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Celebrity gossip's siren call grows louder

If 2006 was anything to go by, US tabloid culture is growing ever more mainstream – and reaching increasingly younger audiences.

By Ethan GilsdorfCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 12, 2007

In the new FX drama, "Dirt," a snake charmer of a magazine editor says, "This is what the marketplace wants." The character, played by Courtney Cox, claims the public wants celebrity gossip in the form of the fictional publications "Drrt" and "Now."

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The show's "People"-meets-"National Enquirer" magazines stray only nanometers from truth. America does desire endless dirt on celebrities, and 2006, the year of Brangelina – or was it TomKat? – seemed the apex (or nadir) of its fixation.

Obsession with star gazing has been a pop-culture mainstay for decades. But lately, the proliferation of outlets for such coverage seems unbridled. Cable news and entertainment shows keep multiplying alongside celebrity-gossip blogs, which have millions of fans. Even staid newspapers, desperate for readers, have added pages chronicling stars' marriages, breakups, and fashion train wrecks.

In large part, the surge in such reportage is being driven by new media. But the demand for even the most trivial of celebrity gossip also reflects a shift in attitudes and beliefs toward fame. In an age when a MySpace page or a YouTube video can give extraordinary exposure to ordinary people, a young generation now believes fame to be one of the most desirable of traits.

"Kids see fame as a cure all for problems," says Jake Halpern, author of the new book "Fame Junkies: The Hidden Truths Behind America's Favorite Addiction." "Fame is an attractive fix-it."

Focusing on all things celebrity is also a form of release for many people. Ken Baker, West Coast executive editor for "US Weekly" magazine, looks back to Sept. 11 as a pivotal point, the dawn of a supposed new age of sincerity.

"[Readers] didn't go away from escaping. They embraced escaping," says Mr. Baker. "I'm not a sociologist, I'm a celebrity journalist. I don't know its cause and effect. I don't know if you can tie it to 9/11, but that's when our business took off."

Ironically, publications such as "People," "Star Magazine," "InTouch Weekly," and "Life&Style Weekly" have helped rescue the fortunes of print journalism. "Celebrity journalism" is one of the few sectors not being hammered by the Internet. Before "US Weekly" changed its formula in 2002 to "television in a magazine," says Baker, it sold about 200,000 on the newsstand. "We now sell a million [each week]." His readership is mostly college educated with a median income of $70,000.

Also driving society's interest in fame: a perfect marriage between technology and new media. There's a huge demand to cram these growing outlets – MySpace, Internet, cable TV, satellite radio – with content, according to Marc Lamont Hill, assistant professor of Urban Education at Philadelphia's Temple University.

"You can be home at 3 a.m. Googling Brad Pitt. Which of course people do," says Mr. Hill. "Because the Internet is a democratic thing, people can create their own website to Janet Jackson."

The 24/7 availability of blogs makes them irresistible. And with cheap cellphones and digital cameras, even Grandma can join the ranks of the paparazzi.

"If you see a celebrity at a bar, well, you can't e-mail 'US Weekly.' But you can e-mail your favorite blog," says David Hauslaib, editor and publisher of the three-year-old website

The Faustian bargain for fame and fortune just got a whole lot nastier. And more dangerous. While the public-private divide has evaporated, oddly, scandals make people feel closer to the stars they worship. (The drug rehab comeback story is a classic sin/redemption narrative that never bores the populace.)