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 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."
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