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The art of the red carpet

Will Gompertz | 09:54 UK time, Friday, 6 May 2011

Ron Galella stood out like a tree at the North Pole. The legendary photographer was standing at the bottom of the steep steps leading up to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; his silver hair luminescent against the blood red carpet that the grand old lady of Upper Eastside had running up to her entrance like a tidal bore.

Actress Renee Zellweger attends the 'Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty' Costume Institute Gala at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on 2 May

There he waited; the octogenarian snapper; poised to capture his prey: celebrities. The carpet was there, he was there, I was there, three hundred-odd other media were there, to welcome the best A-Listers Anna Wintour's monumental black book could muster for the Met's annual fundraising gala (of which she is Co-Chair) and the opening of its Alexander McQueen exhibition.

It is not surprising that the man Newsweek once dubbed the "paparazzo extraordinaire" is still in the game at eighty: he doesn't give up easy. In the 1970s Jackie Kennedy-Onassis had to resort to the courts for a restraining order against him. Marlon Brando didn't. He treated Ron differently. Brando took things into his own hands when he saw the photographer taking his picture without asking first. The actor rolled one of his hands into a ball to see what would happen when he thrust it into Galella's face. The answer was one bruised knuckle for the Brando (plus a fine) and five less teeth for the paparazzi.

But on Monday evening Galella was playing by the rules. Everybody was playing by the rules. The Met's media team had told the snappers that they had the area around the bottom set of steps as their domain. Halfway up was for the film crews and then in the rarefied air of the top third came the writers. The pattern was mirrored on both sides of the carpet.

Sarah Burton at the Met

At 18:15 the first guest arrived. It was a lady in her late forties who looked like she was in her early thirties. I didn't know her. But the Fox News reporter next to me did. That's why I know the guest on the carpet was older than she appeared. Apparently Fox News lady and red carpet lady had worked together twenty years ago as regular reporters. But the woman from Fox News didn't get the same breaks. She looked a little older too.

Soon after that, Anna Wintour turned up. She's a big deal for the snappers. You could hear it. Suddenly they were all yelling at her to turn this way and that. Their flash bulbs were popping and they were making a lot of noise. And Anna Wintour turned this way and that in a nice frock that looked as though it could double up as a dressing gown from a splendid hotel on the Cote d'Azur. She chose to by-pass the TV crews, which was a shame. We all wanted to know what she thought of the Duchess of Cambridge's wedding dress that Sarah Burton, the current creative director of the label, designed. I think she knew that was what we wanted and that's why she didn't stop by.

But Colin Firth did. And Naomi Campbell and lots of other people. The most frequent question asked by all of us in the media was: "who is that getting out of the limo?" Not everybody was famous, but they all looked famous, which made life difficult. The woman from Fox News had a policy. If she didn't know who someone was - even if it transpired that they were a bona-fide celebrity - then they weren't going to make it into her piece. She was very straightforward like that.

She was funny too. Our side of the steps wasn't doing as well as the other side, where the crew from the big network show Entertainment Tonight was set up. All the biggest stars headed to them. But we were holding our own on the BBC pitch; we were doing okay. But our new friend from Fox News was having less luck. So she stopped shouting "Fox News" whenever a celebrity came within earshot and started shouting "BBC" instead. That was bad, but it did give twice the vocal power, so it wasn't all bad.

And then came Sarah Burton. We really wanted to talk to her. But she didn't really want to talk to us. She knew we were going to ask about the dress she had made for the Duchess of Cambridge and she didn't want to talk about it. Lots of other people were happy to and they were enthusiastic, but its designer stayed schtum.

'Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty' Costume Institute exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on 2 May

I think it was because she wanted all the media attention to be on the Alexander McQueen exhibition; a posthumous retrospective of the work of Lee Alexander McQueen, the label's founder, who took his own life early last year. She probably owed it to the Alexander McQueen label who are the exhibition's main sponsor (a conflict of interest?), and would personally not have wanted to divert the limelight away from Lee McQueen; her friend and mentor. So instead she gave us a heartfelt, beaming smile. It was a nice smile: a bashful smile. The sort of embarrassed smile a mother gives when her child has just won all the prizes at sports day without really trying.
Each famous celebrity seemed to have their own style on the red carpet. The singer Janelle Monae took a boomerang approach. When she first arrived and came up the carpet, she generously gave each section of the media what they wanted. With that done she went into the Met. Five minutes later she reappeared and did it all over again, except nobody wanted to talk to her anymore because things had moved on, but she stood about for a bit anyway. She did this a few times.

I think Renée Zellweger must have been watching the royal wedding (23 million people in the USA did). She must have been. Her red carpet style was so similar to Kate's open-top carriage technique. Whenever William saluted on their way to Buckingham Palace after the service, Kate would bow her head. Renée Zellweger did the same. She would throw a hellava pose for the photographers and they would all cheer with delight. And then she would bow her head in an extreme way and bolt up a few stairs before launching into another pose. She did this up all three flights. I suspect it was so that no photos would be useable where she had not consciously posed. It made for an odd ascent.

Guest arrives on the red carpet at the Met

Not as odd as Beyoncé's. She was booed for her not stopping to pose. But really she ought to have been cheered. Stopping was not an option. Her dress had wrapped itself round her ankles tighter than a Jonny Wilkinson rugby tackle. If she had stopped it would have been immediately followed by a fall, taking her back to the bottom of the stairs where she would have been reacquainted with her pride and triggered a million flashbulbs to ignite.
And all the while, leading the slick choreography of releasing celebrities one-by-one onto the red carpet, was a genial, bear-like man about sixty years old. His title was something along the lines of Head of Carpet, which he was, both metaphorically and literally. Idiosyncratically dressed in a snappy jacket and white polo shirt with a black-tie printed onto the collar, the Head of Carpet would greet the celebrities from their limos. As they prepared their walk of fame he would whisper into their ears, pointing out where the main players in the press pack were situated. Once briefed, he would release his guest into the arms of a waiting PR, who would marshal the climb. If a celebrity wished to avoid all contact with the press, another PR would arrive - somewhat plumper than the rest - and envelop the camera-shy star in her welcoming bosom and smuggle their preciousness into the exhibition.

The whole episode took three hours. Some of the older cameramen were looking beaten. In a cruel twist of technology, it was the older guys (they were all men as far as I could see) who had to hump huge and heavy cameras over the rails and towards the interviewee. The youngsters had light pieces of plastic which seemed to do the job just as well, with a lot less strain to back and brain. But the old timers would probably have spent $40,000 on their camera and the thought of throwing it away to be replaced by a £5,000 is too much to concede.

There are few concessions on the red carpet.


  • Comment number 1.


    "The youngsters had light pieces of plastic which seemed to do the job just as well, with a lot less strain to back and brain. But the old timers would probably have spent $40,000 on their camera and the thought of throwing it away to be replaced by a £5,000 is too much to concede."

    This encapsulates both the economics and reality of much of the media from film through TV to photography. The 'establishment' is really a large warehouse of not fully depreciated heavy old 'iron' (be it cameras or lights etc. - see BBC Resources and all large film companies) whereas the upstarts get just as good if not better results from more modern lighter and less costly kit - see also those TV directors/producers who must have the 'feel of film', and becasue of it do so few takes that they fail to get satisfactory results.


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