This story is from the April 24th, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.
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. He is 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 billion-dollar 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.
Levin has started TMZ Sports and is rumored to be trying to expand his empire, but his primary revenue is still original recipe TMZ – his website and a nightly television show that, interestingly enough, is syndicated by Warner Bros., the employer of many of the stars that TMZ stalks.
Ironically, TMZ made paps players in the game; I watched as tourists photographed paps because they've seen them on TMZ and think they're famous. They also provide revenue for the creepy pics and video no one else is interested in, e.g., an elderly Steven Tyler and an unknown woman riding topless in a jeep through Hawaii.
TMZ took the illusion of privacy away. Now the paranoid star just assumes someone is always there. Decoy cars and false itineraries are floated to throw TMZ off the scent. And then there's the money. TMZ has tons of it. TMZ has the cash to buy off valets and info like flight lists or even the limo list of what celeb is being picked up where and when. Now paps feel like they can make just as much money from tipping off TMZ as from selling their photos. Fellini's buzzing flies have become TMZ's serfs.
Still, Vlad loves his work. Well, except when Hopper Penn called him the n-word and a vicious gay slur while he tracked his father, Sean, in the 90210 last year. Besides, Vlad has standards. Mind you, those standards may be slightly different from yours or most of Western civilization's, but they are still standards.
A little after 1:00, Jessie J finally appears. An SUV pulls out of the London hotel and Vlad follows. Jessie J is in the back seat. He trails her to Record Plant studios, powering by her on Melrose so he can arrive a minute or two early and set up. He's already on the sidewalk and shooting when a security guy asks him to let Jessie's mom pass. Vlad consents and then snags Jessie wearing a wig and a tired smile.
"Jessie's huge in England," he says. "I'll shoot her every day, and I'll have a complete story to sell. It's not about one picture – it's about the whole story."
He drives away, but screeches the brakes as a white Range Rover buzzes through an intersection. He flips a U-turn. "Hold on, hold on, hold on, look at it. . . . Yeah, it is! Get the fuck outta here. January Jones!" Vlad squints at the license plate and urges other cars to get out of his way. "Yeah, '047.' Move, nigga, get the fuck outta the way. Come on, drive, bitch! Come on!"
The best paps have hundreds of license plates committed to memory – Dominic once rattled off to me the numbers for almost every $125,000 Mercedes G wagon in Los Angeles. Some celebs know it and constantly switch cars; Vlad claims he's seen Harry Styles driving a half-dozen different vehicles. He sticks close to Jones, but not close enough to spook her.
"If she has the kid, she's going to, whatchamacallit, a play date. If she's with the kid, it's even better."
Vlad might make about $500 for an exclusive Jones shot, but could make twice that for one with her kid. The Rover pulls up to a house in a nondescript neighborhood. Vlad can see a toddler in a car seat. Nothing happens for a while. Vlad notices a spot on his shorts. Vlad likes to look as good as the people he shoots. He debates going home to change after this chase ends.
"Man, I'm getting dirty and shit, yo. I don't like that. I work really hard to fucking stay clean."
Many paps see themselves as simple hacks, grinding out pics of whatever celeb is in front of them, often not knowing who they've shot until later. That's not who Vlad wants to be. Sure, he can come across as Vlad the Barbarian, jumping in the face of celebs and sitting here behind Jones and her kid, but he wants something more from his pap life than shooting 50 sets a week and working six 12-hour days. He studies the glam photos of Jackie O stalker-pap Ron Galella and gets excited.
"That's what I want to do, get beautiful full-framed shots."
But the exact goal is blurry. Sometimes it's to work for the AP. "I'd like assignments, just one day to know where exactly I'm going," says Vlad. Sometimes it's to work the easy side of the rope line; he never seemed more relaxed than while shooting a Saturday-night baby shower thrown for Vanessa Simmons at Sugar Factory, a posh candy store. The party's guests included her uncle, Russell Simmons. Vlad lights up when he mentions Simmons. "Russell thinks I should shoot a pilot about me and my little girl, Kaydence, The Pap and His Daughter."
Over and over, he tells me he's not just trying to grab a quick photo; he's trying to build pap long-form. He feels a kinship for the Kardashians. He recently saw the HBO movie Cinema Verite, about the Louds, TV's first reality family, and loved it.
"The Kardashians are the living embodiment of the Louds," says Vlad. "I get to be a part of that – not to say I'm part of the family, but I get to document it."
The documentation is not always successful. We sit for 15 minutes, and a woman gets out of the Range Rover, but it's not Jones or her child. She drives off, and we follow some more. Jones creeps a few miles under the speed limit. Vlad giggles.
"I love when people know that you're following them and they drive a certain way."
Eventually, Vlad breaks off the chase, reasoning Jones is heading home to Los Feliz, and that won't work. Vlad's been to Jones' house before, and it has an automatic gate. He knows he won't get anything good. He takes a left and heads for Beverly Hills, where he heard from Dominic that Mark Wahlberg is walking around in a sharp suit. Wahlberg's Lone Survivor is the number-one film in the country, so it's a no-brainer. But as he heads down Melrose, he sees a crowd of paps gathered outside the Urth Caffé, a trendy health-food restaurant. He jumps out, and the paps whisper Kylie Jenner is on her way. She is the half-sister of Kim Kardashian, which seems slightly less on the fame scale than a movie star, but not in the pap marketplace, where 42-year-old Wahlberg is ancient. "Fuck Mark Wahlberg," shouts Vlad as he joins a scrum. "This is worth 10 times that."
Jenner arrives with a friend in a Mercedes, but she pulls her hair down over her face like Cousin Itt. No one gets a good shot. Vlad is pissed. It's a commonplace attitude of the paps – moral indignation when a target refuses to give it up.
"Bitch, stop covering up. Let motherfuckers shoot you and get it over with," mutters Vlad. "All this fucking attitude – 'Ooh, I don't wanna be shot.' Someone like Angelina Jolie would just give us the shot – she's beautiful." Vlad doesn't mention that Jenner is 16 and Jolie is 38.
On the other hand, Vlad does have a point. Celebs that hit the West Hollywood/Beverly Hills quadrant and places like the Urth Caffé are not exactly trying to keep a low profile; it's sort of like if LeBron James went to an ESPN Zone and then whined about being hounded for autographs. Probably 90 percent of pap shots in L.A. are taken in West Hollywood and Beverly Hills, and where Vlad trawls – the London, Urth Caffé, Sunset Boulevard Equinox, the playground near Coldwater Canyon – resembles a magical place called Pappyland, where the stars' makeup is always perfect and their kids are freshly scrubbed and immaculate in brightly colored clothes.
The ugly secret is, some stars want to be hunted. During the Great Britney Spears Hunt of 2007, the Normandy of pap history, she would reportedly call select paps right before moving. Kim Kardashian routinely tipped off the paps in her early days. Someone falling off the fame radar, like Denise Richards or Tori Spelling, will make arrangements for paps to come over and shoot them with their kids.
But it's not just the desperate. Back in the early days of TomKat, paps were notified that the usually reclusive Cruise and Holmes would be arriving at the Ivy, a swanky actor-friendly lunch spot. A small army got the shot. "Sometimes publicists tip off the paps without telling their clients," says Scott Cosman, owner of the photo agency FameFlynet. "They think their client needs the hit, but the star might think it's beneath them, so they just leak the information without telling them."
Sometimes it's about reframing the narrative. Before Angelina Jolie became a humanitarian, she was best known for wearing a vial of blood around her neck and kissing her brother. After she adopted seven-month-old Maddox from a Cambodian orphanage, Jolie carefully orchestrated a photo shoot with an approved pap that repositioned her image from troubled goth to responsible adult. After she started dating Brad Pitt, it was leaked to a photo agency that they would be taking their first big vacation at Kenya's Diani Beach, not exactly a pap hangout. The pictures rocked the tabloid world. (Now the couple are among the toughest celebs to snap, vacationing where paps can't get to without an AmEx black card and a helicopter.)
Many celebs simply like the cash. Lindsay Lohan has tipped off paps about her next stop in return for a gratuity. Ryan Reynolds is known to have an antagonistic relationship with the paparazzi, but recently he has been "captured" eating Chobani yogurt, carrying a Burger King bag, smiling at a Nespresso cafe and caressing a Can-Am motorcycle, all in apparently preplanned shots. The last photo is Reynolds driving away on the motorcycle.
Vlad isn't concerned with such philosophical matters. He's too busy waiting on Jenner and staring down the U.K. guy from earlier today. "This fucking cock," Vlad says. "I'd slit his fucking throat, fuck him! He keeps jumping shit."
In the fungible ethics of pap life, there's no point mentioning to Vlad that actually he's the one who jumped the Jenner shot. Soon, there are 20 to 25 paps outside the restaurant. They're all looking for the one shot that differentiates from what is charmingly known in the pap business as a gang bang. (Paps got a group shot of Paris Hilton, back when the world cared about her, on the street carrying two books – but Jennifer Buhl's photo was the only one where the words "Holy Bible" could be clearly read. She got the big payday.)
Meanwhile, Jenner's car pulls around back, and she sneaks out before anyone gets a clear shot. Now everyone's pissed. Vlad guns his car up Melrose a few blocks ahead of Jenner and the pursuing mob.
Vlad sees her in his rearview window and pulls in right behind her. He stays on Jenner's bumper until the car makes an abrupt right into the parking lot of a posh nail salon. In a minute, a dozen cars disburse 20 paps. But there's no shot, and she disappears inside. A horde of paps hems in a car driven by a Jenner fan, who had followed the paps from the Urth Caffé. He yells at them to move and not touch his car. No one listens. The driver hits the horn and pulls out a long knife – more like a mini-machete – from under his seat. He is just a kid. Vlad screams at him.
"Fuck off! What happened? Yeah! Pull it out! You ain't gonna do a single thing."
He's right; the kid puts the blade away and drives off. The other paps give Vlad space. He stalks back to his car. He says it's no big deal. "Get the fuck out here, you pull a humongous knife? I've had motherfuckers flash guns. He wasn't gonna do shit."
Here is a good place to offer a disclaimer. This all might sound creepy and gross, and it is, but like Justin Bieber egging his neighbor, in the moment it's kind of a blast. You know it's wrong, but there's a camaraderie and an adrenaline rush, a modern version of a gang of Dickensian pickpockets. Morality is placed in a blind trust.
Half the guys split, but the others dig in like it's the pap Alamo. They're not going to make any money – an exclusive shot of Jenner might make you a grand; a gang-bang shot with hair in her eyes might make you 100 bucks – but now it's a matter of principle. Day turns to night. Finally, three hours later, Jenner emerges from the nail salon. She slinks out with a half-wave but with her hair still over her face. About a dozen paps have hung on, including Vlad. He gets an almost usable shot before she gets into the car. The camera flashes light the night and, for a moment, blind Jenner. She's disoriented and almost backs into a pole. A video pap named Malibu Rich yells at her.
"You're about to run over a kid on a bike!"
There's no bike, no kid. The paps crack up. Jenner is impassive in the driver's seat. The Mercedes pulls away, and the paps head for home or nighttime stakeouts of clubs and restaurants. Vlad drives in silence. He passes graffiti spray-painted on the side of a gas station reading STOP MAKING DUMB PEOPLE FAMOUS. He doesn't notice.
Understandably, Vlad sometimes self-medicates. He chases away the stress with weed, a nice pasta salad at Fred Segal and his shiny Mercedes. Vlad claims he paid $35,000 cash for his Mercedes, and he wouldn't be the first pap to buy a car beyond his means. If you were following around a $200,000 Ferrari with Harry Styles in it every day, you'd get sick of chasing them in an Elantra too. The hunter wants to be on equal footing with the hunted.
One day, Vlad took his eight-year-old daughter, Kaydence, to a playground in Beverly Hills and looked through his online account. (He also has a 19-year-old daughter, Kasie, in college.) He shoots for Splash, one of the largest photo agencies, and gets a 60-40 split on all sales. But except for the obvious stuff – a shot of, say, Bieber emerging from a car in a cloud of weed smoke – it's maddening trying to figure out what will sell. A good Gerard Butler shot earned Vlad only 60 bucks, but a crummy photo of Jessica Alba scored him $900 last month. Why? Alba is carrying a Christian Dior bag, and Christian Dior bought the picture. Other photos, like Jessie J, have almost no value in the States but will be huge sellers overseas, maybe worth a few thousand dollars. Sometimes, it's dumb luck. Top Hat Rick found himself immersed in a crowd in Hancock Park when Prince William and Kate Middleton emerged from the British ConsulateGeneral's house in 2011, and he made $20,000. Older paps make money on their archives, but Vlad has been doing this for only a few years, so there's no iconic shot in his catalog bringing in dough every month.
That's why he's out every day. The morning after the Jenner fiasco, Vlad recognizes the license plate on a Tesla as Jeremy Renner's and chases the American Hustle star around the canyons of Hollywood – but ends up with nothing to show for it. He's now one-for-two for the day, after capturing a pregnant Olivia Wilde on Sunset entering the gym. That went fine – Wilde is always charming and accommodating – except for the sneaker incident.
"I fuckin' spazzed on this fucker 'cause he stepped on my shoes," Vlad says about another pap. "There was only two people there, so how's that happening?" Vlad's anger issues were an indirect reason for his exile to Los Angeles. He'd spent much of his twenties and early thirties in New York, doing street marketing for hip-hop tours and clothing lines like Bad Boy Productions and Phat Farm. He started taking pictures of his clients and their parties and found he loved it. A mutual friend introduced him to someone at TMZ in 2008, and they gave him a camera. On his first day, he used his height to hoist his camera over a wall and shoot Madonna as she left her house. He was hooked.
Vlad became a TMZ star, scoring some of the first pictures and video of a smiling Rihanna after Chris Brown beat her. But the aggressive style that got him noticed as a quick riser in the pap life also became his downfall. A few months after the Harrelson run-in, TMZ fired him because he seemed to enjoy talking to the press. TMZ might be snark kings, but they prefer not to piss off big stars too much.
Vlad soon moved out to Los Angeles with his daughters and their mother because of the weather and the sheer density of celebrities. His kill-or-be-killed attitude followed him. Vlad's blend of persistence and aggression made him more than $100,000 last year, which is on the high end of the pap-salary scale. In September 2012, he was eating at a Mexican restaurant on Sunset when he saw Amanda Bynes coming out of her gym. Bynes had her license suspended after a DUI and two alleged hit-and-run incidents, so she was hot in the pap world. Vlad grabbed his camera from the seat next to him. He ran in front of her and started shooting. Bynes was pissed and started scratching at Vlad's arms and neck. He didn't mind – he had a precious exclusive, and the photographs and video made him $85,000, according to Vlad.
But there is a noble goal at the end of Vlad's amorality. One day, while driving through Beverly Hills, Vlad pulls the car over and whips out his camera. No one is there, just a yard sign for a two-bedroom apartment. "I want to give my daughter a princess room," whispers Vlad, whose right leg is covered in a guardianangel tat with both his daughters' names spelled out. "Her own little nook in life."
Currently, Vlad lives in West Hollywood so he can step out and shoot stars the moment he wakes up, but he only has a one-bedroom. He takes Kaydence to school and picks her up in the afternoon, but she usually sleeps at her mom's. That doesn't mean father and daughter aren't close – they are, in a pap way. There's footage of a Brad Pitt stakeout outside an American Girl in L.A. where the actor was hosting a birthday party for his daughter. You can see Kaydence on Vlad's shoulders in the mob; they'd been shopping at the same store. On a recent Sunday, Vlad chased after Jenner again, with Kaydence in the front seat, watching cat videos on her iPad.
"She once spotted Katy Perry for me," says Vlad. "She loves it."
It's a few days later, and Vlad has a tip from someone at LAX.
"The airport. Kim is back in town."
That would be Kim Kardashian. Every generation gets the primo pap target they deserve, and America has gone from Jackie to Madonna to Britney to Kim Kardashian, queen of the reality world. It's a progression we really shouldn't dwell on. Kardashian is flying in from the Paris fashion shows on a Delta-Air France nonstop. Delta is problematic for celebrities. An ex-pap showed me a sample of daily e-mails that TMZ acquires, listing all the stars flying on the airline. It eventually trickles out to the rest of the pap world.
Vlad pulls into LAX, and it's a full gang bang, maybe 40 paps, but he's here because she's the most famous pap target of his career and he hopes that through some miracle he can get a special shot.
Everyone crowds toward the VIP customs exit that is maybe five feet wide. In minutes, Kardashian is going to be a posh camel trying to pass through the eye of a very dirty needle. A gaggle of Japanese tourists adds to the congestion. Suddenly, Malibu Rich bolts toward another exit a hundred yards away. Half the paps stampede after him. Vlad is torn but holds his ground. Turns out it is just Alec Baldwin.
A few minutes later, someone screams.
"Here she comes."
And there's Kardashian, all in black, except for a fur-lined tan coat. She's wearing big sunglasses. This is a good thing because the subsequent onslaught of camera flashes could obliterate retinas. The walk to her car is only 100 feet, and it moves like a shimmering amoeba under a microscope. Paps are shouting questions.
"Kim, is Bruce going to have a sex change?"
"Kim, is your family Shakespearean?"
Vlad's face bobs above the sea of humanity, but he doesn't have a shot. So he peels off and runs out through the sliding doors and jumps up on a concrete barrier and shoots downward, ripping off 70 frames. In 30 seconds, it's over. Kim is stashed in a black SUV and is gone.
Vlad frantically scans through his pictures. A giant smile breaks across his face, and he skips away, pirouetting in a crosswalk. It's the happiest I've ever seen him. He sits in the Mercedes and looks closer. The simultaneous flash of 50 cameras has lit Kardashian in an ethereal way. Today, she looks like a movie star. Vlad has a couple of killer shots of her from head to toe. He starts crowing.
"Got her, full fucking frame! And the winner is . . . me! Trix are for kids! They always want to wolf-pack around her, so I got above them." He flips through the frames quickly. "Nothing, nothing, and then opening, and there you go, Bbrrraaatt."
Vlad heads back toward Hollywood, still buzzing. Kendrick Lamar is rapping, "Everybody gon' respect the shooter, but the one in front of the gun lives forever." We're stuck in traffic on the 405, but Vlad doesn't care. By the time he gets back, the Daily Mail, a well-trafficked British website, will have a story up with all his pictures. He says he might make $10,000 once resales are factored in. This is unlikely – agencies will be flooded with gang-bang photos of Kim from LAX and will be happy to go with a slightly crappier photo to save some bucks, undercutting the value of Vlad's pristine shot. Later, once the adrenaline wears off, he admits he'll make only $1,000.
He drives in happy silence for a while before telling me another story. A few days ago, Vlad was trailing Kim's brother, Rob, in Beverly Hills. Rob is part of the collateral damage of the Kardashian story – Bruce Jenner's sanity is the other – putting on 50 pounds last year after breaking up with his girlfriend Rita Ora, the British singer. According to the tabloids, his family is disgusted by his weight gain. For Vlad, he's still a good "get."
Eventually, Rob pulled over and Vlad approached his car. In a calm voice, Rob told Vlad he was trying to get his life together and wasn't even on the show this season.
"I just want to show your growth and how you're losing the weight," said Vlad.
But Rob politely said no again. Then Vlad did a very un-Vlad thing. He said OK, catching Rob by surprise. The pap and subject looked each other in the eye.
"Look, you guys have helped me achieve something I couldn't in a nine-to-five," Vlad said. "I would have never seen half the money I make now."
And then Vlad let him drive away.
"Why did I do it? I don't want to be the bad guy."
Two months later, Vlad had his camera temporarily seized by Beverly Hill cops for taking unauthorized shots of Hilary Duff's kid at a playground. But right now, he jerks the Mercedes into the breakdown lane and passes a dozen cars. He rolls down the windows and laughs loudly.
"Fuck being the bad guy."