A book review of Vanessa Díaz's Manufacturing Celebrity: Latino Paparazzi and Women Reporters in Hollywood
by Gehad Abaza
Published onApr 12, 2022
Book Review: Manufacturing Celebrity
Manufacturing Celebrity: Latino Paparazzi and Women Reporters in Hollywood by Vanessa Díaz (Duke University Press, 2020)
Vanessa Díaz’s ethnography, Manufacturing Celebrity: Latino Paparazzi and Women Reporters in Hollywood, offers a compelling analysis of the gendered and racialized labor hierarchies in celebrity media production. Díaz places the Hollywood Industrial Complex – a term she uses to refer to the political economy of Hollywood, spanning all of its subindustries and their laborers – within a global political economy that leaves many, if not most, workers in positions of precarity (p. 15). Such was the case for Chris Guerra, a half Black, half Mexican paparazzo who was killed on the job when a Los Angeles police officer demanded he cross the highway to prevent him from photographing Justin Bieber. This was also the case for Natasha Stoynoff, a young woman whom Donald Trump sexually assaulted when she interviewed him for a People magazine feature. Díaz’s ethnographic account of the mostly Latino paparazzi and white women reporters of celebrity magazines demonstrates the conditions that perpetuate this racialized and gendered violence.
As a former reporter and the only Latina journalist for People, Díaz relies heavily on her own experience to supplement her ethnographic accounts and interviews with paparazzi and reporters. She splits her book into three parts, beginning with an explanation of paparazzi workers’ daily lives on the job in addition to how they conceptualize their work and its ethical and economic contours (p. 29). Second, Díaz turns to the mostly women reporters working for weekly celebrity magazines, analyzing how they navigate the spaces where they report celebrity news. Finally, Díaz investigates the relationship between celebrity reporters and their workplaces. She recounts the tactics that celebrity journalists deploy to “manufacture” a sense of intimacy between readers and celebrities. The ethnography analyzes this blurred dichotomy between “hard news” and “entertainment” to interrogate celebrity media as a form of political escapism and to place the manufacturing of celebrity status within a neoliberal global economy.
Díaz introduces us to Galo Ramirez, Ulises Rios, and other paparazzi of Los Angeles, as they go about their day celebrity-sighting, photographing, and contacting agencies and editors. “Shooteando … That is what we do. Exciting, huh?” José, a paparazzo, asked Díaz as they waited in downtown Los Angeles for Jennifer Lopez to appear near the set of the music video of her song “Papi” (p. 71). Despite José’s comment, Chapter One details the paparazzi’s tough working conditions, as they spend long hours in their cars, skip bathroom breaks, get harassed by security guards, and are constantly scapegoated and sometimes attacked by celebrities and their fans. While celebrity magazines demand paparazzi photographs, and their readers inexhaustibly consume these images, the mostly Latino paparazzi are excluded from the formal spaces of celebrity media production. The animosity they endure from the very same magazines, celebrities, and audiences that benefit from their labor paves the way for their public assault by celebrities and security guards. As Díaz writes, most of the assault videos she has seen “involve white men attacking men of color in public space” (p. 67).
In Chapter Two, Díaz explains the economic hierarchies of paparazzi work. She also runs her readers through some of the debates and discussions that paparazzi have amongst themselves regarding the self-imposed ethical regulations of their work. Within this informal economy of commodified images, paparazzi can freelance, work for an agency, or if they are undocumented, opt to sell their photographs to another paparazzo (p. 86). This system reinforces hierarchies and highlights the precarity of undocumented paparazzi. As these workers operate through informal channels to serve “a highly formal” corporate-media production process, they do the “dirty work” for this industry (p. 94). In that sense, Díaz argues, paparazzi work is similar to other low-end service jobs allocated to immigrants. The paparazzi men jokingly call each other the “Home Depot,” which “again reinforces the notion of the invisible (Latino) immigrant workers with their professional legal and (presumed) immigrant status” (p. 87).
In Chapter Three, Díaz questions why the death of Chris Guerra did not prompt an empathetic reaction in the same way that similar tragedies have for other Hollywood workers killed on set. She grounds her analysis of these economies of violence via the notion of “raciontologies” (Rosa and Díaz 2020), or “the fundamentally racialized grounding of various states of being” (p. 98). In other words, there are institutional contexts, such as those of police forces or the celebrity media industry, where racialized labor formations serve as sites and vehicles of white supremacy (p. 103). When celebrities perform annoyance and animosity towards the paparazzi, the magazines mediate empathy for the celebrities from their readership. Despite this “ritual of hating paparazzi” (p. 120), all parties benefit from the labor of the paparazzi, including the celebrities who need and often solicit paparazzi attention.
In Chapter Four, Díaz turns to celebrity journalists, detailing how they navigate access to the red carpet, which she describes as a “collective performative ritual” (p. 128). On the red carpet, reporters negotiate and position themselves according to gendered body images, racial politics, and class inequalities. For example, the author recounts a moment when she was on the red carpet as a reporter for People and she noticed Regina King, a Black actress, receiving less attention than her white peers. When Díaz stopped King to ask some questions, King sarcastically but seriously remarked, “do you want to talk to brown people too?” (p. 135).
The demands of reporting also extend beyond the pressures that editors place on their reporters to perform, both in terms of appearance and labor on the red carpet. In Chapter Five, we learn that reporters have worked from nightclubs, restaurants, hospitals, and outside houses. Pressure from magazine editors includes asking women to utilize their femininity and flirt for information, which leaves them vulnerable to sexual exploitation by male celebrities. For the few Black women reporters at these magazines, racism is present inside and beyond the newsroom. For example, one Black woman reporter, Jasmine, recounted that some nightclubs have quotas on the number of Black people they allow inside, which meant she sometimes had to wait to enter (p. 167). As the lone Black reporter in her newsroom, Joy, another woman, was pushed to cover “Black entertainment” to the point where that was the only type of reporting that she did (p. 173).
The tactics that reporters use to cover celebrity news have an impact on their readers, and themselves. In the People newsroom, as Díaz details in Chapter Six, there was a specific “body team” that consisted of journalists tracking and reporting on celebrities’ (usually women’s) weight gains and losses. The coverage is usually marked by scrutiny, critique, and unrealistic expectations, which harms both the readers and the reporters covering “bikini bodies” and “baby bumps.” Journalists and celebrities rarely acknowledge that these celebrities can afford to hire trainers and profit from the endorsements of weight-watching programs.
In Chapter Seven, Díaz explores celebrity couple name combining, (e.g., Brangelina for Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie) as another tactic celebrity journalists deploy to foster a sense of intimacy between their readers and celebrities. Díaz refers to this false intimacy as an “imaginary social relationship” (p. 8, 194). Celebrity couple naming, she argues, is a marketing strategy that accrues financial value. However, the practice is exclusionary as it recognizes and validates a specifically white heteronormative love. Díaz asks why Black and Brown celebrity couples are left out of the name-combining practices (e.g., Beyoncé and Jay-Z have never become Jayoncé) despite their fame (p. 239). These discrepancies reflect structural prejudice within celebrity media, which “manufactures” predominantly white and heterosexual celebrity personalities.
Díaz’s book provides rich ethnographic details into the working lives and conditions of those who manufacture celebrity status through their labor. This analysis is especially relevant at a time when people are still reflecting on the Trump presidency and the generalized intersection of “entertainment” and “politics.” To this end, this text powerfully centers the stories of paparazzi and celebrity journalists, two of the mass media’s most marginalized groups – who ironically carry an entire industry on their backs, even when it attacks them. This book will be of significant interest to scholars of race, gender, and labor, as Díaz demonstrates that celebrity media can teach us how hierarchies of labor are reproduced in a neoliberal economy.
Gehad Abaza is a doctoral candidate in the Anthropology department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Abaza’s research interests include forced migration and refugee studies, the anthropology of the state, processes of racialization, the anthropology of war, and memory.
Rosa, Jonathan, and Díaz, Vanessa. 2020. “Raciontologies: Rethinking Anthropological Accounts of Institutional Racism and Enactments of White Supremacy in the United States.” American Anthropologist 122: 120-132. https://doi.org/10.1111/aman.13353.