Star Struck

Newt Gingrich apparently was not newsworthy enough, nor Bill Clinton, nor Colin Powell. No, in 1995, the year's most prominent newsmaker was a British supermodel named Elizabeth Hurley. Or at least that's who Newsweek's end-of-the-year "newsmaker" edition featured -- in black leather -- on the cover. "Hurley is an odd sort of celebrity," the article inside mused. "The world spent a year in her company, pondering her deep chestnut hair, blue-green eyes and formidable figure ... yet got to know her not at all. Her face, yes, and her forbearance, but little else."Hurley certainly is an "odd sort of celebrity": Her primary claim to fame is her "formidable figure" -- featured in Estee Lauder ads -- and a movie star boyfriend who took a spin with a prostitute on Sunset Boulevard. That didn't stop one of the nation's top newsmagazines from coronating her, with its cover choice, newsmaker of the year. O.J. Simpson and Courteney Cox, one presumes, were close runners-up.And so it is that we draw near the end of the celebrity century. Eighty years ago, early filmmakers came upon the strategy of selling their product by turning actors into brand names. Television raised the stakes dramatically, prompting Daniel Boorstin in 1962 to define the celebrity as "a person who is well known for his well-knownness." Today, we seem to have reached the apex of the most recent celebrity explosion -- powered by a volatile mix of new communications media (cable TV, computers, and space satellites) and cultural change. We're soaked in celebrity. Larry King plays celebrity sycophant and political kingmaker -- all in the same night. Jackie O's fake pearls draw big bucks and big coverage. The novelty and nuance of Boorstin's phrase have been lost entirely. What was once a revelation is now a cliche. Many of this era's dismaying stories have been well told: the capture of politics by made-for-TV candidates; the growth of tabloid gossip and half-truths; the sea change in cultural values. Still largely untold, though, is what might be called the story of the storytellers -- the men and women who breathe life into Hollywood icons, who decode, justify, and ultimately solidify their fame. And it's not only tabloid hacks or publicists' suckers who are drawn into the celebrity vortex. It's the best and the brightest as well. We've seen a rash of supermarket gossip rags, People magazine imitators, and celebro-news TV shows. But as a cultural phenomenon, these second- and third-tier outlets pale in importance to Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, "Prime-Time Live," and even The New York Times -- the quality publications that are increasingly consumed with celebrity nonsense. To some, criticizing celebro-journalism might seem as irrelevant as criticizing fatty food -- people want it; it tastes good; the market delivers. There will always be an appetite for celebrity gossip and glossy profiles -- for Us and In Style and "Entertainment Tonight," even for the dubious "news" of the tabloids. But truly talented writers are a rare quantity in this world. They have the ability to set priorities, to focus attention away from what's easy, or sexy, or light, or irrelevant. When they could be checking the steamroller of celebrity glitz and superficiality, many of them are gleefully pushing it along. Lost in Hollywood The roots of modern celebrity journalism can be traced to Walter Winchell, father of the gossip column. Winchell was a fierce talent, but also a coarse newspaperman with few pretensions to quality. "I wait until I can catch an ingrate with his fly open, and then I take a picture of it," he once wrote. The early Hollywood fan magazines were even a notch below Winchell. It's no surprise that few celebrity writers from the '30s and '40s -- like Hedda Hopper, Louella Parsons, and Sheilah Graham (less remembered for her work than for being F. Scott Fitzgerald's mistress) -- resonate today. The "stars" of celebrity journalism could be counted easily on two hands. And their work was rigorously segregated -- "presented rather sheepishly," writes Richard Schickel in Intimate Strangers, "if at all, in journals of any aspiration to quality, typically tucked around the movie ads." Still, the celebrity culture had taken hold. In the '40s, as Joe DiMaggio, Ernest Hemingway, Marlene Dietrich, and Joseph Kennedy Sr. all gathered at Cub Room in the Stork Club to see and be seen, intellectuals like Lionel Trilling proclaimed ours the age of celebrity. Then television happened, adding dramatically to the star-power of assorted athletes, journalists, salesmen, actors, and political figures. Anyone who appeared on the box found fame, and anyone with fame found celebration. It was the end of the 1960s before the next phase of celebrity obsession began, a time when wrenching assassinations and the lies of the Vietnam War and Watergate hastened a loss of faith in the public sphere.Andy Warhol became the icon of celebrity in this era. His Interview magazine -- which dressed up fashion designers, musicians, and politicians for glamorous photo shoots -- paved the way for People, which debuted in 1974. But perhaps the more significant entry on the scene was Rolling Stone, a magazine "not just about music," founder Jann Wenner wrote in the first issue in 1967, "but also about the things and attitudes that music embraces." The magazine sought to capture the edge of avant-garde musicians by writing profiles with verve, style, and intimacy. At first, it was Lennon and Jagger. Soon, it was Beatty and Letterman as well. Rolling Stone was a landmark in American journalism, because it was the first to marry the top-caliber reporter/essayist with the celebrity subject. Esquire and New York -- other pioneers in the new journalism -- soon followed. At first, the magazines included considerable doses of more serious work. But the proportion of celebrity pieces grew, especially after Tina Brown took over Vanity Fair in the early '80s. Brown produced slick celebrity covers -- and profiles with edge -- at a frenetic pace, and her competitors raced to keep up. Rolling Stone by this point had moved from the countercultural bastion of San Francisco to New York City, where it fully embraced the world of corporate entertainment. In 1993, when Brown traveled across Manhattan to take hold of one of the magazine world's most elegant prizes, The New Yorker, the phenomenon of celebrity journalism had reached startling new heights. As editor, Brown has drawn heaps of scorn -- and plenty of praise -- for making the magazine punchier, glossier, and more focused on breaking news. But the primary facet of her editorial vision -- her successful strategy for making the magazine "hot" again -- is a fixation on celebrities. "Talk of the Town," once home to quirky, gorgeously written portraits of ordinary life, is now often dominated by celebrity news, gossip, and profiles. "Fabio was in his golden Jaguar," a May 1993 piece begins, "gliding down Sunset Boulevard on his way to the Hotel Bel-Air. He's powerful when he's driving -- even more powerful than he looks on the covers of over fifty million romance novels." The piece goes on to treat us to Fabio's intimate thoughts and the details of his tree-climbing, fish-loving childhood. And if you're hungry for more celebrity detail, the body of the magazine has featured pieces on Sharon Stone, and John Travolta, and Roseanne Barr. "The level of the writing is as high as it's ever been," Hendrik Hertzberg, the magazine's executive editor, told the American Journalism Review. He's not wrong -- the celebrity pieces are sharp and intelligent. Sharon Stone must have been thrilled at having a wordsmith as skilled as The New Yorker's John Lahr dissect her character, especially because her profile coincided with the opening of Diabolique. But what new ground could possibly be covered after lengthy profiles of the actress in GQ, Vanity Fair, and Esquire? Reading all four profiles together, one gets a strange sense of deja vu. John Lahr, The New Yorker, March 25, 1996: "Her detachment and her wit keep the public both engaged and at arm's length. Recently, when she was auctioning off Naomi Campbell's navel ring to movie panjandrums at a benefit in Cannes, a brash mogul offered Stone twelve thousand dollars if she tossed in her underwear. 'Anyone with seven-fifty knows I don't wear underwear,' she said." Gerri Hirshey, GQ, November 1995: "As a celebrity auctioneer at an AIDS fund-raiser ... she parried one bidder's suggestion that she auction a pair of her panties with Mae West-ian aplomb: 'Anyone with $7.50 knows that I don't wear underpants.'" Bill Zehme, Esquire, March 1995: "'Heee-heee-heee,' said Sharon, 'I saw your butt! 'You did not,' I said. 'I did so,' she said.... Thinking fast, I said that I've seen hers, too. 'Who hasn't?' she said. 'Anybody with seven bucks can see my ass, buddy.'" Unless you read a great many celebrity profiles back-to-back--something I don't recommend -- it's easy to miss this repetitive quality. What also becomes apparent is the extraordinary effort that goes into these pieces. It makes you realize the good these writers could do if they told the stories of people with a purpose beyond raising their per-film salary from $12 to $15 million. Remember the self-effacing character in The Big Chill who wrote for People magazine? He claimed his work was designed to hold people's attention on the toilet -- nothing more. That same sense of shamelessness pervades People's celebrity coverage. There's an obviously worshipful tone that writers, subjects, and readers immediately recognize. But elite celebrity profilers want more than that. Not surprisingly, given their considerable talent, they aspire to quality. Consider Bill Zehme. He's a marvelous writer, the rare sort who can avoid the squishy anecdote and cut straight to the heart of the matter. His piece about Warren Beatty in Rolling Stone hit the actor so dead-on that Beatty's girlfriend at the time, Madonna, was heard reading the piece to travelers in her limousine. When she saw Zehme later at a party, she gave him a high-five. Zehme says his goal is no less than to "climb inside a person's mind" and "capture their essence." And so he remains skeptical -- not a tongue-wagging fan like some dope from People. "The one thing I've never had about any of these celebrities," Zehme says, "is this perpetual sense of awe. So much of the stuff, it's like fans writing. I'm a fan to a point, but you have to leave that at the door if you want to write anything that approaches serious journalism." But in the next breath, Zehme admits that he's never really critical. "You tease, but don't burn," he explains. As an example, he mentions his Rolling Stone piece on Arnold Schwarzenegger -- a breezy, funny portrait of an actor's life. "I teased him relentlessly," Zehme says about this piece. "And he didn't like it. But it's the least of my concerns whether or not Arnold Schwarzenegger will take me on a ride in his humvee." To Zehme, Schwarzenegger's displeasure proves he was sufficiently tough; it confirms his journalistic bona-fides. But the light sarcasm of the piece is nothing compared with the facts Zehme left out -- say, Schwarzenegger's fondness for Kurt Waldheim, his political exploits, or his campaigns of intimidation against writers. Zehme's use of the word "tease" is instructive. Friends tease, certain of a shared understanding and mutual trust. Among celebrities and their profile writers, there is a similar understanding. Zehme calls his recent Esquire profile of Jay Leno "a hard piece, a tough piece." Indeed, the first line asks: "Is he man or machine? Is he good or evil?" We learn the dark detail that Leno has erased the first four months of "Tonight Show" tapes and that "in this way, he has erased much of his life story." But the last line of the first paragraph -- "Jay Leno cannot be stopped" -- is a better prediction of how the story will proceed. "I helped [Leno] exorcise a lot of the demons that had built up over time," Zehme says. Is glossy celebrity journalism about serving the purpose of art -- or about providing free therapy and fawning biographical services? Writers and editors for these top magazines claim the former -- they would be embarrassed to write the syrupy, superficial pieces that the stars love and publicists swoon over. "I do not see ,GQ as fulfilling [publicists'] wishes for marketing," says Arthur Cooper, editor of that magazine. "What they would love is a positive story, a rave, how wonderful this person is, how wonderful the movie is. That's not part of the deal." But when was the last time you read a critical celebrity piece in GQ, or one that panned an upcoming film release (not a movie that had already bombed)? Cooper told me he thought GQ's December 1995 cover story on Antonio Banderas was "tough." Did I read the same story? "At 35, Banderas couldn't be better situated. Fresh from a fat action movie (Assassins), a romantic comedy (Two Much), a creepy little thriller (Never Talk to Strangers) and a much hyped study in hipness (Four Rooms), he's proved himself to be as versatile as he is ubiquitous ... inches shy of superstardom." The article follows this tone throughout, pausing only to chart with painstaking detail the public display of affection between Banderas and his girlfriend, Melanie Griffith.The conceit is that this is "serious journalism." These celebrity profilers see themselves as variants on the hard-nosed political reporter, speaking truth to power. They ask the tough question, offer the embarrassing detail. But it's all just part of the celeb-profile formula. The pieces are written with wry affection; coy hints of criticism ultimately resolve into a dew of pleasantries.Johanna Schneller's profile of Brad Pitt in Vanity Fair progresses as follows: "The first time you meet Brad Pitt, you think, Oh dear, Brad Pitt is a knucklehead.... The second time you meet Brad Pitt, you think, Brad Pitt is smarter than he lets on.... The last time you meet Brad Pitt, you think, Brad Pitt is a happy man." In other words, she starts with vinegar, then smothers Pitt with honey. Lloyd Grove, a Washington Post writer who doubles as celebrity profiler for Vanity Fair, has this pitch down perfectly. In his recent piece on Sharon Stone, he goes out of his way to embarrass her; he includes the prices she pays for Persian rugs, even as he quotes her asking him not to. In a discussion of Ireland, she "gush[es] about one of her favorite 'Irish' authors: 'I have to say, Dylan Thomas just cuts me to the bone.'" (Get it? Thomas is Welsh!) But these are mere pinpricks in the portrait of a stunning, winsome movie star. The overall effect is less accurately captured by the embarrassing details of expensive rugs and misidentified poets than by a scene toward the end: "A beautiful woman driving a jet-black Jeep has pulled up to a curb in West Hollywood, 20 feet from where I'm using a pay phone.... I hang up the phone mid-conversation, without saying good-bye. Her windblown curls dangle at lovely angles. She leans over to open the passenger door, and playfully slaps the empty seat. She is smiling a luscious, lip-glossed smile. Feeling giddy, I obediently climb in next to her. It's Sharon Stone." Of course, a piece with honest criticism -- one that burned, or even singed -- would be devastating for a magazine that depends on access to stars. And it would be no good for the writers, either. Consider this: After Bill Zehme's Esquire profile appeared, Jay Leno received a $4 million advance to write his autobiography and the opportunity to choose a ghostwriter, who would be paid at least six figures. He chose Bill Zehme. The Deal with Aniston At times, journalists are ordered to produce a pleasant piece so as not to alienate a star, an agent, or a studio. Usually it's more subtle. "It's this complicated, ambiguous situation," says New York editor Kurt Andersen. "Bargains are struck, implicitly and explicitly.... There is some complicated P.R. algorithm that operates in each instance." The writers and editors I spoke to all denied making deals and insisted on their full independence. But, as Andersen suggests, the deals don't have to be spoken. The biggest deal of all is this: Stars agree to be interviewed; writers agree to certain assumptions about celebrity. As one celebrity profiler for a top New York magazine puts it, "My job is to explain why this person is on the cover of a magazine." The subject must be portrayed as complicated and interesting, worthy of the honor of, say, Esquire's cover. And so excellent writers spend dozens of hours and spill gallons of ink striving to give synthetic idols a human gloss. The cast of the TV show "Friends" has appeared on dozens of magazine covers since the series became a hit. Each of the stories has an implicit argument: These people do more than read lines well and look good in makeup. As people, they are interesting. As usual, Rolling Stone was quick out of the gate with a piece on the cast. Then in March, Jennifer Aniston got the cover. The image is of the actress lying on her stomach, facing the camera, entirely naked. But inside we're told that it's not Jennifer Aniston's body we should be interested in -- it's her mind: "When she was 12 years old," the table of contents explains, "Jennifer Aniston was sent to her room for having nothing to say. Fifteen years later, she's not just the girl of the moment; she's not just America's First Hairdo; she's interesting" (italics in original). In the piece, Rich Cohen writes, "'Friends' did for Aniston just what she always knew such a hit would do -- make her the most fascinating person at the table. Interesting is a word that seems to cling to her like a sweater.... 'I'm just baffled,' she says. 'I mean, you think you're just the most uninteresting person in the world, and then all this happens, and you have to wonder, 'Is any of it real?'" Well, no, it's not. No offense to Aniston, but the profile makes it pretty clear that she still has nothing much to say, even though Cohen is arguing the opposite. We hear about her parents' divorce ("It was awful"), her former flab ("I ate too many mayonnaise sandwiches"), and her circle of friends in L.A. ("Everybody watched out for everybody"). Aniston is pleased with her success and annoyed at the photographers who stalk her. In other words, she's a perfectly ordinary Hollywood actress. Oh, yes, and she's very good-looking. The last line of the article reads: "Then she stands up and walks off and looks terrific going away." The ethos that pervades this type of piece is a simple tautology: Celebrities deserve our attention because they're celebrities. The Aniston article fell flat, but sometimes the pieces are pretty convincing. After Newsweek senior editor Jon Meacham's "newsmaker" cover story on Elizabeth Hurley, we finally know something of her elusive personality. In the hands of such a capable writer, the model is made to be intriguing. We learn that she reads Nabokov, Graham Greene, and Evelyn Waugh; that "there is about her an air of controlled bohemianism, a witty, self-aware defiance"; that she is considering converting to Catholicism. It's sophisticated and intelligent -- as is Norman Mailer's dissection of Madonna in Esquire and Tom Junod's piece on John Travolta in GQ. These writers run circles around the third-stringers of the old Hollywood fan magazines. They give us firsthand reports, rather than regurgitating press releases. They give us flair and style, rather than lifeless prose. But it isn't progress. It's a waste of talent. The George ProblemIn 1987, the tabloid TV show "A Current Affair" went on the air across the country with its formula of sex, scandals, and celebrities. Just recently, the show was canceled, as clear a sign yet of its influence. In the same way that smart politicians co-opt their opponents' message, the smartest, most able TV journalists made "A Current Affair" irrelevant by adopting its gratuitous coverage of celebrities. Diane Sawyer -- formerly of "60 Minutes" -- fought for (and won) an interview with Michael Jackson for "Prime Time Live." On the "respectable" network news shows, these celeb pieces are regular fare. "Dateline NBC" recently ran a segment on Kato Kaelin, which was plugged by Tom Brokaw on the evening news. It turns out that the segment featured clips lifted from "Geraldo." As many of the country's best general interest magazines increasingly focus on celebrities, the big news operations scramble to keep up. Time put Claudia Schiffer on the cover for a story on fashion; inside, a story on supermodels -- striving to paint the women as more than just pretty faces -- falsely reported that Schiffer, Elle MacPherson, and Naomi Campbell control New York's Fashion Cafe. "It's our baby," Schiffer told Time. "We make all the decisions." But as Michael Gross points out in his book Models, these women don't even own shares in the venture; Time -- and other august news organizations that have reported the supermodels' "ownership" -- apparently bought into a publicity stunt. Even when celebrity stories are accurate, they are often of dubious value. Sara Rimer, a national correspondent for The New York Times, was dispatched recently to cover the wedding of Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen, which was run as the top story on the national page. The Washington Post has put its reporters on the British royalty beat -- playing the Charles-Diana drama on the front page three times in recent months. Just as NBC News lifted tabloid material from "Geraldo," reporters at the O.J. Simpson trial scoured each issue of The National Enquirer for tips and leads. "I don't think there is a person here who is not reading it religiously," Washington Post reporter Christine Spolar said during the trial. Of course, many hands have been wrung over the O.J. coverage. But, as the saying goes, past is prologue. Now that the country's best papers see The National Enquirer as competition, how far will the chase go?Linda Mathews, The New York Times' national editor during the O.J. trial, sums up the problem: "If you put your resources into covering celebrities, then you don't cover ordinary people," she says. "You ignore stories that ultimately are probably more important to your readers." In recent years, Gallup's lists of the people Americans most admire have included Cher, Donald Trump, Princess Di, and Elizabeth Taylor. That may be unnerving, but it shouldn't surprise. As the best publications capitulate to P.R. hype, it makes sense that the people with the biggest star power, regardless of their merit as individuals, would get the most acclaim. The focus on personality at the expense of substance has also crept into coverage of business, culture, and politics. The New York Times just published yet another psycho-historical profile of Bob Dole. When is someone going to take a serious look at his record? If such pieces move towards filtering the substance out of politics, George, a new political magazine with supermodels and movie stars on its cover, is trying to finish the job. George is a lot of fun, and it's done a few good, serious pieces. But for the most part, it covers Washington the way Vanity Fair covers Hollywood -- that is to say, the best writers, the shiniest celebrities, the reduction of everything possible to the gloss of personality. Each issue closes with a celebrity describing what they would do "If I Were President." As if we should care. Of course, John F. Kennedy Jr. is building on a family tradition here; his father brilliantly packaged himself as a politician-star and used that glamour to win in 1960. There are few elements of our present celebrity culture that cannot be traced to something in the past. But the culture today is a different creature. Yes, Edward R. Murrow did interviews with movie stars, but his serious friends were embarrassed. In the '50s, a new magazine devoted exclusively to celeb-gossip called Confidential sputtered out. No imitators followed. Today, such magazines abound, and so do writers to fill their pages. Celebrity coverage remains one of journalism's few guaranteed growth sectors. Metro staffs are slimming; most political magazines lose money or barely break even. But a new site on the World Wide Web called "Mr. Showbiz" and run by the former editor of the New York Post's "Page Six" gossip column already employs 22 people. And at the top of the food chain, writers for GQ, Vanity Fair, and The New Yorker are plying a very similar trade. Even as you read this they are hard at work producing the next groundbreaking inquiry into the character of Tom Cruise, or Antonio Banderas, or Sharon Stone, making sure that this generation of celebrities will be more ably chronicled than any in history. But these are writers who could move worlds with their words. They are masters of narrative and language, of irony and pathos. And they're squandering that tremendous power. The work of such writers as Darcy Frey, whose book The Last Shot painted a vivid portrait of four young basketball players in the New York projects, and who has more recently profiled air traffic controllers and postnatal care doctors for The New York Times Magazine, is a reminder of what good writing can do. His work is maddening, gripping, sad -- and very real. Many of the best and the brightest writers could do work just as meaningful. Instead, they have chosen instead to ply the trade of celebrity sycophancy. Chasing the money in a "Mr. Showbiz" society, they act as if they are tour guides at Disney World instead of cultural arbiters, as if their job is to perpetuate the fantasy, not nudge us back towards the real world. Although it's hard to estimate the toll on any given day, the signs of a culture slowly losing its grip on reality -- distracted from broken schools by Hugh Grant, distracted from a broken health care system by O.J. Simpson -- are legion. "Charles Dickens could have written these lines about Elizabeth Hurley," Barbara Walters said introducing an interview with the model. "'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.'" If he were alive today, he just might have.

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