Hunched behind the wheel of his shiny new Porsche Cayenne, Francois Navarre drives slowly, watchfully, along Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood. Navarre, a 44-year-old Frenchman, and his American wife, Brandy, own one of the city's major paparazzi agencies, X17 Inc. Former journalists, they now live in one of the city's most desirable enclaves, own several homes and prefer to travel by private jet. Their business acumen has allowed them to share the very lifestyle of the celebrities they chase, sometimes around their own neighborhood.
Although Navarre, who moved to Los Angeles in 1992 as a stringer for the French newspaper Le Monde, doesn't shoot much anymore, he likes to make the rounds to see what his guys are up to. So just west of Robertson Boulevard, he pulls into a parking lot next to the ultra-chic clothing store Maxfield. "That's my guy," he says, pointing at a black Range Rover with tinted windows. "He thinks the car over there, the black one, is one of the Olsen twins'. I don't think it's hers."
His cellphone jangles: "Allo?"
It's Fred, in the Range Rover.
"She has black rims, no?" says Navarre. "You think it's her? Yeah, maybe it is."
We don't stick around to find out. Navarre noses the Porsche back onto Melrose, then turns right on North La Peer Drive, slowing immediately in front of a modern two-story cement building behind Maxfield. This is Brad Pitt's office. Any photograph of Pitt, even without Angelina Jolie or the kids, is valuable. Why? "He's a sex symbol for the entire world!"
In slow, late-afternoon traffic, Navarre cruises down Robertson, past the Ivy, Kitson, Lisa Kline--daytime stations of the cross for celebrities wishing to be noticed. This stretch of the boulevard is awash in cars passing through and civilians toting shopping bags. At least that's how it appears to the untrained eye. With Navarre as tour guide, it becomes clear that we have entered a parallel universe where a high-stakes hunt is underway.
"That guy waiting in the gas station is paparazzi. See there? On the left side, two paps are sitting on the wall. There's one in the black Mercedes here. The one behind him in the blue car is from another agency, but he's my friend." My neck swivels back and forth as I try to take it in.
We are directly in front of the Ivy now. Valets are rushing around as patrons mill on the sidewalk waiting for their cars. Navarre leans out his window. "Is there somebody?" he asks the guy who is his friend. The guy shakes his head. Navarre thinks he is telling the truth, so we head over to Century City, where two X17 teams are staking out Britney Spears and Kevin Federline, who have been holed up inside an office building for hours, presumably negotiating divorce issues. At least eight other photo agencies, plus a BMW full of reporters from US Weekly, are also on the case.
At the end of this day, X17 will end up with a few shots of Federline leaving the building, and nothing on Britney. More important, perhaps, none of its competitors will have gotten much either.
Though it may come as a surprise to their well-heeled neighbors, the reigning couple of the local paparazzi corps are living a life of quiet bourgeois comfort on one of the swankiest streets in Pacific Palisades.
Francois and Brandy Navarre live north of Sunset Boulevard on Amalfi Drive in the Palisades Riviera, where it's rare these days to find a home selling for less than $5 million. About three blocks away, also on Amalfi, they are building a new home on a lot they bought in 2005. A year ago, they purchased a house at the corner of North Oakhurst Drive and Burton Way, which they use as an office for their tiny staff and a drop point for their videographers.
In the Palisades, their unwitting neighbors are some of the very people who help them earn their handsome living. Brooke Shields lives around the corner. So does Brian Grazer. Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell live nearby, as does Adam Sandler. Steven Spielberg and Whoopi Goldberg have property. Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman used to live on Sorrento, one street below them. Brandy occasionally runs into celebrities such as Jennifer Garner at the grocery store. If she sees someone from a competing paparazzi agency hanging out at the local park when she drops off her kids with their French nanny, she might alert Francois.
The Navarres are unconcerned that they might be loathed by some of the people they count as neighbors. "Yeah, sure, it's always a question of private life versus public life," says Francois. "But you have an easy way to escape that. Get out of Los Angeles. Sean Penn couldn't take it. We have not seen one photo of Sean Penn in 10 years." (Penn, who had a famously antagonistic relationship with paparazzi, moved with his wife, Robin Wright Penn, to Northern California after she was carjacked in their Santa Monica driveway in 1996. He has not been photographed much since.)