be photographed. They have their guy.”

It is not only lower-tier stars who contact paparazzi routinely. “Kim Kardashian has a unique relationship with the paparazzi,” says Emily Rose, whose pop culture podcast It’s Become a Whole Thing dissects the relationship between celebrities and paparazzi. Kardashian has admitted to seeking out paparazzi when she was up-and-coming; she is understood to work with favoured photographers.

Rihanna has a close relationship with the paparazzo Miles Digg, who shot her pregnancy reveal photos. “He is trusted,” says Parshotam. “She’s worked with him for over 10 years. If we’re in a crowd of 10 photographers, I’ve seen her stop and hug him.”

Whether A-lister or otherwise, the reason that celebrities notify paparazzi of their whereabouts is the same. “It’s an exposure game,” says Chad Teixeira, the chairman of the celebrity PR firm Daddy the Agency. “It’s about keeping relevant.” Teixeira often contacts paparazzi on behalf of his clients. “What everyone has to remember is that everyone is just doing their job,” says Teixeira. “Celebrities need paps to promote their profiles. Papers need celebrities to earn an income. One can’t exist without the other.”

For lower-tier celebrities, being papped regularly helps them to increase their social media following and secure brand work. Higher-tier celebrities are papped while on promotional tours for their latest project. “A common trope is famous people who are usually fairly reclusive suddenly being photographed every day canoodling with their new love, who happens to be a co-star in their movie,” says Rose. Other times, paparazzi are used to rehabilitate a celebrity’s public image after a controversy. “I know one high-profile footballer who’d had an affair,” says Parshotam. “He organised pictures of him holding hands with his family, to take the heat off the story.”

If the public has a basic understanding of paparazzi, it goes something like this: paparazzi are the cruel men, usually bald, who hounded Britney Spears to a breakdown. “I was definitely a part of that,” says 53-year-old Giles Harrison, an industry veteran who lives in LA. “That was one of the darker times in the industry.” As such, paparazzi are commonly despised. “We’re hated more than traffic wardens,” says Jaimie Harris, 31, a paparazzo turned picture editor from Essex. “People used to shout at me: ‘You killed Princess Diana!’” In her decade-long career, Harris saw much reprehensible behaviour. “High-speed chases,” she says. “All of us would go through red lights.”

Giles Harrison at his office in Venice Beach, Los Angeles, in 2011
‘That was one of the darker times in the industry’ … Giles Harrison, pictured at his office in 2011, on the hounding of Britney Spears. Photograph: Reed Saxon/AP

The period 2004 to 2016 was a “golden era”, Harrison says. “That’s when we were making more money than we knew what to do with.” His company generated about $1.5m annually in picture sales. In the UK, the Leveson inquiry heard evidence in 2011 from witnesses including Sienna Miller, who said she was spat at and verbally abused by photographers, and JK Rowling, who said that paparazzi targeted her daughter’s primary school. But most paparazzi insist that the bad old days of Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Charlotte Church et al being taunted and harassed are in the past. “When people think of paparazzi, they think of that Britney Spears gold rush era,” says Parshotam. “But that photography was disgusting and doesn’t exist any more. We are all against it.”

With the advent of social media, margins have been squeezed. Newspapers and magazines are less willing to pay for photographs when they can lift them from Instagram for free. Celebrities unhappy about being papped can upload an image of themselves on to social media, killing the value of a paparazzi photograph. While photo sets of rarely spotted A-listers still sell for tens of thousands of pounds, mostly paparazzi make no more than a few hundred pounds at a time. “I know so many people who are giving it up or struggling,” says Harris.

I’ve been on holiday with celebrities. We go to Spain, shoot six bikini sets and stick them out throughout the month

Aaron Parfitt

Because there is less money at stake, paparazzi have calmed down. “It’s not the feeding frenzy it once was,” says Harrison. “When people can get tens of thousands of dollars for a shot, it can make people bloodthirsty.” That is not to say that intrusive behaviour does not take place. While Parshotam says he wouldn’t take someone’s photo if they asked him not to, Parfitt and Harris have done so. “I think if you’re following someone, doing covert pictures out and about, that’s fair game, even if they don’t know you are there,” says Harris. “That’s what paps are there to do. We’re there to take pictures.”

Many A-listers have reached an accommodation with the people who take their images. “Celebrities understand the benefits of it now,” says Parshotam. Harrison agrees. “It’s a lot less adversarial. As much as people overtly seem to dislike the paparazzi and the product, behind the scenes, people like it and embrace it.” This is not to say that all A-listers call the paparazzi on themselves. As a rule of thumb, the more famous someone is, the less likely they are to do this, although there are high-profile exceptions.

Lindsay Lohan outside court in 2010.
‘Golden era’? Lindsay Lohan, pictured outside court in 2010, was a frequent target of paparazzi for many years. Photograph: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

But when celebrities are spotted in public, most don’t mind having their photos taken, says Parshotam. “The other day, I photographed [the American model] Hailey Bieber,” says Parshotam. “I asked if it was OK to take some pictures and she said: ‘Give me a minute.’ When she was ready, I took them. I made sure there were none of her looking bad, none with her eyes closed.”

The A-listers who aren’t OK with paparazzi? Adele. Prince Harry. David Beckham. Woman-of-the-moment Coleen Rooney varies, says Parfitt. “If you get her on a good day, she doesn’t mind,” he says. “On a bad day, she tells you to fuck off.” Those who want to avoid being papped know to avoid notorious celebrity hangouts such as Carbone in New York or Chiltern Firehouse in London. “The people who want to be seen will be seen,” says Harris.

By contrast, celebrities desperate to stay newsworthy may resort to degrading antics. In 2016, Parfitt photographed a former Big Brother contestant posing naked on Blackpool beach. “She messaged me on Twitter and said: ‘I have an idea. What if I go skinnydipping on Blackpool Beach?’” he says. “I picked her up and she went on the beach and started stripping off and rolling around in the sand.” The images went viral. “She loved them. It got her back in the press, put it that way.”

When people think of paparazzi, they think of that Britney Spears gold rush era. But that photography was disgusting

Jesal Parshotam

But other celebrities grow tired of the hamster wheel. “You’d be going to events just to get papped,” says Andersson. “That’s how sad it was. And so was everyone else. The next day, you’d look at the Mail to see if you were on there and you’d feel inadequate if you weren’t.” When flashes start to illuminate other, fresher talents, the sense of loss can be crushing. “Seeing myself in the Mail gave me validation, but it was empty validation. Because the article would drop down in five minutes and you’d want the next one. It becomes a bit of an addiction and you start chasing it more.”

The issue with inviting paparazzi to photograph your life, says Finni, is that you start to think of every aspect of your life, even your darkest moments, as monetisable moments. “You see people who have gone through traumatic events who are in the Mail the next day,” she says. “You think: you’re going through something so disturbing, but you called someone to come to take a picture of you? Where do you lose the sense of value of your own privacy? What message are you giving out to people who follow in your footsteps, in terms of stepping into the spotlight?” Andersson and Finni no longer arrange paparazzi shots. “It doesn’t do anything for me, but to remind people I exist,” says Finni. “And how does it benefit me to remind people I exist? It’s so empty.”

Everyone in this ecosystem is required to perform a complicated charade. Celebrities pretend they haven’t contacted paparazzi; photographers accept the public’s dislike as a necessary price for doing their job. “I’ve had people walking past going: ‘Leave them alone!’” says Parfitt. “And I’m thinking: they rang me to shoot these pictures. But celebrities can’t be seen to be working with paps. So they have to say: ‘It’s fine – I’m used to it.’” They partake in this unholy dance because it is considered unforgivably gauche to seek fame, rather than to stumble upon it en route to another destination. “We hold our hands up and say: ‘It’s set up,’” says Harris. “It’s the celebrities themselves who are embarrassed about it.”

The public partakes in this collective denial, too. As much as we heckle paparazzi in the street and pontificate about the invasion of privacy, we consume these images voraciously. Indeed, the market wouldn’t exist without customers. Harris says: “People moan: ‘Leave them alone!’ but they’re the ones looking at the pictures.”