The recent revelations of alleged multiple breaches of the data protection act by employees of Virgin Atlantic Airways, currently the subject of an investigation over the passing of the passenger details of various celebrities to a celebrity picture agency in return for money, is further proof that where the rich and famous are concerned nothing is deemed off limits by the paparazzi in pursuit of those exclusive pictures responsible for making it a billion dollar industry.
It also reminds me of one of the most bizarre jobs I've ever had, working for a paparazzi news agency in Los Angeles.
Back in 2004 I was living in Hollywood and in need of a job. Through my partner at the time, who worked in the industry as a journalist, I got a start with a well known and notorious celebrity news agency. This particular agency was British owned, had offices in LA, London, Toronto and Sydney, and had a deserved reputation for being particularly aggressive in how it went about its business - no mean feat when you consider that aggression is a non-negotiable feature of the celebrity picture industry as a whole.
The atmosphere in the place was near-feral towards celebrities, who were hunted round the clock by photographers commissioned by the agency. I recall I was given a desk adjacent to a woman whose task was to call celebrity news outlets, magazines, and news channels all over the world to sell said pictures for a hefty price. She spent each day literally barking down the phone, demanding X thousand dollars for an exclusive shot of Britney leaving a house party somewhere in Hollywood drunk, then calling another potential customer and asking for even more money for a shot of Leonardo Di Caprio going into a coffee shop on Sunset Boulevard with his latest girlfriend. It was truly surreal.
The conversations among the staff during work and break time left you in no doubt that in this business celebrities are reviled, viewed in much the same way as the police view your average rapist of paedophile. No sympathy or anything approaching humanity is accorded those who dare commit the heinous crime of being famous, and not for a moment did I detect a hint of regret over the repeated violations of privacy being committed on a daily basis. The only thing that mattered was getting those pictures and selling them in a market which is insatiable to the point of delirium.
During the three days I lasted before quitting the Michael Jackson trial for child abuse was taking place. In the office a bank of television screens were showing it live. Every time Jackson came onscreen a volley of abuse was fired at him, the kind that would automatically guarantee the perpetrator a criminal prosecution in most countries.
What is it about celebrities which attracts this kind resentment bordering on hatred? Does it reflect a commonly held disdain within society as a whole towards the rich and famous? Is it a projection of dissatisfaction and unhappiness with our own lives, which we consider mundane and under achieving in comparison?
Whatever it is it bespeaks a psychological condition that pervades modern society. When we consider celebrities (the word alone succeeds in objectifying them) we automatically abstract any notion of humanity from them, deny them the right to the same feelings, emotions, and fears that we all possess to varying degrees. They are quite literally larger than life, a species apart, special people who've escaped the fate of normality by dint of super human qualities. They are chosen while we are not, which feeds both fixation and resentment, resulting in our delight whenever they suffer some personal misfortune and a visceral thrill whenever they shine and succeed in a manner which satisfies our need for escapism.
Being a celebrity today is to be prey, subject to a fate that no amount of money or adulation could compensate for. Your life is a constant battle for privacy as you are pursued 24/7 around the world by paparazzi willing to cross any line to get that all-important exclusive picture. You cannot afford to trust anyone who comes into your life, knowing that all it takes is one phone call or text to divulge your whereabouts at any given time, with bartenders, waiters, hotel staff, limo drivers, and now flight attendants all in a position to ruin your day, evening, or flight by arranging the unwelcome intrusion of the paparazzi.
Every celebrity news agency has spotters in the places where their targets are most likely to be found. Trendy bars, restaurants, coffee shops, and first class flight compartments will inevitably be staffed by one or two, sometimes more, who are willing to make that call for money. I know because I was offered the very same opportunity with the agency I was briefly employed by before leaving. Just by calling a certain number and passing on the information of a celebrity's location I would receive a quick hundred bucks. At the time, living in Hollywood and frequenting coffee shops and bars in and around Beverly Hills, I could easily have made myself four or five hundred a day - so why not?
I wish I could say the reason I did not do make money doing this was the result of my high moral standards and noble sense of ethics. But I'd be lying. Instead it was simply down to the fact that somebody always seemed to get there before me. In fact, anytime a celebrity appeared in a coffee shop I happened to be in a dozen phones would automatically appear and a frenzied round of speed dialing would ensue.
Western culture indeed has much to answer for.