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If you’ve glanced at a women's lifestyle magazine or website in the last decade, you've surely stumbled across one of these stories. Ruby Rose, Australian actress/DJ/model who’s famous in her own right, put it elegantly in a Galore interview earlier this year, saying, "The airport is not a place! How did they make it a place? It's like a place where amazingly good-looking people showcase their wardrobes, and where I look grumpy or really tired."
How did they make it a place? Who made it a place? Why did they do that? The answers to these questions are, in short, that airport photography is easy to take, cheap to buy, and safe for everyone involved.
Photo: Josiah Kamau/Getty Images
Thibault Mauvilain, the VP of sales at FameFlynet, a photo agency that licenses paparazzi pictures to print and online media outlets all over the world — including Racked — explains that there are career airport photographers who spend their "whole year" at Los Angeles International, better known as LAX.
A paparazzi’s job is the simplest at an airport like LAX, where celebrities of various degrees of stature have to pass through every day. There’s no driving around, pursuing one story and spending money on gas, and there’s no staking out a person's home. The airport is a contained space with famous foot traffic guaranteed and a bathroom available whenever you need it. It’s like shooting very fancy fish in a barrel.
After a week of patrolling airport entrances and exits, these photographers may get a lot of nothing in terms of "newsworthy" footage — a Kanye fight, for example, or that Selma Blair episode. At one time, failure to capture an exciting incident might have been a wash of a workweek. "To us, ten years ago, somebody walking through an airport was really nothing to brag about," Mauvilain tells Racked. "[We wanted] somebody at the beach or doing something a little bit more exotic than wearing clothes and walking through a hall." But if the internet is capable of one thing, it’s that it can turn nothing into something.
The change started with the amplification and itemization of celebrity coverage online. In 2005, TMZ had started staking out nightclubs, Paris Hilton was crashing into things with cars, Lindsay Lohan would soon do the same, and Britney Spears was starting to show signs of faltering mental health. By 2008, the Los Angeles Times was reporting, "With the paparazzi ever on the lookout for new places to corner celebrities, Los Angeles International Airport is becoming their new feeding trough" and that TMZ had a videographer stationed there "seven days a week."
"To us ten years ago, somebody walking through an airport was really nothing to brag about."
Rob Pedregon — who's currently the Public Information Officer at LAX, but has worked in various capacities at the airport for eight years — tells Racked, "As long as I remember celebrities have been flying out, [paparazzi] have been here. Let’s just make the assumption that TMZ has pushed it to another level — so as long as they’ve been in existence, we’ve had the freelance paparazzi here."
Entertainment news and gossip sites Perez Hilton and Just Jared launched in the mid-aughts, too, and helped feed the growing appetite for celebrity minutia online. The most pedestrian parts of a celebrity’s day found a home. Stars! They’re just like us! They take commercial flights in sweatpants!
By 2010, paparazzi sites were sending between four and 15 photographers to LAX on any given day, and Mauvilain notes that that number is still growing. Big names draw even more as word gets out, until the swell of paparazzi coalesces into what’s derogatorily referred to as a "gangbang."
Even with so much competition, it’s a good place to make money. An "extraordinary" photo sold as an exclusive can grab "over six figures," but those are rarely taken in the airport, according to Mauvilain. Instead, pictures of famous people walking through a terminal are shopped out for a steady income. These non-exclusive images are licensed to media clients for "as low as a dollar" at some agencies, but are more likely to go for "$25 for an online, $50 for a print, maybe $150 for a broadcast."
In an average day at LAX, Mauvilain can expect eight to ten "sightings." Though not all of them make it to FameFlynet, those that do are very bankable: "It is still possible to have one non-exclusive image licensed to a hundred different companies. If we count $150 by a hundred, we’re still looking at a decent amount of money."
Photographer saturation in the airports can drive the price down, but many have found a workaround. Mauvilain explains that "some [photographers] do what we call in the industry ‘double dipping,’ meaning they can eventually give a few shots of each sequence they shoot to different agencies, trying to make as much money as possible. It definitely reduces the value of the photo, but for the photographer in the end, it's kind of a way to try to survive and put their eggs in different baskets."
All of this is to say, photos of celebrities — from the D-List to the A — performing the quotidian task of walking to or from a plane are abundant and cheap. Who What Wear, a celebrity and fashion news site that also launched in the blog surge of the mid-aughts, was one of the first to capitalize on the flow of pictures, ID'ing outfit credits for their curious readership. The site’s co-founder Hillary Kerr estimates that "airport style" coverage started in earnest for them in 2009. Since then, and increasingly in the last few years, its popularity has made it a weekly staple on the site.
"The reason it's so popular with [WWW] readers is because it’s a more accessible take on street style," Kerr explains. "There's a practical aspect to it. Yes, there are always a handful of celebrities who come out in a little dress or high heels or a full-on limelight look, but for the most part, the pieces are simple, easy. It's staples that most women have in their closet just combined in an interesting way."
"There are enough street style shots at this point in time for us to have stories in perpetuity."
The focus on "simple, easy" celebrity looks hasn’t changed to much over the publication’s decade of existence. WWW’s first-ever "airport style"-focused post in 2006 was a little paragraph under a collage featuring Jessica Simpson, Drew Barrymore, Kate Moss, and the like. An unattributed author writes, "While we're not delusional enough to suggest that airports should resemble fashion week, we'd be thrilled if more travelers took inspiration from the above jetsetters. Part of the reason we're fond of these just plane (if you will) cute ensembles is because unlike red carpet outings, these ladies have actually selected their own clothes sans stylist." They’re wearing big sunglasses, casual bottoms, and pashminas.
While the effect celebrities give off might be the same today — i.e. that they’re calm, cool, casual flyers — the world’s famous quickly adapted. As the paparazzi frenzy kicked up in the mid-to-late-aughts, the airport emerged as one of the safest public spaces to be seen. If there’s a good chance you’re going to be photographed (or would like to call someone to take your photo), you can be sure your makeup is done and outfit carefully chosen — and security will always be on hand to keep the peace.
Photo: Ray Tamarra/Getty Images
"[Airport police will] speak to [photographers] and let them know, you know, ‘This is pretty standard. You can’t interfere with [celebs] walking, you can’t block their path, you can’t hold them up or slow them down. You have to give them the freedom to move,’" Officer Pedregon tells Racked. "They’re used to us because we’ve dealt with so much that they pretty much all understand." This is not always the treatment the very famous can count on outside of, say, 1OAK nightclub or a local LA coffee shop.
Officer Pegredon notes that the freelance photographer presence is only getting bigger, and security has had to find ways to emphasize that their sole role is just crowd control. The cops, for example, now draw the line at escorting celebs, though they once came when people like Britney Spears or the Kardashians called. Per Pegregon: "The Kardashians would ask us to escort. There was one occasion where her publicist got mad, saying, 'You’re not escorting Kardashian.' And the officer told them, 'We don’t do escorts, we’re here to do crowd control.'" The Kardashians, and all others, have since been cut off from this particular perk.
Since freedom of the press laws protect paparazzi’s right to be in public areas of the airport, perhaps the only threat to a constant flow of style photos is the new concierge service that Gavin de Becker & Associates, the Los Angeles security firm that’s known to protect celebrities and government figures, is building at LAX.
Like Heathrow Airport’s Windsor Suite, which was originally erected to protect the privacy of Britain’s royal family, it would make the formerly public act of checking in and going through security a private experience. For a fee of well over a grand, the rich and famous will be able to access a private entrance, private TSA screenings, a private lounge, and a private escort to the plane, all away from the eyes of plebeians and long lenses alike. (Though it should be noted that specific airlines have had private entrances for awhile and we have not been starved for photos.)
The lounge doesn’t concern Kerr too much. "It would not be an issue for us because we cover so many other things besides airport style," she says. "And those people still have to get out of their cars somewhere, whether it's arriving or leaving."
Plus: "There are enough street style shots at this point in time for us to have stories in perpetuity."