Notes on New York’s Celebrity Infestation

Photomontage by Peter Rad

I’ve seen Brad Pitt.

I’ve seen Steve Martin. I’ve seen Gwyneth Paltrow carrying Apple in her arms. I’ve seen Drew Barrymore with her boyfriend, that drummer from the Strokes. I’ve seen Martin Amis, Jonathan Lethem, Eugene Levy, and Michael Imperioli. I’ve seen Liv Tyler and Willem Dafoe on the same day in the Village, Phoebe Cates on the Upper West Side, Jimmy Fallon at Rockefeller Center, Josh Hartnett in Tribeca, and Patricia Clarkson near Washington Square. I once turned around at a book launch and nearly bumped into Julianne Moore, red-haired and delicate and smaller in person than you’d expect. I saw Jennifer Connelly shopping in a store in Brooklyn, along with her husband, Paul Bettany; she too was smaller in person, and he, jackknifed over a stroller, seemed much taller and slightly pissed off. Maybe because I was staring at his wife. Well, not staring, exactly, just trying to place her, in that I know I know you from somewhere way, and it took me a second too long, which meant she got that Please don’t say anything look of fright on her face, so I got that Oh, no, don’t worry, I’m not crazy look, which only made me look like I was definitely crazy.

But did I say anything to these celebrities? Did I ask for an autograph? Did I stop and gawk and snap a camera-phone picture and squeal that this was the greatest day of my life, at least since last weekend, when I saw Mike D of the Beastie Boys at that place just off Avenue A?

Of course not. I live in New York.

I don’t care about celebrities.

“On any person who desires such queer prizes,” wrote E. B. White in 1949, “New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.” This includes, apparently, Sarah Jessica Parker. “You can’t live in New York City and be the most important person in town, you just can’t,” she said in last month’s Good Housekeeping. “There are too many other important people here.”

She’s sounding a familiar echo of White’s famous sentiment, though in her case, it’s harder to accept. Really, Sarah Jessica? No one ever bothers you? No one asks you to pose for just one photo, holding a Magnolia cupcake? Yet this is the common fiction we’ve agreed upon in New York: Celebrities claim they come here to lead normal lives (though, of course, they don’t, not really), and we claim we don’t notice them (though, of course, we do, all the time). We maintain this pact in part out of nostalgia for the city’s glamorous past. New York has never professed to have the most celebrities, just the coolest ones. L.A. had sunshine and Burt Reynolds; we had autumn and Woody Allen. We had Scorsese and De Niro (Taxi ­Driver, not Rocky and Bullwinkle). We had Blondie, for crying out loud. Naturally, these luminaries could walk among us unmolested—they were New Yorkers, too.

But now New York’s jammed with celebrities, both the newly minted and the recently trucked in. We can’t just have the cool ones anymore—Peter Sarsgaard and Maggie Gyllenhaal, Kanye West and Karen O. We apparently have to have all of them. Lenny Kravitz! Stephen Dorff! The Freaking Olsen Twins! As each sparkling new condo rises, it gets worse. “There’s been a huge increase in the last three years,” says Wilbur Gonzalez, a senior vice-­president at Corcoran. “Ten years ago, it was pretty standard: film people in L.A., music people in New York. But now the film people are coming here, too.” Film people, music people, whatever-it-is-that-you-did-to-be-famous people—suddenly, they’re everywhere. In our parks, in our schools, in our out-of-the-way restaurants. In the most celebrity-crazed era in history, we live in the most celebrity-clogged city in the world.

Yet, in our humble way, we’ve gamely tried to continue the charade. We don’t want to become L.A., a city split into castes of stars and fans. We disdain that city’s star-map-wielding tourists, their noses pressed against the tour-bus glass for a glimpse of O.J.’s driveway. And we understand that celebrities live here for the same reasons we all do: the opportunities, the culture, the city. So we still work hard to make them feel at home.

Take, for example, this encounter experienced by Roger Bennett, the publisher of Guilt & Pleasure magazine and the co-founder of the Reboot Stereophonic record label, which reissues albums by Borscht Belt mambo stars. (Seriously.) One day, while out with his son on the Upper West Side, Bennett met Conan O’Brien in the park. “He’s good friends of a great friend of mine,” Bennett tells me. “My kid ran over to see my friend, and I saw she was chatting with Conan O’Brien. I had a second to decide how to react. I thought, It’s a Saturday afternoon, everyone’s with their kids, and he’s a great guy—let him have the weekend off. So she says, ‘Roger, this is Conan.’ And I say, ‘Hi, Conan,’ as if she’d just introduced me to her dentist.”

Twenty minutes later, though, Bennett realized his son was playing in the ­sandbox—with Conan’s kid. “As you may know, there’s an unwritten rule in New York that if your kid plays with someone else’s kid in the sandbox, it’s absolutely fine to strike up a conversation,” says Bennett. And, sure enough, Conan turned to him and started chatting. “We talked about the school system, living in the city, the usual stuff parents talk about,” says Bennett. “And I kept this fiction going that I didn’t know who he was. I asked him, ‘Where do you see yourself if you have some more kids?’ And he said, ‘Actually, we might have to move to L.A.’ And I was like, ‘What would you move to L.A. for? That city’s heinous.’ And he said, ‘I’m getting a promotion.’ The whole time we’re having this coded conversation. And I said, ‘Oh, what’s your promotion?’ And he said, ‘I’m going to take over Jay Leno’s job.’ ” At which point Bennett nodded, looked back at their kids in the sandbox, and said, “Ah, yes. Jay Leno.”

I suggest to Bennett that this kind of ­interaction—neither gawking nor ignoring but simply hanging out as two dads in the park—is probably the exact reason Conan likes living here. “You mean instead of me trying to pitch him on putting my 91-year-old mambo artist on the Conan O’Brien show?” he asks. “Now, that would be an L.A. interaction.”

There are signs, however, that our contract with celebrities is fraying. The first might be called the Heath Ledger Moment: when the Brokeback Mountain star and his partner, Michelle Williams, bought a house in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Boerum Hill. This news was greeted with both pride (they could have lived anywhere!) and dread (they’re taking over!). It was as though an alien species that had lived quietly among us, unremarked upon for eons, finally stood up and declared, “You know what? We like this planet. We think we’ll take it.” And we knew we were powerless to stop them.

Then, of course, there are the paparazzi. Stars will tell you that it’s still worse in L.A., a city more conducive to high-speed car chases and long lenses perched in high trees. But New York’s catching up. There’s a booming market for candid shots of stars slurping coffee, curbing dogs, wearing sweats. The more tugged-down the ball cap, the better. “They can’t run into a Duane Reade to fill a prescription without someone following them inside,” one celebrity publicist complained to me. Which is a brutal irony: All the things stars could once do in New York—because no one bothered them, no one cared—are now the very activities the shutterbugs value the most.

And then there are these: Kirsten Dunst looked skinny, pale & sweaty, her hair askew and scraggly … At Montmartre, Brit [Britney Spears] in a black wig, no shoes, Sean Preston, 2 guards & some nanny. Used the stroller primarily as a shopping cart. I snapped some pics when Mr. Security told me this was a private moment. I said, Really, in a public space, how interesting … Saw Jon Stewart in Washington Square Park with his son. They were playing underneath a tree. He was very ­protective when he saw I had a camera on me.

You know the drill: Ignore the star as she walks toward you, then start texting all your friends the moment she’s passed you by.

These encounters are, I admit, not so different in flavor from my own. But, like a good New Yorker, I collect my sightings in secret, like a philatelist in a basement lit by a single bulb. The reports above are snatched from the Internet, random samplings of recent posts on Gawker Stalker, the most notorious—but certainly not the only—place online to find detailed accounts of minor brushes with New York fame.

Gawker Stalker has existed as long as the site itself, which launched in 2002. But last year, the site added a new feature, a product of nifty technology, really, that allowed it to instantly map the locations of celebrities, as reported by anonymous readers. This innovation was hardly earth-shattering—it showed you Astor Place on a map, rather than just saying “Astor Place”—yet some people treated it as the breaking of the apocalyptic seventh seal. “A shocking new Website that shows exactly where stars are, right now, in real time,” intoned CNN’s Showbiz Tonight. “Tonight: coast-to-coast anger.”

Jessica Coen, the site’s co-editor, countered that if you are using a Google map to find celebrities, then “you are a really bad stalker.” But there was something unnerving about the Gawker Stalker phenomenon. Not the safety issue—seriously, is anyone going to jump in a cab to race after Kate Bosworth because she was spotted ten minutes ago outside Pastis?—but the fact that it revealed a secret. We notice. We collect. We care.

“The shtick of being a New Yorker is that we don’t care about celebrities,” says Jesse Oxfeld, who was co-­editor of Gawker at the time of the controversy but has since ­parted ways with the site (and subsequently joined New York). “And this entirely belied that. So it offended me a little bit. Because Gawker is supposed to embody a certain Ur–New Yorkerness, which means not being impressed by celebrities. Or, at least, being impressed but knowing enough not to seem impressed.”

As the stars swarm among us, you have to wonder: Are we now destined to become just another L.A., where fawning nobodies hound celebrities, who then escape behind gates and smoked glass? Are Soho penthouses the new Hollywood Hills, where the super-famous retreat to gaze on the milling serfs below, chuckling like feudal lords? Well, no. Heath Ledger’s house hasn’t been thronged by chanting mobs, even though everyone and his dog knows where it is. And now comes the news that Ledger’s bought a $2.3 million modernist box shrouded by trees in Los Angeles, which means there’s even less chance of spotting him on Smith Street. (Not that you care.) Even Gawker Stalker is presented partly tongue-in-cheek, a guilty pleasure that’s heavy on the guilt, its meticulous missives a halfhearted joke about how silly it is to obsess over the whereabouts of Ryan Adams. As for the rest of us, did we ever truly not care? I mean, wouldn’t you have been just as psyched to see Patti Smith in the East Village in the seventies as you are to see Jay-Z today? Or way more so, for that matter?

“I don’t think L.A. and New York are as different as some people make them out to be,” says Michael Imperioli, an oft-sighted Tribeca fixture. “I think it’s more about how people approach you and how they behave—that determines your reaction much more than any difference between L.A. versus New York.” In other words, it’s not that we in New York don’t care but that we know enough to pretend that we don’t care. Which, in essence, is almost as good. You know the drill: Ignore the star as she walks toward you, then start texting all your friends the moment she’s passed you by.

And so, in that spirit, on the following pages, we present our own Star Map, ­strictly Not for Stalking Purposes. It’s simply intended to illustrate the extent to which, in New York, unlike anywhere else in the world, celebrities live among us—truly among us, as our neighbors, if not exactly our peers. In a zoo, the animals and the people aren’t equals, but that doesn’t give either license to poke, prod, taunt, disturb, or pester the other. Rather, they all live in peace, while posing for occasional photos. Then again, what does it matter? After all, we don’t notice the stars. Next: New York Paparazzi on Their Greatest Hits

The Stalk Market
New York paparazzi on their greatest hits.
By Emma Rosenblum

Photo: Clockwise from far left, courtesy of Leigh Green/INF; Courtesy of Frank Ross; Lawrence Schwartzwald/Splash News; Courtesy of Steve Sands/New York Newswire
Photo: Courtesy of Jay Thornton

1. Leigh Green
What was a recent score?
Pink’s wedding in Costa Rica. They had an Israeli security team and they were keeping an eye on us, so the other photographer and I pretended to be gay. We were rubbing suntan lotion on each other’s backs and having a cuddle and stuff, so the security team turned their eyes off us, and we got all the pictures we wanted. Mine made six-figure money. I also went to ­An­guilla to follow Celine Dion on holiday. One day, she went swimming with dolphins in a pool. I buried myself in this huge mound of rubble across the street. It was really hot in there. I just poked my head over the top every so often and snapped a few shots and then went back down. Every magazine ran those shots, and for that I probably made about $20,000 after the agency took its cut.
Who’s your favorite celebrity?
Britney Spears. Everybody’s made money off her.
The worst?
Jennifer Aniston. She’s bad. It’s personal, and I really don’t want to say … I just think she’s an asshole.

Photo: Courtesy of Frank Ross

2. Frank Ross
How long have you been in the business?
I’ve been a paparazzi—I mean celebrity photographer—for over twenty years. I was born and raised in New York, and I’m very street-smart and I know how to get a picture. I go to the supermarkets, restaurants, theaters, and parks frequented by celebrities.
Recent score?
Last year, when Julia Roberts gave her baby pictures to People, she told them, “Nobody will ever get pictures of my children.” But I did! I caught them on the city street, and it took a lot of detective work. I made some nice money off that, but I won’t say how much. I make hundreds and thousands, not hundreds of thousands.
Which celebs don’t sell?
They don’t buy Jude Law much in the States, unless he’s fooling around with the nanny. Sean Penn, you can give him away. John Travolta, Robert Downey Jr., you can give them away, too. Tobey Maguire doesn’t sell. The only time Leo DiCaprio sells is if he’s with Gisele or another girl. He always seems to have the same outfit on anyway.

Photo: Courtesy of Steve Sands

3. Steve Sands
Biggest score?
Gwyneth Paltrow’s baby photo of Apple. That made a lot of money—$500,000 to $750,000. Maybe even a million. She asked me to do it. I e-mailed her, and she said, “I’m going to have my baby. Why don’t you come shoot it?”
Did you pay her for the photo?
Sandra Bullock asked a friend of mine on a movie set, “What did Steve pay Gwyneth for that picture?” and he said, “He didn’t pay her anything.” Sandra said, “Bullshit. No way a celebrity’s going to do something like that without taking any money.” Well, guess what? She was right. But that’s all I’m going to say.
Where do you draw the line?
I don’t break the law, but I’m starting to change my ethics about this: I’m really tired of celebrities saying, “Oh, no, no pictures of the baby!” And you listen, and then two weeks later, WireImage [a photo agency] gets the exclusive. I’m not going to listen anymore.
Any rivalries?
Larry Schwartzwald loves to talk like he’s making millions, but it’s always inflated. He’s still the most aggressive son of a bitch out there.

Photo: Courtesy of Santiago Baez

4. Lawrence Schwartzwald
Any injuries on the job?
I had to have wrist surgery after I was hit by bodyguards for Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee. A car door slammed into my face and split my lip when I was chasing Madonna.
How did you get into this?
July 1993 was my first published photo—a weather picture in the Times. A few weeks later, I had a picture of Marisa Tomei in the Post.
Biggest score?
The day after Lindsay Lohan’s father was arrested for drunk driving, she was shopping on Madison Avenue. There were other photographers, and they were trying to block me from getting a shot. She walked out and stopped to wink and smile. I asked her to do it again, and I shot with a long lens off the shoulders of the other guys. I knew I had it and she was going to do it one more time, so I said, “No, don’t!” She didn’t. It ran in People and Us, and Fox bought it for the movie poster for Just My Luck. I made mid–five figures on that deal.
Where’s Tom Cruise’s baby?
Some lucky fool’s going to bump into them and make $4 million. Next: The Ultimate NYC Celebrity Homes Map

Star Map
Where to find the city’s famous people. Not that you’d ever look.

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The city’s celebrity influx cries out for its own census—hence our exhaustively researched, methodically compiled, first-ever Star Map. The addresses were culled from publicly available real-estate records, selected published reports, and widely used Internet directories as well as the occasional in-the-know friend or well-placed source. The names you see here aren’t more important than those you don’t see. But they are all certifiably boldfacey and they live, at least part of the time, in a location we were able to confirm, more or less. Out of consideration for our stalker-fearing fellow citizens, we opted not to print specific addresses. But you can still see, generally to within a block, where Drew Barrymore and Fabrizio Moretti live, that Uma Thurman and Julia Roberts could easily buy their lottery tickets at the same corner deli, where Kim Cattrall shares an elevator with Neil Sedaka, and that Herman Melville and Joey Ramone were practically neighbors (albeit in different centuries). And yes, you can also see which celebrities live on your own block—as if you care.

Notes on New York’s Celebrity Infestation