Back in the winter of 2011, I was sitting in my tiny apartment in Austin, Texas, finishing my dissertation on the history of celebrity gossip. Starting all the way back at the beginning of what we now know as Hollywood, I traced the evolution of how stars were created, packaged, sold, and consumed, from Mary Pickford through Britney Spears.
But writing a dissertation is dull, solitary, deeply unglamorous work, and when a producer emailed me to ask if I’d be in a documentary about “the business of celebrity,” I jumped at the chance. They flew me to New York, filmed me at Sarah Lawrence to give me the “aura” of an academic, and asked me questions about the past and present of celebrity. If you’ve never been part of a documentary, you likely don’t realize just how many times the “talking heads” get asked a question before landing on an answer the producer likes. “Can you answer that again, but much more condensed?” “Can you say the same thing, but with one word?”
I was deep in academia at the time, where answering with one word, about anything, felt like blasphemy. But they kept asking me leading questions about the effect of Perez Hilton, and the paparazzi, and TMZ: “How have they made life hell for celebrities?” “Can you talk about how they’ve ruined celebrity?”
My responses weren’t just too long, they were too unemotional. I viewed the rise of the digital paparazzi, and the gossip blogs built alongside them, in less moralizing terms. This was simply the latest pendulum swing in a century of oscillations in celebrity power. At the end of the 2000s, celebrities had found themselves largely beholden to the seemingly ever-growing swarms of paparazzi, forced to remain vigilant about how and when they appeared in public, terrified that a snippet of unflattering, unbecoming, or straight-up scandalous footage would make its way to TMZ.
Which is why the producers of the documentary kept asking me the same questions. They wanted something closer to the thesis of their film: that Perez, and amateur paparazzi, and TMZ, and the voracious appetites for content they both sparked and satiated, were ruining celebrity. It wasn’t until the film came out, a year later, that I realized the reasoning for the thesis: The film’s executive producer and director (absent the day of my filming) was Kevin Mazur, who’d spent decades photographing celebrities for Rolling Stone.
Mazur considers himself a “good guy” in the industry: the sort of guy celebrities trust, who they invited into their home, who’d never publish a photo that was unflattering or unsanctioned. Which is how he convinced Jennifer Aniston, Jennifer Lopez and then-husband Marc Anthony, Elton John, Kid Rock, and Salma Hayek to participate in the film as well, describing the paparazzi’s tactics, from the general hounding on the street to the use of helicopters to catch footage of Lopez and Anthony’s backyard wedding ceremony. Their argument, like that of the film, was ostensibly that the business of celebrity had become exploitative and dangerous for the celebrities themselves — which, given the rash of car crashes as celebrities fled brazen paparazzi, was true. The industry itself was broken, transformed from a system of honor and veneration into one of shame and denigration, which treated its products as little more than commodities to be bought and traded.
This content was originally published here.