When the rumor hit about Britney Spears performing a surprise concert at the House of Blues in San Diego, tickets sold out quickly. Face-value tickets were $35 each, and there was no guarantee that it was Spears performing. The band was listed as the M&Ms. Former Poway punkers blink-182 had a song called "M&Ms" and that got some of their fans wondering if this could be a blink reunion show. After their much-publicized breakup, however, that seemed far-fetched.
E! Online posted a statement that Spears was launching a small tour starting at the House of Blues, and DJs on every local radio station (whether they played Spears's music or not) were talking about it. All anyone knew for sure was that the popular singer was out of rehab.
Confirmation came on the afternoon of Tuesday's show, when Britney Spears's tour bus was spotted heading down I-5, just south of Oceanside. Star 94.1 announced that so many paparazzi were following the bus from Los Angeles that the police had to pull over everyone because it was unsafe.
I headed down to the House of Blues that night to crash the chaos and ran into a guy I'd met at a few parties. He was in line when he told me, "We didn't have tickets and were seeing if we could sneak in. That didn't work. When we got to the door, we found somebody selling tickets. He was secretive and told us to meet him around the corner. We got them for $125 each."
When I saw him after the show, he sarcastically said, "That was the best 11 minutes of my life. I can't believe it. She only did four songs, and she lipsynched 'em all."
I listened as news stations interviewed a few happy fans, while most of the other fans were angry and screaming into the cameras as they walked by about how mad they were that the concert was less than a half-hour long. I asked one fan, Yvette Ramirez, about her experience at the show. "I wasn't mad. But I only paid $35 for the ticket. She did the songs 'Hit me Baby,' 'Toxic,' 'I'm a Slave,' and I can't remember the other." I asked her if there was a band onstage. "No. It was just her with all the music being played in the back."
"Did she say why it was billed as a band?"
"No. But I heard from someone that it stood for her being both a 'mom' and a 'miss.'"
Ramirez was later interviewed by MTV news and had to sign and fill out what appeared to be two lengthy waivers.
One lady had two kids who looked to be around ten years old. There were a lot of teenaged girls, several with shirts that were personalized with messages to Spears.
I saw an older couple dressed nice and said, "Surely you two didn't go to the show." The guy responded, "Yeah, well, we wanted to see the train wreck. We wondered if her wig would fall off or if she'd wig-out and get mad at the crowd. She had a headband keeping that wig on. It was very strange."
Stranger still was watching the paparazzi waiting for Spears to come out after the concert. Every time the side door would open, 15 of them would get ready with their cameras. One time it was a House of Blues employee. She lifted her arms and said, "I'm not her! But you can take my picture anyway." Several blonde Spears look-alikes roamed the street asking the paparazzi to take pictures of them. The photographers shot their pictures and then showed the giggling young girls what they looked like.
Security came out and told the guys they couldn't block the sidewalk because wheelchairs needed to be able to get by, and a few wheelchairs did go by.
I figured, since I wouldn't be getting an interview with Britney Spears, I'd talk to one of the paparazzi who was outside stalking her. I approached one who looked like he knew what he was doing. He was calm, had the biggest camera there, and was wearing shorts and running shoes; he looked prepared for anything. He appeared to be Middle Eastern but had an Australian accent.
I asked him how much he'd make if he got a good shot of Spears walking out of the club tonight. "Not even a thousand bucks. Well, maybe a thousand from People, but not the other magazines. Things have gotten really bad for us."
"The market is just oversaturated. In the U.S., there are so many tabloid magazines. More than anywhere else. Well, except for Germany. But they pay us well in the German magazines. In other countries, like Australia, we get three times the amount of money for the photos than we do here. The magazines here try to lowball us. They say 'You guys just have digital cameras. Your jobs are easy.' They don't realize that we might go three days without getting a paycheck. We have to pay people to give us information about where these stars are. We pay waiters, people at airports, sometimes limo drivers. It may even take three months just to gather information for finding out about one appearance...where a celebrity is going to be. It doesn't just happen that we are in the right place at the right time."
I asked him what other celebrities he's been going after these days.
"Oh, none. I'm going for Spears all the time now. We have 15 guys staffed on her. Me and that guy over there are here in San Diego now working her."
I said, "I bet you wish you would've gotten that shot of her with no panties a few months ago."
"I did. That was me."
"What? That was you. How can you prove that? Any photographer can say that!"
"Go ask any of those photographers. I found out what lodge she'd be at. She was in a bad mood and went to the gas station. When she came back, I walked over and opened the door for her. I opened the door with one hand. With the other hand... [he held his arm down low with his camera, showing how he snapped the photo]."
"How much did you get for that photo?"
"Only $15,000. I would've gotten more five years ago. Probably between 30 and 50 grand. In America, they blacked out that area when they printed that photo. In other countries, though, they showed everything."
I asked him if I could use his name for the story. He went silent, shook his head no, and walked away.
I went inside for dinner, and when I finished and got back outside, Spears had gone. So had most of the paparazzi. I asked one guy if he got any photos. He showed me a few shots of her walking by; she was flanked by security guards.
I left amazed that there are 15 grown adults who make a living following Britney Spears around taking pictures of her every movement.
And we wonder why the former Mouseketeer has already been through two marriages and rehab.
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