The rise of the fabloids

Celebrity coverage that's cheap, star-friendly and makes Ashton Kutcher look like he has a Y chromosome.

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The worst thing about my 12-year-old daughter Isabel’s going off to sleepaway camp is that I couldn’t take her to the New York opening of “Legally Blonde 2.” Instead I went with her indifferent, yawning 17-year-old brother and my visiting 19-year-old nephew, who were hornily focused on the after-party.

There’s a moment of truth at movie premieres when all the hype — the cellphones and VIP passes and 7-foot-tall security goons with earbuds guarding the seats reserved for the star’s pedicurist and Kabbalah instructor — is vindicated. Barry Diller once described this moment to me at an Oscar party as “the exact second when all the bullshit metastasizes.”

At the “Legally Blonde” opening the magic moment is at 10 p.m. when Reese Witherspoon — pregnant, but only in the tiny, bowler-hat-under-the-gossamer-mini-dress way young movie stars have perfected — makes her way through the after-party throng in a shimmer of lip gloss and flash bulbs. “You were great in ‘American Psycho,’” says my nephew, who figures this strategy allows him to protect his film purism. “Whatever,” says Reese, with an absent-minded, vestigially irritated smile.

Ms. Witherspoon is the No. 1 blond love-object of Us Weekly, the trash mag favorite of the young and the strapless. Last week, its vixenish editor, Bonnie Fuller, who turned the ailing celebrity rag around, absconded after only 16 months to run the publishing group that includes the National Enquirer and the Star for a salary of up to $3 million a year. Her exit followed hard upon Fuller’s boss, Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner, coming on my show to talk about the magazine’s success without once mentioning her name. Probably just a coincidence.

Fuller’s cleverness at Us Weekly was knowing that there are only four or five celebrities anyone under 28 wants to read about. They are, currently, Reese and her husband Ryan Phillipe; Charlie’s Angel Drew Barrymore; the 25-year-old “Punk’d” star and Demi Moore playmate Ashton Kutcher; and Beyoncé Knowles, the Destiny’s Child babe. The other featured “stars” — spawned by reality TV, sitcoms, sequels to blockbusters, and way-up-the-dial cable channels — are around too briefly to make it worthwhile memorizing their names. They belong to the rampant tribe of what Radar magazine’s cover story this month dubs “B-list Nation.”



At the “Legally Blonde” opening, the famine in A-list celebrity (aside from Reese herself) was so profound that my son ended up granting three interviews. “My preference is for brunettes,” I overheard him telling an urgently scribbling reporter from the New York Observer.

The proliferation of new B-list celebs has given a heartening second wind to jaded entertainment editors. B-listers, unlike the big-gun “destination” actors, are always happy to be photographed. They couple and uncouple in sync with the newsstand frequency of each issue. What editor can be bothered anymore with arm-wrestling publicists for passé Hollywood royals like Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz? That relationship has no sizzle anyway. At 41 he’s too old (outside the demo, as MTV would say), and she’s dating in a fourth language. You’re better off with whosis and whatshername from the last reality show finale.

This means that editors of magazines that aspire to make real money no longer have to bother with expensive studio photo shoots where the star gets bossed into a bad mood by some hissing “stylist” and his retinue of spike-haired assistants. (The most preposterous cover credit I ever published at Vanity Fair was a picture of Dustin Hoffman in a black turtleneck sweater with the caption “Styled by Sheva Fruitman.”) Shrinking magazine budgets are less tolerant these days of studio bills for five-star breakfast buffets laid on for stars and their entourages who usually shun the exorbitant croissants in favor of herbal tea.

Something cheerfully democratic and businesslike is happening to celebrity coverage. At a time of excess media, pictures can’t look mediated. The tabloids have always lived on paparazzi pix. But the fabloids — as I like to think of Us Weekly and its imitators — are the pioneers of the choreographed, resourcefully produced paparazzi shot. Celebrity “sightings” are sometimes as arranged as studio shots were before. (It’s the same in politics. Think W landing on the aircraft carrier in perfect evening light.) A publicist calls to tell the magazine’s picture editors that at midnight Star X is going to be making out with Twinkie Y at New York’s hottest nightspot, Bungalow 8. The “snap” of them together — she in the tiny red Gucci thong she’s contracted to promote, he in the sunglasses whose account he is negotiating to land — goes straight to the next fabloid cover, fulfilling all the requirements of product placement. And at little cost to the magazine.

Shrewd publicists know that the essential extra component in a movie’s hype is the celebrity romance. The plot of “America’s Sweethearts,” the fanciful Julia Roberts comedy of a couple of years back, has been recycled as a marketing plan. Cameron Diaz’s walkabout with Justin Timberlake and Demi Moore’s smoochfest with Ashton Kutcher were handily timed for the opening of “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle.” The Demi/Ashton twofer is especially hot because it has something for everybody. It makes Ashton look as if he has a Y chromosome and Demi look like a dangerous woman. It prompts middle-aged babes on the loose to upgrade their dating profiles on Match.com.

Meanwhile their besotted teenage daughters know that Ashton is still, like, available because of Demi’s immense age (40). Perhaps that tired old duo Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck could freshen up their act by having J.Lo dump him for the horse in “Seabiscuit”?

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Tina Brown's column appears every Thursday in Salon.

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