Confessions of a Paparazzo

If you’re famous enough for a celebrity rag to care, chances are you’ll turn up in the viewfinder of Rick Mendoza. The veteran photo bomber turns the lens on himself and offers a peek into the life of that reviled species known as the paparazzi
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I’ve been a paparazzi in Los Angeles for a little less than ten years. Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Obama, Bill Clinton, Oprah, Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, Angelina, Halle Berry, Denzel, Diana Ross—I’ve shot them all. My first celebrity was Cindy Crawford. I was on Robertson Boulevard. I wasn’t a paparazzi then; I was just a person with a camera who wanted to break into Hollywood somehow, and I happened to end up on that street at that particular moment—it could have been on any other street in L.A.—and I saw someone who resembled her. I said, “Oh, my God, it’s Cindy Crawford.” Then she jaywalked. I photographed her crossing, and she went into a children’s clothing store. I didn’t know what I was doing; I was on my knees because there was this humongous paparazzi behind me. I said, “Hey, let’s step back so we can get a better shot,” and he said, “Screw off, rookie,” and at that moment I felt good. I felt like I was in the game. I stood down—I didn’t want to get in his way because he was so huge.

Cindy Crawford was very near me, and I said, “Smile,” because I wanted her to turn and at least look at me. She was holding an item, and I remember her not looking at me but saying, “What’s there to smile about?” So I said, “Life. It’s beautiful.” And she turned and gave me the most beautiful smile. And that was the shot. They were my first photos. I didn’t know where to go—who would buy them? Nobody would give me any help, so I looked in the Yellow Pages and went to this celebrity agency on Melrose. “Let me see what you got there,” the guy said. “OK, they’re pretty good.” And he bought them. I think I got $250. I was so happy. I thought, “I’m in the game! I’m a paparazzi.” I was 36 years old.

Justin Bieber. Photograph by Rick Mendoza

In L.A. there could be as many as 500 paparazzi. We have no union, no hours, nothing that helps us in any way. Nothing. No one has our back. You get the shot or you don’t eat. You have to be creative and aggressive and think two steps ahead of the celebrity, think five steps ahead of your fellow paparazzi and whoever else is in the area. There’s the general public, who all have their little smartphones, and there are the looky-loos, who just want to see what’s going on—they’re all in the way. There’s no street justice. If you don’t think fast, someone is gonna be in your way and you won’t get the shot. Someone else is gonna shoot it. I made $8,500 last month. Some guy made $700. Some guy even lost money.

I was born in El Sereno, which is recorded as the oldest community in L.A. I’m a true Angeleno. I lived there until I was seven or eight. The San Fernando earthquake happens in 1971, and my mother says, “I don’t like L.A. anymore.” Her family is in Arizona, and she thinks it’s a lot wiser to be closer to my grandmother instead of earthquakes, so we’re on our way to Tucson. I took photography classes in high school. Mr. Montgomery at Pueblo High taught media communication. He opened my eyes to video and media; I loved it. I thought, “Hey, maybe one day I could do weddings, you know, proms—anything that had a celebration that people wanted memories of.” I stayed in Tucson till I could go out on my own, and then I came back to L.A. to play rock star. I sang, played bass and drums, and we had a band. We weren’t a major act, but we were still playing rock stars—the girls, the attention, the fun. At 21, what did I care? I wasn’t thinking about the future.

Then I got associated with a leather shop on Hollywood Boulevard. We called it L.A. Roxx, and it became an apparel shop for bands. Guns N’ Roses, Alice Cooper, Dwight Yoakam—they were all coming in. I did two opening tours with Mötley Crüe, where I made their jackets. I was living the rock and roll life.

We had a lot of customers in Japan, so I went there various times, too. That’s when Mother bought me my first video camera, which opened my world. I did fashion in Japan, I did anything. I started a little sports memorabilia business called Collectibles. I had to sell the product, so I got a camera, a Sony 717. When I left Japan the last time in 2003 and came back to Los Angeles, I didn’t know what direction I wanted to go, but I knew I wanted to get into Hollywood.

I love L.A. Besides it being my home, my birthplace, it’s the entertainment capital of the world. I’m a “candid street celebrity photographer.” I have a 5D Mark III Canon, a 7D Canon, and a 40D Canon. My work goes to legit sources—magazines like Cosmopolitan and New York, Web sites, blogs, and entertainment shows. I’ve been interviewed on Katie Couric. I’m published almost on a daily basis—more than most writers.

I don’t doorstep—meaning, wait in someone’s driveway.

I don’t do specialties. A specialty is working on a celebrity others don’t want to work on—meaning, they live far away, so you have to wake up at four, five in the morning just to be there about five, six, so you’ve got the first shots of them when they go to the gym.

I don’t do the red carpet. On occasion I did, but I’m bored with it. The money isn’t there. It’s a bunch of puppets hollering just for show. I try to stay away from all that. The red carpet is structured, so everybody’s got the same photo, except she moved a half an inch to the left or a half an inch to the right. But in a candid shot you have a different backdrop—a street, a restaurant, a grocery store. She’s in action; she’s moving.

I don’t do assignments. An assignment is, “We’re gonna shoot these people here because their PR called us.” That’s no big money; it’s not gonna buy your house.

You make financial gain off celebrities, and celebrities are like stock—some go up and some go down. If they don’t get seen, nobody wants to purchase them. So their value drops. Celebrity is popularity.

I know where they live, the cars they drive, their license plate numbers. Sometimes you get a heads-up that someone’s in the area. It happens when it happens. There’s a valet who has my information and a waiter who doesn’t; there’s a guy driving by who does and another guy who doesn’t. It could be a text from another pap. A store’s owner would never call us, but the people who work for the store would. Sometimes they’ll make some money, a tip. Sometimes I’ll pay. Sometimes somebody else will. Beverly Hills, Robertson, Sunset Plaza, Ventura Boulevard, Brentwood—welcome to our home base. The airport is huge. I recently did the airport for three months straight. I got a lot of people. They’re landing, they’re flying, they’re landing, they’re flying. Park my car and walk, walk, walk. Go have lunch and walk, walk, walk. I got Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez, Rihanna, Gwen Stefani. My photo of Lamar Odom was in Us Weekly. There were about 30 paps there, but the magazine picked my photo.

There have been certain celebrities I really liked in movies, and then I met them and—oh, my God—I don’t like them anymore. I probably won’t watch their movies anymore because I’m offended by their actions, not just toward a photographer but to a fan who wants a photo of them or an autograph. I mean, screw me, I’m gonna get my photograph either way. But those poor people who say, “Can I get a photograph with you?” and the celebrity says, “No, not today.” Well, when? Their vacation’s over.

Would the plumber trade his job for the actor’s? Would the actor trade his job for the plumber’s? Fame has a price—are you willing to pay it? Because if you give me that fame, you can photograph me anytime you want, even if I have the flu, because I earn at that level. I earn that status, I earn that lifestyle, I earn that income. My fans are paying for my lifestyle. They could ask me for my autograph anytime they want.

Celebrities don’t think of paparazzi as journalists. They look at us as hustlers. They say it’s a low form of photography, but how can it be a low form of photography if they’re the image being photographed? Journalism is recording the story. It’s history. Nobody should deny history. Look at Justin Bieber: “I never smoke pot, I never smoke pot.” Boom. Someone catches him smoking pot. He lied to his people; he’s a liar. If that photograph hadn’t been captured, the world wouldn’t have known. We’re here for the people. If the people didn’t want to look at the pictures, we couldn’t be able to sell them, right?

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I always enjoyed Michael Jackson. I recorded him and took photos of him so many times. He would ride by, roll down the window, put out his hand, and I would hold it. I could feel the energy of what the world was giving this man and what he was giving the world. I shot the three-minute video of the ambulance pulling out of his driveway the day he died. At the time we didn’t know what the situation was—there was no urgency. Maybe one of the kids got hurt, maybe Michael cut his finger. Michael’s security guard always blocked us, facing us. On this occasion he had his back to us, blocking what was inside the ambulance. Something was going on. I followed the ambulance to the UCLA medical center. The security guard left about a half hour later. I followed him back to the house. It came through the wire that Michael was dead. I was stunned.

The longest I ever waited for a celebrity was eight hours at one spot, on a corner: Lindsay Lohan at a salon. She was changing her hair color, and these would be the first photos of it. I’m standing in a spot for eight hours, which means I have to crunch down and get back up. If I move and someone claims my spot, then I can’t get back in and get the shot. You don’t eat anything; you might not even have water. You leave to pee, you’re done. When she came out, it was like only a three- to five-second shot—click, click, click, click, click—and then she got in her car. Her hair was blond now. It had been brown. So it was worth it.

Kim Kardashian with North West. Photograph by Rick Mendoza

It’s like photographing Kim Kardashian. She’s made tens of millions of dollars. She’s a big marketing individual, so every frame of her counts. She’s with her sister and the baby, and she goes to Nate ’n Al. Nate ’n Al! Are you kidding me? The common person goes there. I position myself by the front door and wait maybe an hour and forty-five. By then there’s about 30 paparazzi, plus fans and photo op people. She comes out pushing the stroller. All of us—photographers, looky-loos, everyone—we move with her. Slowly. It takes maybe 15 minutes to walk from the front door to the parking lot and go down the elevator, then another five to load the baby into the car. She has to pick up the baby with the little baby seat, and that’s a shot. Put it in the car, and that’s a shot. Collapse the stroller, and that’s a shot. Everything is a story. She’s doing it all by herself. She knows how to handle us—you know, ignore us. Each pap probably made about a thousand that day. The baby was covered in a black blanket. If you could see the baby, it would have been maybe two, three thousand. If she was holding the baby, kissing the baby, maybe ten.

Prince William and Kate Middleton. Photograph by Rick Mendoza

Moneywise my biggest shot was Zsa Zsa Gabor, when the ambulance came, and they put her on the gurney and took her to the hospital—that made me a good payday. But most overwhelming was photographing William and Kate, the royal couple. It was the last day they were in L.A. No paparazzi were supposed to get near them. I happened to be driving by Hancock Park, and they were about to leave the British Consulate’s home. I waited with a lot of people about 300 yards away, and the police officer said, “OK, whoever is waiting, walk closer because they want to thank you guys and say good-bye.” There were lots of Jewish families—little Jewish girls, Jewish grandmothers, Jewish brothers. I was right in the middle. I shook the couple’s hands and got to capture that moment of history. I asked William if anyone had called him “dude” while he was in California, and he laughed. I found it very touching. He’s the future king of a country and the son of Princess Diana, which has another connection to the paparazzi. To make him laugh was fabulous.

If I wasn’t good at this, I wouldn’t have lasted. I’m still doing this as part of the game, the visual game. It will get me on a reality show, it will get me to produce my Michael Jackson documentary, get more talk shows. I’m still evolving. I’m not a celebrity, but I’m known in the celebrity world. I stand out, and they remember me. Yeah, the guy with the porkpie hat. And when I leave here, I’m going to the streets of L.A. and look for my next subject. I only need three good frames of sharp quality. Pop, pop, pop.


This feature originally appeared in the February 2015 issue of Los Angeles magazine

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