Washington: Hub For Politics, Power And ... Paparazzi?

In parts of New York City and Los Angeles, paparazzi can be sighted outside posh restaurants or nighttime hotspots, desperately trying to snap photos of celebrities. In this week's Washington Post Magazine, staff writer Annie Gowen reports that paparazzi are now regulars in the nation's capital. Host Michel Martin speaks with Gowen about her piece "In Your Face," and just what's bringing the stars and the paparazzi to Washington.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now we open up the pages of the Washington Post magazine, something we do just about every week to find interesting stories about the way we live now. And the way some people live now is amid exploding flashbulbs, the rapid-fire click of cameras. Now, you'd figure you'd see mobs of photographers surrounding celebrities on the streets of Manhattan or Hollywood, at least the streets where celebrities hang out. But paparazzi in Washington, D.C.? It turns out that paparazzi are becoming a fact of life in D.C., at trendy restaurants and in front of key venues like this recent appearance by Charlie Sheen.

Unidentified Man #1: Charlie, how are you doing, brother?

Unidentified Woman: Can we get a picture?

Unidentified Man #2: Hey, Charlie.

Unidentified Man #3: Can I get some room, please?

Unidentified Man #2: Hey, Charlie.

Unidentified Man #3: Back, back, back.

Unidentified Man #2: Hey, Charlie, it's (unintelligible).

MARTIN: In a piece titled In Your Face, Washington Post staff writer Annie Gowen says that the paparazzi are winning in D.C. of all places. And she joins us now from the studios at the Washington Post to tell us more about it.

Annie, welcome, thanks so much for joining us.

Ms. ANNIE GOWEN (Staff Writer, The Washington Post): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Now, when you think Washington, D.C. and you think photography, I think you probably think, you know, shots of the Lincoln Memorial. I don't think people think of, like, shoving, sweating, you know, hoards of people trying to get shots of celebrities. So when did this all happen?

Ms. GOWEN: Well, a lot of the society photographers, the event photographers kind of date it to maybe two or three years ago. It's really the advent of, you know, sort of the globalization of the media. And the other part of it is that Washington is a lot more hip than it used to be.

You know, there's a sexy young administration, there's a lot more celebrities are coming to town, as they will be this weekend for the White House Correspondents' Dinner, to walk the red carpet and also to advocate on the Hill. So it's kind of a dual thing that's going on, which explains sort of this outcropping of these new photographers.

MARTIN: You follow one paparazzo in particular, a man named Colin Drummond, and you talk about how he got his big break. Would you tell us about that?

Ms. GOWEN: Yes. Well, Colin is kind of an interesting guy. You know, he had a past. He was convicted on drug charges when he was - during the '90s. But then later on in life he shaped up and became a news photographer. But he started branching out into the celebrity realm in D.C. And in 2007 he covered the Howard University commencement where Oprah Winfrey was speaking. And he managed to get a few shots of her.

And it wasn't until later on that he noticed that one of the shots sort of appeared - she was wearing flip-flop sandals and it appeared that she had a sixth toe. And when he sent that up to his agency in New York, it just went viral on the Web. And he made, I think, $40,000 and he still gets residuals from this wacky picture. And, actually, Oprah doesn't really have a sixth toe.

But nevertheless, the sixth-toed Oprah was a big moneymaker for Colin Drummond, who's really kind of the godfather of the D.C. paparazzi scene.

MARTIN: How does he figure out where these people are going to be so they can get these kinds of shots?

Ms. GOWEN: Right. So they have these guys - there's only about a half a dozen of them. It's not like it is in L.A. yet. But they have a wide network of tipsters. So they have, you know, limo drivers that tell them stuff. And hotel doormen and the concierges and so that's kind of how they get their information.

MARTIN: And when you say tip them off, I assume it's a two-way, the tipping is a two-way street. Presumably they're not just giving this information out of the kindness of their hearts. They pay for it, right?

Ms. GOWEN: I don't know how much Colin would pay for it, but he definitely, you know, gives out sports tickets and other kind of tokens of his esteem to his tipsters.

But, you know, when we were following him it was kind of a challenge because his day is - he never knows where, you know, what he's going to hear from day to day. And at one point, you know, we were all set to follow him to Capitol Hill and he got a tip that Jennifer Hudson, who's really hot right now, as you know, because of a new album and her weight loss, was coming into Dulles Airport. So he had to race off to Dulles Airport to get her and he did - coming off the plane from Paris.

MARTIN: Coming off the plane from Paris. I think it is known that celebrities don't love this. They don't love, you know, going out to get a cup of coffee and having people - in their flip-flops - and having people following them. And that they're in certain cities, I think people will get used to it, even though they don't love it.

Have there been any incidents in Washington, D.C. where a celebrity has just said, you know what? No. And reacted, you know, in a negative way.

Ms. GOWEN: Well, there is a couple of interesting ones. I mean, the famous one is when Shia LaBeouf was here filming "Transformers" last year. And there was a paparazzo named Mark Wilkins, who was filming him and he got angry and threw a cup of coffee at him and sort of walked away. And that was a famous incident. And when that happened, that was kind of when people sort of started waking up around here to think, oh, we really do have paparazzis in Washington, D.C.

But then one of the famous ones - another famous incident was when Colin Drummond, who we talked about earlier, and another paparazzo were chasing Russell Crowe, who was in town filming "Body of Lies." And they were chasing him up the Clara Barton Parkway, which is a road that runs along the Potomac. And everybody knows that Russell Crowe doesn't like photographers. So he at one point just hopped out of his car and they had had some mountain bikes in the back of the car. And he jumped on his mountain bike and road up the bike path to get away from them.

MARTIN: Well, there you go. That's one way to do it.

Ms. GOWEN: Yeah.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, you mentioned, you know, paparazzi chasing people. You know, that has a very checkered history. As, you know, on the one hand, so you've got, like, you've got two competing things here in Washington, D.C. On the one hand you've got - there is a tradition of free speech here. There is a tradition of people being able to film and record and photograph, you know, in public places.

On the other hand, you know, Princess Diana, you know, obviously the crash that killed her had many factors, including excessive speed and so forth. But there are those who say, well, part of the reason that they were driving so fast was to get away from the photographers. And I wondered if there's any discussion in this city about, you know, regulating this conduct because of those concerns. That sometimes it gets out of hand that, you know, people sometimes do get hurt in the fray.

Ms. GOWEN: At this point it seems the only concerns that are - that have legitimately been raised is is it sort of out of place in the capital city? Is it too indecorous for this town? I think when it happened at the Kennedy Center Honors, which is another big event here, you know, people were kind of shocked by the shouting and the pushing and the shoving.

But, you know, we spoke to Terry Gainer, who's the Capitol Hill police chief and he - former chief, I'm sorry. He's now the sergeant at arms. But anyway, he was saying that, you know, it's really a small group at this point and there's so much more infrastructure for security in place here than they are in other towns, just especially after 9/11. So it's not a big concern at this point.

MARTIN: Annie Gowen is a staff writer for the Washington Post. Her piece this week is called "In Your Face." And if you'd like to read it in its entirety, and we hope you will, you can find a link to it on our website. Just go to NPR.org, click on the Programs tab and then on TELL ME MORE.

Annie, thanks so much for joining us.

Ms. GOWEN: Thank you.

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