The year 2007—a simpler time, mostly. Steve Jobs announced the iPhone. The most devastating thing in British politics was the SNP winning in Scotland. The smoking ban happened.
But in the world of celebrity, 2007 was a year of extremes. Britney shaved her head, Paris Hilton went to jail, Lindsay Lohan went to rehab three times, Nicole Richie served 82 minutes of a prison sentence, Anna Nicole Smith tragically died of an overdose—the details of which were picked apart in the celebrity press. In the UK, Pete Doherty and Amy Winehouse were permanent fixtures in the British red tops. Headlines screamed of drug abuse, dropping weights, rehab admissions and parole violations. And this is all before the sidebar of shame was anywhere near what we know today.
Rehab, surely, was the word of the year in 2007. Anyone labelled a "trainwreck" was packed off there—voluntarily or not. But a decade on, celebrity culture has shifted dramatically. Instagram is where the battle for celebrity status plays out: Taylor Swift, the Kardashians, the Hadids—they're all preened and filtered and branded to perfection. Our stars "eat clean", they don't drink, they don't smoke. If they're papped, it's more likely to be when they're buying an iced coffee than puking out of a taxi. The biggest celeb shocker of the year—Kim Kardashian's nude selfie—wasn't an act of recklessness or mental breakdown, but an expertly planned pseudo-political statement. Even Miley Cyrus is so 2013.
The year of the celebrity car crash went hand in hand with the rise of a celebrity gossip culture that arguably reached its peak in 2007. Blogs like Perez Hilton blew open the world of the rich and famous, publishing minute details of their lives, practically in real time, for the first time ever. And unlike traditional media outlets and established magazines, "the blogs had nothing to lose, but everything to gain", says Heat news editor Issy Sampson, who has been working in celebrity journalism for over ten years. "The news cycle was being churned out a lot faster, and I don't think celebrities or publicists were prepared for the shift in pace… every breakdown was out to see because the publicist lost that way of stopping the news getting out."
"The relentless tabloid misogyny that was directed at female celebrities in the mid-2000s arguably contributed to the decline of Britney Spears' mental health in 2007; that then led to her losing of custody of her children."
– Dr Hannah Hamad
And so the role of the publicist became that of 24-hour damage control, and rehab became a public apology. "Young Hollywood started to check into rehab in around 2004," says popculturediedin2009, the anonymous blogger who painstakingly archives mid-00s culture. "It became the go-to damage control strategy. Two of three times Lindsay checked into rehab in 2007 was after a DUI; Britney checked in to cool the press around her shaved head; Kate Moss checked in after the release of those cocaine photos. Rehab, for the top tabloid stars of that era, was a way to win a few redemption points before screwing up again."
This kind of glorification of the celebrity "screw up" feels outdated in 2017, where there is at least some discussion around the impact celebrity can have on mental health. "There was a truth to Britney's head shaving incident—cutting away her beauty, her celebrity image—and to Amy [Winehouse]'s public breakdowns," says Sean Redmond, editor of Celebrity Cultures. "They are both revealing, albeit in different ways, of the fraught psychology of celebrity culture, its gendered nature and the loneliness that fame can induce."
"The relentless tabloid misogyny that was directed at female celebrities in the mid-2000s arguably contributed to the decline of Britney Spears' mental health in 2007; that then led to her losing custody of her children. It also contributed to the sadly predictable death of Amy Winehouse in 2011," says Dr Hannah Hamad, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at UEA. "Justin Bieber was charged and convicted of vandalism in 2013, and he was arrested in 2014 for driving under the influence. However, none of this generated nearly the same level of scandal and controversy that Amy Winehouse, Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton would have done in the mid-2000s."
So has the spotlight dimmed or are celebrities now just better at maintaining their privacy, giving the tabloids—and the public—what they want to see via their carefully curated social media presence? "I think they're much better at hiding [their behaviour]," she says. "When people party with Justin Bieber they have to hand their phone in at the door… You get the occasional leak, but most celebrities are hyper-aware about everything they do."
While celebrities and their PRs are better at hiding their behaviour, it's also the case that clean living, or at least putting that appearance across, sells. "A lot of people have looked at the Kim Kardashian business model, which was to cut yourself off from anything dirty and gross," says Issy. "You hardly ever see the Kardashians looking out of control, if ever. So I think a lot of people are taking that as the blueprint."
And have the tabloids and celebrity gossip magazines learned from 2007? "The media in general still seems to feed off of negativity and false stories, but people are becoming more conscious about cyber bullying, addiction, body issues and other struggles," says another mid-2000s blogger, partylikeits2007. "Although social media is causing a growth in bullying, it is a powerful tool that can have a positive impact on how people are viewing the world."
Of course, now, the rare car crash moments turn into clickbait—something partylikeits2007 says "has much greater consequences we likely won't feel nostalgic about". The tabloids and gossip websites are no more opposed to shocking headlines and voyeurism than they were in 2007—just look at the way Kanye West's recent breakdown was jumped on. And as these things happen: with Amanda Bynes, or Kanye West, or whoever else—we tweet at them, we laugh about it, we show our friends, and the media reports their every move with "you'll never believe what this celebrity has done" headlines – even for the most benign of activities.
So really, perhaps unsurprisingly, as much as we might think of ourselves as historically woke, nothing's changed: while 2007-style "trainwrecks" might be few and far between, in the end, both the media and its audience will always take some pleasure in watching celebrities fall from grace.