In Your Face: Paparazzi take root in Washington

April 24, 2011

When Oprah Winfrey arrived from Chicago one May day to speak at a college commencement ceremony, a dogged paparazzo named Colin Drummond was on her tail. He loitered in front of her four-star hotel. He cased the layout of the spot where she was to speak. And when she showed up for a dress rehearsal, he surreptitiously noted what her bodyguard looked like, and the color and make of her hired car.

The day of the speech, Drummond was ready, taking his position at the likeliest entrance hours in advance. But when Winfrey finally appeared, she got out of her car a bit farther away. Drummond had time to get only a few shots of her.

When he looked at them later in his home office, however, he was pleased. The talk show diva was wearing a pretty white outfit with comfortable flip-flops — toting her dress heels in a bag.

“I was just happy to take a nice picture, because she was smiling,” Drummond says.

Then, a fortuitous event occurred.

A friend noticed something weird about the photo. If you looked closely — really closely — at Winfrey’s bare feet, it appeared that she had six toes. Drummond quickly enlarged the photo of the digit in question and had to agree.

Drummond re-sent the picture with the enlarged toe to his photo agency in New York, after which it hit the Web like wildfire. Six-Toed Oprah ended up selling to Star magazine, gossip sites and newspapers all over the world. It was a sensation: “Either Oprah Winfrey is rockin’ a sixth toe or that’s one mighty corn!” observed celebrity gossip site TMZ.com. In the end, Drummond says, he raked in more than $50,000 from that one image, and he’s still collecting residuals from it.

At that time, Drummond had more than a decade of experience working as a freelance photographer for the New York Post, Bloomberg and other media outlets. But after Six-Toed Oprah, everything changed.

That moment in 2007 “was the turning point,” he says. “That’s when I knew I had to concentrate strictly on celebrities and strictly on working in D.C.”

Paparazzi? In Washington, D.C.?

Yes, Washington now has its own homegrown pack of street photographers, a half-dozen or so who make their living selling photos and videos of visiting celebrities to gossip blogs, Web sites and magazines such as People and Us Weekly .

On any given day, you might see the paparazzi loitering outside luxury hotels such as the W or the Four Seasons, in front of restaurants such as Cafe Milano, or at the baggage claim at Dulles International Airport, hoping for famous faces. The paparazzi have wide networks of hotel doormen and limo drivers whom they rely on for tips.

And, just like their counterparts in New York and Los Angeles, they excel at annoying their subjects. Actor Shia LaBeouf threw a cup of coffee at one local paparazzo at an outdoor cafe last year (you can watch it on YouTube; it was all caught on tape — by Colin Drummond).

For Drummond, 46, who launched his own local celebrity news site, Celebrity-Newz, earlier this year, the career switch has been lucrative. He makes six figures — double what a news photographer might make — and lives in a charming $792,000 historic home in Old Town Alexandria with his wife, Monique, a consignment boutique owner, and their two children, ages 7 and 15.

The fact that even a small group of paparazzi can now support itself here says a lot about how the city has changed in recent years — with a new presidential administration, a host of trendy nightclubs and restaurants, and a steady stream of stars coming in to advocate for various causes. Drummond likes working in Washington because, he says, he’s more likely to get an exclusive shot of a star here than in New York or Los Angeles, where there are hundreds of photographers.

“It’s gone from being an old, establishment town that’s all about politicians to a hot town to be photographed in. ... Before, I always used to hear, ‘Oh, my God! I can’t believe there’s paparazzi here in Washington, D.C.’ Now they know — people like J. Lo, Beyoncé, their bodyguards — all them know if they come here, they’re going to be photographed,” he says.

Drummond and his shutterbug brethren will be in hyperdrive this week for the White House correspondents’ dinner at the Washington Hilton, an event affectionately known around town as “prom.”

The annual rite of spring, which the president almost always attends, has morphed over the years from a staid dinner to a glitzy spectacle resembling the Oscars, where celebrities such as Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber mingle with Cabinet secretaries on an actual red carpet. There’s also a slew of pre-dinner cocktail parties, post-dinner brunches and competing after-parties. Of those, an invite to the Bloomberg/Vanity Fair event is the most coveted; the list will be pared to a mere 400 this year, making invitations more sought-after than ever.

Some news organizations, the New York Times, for example, have made a show of boycotting the dinner, but interest in the WHCD weekend remains intense. The number of photographers credentialed for the event has grown from 50 in 2008 to more than 100 this year, organizers say. Fans can follow the consuming details online at the White House Correspondents Weekend Insider site.

Drummond will be working nonstop from Wednesday to Monday, trying to catch stars such as “Saturday Night Live’s” Seth Meyers — this year’s host — in candid moments off the red carpet. A few years back, when Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes came to town, only one paparazzo managed to get pictures of them inside the Hilton — and it wasn’t Drummond. That rankled.

“It’s the biggest weekend of the year for us,” Drummond says. “There’s going to be a lot of A-listers here trying to get face time in.”

One evening on the Georgetown University campus, Drummond crosses Healy Lawn, past students playing pickup volleyball, lugging his camera bag. He’s dressed like a college student himself in jeans, white sneakers and a blue T-shirt, an expensive silver diving watch on his wrist.

The photographer is headed to an auditorium where he hopes to get video of Martin Sheen, in town to attend a screening of his small independent movie “The Way,” directed by his son Emilio Estevez. In addition to his regular camera, Drummond carries a small hand-held video camera for on-the-spot interviews, often throwing out goofy or slightly off-kilter questions in the hope of getting the stars’ attention.

In his mind, Drummond maps out his strategy. He wants to get Sheen to talk, but he knows if he gets within shouting distance of the actor and brings up Sheen’s son Charlie — whose battle with substance abuse is making headlines yet again — he’ll get nowhere.

“He’s been asked that so many times. If I started out asking about Charlie, he would walk past me,” Drummond explains. So he may start with a softball question.

His cellphone rings. It’s one of his tipsters, a local autograph hound who also makes it his business to know who is coming into town and when. They talk over the week’s prospective sightings.

“The Miss America girl? No, she’s nothin’,” Drummond says. “Rumsfeld? Echhh. What day is Michael Vick?” he continues, referring to the controversial football player’s upcoming autograph signing. “He just canceled on Oprah. [His handlers] shut it down. He would be good to get.”

During his busy days, Drummond is constantly weighing which events he will go to and which tip to follow — and it’s all about what is marketable.

“When we get them being natural — that’s what sells,” he says. One great unscripted moment can go viral in an instant and be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. When a videographer from Washington Life magazine captured Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor doing the mambo at a black-tie dinner in Washington in September 2009, for example, the clip got more than 1 million hits.

Shots of female celebrities go for much more than shots of males, Drummond says, and if the woman is wearing a pretty color or carrying a hip bag, that photo can sell several times over. He’s always looking for shots with the “three B’s”: a baby, a boyfriend or a bikini — the holy grail for paparazzi.

Once on campus, Drummond cases the university’s new Hariri Building, trying to figure out which door Sheen will come in. With a practiced eye, he locates the exits, then looks for a hired black Escalade or an official greeter carrying a clipboard — sure signs that a star is about to arrive.

Nothing.

He goes inside and into the dean’s office.

“I’m meeting a friend, and he’s being dropped off,” he asks casually. “Do you know which entrance that would be?” The secretary directs him up a nearby flight of stairs.

Upstairs, he mills about outside the auditorium for a few minutes before — jackpot! — Martin Sheen does arrive, in jeans and a down coat, smiling widely and walking at a fast clip. Drummond presses “record” on his video camera and has only a split second to intercept the star. He starts with a softball question that harks back to Sheen’s days playing the president on the television show “The West Wing.”

“Martin, can you give us one good secret about the White House that we don’t know?”he asks.

If Sheen is surprised to see a paparazzo at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business, he gives no sign of it. He steps forward to speak into Drummond’s hand-held as smartly as if he were on a movie set landing on his mark.

“It’s covered in white paint,” he quips.

Ouch. That’s lame. Drummond tries again.

“Have you ever been bowling there?”

Sheen’s handlers realize what is happening, circle back and begin to pull the star away from the videographer. But Sheen seems willing to play the game for a little longer.

“No, but I tell ya,” Sheen says. “You always know if [the president] is home if the flag is up. If the flag isn’t up, he’s not at home.”

Then he is off up the escalator. Drummond has no real chance to ask about Charlie or anything else of substance. Later, he will kick himself for not calling out a tougher question.

“It was a bad move on my part,” he laments. “I might have gotten a response. You push the envelope, and sometimes you’ll be surprised.”

But no matter. His bit of puffery sells to TMZ and other TV programs, which air it on Presidents’ Day. He makes $1,000 for a few minutes of work.

Last year, Ted Johnson, a columnist for the movie trade paper Variety, approached actor Dennis Quaid at the White House correspondents’ dinner and asked him what he thought of the evening. The actor took in the famous faces in the crowd, the tuxedos, the jewels, the “Entertainment Tonight” cameras behind the velvet ropes — then let loose his easy grin.

“So far,” he said, “it’s just like Hollywood.”

Actors and other celebrities have been lobbying Congress for decades but only in recent years have the two worlds become increasingly intertwined. Politicians of both parties turn to Hollywood for major fundraising cash, while Hollywood powers such as Steven Spielberg, Barbra Streisand and Rob Reiner have hired political consultants to direct their political giving and shape their public statements.

“More celebrities are trying to shift their image toward the activist community, and that puts more dependence on Washington,” says Johnson, who chronicles the intersection of politics and entertainment in his Variety column and blog “Wilshire & Washington.” “To be in this world, you have to be meeting with lawmakers and putting substance around it. It’s not enough just to show up on the red carpet. If you really want to have an impact, you have to be there in D.C.”

More than 400 celebrities have testified before Congress since 1969, and more this decade than ever before, according to Harry C. “Neil” Strine, a political science professor from Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania who has studied the issue. U2 lead singer Bono perfected the art form, and others such as Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson’s disease, have spoken out movingly on stem cell research.

But comedian Stephen Colbert’s irreverent — and some would say inappropriate — appearance on the Hill to testify on behalf of migrant farm workers last year was roundly criticized, raising questions on how much impact such celebrity appearances actually have.

“They’re very effective at getting attention for their cause, but their effectiveness at getting legislation passed is in question,” Strine says. “Do they really make a difference? The bottom line in terms of getting laws passed is no. Ultimately, we don’t want Richard Gere determining foreign policy decisions for the United States. What they say is taken with a grain of salt.”

Nonetheless, celebrities continue to show up on a regular basis in the halls of Congress to lobby their pet causes, and when they come, the paparazzi sprout.

When Ben Affleck visited Capitol Hill recently to testify about Congo, Mark Wilkins — the paparazzo on whom Shia LaBeouf threw coffee — crouched outside by a barricade off Independence Avenue, hoping to get a shot of Affleck with the Capitol in the background. Meanwhile, inside the event, the brother team of Todd and Brandon Henrich, ages 21 and 30, waited in the hallway, conspicuous among the navy jackets in their hoodies and jeans.

The local paparazzi are highly competitive and hardly a collegial group — most are barely on speaking terms.

“There’s a lot of back-stabbing in the game,” says Wilkins, 43, a Falls Church resident who began shooting celebrity photos a few years ago after 20 years as a local limo driver.

Drummond skipped Affleck’s appearance for what he thought was a better tip: news that Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson was on her way into Dulles Airport from Paris.

“Women sell more than men, always,” he explains. “Jennifer Hudson is big right now because of the weight loss, and she has a new album coming out. She is all over the magazines and blogs.”

In the end, Wilkins — whose tip that Affleck was being let out on the sidewalk didn’t pan out — didn’t get his shot. The Henrich brothers got a scrap of video of the actor walking into the hearing room. And Drummond snapped photos of Hudson off the plane from Paris in a fuzzy sweater and oversize sunglasses, purchased by the Daily Mail in London.

Drummond prefers taking photos of celebrities — there’s more money in it — but he doesn’t discount the allure of politicians.

Consider Illinois Rep. Aaron Schock (R). Though he is the youngest member of Congress, at age 29, he attracted scant notice after his 2008 election until readers of the Huffington Post voted him “Hottest Congressional Freshman,” and Drummond began following him around Capitol Hill with a video camera, asking such inane questions as, “Is it true you’re the Brody Jenner of Congress?” and “Who would you say has better abs, you or President Obama?”

Other attempts by Drummond to engage with political Washington have bombed: He sheepishly shows recent video he took of Hillary Rodham Clinton after she finished testifying on the Hill, calling out as she walked past, “Hillary, you have any advice for Charlie Sheen?” (She didn’t answer.)

“I’m on Capitol Hill, but I’m not going to ask on politics; that’s not my lane,” he says. “It’s embarrassing for me to call out, but I have to do it.”

It may be acceptable technique for photographers standing outside the Ivy in Los Angeles or a grocery store in Malibu, but some observers here have wondered if the behavior may be a bit indecorous for the rarified air of the nation’s capital.

In fact, society event photographer James R. Brantley dates the paparazzi’s arrival in Washington to uncouth behavior displayed in 2007. It was the first time he had seen photographers shouting out to celebrities such as Steve Martin and Diana Ross on the red carpet at the Kennedy Center Honors — unheard-of conduct at the time. This year, there was a shoving match.

“As more and more money is involved, tempers get shorter,” Brantley says.

And more and more people are involved. With the rise of digital photography, anybody can pick up a camera and call himself a paparazzo — all he or she needs is information about who is going to be where. Web sites such as Meet the Famous allow even novice photographers to snap pictures of celebrities and easily upload them for cash. For that reason, Cafe Milano owner Franco Nuschese prohibits customers from taking cellphone or other photos inside his restaurant, a favorite of both local politicians and visiting celebrities such as George Clooney. Nuschese says he can do little about the cameramen who linger on the sidewalk across Prospect Street, but “so far, we have not had a problem.”

With the paparazzi’s rise locally, some professional news photographers have raised concerns that go beyond propriety to security and safety.

Terrance W. Gainer, the former Capitol police chief who is now the Senate’s sergeant at arms, says the local group is still too small to be of major concern, working in a federal city that, increasingly, has grown to resemble an armed camp.

“Everybody knows the rules, and to the extent anybody strays from them, we get them in line pretty quickly,” Gainer says. “The whole thing you see on television — what goes on in New York and L.A. — may occur on the street, but it’s not an issue up here.”

Still, there have been a harbingers of L.A.-like unruliness.

Debra DeShong Reed, co-founder of a local public affairs firm, had to evict a group of rowdy photographers from an event at Ballou High School in Southeast Washington when actor Tobey Maguire was there doing volunteer carpentry work during inauguration week in 2009.

“They were knocking children over. They were trampling things. To me, it was very scary, because they trapped him,” Reed recalls. “They were pushing and crowding Tobey until he was in a corner. ... He’s kind of a shy guy, and he kept saying, ‘All I want to do is do some service. This is very weird to me.’ ”

When Russell Crowe was in town shooting “Body of Lies” in 2007, Drummond and Wilkins say, they pursued his car up Clara Barton Parkway in a chase with speeds that exceeded 85 mph. The actor ended up jumping out of the car and fleeing along the canal on a mountain bike that he pulled out of the trunk.

(Crowe’s rep did not return calls for comment.)

“It wasn’t a high-speed chase,” Drummond says when pressed, although he admits exceeding the speed limit. He and Wilkins both did time in the 1990s on drug distribution charges, according to records, but, aside from driving and parking violations, Drummond says he has never broken any laws in pursuit of a photo.

The photographer has little sympathy for celebrities such as Crowe who feel their privacy is being invaded. “It’s part of the business they signed up for,” he says. “They know it’s part of the business, that their lives are public. They get paid by the public. The more professional ones know how to embrace it.”

At one point this year, Drummond was asked by a New York newspaper to get shots of Lara Logan, the CBS journalist who was attacked and sexually assaulted by a mob while she was covering the crisis in Egypt. Drummond says he would have had no problem photographing her from afar — even if her bruises were visible. But interest in the story waned, and the assignment fizzled.

One recent morning, Drummond rises about 3 a.m. to watch the early ABC news and peruse sites such as People and Us Weekly, searching for the day’s celebrity buzz.

“I don’t sleep a lot,” he says. “My wife thinks I’m crazy.”

He briefly considers pursuing Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers — rumored to be in town for talks on the NFL lockout — but abandons that idea after he gets a tip at 7 a.m. that a number of female celebrities and their kids are expected at the Library of Congress. There, first lady Michelle Obama will be reading Dr. Seuss to schoolchildren, along with celebrity moms such as Jessica Alba and “Top Chef’s” Padma Lakshmi.

He grabs his cameras and heads out.

“I love my job,” he says. “It’s competitive. It keeps you on your toes. It’s kinda like sports — you want to be on the winning team, get the shots none of your friends got.”

Outside the Library of Congress steps as the celebrities arrive, he manages to get a great shot of Alba carrying her daughter, Honor, into the event. The two are climbing the steps in the sunlight, the marble columns of the city in the backdrop.

Afterward, Drummond is beyond pleased: a female celebrity with one of “the three B’s,” her baby.

“She had her daughter with her and she was holding the baby and she was smiling and she never really smiles,” he crows. “That’s the best you could ask for.”

Annie Gowen covers wealth, class and income for The Washington Post. She can be reached at gowena@washpost.com. Staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

Annie Gowen is The Post’s India bureau chief and has reported for the Post throughout South Asia and the Middle East.
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