Adele is dating Skepta. The gossip columns have unearthed indisputable evidence proving their relationship to be fact:
- Both from Tottenham.
- Adele likes Grime.
- Their chat on social media includes heart emojis.
- A source says they are.
Are Skepta and Adele really cuddled up on the sofa together right now? Or is this story, and all the other stories like it, wholly fabricated? Is "a source close to" actually just code for "I'm making this up because I need to write a story before 6PM"? Is Jennifer Aniston really still in love with Brad Pitt, or does she not give a fuck? To find out, I spoke to former and current showbiz reporters about how the sausage gets made.
In the 1990s and early 2000s almost all showbiz stories would leak out at celebrity parties. The job of the journalist would be to ignore the prawn tempura and pink champagne, and instead chase the rumours. Former Mirror showbiz journalist Jody Thompson would turn up to these events every night after work (yes, she was very tired), sidle up to celebs and attempt to get information through conversation. A simple, "Is there anything going on in your love life?" would often kickstart a story, but she remembers journos employing more extreme tactics.
"I remember this reporter snuck into a party that Kelly Osbourne was having, hid behind a sofa and started listening into Kelly's conversation," she says. "She was caught, and Kelly punched her in the face [Osbourne was arrested in 2009 for allegedly slapping a gossip columnist]. It sounds quite extreme, but there was already history between them – this reporter had been making up all sorts of nonsense about Kelly and that was definitely the final straw."
Back then you could get stories just from being in close proximity to celebrities. Stars weren't as media-trained, so were far less likely to robotically dribble out comments their PR had fed them or move the conversation in the direction of their new fitness DVD. Camilla Wright, the editor of Popbitch, recalls how celebrities were a lot messier in the 2000s than they are now: "One of The Mirror's 3AM Girls was in a members bar like China White or Met Bar, and they happened to walk in on this famous couple shagging in the loo. She was thinking, 'Fucking hell, brilliant story,' although they eventually spotted her and came out all punchy and shouty."
At that time, reporting could be described as sloppier. "Sometimes 'a source says' just meant, 'I made it up in the newsroom,'" Camilla explains. "If you needed to put quote marks around something, you could just ask the person next to you on the news desk. 'Sources close to' often was the star themselves making a comment."
These guerrilla tactics quickly came to an end after the Leveson Inquiry, which revealed journalists scraping through bins, sneaking into parties and hacking phones, all in the name of a headline story. Though showbiz reporters might not have been the main culprits, according to Camilla, a profession-wide culture change ensued: "Journalists were a lot more careful about what they were putting in the newspapers, as they were scared of going against the Leveson regulations. Equally, celebrities became nervous about talking to the press because there was a loss of trust."
These days, celebrities choreograph their appearance in the glossies. Stories don't just slip into the papers; instead, they are meticulously mediated by the star and their publicist for maximum impact.
Presenter and journalist Ellie Phillips, who works for MailOnline Showbiz, says much of her work involves building trust between publicists and stars. People feed her information because they know she will handle it sensitively. It's not unusual for publicists to get in contact to inform Ellie of who their star client is dating.
"If the celebrity has been out of the limelight for a while, a relationship is a good way to get people interested again – I mean, everyone loves a romance," she says. "Publicists will tell me about relationships. Sometimes it'll just be an off the record comment, others it will be something I can quote in a piece, then I try to get more information – where was the date, are they exclusive... we want a fuller picture because people like all those juicy details."
Ellie follows an exhaustive legal procedure to make sure each article is accurate. "Every source has to be close to the person, a family member, friend, colleague – maybe they work on the TV show the star is currently on. Then we reach out to the PR for comment on whether the story is true; they will either confirm, deny or say no comment. If it's a denial we don't go ahead and publish the story, unless to confirm the denial."
It is publicists, not reporters, who are the gateway to these stories, so it's increasingly important for reporters to be nice about stars, otherwise no one will feed you gossip. "You can feel when you've been ostracised," says Popbitch Editor, Camilla. "There are only a few big publicity agencies with big stars on their books that will talk to gossip magazines. If you do something that pisses that agency off you will lose those contacts to everybody in that world. So journalists now are more nervous on what to report on."
These days, it's much easier for showbiz journalists to do stories in conjunction with celebrities.
"If you're nice to somebody, the manager will make sure you get in on the next story, and then the next story," says Camilla. "If you get a nasty scoop on someone – well, it might be juicy, but then you'e got to find the second one on your own. That might be what's expected of you at The Sun, but there's not much left of that kind of snarky web stuff going on anymore. All the weekly mags are folding – everyone has to be much more careful."
As well as going through their publicists, Camilla explains that a lot of influencers now have to run stories through the brands they represent before going public with information: "They have to speak to those who are paying them – the tooth whitening company, the slimming tea company, the gym – to make sure they're happy with the story. It couldn't be more inauthentic." Does that mean if BooHoo didn't approve of your new boyfriend you'd have to keep your relationships under wraps? "I reckon you would," Camilla admits.
If you hear about a celebrity relationship in 2019, it's likely because they wanted you to, not because someone found enough evidence to print a story on it. The idea of celebrities selling information about themselves isn't anything new, but it has become more prevalent in recent years. "I remember [an X Factor star] met rugby playboy Danny Cipriani at a party," Camilla recalls. "She ran off to the toilets to ring one of the tabloid showbiz hacks and tell them to send a photographer so that when she left the club with Danny they could get photos. I think he was quite surprised to see himself in the paper the next morning."
Aside from keeping them in the limelight, if stars tip off the paparazzi about an upcoming date, they can negotiate to take a cut when the photographer sells the images to the papers. Unsurprisingly, this can provoke some slightly tragic behaviour. "At parties, you often see fading reality stars trying to get pictured next to somebody famous," Camilla explains. "They will desperately try to sell the story, but often nobody wants to pick it up. It happens a lot."
With celebrities on their best behaviour around the press, a lot of the detective work when it comes to unearthing relationships happens through social media. Anton unfollows Molly-Mae on Instagram, Naomi Campbell likes Liam Payne's shirtless picture, Lewis Hamilton comments "oh hey" on a selfie of Nicki Minaj in little more than knickers. "Give me 30 minutes and I can usually find out anything and everything about someone through their social media," Ellie admits. "All journalists have different skills, but this is one of the things I excel at."
Perhaps the best example of Ellie's detective work was when she found out who Love Island's Alexandra Cane's new boyfriend was. Alex had posted an Instagram picture in a white robe at the South Place Hotel and had flaunted being gifted a bouquet of flowers. Ellie then searched other people tagged at that location on the same day, and found the estate agent Adam Theobald. After a quick search Ellie could see that the two had been liking and commenting on each other's pictures, which is more than enough evidence for the sidebar of shame – after first approaching representatives for comment and being given the legal "OK", of course.
In the future, celebrities might not even need to worry about how their relationship is revealed in the press, they'll just start uploading their own pictures on social media. Already, analysis by trade magazine RN shows that readership of the top three weekly women's gossip magazines is falling 33 percent year on year, and earlier this year the once-popular Now magazine closed its print edition. Camilla thinks a lot of the problem lies with our distrust of the media: "People are wising up to the fact that just because two people have been photographed together, it doesn't mean something actually happened – I think we're all a bit suspicious of relationships now."
So are Skepta and Adele really going out? "We desperately want to believe it," says Camilla. "They are both from Tottenham, both make great music, seem to care about each other. Go back a few years ago to Angelina and Brad Pitt – we were so interested in that perfect fairytale, where the two most beautiful film stars fell in love. Now, the whole celebrity world seems so structured and fake, we want something to buy into, we want something that's real."
You can't trust everything you read in the papers, but sometimes it would be nice to feel like you could.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.