Interview with Ford Foundation Postdoc Fellow, Dr. Vanessa Díaz

The Bunche Center interviewed Dr. Vanessa Díaz, an interdisciplinary ethnographer, filmmaker, and journalist, to discuss her research on celebrity media and her dissertation-based book manuscript, Manufacturing Celebrity: How Women Reporters and Latino Paparazzi Build the Hollywood Industrial Complex.

What prompted you to get involved with your current research, and what led you to UCLA?

I am at UCLA because I applied for the Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship, which is a competitive national fellowship intended for underrepresented individuals in academia. Applicants must apply with a faculty mentor, and my faculty mentor was Darnell Hunt. So, this is why I am at UCLA and housed in the Bunche Center for African American Studies. I also received the UCLA Institute of American Cultures (IAC) Visiting Researcher Fellowship through the Chicano Studies Research Center, so I am also affiliated with the CSRC.

I have always been interested in media and popular culture. My earlier research looked at popular culture in Cuba, specifically looking at the development of the Cuban HipHop movement. But I was always interested in U.S. popular culture as well. I worked for major media outlets across various platforms starting in high school. So the interest in media and popular culture was always there. In 2004, I started working for People magazine as an intern in the New York Bureau and in 2005 began to work out of the Los Angeles office as and a stringer, mostly covering red carpet events. I continued this work when I started graduate school, but did not initially plan to study it—it was just my side job while I continued my research in Cuba. As I started to think more about the work I was doing, the way that reality stars were changing the landscape of celebrity culture, and the way that celebrity culture seemed to be increasingly central to our daily lives (through social media, etc.), I decided to shift my research focus to the very work I was already doing as a reporter. As a celebrity reporter, I always noticed that most of the reporters were women, but then I also noticed most photographers—both red carpet and paparazzi—were men. This dichotomy of demographics within the production of celebrity also sparked my interest. I also began wondering why the paparazzi were predominantly Latino, and how this demographic fact might affect the ways in which the profession is treated. How do we reconcile American culture’s simultaneous obsession with celebrity images and hatred of the paparazzi who bring us those images? These kinds of questions drove me to pursue my dissertation research on red carpet and paparazzi work in LA. As a Latina and as someone who has always been interested in researching Latin America, Caribbean, and Latinx issues, the demographic of the paparazzi naturally surfaced as one of my main points of focus.

Can you describe your most interesting research project(s) and current findings?

Right now, I am writing my dissertation-based book manuscript, Manufacturing Celebrity: How Women Reporters and Latino Paparazzi Build the Hollywood Industrial Complex, which is under contract with Duke University Press. The book analyzes the racial and gender politics of representation and division of labor involved in the production of celebrity-focused media in the U.S. It draws on my ethnographic and archival research in Los Angeles to explore the work and lives of the celebrity journalists, paparazzi, and red carpet photographers who create the content for celebrity weekly magazines such as People and Us Weekly. In the book, I examine the ethnoracial, gender, and class stratification involved in the work of the predominantly white, female celebrity reporters and the predominantly male, Latino (immigrant and U.S.-born) paparazzi of Los Angeles, advancing conversations about the power of cultural producers to shape national culture and discourse. I dissect the corporate media environment to shed light on the power dynamics involved in the work of these gendered and racialized media producers who help create corporate cultural products. This project is vital to contemporary understandings of how ethnoracial, gender, and class realities interact with shifts in the neoliberal global political economy, facilitating the creation of unlikely laborers such as the Latino paparazzi.

As an extension of this book, I’m also producing a feature-length documentary that focuses on understanding the paparazzi and the broader system of celebrity media production.

What do you hope to accomplish while at UCLA personally and or academically?

My time at UCLA is almost over, but I think I have accomplished a lot during my time here. I worked with Darnell Hunt on the annual Hollywood Diversity Report, which is a very important study that evaluates the state of diversity in entertainment media, so it is very much in line with my broader research agenda. I helped to organize a UCLA Library Artist in Residence Program for the Cuban rap artists Obsesion, who I have worked with on various research and artistic programs for the last 15 years. During their time here, we put on numerous events, including a screening of my 2006 documentary Cuban HipHop: Desde el Principio (From the Beginning) and held a Q&A with the artists afterward. I gave a lecture on paparazzi labor at CSRC’s research library and held a panel discussion afterward with two of the main paparazzi with whom I collaborate on my research. And, finally, a hate crime mapping project I helped create last fall is now going to be hosted at UCLA’s American Indian Studies Center (AISC). In my little time that remains, I will be finishing revisions on my book.

Through your study, what changes do you hope to see in the future?

My research on celebrity media is intended to help consumers become more critical of the media we consume, and also to shed light on the labor politics involved in the production celebrity culture. Celebrity and Hollywood are things that people love to admire and even obsess over, but the way the celebrity system works, which includes the work of celebrity reporters and photographers, is something that most people do not understand or even have access to the information to be able to understand it. My research will take readers (of the book) and viewers (of the film) behind the scenes of the celebrity industrial complex to help us understand the nature celebrity culture in the U.S., and why individuals like the Latino paparazzi become the scapegoats for our celebrity obsession.

To read more about Díaz’s work, click on the article, Our Obsession With Celebrity Is Being Fueled by Latinx Immigrants