THE SHOOTING STARS

Robin Abcarian is a Times staff writer.

Hunched behind the wheel of his shiny new Porsche Cayenne, Francois Navarre drives slowly, watchfully, along Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood. Navarre, a 44-year-old Frenchman, and his American wife, Brandy, own one of the city's major paparazzi agencies, X17 Inc. Former journalists, they now live in one of the city's most desirable enclaves, own several homes and prefer to travel by private jet. Their business acumen has allowed them to share the very lifestyle of the celebrities they chase, sometimes around their own neighborhood.

Although Navarre, who moved to Los Angeles in 1992 as a stringer for the French newspaper Le Monde, doesn't shoot much anymore, he likes to make the rounds to see what his guys are up to. So just west of Robertson Boulevard, he pulls into a parking lot next to the ultra-chic clothing store Maxfield. "That's my guy," he says, pointing at a black Range Rover with tinted windows. "He thinks the car over there, the black one, is one of the Olsen twins'. I don't think it's hers."

His cellphone jangles: "Allo?"

It's Fred, in the Range Rover.

"She has black rims, no?" says Navarre. "You think it's her? Yeah, maybe it is."

We don't stick around to find out. Navarre noses the Porsche back onto Melrose, then turns right on North La Peer Drive, slowing immediately in front of a modern two-story cement building behind Maxfield. This is Brad Pitt's office. Any photograph of Pitt, even without Angelina Jolie or the kids, is valuable. Why? "He's a sex symbol for the entire world!"

In slow, late-afternoon traffic, Navarre cruises down Robertson, past the Ivy, Kitson, Lisa Kline--daytime stations of the cross for celebrities wishing to be noticed. This stretch of the boulevard is awash in cars passing through and civilians toting shopping bags. At least that's how it appears to the untrained eye. With Navarre as tour guide, it becomes clear that we have entered a parallel universe where a high-stakes hunt is underway.

"That guy waiting in the gas station is paparazzi. See there? On the left side, two paps are sitting on the wall. There's one in the black Mercedes here. The one behind him in the blue car is from another agency, but he's my friend." My neck swivels back and forth as I try to take it in.

We are directly in front of the Ivy now. Valets are rushing around as patrons mill on the sidewalk waiting for their cars. Navarre leans out his window. "Is there somebody?" he asks the guy who is his friend. The guy shakes his head. Navarre thinks he is telling the truth, so we head over to Century City, where two X17 teams are staking out Britney Spears and Kevin Federline, who have been holed up inside an office building for hours, presumably negotiating divorce issues. At least eight other photo agencies, plus a BMW full of reporters from US Weekly, are also on the case.

At the end of this day, X17 will end up with a few shots of Federline leaving the building, and nothing on Britney. More important, perhaps, none of its competitors will have gotten much either.

Though it may come as a surprise to their well-heeled neighbors, the reigning couple of the local paparazzi corps are living a life of quiet bourgeois comfort on one of the swankiest streets in Pacific Palisades.

Francois and Brandy Navarre live north of Sunset Boulevard on Amalfi Drive in the Palisades Riviera, where it's rare these days to find a home selling for less than $5 million. About three blocks away, also on Amalfi, they are building a new home on a lot they bought in 2005. A year ago, they purchased a house at the corner of North Oakhurst Drive and Burton Way, which they use as an office for their tiny staff and a drop point for their videographers.

In the Palisades, their unwitting neighbors are some of the very people who help them earn their handsome living. Brooke Shields lives around the corner. So does Brian Grazer. Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell live nearby, as does Adam Sandler. Steven Spielberg and Whoopi Goldberg have property. Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman used to live on Sorrento, one street below them. Brandy occasionally runs into celebrities such as Jennifer Garner at the grocery store. If she sees someone from a competing paparazzi agency hanging out at the local park when she drops off her kids with their French nanny, she might alert Francois.

The Navarres are unconcerned that they might be loathed by some of the people they count as neighbors. "Yeah, sure, it's always a question of private life versus public life," says Francois. "But you have an easy way to escape that. Get out of Los Angeles. Sean Penn couldn't take it. We have not seen one photo of Sean Penn in 10 years." (Penn, who had a famously antagonistic relationship with paparazzi, moved with his wife, Robin Wright Penn, to Northern California after she was carjacked in their Santa Monica driveway in 1996. He has not been photographed much since.)

On a sunny spring day, with the sweep of Santa Monica Bay visible from the picture window in her living room, Brandy, slim and blond at 33, sits on a cream-colored couch. The house is peaceful and sparsely decorated, with a Zen vibe. Her 4-year-old son, Adrien, and 2-year-old daughter, Remy, are napping in their rooms.

A native of Florida, she has a master's degree in broadcast journalism from USC and a self-confidence that would not be out of place for any chief executive of a $10-million company. "I did always have high ambitions," she says. "When I was younger, one of my favorite movies was 'Wall Street.' I totally agreed that greed was good."

The Navarres met on Frank Sinatra's Beverly Hills lawn in 1998. She was covering the crooner's death for Reuters TV, where she was a producer. Francois, who had spent time in Iraq after the first Gulf War and covered the 1992 Los Angeles riots for Le Monde, was shooting the story for Paris Match.

The couple married in a small French village in 2001, about four years after Francois had incorporated X17, a name he plucked out of the air. In the beginning, they lived off Montana Avenue in Santa Monica. Their reference points as a couple sometimes have to do with who was hot at a particular time. Those were the Calista Flockhart years, when the "Ally McBeal" star spent a lot of time fending off accusations that she was anorexic.

When they first met, Brandy wasn't fully aware that the cute French guy she was falling in love with was a paparazzo. When she did realize it, she was puzzled.

"I saw him as so much better, so much more intelligent, serious and experienced than other people perceived him to be," she says. "I would say, 'Don't you feel like, God, I went to the top school in France and worked for all these serious publications and here I am reduced to Calista Flockhart scowling at me?'"

But Francois, who recently became an American citizen, sees the issue in philosophical terms: "What we are doing is important. We are pushing the limits of the 1st Amendment every day." And, in an entirely American tradition, making a pant-load of money in the process.

Although X17 is only one of many paparazzi agencies operating in Los Angeles, it is considered to be something of a rogue. The Navarres and their photographers say they are no more aggressive or brash than their competitors, but X17 has upset the status quo in a number of ways.

First, the Navarres believe that anyone, with a little training, can be a paparazzo. The X17 photo agency is "full of former waiters and valet parkers, people who used to tip off the photographers," says Gary Morgan, chief executive of Splash News and Picture Agency Inc., which made a bundle with its exclusive video of Anna Nicole Smith receiving CPR on a gurney the day she died. "Because of that, all the rules we used to work under, the accepted way of doing things, has gone out the window."

When Morgan arrived from Fleet Street in 1991 and set up shop in California with Kevin Smith, who was based in L.A. for the Daily Mirror, he says there were maybe half a dozen paparazzi on the scene, and they tacitly understood that you didn't mess with the other guy by blocking his angle or putting yourself in his frame. There was plenty for everybody.

"You could take a picture of Mel Gibson coming out of McDonald's with a cup of coffee--it wasn't even Starbucks then--and it would sell for $10,000," says Morgan.

"During the Malibu fires, the first call we got was from an Australian paper that wanted to know if Mel Gibson was OK. I went round and found him, and he said, 'Yeah, I am fine, now F-off.' The news in L.A. didn't mean anything internationally unless a celebrity was involved."

Now, estimates Morgan, there are about 450 paparazzi out there on the mean palm-lined streets. (There is no official census; some have put the number at about 200.)

"Sometimes we sit here amazed we can make a career out of this," says Morgan. "Essentially, instead of the 'pesky paparazzi' we are becoming a multibillion-dollar business." (Multimillion, for sure.)

It's easy to put a camera in untrained hands and get acceptable results since the arrival of digital photography, and the Navarres make no apology for hiring amateurs. One of their photographers, Rafael Guimaraes, was a maintenance man at Sunset Plaza in West Hollywood, making as much as $500 a month as one of their tipsters, until they encouraged him to pick up a camera. Their videographer Dano, who will only use his nickname because he is an aspiring actor and doesn't want producers to know what he does for a living, was a valet parker and tipster. The Navarres also hired a homeless Vietnam vet who panhandled near the Hamburger Hamlet in Brentwood. "I told him, instead of doing nothing, just give me a call whenever you see a star," says Navarre. He turned out to have a great eye, so Navarre gave him a camera. And now, says Navarre, he has an apartment.

Francois Navarre introduced another wrinkle into the business years ago by changing how he pays his photographers, several of whom say they earn about $10,000 a month. Instead of transmitting photos and videos to clients, then waiting for sales reports, Navarre pays them virtually on the spot.

For years every Sunday night, he would sit in the parking lot of the Bank of America near the corner of San Vicente and 26th Street in Santa Monica, haggling. He'd make snap decisions while reviewing pictures on the screens of digital cameras. "Twenty guys were coming and selling me pictures," he says. "I was like, 'OK, I will buy that for $1,500, I will buy that for $10,000.' Craziness. You cannot even imagine." He never paid in cash, he says, only with checks. Sometimes his on-the-fly pricing strategy backfired. One set of Keanu Reeves pictures cost him $10,000 and he never sold a single frame. But usually not: "I was buying stuff for $3,000 and selling it for $30,000."

The Navarres will soon have important decisions to make about X17. They know that changes are convulsing the paparazzi industry--partly as a result of technology and partly as a result of competitive pressures.

"Francois is always saying we are a media enterprise, we are not just paparazzi," says Brandy, who spends her day transmitting video and stills to clients and overseeing the blog. She and Francois work at matching uncluttered desks in what should be their dining room. They are acutely aware of the need to expand, to invest and to brand. Perhaps their most important move was to have recognized the potential of the Internet just ahead of the pack. Like every other agency, they are trying to figure out how to monetize the medium, but they have a head start.

Last July, they launched a blog, X17online, and though their traffic pales compared to the celebrity gossip sites TMZ.com or Perezhilton.com, they receive far more hits than competitors such as Splash News. The success of their blog, say the Navarres, has brought them to the attention of venture capitalists and other potential investors looking to grab a piece of their lucrative enterprise. They could use the cash infusion for their Internet projects, but are leery about giving up control.

They also are on the verge of a partnership with a major Web portal, and have begun experimenting with live, streaming video. (Half of their business is video, and they are teaching their videographers to ask celebrities the kinds of meaningful questions that can become stories.) Also, just recently, they came to an agreement with the Style Network to create a fashion-oriented show.

The Navarres aggressively protect what they have built. Last November, they filed a $10-million federal copyright infringement lawsuit against Mario Lavandeira, the gossip blogger who operates under the pseudonym Perez Hilton. Lavandeira often helps himself to their photos--they suspect he has friends at some of their client publications--and posts them with funny, often vicious remarks. Five months after the Navarres sued Lavandeira, a group of their competitors did the same. Lavandeira has said he believes he has done nothing wrong, and that he has the right to post paparazzi photos under the "fair use" doctrine. Both lawsuits are pending in federal court.

"In a way, maybe it's just as well that Perez Hilton happened because we probably wouldn't have started our blog so soon," says Brandy Navarre. "He kind of created an audience for what we're doing, and we're thankful for that."

But the Navarres have also launched a mini-war against TMZ.com, the popular AOL/Time Warner-owned celebrity gossip website. They claim that TMZ, by linking to Perezhilton.com, is contributing to the infringement of their copyrighted work. On April 9, Brandy Navarre posted a prickly open letter to AOL/Time Warner executives, accusing them of "supporting and promoting infringement." Her lawyer, John Tehranian, who had been communicating with Time Warner lawyers, felt it wasn't the most politic move. But she couldn't help herself.

"Francois and I are both hot-tempered," she explains, "and we have superiority complexes. It doesn't faze us to say we are dealing with general counsel at Warner Bros."

TMZ seemed to retaliate on April 18, when it posted video of X17 photographer Felix Filho screaming obscenities at another X17 photographer during a Britney Spears stakeout in Malibu. "Twenty or more paps gather each day near Britney's home, waiting for her next move," TMZ commented under the video. "Get over it dude."

Though you may not recognize the name X17, you have probably seen the agency's work, especially if you follow news of the celebrity train wreck known as Britney Spears. The agency also covers Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton and other twentysomething starlets, naturally, but X17 is understood to be the Britney Spears specialist, with a seven-man team devoted just to her. She is their bread and butter.

The team, which is called MBF after its three principal photographers, are all from Brazil. Francois Navarre says this is because he recruits from the ranks of valet parkers, a local industry whose ranks are increasingly filled with Brazilians. His Lohan team is Armenian. The teams function as their own corporations. "I pay the leader and he does the sharing," says Navarre.

Each morning, MBF arrives at Spears' doorstep off Mulholland Drive around 10 a.m. and follows her around town until she retires for the night. When Spears goes anywhere by car, she is followed by an unbidden cortege that would put some heads of state to shame. A separate X17 team, two brothers from Argentina, specializes in Kevin Federline. Another team specializes in Malibu. And so on.

When Spears shaved her head on Feb. 16 in a Tarzana hair salon, X17 had the best shots and video. When Spears attacked an SUV with an umbrella on Feb. 21, again in Tarzana, it was one of X17's cars she went after and another team member who got the shots. X17 devotes so many resources to Spears that even its competitors acknowledge its primacy on the beat.

The agency's clients, which range from the tabloids such as the National Enquirer to pillars of the mainstream media, can't get enough of the faded pop sensation. "There are other celebrities being microscoped, but not like this one," says Dano, the videographer. "I mean, it's forensic." Still, he believes that Spears feeds on the constant attention. A few weeks ago, she invited another X17 videographer into her tanning salon and gave him an exclusive, if weird, interview, speaking in an exaggerated Valley girl accent, seeming to criticize her manager for making her go to rehab after she shaved her head. X17's clients ate it up.

Perhaps because they spend so much time together, the paparazzi have nuanced relationships with their subjects. In general, according to the Navarres, fans want to see the stars looking healthy and happy, not besieged or in pain. So the photographers may push and jostle and chase and annoy, but they are generally nasty--and physical--only with each other. On videos, you can hear them coo: "We love you, Britney." "How are the babies, Britney?" "Take care, Britney." When X17 photographer Felix Filho realized Spears was shaving her head that day in Tarzana, he says, "I freaked out, my legs were shaking, I was like, 'It's not real.' I was like, 'Whoa, something is wrong.'"

But he didn't stop shooting.

The paparazzi-gone-wild story has become a staple, or perhaps a side effect, of the world's obsession with its stars. Usually the stories have to do with minor car crashes, which inevitably evoke memories of the 1997 crash that claimed the life of Princess Diana. Even though the pursuing photographers were exonerated by French courts, in truth, any paparazzo who says he has never driven like a maniac while chasing a celebrity is lying.

In 1998, paparazzi Giles Harrison and Andrew O'Brien were convicted of misdemeanor false imprisonment for using their cars to trap Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver outside their son's preschool. The Schwarzeneggers said at the time that they believed it was a kidnap attempt. In 2005, there was a spate of bad publicity for paparazzis, who had been dubbed "stalkerazzi." Lindsay Lohan and Scarlett Johansson had minor car accidents they blamed on pursuing photographers, and Reese Witherspoon claimed she'd been run off the road. (No charges stuck.) Also that year, a paparazzo following Witherspoon at Disney's California Adventure had an altercation with her group and faced several misdemeanor charges. He died, however, before the case went to trial. As a result of such run-ins, in late 2005 Gov. Schwarzenegger signed legislation increasing the penalties for overly aggressive paparazzi.

X17 photographers deny that they're too pushy (in fact, on April 25, TMZ.com posted a photo of a very orderly line of paparazzi vehicles following Spears' car), but photographer Fabricio Mariotto admits it's not always easy to be safe behind the wheel. Standing on the sidewalk with several of his colleagues and competitors, waiting for Spears and Federline to emerge from the lawyers' office in Century City, he explains that if they leave the building, he will have no choice but to jump into a car and give chase.

"It's super-crazy," he says. "It's ridiculous! Too much adrenaline, and it gives you a heart attack. I have crashed my car, gone through red lights. . . . There are so many photographers now, it's hard to get an exclusive."

Francois Navarre's major brush with the legal system occurred eight years ago, when he bought photographs of Jennifer Aniston sunbathing topless in her Malibu backyard and transmitted them for sale to an Italian photo agent. Even though the photographer scaled an 8-foot wall with a telephoto lens to invade the star's privacy, Navarre does not admit to a wobbly moral compass. Instead, he says, the case was merely the result of a cultural misunderstanding.

"Brandy was against sending that picture," says Navarre. "She knew that the nudity was a problem. But for me, the nudity was not a problem. Today I understand it because I have been here 15 years, but at that time I had only been here five years and I didn't feel the problem. Don't forget, I grew up in St. Tropez, where everybody was half-naked. This was part of my American education."

It was an expensive learning experience: Navarre paid $550,000 to settle the case, and apologized to Aniston.

Navarre cruises past the Chateau Marmont off Sunset, a favorite spot of starlets such as Lohan, but it's still light and too early for any good action. He's talking about the time, 10 years ago, when he was trying to decide whether he really could make a go of the business and thinking about getting into real estate instead. "I was wondering, is it possible to make a living, to really build a company based on seeing stars on the street?"

His phone rings. It's a magazine in Australia interested in photographs of Courtney Love, who has been spotted on a Hawaiian beach looking emaciated. Weight changes, implants, cosmetic procedures, new romantic liaisons--these are what make a paparazzo's heart race.

We think we spot Helen Mirren strolling across Melrose near the Pacific Design Center and holding an umbrella against the sun. Navarre makes a U-turn, then slows down. In one seamless motion, he reaches into the back seat, unzips a bag, pulls out a camera with a telephoto lens, pulls to the curb, points the camera toward the lady with the umbrella and squeezes off a dozen shots.

He has no idea whether it's really Mirren. He will blow up the photos on the computer when he gets home. If it is Mirren, one of the English papers might bite. It's not Britney, but you never know.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The $300,000 shot

Some pictures are worth a thousand words. some are worth more.

To understand the paparazzi way of thinking--that a photograph is just a snapshot unless it illustrates an interesting story--Francois Navarre recounts how a photograph he took of an exultant Nicole Kidman on July 31, 2001, earned him an almost instant $300,000.

Three months before Kidman and Tom Cruise announced their split in February 2001, Navarre's photographers were telling him that something in the relationship was amiss.

"Everyone was saying how fantastic that couple was, because they were on the red carpet, all lovey-dovey," says Navarre. "But my little group of two or three guys, we see a discrepancy between what the world is seeing and reality. They were not spending time together. When they were together they were not talking. She was constantly in a bad mood."

When the couple finally announced their marriage was kaput, X17 had scads of supporting evidence to sell. And when Navarre followed Kidman, his erstwhile neighbor, down Sunset Boulevard to a Beverly Hills office, and sat outside in his little Toyota Corolla watching lawyers go in and out all day, he found himself with a scoop. At the end of the day, in his telephoto lens, he caught Kidman, all by herself, looking uncharacteristically happy, if not ecstatic.

"We had never seen her like that, like she had just won $100 million or something!" he says. "That photo was printed everywhere."

"Francois called me at work," says his wife and business partner, Brandy Navarre. "You could tell his heart was pounding. He said, 'You have never seen an expression on her face like this!' It was like, 'I am so happy, I am free of this jerk!'"--R.A.

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For more paparazzi photos from X17, go to latimes.com/X17

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