L.A. Times: The Shooting Stars

In slow, late-afternoon traffic, Navarre (Co-owner of X17) cruises down Robertson, past the Ivy, Kitson, Lisa Kline—daytime stations of the cross for celebrities wishing to be noticed. This stretch of the boulevard is awash in cars passing through and civilians toting shopping bags. At least that's how it appears to the untrained eye. With Navarre as tour guide, it becomes clear that we have entered a parallel universe where a high-stakes hunt is underway.

"That guy waiting in the gas station is paparazzi. See there? On the left side, two paps are sitting on the wall. There's one in the black Mercedes here. The one behind him in the blue car is from another agency, but he's my friend." My neck swivels back and forth as I try to take it in.

We are directly in front of the Ivy now. Valets are rushing around as patrons mill on the sidewalk waiting for their cars. Navarre leans out his window. "Is there somebody?" he asks the guy who is his friend. The guy shakes his head. Navarre thinks he is telling the truth, so we head over to Century City, where two X17 teams are staking out Britney Spears and Kevin Federline, who have been holed up inside an office building for hours, presumably negotiating divorce issues. At least eight other photo agencies, plus a BMW full of reporters from US Weekly, are also on the case.

At the end of this day, X17 will end up with a few shots of Federline leaving the building, and nothing on Britney. More important, perhaps, none of its competitors will have gotten much either.

TMZ seemed to retaliate on April 18, when it posted video of X17 photographer Felix Filho screaming obscenities at another X17 photographer during a Britney Spears stakeout in Malibu. "Twenty or more paps gather each day near Britney's home, waiting for her next move," TMZ commented under the video. "Get over it dude."

Though you may not recognize the name X17, you have probably seen the agency's work, especially if you follow news of the celebrity train wreck known as Britney Spears. The agency also covers Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton and other twentysomething starlets, naturally, but X17 is understood to be the Britney Spears specialist, with a seven-man team devoted just to her. She is their bread and butter.

The team, which is called MBF after its three principal photographers, are all from Brazil. Francois Navarre says this is because he recruits from the ranks of valet parkers, a local industry whose ranks are increasingly filled with Brazilians. His Lohan team is Armenian. The teams function as their own corporations. "I pay the leader and he does the sharing," says Navarre.

Each morning, MBF arrives at Spears' doorstep off Mulholland Drive around 10 a.m. and follows her around town until she retires for the night. When Spears goes anywhere by car, she is followed by an unbidden cortege that would put some heads of state to shame. A separate X17 team, two brothers from Argentina, specializes in Kevin Federline. Another team specializes in Malibu. And so on.

When Spears shaved her head on Feb. 16 in a Tarzana hair salon, X17 had the best shots and video. When Spears attacked an SUV with an umbrella on Feb. 21, again in Tarzana, it was one of X17's cars she went after and another team member who got the shots. X17 devotes so many resources to Spears that even its competitors acknowledge its primacy on the beat.

The agency's clients, which range from the tabloids such as the National Enquirer to pillars of the mainstream media, can't get enough of the faded pop sensation. "There are other celebrities being microscoped, but not like this one," says Dano, the videographer. "I mean, it's forensic." Still, he believes that Spears feeds on the constant attention. A few weeks ago, she invited another X17 videographer into her tanning salon and gave him an exclusive, if weird, interview, speaking in an exaggerated Valley girl accent, seeming to criticize her manager for making her go to rehab after she shaved her head. X17's clients ate it up.

X17 photographers deny that they're too pushy (in fact, on April 25, TMZ.com posted a photo of a very orderly line of paparazzi vehicles following Spears' car), but photographer Fabricio Mariotto admits it's not always easy to be safe behind the wheel. Standing on the sidewalk with several of his colleagues and competitors, waiting for Spears and Federline to emerge from the lawyers' office in Century City, he explains that if they leave the building, he will have no choice but to jump into a car and give chase.

"It's super-crazy," he says. "It's ridiculous! Too much adrenaline, and it gives you a heart attack. I have crashed my car, gone through red lights. . . . There are so many photographers now, it's hard to get an exclusive."

Perhaps because they spend so much time together, the paparazzi have nuanced relationships with their subjects. In general, according to the Navarres, fans want to see the stars looking healthy and happy, not besieged or in pain. So the photographers may push and jostle and chase and annoy, but they are generally nasty—and physical—only with each other. On videos, you can hear them coo: "We love you, Britney." "How are the babies, Britney?" "Take care, Britney." When X17 photographer Felix Filho realized Spears was shaving her head that day in Tarzana, he says, "I freaked out, my legs were shaking, I was like, 'It's not real.' I was like, 'Whoa, something is wrong.'"

But he didn't stop shooting.

Source: LA Times.
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