A president that honed his celebrity status through hosting fourteen seasons of The Apprentice, is up for reelection. In two months, voters have the opportunity to cancel or renew, so to speak, another term of Donald Trump’s reality television horror show of an administration. This is the bizarre, urgent moment that Vanessa Diaz’s revelatory Manufacturing Celebrity: Latino Paparazzi and Women Reporters in Hollywood arrives in. Although mentioning Trump, through his assault of former People magazine reporter Natasha Stoynoff in 2005, it’s, thankfully, not another book about the president.
But in laying bare the pecking order of what Diaz calls the “Hollywood-industrial complex,” it’s hard to ignore that the people with the least agency and representation in celebrity news production—Latinos, immigrants, Blacks and women—are also favored prey in Trump’s electoral season of scapegoating. It would seem that a reality show president isn’t the only blurring of celebrity and politics.
With a title that’s a hat tip to Noam Chomsky and the late Edward S. Herman’s seminal Manufacturing Consent, Diaz fixes her critical gaze on celebrity journalism, mass media’s other genre. The journey takes Diaz, a professor at Loyola Marymount University, out on the field with paparazzi seeking the next exclusive photo, inside celebrity magazine “body teams” and on the red carpet.
It’s a realm she’s been intimately familiar with, having interned with People as a college student at New York University. Even with a keen interest in journalism, the opportunity seemed an odd choice for a spoken word poet and activist at the time. Diaz owed the internship to a Unity: Journalists of Color conference where she struck up a conversation with an editor who tabled for People there. Within months she became a 21-year-old paid intern at the magazine tasked with following the Olsen twins of Full House fame around NYU, where they also attended classes.
“I knew it wasn’t a seamless fit,” says Diaz. “But anywhere where there’s cultural production happening, there are various hierarchies that are shaping it.”
Diaz sharpened her awareness of how race and gender played out in celebrity news from the onset. Her first dispatch away from the Olsen twins came at the VH1 Hip Hop Honors special. As she recalls in the book, that’s where a Black celebrity on the red carpet quipped that she reported for “white” People magazine! Flipping through the pages and the stars who populated them, it was easy to see why.
And even before learning of her colleague’s assault by Trump during an interview at his Mar-a-Largo Club in Palm Beach, Florida, Diaz noticed how women reporters were mistreated. “You are expected to look, act, and present yourself in a certain way,” she says. “It was not a secret. These systems of gender exploitation are really out on display.”
Staying on as a People freelancer through her postgraduate studies, Diaz melded her first-hand experiences with an adept academic lens, offering more illuminating insights into the world of celebrity media through the book. She begins with the most scorned and, perhaps, least understood workers at the bottom of the Hollywood-industrial complex: paparazzi.
The death of Chris Guerra, a young paparazzo looking to score a shot of Justin Bieber’s Ferrari in 2013, illustrates the precariousness of life itself on the job. On New Year’s Day, an officer pulled over Bieber’s car for speeding when the occupants successfully redirected his attention towards Guerra instead of the stench of marijuana emanating from inside. Guerra complied with the officer’s demand that he return to his car, but when the 29-year-old trekked across the street two vehicles struck and killed him.
Celebrities like Miley Cyrus expressed sympathy for Bieber and contempt for Guerra on Twitter; fans piled on the hate in tweet replies on her massive platform. By comparison, the tragic death of Sarah Jones, a white camera assistant struck by a train while on a movie set, was greeted with industry-wide sympathy a year later.
“People generally don’t know who paparazzi are beyond being demonized,” says Diaz, who met Guerra before his untimely death. “They’re not thinking about who they are or the struggles they’ve had. There’s not a lot of critical thought put into the hierarchies of labor within this field—and that’s a problem.”
Latino “paps” are self-aware that they’re the day laborers of the Hollywood-industrial complex. One group of photographers refers to themselves as “the Home Depots” with that in mind.
In Manufacturing Celebrity, Diaz brings attention to the often overlooked fact that the paparazzi hustle has become mostly populated by Latino men, many of whom are immigrants. She shadows Galo Ramirez, a Salvadoran photographer who works long hours chasing exclusive photographs to sell to agencies with the hopes of getting a decent cut in return. Latino “paps” are self-aware that they’re the day laborers of the Hollywood-industrial complex. One group of photographers refers to themselves as “the Home Depots” with that in mind.
The upper echelons of celebrity culture are also aware in their own racist, dismissive way, casting off the new crop of paparazzi as lacking professional training and looking like “gang members.” Politicians pass legislation policing their work. Despite all of that, paparazzi remain a vital part of the celebrity media ecosystem, providing the images that keep the pages of celebrity magazines turning. Knowing this, celebrities even coordinate with paparazzi at times when they want to be photographed in public, maintaining precious control of and equity in their image.
Like Guerra, Manufacturing Celebrity is also dedicated to Stoynoff. Diaz interviewed the former People correspondent in 2011 when she recounted the traumatic experience of Trump having forcibly tongue-kissed her. “Stoynoff was covering Trump all the time,” says Diaz. “People magazine played a huge role in Trump’s climb in the celebrity world. Coverage of The Apprentice consumed the office.”
Beyond the confiding interview, Stoynoff took her story public in 2016 as Trump ran for president. People backed her up with column space. But when Trump won the election, the magazine reverted to puff pieces, including a celebratory headline that read “He’s Hired!” without the faintest whiff of irony.
The hazards reporters face with male celebrities who believe that “when you’re a star…you can do anything” to women’s bodies is one focal point in the gender politics of celebrity news. Another comes when the bodies of celebrity women are hyper-scrutinized on cover stories about weight gain and loss.
Magazines typically fly off the rack with such covers but there’s a price to be paid.
Diaz forges a new path by focusing on “body teams” and how women reporters themselves suffer the ill effects of producing celebrity stories that crudely patrol the appearance of “cottage cheese” thighs or any other perceived blemishes.
“The process of working on the ‘body team’ in its various forms across publications has really broken a lot of reporters,” says Diaz. “The job is to tear down and critique. It’s also to celebrate, but only the weight loss that comes after a critique of fatness.” Jackie, a former member of People’s body team, resorted to taking diet pills to keep her own body up to the impossible beauty standards promoted by her work; she ultimately left celebrity news for good, scarred by its impacts.
“The job is to tear down and critique. It’s also to celebrate, but only the weight loss that comes after a critique of fatness.”
By the end of Manufacturing Celebrity, the reader has a similar reckoning. If celebrity news is an all-around pyramid of inequities, what does its mass consumption do to society at-large? The current political moment offers an indictment, especially when recalling Trump’s pre-Apprentice third-party presidential bid in 2000 landing with a resounding thud. And what, if anything, can be done to reshape celebrity media to be more socially responsible for its workers and consumers?
In the past, paparazzi have attempted to unionize to no avail. They aren’t employees on the payroll and celebrity magazines won’t likely ever hire them on as staff photographers with name credits finally appearing on the images they capture.
Diaz doesn’t believe that celebrity news magazines can ultimately be revolutionized in content, either, even as police brutality protests, the #MeToo movement and other social causes have some stars using their influential platforms to weigh in.
But celebrity culture isn’t going away anytime soon.
“If you look at the interest in what these magazines were in the beginning, the intent was to be a distraction, to be seemingly superfluous but really engaging,” she says. “There wasn’t a deeper goal than that. There would have to be a complete rebuilding, but that’s not just celebrity media, that’s the entire conglomerate media structure.”
Manufacturing Celebrity: Latino Paparazzi and Women Reporters in Hollywood by Vanessa Diaz, published August 28, 2020, Duke University Press Books, 328 pages. $27.95 (paperback)
Gabriel San Román is a contributor to Times OC and a former OC Weekly staff writer. Subscribe to his weekly Slingshot! Newsletter. And in case anyone is wondering, he's still the tallest Mexican in OC.