When Prince Harry finally marries Meghan Markle at Windsor Castle on Saturday, it’ll be no thanks to the celebrity gossip and picture agency that staged cheesy photos of Meghan’s dad, Thomas Markle Sr., and nearly derailed the royal wedding.
Coleman-Rayner LLC— a scrappy Los Angeles-based company co-owned by two British veterans of the tabloid wars, writer/editor Mark Coleman and paparazzi photographer Jeff Rayner—is at the epicenter of a lurid scandal that has reached the far corners of Planet Earth and overwhelmed advance coverage of the happy day on front pages and television shows from England to Australia.
For Coleman-Rayner, it’s the most damaging controversy since the agency was unmasked last fall as having conducted negative research in late 2016 on one of Harvey Weinstein’s rape accusers, actress Rose McGowan.
The agency did this ostensibly on behalf of one of Coleman-Rayner’s clients, American Media Inc. executive Dylan Howard, who passed the agency’s work product on to Weinstein, telling the Hollywood mogul in a leaked email: “I have something AMAZING.”
To which Weinstein replied: “This is the killer. Especially if my fingerprints r not on this.”
“They are not,” Howard emailed back (and later claimed in a chagrined statement, after his dodgy conduct was exposed by New Yorker writer Ronan Farrow, that he only “unwittingly” played a role “in Mr. Weinstein’s well documented manipulation of his business and personal relationships in his efforts to combat his accusers”).
According to a source close to former Coleman-Rayner picture editor Glen McCurtayne, McCurtayne, appalled that the agency had been involved in the potential smearing of rape victims, resigned in disgust and became a born-again Christian; he now spends his days doing volunteer work and studying the Bible.
“None of this information was ever published, and it was gathered well before there was any knowledge of the gross accusations against Weinstein,” Mark Coleman emailed The Daily Beast. “AMI declined to publish the information as it did not want to impugn the reputation of an accuser.”
Although Coleman-Rayner finds itself once again on the hot seat, the current staged-photo flap is mild by comparison—and at least as uncomfortable for Meghan Markle.
“It’s obviously and understandably a difficult time for Meghan,” a vexed and bespectacled young man in a three-piece suit—“ABC News Royal Contributor” Omid Scobie—told Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts this week in a plummy English accent. “Sources say that she’s upset and distressed by the news. It comes just days before one of the biggest and most important events of her life.”
GMA’s 7 1/2-minute-long segment (an eternity in network morning TV) was typical of the breathless saturation coverage of the staged photos and other entertainingly off-kilter events surrounding Markle Sr., the former Suits star’s 73-year-old father, along with Meghan’s zany extended family.
Notable in this rogue’s gallery of undesirable relatives is her estranged half-brother, Tom Markle Jr., who has gone out of his way to trash Meghan in tabloid interviews (irked that he wasn’t invited to the wedding) and recently shared with In Touch magazine his embittered handwritten letter to Harry urging the prince to call off the nuptials to a “jaded, shallow, conceited woman that will make a joke of you and the royal family heritage.”
Enter Coleman-Rayner. Mark Coleman, an alumnus of AMI’s Star magazine and Bauer Publishing’s equally down-market Life & Style, and Jeff Rayner, who’s been toiling as a celebrity photographer since he arrived in the United States on a foreign journalist’s work visa in the late 1990s, teamed up to launch the small agency in 2009; these days it remains lean and mean, boasting around a dozen photographers, reporters, and support staff operating from an office in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley.
It’s a hardscrabble, Darwinian business. According to insiders, the staff photographers generally are paid a nominal base salary of between $30,000 and $50,000—barely enough to live in L.A.—plus a 25 percent commission on the sales of their photos, and the company doesn’t provide health insurance benefits.
By most accounts, AMI—which owns the National Enquirer, Us Weekly, Globe, and OK!, among other titillating publications—is Coleman-Rayner’s most important client, and the agency services the various AMI titles with words and pictures.
Coleman-Rayner is on a high-five-figure monthly retainer with the publisher (ranging from $70,000 monthly, the industry scuttlebutt, to “less than $50,000/month,” the estimate of an AMI insider) and Jeff Rayner has been a close friend of AMI’s chief content officer, Australian import Dylan Howard, since the latter was running AMI’s L.A. bureau nearly a decade ago.
The scandal surrounding Thomas Markle Sr., otherwise known as the “Markle Debacle,” began around two months ago with a Coleman-Rayner paparazzo named Karl Larsen—notorious on the celebrity “pap” circuit as one of its more ruthless practitioners.
The 49-year-old Larsen is best known for his 2007 photo of a just-arrested Paris Hilton sobbing in the backseat of a cop car, another photo of an enraged Mel Gibson in 2010 (taken after Larsen mercilessly taunted the allegedly anti-Semitic actor, demanding a refund for all the tickets he’d ever bought to see Gibson’s movies), and for getting flattened during a violent scuffle last year at LAX with One Direction pop star Louis Tomlinson.
This past March, Larsen hunted down the elder Markle, a retired lighting director for General Hospital, near his home in the beach community of Rosarito, Mexico, 30 miles south of the U.S. border. Larsen snapped Markle’s picture in various unflattering stances, looking obese and disheveled.
Days later, Jeff Rayner showed up and somehow persuaded Markle—who’d been under siege for months by pitiless paps, despite Kensington Palace’s stern warning to leave the old man in peace—to pose for a series of candid-seeming photographs.
Rayner—who, like Colman, is in his mid-forties—is known as a wily chap of easygoing charm, a fondness for high-status luxury (he proudly drives a Porsche), and a sharply honed instinct for the jugular.
“That’s a guy who will sit on a mountain for five days and get the picture of the skier a mile away who’s involved in some kind of scandal. He’s an absolutely fantastic pap,” said a veteran tabloid journalist who has worked with him. (Like nearly everyone interviewed for this story, this person asked not to be named.)
Coleman—described by colleagues as “a control freak” with a hair-trigger temper, although he usually apologizes in soothing tones after losing his cool—“is a very slick businessman, and he has an extremely good feel for the market,” said the journalist. “This isn’t an agency that goes around doing pro bono stuff for the good of America. It’s an old-fashioned tabloid operation.”
Not that everyone is a fan.
“They’re just scummy paparazzi,” said Los Angeles attorney Neville L. Johnson.
Last year, Johnson sued Coleman-Rayner for libel on behalf of his client, fitness guru Richard Simmons—along with American Media Inc. execs David Pecker and Dylan Howard and AMI’s National Enquirer and Radar Online—after the agency provided photos and reporting that the publications utilized to claim erroneously that Simmons had “has undergone shocking sex swap surgery” and was living as a woman named Fiona. (A judge dismissed Simmons’ lawsuit—and recently ordered him to pay the defendants $130,000 in legal fees—on the grounds that the articles, though bogus, weren’t defamatory.)
Meanwhile, Jeff Rayner’s pitch to Meghan Markle’s beleaguered dad has been the subject of intense speculation in the tabloid biz since the pictures were first published by London’s The Sun May 4 and subsequently other outlets that licensed them from Colman-Rayner for an estimated total of £100,000 (the equivalent of around $135,000).
Several former Coleman-Rayner employees told The Daily Beast that if Rayner paid Markle—a standard practice in such cases—it was likely a relatively small amount in cash, maybe a few thousand dollars. (TMZ reported that he received $1,500 “plus a small percentage of the royalties.”)
It’s also likely, said the former Coleman-Rayner employees, that Rayner used Larsen’s unflattering photos as leverage and, in a classic ploy, offered to withhold them in exchange for the senior Markle’s cooperation with pictures that would depict him in an attractive light.
In an email Friday, Coleman called the speculation “totally false,” and added: “The part alleging we offered to hold back unflattering photos is totally false.”
The Daily Beast addressed all questions via email to both Coleman and Rayner.
Coleman didn’t respond to a question concerning Rayner’s arrangement with Markle, but emailed that generally, “Coleman-Rayner does not comment on its newsgathering or its business relationships with publishers.” (Coleman—who is clearly unnerved by the media attention and refused to go on the record in a lengthy, pleading phone call to this reporter—was on a business trip with Rayner in Australia, where the agency has serviced the celebrity magazines New Idea and Woman’s Day.)
In any case, Coleman-Rayner’s published photos in The Sun—initially considered a much-prized exclusive in the frenzied media run-up to the wedding vows—showed Meghan’s dad exercising outdoors with tiny weights (ostensibly getting in shape for walking his daughter down the aisle at Windsor Castle’s St. George’s Chapel).
He was also pictured being measured for a royal wedding suit inside what looked like a tailor’s shop, sitting at a desktop computer at an internet café to read a story about his daughter’s marriage, and stopping by a local Starbucks to peruse a coffee-table book on British landmarks.
Coleman-Rayner’s triumph was short-lived, however, and the agency quickly became the target of the pre-wedding media mania this past weekend, when the Mail on Sunday shattered the rival Sun’s scoop with a juicy investigative blockbuster headlined “Royal Wedding scammers! Meghan Markle’s father STAGED photos with paparazzi…”
The Mail’s exposé, relying in part on closed-circuit camera footage showing Markle and Rayner apparently collaborating inside Rosarito’s Omega internet café, detailed how they recruited a teenage party-goods shop clerk to play the tailor (using a tape measure supplied by Markle), after discovering that the suit rental store Rayner planned to use was closed; and that the bogus exercise shot was apparently staged at a garbage dump “away from prying eyes.”
“It was really strange,” the pretend tailor, David Flores, told the Mail, adding that Rayner tipped him $15 for his trouble. “This big American guy [Markle] got the measuring tape out of his pocket and he was saying things in English. I don’t speak good English, but I understood what he wanted me to do. The photographer he was with stepped back to the street and started taking pictures.”
The story added pointedly: “The revelation that Mr. Markle has been co-operating with a paparazzo behind the backs of his daughter, Prince Harry and Kensington Palace officials will cause huge embarrassment to the Royal Family in the run-up to the wedding.
“It will be galling for Harry who, in a BBC documentary last year, hit out at the paparazzi for the way in which they pursued his mother, Princess Diana. She was killed in Paris in 1997 after being chased by photographers.”
The Mail’s scoop seemed to throw all of Fleet Street into a kind of mass hysteria, even as elder Markle, according to friends and family, told them he was “deeply embarrassed” and “now feels like a complete fool” for playing along with Rayner, the Mirror reported.
“He’s telling friends he feels scammed by those who did the pictures but more worryingly he now has to face the Queen and the rest of the Royal Family… He’ll hate the fact that people think he has betrayed them and he’ll be fearful what they think.”
In due course over the next few days, Markle gave a series of interviews to TMZ, Harvey Levin’s gossip site that regularly pays for news and tips, in which Meghan’s dad confided that he had suffered a heart attack—triggered, he said, by Tom Jr.’s letter to Prince Harry although the photo flap might have contributed to his chest pains this past Monday—and would undergo cardiovascular surgery to implant a stent, and thus would be forced to drop out of the wedding.
“I’m just too ill to walk Meghan down the aisle,” screamed the Mirror’s front-page headline, under the blood-red all-cap message: “DAD’S HEART OP SETBACK.”
“Sadly, my father will not be attending our wedding. I have always cared for my father and hope he can be given the space he needs to focus on his health,” Meghan Markle said in a statement provided by Kensington Palace Thursday. (The palace revealed Friday she would walk herself down most of the aisle, with future father-in-law Prince Charles escorting her the last few steps.)
Coleman-Rayner’s website—blazoned with the motto, “We pride ourselves on original, accurate reporting coupled with fantastic photography”—touts its “formidable reputation as the agency people trust. Staff pride themselves on their professionalism coupled with a personal approach, as well as compassion and empathy when handling delicate stories and demanding situations.”
The agency has posted a series of testimonials from the relatives of famous people and C-list celebrities, to wit: “Trustworthy and great to work with” (Ronald Fenty, Rihanna’s father); “Great job, accurate and considerate of us old folks” (Diana Dill and Donald Webster, Michael Douglas’ mother and stepfather); and “I trust Coleman-Rayner implicitly” (Coco Austin, model, burlesque dancer, and TV star).
The kind and gentle advertising belies Coleman-Rayner’s reputation for hard-nosed aggression in a cutthroat business that, just like the purveyors of mainstream journalism, has suffered financially from the digital onslaught, as well as from social media services such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram that give celebrities the ability to control their images and information.
In order to sell photos and copy to demanding clients, former employees said, the agency was forced to supply content that was increasingly edgy to the point of callous. Sometimes it was simply wrong, as when Coleman-Rayner produced a story that purported to discover the whereabouts of Olivia Newton-John’s long-lost boyfriend.
“Olivia Newton-John’s Runaway-Lover Found Alive!” exclaimed the headline in the Nov. 27 National Enquirer, one of the tabloids, including AMI’s Star magazine, which misidentified Canadian Wes Stobbe as Patrick McDermott, the missing man in question.
“Let’s get mistakable: Tab magazines confuse Manitoba man for missing boyfriend of Olivia Newton-John,” said the Canadian Press story about the embarrassing blooper.
It was professionally risky to decline distasteful assignments, such as the December 2015 order to go to Las Vegas and secure a “last photo” of Celine Dion’s husband Rene Angélil, who was dying of throat cancer. One photographer left the agency, a source said, shortly after refusing that challenge.
In another instance, said a source, Rayner and reporter James Robertson (now the top editor of AMI’s OK!) talked their way into the Florida hospice where they secured a photo and pained interview with Tom Cruise’s stepfather, Jack South—the inspiration for a series of depressing and intrusive accounts that continued to be published weeks after the poor man’s death.
“Cruel Tom Cruise Turned His Back On Dying Dad,” claimed the headline in the National Enquirer.
The saddest moment, at least for Coleman-Rayner reporter Hugo Daniel, came in February 2014, six months after he persuaded Julia Roberts’ younger half-sister, Nancy Motes, to sit for a lengthy interview, Motes’ first-ever, which focused on the movie star’s alleged penchant for fat-shaming her.
“I had £20k gastric band op after sister Julia’s jibes about my weight,” said the headline over the resulting Aug. 9, 2013, story, which ran under the byline of Pete Samson, U.S. editor of The Sun (with the credit line “ADDITIONAL REPORTING: Hugo Daniel”).
The story did little to enhance Motes’ already tense relations with her big sister. Suffering from depression, she was found dead in her bath tub surrounded by pill bottles; the death was ruled a suicide.
Daniel was so distraught by the incident that colleagues were instructed never to mention the interview around him, said a former Coleman-Rayner employee.
“Hugo was devastated,” said a colleague. Reached by The Daily Beast, Daniel—who has left Coleman-Rayner to freelance—declined to comment.
“It seemed that over time, it was getting a little bit desperate,” said one of several former employees who have departed Coleman-Rayner in recent years—in part, this ex-employee said, because staffers have been increasingly required to engage in what is generally known in the business as “smash and grab”—that is, snapping pictures of people at their worst, and taking advantage of often naïve celebrity kinfolk, often elderly, to get them to dish dirt with no concern for the consequences.
Said the former employee, “There were things that we’d be asked to go and do, and that wasn’t why I got into the business.”