‘It happened the week after 9/11,’ one girl was saying to the other as they stood in line, waiting to get into the nightclub. They had to shout at one another, the music coming from inside was so loud. ‘I went to go use the bathroom after we got home from my little sister’s soccer game, and there it was, dripping down into the toilet bowl.’
‘How old were you?’
Her companion lifted a few strands of bleached-out hair to her mouth in a thoughtless gesture, running the fried ends over her lips before parting them to chew the strands carefully. ‘That’s so funny to hear,’ she murmured, though with the noise of the club it was more like a scream. Of the two, she seemed the visibly drunker, and as she spoke, she swayed slightly on her too-high heels. The toes of her shoes were long, pointed, cruel-looking – somehow, they made her look all the younger. ‘I got mine when I was eleven, too.’
Near them, the men with the cameras listened in, bored. It was 1 a.m., and it was Los Angeles; they were used to indiscretion. They were entering the secret hours, the hours of confession, blurred intimacies that none of the revelers in line or inside the club would remember come morning, and the men had been camped out for the last hour, waiting. Occasionally, their own accented conversations would drift over to those still in line – many of them spoke Spanish, some Portuguese, others French or Russian, too, but English was their lingua franca. No one in the line seemed to care what they had to say. Their existence, those cameras, was enough.
It excited them, the clubgoers. The presence of the paparazzi. It meant that their lives were important, too – that their nights were as charmed, as those inside the building, the celebrities who were allowed to skip the line. This was their cause célèbre: after their night was finished, after they had slumped home, the clubgoers would collapse, eyeliner still raccoon-dark around their eyes as they passed out, blacked out, and small contented smiles would play across their faces. In the morning, they would wake up late, dragging themselves upright, as they pulled their laptops close to them in bed, the heat of those machines like the warmth of a lover or a pet. Anonymous, they were always anonymous when they logged on. There, in bed, they’d sign on anonymous, they’d refresh their favorite blogs, the ones they read every day, flipping through photos of this starlet or that, impatiently clicking through the images the paparazzi had taken the night before, impatiently looking for – something. They were not sure what they wanted, but it was exciting. Oh, it was exciting – this was their secret wish, the one they could not admit even to themselves – perhaps they, too, the revelers, would be there, present in the background, spotted even in the foreground, like they too were famous. Because to be famous meant to be known, and for some reason this was important to them. But no, they scrolled and scrolled, they were never there. Their excitement would turn sour. One of the bloggers had a talent for Microsoft Paint, which he would use to painstakingly draw, pixel by pixel, clusters of white dots across the photographs of these starlets’ open mouths; these were meant to look like a man’s cum. And this delighted the clubgoers – ‘Fucking skank,’ they’d comment. ‘Fat whore.’
It was a ritual. It was their ritual. There was no need, as a popular expression so termed it, to get your panties in a twist; besides, it wasn’t like these starlets were wearing any. Their relative wealth, argued the commentariat, cocooned them, it protected them, there was no need to feel odd about this almost-pathological need on the part of the public to lavish both attention and cruelty on these actresses and pop stars and heiresses alike. And since beauty is truth and truth is beauty, it made sense, didn’t it, that when these starlets were photographed in an unflattering light or dared to commit a little aging, their souls grew ugly, too. What was so wrong with noticing that? This was AMERICA, after all – it was their constitutional right to alert the world when a woman’s face had shifted.
The paparazzi stretched their stiff limbs and moved around. Theirs was a smaller crowd than usual, due to the stateside visit of some minor English football royalty; this meant that none of the Brits were standing outside that night, and this was honestly a relief. They were crazy, the British paparazzi. They had no qualms about breaking the speed limit or hacking into phones, and this made the other paparazzi – many of whom had been born in Mexico or El Salvador, others in Brazil; still others were Latino or white Americans, mostly from the area; a few others were eastern Europeans, occasionally western, too – uncomfortable. ‘Who cares if she dies,’ one of the Brits, a middle-aged guy named Mark, had once remarked, referring to the pop star they were all waiting for, the pop star who was currently inside that club. His voice had been callous as he said this, he was visibly annoyed with how the other paparazzi were looking at him. ‘Because if I’m in that first car at the head of the motorcade, if it’s me that gets that final shot of her body – Jesus! Can you imagine?’ His expression turned dreamy. ‘I’ll never have to work again.’
‘They’re all like that,’ another pap, Stefan, grumbled later, once Mark had wandered off and could no longer hear him. ‘Their journalists, their photo guys, their editors, every single one of ’em. Doesn’t matter if they’re tabloid or highbrow, they’re all fuckin’ nuts.’
He waggled a finger towards the younger guys. ‘Now don’t get me wrong,’ he told them. ‘When I’m working on her, or when I’m working on Lindsay, or Paris, obviously I want to get the best shot, I wanna get the money shot.’ They all spoke like this, there was something vaguely pornographic to their language. They were always ‘working on’ a subject; when a crowd of them swelled in number, they called it a gang bang. ‘But that’s the difference between a good pap and a bad pap. If we scare her and she gets pissed, if she doesn’t want to leave her house or go to the club or whatever for a few weeks, because we keep messing with her. Well, who do you think pays the price?’ He didn’t wait for an answer. ‘We pay the price! And if she’s dead?’ Stefan yelped as he said this, walking away in a kind of horrified excitement, and didn’t bother finishing his thoughts. It didn’t matter. The meaning was clear: no more money. For any of them.
Outside the club, the line inched forward. The pop star had been inside for the last hour, drinking and dancing and snorting, and the mere knowledge of her presence was enough to make the crowd outside press forward, impatient. They needed to see her, to glimpse her; it was not enough to read about her antics on the blogs or inside the newspapers and magazines; it was not enough to watch her perform across a computer or television screen. What the crowd craved was authenticity, which even in the twenty-first century demands the aura of the original.
Suddenly, an action occurred, alongside its corresponding reaction: the doors of the club flipped open. And out from behind them ran a small blonde woman – the pop star! – her entourage in tow.
She was crying. The cameras were flashing, and she was crying. A frenzy of clicks, of clacks, reverberated: high heels tapping against the pavement, camera shutters opening and closing. Too many flash bulbs, they were all in that moment blinded. As the pop star tried to move through the crowd, one of them urged her to ‘Give us a smile!’ Ordinarily, she was game for this; of all of the overexposed blondes of her generation, the pop star was known for playing along with the paparazzi, for exhibiting a pliant sort of willingness to please. Tonight, though, she looked up at them sharply.
‘Space, please,’ she said.
They did not grant it. Beside her, the pop star’s new assistant tried to raise her purse up, to shield her boss’s face. It was not a long walk to the pop star’s car – a valet was waiting beside it – but the crowd was dense, and rapidly growing denser. She had not brought along a bodyguard tonight, and maybe she should have. Around her, the paparazzi surrounded the pop star, attempting to take her photo from all angles; the clubgoers circled her, too, a few of them with their own hobbyist cameras held aloft. If they couldn’t be the object of attention, then let them be among those who did the looking.
‘Space, please,’ the pop star asked again, but her voice was obscured by the sounds of the cameras, the movement of the bodies pressing all around her. Their warmth. One of the paps at the rear of those walking in front of her collapsed backwards into a somersault, pushed by the others into stumbling and tripping. They churned around her, the bodies and the cameras, a many-headed monster, making it nearly impossible for the pop star to move. When she at least reached the car, something in her seemed to snap. She surveyed the crowd around her, half leaning on her open door and flipped the bird. ‘Fuck you!’ she cried, before sliding down behind the wheel, the valet helping her close the door.
The crowd jeered, but the paparazzi laughed. A photo of the pop star reacting angrily was good for business, the frustrated tears on her cheeks a potential $10 or $20k. The public liked to see her distraught, and the men with the cameras were only doing their jobs. She knew the rules of the game, they thought, she was no longer a naïf, if she had ever been; her parents, desperate to escape their rural poverty, knew a cash cow when they saw one. But if her public reactions to these provocations were essentially teenage, this was because adolescence was the age in which she had first become seriously famous, internationally famous; this was the age at which she was frozen in time. From the ages of fourteen to twenty-one, the pop star had spent most of her time in a state of both emotional and physical undress, cooing for a camera as she flung her body through one series of elaborately choreographed dance routines after the next. She had, in fact, started something of a national trend – a whole demimonde of teenage songstresses had followed her onto the charts, each one of them young and white and tanned, primped and waxed and plucked, fashioned from whole cloth into something entirely bizarre: a record executive’s idea of a teenage girl.
They had names like Jessica and Mandy and Christina, suburban and non-threatening. Their songs, though, hinted at something darker: they were irresistible, they sang; they were dirty; they liked candy. They wanted you to hit them. In every interview they gave, the contradictions heightened. They were virgins, they said; they were saving it for marriage. Look, here – they’d flash their purity rings. Religion, of the evangelical Protestant variety, had fused with pop culture and politics and given birth to these avatars of girlhood (they refused to refer to themselves as women); it was repression you could dance to. And they supported their troops, they loved their country; when their president told America to join the war on terror by shopping, then by God they did, buying out Fred Segal overnight. They, too, declared their own kind of guerilla warfare with their bodies, with their lyrics written for them by Swedish men. A new kind of culture war was being fought over what an American girl could or should not be, and they had all unwittingly enlisted. The sun would never set. And TRL would play on.
The pop star, safe in her car, began to move forward. The crowd, still lingering, began to thin out and wander away; without her presence, they were bored. Eventually, the pop star drove off. The men with the cameras followed.
As he merged onto the freeway, Alex remembered what that British pap had once said, his point about being first in the cavalcade. It wasn’t fun to think about, but this was the reality of the job, wasn’t it – he was there to record, his role was to give the public what they wanted. And what they wanted was to see those stars behaving badly; to prove that they were just like us! He thought, also, about the editor at the gossip magazine who often bought his photos, the woman who went on E! every week and flatly dismissed Alex and his colleagues as vultures, some kind of dark and indistinct horde. ‘They’re like animals,’ she once said, over-enunciating every syllable as she looked directly into the cameras. ‘They’re stalkers ; they camp out every night just to surprise the stars by getting them to look bad on camera. They don’t care about the stars’ well-being.’
She was right; Alex didn’t, not really. Sure, he didn’t wish active harm on them, but it was difficult to muster up that much goodwill for celebrities once you saw the size of their houses. He had been working as a pap for the last two years; he had just turned twenty-five. A friend of his had gotten him into the business. They had known each other for years, since high school, and his friend was aware that Alex had recently dropped out of college and was working as a caregiver. The job wasn’t bad – it made Alex feel good to help others – but the pay was shit, there was no advancement, zero opportunities, and he couldn’t imagine spending the rest of his life like that. Alex had told all this to his friend, just venting, and though he had known his friend was a paparazzi, he hadn’t expected to then be asked, ‘You wanna come work with me?’ The next morning, at 7 a.m., they had set out to find Brad Pitt.
Now, Alex was on staff at one of the big photo agencies, where he had a salary, bonuses and a boss who was willing to invest in the best zoom lenses on the market. It turned out he was good at it, the whole process of taking photos. He had barely taken a snapshot before in his life, and then suddenly he was seeing his work on the cover of US Weekly, and according to his boss, himself a former pap, Alex had an eye. ‘Good composition,’ he had once told Alex gruffly, pointing at the spectacle of bodies Alex had managed to capture while crouched in the branches of a tree, the tangled triangle of a few Disney kids doing lines. ‘You got the light. You don’t see that every day.’
That had been his first big check. It was addictive, trailing after them – the celebrities – it was all a game of chance. When Alex got a good photo, it felt like a victory; nothing was guaranteed. Most of the celebrities treated him like a nuisance, and he felt the same way about them. That was one of the reasons why photographing the pop star felt different than any other beat that Alex had worked on, if you photographed her it meant you were in the big leagues. It meant you were a connoisseur. Unlike most celebrities, the pop star never called the paps, which was a rarity; even the biggest, most established movie stars are guilty of arranging a pap walk at least a few times during their careers, during a particularly critical juncture in which public approval is needed – post-divorce, say, or to dispel a plastic surgery rumor. But a weird electricity followed the pop star; it always had. Some kind of an ineffable sense of self-possession, one that was impossible to fake. Glamour, maybe. Charisma. Cool.
She had made a big show about dismissing her management team the year before and was now in the midst of some kind of public freefall. This was bad for her career but good for the paps and the journalists. An entire cottage industry had grown out of her depression, and she was feeding more mouths than ever. Now, her days were spent sleeping in and puttering around her mansion; occasionally, she played with her young children, when she was allowed. Her nights, though, were more fruitful – more dangerous – she spent the nights with her assistant, out on the roads.
These roads keep their inhabitants sane. There is an uncanny sensibility to the Western scale of nature, the trees still left are ancient and overgrown. Though Alex had for the most part grown up in California, save for the first few years of his life, the years he couldn’t remember – spent back in the civil war-torn country his parents had purposefully fled – nights out in the West continued to surprise him. For all that coast’s promise of possibility, it contains just as much disaster as it does success. Drunk drivers, serial murderers, computer programmers convinced they’re God. The trees grow crooked, there is so much green as to quickly turn banal. Going south, the vegetation turns tropical, poisonous, it looks like that of other countries, runs counter to the contemporary idea of nation, boundaries, borders, law. A palm tree will never be jingoistic, it has no loyalties. Sometimes the roads look American, whatever that means; other times, they look like somewhere else.
A pap never strays too far from his vehicle. Alex had recently bought a new car, thanks to the success of his photos, but it was also an investment, a place to hold his equipment and to allow him to hide out, to wait. Most of his days were spent waiting, waiting and driving. He spent hours in that car. When he was camped out there, waiting for his subjects to leave their houses, he was trapped; if he had to relieve himself, he pissed in a jar. This was normal, one of the tricks of the trade. They all did it. Alex assumed this was why he had never met a female pap.
When he drove on the freeway at night, something switched inside him. He never turned on cruise control, preferring instead to feel his body move with the car, to merge with it, however briefly. Often, Alex would lean back in his seat, hands off the wheel as he messed around with something else, twisting open a water bottle or changing a camera lens, and his knees would lightly touch the sides of the steering wheel instead, guiding him.
Tonight, though, he gripped it. He leaned forward, hands tight around the wheel and his heart beating fast as he pressed on the gas, the entire automobile humming with speed. A dubious excitement spread over him, curling low in his belly and twining through his chest. Alex tapped a rhythm against the wheel, he could not sit still. Something was going to happen tonight, he thought. Something would have to happen. A California freeway encourages a blankness of the mind; the goal is one of perfect equilibrium. He shifted into this space.
There was a line of them. The cars. Trailing after the sports car that led the pack, the one that beckoned all the rest of them near. She was inside of it, they knew. They recognized the car, the distinctive way she drove. Speeding up, slowing down. No warning. She liked to tease them, she knew what she was doing. Sometimes the pop star would even try and race them, pulling up beside a pap when the light was red and tossing him a wave, before zooming forward on a dime. No doubt scaring her new assistant, who was trapped in the passenger seat beside her. But they all loved it, they loved the chase.
She wasn’t much older than Alex. This still surprised him, she had existed so long in the public eye so as to become ubiquitous, her face no longer her face but rather a wallpaper, a backdrop, to the lives of others, pasted on billboards and bus advertisements and winking from the news. This was part of the shock of the photos Alex and his colleagues took, they revealed her pores. She was human, it turned out, not just a series of body parts smoothed out by a computer. Alex remembered a story another pap had told him a few months ago, as they waited for her to leave a custody hearing. ‘It was maybe three, four years ago,’ the other man told him, not saying it outright but both of them knew what he meant: when she was still seen as hot. When they, her audience, still indulged her, pretended that they had ever cared about what she had to say.
Unusually, this man had been the only pap following her that day. Also unusual: the Los Angeles radio station she had unexpectedly pulled up to, with only a small dog and a bodyguard as her companions. She went inside for maybe twenty minutes, no more than half an hour. Upon her exit, the pap scrambled for his camera; strangely, she motioned towards him. It was like she was breaking some kind of fourth wall, she didn’t do that very much in those early days: acknowledge the paparazzi’s presence.
‘Hey there,’ she told him. This was before her marriage, her pregnancies, before America decided she was fat. Her haircut still looked expensive, as did the faintly ridiculous purple wraparound sunglasses she was now pulling from her face. ‘I’ve got something for you. If you’d like.’
The pop star handed a CD in a jewel case over to the pap. It looked homemade, like she had just burned it earlier that day, in the comfort of her own home.
‘It’s a demo,’ she explained. ‘I dropped one off at the station just now, too. I’m working on a new record.’
The pap turned the case over, examining it.
‘It’ll be my most personal yet,’ the pop star told him. She had said this phrase many times before, in interviews, and yet this time it didn’t sound like a platitude. There was an earnestness in her voice that touched him. ‘I’m actually helping write some songs on this one, for once,’ she continued. ‘Though the label doesn’t love that.’
‘What should I do with this?’ the pap asked her.
The pop star shrugged, annoyed with him and the question. ‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘Listen to it?’
The pap nodded. Truth be told, he was not a fan of her music, he told Alex; nothing she had released had ever appealed to him. Even the supposedly personal stuff – there never really was anything personal to those songs, they always sounded cheap, just mass-produced emotions. Her most popular songs, the danceable ones, were even worse, earworms built to appeal to eight-year-olds and their creepy uncles, with lyrics focused mainly on sly metaphors about the pop star’s own fleeting beauty. That was supposed to be the appeal: the idea that she did – or maybe she didn’t – know what was meant by the words that she was singing.
‘Maybe you’ll like it,’ the pop star told the pap, a little desperately, before she went back to her car. He hadn’t even taken a photo of her, he realized later. Something about the whole encounter embarrassed him. She was trying too hard; he got the sense that she was desperate to be liked. He couldn’t reconcile that with her image, the stage persona that tried to combine some kind of untouchable goddess with a simpering schoolgirl.
‘Did you listen to the demo?’ Alex asked him.
‘Yeah,’ the other pap admitted. ‘I had to turn it off halfway through. It just felt – I don’t know. It was too intimate.’
This encounter had been three years ago. She had never released the album from where the song purportedly came.
In his own car, Alex shook his head. There, up ahead – the pop star’s car flashed its turn signal and exited the freeway. The others did the same.
How conscientious of her, Alex thought. How polite. That fabled Southern charm. She let us know where she was going.
The pop star pulled into a Target parking lot. X marked the spot.
The paparazzi followed. They weren’t always permitted inside the stores she went into, and their code of ethics didn’t always allow it, either – do you want to be a good pap or a bad pap? – but it was late, the store was open twenty-four hours, and the employees looked bored. A cashier standing behind one of the registers near the entrance watched as a herd of them pushed past, all these men following the two women and calling one of them out by name. They’d say things like, ‘Look, look over here,’ or call her by her first name, the only name she really needed. Stupid questions, too: ‘Do you have a grocery list, what do you need, do you want us to grab you some milk?’ Anything to engage the pop star, to get her looking at their lens.
The pop star’s assistant tried to shield her boss from the cameras and failed. She was a slight, fragile-looking brunette, probably not that much older than the pop star, and whenever the cameras went off she’d look at them in surprise, her eyes widening, as though shocked to see them once again. It was a naivety that seemed ill-suited to her chosen profession, but the pop star had been the one that chose her, essentially picking her up off the street – they had met in the bathroom of an upscale hotel three months before, bonding over God knows what – you get what you pay for. It was a consequence of the pop star’s sudden decision to fire her old assistant, a chubby family friend who functioned more as a chaperone than an employee and who had no interest in clubbing. Though the new assistant didn’t act like much of an employee, either – more of a confidante or bystander.
As she walked alongside the pop star, hurriedly attempting to keep up, her boss reached out and flicked a few boxes of black hair dye onto the aisle’s floor, looking bored. ‘I need to use the restroom,’ she announced loudly, her high-pitched voice echoing against the store’s plastic trinkets, plastic cookware, plastic clothes. For reasons obscure to everyone but her, she was speaking in a British accent, albeit one poorly imitated. She spoke up again, with the fervency of a young child close to having an accident: ‘I need to visit the facilities.’
‘We’ll get you there,’ her assistant promised as she scurried behind her, the fake tan on her bare thighs turning sallow beneath the store’s fluorescent lights. She sounded almost on the verge of tears. ‘We’re almost there, I promise.’
‘Jolly good!’ the pop star shouted, before breaking into a fit of giggles. At this time of night, there were few customers, mostly local malcontents trying to distract themselves from their insomnia’s particular cruelties. They looked up, startled, from where they stood staring at a display of laundry detergent bottles or a row of eyelash curlers in clear plastic boxes, uncertain whether this was really happening, or if they weren’t, in fact, actually dreaming. But no: the crowd ran past them, roiling, a ball of arms and legs and lenses, the pop star at its head, and when she saw the customers staring, she’d stick her tongue out at them or hiss. Finally, she and her assistant reached the bathrooms located towards the back of the store, she cackling and her assistant looking anxiously ahead. They ducked in, leaving the paps – who had some sense of propriety – to wait for them, huddled together, a pack, surrounding the bathroom door.
What were they doing in there? The paps and the civilians who had joined them looked at one another knowingly; they understood what women did inside bathrooms, that fraught and complicated other world. Alex fondled the camera that hung from his neck, the eye of it. Growing up, it had always struck him, hadn’t it, when the women left the room. When they retreated, his mother and his aunts and his sisters and their friends, all of them, slipping into their own parallel universe, the kitchen or their bedrooms or somewhere else, somewhere secret, a world inside of themselves. One distinct and separate from that which contained Alex, his brothers, his uncles, his father. They were different, and he felt it, always. The emptiness, the lack. His own longing.
When the pop star and her assistant emerged, something had shifted between them. They seemed calmer, less frenzied; less teetering on the edge. Drugs, Alex assumed.
A loose, louche energy settled over them like dust. ‘Cheerio,’ the pop star called out lazily to the crowd, her accent still meandering between a bad cockney, a bad RP, and her own softer Southern drawl. She lifted her arm into a beauty queen wave, elbow elbow wrist wrist, and as she walked past them, her assistant beside her linked arm-in-arm, she gave them a glimpse of what might have been, what she could have turned into, if she had stayed down there, down in her small town south of the Mason-Dixon. If, as a young child, her parents had not heard her sing, watched her dance, and realized, with a rare canniness, that she was their escape.
The pop star grabbed some chocolates from one shelf, a pack of pens off another, and made her way towards the register. There, the gossip rags’ latest issues were all on display. As the woman standing behind the register stared at them, agog, the pop star and her assistant began to flick through them. The pop star looked bored – her face was on nearly every cover – but her assistant, you could tell, was curious, there was still the thrum of excitement that came from seeing her face in print. It was possible that she had a reporter’s phone number on speed dial, that she leaked info about her employer for cash. Or maybe this was enough, these last few months, this ephemeral moment in time – the pop star would inevitably fire her someday, this chaos couldn’t go on forever, but the assistant would always have this. Her months spent standing beside the most famous woman in the world.
The two of them lowered their heads over the newest OK, the newest US Weekly, the newest People. ‘This one says I’m pregnant,’ said the pop star, running a finger over the lede. ‘That’s definitely not true.’
‘This one says you fell off a table while dancing at Les Deux the other week.’
‘Well, that’s definitely true.’
They laughed girlishly, tickling one another’s sides and shrieking, as the men surrounding them filmed videos and shot photos, click click click, a constant, a metronome. Each open and close of their shutters sounded like water dripping, torturous, steady and continuous. As the crowd watched, the pop star seemed to shift, no longer ignoring the paps or the people, a sleek, self-conscious charisma encasing her like a web. She knew she was being watched, and this seemed to provoke her. Quickly, the pop star opened the box of ballpoint pens that she had not yet paid for. Shaking one and twisting it open, throwing the cap to the ground, she leaned over the magazines and began to scrawl, signing her name on every one of them rapidly, the letters looped and childish, a practiced hand. On one of them, Alex noticed, there was an older photo, taken a few months ago by a friend – in the photo, the pop star could be seen standing on a nightclub’s table, her legs parting, opening themselves to the insistent camera, as she began to fall– on this one, the pop star pressed down so hard while autographing it that her pen tore through the paper.
‘Um, miss – ma’am –’ the cashier stumbled, not quite knowing what to call her. They all knew who she was. ‘You need to buy anything you open or that you write on –’
‘Yeah, yeah, I know,’ the pop star snapped. That charisma vanished, along with her good humor; she retreated, hunching protectively over all the covers with her face. Sensing a shift, her assistant began to grab them, plucking the magazines from the news rack and dumping them onto the checkout’s conveyer belt. Fumbling with her purse, the assistant finally drew out a credit card. She no longer looked at ease; a feeling of mild panic began to descend over her. Beside her, the pop star tore at a hangnail with her teeth. When she noticed one of the paps filming her, she made a face.
‘Let’s go, let’s go,’ her assistant murmured once she had paid, grabbing the magazines and the pens.
‘You forgot these,’ one of the paps told her, pointing at the chocolates. He leaned over, grabbing them from the register, and handed them to the assistant, who looked up at him nervously.
‘Right, right.’ She nodded. ‘Thanks.’
The two of them ran out into the night, two maenads in a supermarket, their rampage over almost as soon as it began. Inside, the employees looked at one another, dazed. A pop song was playing over the stereo system, wafting through the aisles as the customers began to drift back to browsing. It was by a lesser rival of the pop star’s, something about stupid girls, stupid girls, it kept repeating that phrase, the singer never wanted to be a stupid girl. But they all were – the men with cameras were already out the door. It was important, now, to have one’s photo taken, to upload it online, to see and to be seen. To reduce oneself into a brand, to market your smile.
There were two of them in this equation: the person behind the camera and the person in front of it. But even behind the camera, Alex felt himself beholden, out of control; there were too many of them now, he worried, too many paps, they weren’t in charge of their own payments, the money would run out. He was running now, they all were, back to the cars. Back into that dark stretch of lonely night, back onto the roads. They stamped across the tabloids that the pop star’s assistant had dropped to the ground. The pop star’s paper face ripped beneath their feet.
It was just past four in the morning, and some of the other paps were beginning to complain that they had no good photos. The tabloid thing in the store had started off cute but was too brief; they were beginning to worry that her flipping them off was becoming routine. They were outside her house now, parked haphazardly, a nuisance, standing around and asking each other if that was it for the night. If she was done.
Alex threw down his cigarette, stamping it out. ‘I don’t know either, man,’ he said, and shrugged. ‘She seems a little off tonight. Like she’s in a weird headspace.’
‘I mean, I’m only doing my job,’ one of them, a tall, skinny man named Ivan, complained. He had a thick accent, Eastern European maybe – Alex assumed Russian, but one of Ivan’s compatriots had once yelled at him for that, shouting ‘I’m Belorussian, you fuck,’ and so now he took no chances. Ivan had once been a valet, and it was a point of pride for him that he was now a pap. This seemed, in his mind, a step up, an ascension within the weird hierarchy specific to this corner of LA, the one in which the celebrities existed.
‘I’m only doing my job,’ Ivan again repeated. ‘This is bullshit.’ The way he pronounced that last syllable elongated the i into more of an ee, and Alex wondered, not for the first time, what his life might have been like before, back in the old country. One of the Brazilian paps was thinking of going back, he had told Alex this a week before. ‘America,’ he sighed, ‘is a good place if you know what you want from it.’ As he said this, they watched the heirs and heiresses to semi-obscure fortunes fall over themselves outside another nightclub, trying to leave a perfume launch without vomiting. The Brazilian pap regarded them with an opaque expression: this wasn’t what he wanted.
They were all displaced here. Even the city’s natives. Los Angeles may be the most American of cities, but that doesn’t mean that most Americans feel comfortable in it. Why would they? Your average American is preoccupied with an almost cartoonish idea of morality, good versus evil as specified to superhero proportions, while those that thrive in LA are those who – as has been written – never ask what makes Iago evil. They just accept it. That’s the point.
The paparazzi began to disperse. Some left, Ivan among them – ‘Good night, assholes,’ he shouted from his car, fingers out in a peace sign – while others decided to spend the night and sleep in their cars. This was its own private thrill, the stuff that made the work exciting, particularly for the new ones. Staking out a celebrity’s house made them respectable, in a contradictory way: they were like detectives. When they turned on the news, though, the old shame returned: there, they were called stalkers.
It didn’t matter that the photos they were taking, the actual images, were some of the most sought-after photos in the world. And some of the highest-paid – and yet the journalists, whose clickbait nonsense and best-dressed slideshows depended on these photos, sneered at them. The journalists were why the red carpet events were always so annoying to work, Alex thought; half of them were disgruntled name droppers, eager to tell you exactly where back east they had earned their undergraduate degrees, while the other half actually seemed to believe in the celebrities, they took Angelina Jolie’s opinions seriously. They looked at the paps with distaste, and this same distaste was beginning to rub off on Alex. He was beginning to wonder how much longer he could do this. The friend of his who had first gotten him into this had just been fired from their agency, after he had gotten into a car accident with a coked-up actress. Their boss decided he was a liability. She had hit him with her car.
Alex walked away from the others, to stretch his legs and clear his mind, before deciding what to do next. The pop star’s street was quiet at this time of night, a winding road in the hills, where every house had a pool and very little privacy. That wasn’t really the point, though. Alex walked around the left side of her property, thinking he’d try and peek through the gate. Maybe he’d glimpse something, he had a good lens. When he rounded the corner, he stopped abruptly: the gate was open.
He looked around nervously and then, without fully realizing what he was doing, Alex walked in.
Carefully, quietly, he walked forward. Green vines twisted all around him, obscuring the back of the house from its neighbors, and a pool lay to his right. Near it, a few children’s toys were scattered at the edge, just a plastic bucket and some inflatable animals. Alex smiled at these, reminded of his niece and nephews.
He kept moving, half crouched down and treading lightly on the balls of his feet, like a hunter. There was a patio ahead, and he thought he heard a series of sniffles. He followed them, and there she was. Legs tucked up close to her, her chin resting on her knees. She sat on the ground, crying softly. The pop star.
He stopped, and she looked up at him, confused. ‘You’re not supposed to be here,’ she said.
‘I know, I’m sorry,’ Alex told her. ‘The gate was open, and I just –’
She shrugged. His trespassing didn’t seem to bother her, it was like she expected to be found. ‘I understand,’ she told him. ‘It’s your job.’
‘Yes, yes, exactly!’
‘And it’s my job to let you take them.’ She was referring to the photos, Alex assumed, but her voice broke slightly as she said this, and he wondered if she was alluding to something else. Before he could ask, though, she held up an unlit cigarette. ‘Can I have a light?’
Alex fumbled with his pockets until he found his lighter, holding it out to her in a gentlemanly gesture. ‘Thanks so much,’ the pop star told him after she took a long drag. ‘Laura passed out, and I don’t know where my purse is.’
‘It’s no problem, really.’
A small brown terrier chose at that moment to run out from inside the house, through the open patio doors behind the pop star, and whimpered as it drew closer to its owner. She scooped it up easily with one hand, cigarette in the other, and sang, ‘Baby, baby, baby,’ to it in a quiet sing-song, pressed its wiry body close to her, its head curling into her chest. Her voice sounded different, Alex thought. It startled him, actually. It lacked the creaky vibrato, the gravel and groan that he associated with her singing.
Cooing to her dog as though it were a baby, the pop star’s voice was lighter, sweeter. ‘I’m alone tonight,’ she told Alex. ‘My husband – excuse me, my ex-husband – has the kids.’ She said this casually, as though Alex didn’t know every detail of the custody case, as though he had not taken photos of her emerging from the courthouse. Strangely, she now seemed to appreciate his presence, offering him a small smile.
‘Do you ever get sick of taking my photo?’ she asked him.
‘I take a lot of people’s photos. You have to, in this business.’
‘Yes, but what about me?’
His camera strap still hung around his neck; his camera was sitting in his hands. Alex regarded the pop star carefully. However guarded she may have seemed earlier, right now her face looked naked. Like how she had looked at sixteen, exposed, on stage and in the videos. That open, pining look. As though asking them to like her. To never forget her name.
‘I’m just tired of everybody looking at me,’ she was saying. ‘Everybody touching me. It’s like I can feel them, all day, with their eyes, poking me. I’m so sick of being looked at.’
This was the moment Alex chose to lift his camera. Through the lens, he could see an expression of panic move over the pop star’s face.
‘I’m so sorry,’ he told her, ‘but my boss will pay me a lot of money for this one. Like, a lot of money.’
‘Please,’ the pop star whispered.
He took the photo anyway.
Image © Johan J.Ingles-Le Nobel