One of my very first jobs out of college was as a reporter for Star. As opposed to the comparatively classy, glossy Star Magazine you see on the newsstands today, the Star of 1990 was truly notorious - a trashy tabloid whose direct competition was the National Enquirer and The Globe. Since publicists wouldn't talk to us and the internet could not yet be used as a reporting tool, we were expected to abandon our comfort zones and stop at nothing to get stories, whether that meant posing as extras on movie sets, crashing celebrity weddings and funerals, or knocking on the doors of the rich and famous and asking them the most cringe-worthy questions known to man.
I can recall knocking on the door of Bruce Springsteen's former wife and asking how she felt about his new baby - a low point in both my tabloid reporting career and in my lifelong Springsteen obsession.
As far as content went, nothing was too sacred... or so we were told. In truth, there were lines we weren't allowed to cross, not so much because The Star had any particular moral compass or even because the powers-that-be were afraid of getting sued. It was more a matter of sales: There were certain stories people simply didn't want to read.
Here's an example: I can recall numerous leads coming in via our tip line, concerning a much-loved TV star. The stories detailed the star's infidelity and far more disturbingly, his creepy and borderline predatory behaviour toward women. Hearing these stories from other reporters, I was shocked. This will be huge, I thought at the time. The type of celebrity news story with the potential to impact ratings, torpedo careers and spark water cooler conversations for months. Yet the powers-that-be opted not to pursue these leads at all. The reason? Readers didn't want to hear those things about that guy. Newsworthy as they may have been, these disturbing stories didn't fit his narrative.
And in Hollywood narrative is everything.
Don't get me wrong. There are plenty of working actors out there - people like Bryan Cranston, Cate Blanchet and Don Cheadle who, barring some kind of outrageous scandal, will always be more interesting for the roles they play than for who we believe them to be off-camera. But stars are different. Stars sell magazines and score clicks on gossip websites regardless of what movie they're in or even whether they're working at all. Their images, so often manufactured by the press, by their fans, or by the celebs themselves, are what make them intriguing and saleable and keep us coming back for more. They're the modern day version of Greek myths or folktales - with nearly as little basis in reality.
Think about Jennifer Aniston, a married 47-year-old woman whose four-year marriage to Brad Pitt ended more than a decade ago. Yet the role of wronged girl-next-door - a huge magazine-seller back in the mid-noughties - still clings to her like cheap fabric. According to numerous websites, gossip magazines, and some truly hilarious memes, Jen rejoiced over Brad and Angelina Jolie's split, laughing like a maniac and crowing about karma. There's also the whole motherhood thing. While Aniston has repeatedly insisted that she leads a fulfilling life without children, pregnancy rumours continue to dog her - most likely because it feels like a logical and satisfying next chapter for the Jen we believe we know.
Then there's Johnny Depp, whose image as a lovable, real-life Jack Sparrow has survived despite an ugly divorce from Amber Heard, including allegations of abuse and a troubling videotape that seemed to reinforce those claims. Meanwhile, Kim Kardashian's fame-hungry persona is such that, when she was recently robbed at gunpoint, many refused to believe it wasn't a publicity stunt for her show.
For more than a decade, I've worked as both an entertainment journalist and a novelist - and I can't help but see the overlap between the two worlds. What makes celebrities so compelling is the same thing that drives the characters in books: the idea that we know them and, on a level, understand them. When life throws in a plot twist (divorce, armed robbery), we try our best to make it fit into the narrative, lest it render a star such an unreliable narrator, we abandon him altogether. The beloved TV actor from my Star days was, of course, Bill Cosby. He hasn't sold a magazine in a long time.
A.L. Gaylin is the author of What Remains of Me, available now, Arrow, Paperback, £7.99
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