CHICAGO—Tires screeching, we wheeled around the corner of Rush and Chicago, barely missing a pack of pedestrians. “Sorry folks—watch it!” the photographer yelled as he pounded the accelerator of his SUV and sped east on Chicago.
He was on the hunt, chasing a black Ford Expedition belonging to the Angelina Jolie-Brad Pitt entourage, and it had just departed the Peninsula Hotel. I’d been interviewing the photographer in his SUV, and when the chase began I went along for the wild ride.
He and the dozen other paparazzi tailing the Expedition had no clue who was inside. At the moment, though, the vehicle’s human cargo was beside the point. Thanks to the caprices of a traffic control aide, eight taxis, a Ford F-150 and an OfficeMax truck, the photographer—with me, slightly nervous, in the passenger seat—was trailing his quarry by several blocks.
Then word from a fellow photographer and friend came in over the two-way radio, announcing that the Expedition was nearly at Lake Shore Drive. Cursing, my driver floored it, using the turn lane to bypass traffic. As he reached the Drive, his cell phone rang. Another photographer was right on the Expedition’s tail, and he was willing to give directions.
The SUV’s speedometer quickly reached 80, well over the Drive’s 45 mph limit. Per instructions, he exited at Wilson and headed west, using the wrong side of the street as a passing lane and narrowly avoiding several head-on collisions as he snaked in and out of traffic. Finally, sweating and out of breath, he pulled up behind a line of paparazzi at a stoplight.
Then, for the first time that day, he reached into the camera bag at my feet, pulled out a camera and slung it around his neck. We weren’t done yet.
Our chase began at the Peninsula, the luxury hotel where Pitt, Jolie and their ever-expanding brood stayed while Jolie was in Chicago shooting the movie “Wanted.” When I arrived there that morning, I saw no signs that a dozen or so paparazzi were staking out the hotel.
I later found out that most remained in their cars, hiding behind their tinted windows and making the most of the air conditioning. Several said they paid the valet at Rosebud on Rush $40 a day to secure parking spots with a view of the Peninsula and its loading dock, where Jolie and Pitt loaded up their SUVs before attempting to venture outward. A paparazzo might have left his car for the occasional cigarette break or to run to the Giordano’s across from the Peninsula for a slice of pizza, but the ones who knew what they were doing stayed out of sight, watching, until their quarry presented itself.
The paparazzi are a secretive lot. Some are tight-lipped because they want to safeguard their turf and tipsters. Others worry about the negative publicity that accompanies their work. The paparazzo I was with asked that we not use his name because he was concerned it would upset some of his clients, acknowledging the hypocrisy of invading others’ privacy while protecting his own.
“People do a lot of things in this business that they aren’t happy about, that they don’t tell everybody else about,” he said. “People know who I am. It’s just a little different when you make the paper and you’re the poster child for an organization.”
While some photographers work full time as paparazzi, many alternate chasing stars with more conventional gigs.
“Sometimes, the people who do this work for the local newspaper and are just (photographing celebrities) on the side to make some money,” said Francois Navarre, founder and president of X17, which is one of the largest paparazzi agencies in Los Angeles.
The paparazzi are aware of the negative implications associated with their job. Critics say that their pursuit of their targets borders on stalking, and that the high-speed chases they instigate endanger celebrities and innocent motorists. But most paparazzi are quick to say that they’re just another part of our celebrity-driven culture, that the stars are perfectly aware when they’re being photographed and that many don’t exactly mind when they see their faces in People magazine.
“We aren’t trespassing; we’re just trying to get a story,” said Raul Rodriguez, a paparazzo from L.A. who came to Chicago in pursuit of Jolie. “I haven’t seen any pictures from when she’s been here where she looks upset. She’s smiling, enjoying her work, enjoying being with her kids and Brad.
“It’s part of the game,” he added. “We’re basically contributing to their publicity.”
Rodriguez said that in the eight years he’s been photographing celebrities, he’s never been involved in a car accident. But he acknowledged that sometimes things can get out of hand when the paparazzi are chasing a target.
Paparazzi look for a glimpse of Angelina Jolie on the set of her movie “Wanted” on August 10, 2007, in Chicago, Illinois. The photographers were shooting from windows adjacent to the restaurant. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/MCT)
“In L.A., it’s really tense,” he said. “There are people who don’t have the skills to drive. They’re nervous. They want to get the photos.”
Driving in Chicago has been more sedate, he said, although the city’s numerous one-way streets and the abundance of pedestrians on the Magnificent Mile, near the Peninsula, have caused occasional snags.
It might seem odd that Jolie and Pitt’s brief jaunt to Chicago has drawn Rodriguez and other paparazzi away from the star-laden streets of New York and Los Angeles. But Jolie and Pitt are at the top of the celebrity A-list not necessarily in terms of talent, but in terms of their ability to draw readers to celebrity magazines.
“It changes every week, but they’re always in the top 10,” Navarre said. “Right now, No. 1 is Britney (Spears), then Katie Holmes, then Angelina.”
And so, knowing that their payday is relaxing within the walls of the Peninsula, the paparazzi wait, eyes trained on the Peninsula’s loading dock. “Sometimes they wait a week for nothing,” Navarre said. “It happens all the time.”
(Susan Ellefson, director of public relations at the Peninsula, declined to comment on what measures the hotel was taking to ensure the privacy of its guests. Apparently, though, it was handling matters on its own. Chicago Police Department spokeswoman Monique Bond said that the police have received no complaints relating to the paparazzi’s pursuit of Jolie and Pitt.)
Back to the chase. We had caught up to the rest of the paparazzi, but the pursuit wasn’t over. With the Expedition at its head, the caravan sped west on Wilson, not bothering to halt at stop signs. We moved as one unit: The first two cars would pass under a traffic light as it turned red, and the remaining four cars would run the light, rather than risk being left behind. As we blew through the intersection of Wilson and Sheridan, the paparazzo glanced upward at the camera mounted beside the traffic lights.
“I always wonder if they watch those things and see what we do,” he said.
He ran another red light. Ahead of us, the line of cars veered around a bus that had halted at a CTA stop. As we approached it, the bus slowly began to move back into the road, blocking our view of oncoming traffic. My paparazzo escort stepped on the gas. As we began to pass the bus, a sedan appeared, coming straight at us. I closed my eyes and hoped for the best.
I didn’t hear any shattering glass or crunching metal, so I opened my eyes. The caravan had halted at a red light, and we had come to a stop in the middle of the street, all but wedged between the bus and the sedan. The bus move forward slightly, so that its driver was directly above us. The bus driver glared down into my window. Even though it was tinted, I slouched down in my seat.
Possibly humbled by our narrow escape, the entire caravan stopped, one by one, at the next stop sign.
Thus far, we had no idea where the Expedition was going. Earlier, the paparazzo had speculated that some of Jolie’s children might be in the Expedition, but neither of us could think of any child-friendly destinations this far north. The caravan turned right on Western and again on Lawrence. Suddenly, the paparazzo’s face lit up.
“I know where we’re going!” he exclaimed. “There’s a toy store around here.”
Sure enough, the line of cars immediately veered right on North Lincoln, and the Expedition came to a halt in front of Timeless Toys. The paparazzo jumped from his car and sprinted down the street. I remained in the car, feeling mildly nauseated. A couple of moments later, he returned, triumphant: He had snapped a shot of Jolie carrying daughter Zahara into the store.
After the initial melee, we parked the car and joined the rest of the photographers outside Timeless Toys, hoping for an exit shot. The befuddled staff of the Chopping Block next door gathered at its entrance, wondering what had turned their normally quiet street into a circus. Moments later, the owner of Timeless Toys stepped outside. She was perturbed.
“Are my toys that important?” she demanded.
“We love toys!” the photographers chirped like a pack of choirboys. One of them added, “I hear they’re timeless,” which elicited general moans from his comrades and a smirk from the owner before she returned inside.
Passersby gathered outside the store. Twenty minutes passed. The paparazzi began to worry that Jolie might try to sneak out of the back.
Suddenly, three police cruisers pulled up to the curb, and several Kevlar vest-clad officers strode into the store. The paparazzi realized that Jolie was indeed trying to exit from the store’s rear, and they sprinted through the parking lot, catching a glimpse of Jolie and Zahara before the pair escaped. A couple jumped in their cars to resume the chase, but the police officers quashed their efforts by blocking the alley behind the store with a squad car.
“I don’t know where they’re going, and I don’t care,” the paparazzo said as he walked back to his car. “I got my photo. I’m happy.”
And with that, he opened his door, climbed in and headed back to his stakeout at the Peninsula.
On the way, he obeyed all the traffic laws.