With celebrity news moving into the forefront, do you want to bring 'em down or build 'em up?
TheToronto Star, TheGlobe and Mail, National Post and TheNew York Times (at least on Sundays), seem to be required reading for the practising journalist. But at the newsstand last weekend, I bypassed all four and picked up an Us Weekly, offering the latest gossip on Britney Spears. Does she have a new guy? What’s the Golden Globe gossip? Yes, celebrity news is my guilty pleasure. I’m usually a little embarrassed to be seen buying those oh-so-loud supermarket tabloid magazines. Luckily, now I don’t always have to be; entertainment gossip seems to be worming its way into the respectable dailies as never before. The Timesran a feature on Angelina Jolie after she had a spat with Ryan Seacrest on the red carpet at the Golden Globe Awards. Prince William’s girlfriend graced the cover of Toronto’s Sunday Star. Though there is an abundance of outlets (or as the Star’s movie critic Peter Howell points out, an overpopulated market), all celebrity junkies know that there are two major kinds of coverage: that which builds our idols up, and that which tears them down.
Right now, the only English-language celebrity magazine in Canada is Hello! (Quebec actually has an established French-language star system – who knew?), which Rogers Publishing Ltd. launched in August. Last year Torstar’s tabloid, Weekly Scoop, started strong with the largest ever Canadian magazine newsstand launch, but it went belly-up after eight months. Hello! is the Canuck chapter of a successful international brand that has made its fortune through dedication to old-fashioned celebrity glam rather than gossip and bad photos. Hello! produces editions in various locations including Greece, Russia, the Middle East and Spain, where the brand got its start in 1944 with Hola! (Toro’s contributing editor Jay Teitel thinks the Canadian edition should be named Good Day, Eh?). Canada’s premiere issue featured a stiff, awkwardly posed Trudeau family, along with hordes of other do-good celebs graciously assisting charities, getting married or even eating dinner. (There’s a seven-pagespread of singer Chantal Kreviazuk cooking with girlfriends. I’m riveted).
“There is 100 per cent a place for Hello! in the market,” says Weekly Scoop’s former assistant entertainment editor Ryan Porter.But are there enough Canadian stars to fill the pages? Hello! isn’t made up of solely Canadian content (good thing too, or it would probably be 10 pages long every week). Like the popular daily TV program, Entertainment Tonight Canada, it shuffles between showcasing U.S., international and homegrown talent. The problem with ET Canada, as Porter points out, is that it has a tendency to promote Canadian celebrities just because they’re Canadian. “Kiefer Sutherland is a big star, but there’s no need to do a feature about him when 24 is on hiatus and he’s not doing anything.” I can’t help but think that Hello! is falling into the same trap when I flip through a seven-page spread in the magazine onColm Feore. He played Trudeau in a 2002 CBC miniseries, but in Hello! he appears to be promoting nothing more than his ability to sit and pose in various rooms of his Stratford house.
Apparently the public feels the same way. In January, major changes erupted within Rogers’ towering One Mount Pleasant Road headquarters (or “campus,” as the company likes to call it.) According to a National Post article on January 19, 2007, the public is demanding less, not more, Canadian content, which has already resulted in major changes to the masthead. Editor Christopher Loudon? Fired. Publisher Shelley Middlebrook? Canned. Art director Benjamin MacDonald? Gone too. A total of five staffers got the pink slip. Madrid-basedexecutive Isabelle de Courson now overseas the magazine, communicating to staff just as the great and powerful OZ: heard, not seen. The munchkins continue to work diligently
But is Hello! doomed to fail? “Despite Hello! and OK magazines’ desperate continued use of the Vaseline-covered lens, this particular sport has moved into the colosseum for good,” writes the Star’s pop culture writer, Malene Arpe. According to her, the public has lost its appetite for glitz and glamour, preferring to dine on uncensored YouTube footage and drunk-driving mug shots.
“We’re not a tabloid and we’re not in the business of negative reporting,” said Christopher Loudon, then editor-in-chief, shortly before his departure. He said that Hello! “takes the high road,” and that there’s a market that prefers this strategy. “We’re here to sing a star’s praises.”
His candour surprised me and I wondered how realistic Hello!’s goals are. So I asked Loudon what he did with celebrities who, quite frankly, have nothing positive to focus on in their lives. How do you spin a Britney? He said Hello! ran a feature about the pop star after she announced her divorce, focusing on her promising new life.
Is there really a market for the rose-coloured-glasses approach to celebrity news? “People are much less gullible today,” says Howell. “But sometimes magazines go out of their way to be mean to celebrities and it’s a bit excessive.”
Howell’s not the only one who feels that way. After promising advertisers 25,000 readers per week (the U.K. edition, now unavailable in Canada, used to bring in 6,000 here), Hello! has exceeded its goal. Well, slightly. The Post reports that the magazine hovers around 26,000 readers. The British edition boasts 2.2 million readers a week in its home base.
By comparison to Hello!’s high road, the National Enquirer takes the lowest there is. The publication’s recent headline about Katie Holmes reads: “Stepford Wife! Inside Katie’s bizarre marriage to Tom. No friends, no career, no way out!” Holmes’s unsmiling face appears on the cover. Conversely, Hello!’s spread on TomKat features the beaming couple with the caption – I kid you not – “Tom and Katie are enjoying resuming their down-to-earth family life.” Sure, the Enquirer could stand to lose a few exclamation marks in the headlines, but who’s counting when it boasts a cool million in circulation?
Trashy mags may draw a steady following, but the major scoop of the year – or of all time, depending on whom you ask – was captured by celeb-friendly People and the U.K. edition of Hello!. I’m talking about the first pictures of the Brangelina baby, an infant who, while still in the womb, prompted New York magazine to proclaim: “Not since Jesus has a baby been so eagerly anticipated.” People reportedly paid more than $4 million for exclusive U.S. rights to the pictures and Hello! similarly paid a “substantial”amount for UK rights, in the words of staff member Juliet Herd on CTV.ca. A number of websites leaked the images a day before the magazines hit newsstands. Ouch. But hey, I still bought the issue.
Much celeb coverage has moved to the Internet. In fact, bloggers, like Mario Lavandeira, the Los Angeles-based blogger behind PerezHilton.com and self-professed “Queen of Mean,” posts gossip and photos of famous people literally defaced with doodles or derogatory captions. The 28-year-old is no stranger to exclusives (he was the first to report that Justin Timberlake is seeing Jessica Biel) and his entries have a say-whatever-comes-to-mind quality to them that makes it easy to understand why he calls his site “Hollywood’s most hated website.” After a recent outing by Britney Spears and her young son, Lavandeira commented that the boy appeared “just a tad slow.” He also remarked that a demurely dressed Sienna Miller looked like “a slut in sheep’s clothing.”
I know what you’re thinking: how many times can you read that someone’s a whore and still be entertained by it? Well, evidently it never gets old for some people. Forbes.com recently ranked Lavandeira the second most influential person on the Internet. “Quite honestly, people want us to show celebrities a bit of disrespect,” says Toronto Sun’s Jim Slotek. This star-next-door quality makes them more relatable. Howell echoes Slotek’s view: “When people look bad, it brings them down to our level.”
So do readers want trash or glitz? Maybe it comes down to age. “Kids today are used to a deconstructive, ironic approach,” says Toro’s Jay Teitel. “But someone older would be more inclined to buy a Hello! type.” Me? I doubt I’ll ever outgrow the tabloids, but I may start hiding them inside The New Yorker while I’m on the bus.
Amanda Pereira was the Director of Circulation for the Spring 2007 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.