Last week, veteran paparazzo Giles Harrison took some photos that encapsulate our current, nutso reality. The shots showed models Kaia Gerber and Cara Delevingne attending a Los Angeles Black Lives Matter protest. Their famous faces are covered by masks; only their eyes are visible, topped by bushy, microbladed brows resembling very compliant caterpillars.
Nothing about the image is normal. But it reminds us of a familiar, if archaic and problematic ritual from the days before the virus: the celebrity paparazzi photo.
“That one was truly down to luck,” Harrison told The Daily Beast. “If there are 10 people walking down the street, you can spot the celebrity in the crowd. But if there are thousands of people marching in unison with signs protesting, that’s a little difficult.” He chalks his good fortune up to seeing the pair at a protest a few weeks ago, and following his “journalistic instinct” in thinking that they might return.
Harrison has been a paparazzo for 25 years and will not hesitate to call himself a “good spotter” of stars. But masks admittedly make things difficult.
“Sometimes the eyes are everything,” Harrison said. “That’s the only way I recognize somebody. If you’ve been at this long enough, you study faces. I’ve never seen Kaia in person, but I’ve certainly seen Cara. I know her by her eyes and mannerisms. Still, there were other paps there that didn’t get as good of photos as we did simply because they couldn’t find them in the crowd.”
As The New York Times reported in May, many paparazzi worked through the early days of the pandemic, before states began to reopen. It was not easy. Even before coronavirus, the celebrity photo industry was floundering as fans devoured pop culture less through tabloid pages and more by stars’ own Instagram accounts.
After stay-at-home orders lifted, celebrities returned to their natural habitats, like Nobu for outdoor dining (a locale frequently featured on the Daily Mail’s “sidebar of shame”).
“We’ve been really luck in the fact that celebrities are going to do what they want to do anyway,” Harrison said. “A lot of them walk around with masks, but a lot of them walk around with no masks, too. And honestly, nothing lends itself better to being socially distant from a person than being a paparazzo. The best way to do your job is to not be in somebody’s face.”
Los Angeles reinstated its lockdown last week, so things have quieted down for Harrison. When he spoke to The Daily Beast around noon LA time on a Monday, he described the day’s sightings as “shite.”
“I saw Ewan McGregor, but he was going back inside his house,” he explained. “That does me no good.”
There are certain celebrities whose features are easily recognizable, even when half their faces are swaddled in cotton. “Arnold Schwarzenegger is Arnold Schwarzenegger in a mask or not,” Harrison said. “He looks the way he looks. I see him pretty much everyday now, riding his bike. It’s an easy, no-brainer.”
Harrison recently saw a man cycling along Sunset Boulevard. He looked to be over six feet tall and dwarfed the tiny bike, so the pap gave him a double take. “Wait a minute, that’s Lebron James,” Harrison said, noting his beard peeking out of a mask.
“Sometimes, I’ve missed people,” Harrison said. “I saw Ellen Pompeo at a Black Lives Matter march; it was a fleeting look. She was with her former co-star T.R. Knight, and I didn’t realize it was him until I looked back at the pictures.”
Generally, it’s easier for a female celebrity to go incognito than a male one, Harrison thinks. “They can put their hair up, down, do pigtails, ponytails, stick it up in a cap,” he said. “Good luck recognizing them that way.”
Some stars “must be loving” the newfound anonymity afforded by mask-wearing. “Before it was easy to spot a celebrity in disguise,” Harrison said. “Sunglasses, a baseball cap even when they’re indoors. That’s usually a dead giveaway. But now it’s harder. It’s kind of like being a spy.”
Randy Bauer runs the photo agency Bauer-Griffin in Los Angeles, and told The New York Times that the company used the Paycheck Protection Program to stay afloat during the pandemic.
“It’s been a week-to-week situation,” Bauer told The Daily Beast. There are about 15-20 photographers and editors working both coasts now, and one IT tech who comes into the Los Angeles office daily. “We lost some people because there wasn’t enough to shoot,” Bauer added.
There have been times photographers have taken shots of people they thought were celebrities, only for editors to realize the subject was not, in fact, famous. “You have to get really creative and start looking at older pictures from when they weren’t wearing masks,” Bauer said. “You’ll notice the earlobes are off, or the eyebrows are wrong. When someone wears a mask, hat, and glasses, it’s like looking at a mummy.”
“If all else fails,” Bauer cross-references a famous face with the car they drive. “When they get a new car, you’re screwed,” he joked.
“A lot of paps are doorstepping now,” Harrison added. “They’ll park outside someone’s house. If the celebrity comes out with a mask, you know it’s who you’re looking for, as opposed to spotting randos on the street.”
Some celebrities—namely, Kardashians—have capitalized on mandatory mask-wearing, with the entire family sporting beige coverings from Kim’s SKIMS line. This means they’ll hawk their own product while posing for paparazzi. But Bauer noted that there is some fatigue when it comes to selling images of celebrities hiding the thing they might be best known for—their face.
“Masks make it difficult on the sales front,” Bauer said. “A lot of publications and outlets are getting bored of the mask looks. People want to see faces and not the masks constantly being put out there—it becomes a boring fixture.”
Online, stars like Kerry Washington, Jennifer Aniston, and Reese Witherspoon have been staunch advocates for mask-wearing. It would make sense for a celebrity to align themselves with the cause—anything else could lead to a perceived disregard for public health. One might imagine frazzled Hollywood publicists insisting their clients cover up for the cameras if only for optics.
And yet, a quick search of tabloids will find Suki Waterhouse and Robert Pattinson strolling through London sans covering. (In London, masks are not yet regulation wear as in New York City.) Ditto with Kate Moss shopping this week. The actress Maya Hawke (daughter of Ethan and Uma Thurman) was spotted in the Hamptons with Tom Sturridge, both without masks.
The celebrity world, per usual, mirrors our own, just with more money. It is a microcosm of our country’s manic approach to the most basic of safety precautions.
Essential as they may be, masks make Bauer’s life harder, especially in Los Angeles, where stars tend to dress down—as opposed to New York, where they often peacock in look-at-me clothing.
“I call California the Lululemon pictures,” he said. “In New York, everyone is fashionable. In California, every time they go out they’re in Lululemon. With the masks, that’s even harder now to spot them. So that’s our dilemma for the foreseeable future. It’s not going to end anytime this year.”