If an embittered celebrity had wanted to take out the industry that profits off of her imperfections, New York University's School of Journalism would have been a good place to start. The dons and doyennes of gossip were all there for "The Britney Show,' a panel organized by The Atlantic in honor of its current issue featuring an article by David Samuels on the media's obsession with the bedraggled pop star. Justin Smith, editor in chief of The Atlantic said that unlike (ahem) other magazines, "when we put Spears on the cover, we did it at the peril of our news-stands sales. So even though we wrote a story about how Britney sells, our people were telling us that we were crazy to put her on our cover."
They smiled. In an arc before the audience were Regis Navarre, proprietor of Los Angeles' X17 paparazzi agency; his wife Brandy who heads X17online.com; Richard Johnson, editor of Page Six; and Bonnie Fuller, the former editor of Us Weekly and currently the editorial director of American Media. They look nothing like the scruffy paparazzi hounding starlets on TMZ.com. In fact, they look more like stars themselves, gleaming from the millions they have made following the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Rounding out the panel and playing the voice of the people were Virginia Heffernan of the New York Times Magazine and David Samuels, who led the discussion.
Samuels' first question was pitched to Fuller who is often credited with helping celebrity gossip make the leap from tabloids to magazines. Why, asked Samuels, did she do it? "I liked reading a lot of European magazines," she said, "and I loved to see the pictures of celebrities on the street. So if I liked it, I thought others would." It appealed to her as a woman, says Fuller who theorizes that magazines like Us Weekly have an 85% female readership because, "women like to talk to friends about their lives." They have mutual friends to gossip about in school, but not in the workforce. "You could go to a party where you don't know anyone," she says, "But you all know Britney and Angelina."
Is that the reason for their success? Before tabloids and gossip magazines, did women who didn't know each other sit mutely around a table? Heffernan brings another theory to account for celebrity obsession. "I think there's this phenomenal amount of forensic interest alive in the land," she mused, "a CSI like intensity. If you read the comments on Perez Hilton or TMZ, they are like art critics. They'll write something completely benign (in the caption) and leave the rest to the comment dogs."
Brandy Navarre agrees. "We're feeding the appetite," she says, "but I don't know who's creating the appetite." Brandy believes that she was the first one to talk to Sam Lutfi, Britney Spears' opportunistic boyfriend. "He was emailing me at first anonymously," says Brandy, "He gave me this huge interview -- Hi, I'm Britney Spears' friend and I know why she shave her head -- and he never asked for money, to this day. Though he implied that he wanted good coverage. We were happy to do it! We were getting these amazing exclusives... (Other) magazines were offering him a lot of money, but he came to us. I don't know why."
And Spears herself is known to call the media to photograph her outings. "Isn't this why she's so big," says Johnson, "because she manipulated the media? She goes shopping at 2 in the morning!"
"Yeah," chimed Heffernan, "Is she always running errands?"
"Well, we knew she was a sick woman but she knew she could do this and get attention," says Brandy, "It was self validating."
Which cues the elephant in the room: are the gossip magazines enablers of celebrity meltdowns? The first time Samuels asks the question he's answered with a unanimous "YES," but then they start to backtrack. Johnson is the first, claiming that photographers got a "bad rap" for Princess Diana. "I mean, the driver didn't have to be driving at 80 miles an hour," he says. Regis Navarre agrees, remembering the time when a shorn Spears attacked one of his photographers' cars with an umbrella. "I think we are sometimes a catalyst of something that's already happening," he says, "Britney was in front of Kevin Federline's house, she couldn't see her kids and someone was taking a photo of her. So she hit a car." But, says his wife, "I don't think we're making her crazy. It isn't just Britney Spears: Lindsay Lohan is having problems. Are we the ones who gave her this problem?" Her husband concurs. "In the case of Lindsay Lohan," he says, "we sped up the healing process because of the photographs. They have sent her to rehab." "So we're enablers," says Heffernan, wrapping up the discussion succinctly, "but also guardian angels."
The most interesting discovery of the afternoon is that Paris Hilton is the "positive" example of a starlet who knows how to get the attention of the paparazzi. "Paris always made sure she looked fabulous on the street," says Fuller, "And 'The Hills' girls and Nicole Richie are good examples. Their shows don't get huge ratings but hey make sure they look gorgeous on the red carpet and even on the street. That's positive. The negatives are the DUIs and drugs." Brandy Navarre agrees. "I think Lindsay and Britney took a cue from Paris but couldn't handle it," she says, "They would go out in front of cameras without planning."
Miley Cyrus could learn from Hilton's example. "She's never really launched a magazine she's been on the cover of," admits Fuller. But that isn't to say that agencies like X17 won't send photographers after her. "We're trying to create an archive on these girls," says Brandy. "Years ago we made the decision not to go to Venice High School where Britney Spears was shooting 'Baby One More Time'," she says, "That was a BAD decision." A reporter next to me gasps in horror. The implication is that they are courting young stars like Cyrus fully expecting them to crack and fall from grace. And when they do, they'll have enough shots for a before and after.
The panelists then moved on to the final question and answer session where they were asked whether paparazzi tactics were influencing political coverage. "Yes," said Regis, referring to the picture of Sen. Barack Obama vacationing in the Virgin Islands. "I think we are seeing this in the election, " says Fuller, "People no longer see this great barrier between them and the candidates. I think that's what young people feel about Obama. He's just like US!!"