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Kevin Mazur, the co-founder of the photo service Web site WireImage, strode around the Wet Deck of the downtown W Hotel in Austin, Tex., on Sunday evening, a few hours after the premiere of his directorial debut, “$ellebrity.” The film, a documentary entry in the South by Southwest film festival, had screened at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar Cinema and Mazur was now navigating an after party with the aid of a plastic boot and chrome cane, the result of a recent car accident he was in with his wife. (“We were hit head on by a 22-year-old girl who was texting and driving,” he explains.) The focus of Mazur’s first film is threefold: the concept of “fame” as a billion-dollar-a-year industry, the national fixation with (and perils of) celebrity and the machinations of the paparazzi.
As a photographer “not in the photo pit, but on the red carpet,” Mazur felt he was in a unique position to begin the conversation.
“I am the invited photographer, a celebrity photographer that people want there,” he says from a small poolside lounge.“I love my work, and people respect my work, and I respect the artists and in return they respect me for respecting them, and I get my images out to all the outlets and they love the images and it works.”
“They want the shot, you get the shot, you get paid,” one paparazzo explains of his own motives during the movie. “Sometimes you get paid more for one shot than other people do all year.”
Price tags flash over stills of tabloid favorites: Lindsay Lohan passed out in the front seat of a car, hoodie up. Britney Spears shaving her head. Britney Spears attacking a car with an umbrella, teeth bared. Mazur coins a term during the documentary, “grandicide,” for the concept of a culture raising up a person just to tear them down. His point, in essence, being that fame is America’s favorite blood sport.
Sheryl Crow co-hosted the party with Mazur and appears in one of several celebrity interviews in the film. “I’ve been friends with Sheryl since she was a backup singer for Michael Jackson,” Mazur says. “I watched her gain her status.”
In the film, Crow explains the curious effect her breakup with Lance Armstrong and breast cancer diagnosis had on that status.
“I was a musician, I was photographed on the red carpet every once in a while. I wasn’t ‘A-list’ by any means, and as soon as something tragic happened in my life I was hounded, and they’re photographing my kids, and it’s unacceptable,” the singer explains. “I am a musician. I, to some degree, asked for this.…My children didn’t.”
The film includes interviews with other celebrities such as Salma Hayek, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kid Rock, Marc Anthony, Jennifer Lopez, Patricia Arquette and Elton John.
“Being friends and knowing a lot of celebrities and hearing their stories…it’s hard to see what they go through,” Mazur continues. “I wanted to give an honest look and represent all sides, you know, pull back the curtain. Because you go hang out with the paparazzi and they’re like, ‘Jennifer Aniston poses nude on the cover of magazines, why’s she got a problem with us taking pictures?!’ And so I asked.”
In the film, Aniston explains the difference between being a willing participant in a photo shoot and having someone climb a wall outside your house to take pictures of you sunbathing.
“It’s a matter of an agreement, of invitation,” Aniston says. “One’s breaking the law, one isn’t.”
The film is not all finger-pointing. Mazur manages to blend his celebrity interviews with behind-the-scenes looks at the life of a paparazzo and interviews with some pop culture analysts, who connect the dots between paparazzi fervor and consumer demand.
“I wanted people to really get an idea of where these photos are coming from that you see in the magazines and how they got there,” Mazur says.
“It’s sort of like when I saw ‘Food Inc.’ Now I know where my Chicken McNuggets come from — and you know what?” Mazur laughs, “I stopped eating Chicken McNuggets!”