Assessing 2007’s Most Iconic Photo… Fourteen Years Later

I remember being back in middle school rummaging through the candy at the grocery store, which was found next to the local newspaper and an array of popular magazines. That’s when I saw it – an image of three women who I would soon come to recognize as young Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. This was the first time I’d seen these young starlets outside of their top hits on the radio and seeing them in movies like my all-time favorite, The Parent Trap. At the time I believed it to be a simple photo of the three women having a good night, however, I knew that there was something off.

I could not tell what I was sensing. Each sitting shoulder to shoulder in the front of a black car, the three seemingly friends were photographed with smiles after a night spent at the Beverly Hills Hotel, which had been a popular spot amongst celebrities at the time. Upon first glance, I was confused as to why an old photo from 2006 was plastered across the cover eight years later in 2014 when I caught a glimpse of it. 

I didn’t think about that photo much since that day, but for some reason it was hard to forget it. It was not until I encountered the photo a second time while online some years down the line, that I decided to look it up to see what was going on. Soon I learned how wrong I had been about the assumptions I had made about the image. There was not a single search result that did not feature the words ‘train wreck,’ ‘infamous’ or ‘awkward.’ What I did not know at the time is that Hilton and Lohan were not friends, and it seemed like everyone knew this except for me. In fact, Hilton has stated that being in the car together was an awkward experience considering the two were on rocky terms. Paparazzi had been asking Hilton about accusations that had been made by her on and off again friend Lohan, when out of nowhere she appeared and hopped into the car with Hilton and Spears. 

This brought up an interesting question that I sought to answer. If they were not friends at the time and were currently in the middle of a public feud, why would Lohan take it upon herself to get into the car? Years later, as the three women’s images are being made over, and we’re seeing the ways they were exploited by the media industry and the public, I’m still asking that question.

I grew up in a time when the “Disney child gone wild” narrative had attempted to attach itself to any and every young adult in the industry. This was done through the work of publishers who made money off of the downfall of children who were transitioning into adulthood. It was my exposure to the media of my time and how they treated those I looked up to that allowed me to better understand how all of this really worked. It was continuous exploitation of young individuals who did not have the emotional maturity to deal with what was being thrown their way.  

With time and the rise of social media, laws have been put in place to reduce the storm of paparazzi and tabloid coverage. Alongside this, celebrities like Lohan, Spears, and Hilton have begun to reclaim the narratives that had been ripped away from them years prior and been held hostage since. Both Spears and Hilton have released documentaries that focus on the misinterpretation of who they really are. Spears used this opportunity to speak up about her conservatorship and hoped to show people that her true passions lie within her music and looking after her children, while Hilton aimed to eradicate her image of being a clueless socialite who can’t be successful without the help of her parents’ inheritance.

 Lohan sought out a different route, appearing on talk shows, speaking little about her past and more about her goal of returning to acting, taking on serious roles. She has stuck to her word and will be appearing in a Christmas movie as the lead role being released on Netflix in December of this year.

What’s become clear is that the media has a lot more control over celebrity stories than we think. For years these women have been painted as being crazy and off the deep end, however, they were never crazy and still aren’t to this day. Maybe they were upset, afraid and at times angry, but isn’t that to be expected of someone who experienced what each of them has in their short lives?  Even as they’re telling their own stories, they’re still being used. Even the fight to break free from an oppressive conservatorship has become an instant money pool for media companies to pull from.  

Through watching this process, I now view celebrities from a different lens. A lens that is not only produced by the media but one of my own, built with compassion and an understanding that I, alongside everyone else, will never fully know what’s going on. With that being said, presumptuous stories and misconstrued images will always be shinier than the true story. This is the culture we have built around celebrity, and although opinions regarding the topic have begun to change, there is still a lot to be done to reach full transparency, if that is even possible. 

In the meantime, I’ve been able to better understand what happened that day. From the account of Paris, it seems that she was just looking to continue her night of partying, and although uncomfortable at the time, Hilton decided not to kick her out and embarrass her in front of dozens of paparazzi. The night came to an end when the three headed back to Hilton’s where she and Spears fell asleep and Lohan left.  

From this, I instantly understood why the young actor’s entrance into the vehicle wasn’t met with disapproval from her two counterparts. They weren’t friends, but they were there for each other in spite of their differences. 

Each has experienced the same rare and intense reality of being at the height of their career during a time when there were little to no laws surrounding what paparazzi can and can’t do in order to get the image of a lifetime. This exact experience, possible without them realizing it, bonded them in a way that goes deeper than a temporary beef. It was Hilton’s own understanding of the brutality of publications at the time that allowed her to put things aside in order to protect Lohan from ending up on all the front pages after being ditched by two of America’s most famous young women.  

Though somewhat delighted by the fact that my original observation proved to be right, that there was something off about the photo, mostly I’m angry. That a photograph of three women who were in a way protecting each other had been twisted into something completely different – and we all believed it.

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