“Um, did you see Jennifer Aniston walking her dog last week?”
“I know, right? What about when Hugh Jackman was taking his daughter to school?”
“I heard that Anna Kendrick ate food at that place … and she liked it.”
“Last week, Brad Pitt took his kids out for ice cream AGAIN!”
“And, what about the time that Julianne Moore went to the hair salon!”
Have you ever been out with friends and someone snaps an impromptu photo of the table? One of those action shots where your mouth is filled with food and maybe you spilled coffee on your sweater this morning or your ponytail is looking less than stellar after a full day and because it’s Friday, you have bags under your eyes the size of Texas and a gigantic pimple on your chin because for whatever reason, your hormones have revolted against your face this week. Now, imagine that photo ends up on Facebook and you get unwillingly tagged in it. Fantastic – that photo is now public for everyone to see. There’s no escaping that your lipstick really should have been reapplied and that there are three empty wine glasses next to your plate, and that really wasn’t your best smile or even your good side and ohymygod, I’m never wearing that shirt again.
Let’s get a frame of reference for this article: it’s only fair for me to tell you that for the last decade I have worked as a personal assistant to what any tabloid would dub “A-List’ers”, so my views are obviously going to be of the anti-paparazzi-esque nature. You can categorize celebrities by whatever alphabet letter you’d like, but in the end, let me assure you that they’re just people who have good days and bad days and things happen to them and they have family outings and also need to walk the dog and sometimes feel anti-makeup or just want to wear sweats and eat the biggest cup of 16 Handles Fro-Yo because PMS sucks, dammit.
Okay, so back to that night that your friend Facebook’d that picture. Imagine, instead of tagging you on Facebook, they sold the photo to a nationally-published tabloid and/or uploaded it to a wildly successful entertainment blog and now they’re walking away with cash – quite possibly a lot of cash – for that single photo. And now, your day is ruined because that less than flattering photo of you after you got rear-ended on Sunset or you broke up with your boyfriend or you didn’t wear underwear (because ladies, we have all been there) has hit the wires. All of the wires. And now, imagine the possibility of that happening every single time you leave the house.
When I was in 11th grade, we were assigned to read a short story called “The Most Dangerous Game” written by Richard Connell. It was a story about a big game hunter who finds himself marooned on an isolated island in the Caribbean where he is then hunted by a lunatic Russian aristocrat. While reading this book, I remember feeling a pit of anxiety for the hero of the story; he was in the middle of something that he had no control over. His life became a twisted game of cat and mouse.
The sense of anxiety that I felt while reading Connell’s book almost 18 years ago, I still feel now whenever I see paparazzi – I become Vanessa King, defensive mama-bear. I see a telephoto lens on an innocent tourist seeking a super-zoom on the Magnolia Bakery logo, and the hair on my arm stands up because anyone can be a paparazzo, nowadays. The “professional” ones use walkies and cell phones. Sometimes they work together, sometimes alone. On car, on bike, on foot – whatever works that day. Occasionally they collect in packs, other times they pretend like they’re everyone else. Trailing like a hunter; their camera’s their gun and the game is over in a single flash. The trophy is “that photo”: the one that will get splashed on every supermarket tabloid, pop culture blog and evening entertainment show. The one where the cameraman walks away with $250,000. The bounty is high and just like “The Most Dangerous Game”, this cat and mouse competition has turned deadly. Sadly ringing in the New Year, on January 2, paparazzo Christopher James Guerra was struck and killed by an oncoming car in pursuit of a photo that probably would have netted him about $100.
And this isn’t the first time someone has died.
But there’s always the chance that that photo catches the celebrity in a scandalous situation and then that $100 becomes $100,000 or $1,000,000. And that’s what drives them. It comes down to money. Money, and the thrill of the hunt.
And it’s true, one can easily argue that there is a certain level of recognition that an actor, musician or politician aims to achieve when they sign up for a life in the public eye. It’s one of the few careers whereby success is measured in fame and fame is measured by recognition. Success is earning an award or being recognized by your peers but fame… fame is what sells movies. Fame sells records. Fame is being able to associate a face with a name. And no longer does success make you famous. Fame is now earned in the candid photos and exposing of the private lives of these high-profile people and the selling of this fame has become a billion dollar-a-year industry, because we, the People, have developed a fascination for celebrity. We possess a curiosity and a hunger for insight into the lives of people we don’t – and will probably never – know.
It’s kind of our fault, you guys.
A sociologist might tell you that our obsession with a celebrity culture is part wish-fulfillment and part escapism, and I believe that’s true. But I also believe that in today’s culture, actors, musicians and politicians are “sold” to us like commodities which we buy into with wallets-wide. And we buy: supermarket tabloids, internet blogs, entertainment news programs – there’s always someone claiming an “exclusive”. Exploits and exposés of the famous give us water-cooler talk; it allows us, for just a moment, to judge or exalt someone we don’t know; those providing the commodity of entertainment have become a source of entertainment.
Ask someone who has been in the entertainment industry for a while and they will tell you: the paparazzi culture has always been around – and it hasn’t always been unwarranted. It’s just become excessive and annoying and unnecessary. The red carpet is one thing: there, cameras and flashbulbs are expected. But we don’t need to see a photo of Salma Hayek walking through LAX with her kid. Katy Perry buying groceries doesn’t make us want to buy her latest single. Jennifer Garner going to karate with her daughters doesn’t make me love her work on Alias any less (I <3 Alias 4 life) and Selena Gomez driving in her car does nothing for her ticket sales. “Being seen” has become a part of “being” a celebrity. So you have to smile. And they do, most of the time; they smile politely and make sure that the paparazzi has the shot they want, so the day’s pursuit can end. But sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they can’t.
Sometimes the paparazzi is so intrusive, so hounding, the hunter’s prey panics and they become defensive. Because sometimes it’s not just a $100 picture of them on the phone; sometimes it’s a new baby or a tragic circumstance or a really bad day and feeling hunted pushes that celebrity over the edge.
So remember, the next time you see a photo of stars being Just Like Us, let me assure you, they are. Just like us, they need privacy and personal time and time to work through their troubles, and time for quiet celebrations and secrets and dinners out and vacations and going for a walk to cry – without worrying about a camera lens documenting every emotion, experience or action at four frames per second.
Picture that tagged photo of you on Facebook and put down the magazine, or click off the website, because as long as we’re consuming the commodity, supply will always meet the demand. Until we draw the privacy line in the sand, this “Most Dangerous Game” will never end.
Featured image via ShutterStock