It was 9 a.m. on a Monday and Teresa Ojalvo was whizzing below Manhattan on a downtown 2 train, trying to catch a celebrity. Her long black cane balanced on the seat next to her, the 65-year-old expertly peeled signed photos of actor Jeff Bridges off a piece of cardboard and replaced them with fresh ones from a large, plastic binder. Above her, the real Bridges was cruising along the streets of Manhattan in a black Escalade, making his way from the set of Good Morning America to The View. And Ojalvo desperately needed to beat him.
Ojalvo is a “grapher”—a professional autograph hound who hunts down and sells celebrity signatures. We’d met outside the set of GMA the week before, when Ojalvo was staking out Jensen Ackles and Christy Carlson Romano, and she’d agreed to let me shadow her for a day.
At 7 a.m. the next Monday, I found Ojalvo deep in a crowd of about 20 graphers, her bleach blond ponytail sticking out through a sea of men in baseball caps. She was easily the oldest person there by 20 years, and had already slipped into the role of grandma, scolding a younger grapher who was making too much noise. “No more Red Bull for you,” she chided, and then, when he persisted: “Come here so I can smack you around!”
It was the sixth day of the Tribeca Film Festival, and a busy one: Ojalvo was staking out Bridges at GMA, then David Duchovny and Amy Brenneman outside The View. Then she had to make it to Tribeca by 3 p.m. to catch Dakota Johnson at a premiere and beat out all the “out-of-towners”—graphers from other cities who’d come hoping to strike gold.
She wasn’t going to sell the autographs herself; that was a job for a man we’ll call Joseph—the guy who hired her to run down celebrity signatures almost a decade ago. He was a grapher, too, but his job kept him from getting out as much, so he sent Ojalvo instead. She got a flat rate for each signature, plus a percentage of the profit once they sold. “Lunch money,” she called it.
Graphing is a predominantly male, highly physical job—the graphers push and shove each other to get signatures and hoist their signing boards over each other’s heads—and Ojalvo is a grandma with a limp. But somehow she managed not only to hold her own, but to hold sway: All morning long, she texted and called other graphers, telling them who was in town, where they were shooting, when to show up—the air traffic control of professional autograph hounds.
She also regaled her competitors with stories from a decade in the biz. The longest she’d ever waited for an autograph is 10 hours, she said, when she missed the cast of Aquaman going into a hotel and had to wait outside until they left. The most she’d ever made off an autograph was $500, for a signed copy of Bruce Springsteen’s book. The nicest celebrity she’s met was Jessica Chastain, the rudest was Brie Larson. Only two made her really weak at the knees: Chris Evans and Pitbull. (“I just love his music and I think he’s sexy,” she said of the latter.)
But Ojalvo and the other graphers stopped chatting the minute a black Escalade pulled up to GMA, signaling the arrival of a star. Everyone grew tense, pushing forward slightly, hanging their signing boards over the barricades, getting in position. The smartest graphers clocked the license plate on the car, so they could follow it the rest of the day.
When Bridges finally emerged, the crowd went wild.
“Jeff! Jeff! Over here!” they yelled, waving their pens in the air. “Can you sign for us, Jeff?”
Bridges, sporting a bright yellow button-down, brushed off the graphers, promising to sign on the way out. No one was confident he’d follow through, but an hour or so later, he re-emerged and turned gamely toward the writhing crowd. That’s when Ojalvo sprung into action.
“Mr. Bridges, right here sir, one for the old lady?” she yelled in her thick Bronx accent. “Jeff, you promised!”
Bridges paused to sign a few posters, but not enough for her liking. As he turned away, her cries intensified: “One for my brother too, please? Mr. Bridges, one for my brother?”
When it became clear that he was not coming back for her, she spun on her heel. “We gotta go,” she barked.
Then she was dashing through Times Square, moving swiftly despite the cane and the limp. (“Someone beat me up,” she explained brusquely. “Broke every bone in my leg.”) Bridges had only signed two autographs, she explained, and she needed five, so now she had to catch him before his appearance at The View, 20 blocks south.
While Ojalvo hightailed it to the train station, a young man from the GMA crowd zoomed past, obviously on his way to the same place. “Save a spot for me!” Ojalvo yelled, though she knew he wouldn’t.
When she finally made it to The View, a familiar yellow shirt could be seen sliding in the front door, surrounded by a throng of screaming fans. “That’s Jeff!” she moaned. “We aren’t going to make it!” She pulled the photos out of her purse and pitched herself into the crowd.
“Mr. Bridges!” she screamed, brandishing the posters. “Mr. Bridges! The lady behind you! Please! The lady behind you!”
As the yellow shirt disappeared inside, Ojalvo turned around with a triumphant smile.
“Got it,” she mouthed.
Celebrity autographs come in tiers. “Bad signers”—stars who don’t sign often, whose signatures are less in circulation—are worth more than those who stop and sign all the time. (Robert DeNiro and Derek Jeter are in the first category, Adam Sandler and Matt Damon in the latter.) A signature on a poster or a prop is worth more than a photo on a plain piece of paper, known in the industry as a “blank.” (Some celebrities, especially those with nude photos circulating, refuse to sign blanks, because any photo can be printed over it.) Good-quality, rare autographs can go from anywhere from $250 to more than $1,000 smaller-tier ones for as little as $5.
The key to getting those signatures is knowing where the celebrities will be, which means knowing which websites to check. Waiting for Duchovny and Brenneman to show up at The View, Ojalvo scrolled through one.
“This gives you all the nighttime shows, all the daytime shows, and then I don’t worry about this one because I can’t get there,” she said, pointing a talon-like nail at the listings. “This is Stephen Colbert, this is Seth Meyers—but when you see that letter, that means it’s a repeat.” Her phone dinged; a notification from one of the gossip sites she follows. She dismissed it and continued: “This I don’t worry about because it’s in California. This pops up day by day, and this is Andy Cohen’s Watch What Happens Live.”
She pivoted to Twitter, where she follows all the talk shows, all the fan pages and a few insider blogs that post filming locations. The listings are usually live by Friday; once she knows who’s going to be where, she sends the lineup to Joseph, who chooses the targets and prints out the posters. She picks them up on Sunday and carries them around in her binder all week.
Today was an early day; she’d arrived at GMA at 4 a.m. to get in the front row. For other shows—Today, CBS Mornings—she would have arrived a little later, because they don’t have barricades. But that has a downside. “You just wing it there, and sometimes I don’t get nothing,” she said. “Cuz you have assholes that go up your back.” .
This is something graphers agree on: It’s a rough-and-tumble business. Once, while waiting for an autograph from Christian Bale, Ojalvo got pushed over so hard her head hit the ground. Bale noticed and yelled at the other graphers to back up, then personally escorted her to a nearby hotel and asked the staff to take care of her. More importantly, he signed every one of her posters.
Another time, at ComiCon, she was waiting to get autographs from the cast of Supergirl when the doors opened and a crowd of fans flooded in, flattening her to the floor. She recalled this particular experience with a slight smile. “To this day I can get anything I want at the Javits Center during ComiCon,” she said.” “I never have to ask them for tickets.”
The graphers traded stories like this as they waited for Duchovny and Brenneman: the time they spent hours outside a restaurant for Derek Jeter only to be snubbed; that one event where they made a killing off the Suicide Squad cast. (This was back when Margot Robbie signed her full name, not just her initials, and you could make $250 off a single autograph.) Ojalvo recalled how she once spotted Barbara Walters walking up this very street. “You gotta pay attention,” she said sagely. “You never know what celebrity is gonna walk right by you.”
That sense of alertness, of always staying on your toes, was ingrained in Ojalvo from a young age. She was raised in a foster home from age 15, after she ran away from her birth parents and spent two years living on the street. At 17, she got pregnant by a man she met while waiting for the bus in Queens; they got married, had two kids, and got divorced after 18 years. It was after then that she met the man who broke her leg: an angry, controlling boyfriend who turned violent when he was drunk. She dumped him, but had to abandon her job as a waitress, no longer able to stand for long periods of time.
But Ojalvo had never been good at sitting still. Shortly after quitting her job, she started posting up outside the morning shows, arriving at the crack of dawn to see if she could get into the studio audience. Even when she couldn’t, she’d stick around, watching how the celebrities entered and exited. After a while, she started lining up at those doorways, asking the stars for selfies. Once, a grapher waiting nearby asked if she’d help him get a photo signed and offered to pay her for it. She did it enough that one of the graphers introduced her to Joseph. She’s been working for him ever since.
Watching Ojalvo work outside The View that day, Jason, a fellow native New Yorker and grapher of 13 years, offered up his honest appraisal.”She’s a pain in the ass,” he said, just loud enough for her to hear. He smiled at her and added: “But she’s good, she’s loyal.”
“Everybody knows Teresa. She’s the cane lady,” added another grapher.
He was interrupted by Jason pointing at a man in plain clothes and sunglasses walking up the street. “Is that David?” he asked, pulling a poster of Duchovny out of his bag. “I think that’s David.”
By the time Ojalvo arrived at the Tribeca movie premiere it was 83 degrees, and everyone was sweating. She was early and the only other person there was Griff, a talkative kid who looked to be in his late 20s or early 30s. Griff isn’t a pro grapher; he just likes taking selfies with the stars. (His cellphone background was a selfie of him and The Rock—a personal favorite.) He spends hours a week doing it, but insisted it was “just a hobby.”
While they waited, Griff and Ojalvo engaged in the most common of grapher pastimes: gossip. There was a lot to talk about: Last night’s Time 100 Gala—Jeremy Strong “must have signed 500 blanks,” Griff reported. “He wouldn’t leave!”—and Julia Fox, the only actress they knew who would sign a nude photo of herself. There were also other graphers to discuss, like the one who refused to save Ojalvo’s spot when she had to run out to use the bathroom. (“Next time he’s around, I’m just gonna lift my leg and pee right on him!” Ojalvo said.)
After an hour or so, a crowd formed—maybe 20 or so people, their sign boards in hand. The smaller celebrities trickled in first, falling into a familiar dance with the screaming fans: Wait for the cheers, pose for a selfie, grab a pen and work their way down. Sign, turn, selfie, turn, sign. Can I get my pen back? Oh sorry, here you go.
After a half-hour of this, a woman clutching an issue of Vogue with Dakota Johnson on the cover whispered urgently, “She’s almost here.” Five minutes later, a black Escalade pulled up to the red carpet and out walked the Fifty Shades of Grey actress in a long, backless, off-white blazer. She made her way down the line, chatting, laughing, posing—and signing every one of Ojalvo’s photos.
After Johnson disappeared into the theater, Ojalvo’s work day was done. She had to take the subway up to 149th street, then hop a bus. If she was lucky, she’d be home by 6:45—a 12-hour work day. As we walked toward the subway, I asked her if she ever got jealous spending all this time around rich and famous people, with their glamorous jobs and personal chauffeurs. “No,” she said immediately. “What’s there to get jealous of?”
The money, the clothes, the fancy events and screaming fans? She shook her head.
“I’m just a fan,” she said. “I do this because I like to support what they’re doing—their movies, their career. I’ve been supporting Dakota’s career since Fifty Shades, even before that.”
“I don’t get jealous of any of them,” she continued. “If I’m gonna get jealous, then I shouldn’t be doing this.”
Was it escapism, then?
“Yeah, kinda, maybe it is,” she said. “Maybe I’m using it as an escape. From being home and things like that.”
“I don’t know how to relax,” she added later. “My daughter tells me that all the time… I just can’t relax, I don’t know why.”
And with that, it was time to go. After all, she had to be up early tomorrow to do it all again.