One afternoon this winter, Sarah M., better known as “Stalker Sarah,” was sitting in the back of an In-N-Out Burger fidgeting with her iPhone and plotting how to get her picture taken with Harry Styles, the rakishly handsome frontman of the English boy band One Direction, or one of his bandmates. Sarah was dressed in her usual uniform of black leather jacket, black skinny jeans and black sneakers; her long brown hair was swept back into a neat ponytail, and her wispy bangs gently brushed the top of her signature wire-rimmed glasses, which accentuated her black eyeliner. It was more or less the same look she had worn in photographs over the years with Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Justin Bieber, Julia Roberts, Oprah, Tim Tebow, Levi Johnston, Rod Blagojevich, Kris Humphries and many, many others. More than 6,000 photos of Sarah mugging with celebrities have been uploaded to the Internet. At 17, she is easily the most famous fan in the world.
Sarah had picked this In-N-Out Burger because it was near LAX. That morning, she heard that One Direction was booked to perform on “The X Factor,” and speculation about their arrival gained traction when the band was photographed entering Heathrow Airport at 2 p.m. London time. Soon after that, some of the band’s more than 11 million Twitter followers deduced that they must be taking the 4:15 British Airways flight to Los Angeles. Sitting next to her father, Tracy, Sarah tracked the flight’s progress on her phone. The plane was due to land 30 minutes early, which gave her exactly 15 minutes to get to the airport.
Seven minutes later, Sarah and Tracy walked into the Tom Bradley International Terminal. It looked like a bust; no nervous throng of teenagers or idling paparazzi were anywhere in sight. Then two girls no older than 15 noticed Sarah, whipped out their smartphones and began typing rapidly. Five minutes later “Stalker Sarah” was trending on Twitter, at which point teenage girls (and some of their parents) materialized like an invading army. First there were 10, then 50, then 200. Photographers from TMZ, X17 Online and Splash took up posts near the black S.U.V.’s waiting curbside. The fans had come to meet the band, but for some, a photo with someone who had met them (multiple times) before was almost as exciting. When One Direction performed on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” a month earlier, Sarah was mobbed by dozens of the band’s fans; some tore at her clothes. At LAX, a girl approached her nervously. “Hi, Sarah?” she said. “Could I get a picture with you?” Then another.
Sarah obliged, but her face betrayed worry. With so many fans in the terminal, One Direction’s security team would surely be looking for another exit. She made a run for the curb, and almost immediately, the other young women began exiting, two by two, sensing the missed opportunity. Tracy, who had been standing 20 feet behind his daughter in a blue warm-up jacket and baseball hat, walked up to me and whispered, “She probably went up to the top level of the parking garage to see if anything’s set up.”
This was not Sarah’s first time navigating the escape hatches of LAX. It wasn’t even her first time there that day. She arrived at 8 a.m. to meet Ed Sheeran, an up-and-coming English folk-pop singer who she thought would be flying in from Denver (where he played recently) to Los Angeles (where he was booked on “Jimmy Kimmel Live”) in time for the show’s taping. She wrote down all the information for the direct flights from Denver to L.A. and went from terminal to terminal waiting for him to arrive. When he showed up, around 1 p.m., she was the only fan there to greet him. They snapped a photo together.
Five minutes later, Sarah walked back into the Tom Bradley International Terminal with the army of girls sheepishly trailing her once more. There was nothing doing on the upper level, she said. She was now noticeably excited. She had not taken a picture with Styles all year and was eager to see him. But as she bounced in place, a freelance photographer approached and said that an airline employee he pays for tips texted him that One Direction had slipped out through the American Airlines terminal 20 minutes earlier.
“If that’s true, then why are you still here?” another paparazzo asked him.
“Cher’s coming in from Paris at 9,” he said.
Sarah remained hopeful, continuing to bounce, until 30 minutes later when a fresh picture of Styles in a Rush T-shirt and an orange ski cap landed on Twitter. An American Airlines logo is visible on the luggage cart behind him. He and the boys were long gone. “Well, that sucks,” Sarah said, staring at her iPhone. “They totally sneaked out.” Then she and Tracy set off for a tattoo parlor on Sunset. Sarah said that One Direction had gone there on previous trips.
In L.A., stalking celebrities may not be the most dignified job in the world, but it can pay the bills. A nonexclusive photograph of a celebrity can earn a few hundred dollars. The most prolific paparazzi can sell five or six sets of pictures a day and earn about $10,000 a month, but many operate under the premise that they are one groping photo away from a major payoff. A photo’s main value, after all, depends largely on what the star is doing. “You could get a photo of Brad Pitt just standing there, and you wouldn’t sell it,” says Henry Flores, who co-owns the agency Buzz Foto. “I have taken photos of Angelina and Brad holding hands, and I couldn’t even sell it.” But Flores earned $30,000 for a photograph he took five years ago of Britney Spears being loaded into an ambulance. The photographs last summer that showed Kristen Stewart kissing Rupert Sanders, her married “Snow White and the Huntsman” director, may have sold for up to $250,000, Melanie Bromley, the former West Coast bureau chief of US Weekly, told The Los Angeles Times.
In pursuit of these career-defining moments, the most successful paparazzi spend years cultivating relationships with not only managers and publicists, but also restaurant workers and trainers. “You can’t be covered in tattoos and dressed like a gangster if you want to be successful at what we do,” Flores says. Many star handlers reward these less-threatening photographers with choreographed exclusives, but the business is still littered with less-polished free agents who chase stars in their cars or photograph their children on school grounds. Ninety-five percent of paparazzi, it seems, are men, many of whom go by the sort of nicknames — like the Fingerbreaker and Cheesecake — that you would expect to hear on a minor-league hockey team. Mostly, though, they stand around waiting for something to happen.
Sarah is very much a part of their circle, trading texts and tips with them. The paparazzi have accepted her for strategic reasons. In the era of YouTube and reality TV, there are simply more people than ever before who qualify as famous, and their every move is seemingly reported in a never-ending proliferation of gossip sites and blogs. Perhaps only a teenager could possess the energy and technical aptitude to serve as the global tracking device for it all. Sarah is incredibly adept at recognizing even the most minor celebrities and has a much better sense than her older colleagues about which seem ready to break huge. Scooter Braun, the 31-year-old talent manager of Justin Bieber, Carly Rae Jepsen, Psy and the Wanted, considers it part of his job to follow Sarah’s whereabouts on social-networking sites. It also helps that she’s nice to his clients. “The thing is, she’s not overbearing,” he told me. “She respects people’s space. She’ll say, ‘Do you mind if I get a picture?’ And if you’re like, ‘Not right now, Sarah,’ she’s like, ‘No problem.’ And she’s just a very sweet, sweet person.”
Most celebrity photographers yearn to catch a star at their most defenseless, but Sarah tends to think of them as friends. A couple of years ago, Tracy told me, Sarah saw an up-and-coming actress fall down drunk in a restaurant. She picked her up, helped her into a bathroom and reapplied her makeup before asking the paparazzi to delete the photos and video footage they took of her collapse. She helped exonerate Lindsay Lohan after a hookah-bar manager claimed that the troubled star drove over his foot. (Sarah saw the whole thing.) She made it a point to post flattering images of Demi Lovato when the young singer and actress went to rehab for bulimia and self-mutilation in 2010. (Sarah says that when she subsequently ran into Lovato’s mother, the woman threw her arms around her and later took her to dinner.) About a year ago, Sarah began casually dating Angus T. Jones, who reportedly earned $300,000 an episode playing Jon Cryer’s son on “Two and a Half Men.” So far it hasn’t affected her hobby. “He loves what I do,” she says. “He gets very jealous of some of the people I meet. Like when I told him I met Skrillex, he couldn’t even talk.” (Though Jones declined to be interviewed for this article, a representative says they are just friends.)
Exclusive photos of any of those stars could have fetched tens of thousands of dollars, but Sarah has never even considered the option. The restraint is striking. She and her father live in a modest apartment in Toluca Lake, a small community nestled between Burbank and Studio City on the other side of the Hollywood Hills. Her mother left the family when Sarah was about 5. Tracy cleaned pools regularly until about a month ago, when health problems forced him to scale back. Now he devotes much of his time to chauffeuring her on daily stalking adventures. Tracy has encouraged his daughter to try to monetize her hobby. Last month, she published the Web site StalkerSarah.com, which will eventually accept advertising, and she and her father had lunch recently with agents. But the two have turned down overtures about development deals and reality-TV shows.
The decision has been motivated, in part, by Tracy’s concern for Sarah’s safety. Last year, after she posted a picture of Justin Bieber kissing her cheek, Sarah received numerous threats of physical violence. (The Times honored her father’s request not to publish the family’s last name.) During our conversations, Sarah also seemed genuinely unsure about leveraging her superfan status without alienating her famous friends or jeopardizing her relationships with fellow paparazzi. At the moment, she is considering adding a fan forum to her Web site or offering advice about stalking celebrities. She told me jokingly about starting a line of baby powder, mouthwash and other products you might need when out stalking.But others around her are already cashing in on her own growing stardom. Before the Wanted flew in to LAX last year, Sarah received an e-mail with the band’s flight information. The e-mail requested that she help give them the welcome they deserved by getting her followers to the airport. So she tweeted out the details. When they arrived, the band was mobbed. A crew filmed the scene for the group’s reality-television series.
Sarah’s first celebrity spotting occurred when, as a 6-year-old at an arcade, she recognized Robert Hays, the veteran character actor. Hays is most famous for his role in “Airplane!” but she knew him from “Homeward Bound,” one of her favorite Disney movies, and approached him for a picture. A few years later, after a gun was discovered in the backpack of one of her schoolmates, Tracy began home-schooling her. “People were telling me, ‘Oh, how are you gonna make friends?’ ” Sarah says. “To me, it’s better to just choose your own friends instead of being stuck with 25 kids in a classroom who could be a bad influence or I don’t get along with or whatever.’ ” Tracy told Sarah that if she maintained good grades, they could keep up their nightly stalking adventures. “I know where she is every night,” Tracy told me. “And I know she’s not in trouble.”
The two now spend 40 hours together each week, tracking celebrities. One night this spring, I joined them as they headed out on a Tuesday. Tracy has been driving rental cars since last fall, when their truck was hit while he was taking her to meet Jones, and so we piled into a Ford Focus with a new-car smell and headed to Craig’s, a trendy restaurant in West Hollywood. As we pulled up, three paparazzi were outside smoking cigarettes. “It’s probably Jane Fonda,” Sarah said. “She’s a regular there.” Sarah texted one of the photographers, and he responded within seconds: “It sucks. No one here now. Matthew Perry just left.” Five minutes later, we were at RivaBella, a months-old upscale Italian restaurant. Sarah noticed a few of her photographer friends and sent one a text asking who they were staking out. “Do you want Heather Locklear?” he replied.
Instead, we continued to the Chateau Marmont, because Sarah had received a tip about Lady Gaga. No one was sure if Gaga would be coming or going, so we continued on to Bootsy Bellows, a club co-owned by David Arquette and known for its Tuesday-night parties, before circling back to RivaBella just as Locklear handed her ticket to the valet. The paparazzi frantically snapped Locklear and her date to chants of “Heather! Heather!” Sarah hung back until the photographers were mostly done and then bit her bottom lip and approached.
“Can I get a picture with you?”
“Oh, absolutely,” Locklear said.
“You’re too young to know who she is,” a photographer yelled at Sarah.
“I saw her on ‘Hannah Montana,’ ” Sarah said. Locklear laughed.
Most celebrity stalkers stand on a sidewalk for hours and are lucky to wind up with Heather Locklear. But Sarah is far more ambitious. A week later she called me at 8 p.m., barely able to contain her glee. “Harry is back in town,” she said. We met outside Mr. Chow, in Beverly Hills, where a photographer showed her a text message that read: “Harry Styles is at the Troubador.” The drive from Mr. Chow to the Troubador, in West Hollywood, is about two miles. But by the time we got to the club, Styles was gone. Tired and hungry, we walked next door to Dan Tana’s. It was nearly midnight when Sarah suddenly grabbed my arm and whispered, “Oh, my God, he is right there!”
Styles was sitting in the middle of a long table, finishing dinner with a large group, including Rod Stewart, who just played the Troubador. Styles looked up and saw Sarah and grinned without teeth. His hands were fidgety, and he looked nervous. She approached him. “I don’t want to bother you or interrupt your meal,” she said. “Would you mind taking a picture with me on your way out?” He told her that would be fine, and Sarah walked back over to me. Styles still looked uneasy. The woman next to him had her hand on his knee and was kissing his cheek. Styles had been the subject of great romantic speculation since his breakup with Taylor Swift, in January, and the two dozen paparazzi waiting outside would love to have this shot, which, Sarah later told me, could easily fetch $15,000 in the United States and maybe double that in Britain.
Styles looked at Sarah from across the room as she slid her iPhone purposefully into her purse, ceding the exclusive to another photographer. He resumed kissing the girl. It might seem puzzling that Sarah would turn down such easy money. But in Hollywood, fame itself is an even more valuable currency, and not taking the picture is Sarah’s way of protecting hers. Why risk a dream come true for a one-time score? Before leaving, Styles came up to her and leaned in for a picture. This was what she had come for. The next day, the Internet was teeming with photos of him leaving the restaurant with Kimberly Stewart. In the background, over his shoulder, you can just make out Sarah’s face, looking on.