Britney Spears' Troubling History With The Paparazzi

In a 2008 NPR interview headlined "The Economics of Britney Spears," Portfolio magazine editor Duff McDonald discussed one of the biggest money-making opportunities in America at that time: taking photos of Britney Spears. Throwing around terms like "train wreck," McDonald estimated that an entire industry was raging around the pop star, documenting her every move to the tune of "110 to 120 million a year." He added, "The Britney economy is — it'll be equivalent of, you know, [a] 50- to 75,000-people strong company."

The woman at the center of the media firestorm tried, for a time, to channel her anger into her art. "Piece of Me," a single from her 2007 album "Blackout," attempted to reckon with growing up in the public eye. "I'm Miss American Dream since I was seventeen / Don't matter if I step on the scene / Or sneak away to the Philippines / They still gon' put pictures of my derriere in the magazine," Spears sang, asking defiantly, "You want a piece of me?"

People did want a piece of Britney Spears, and the much-publicized fallout would come to define the next decade and change of her life. Read on to examine Britney Spears' troubling history with the paparazzi.

Britney's Do's and Don'ts

In 2021, as public attention heated up around Britney Spears' court battle to end her conservatorship, the singer jetted off to Hawaii for a well-deserved vacation with Sam Asghari. Photos of the pop star were posted by TMZ, depicting her reclining in a lounge chair in a bikini and walking around resort grounds in a t-shirt and denim short-shorts. The pics seem to show a nice, relaxing getaway.

However, Spears was unhappy with the way she looked in the photos. After a decades-long battle with paparazzi, she evidently decided she'd had enough, and she posted a video of "Do's and Don'ts" on her Instagram. "So being here in Maui is pretty crazy now ... the paps know where I am and it's really not fun !!!!" she wrote. "It's pretty hard going anywhere cause these silly faces keep popping up to take my picture." Furthermore, Spears felt that she wasn't being shown fairly, accusing the paps of editing her unrealistically. "It's rude and it's mean so paps kindly F*** YOU AND F*** OFF," she concluded, adding three lipstick-print emojis to the end of the caption.

It remains unclear if the pictures had indeed been edited, but what is certain is that Spears is entitled to her anger. Especially after all she's been through, it seems to be a long time coming.

She's tried to work with them

So, where did it all go wrong? By the end of the 2000s, it was clear that Britney Spears wasn't a fan of the photographers who followed her every move, trying to make a living by catching unflattering snaps of the superstar in all manner of embarrassing situations. "All the flashin', tryin' to cash-in / Hurts my eyes," she sang on her 2008 song "Kill the Lights."

Earlier in the decade, however, before the frenzy around her fame led to such trouble, Spears was still trying to work with the pesky men and their cameras. While out to lunch with then-future hubby Kevin Federline in 2003, Spears can be seen trying to ignore the photographers who follow the two to their outdoor table. Then, foreshadowing years of paparazzi interest in the couple to come, one asks her, "Who's your buddy?" At that point, she realizes ignoring them isn't going to work. "Can y'all leave after y'all are done, or are y'all just gonna stand here this whole time?" she asks, and then makes an offer. "We give you the good smiles," she says, grinning politely. "Look, y'all, okay? Okay now can y'all say 'bye?'"

It may have worked in the moment, but soon Spears would find herself unable to shake the paps. K-Fed told Interview magazine (via Extra) that he didn't mind. "I don't think it hurt the relationship, and I don't regret letting people in," he insisted, noting that fans must have felt a sense of normalcy watching the two of them.

They got between Britney and her McDonald's

In 2000, then-new pop star Britney Spears starred alongside *NSYNC in a series of television commercials promoting McDonald's. MTV reported on the commercial shoot at the time, revealing that the extras on set were kept in the dark about who, exactly, was there to film an ad. When it turned out to be Spears, the background actors — mostly school children — were obviously excited. The music channel also reported that production had to be briefly shut down because a photographer was discovered on the balcony of a house next door, trying to take photos of Spears over the fence. In 2000, that was somewhat of an oddity still.

A few years later, the odd thing would have been that there was only one photographer tracking Spears' every move. During an incident in 2007, a horde of paparazzi blocked Spears' way into a McDonald's drive-thru. Video posted by X17 shows Spears unable to see the menu because of the throng of men with cameras in her way. The paps relay the singer's order to the intercom, and when she pulls forward to pay, one of the photogs picks up the tab. As the paps hand Spears her food, the camera flashes go wild. "Back up!" one of the photographers directs the crowd. "That's it... let her go!" 

She tried to prove a point

Pop culture is littered with examples of celebs trying to turn the tables on all of the media attention they receive. From Bruce Willis bringing a home video camera to "The Oprah Winfrey Show" to Frank Ocean whipping out a camera on the Met Gala red carpet, fame-weary celebs like to turn the lens around on the audience. In 2007, as all eyes turned to Britney Spears in the center of the ring (just like a circus), she tried the same.

People article about that time in Spears' life called this particular night part of a "wild weekend." What was notable about the weekend, primarily, was just how thoroughly-documented every move she made was, from her late-night trips to Rite Aid (detailed receipt included) to specific timestamps of the comings and goings from her house. Late at night in Malibu, Spears stopped her car and stepped out into the middle of the street, wielding a digital point-and-shoot camera. She said she was trying to take a photo of a mural, but the paparazzi blocked her way, taking photos of her in return. "I'm just like you," Spears insisted, begging them to step aside. "I'm just like you."

When one pap points out, "We're standing in front of the street, dog!," Spears "loses her cool," as TheHollywoodFix put it. "You f***in' are outside my godd**** home, you stupid f***," she snapped. "Move!" Spears' patience, understandably, had run out.

She tried dating a paparazzo

"She's got classic Stockholm Syndrome," Gwyneth Paltrow said, via Digital Spy, in 2008. "She fell in love with a paparazzo and went insane." She was talking about Britney Spears, who did indeed strike up a relationship with a photographer assigned to her beat. His name was Adnan Ghalib, and they began seeing one another in early 2008. In what might have been a bad sign about the photog's intentions, his photo agency was the one to confirm the news of the relationship, somewhat-confusingly denying that he sold information about Spears. "Should he choose to speak about Britney, he only has positive things to say about her and the time they have spent together," FinalPixx wrote (via MTV).

Spears' cousin Alli Sims — by then a tabloid fixture herself thanks to her proximity to the "Hold It Against Me" singer — wasn't a fan of her beau. "I don't personally know him," she told People. "But I don't like that vibe." Ghalib's "vibe" included making headlines for throwing chairs at other photographers at a restaurant, according to the Mirror.

The dissolution of the relationship came on as quickly as the courtship began. There were rumors that Britney had served him with a restraining order (per People), and reported that she ditched him after he intentionally sold rumors that she was pregnant with his baby. Surrounded by paps as relationship rumors swirled, Spears told one photographer, "You're better off being homeless than being me, sir," and denied knowing Ghalib.

Britney Spears was sued by a pap

It's no secret that Britney Spears isn't a fan of the paparazzi. It turns out, the animosity went the other direction, too. Spears was taken to court by a photog who claimed that while he crowded around Spears' car, trying to get a valuable pic of the besieged singer behind the wheel, she had run over his foot.

In November 2007, TMZ photographer Richard Mendoza stepped off the sidewalk into the path of Spears' car, and her tire rolled over his foot. "Back up!" he can be heard shouting in video of the incident. Cops initially cleared the "Oops! I Did It Again" singer, concluding (via People), "We have no evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the suspect was aware that the victim's foot had been struck by the car."

Instead, Mendoza sued Spears over the situation. According to People, he stated to TMZ that her management should have known Spears "was not in the mental, emotional and/or physical condition to operate the subject motor vehicle in a safe and reasonable manner." The lawsuit was ultimately settled in 2009. TMZ, for its part, auctioned off the sock Mendoza had been wearing. Bearing what the site claimed was a tire mark, the sock sold online for $585. They donated the proceeds to charity.

They helped her... once

For the most part, Britney Spears likely would have preferred to live her life completely free of paparazzi. In one incident in January 2006, however, the paparazzi trailing the superstar came to her aid when the car she was in stalled on the Pacific Coast Highway. According to the New York Post, Spears' brother Bryan was driving Kevin Federline's Ferrari, which cut out on the picturesque ocean-view road while a group of photographers were in tow. Realizing what was going on — and probably spotting the chance for some unusual photos — a group of paps hopped out of their cars and helped push Britney and her brother to the side of the street. The Post reported that the Spears siblings caught a ride back to Federline's place in the back of a cop car — just offering a ride, not because they'd done something wrong.

Photos of the incident show four men with cameras pushing the car, passengers still inside, while Spears speaks on a cell phone. In another shot, her expression looks pained. In a poignant example of why a potentially-nice story couldn't have been allowed to be just that, one gossip blog who covered the surprising turn of events headlined their post "Britney's Car (And Career?) Stall!" Spears, it seemed, could not catch a break.

Multiple paps wound up in jail

The Britney Spears Photo Industrial Complex wasn't just profitable for the photogs engaged in the seedy business; it was also dangerous. Reuters reported on one especially frightening incident in early 2008, which saw cops arrest four paps for chasing Spears through Mission Hills. "Britney Spears was part of the group, but was not driving recklessly," LAPD spokeswoman Sara Faden told the outlet. TMZ, of course, had video of the aftermath, including catching the "Lucky" singer talking to the cops... and then driving off without her headlights on. Spears reportedly told police that she was nearly run off the road by the speeding paps, according to TMZ (via Reuters).

The Los Angeles Times reported that two members of the paparazzi were arrested later that year and charged with loitering outside Spears' home. This was a daily practice at that point, but these two particular photographers made one crucial mistake: they were parked on a fire-access road. The following year, two more photographers were arrested outside a salon where the "Everytime" songstress had a hair appointment. TMZ reported that the photographers were arrested for disobeying sidewalk rules in West Hollywood. Significantly less dangerous than running someone off the road, of course, but consequences: we love to see it!

The lap-driving incident

In early 2006, the paparazzi obsession with Britney Spears reached new heights. According to BBC News, the "...Baby One More Time" singer was photographed driving with her infant son, Sean Preston, seated on her lap instead of in a car seat. The outlet noted that the existence of the images had caused a stir online even before they were published by X17, suggesting the theory that Spears would eventually mess up big-time if photographers just kept an eye on her had finally paid off. In fact, Spears released a statement before the photos even went public, evidently trying to head off the firestorm headed her way.

"I was terrified that this time the physically aggressive paparazzi would put both me and my baby in danger. I instinctively took measures to get my baby and me out of harm's way," she explained (via CBS News), "but the paparazzi continued to stalk us." A few days later, speaking with "Access Hollywood" (via Billboard) she agreed, "I made a mistake and so it is what it is."

Spears addressed the photos in an infamous interview with Matt Lauer on "Dateline." She tried to brush the situation off, explaining how frightened she was of the paparazzi, but Lauer continued to press her until she was in tears. "Is Britney a bad mom?" Lauer asked repeatedly, building up to, "What do you think it'll take to get the paparazzi to leave you alone?" As she began to cry, she repeated, "I don't know... I don't know."

The head-shaving incident

The date: February 17, 2007. The location: a hair salon called Esther's Haircutting Studio in Tarzana, California, followed by a tattoo parlor in Sherman Oaks. Quote of the night: a paparazzo, staring at Britney Spears through the window of the tattoo parlor, shouting, "She's bald!" And then a moment later: "Whoever gets the shot..."

That's right: she shaved her head. Esther Tognozzi, proprietor of the salon where Spears chose to ditch her iconic blonde locks, told the Los Angeles Times that she tried to talk the singer out of her plan. "You might regret it in the morning," she warned the singer. Instead, Spears did it herself, and the moment was captured by paparazzi cameras shooting through the window. The incident left TMZ speechless; their usually-breathless coverage of every time Spears left her home ended in this instance with a simple, "Words escape us."

The "Hold Me Closer" singer would go on to give several explanations for why she did it. According to Us Weekly, she told a tattoo shop employee, "I don't want anyone touching me. I'm tired of everybody touching me." According to New York magazine, she had a different answer when a paparazzo asked her. This time, she said, "Because of you."

The umbrella incident

A few days after the head-shaving incident, Britney Spears-watch was at an all-time high. Videographers captured Spears sitting in the car at a gas station while cousin Alli Sims filled up the car. The video is underexposed to the point where it's difficult to tell exactly what's happening, but at some point, Spears leaves the car and approaches the photographers. Sims can be heard begging "Please guys, don't do this" before there's a banging noise. "F*** you!" Spears shouts. "F*** yourself."

That banging noise? Spears attacking the paparazzo's vehicle with an umbrella. The photographer involved, Daniel Ramos, later narrated the incident for the "Framing Britney Spears" documentary, describing himself as feeling like Spears was going to attack him with the umbrella before she rounded on his truck. "It was a good night for us," he admitted, "'cause it was a money shot."

It took a few months, but Spears gave a defense of the incident on her website (via People). "I was preparing my character for a role in a movie where the husband never plays his part so they switch places accidentally," she wrote. "I take all my roles very seriously and got a little carried away. Unfortunately I didn't get the part." For his part, Ramos attempted to auction off the umbrella used in the incident. He told Vice, "It was a bad moment in her life. Unfortunately it was captured."

Britney Spears' situation inspired legislation

The aftermath of Britney Spears' troubled 2000s kept her under a restrictive conservatorship for more than a decade. Though it's unfortunate that Spears had to go through what she did in order for people to realize that something needed to change, thankfully, there was a bit of a reckoning around paparazzi culture. In 2008, after witnessing paparazzi trailing an ambulance carrying the "...Baby One More Time" singer, Los Angeles City Councilman Dennis Zine decided that he'd had enough. He proposed what NPR called the Britney Bill, an ordinance aimed at limiting the ability of photographers to stalk their subjects by forcing them to give celebs a "personal safety zone."

The Britney Bill ultimately wasn't passed, thanks in part to resistance from then-LAPD Police Chief William Bratton. L.A.'s top cop blamed Spears for what happened to her, joking (per CNN), "If celebrities behave themselves, that solves about 90 percent of the problem. Britney, the last couple of days, has started wearing clothes again. The paparazzi are leaving town because she's not as interesting when she's not running around without her underwear on."

The following year, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger successfully signed a new statewide law limiting paparazzi photo-taking abilities. According to CNN, the law prohibited invasive photographers from selling pics that showed a celebrity engaged in a "personal or familial activity." Waiting for anyone who disobeyed the law: a $50,000 fine.

The paps have no regrets

In the years since Britney Spears' terrible 2000s, there has been a public reconsideration of the way she was treated by the media. In 2021, The New York Times released a film called "Framing Britney Spears," which recontextualized the pop star's troubles as a product of media misogyny. Many fans took to social media to express their shock at just how bad things were, such as one who wrote, "Those paparazzi were UNHINGED when it came to Britney! There was no such thing as boundaries."

Lest you wonder if the paparazzi themselves felt any kind of regret over the situation, Insider has you covered: no, they did not. At least, not publicly. "I'm in it for the money and the history. You think I give a f*** about somebody getting up on the wrong side of the bed, and they don't want their photograph taken?" photographer Rick Mendoza told the outlet. Then, he answered his own hypothetical: "I don't give a s***." Mendoza added, "If someone's entertained, then the system is working."

Even Adnan Ghalib, the paparazzo who became Spears' boyfriend, feels today that he isn't to blame for what happened to her. At least, not more so than everyone else. Ghalib told The Daily Beast, "[It's a] pity it took a decade-plus before anyone really questioned it or spoke up. [It] kinda makes everyone complicit, including the media who are late to the race with their well-being stories and concerns over the real agenda while journalism took a back seat." 

Has much changed?

Britney Spears has been freed from her conservatorship, which means she has re-emerged into a celebrity marketplace that's drastically different from the last time she was on her own. Hordes of paparazzi no longer follow her every move, because the paparazzi economic system isn't what it used to be; after all, social media has given celebs more control of their image than ever. "Now they are the ones who are shooting the ring first and saying 'I'm engaged,' or showing off their baby bump, and breaking their own news before anyone else," one pap told BuzzFeed News in 2015.

However, celebrity image control isn't the only aspect of being famous that has been democratized. Paparazzi-ism is now the gig of any fan with a smartphone, as Spears discovered in 2023 when she went out to dinner with husband Sam Asghari. TMZ published a video showing the singer talking loudly and hiding her face behind a menu, evidently aware she was being photographed. The outlet called Spears "manic," claiming Asghari had "stormed out" on her. He denied the incident in an interview with TMZ days later, telling them he had merely gone out to get the car ready.

Spears herself had something to say about the incident. "I know the news is all hyped about me being a little drunk at a restaurant ... it's like they'll be WATCHING MY EVERY MOVE !!!" she wrote on Instagram. Another post potentially referencing the event showed Spears, smiling as she danced and twirled, flipping off the camera.