Vladimir Labissiere sits off Sunset Boulevard in his new black Mercedes E350. He's monitoring the competition – OK, he's calling them fucking cock-blowers – and talking about the time Woody Harrelson jumped his ass and said he was a zombie.
He is parked in an alley across from the London hotel, one of his favorite haunts. Labissiere spends a lot of time in alleys waiting for his shots. That's when he's not trailing behind celebrity SUVs that are taking tots home from play dates.
The 40-year-old Vlad is six feet three, but he's no zombie. His something more monstrous in the eyes of stars like Harrelson. He's a pap, singular for paparazzi, the despised shooters who bring you all the video and pics you claim to loathe but actually stare at online for hours. Vlad's Mercedes is hidden on purpose; he doesn't want another pap to jump his shot because that kills its value. Paps are known by their nicknames – Bam-Bam, Zazy, Top Hat Rick and Mexican Vlad, not to be confused with our Vlad, who is also known as the Black Russian.
He's one of hundreds of Angelenos who represent a tripped-out rainbow of the American dream – Haitian-Americans like Vlad, aviator-wearing Persians, Brazilians with questionable immigration status, Mexican-Americans in broken-down vans, Eurotrash in leather jackets and the occasional Caucasian dude on a motorcycle – trying to make a living on anywhere from $10,000 to $150,000 a year by photographing every move an A-, B- or D-lister makes, short of using the toilet. (Bathroom shots are probably just a year or two away.) Some of the stars hate them, some of the stars use them in a now-estimated billiondollar business, where millions of insatiable readers scan websites, magazines and television shows for the tiniest scrap of information on the second lead in a Lifetime reality show. The paps struggle not to get squished by TMZ, the Godzilla of the tabloid world, which has the influence, sources and cash to swamp a pap working on his own.
Vlad is one of the last of the lone wolves. Right now, he's waiting on British pop star Jessie J to emerge and head to a nearby recording studio. Vlad checks her Instagram page and sees that she's at the rooftop pool, so it will be a while. He starts talking about his encounter with Harrelson in 2009, as hip-hop blasts from his radio. Vlad's gone solo since, but at the time he was shooting for TMZ. He caught Harrelson and his daughter coming off a flight. "I'm asking questions, trying to keep it light. 'Hey, Woody, so how you feelin', man? I know you must be a little out of it, but . . . are those pants made out of hemp?' And the dude bum-rushes me and smashes my camera to shit. I'm like, 'Woody, that's assault, that's assault.'"
It was Vlad's first meltdown with a star, but it wouldn't be his last. There have been run-ins with Robert De Niro's driver; Hopper Penn, Sean's son; and Amanda Bynes in the past four years. He stops talking. Another pap is walking up, a smile on his face. Vlad won't roll down the window.
"That dude is a leech," says Vlad. "He's a virus, yo, a parasite motherfucker. Every fuckin' day this cock-blower just runs around, jumpin' on shit. But his bitch ass will have a fuckin' cow if you jump on his shit." He slips into a decent Cockney accent: "Eh! Come on, mate, you're jumping my shot."
Vlad speaks in his own personal English Esperanto, an oft-obscene language with made-up phrases – e.g., "funky pumper" for a woman's backside – blended through a childhood split between Port-Au-Prince and Flatbush, Brooklyn. The Brit trudges away. Vlad goes back to talking about Woody. Luckily, he had another minicam and started filming Harrelson with that. This did not endear him to Woody. "He fuckin' jumps on my back. Now I'm like, 'Dude! Seriously? Come on!' The asshole is piggybacking on me, punching at me. I'm like, 'Word?'"
Paps live on situational awareness – a sixth sense anticipating what is going to happen next. Vlad spies a double-decker bus heading down Sunset. But this one is different from the tour buses trawling through West Hollywood on the lookout for Kanye and Kim leaving the Chateau Marmont. On the side is a Playboy logo; the upstairs seats are filled with dozens of bunnies. Vlad throws the Mercedes into drive.
The Brit follows in his SUV. Vlad is displeased. He cuts the dude off and barks more creative obscenities. He catches up to the Playboy bus on Sunset. He jumps out of the car and starts shooting bunnies. The girls wave and blow kisses.
"Hey, girls, looking lovely." He locks eyes with an Asian bunny. "I like you."
It all takes three minutes. The Brit trails behind. He shoots Vlad an isn't-that-something look, but Vlad just curses, spits and piles back into the car. A phone call comes in from Dominic, a 19-year-old pap from Zurich. Dominic works the celebrity quadrant from West Hollywood to Beverly Hills on a bike because he lost his license for reckless driving back in Europe. Vlad started out on his bike when he first came to Los Angeles in 2010, so he treats Dominic semi-nicely, in a Fagin-Oliver kind of way. They talk six or seven times a day, trading info on stars who are heading in one another's direction. Dominic has just checked in on the 9 a.m. SoulCycle class on Sunset where Olivia Wilde and Ashley Benson sweat it out on the bike. He's trying to tell Vlad something, but Vlad talks over him, still pissed off about the Brit.
"This motherfucker, yo, comes and jumped. I hate him. . . ."
"Hey, did you hear what I just said?"
"There's this kid on Sunset parked right by the fucking gym, sitting in his car, doing coke at 10 in the morning. He's doing it off his knee!"
"No way! You see some of the weirdest shit in the early morning, son. First you see a dude beatin' off in Hollywood. You come to fuckin' West Hollywood, you see some dude doin' coke."
Dominic clicks off, and Vlad takes the Mercedes back to the London hotel. Oh, yeah, Woody. After Harrelson finally stalked away, Vlad called in to the TMZ office. He told them he'd been attacked, but the home office had other concerns. They wanted to know if he had video. (He did.) Vlad's face sags a bit. "This dude just attacked me, and all I hear back is, 'Did you get the shot?,' not 'Are you OK?'"
Afterward, Harrelson semiseriously claimed he'd just come from wrapping Zombieland and thought Vlad was, uh, a zombie. No charges were filed. Vlad is still bummed by TMZ's reaction. "It's like they only cared that I got the picture."
The Mercedes is now back in position. Vlad stares at the hotel-lobby entrance. And he waits.
In the two weeks that I followed Vlad, he abandoned me and his Mercedes on Sunset Boulevard on a Saturday night so he could shoot Molly Shannon, thought he saw former stripper Blac Chyna but declared her ass not big enough, berated me for bringing a banana into his ride, fell at Chaka Khan's feet, and shot George Clooney on his way to picking up his girlfriend for date night. He also called Ashley Tisdale a name not uttered in polite society after the star used her niece as a shield to ward off Vlad and other paps.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. I first met him at King's Road Cafe in West Hollywood, a quiet restaurant that Vlad semi-hates because he's had to shoot Jane Lynch there repeatedly.
"She's always like, 'Again?'"
Well, "had to" is a relative term; paps like Vlad are an OCD bunch of characters. If they see a celeb, they pathologically need to shoot them, even if they just nailed them four hours ago, which is why no celeb believes a pap when he says, "Just one shot, and I'm gone."
It was a few days after Vlad had been pulled over by the Beverly Hills Police Department while tailing Amy Adams. Across the street is a West Elm where Vlad recently shot Isla Fisher. Like many famous people, Fisher has an intuition about paps and somehow sensed Vlad's presence parked outside. She induced a sales clerk to walk out in front of her and even slid in on the passenger side of her car. Vlad still got the picture.
"Bbrrraaatt," says Vlad, making a noise that sounds like semiautomatic gunfire. "That picture sold, son, for about 500 bucks." He has an imaginary conversation with Fisher. "You blocked. It sold. Clap. Thank you!"
Bbrrraaatt. The images whir by. A long-lens shot of a topless Jackie Onassis. Sean Penn landing a crisp right. Britney Spears' bare skull. Paris Hilton's bare vagina staring back at us. Justin and Cameron kissing on a surfboard. Topless Kate Middleton.
These notorious photos are brought to you by the paparazzi. Federico Fellini named a photographer Paparazzo – conjuring the sound made by an annoying, buzzing insect – in his 1960 film La Dolce Vita, and the name stuck, morphing into the plural of paparazzi, an essential tweak since paparazzi tend to clump on celebs like horseflies on road apples.
It's not an easy life, and it's getting harder. New legislation went into effect in California on January 1st, preventing paps from shooting kids in an alarming or terrorizing manner based on their parents' fame. This sucks for the paps, since mom-and-kid shots sell best. The new law was spearheaded by Halle Berry after being swarmed by paps at LAX last year leading her to scream, "Jesus, what is wrong with you people? That's a child here."
In January, Dax Shepard and Kristen Bell, the parents of a one-year-old, went a step further, launching a campaign against what they named, regrettably, the pedorazzi, and proclaimed their refusal to do interviews with outlets that use unauthorized shots of stars' kids.
This has confused paps on multiple levels: (1) Who knew Dax Shepard had juice? (2) Many celebs trot out their kids for publicity when it suits their needs. "It's hilarious," says Rick "Top Hat Rick" Mendoza, a pap best known for suing Britney Spears after she ran over his foot. "Kristen comes up with a new hate word – pedorazzi – and goes on this campaign just as her movie Veronica Mars is coming out," says Top Hat Rick. "What a coincidence! Now who's manipulating who?"
So where's the line? Here's a story. There's a popular Halloween spot in West Hollywood called Mr. Bones Pumpkin Patch. Glammed-up celeb moms parade their children down slides and past face-painting stands, while paps get their shots from a designated shooting pen. It's quite the scene. There are now at least 35,000 shots of celebs cavorting in Mr. Bones Pumpkin Patch in photo archives. Stars like Matt Damon – who scrupulously guards his kids' privacy – simply don't take them to pap hot zones like Mr. Bones. But Berry has brought her daughter there many times. That's her right, of course, but it doesn't suggest she's trying to keep a low profile with her kids.
"Halle can take her kid there," says Mendoza. "But if she does, I have a right to shoot them. That's America."
Comically, this is all happening as the world gets smaller. There is less big game like Jackie O and Michael Jackson out there, replaced by a bewildering galaxy of feral reality stars, former criminals and famouspeople spawn – like Jackson's son Prince, whose martial-arts lessons regularly attract a dozen paps. Events now move quicker than Vlad's shutter. In the 1990s, you might get a shot of, say, Madonna looking ragged, and you'd have a few days to start a bidding war before selling it to People. Now it's a race to beat the celeb from posting her own photo on Instagram or another pap from uploading the photo to INF or Splash, two of the largest photo agencies, and then the agency selling your competitor's photo before you've even pressed send. You think texting and driving is dangerous? Vlad and other paps shoot, drive and upload simultaneously.
"It's become the Wild West out there," says one of Hollywood's top publicists. "Now you have so many more paps trying to bait the client into a fight. I tell my clients, 'Let cool heads prevail.' In L.A., don't try to outrun them, don't fall into their trap. It's exponentially worse than 10 years ago. I've had paps shoot down on the roof of my client hanging out with her babies. It's just nuts, and someone is going to get killed. Maybe the paps help B- or C-listers get something out of the attention, but the stars get nothing, just harassment."
TMZ has not helped. (The company got its name from the "30-mile zone," the area of celeb-rich L.A. spinning out from West Hollywood.) TMZ founder Harvey Levin was a lawyer who made his bones reporting on television for the O.J. trial before moving on as a legal analyst for the revamped People's Court and creating Celebrity Justice, an early practitioner of tabloid television that focused on the legal snafus of the stars. Starting up TMZ in 2005 was a logical next step.
Levin has a Warhol portrait of Mao in his L.A. office and sees himself as an iconoclast. He has made spasmodic attempts at respectability – succeeding with a report that Northern Trust, a bank that received $1.6 billion in federal bailout money, was spending lavishly at L.A. hot spots, and failing miserably when TMZ leaked purported photos of JFK sunning himself as naked women jumped off a boat that turned out to not be JFK but from an old Playboy shoot.