When Prince Harry finally marries Meghan Markle at Windsor Castle on Saturday, itll be no thanksto the celebrity gossip and picture agency that staged cheesy photos of Meghans dad, Thomas Markle Sr., and nearly derailed the royal wedding.
Coleman-Rayner LLC a scrappy Los Angeles-based company co-owned by two British veterans of the tabloid wars, writer/editor Mark Coleman and paparazzi photographer Jeff Rayneris at the epicenter of a lurid scandal that has reached the far corners of Planet Earth and overwhelmed advance coverage of the happy day on front pages and television shows from England to Australia.
For Coleman-Rayner, its the most damaging controversy since the agency was unmasked last fall as having conducted negative research in late 2016 on one of Harvey Weinsteins rape accusers, actress Rose McGowan.
The agency did this ostensibly on behalf of one of Coleman-Rayners clients, American Media Inc. executive Dylan Howard, who passed the agencys work product on to Weinstein, telling the Hollywood mogul in a leaked email:I have something AMAZING.
To which Weinstein replied: This is the killer. Especially if my fingerprints r not on this.
They are not, Howard emailed back (and later claimed in a chagrined statement, after his dodgy conduct was exposed by New Yorker writer Ronan Farrow,that he only unwittingly played a role in Mr. Weinsteins well documented manipulation of his business and personal relationships in his efforts to combat his accusers).
According to a source close to former Coleman-Rayner picture editor Glen McCurtayne, McCurtayne, appalled that the agency had been involved in the potential smearing of rape victims,resigned in disgust and became a born-again Christian; he now spends his days doing volunteer work and studying the Bible.
None of this information was ever published, and it was gathered well before there was any knowledge of the gross accusations against Weinstein, Mark Coleman emailed The Daily Beast.AMI declined to publish the information as it did not want to impugn the reputation of an accuser.
Although Coleman-Rayner finds itself once again on the hot seat, the current staged-photo flap is mild by comparisonand at least as uncomfortable for Meghan Markle.
Its obviously and understandably a difficult time for Meghan, a vexed and bespectacled young man in a three-piece suitABC News Royal Contributor Omid Scobietold Good Morning Americas Robin Roberts this week in a plummy English accent. Sources say that shes upset and distressed by the news. It comes just days before one of the biggest and mostimportant events of her life.
GMAs 7 1/2-minute-long segment (an eternity in network morning TV) was typical of the breathless saturation coverage of the staged photos and other entertainingly off-kilter events surrounding Markle Sr., the former Suits stars 73-year-old father, along with Meghans zany extended family.
Notable in this rogues gallery of undesirable relatives is her estranged half-brother, Tom Markle Jr., who has gone out of his wayto trash Meghan in tabloid interviews (irkedthat he wasntinvited tothe wedding) and recently shared with In Touch magazine his embittered handwritten letter to Harry urgingthe prince to call off the nuptialsto a jaded, shallow, conceited woman that will make a joke of you and the royal family heritage.
Enter Coleman-Rayner. Mark Coleman, an alumnus of AMIs Star magazine and Bauer Publishings equally down-market Life & Style, and Jeff Rayner, whos been toiling as a celebrity photographer since he arrived in the United States on a foreign journalists work visa in the late 1990s, teamed up to launch the small agency in 2009; these days it remains lean and mean, boasting around a dozen photographers, reporters and support staff operating from an office in L.A.s San Fernando Valley.
Its a hardscrabble, Darwinian business. According to insiders,the staff photographers generally are paid a nominal base salary of between $30,000 and $50,000barely enough to live in L.A.plus a 25 percent commission on the sales of their photos, and the company doesnt provide health insurance benefits.
By most accounts, AMIwhich owns the National Enquirer, Us Weekly, Globe, and OK!, among other titillating publicationsis Coleman-Rayners most important client,and the agency servicesthe various AMI titles with words and pictures.
Coleman-Rayner is on a high-five-figure monthly retainer with the publisher (ranging from $70,000 monthly, the industry scuttlebutt, to less than $50,000/month, the estimate of an AMI insider) and Jeff Rayner has been a close friend of AMIs chief content officer, Australian import Dylan Howard, since the latter was running AMIs L.A. bureaunearly a decade ago.
The scandal surrounding Thomas Markle Sr., otherwise known asthe Markle Debacle, began around two months ago with a Coleman-Rayner paparazzo named Karl Larsennotorious on the celebrity pap circuit as one of its more ruthless practitioners.
The 49-year-old Larsen is best known for his 2007 photo of a just-arrested Paris Hilton sobbing in the backseat of a cop car, another photo of an enraged Mel Gibson in 2010 (taken after Larsen mercilessly taunted the allegedly anti-Semitic actor, demanding a refund for all the tickets hed ever bought to see Gibsons movies), and for getting flattened duringa violent scuffle last year at LAX with One Direction pop star Louis Tomlinson.
This past March, Larsen hunted down the elder Markle, a retired lighting director for General Hospital,near his home in the beach community of Rosarito, Mexico, 30 miles south of the U.S. border. Larsen snapped Markles picture in various unflattering stances, looking obese and disheveled.
Days later, Jeff Rayner showed up and somehow persuaded Marklewhod been under siege for months by pitiless paps, despite Kensington Palaces stern warning to leave the old man in peaceto pose for a series of candid-seeming photographs.
Raynerwho, like Colman, is in his mid-fortiesis known as a wily chap of easygoing charm, a fondness for high-status luxury (he proudly drives a Porsche), and a sharply honed instinct for the jugular.
Thats a guy who will sit on a mountain for five daysand getthe picture ofthe skier a mile away whos involved in some kind of scandal. Hes an absolutely fantastic pap, said a veteran tabloid journalist who has worked with him. (Like nearly everyone interviewed for this story, this person asked not to be named.)
Colemandescribed by colleagues as a control freak with a hair-trigger temper, although he usually apologizes in soothingtones after losing his coolis a very slick businessman, and he has an extremely good feel for the market, said the journalist. This isnt an agency that goes around doing pro bono stuff for the good of America. Its an old-fashioned tabloid operation.
Notthat everyone is a fan.
Theyre just scummy paparazzi, said Los Angeles attorney Neville L. Johnson.
Last year, Johnson sued Coleman-Rayner for libel on behalf of his client, fitness guru Richard Simmonsalong with American Media Inc. execs David Pecker and Dylan Howard and AMIs National Enquirer and Radar Onlineafter the agency provided photos and reporting that the publications utilized to claim erroneously that Simmons had has undergone shocking sex swap surgery and was living as a woman named Fiona. (A judge dismissed Simmons lawsuitand recently ordered him to pay the defendants $130,000 in legal feeson the grounds that the articles, though bogus, werent defamatory.)
Meanwhile, Jeff Rayners pitchto Meghan Markles beleaguered dad has beenthe subject of intense speculation in the tabloid biz since the pictures were first published by Londons The Sun May 4 and subsequently other outlets that licensed them from Colman-Rayner for an estimatedtotal of100,000 (the equivalent of around $135,000).
Several former Coleman-Rayner employees told The Daily Beast that if Rayner paid Marklea standard practice in such casesit was likely a relatively small amount in cash, maybe a few thousand dollars. (TMZ reportedthat he received $1,500 plus a small percentage of theroyalties.)
Its also likely, said the former Coleman-Rayner employees,that Rayner usedLarsens unflattering photos as leverage and, in a classic ploy, offered to withhold them in exchangefor the senior Markles cooperation with pictures that would depict him in an attractive light.
In an email Friday, Coleman called the speculation totally false, and added: The part alleging we offered to hold back unflattering photos is totally false.
The Daily Beast addressed all questions via email to both Coleman and Rayner.
Coleman didnt respond to a question concerning Raynersarrangement with Markle, but emailedthat generally, Coleman-Rayner does not comment on its newsgathering or its business relationships with publishers. (Colemanwho is clearly unnerved by the media attention and refused to go on the record in a lengthy, pleading phone call to this reporterwason a business trip with Rayner in Australia, where the agency has serviced the celebrity magazinesNew Idea and Womans Day.)
In any case, Coleman-Rayners published photos in The Suninitially considered a much-prized exclusive in the frenzied media run-up to the wedding vowsshowed Meghans dad exercising outdoors with tiny weights (ostensibly getting in shape for walking his daughter down the aisle at Windsor Castles St. Georges Chapel).
He was also pictured being measured for aroyal wedding suit inside what looked like a tailors shop, sitting at a desktop computer at an Internet caf to read a story about his daughters marriage, and stopping by a local Starbucks to peruse a coffee-table book on British landmarks.
Coleman-Rayners triumph was short-lived, however, and the agency quickly became the target of the pre-wedding media mania this past weekend, when the Mail on Sunday shattered the rival Suns scoop with a juicy investigative blockbuster headlined Royal Wedding scammers! Meghan Markle's father STAGED photos with paparazzi
The Mails expos, relying in part on closed-circuit camera footage showing Markle and Rayner apparently collaborating inside Rosaritos Omega Internet caf, detailed how they recruited a teenage party-goods shop clerk to play the tailor (using a tape measure supplied by Markle), after discovering that the suit rental store Rayner planned to use was closed; and that the bogus exercise shot was apparently staged at a garbage dump away from prying eyes.
It was really strange, the pretend tailor, David Flores, told the Mail, adding that Raynertipped him $15 for his trouble. This big American guy [Markle] got the measuringtape outof his pocket and he was saying things in English. I dont speak good English, butI understood what he wanted me to do. The photographer he was with stepped backtothe street and started takingpictures.
The story added pointedly: The revelation that Mr. Markle has been co-operating with a paparazzo behind the backs of his daughter, Prince Harry and Kensington Palace officials will cause huge embarrassment to the Royal Family in the run-up to the wedding.
"It will be galling for Harry who, in a BBC documentary last year, hit out at the paparazzi for the way in which they pursued his mother, Princess Diana. She was killed in Paris in 1997 after being chased by photographers.
The Mails scoop seemed tothrow all of FleetStreet into a kind of mass hysteria, even as elder Markle, according to friends and family, told them he was deeply embarrassed and now feels like a complete fool for playing along with Rayner, the Mirror reported.
Hes telling friends he feels scammed by those who did the pictures but more worryingly he now has to face the Queen and the rest of the Royal FamilyHell hate the fact that people think he has betrayed them and hell be fearful what they think.
In due course over the next few days, Markle gave a series of interviews to TMZ, Harvey Levins gossip site that regularly pays for news and tips, in which Meghans dad confided that he had suffered a heart attacktriggered, he said, by Tom Jr.s letter to Prince Harry although thephoto flap might have contributed to his chest pains this past Mondayand would undergo cardiovascular surgery to implant a stent, andthus would be forced to drop out of the wedding.
Im just too ill to walk Meghan down the aisle, screamed theMirrors front-page headline,under the blood-red all-cap message: DADS HEART OP SETBACK.
Sadly, my father will not be attending our wedding. I have always cared for my father and hope he can be given the space he needs to focus on his health, Meghan Markle said in a statement provided by Kensington Palace Thursday. (The palace revealed Friday she would walk herself down most of the aisle, with future father-in-law Prince Charles escorting her the last few steps.)
Coleman-Rayners websiteblazoned with the motto, We pride ourselves on original, accurate reporting coupled with fantastic photographytouts its formidable reputation as the agency people trust. Staff pride themselves on their professionalism coupled with a personal approach,as well as compassion and empathy when handling delicate stories and demanding situations.
The agency has posted a series of testimonials from the relatives of famous people and C-list celebrities, to wit: Trustworthy and great to work with (Ronald Fenty, Rihannas father); Great job, accurate and considerate of us old folks (Diana Dill and Donald Webster, Michael Douglas mother and stepfather); and I trust Coleman-Rayner implicitly (Coco Austin, Model, Burlesque dancer and TV star).
The kind and gentle advertising belies Coleman-Rayners reputation for hard-nosed aggression in a cutthroat businessthat, just like the purveyors of mainstream journalism, has suffered financially from the digital onslaught, as well as from social media services such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram that give celebrities the abilityto control their images and information.
In order to sell photos and copy to demanding clients, former employees said, the agency was forcedto supply content that was increasingly edgy to the point of callous. Sometimes it was simply wrong, as when Coleman-Rayner produced a story that purportedto discover the whereabouts of Olivia Newton-Johns long-lost boyfriend.
Olivia Newton-Johns Runaway-Lover Found Alive! exclaimed the headline in the Nov. 27 National Enquirer, one of the tabloids, including AMIs Star magazine, which misidentified Canadian Wes Stobbeas Patrick McDermott, the missing man inquestion.
Lets get mistakable: Tab magazines confuse Manitoba man for missing boyfriend of Olivia Newton-John, said the Canadian Press story about the embarrassing blooper.
It was professionally risky to decline distasteful assignments, such as the December 2015 order to go to Las Vegas and secure a last photo of Celine Dions husband Rene Anglil, who was dying of throat cancer. One photographer left the agency, a source said, shortly after refusing that challenge.
In another instance, said a source,Rayner and reporter James Robertson (now the top editor of AMIs OK!) talked their way into the Florida hospice where they secured a photo and pained interview with Tom Cruises stepfather, Jack Souththe inspiration for a series ofdepressing and intrusive accounts that continued to be published weeks after the poor mans death.
Cruel Tom Cruise Turned His Back On Dying Dad, claimed the headline in the National Enquirer.
The saddest moment, at least for Coleman-Rayner reporter Hugo Daniel, came inFebruary 2014, six months after he persuaded JuliaRoberts younger half-sister, Nancy Motes,to sit fora lengthy interview, Motes first-ever, which focused onthe movie stars alleged penchant for fat-shaming her.
I had 20k gastric band op after sister Julias jibes about my weight, said the headline over theresulting Aug. 9, 2013, story, which ran under the byline of Pete Samson, U.S. editor ofThe Sun(with the credit line ADDITIONAL REPORTING:Hugo Daniel).
The story did little enhance Motes alreadytense relations with her big sister. Suffering from depression, she was found dead in her bath tub surrounded by pill bottles; the death was ruled a suicide.
Daniel was so distraughtby the incident that colleagues were instructed never to mention the interview around him, said a former Coleman-Rayner employee.
Hugo was devastated, said a colleague.Reached by The Daily Beast, Danielwho has left Coleman-Raynerto freelancedeclinedto comment.
It seemed that over time, it was getting a little bit desperate, said one of several former employees who have departed Coleman-Rayner in recent yearsin part, this ex-employee said, because staffers have been increasingly required to engage in what is generally known in the business as smash and grabthat is, snapping pictures of people at their worst, and taking advantage of often nave celebrity kinfolk, often elderly, to getthem to dish dirt with no concern for the consequences.
Said the former employee, There were things that wed be askedto go and do, andthat wasnt why I got into the business.
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