But each weekly also has its special flavor, which can be plotted along two axes—meanness and class. People is far and away the classiest and least mean, as well as the most old-school. In addition to coverage of Brad and Angelina, People runs pieces about Dick Cheney, the Alabama church fires, and Texas prison mothers.
Us Weekly was successfully reinvented four years ago as the flashier, shallower, bitchier kid sister to People. In Touch, on the other hand, passingly refers to Jennifer Garner as “ultrafit” and Ben Affleck as “buffer than ever.” The Star’s friendliness is more corporate: No other magazine runs as many purely promotional pictures and items about new movies and TV shows. The Brits behind the new Americanized OK! call what they do “relationship journalism,” which means 100 percent fulsomeness in the old mid-century fashion: “Angelina Opens Her Heart to OK!”
But none of the magazines (as opposed to the tabloids) seems gratuitously mean about stars except in the interest of reassuring the reader that celebrities are almost as flawed and ordinary as she is. In the Us Weekly photo section called “Stars—They’re Just Like Us!” every headline repeats the mantra as a kind of retard haiku: “They buy groceries!” (Anna Kournikova) and “They bite into hoagies!” (Nicole Richie). Star ran a startling pair of full-page photos of Calista Flockhart ungroomed and, six hours later, impeccably glamorized—and speculated about the specific L’Oréal and Maybelline products that may have transmuted Calista from an exhausted, scowling slug-like-them to a dazzling, girlish hottie.
This is postmodern democracy. The stars are brought down to the plebeians’ level—but now the plebes are also provided with exhaustive instructions for achieving the hallucination that they are just like the stars. In Style pioneered the back half of the equation, and still executes its upper-middlebrow, Uma-Gwyneth-Prada version impeccably. (Although I have a question: Did a Time Inc. fact-checker really confirm that Demi Moore wears a blue La Mystère embroidered-Swiss-tulle-lace bra?)
Dozens of pages of simulate-a-celebrity-lifestyle guides now appear in the magazines at every caste stratum. The same week Celebrity Living informed readers that celebrities were into skull motifs, Star was on the case, too: “Stars are boning up on fashion’s latest trend: skulls! They’re adding a cool edge to everything from cashmere tops to belts and bags.” You can suck the candy sucked by Mary-Kate Olsen. You can even buy the same battery charger the stars use.
Would you like to receive messages from (okay, about) your imaginary friends? People offers instant wireless “celebrity updates.” Enter the Matrix; embrace the fantasy. According to the Times, fashionable young women in cities like New York have now started wearing warm-weather clothes during the winter because they are unconsciously driven by ubiquitous “images of demiclad stars pushing strollers and sipping lattes” on “E! Entertainment and [in] celebrity magazines”—to make-believe they’re in Brentwood or Malibu.
It has gotten slightly insane. And I don’t mean figuratively.
But as I said at the outset, I have a hunch that the glut has finally reached a saturation point. The fever may be breaking.
The Nielsen ratings for this year’s Oscars were down 8 percent, and for the Grammys 11 percent. During the last half of 2005, the Enquirer’s newsstand sales were down by a quarter and Entertainment Weekly’s by 30 percent. The American OK! is said to be unwell, the magazine Inside TV was launched and killed last year, and a magazine called Star Shop was killed before it launched.
Like other American social tides, the fascination with celebrities has been cyclical, and after several decades of rising (as it also did from the twenties through the forties), perhaps it will now (as in the sixties) ebb. However, one difference this time is the fractured nature of mass culture: Because Americans no longer all watch the same TV shows and listen to the same music, they may feel a more desperate need to immerse themselves in the private lives of a few, almost arbitrary pseudo-superstars (Jessica Simpson?)—to feel the glamour by stalking the performers, since the performances don’t matter so much anymore.
But the designated media gatekeepers are saying that Paris Hilton, the very embodiment of modern celebrity black magic, is over. Maybe she’s the canary in the mine, whose end heralds the end of this extreme era. At the dénouement of our last celebrity-media-mad epoch, in the Sweet Smell of Success fifties, there was another sexy, slutty young Hilton whom the gossip rags obsessed over. Nicky Hilton, the great-uncle of Paris (and namesake of her sister), dated Mamie Van Doren, Natalie Wood, and Joan Collins, and married Elizabeth Taylor. By the time he died druggily in 1969, however, the public couldn’t have cared less, and the celebrity media that had made him briefly famous were dead or dying as well. So perhaps we won’t always have Paris.