A fictional interview with Taylor Swift published in Esquire one year after paparazzi were made illegal.

I recognized her the moment she walked in the room, everybody did. With her red lipstick and ash blonde hair there could be no more recognizable singer worldwide.

She had just finished her Eras World Tour, her boyfriend had just won the Super Bowl for the third time, and the couple gave quite a bump to the US economy between their sold-out concert arenas and football stadiums. 

This was the first time she had agreed to an Esquire feature, and she asked to meet me at The Waverly Inn, her favorite restaurant in New York City. She shook the occasional hand as she walked through the room, and even knelt down to hug a little girl who looked starstruck.

She sat down at my table. “I have a lot to thank you for,” she said with her signature conspiratorial grin. 

I’d been assigned this story for a reason. After Taylor Swift and her boyfriend Travis Kelce were accosted by paparazzi outside his Kansas City home, with drones monitoring the property for weeks and photographers recording from the bushes—even stalking his parents and family—I wrote an op-ed for the New York Times calling the media out for their flagrant abuse of public figures. As far as I was concerned they were behind the death of Diana, the harassment of Harry and Meghan, the breakdown of Britney, and I couldn’t understand why we were allowing it to continue. 

It wasn’t just the harassment of artists, but the incessant fame-mongering it created. I named names—People Magazine, Us Weekly, Page Six, TMZ. I held them responsible for every dollar they spent on paparazzi, every privacy wall erected to keep them out, every high-security school the children of celebrities attended, and every therapist hired for their abuse. Then I blamed them for the culture they created: For dramatizing the lives of the rich and the famous, for the Instagrammers and the TikTokers who recorded the lives of celebrities whenever they were seen in public, for the celebrity-obsessed society that scrolled mindlessly through every stolen photo and secret source of gossip. 

It was never the fans’ fault—I was always clear about that. The problem has always been the gross lack of privacy laws in the US—which already protected the children of celebrities as well as the publishing of nude photos without consent but did not yet protect individuals themselves. In my op-ed, I called for an emulation of EU privacy laws which forbid publishing photos of individuals without their consent. I was sure I’d be canceled for even suggesting it, and I was right, but then Taylor came to my defense, so did Harry and Meghan, then LeBron and Oprah. Pretty soon, a petition of power players was signed and published with hundreds of artists and their most fervent fans pressuring the US government to make it stop. 

“I might say the same,” I smiled back, remembering it all. 

I hadn’t seen her since she’d completed the tour. No one had. On Instagram, Taylor shared photos from every stop along the way and even a celebratory post congratulating her boyfriend on his Super Bowl win—complete with photos of her cheering him on from his box—but that was it. We didn’t see the couple coming and going from restaurants, we didn’t watch her house to see who came over or keep tabs on what time they left. 

We couldn’t. 

As a result of our efforts, paparazzi were outlawed last year—it is no longer legal to take pictures of people and publish them online without their consent. The statute even barred journalists from using anonymous sources to report on the private details of people’s personal lives. The glossy magazines could no longer use unsolicited photos on their covers without paying a potentially ruinous fee, and individuals who posted photos to their social media accounts could be subject to a fine of $1,000 and asked to remove the photo. 

Pretty soon, the only pictures or news we were able to get from our favorite artists was what they chose to publish themselves. 

Taylor had only posted a couple photos so I had to ask, “Where have you been??”

She immediately fell into best friend mode, as she does. “Having the absolute best time,” she gushed. She and Travis spent the last month sailing the Grecian Islands with friends. Both of their families had visited, they had stopped at every island and every beach, they took in the ruins like tourists. The subtle tan on her skin still lingered, her Reformation crop top baring her bronzed midriff, and on her finger, a ruby sparkled—Taylor was engaged. 

We didn’t see pictures from her vacation in People Magazine, nor did we see coverage on Instagram or TikTok. There’s no bikini photo of her in Mykonos, no blurry photo of her and Travis kissing on their balcony. No photo from the bushes claiming the first look of her engagement ring. On X, one fan wrote that she bumped into Taylor on the beach and said that she even hugged her, but if she took a photo with the singer she couldn’t post it. “She is just as kind as everyone says she is,” the fan shared with a heart emoji. 

“I don’t even know how to describe it, how things have changed,” Taylor said. “I think [when the law went into effect] my fans were worried we would be disconnected somehow, but it’s been just the opposite, people aren’t discreetly taking photos of me while I’m at dinner with my friends, they can’t. But that just means they come up to me instead, shake my hand, and tell me what they loved about my concert. It’s so much more meaningful now, our connection. There’s not a phone between us trying to get a social media post.”

This has been freeing, Taylor said. She finally has the ability to interact with the public on her terms, not theirs. It’s not that she doesn’t love her fans, she clarifies—after all, this is someone who once invited her biggest fans to her house, baked them all cookies, and performed her new album for them before 1989 was released. And her fans have been just as reciprocal, knitting her sweaters and giving them to her mom at concerts. “There’s a good kind of fandom,” she recalls, “but there’s a bad kind too.” 

She’s talking about the rise of the internet, of social media, of the kind of celebrity that rose from the Dot-Com era like the many heads of Hydra and was allowed to roam the world untamed. This was the beast that watched Britney shave her head, Amy Winehouse leave rehab, Johnny Depp get divorced, Gwyneth Paltrow be sued, and Zac Efron sleep on an airplane. And worst of all, that allowed the public to not feel bad about any of it because the people they were filming were rich and famous and deserved the lot they got. 

They didn’t. Or if they did that should have been their choice. “People acted like we should be ok with the abuse because we were rich and famous. Like we asked for this,” Taylor said. “I get it. I’m a singer, and being a singer means having an audience. And I have the absolute best audience—we’ve spent decades together at this point and they are why I am re-recording all of my albums. They even introduced me to the love of my life who showed up at one of my concerts with a friendship bracelet. But I asked to be a singer, not to be recorded leaving my house.”

Celebrity, the kind Taylor has come to be accustomed to, is an uneven thing. It lands on actors and singers more than writers or directors. It haunts Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie more than Julia Roberts—not because they wanted it more or were more famous, but because their personal lives were more dramatic and thus more readily consumed by a thirsting public. Ordinary people do not have their divorce trials broadcast to the world. Why do we force celebrities to? For our own entertainment? And what does that say about us for watching it? 

It is not a good thing to cater to our baser natures. Much of human nature is better left unsated.

Fame may seem an untouchable thing and thus hard to empathize with, but its effects on society cannot be understated. Before the internet, an artist might be known for their work—a singer for their albums or an actor for their films—but they weren’t harassed for their personal life. And that was much better for the artist who could still take out the garbage without worrying about the neighbors recording them, but also for the fan who couldn’t narrow in on a celebrity’s home on Google Maps or watch a play-by-play of their personal lives as recorded on TikTok. 

“The new law doesn’t take away fame,” Taylor said. “It just puts the artist in control of it.”

Before the law was enacted, people had the right to privacy in their private residences but not in public areas. But social media changed things, suddenly anything that was “public” could now also be “publicized.” It’s one thing to see a celebrity walking down the street, it’s another to broadcast it to millions on TikTok. And no one deserves to be publicized without their consent, even if they are a public figure.

That doesn’t mean artists can’t share the private details of their lives. Kim Kardashian still shares her personal life on her reality show. Jennifer Aniston shares some photos of her life on Instagram. Taylor is notorious for hinting at her famous exes in her music—among them Jake Gyllenhall, John Mayer, Harry Styles, and everyone’s favorite Taylor Lautner—but she stresses that she should be able to choose those moments. 

“People were saying that my relationship wasn’t real, or that it was a marketing ploy to promote the NFL, but why would I need to do that? The simplest answer is the true one: that I spent my last relationship hiding from the press and pretending my life was normal, but it wasn’t. We couldn’t go out to eat or attend a sporting event. And this time, well screw it! I just wanted to watch my boyfriend’s football game and go out to dinner with him and that’s the most normal thing of all! I shouldn’t have to pick between staying at home and hiding from my life or being harassed.”

Taylor has been to many of her fiancé’s games in the past year, but none with the fanfare of those early few. ESPN has returned to reporting on the game—they have to—and any fans in attendance might catch a glimpse of Taylor in her box and even take a picture of her, but they won’t be shared online or profiled in a hundred media outlets the next day. The result has been quieting, not just for the artist, but for her fans. We can talk about the people we’ve seen and can share photos from public events like concerts, but we aren’t incentivized to stalk the personal lives of celebrities.

The magazines who once lobbied and spent their millions trying to keep our petition from going through? They are doing just fine. They are paying celebrities directly for their photos and their interviews rather than paying paparazzi or former best friends willing to spill the dirt. Fans didn’t lose interest in the gossip, of course—I’m sure this will be the most sold copy of Esquire for Taylor’s photo on the cover and that beautiful ring on her finger—but now it’s Taylor’s choice what they see. Not the magazine’s, not her fans, hers. 

And human nature profits as a result.

It’s not just celebrities who gain from this law. Because of its passing, individuals throughout America are saved from becoming memes or being recorded in social media posts against their will. No one should find themselves the butt of a joke or even at risk of losing their job, because of public surveillance made possible by a network of bystanders. We all deserve to live our private lives out, even in public. Not just the rich and famous. 

“This is not the end of fame,” Taylor said. “It’s not even the end of celebrity. It’s simply the ability to choose what gets shared online about us. And in the age of the internet, we all deserve that choice.”

Author’s Commentary

As a die-hard fan of Taylor Swift’s music, I’ve always loved her albums and her concerts, and am even very much in support of her current love life based on what we know about it from her music. But I’ve never understood why we think it’s ok to share photos taken of her and her boyfriend through a restaurant window pane and I think having access to that has had a gross effect on society. I wanted to explore what artist fame would be like without that.

I don’t think we should villainize the artist (for being a fame monger) or the fan (for being a patron of it), rather I think we should villanize the institution that is exploiting people’s private lives for profit on the grounds that their private lives are taking place in the public arena. Just because artists want to publish their art for a wider audience does not entitle them to abuse. And we should be prevented from creating a society of abusers.

The truth is, this will affect more of us over time. I have seen a camera aimed at my face many times in public and I don’t like it. I may just be a bystander in someone’s TikTok video, but I didn’t give consent to be. It is a huge abuse of privacy that people can record someone else and create a viral video without their consent. 

There is a lot to be said about the tension between our “right to privacy” and the “freedom of speech.” But privacy laws already exist to protect us in our homes and in our cars and they should be extended to protect us in public as well. Not from “being in public,” but from “being published,” because in the age of the internet, we should very much draw a distinction between the two. 

Freedom of speech can and should exist, and we can and should hold people in power responsible for their behavior as it relates to their jobs—that’s why current privacy laws in the EU (the GDPR) specify that the private details of people’s lives cannot be published without consent unless they are of “public interest” and related to the function of their jobs. Unfortunately, this wording has allowed journalists to create a loophole, arguing that something is of “public interest” so long as the public is interested in it, which was not the intended wording of the clause. 

According to the paper, “Privacy versus Freedom of Speech: The Treatment of Celebrities in Europe and the United States of America,” that distinction should be made. “While anyone can be photographed in a public place, what this thesis objects to is celebrities being photographed when they are clearly engaged in activities that do not concern their public duties, but concern their private lives.” Even then, if a breach of someone’s public duties is made, those details should be turned over to the courts, not the press. 

Not only should GDPR privacy laws be expanded internationally, but they should be better enforced. In France and California, which have the strictest privacy laws, paparazzi have so far not been deterred from breaking the law to get the shot. Many publications have simply determined that the money they will earn for publishing the photo is worth the legal fine it will incur. The paper outlines that we can solve this problem by increasing fines and setting them at a percentage of the paper’s worth.

“It is also argued that celebrities should have a reasonable expectation of privacy when leaving their homes. While they can claim injunctive relief to stop photographers from hounding them, they should not have to go to the court to do this. They should be able to leave their house without feeling harassed. Henceforth, extending the concept of when someone is entitled to a reasonable expectation of privacy would give celebrities the opportunity to enjoy their privacy, even in public places.”

All the rest of us too!


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