If you’re reading this, you’re probably interested in celebrities—who they’re dating, what they’re wearing, how they cut their hair, what ridiculous names they bestow upon their offspring, and how much cash they drop on everything from cars to vacation rentals. For a lot of us, the latest celebrity gossip—whether we’re genuine fans or just looking for a laugh—is a way to pass the time. Rarely is a piece of celeb “news” something to be taken seriously. Sure, it’s fun to speculate about when and where Brangelina may have tied the knot (was it Christmas Day in Turks and Caicos?), but it shouldn’t have any real impact on our lives. At all. It might be fodder for a coffee-break chat, but it’s usually forgotten within a day or two. So why then, has an entire industry sprung up around the stalking (yes, stalking) and photographing of celebrities when they’re “off duty” (i.e., not on the red carpet or at other official public appearances)?
I do think that in this age of cell phone cameras, social media sites, and a 24-hour news cycle, the rich and famous must accept—as some sort of trade-off for their wealth and privilege—that their private lives will never be completely private. But the fact that people are paid handsomely to hunt down and capture images of celebrities leaving the gym, getting their nails done, taking their kids to school, and shopping at Whole Foods—all while not wearing makeup (because let’s face it, famous women are hounded more than famous men)—has created a severe problem: it has become hazardous for the celebrity subjects, for the paparazzi themselves, and for any bystander unlucky enough to get caught up in a highway chase or a nightclub melee.
By now you’ve likely read or heard about Chris Guerra, the paparazzo hit by a car and killed while trying to do his job. His job, as a self-assigning, freelance photographer specializing in tailing stars, was to get a shot of Justin Bieber at the wheel of his Ferrari and sell it to the highest bidder. (Bieber had lent the vehicle to friends; he wasn’t even in it.) The tragic and—here I’ll risk sounding insensitive—frankly stupid accident was completely avoidable, which must make it all the more difficult for everyone involved. Guerra’s death has led a handful of celebrities, Bieber among them, to call for tougher legislation in hopes of avoiding similar accidents in the future.
You know there’s a real problem when Miley Cyrus is calling out the California State Legislature. “Hope this paparazzi/JB accident brings on some changes in ’13 Paparazzi are dangerous! Wasn’t Princess Di enough of a wake up call?!” she tweeted. And (this will likely be the only time I say this about Miley) she’s right: it has been going on for too long and it has gone too far. Yet the root of the problem is unclear. Who is truly at fault here? Is it the paparazzi themselves, or the publications that pay big bucks for the photos? Or is it us, the consumers who buy the magazines and click on the slideshows online?
There’s more than enough blame to go around—and the celebrities themselves aren’t always the innocent victims. Having people like Kim Kardashian court (or contrive) media attention at every turn only serves to encourage the photogs while raising her market value as a photo subject. As the audience these photos are intended for, we’re complicit even if we don’t want to be. Our passing interest in learning the details of celebrity lives has resulted in industry overkill: videocamera-wielding “stalker-azzi,” private photos being stolen and published, phones being hacked, and six-year-old Suri Cruise, in the wake of her parents’ divorce, being unable to go to the damn zoo without some creep lurking in the bushes, spying on her through a telephoto lens.
I’m not saying that we should deep-six celebrity coverage or commentary. (Full disclosure: I like paying my rent too.) But the celebs themselves (not to mention their PR teams and those shadowy “inside sources” we always hesitate to believe) give us a ton of grist for the gossip mill. I mean, have you seen Rihanna‘s Instagram photos? It doesn’t get more up-close-and-personal than that. You don’t have to worry about Miley, either—she’ll happily post daily selfies to Twitter highlighting the evolution of her current hairdo. No one need stake out Heidi Klum or LeAnn Rimes in hopes of catching either woman in a bikini—they’ll take care of that for us, unasked and uncoerced! Beyoncé will publish photos of the back of Blue Ivy‘s head at her leisure—you’ll just have to be patient. And you can rest easy knowing that three out of five members of One Direction can be found on Instagram. (I’m certain it’s only a matter of time before
their 15 minutes are up the other two join.) But the sad thing is that Justin Bieber has Instagram too. If you’re interested, you can see photos of his car, his private jet, his latest tattoo, and his newest bit of bling all photographed and shared—willingly—by Justin himself.
In the future, savvy celebs may well attempt to monetize their websites (and, soon enough, their social media accounts) by selling advertising or putting up paywalls; others may remain in high enough demand to sell “exclusive” photos to chequebook-journalism mainstays Us Weekly and In Touch, a route already well-travelled by Catherine Zeta-Jones, Kim Kardashian, and others. This, of course, would just make those rogue elements among the paparazzi that much hungrier for unauthorized pics, and would only work in tandem with stricter laws against photographers following any unwilling subject—as opposed to following those fame-hungry hordes who are quite willing. It’s a dilemma that may never be totally rectified as long as celebrity remains a commodity.
Image credit: AKM/GSI