Britney is gone in a flash

Times Staff Writer

To the mortgage crisis and the energy crunch and the devalued dollar, add this: a recession in the Britney market.

The young woman who rose and fell (and fell and fell) in the paparazzi’s strobe lights seems to have put bizarre public displays behind her, and the photographers who made hundreds and thousands -- and in some cases, hundreds of thousands -- capturing her missteps must look elsewhere for celebrities more predictably unpredictable.

“She’s boring. She doesn’t even have a boyfriend,” said Francois Navarre, the co-owner of X17, the photo agency that set the standard for aggressive 24/7 coverage of Britney Spears.

The Spears of today may not be any more boring than dozens of celebrities who fill magazines, but she is decidedly duller than her former self. Photographers who relied on her for hourly material for the gossip blogs are confronted by a lack of access and a lack of drama. She rarely goes out and when she does, she behaves herself. No umbrella attacks. No head shaving. No fake British accent. No panty-free car exits.


Agencies that dispatched SUV-loads of freelancers to track her every move last year have downsized their Britney teams.

“At the height of the story, we had maybe six or eight guys on it round the clock,” said Chris Doherty, owner of INF, which sells pictures to magazines, websites and TV shows. “Now we would have at most two. There’s no real point to being there all the time.”

Spears’ allure remains, as evidenced by two paparazzi arrested last week near her residence, but the coverage does not compare to the intense stakeouts that proceeded her confinement in a psychiatric ward in January.

A commissioner in Los Angeles County Superior Court subsequently named her father, Jamie, co-conservator of her and her estate, giving him and a lawyer control of the 26-year-old’s medical care, finances and day-to-day activities.

Out went the paparazzi-friendly advisor, the British-accented outbursts and the aimless driving excursions that sent caravans of photographers coursing through the city. In came meals at home, family talks, conferences with attorneys and, on a good day, dance class.

The structure and supervision transformed Spears’ life for the better, her representatives say.

Ten months after she lost custody of her sons, she finalized an agreement with her ex-husband that provides for gradually expanding visitation rights. She is reportedly back in the recording studio. On the rare occasions she ventures out, the gossip sites that documented her woes have congratulated her on her healthy, happy appearances.

It is welcome news for her family but an enormous change for those used to translating Spears’ intemperance into a paycheck.

“Her father is doing what a good parent would do, but that doesn’t help the paparazzi,” said Bonnie Fuller, who was editor of Star magazine and Us Weekly when Spears was a staple.

“She’s not going out with her former BFFs Paris and Lindsay anymore,” Fuller said, referring to Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan.

Before the court intervened, Spears was seemingly omni-available to the videographers and still photographers who camped outside her Studio City gated community.

She dated a paparazzo. Her closest friend and advisor, Sam Lutfi, allowed photographers into Spears’ house and provided them with information about her comings and goings, according to her mother, Lynne.

Her spacey ramblings and constant wardrobe changes made her a tabloid photographer’s dream. Every rant meant salable video; each new outfit meant fresh photos. The prices that photos fetch are often overstated, but Navarre said an exclusive photo of Spears today would only bring a 10th of what it did during her most erratic times.

“Then it could sell for $10,000 to $15,000, but now it would be hard to get over $1,500,” he said.

Others who sell photos disagreed, saying the smaller number of paparazzi has kept the prices relatively stable.

Navarre’s agency, X17, had 25 people assigned to Spears duty earlier this year. Now it’s fewer than 10, he said.

On a recent weekend, “we were the only ones,” he said.

Nick Stern, a veteran photojournalist who quit his photo agency in disgust at the apex of Spears’ coverage, said many photographers who tracked her were foreigners drawn by the relatively easy money. When their access to Spears dried up, Stern said, they had no incentive to stay on the beat or even in the field.

“These guys don’t really have any interest in the media or reporting news. It was about money. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the snappers covering Britney have moved on to other jobs or other parts of the U.S. or even back to their home countries,” said Stern, chief photographer for the Australian agency Crocmedia.

Some have refocused on up-and-coming celebrities, including Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers.

An attorney for Spears said the singer did not miss the glare.

“Britney and her family are delighted to dis-incentivize the outrageous behavior of the paparazzi,” lawyer Blair Berk said.

Her neighbors have noted the shrinking number of lenses camped outside the guardhouse.

“At the peak, there were 25, but now it’s down to three or four,” said Jim DeBoard, a resident of the Summit.

He said it had been about six months since he saw paparazzi breaking traffic laws to get behind Spears’ vehicle.

“We are still all amazed at how crazy it was,” DeBoard said.

The paparazzi’s presence may never again reach the levels that preceded Spears’ hospitalizations, but neither is it likely to remain as low as it is now, those in the industry say.

Eventually, she will resume a more public life, they say, and when she does, the cameras will be waiting.

“If Britney were to walk out tonight with a new boyfriend, we could still command high prices for those photos,” Doherty said.

Frank Griffin, a partner in the Bauer-Griffin photo agency, said the reduced coverage of Spears was proof that the safe money is in happy stories.

“At the end of the day, people don’t want to see train wrecks. Yes, they might want to see the mighty fall, but they don’t want to kick dirt in their faces,” Griffin said.

In the long run, he said, flattering photos of babies, new romances and weight loss trump even the most unflinching views of scandal.

“I guarantee if Britney were lying on the beach with Brad Pitt in a skinny bikini, it would be absolutely crazy,” Griffin said.