The Secrets You Learn Working at Celebrity Gossip Magazines
Some of which were gleaned from the various dates I had to go on with washed-up Z-listers.
Stock photo of gossip magazines. It is not suggested that the details in this article relate to any of the titles featured in photographs in this article. Photo: Kevin Britland / Alamy Stock Photo
In my relatively short but still wildly illustrious career, I've worked at a fair few weekly celebrity magazines. They were, unsurprisingly, a lot of fun: it's like bitching about your friends in that secret group WhatsApp you all have, only your friends are all good-looking and famous and keep getting off with someone low level from Geordie Shore, and also you're being paid for it. Additional perk: PRs keep sending you cake. I really can't recommend it enough.
But it's not all fun and games. Being on the sausage-making side of the ever-grinding fame machine, you see a different side to the world of celebrity and the glimmer of being famous: the constant hustle, the fake friendships and the even faker smiles, the fact that you have to post one Instagram selfie a day (one a day! Think how many good pictures you have ever taken of you in your lifetime. One a day!): plus, you're constantly drinking lukewarm prosecco next to a showbiz editor at a Wednesday night sponsored party, deciding what pound of flesh you're willing to cut out of your life and sell to the highest bidder.
If you fancy being famous: hey, go for it, I'm sure your Soundcloud page will take off any day now. But consider this behind-the-scenes peek at the world of gossip mags to be a warning: as soon as you get an Instagram blue tick, it's fair game to say pretty much anything about you. And once it starts, you get into a weird place where you never want it to stop, to the point you start making up shit about yourself just to extend your 15 minutes of fame up to 16, 17, maybe 18 minutes. Think about it like this: do you want to be Antony Costa? Because you're probably going to end up being Antony Costa.
And here's how showbiz journalists like (formerly) myself are going to make that happen.
DATES WITH WASHED UP CELEBRITIES
When you work in showbiz you get asked on dates by Z-listers a lot (a lot) after interviews, which – when I was starting out – I naively thought was very, very exciting. A Celebrity Big Brother evictee? Wants to take me? To the nearest All Bar One? In an Addison Lee? How glamorous! Am I Cinderella?
Only: no. It turns out pretty much every single showbiz journo soul in the land has been chatted up by a fading Love Island/CBB/TOWIE reality star after an interview, and it has next to nothing to do with appearance or charm. They don't fancy you; basically, they just want a favour out of you. And the favour is: reviving the flagging fumes of their dead career.
Celebrities know better than anyone else when their career is over, so will do anything to score stories written about them, interviews placed and to generally get back into the press. You, as a junior showbiz editor, are their golden meal ticket. I once got asked out by my 12-year-old crush, a former British boybander, and... listen, I'm not saying I went on the date. But I am saying, if you do take your chances and go one-on-one with a Z-lister, you can expect one lavish first date and then relentless 3AM booty calls for the three following months. Don't ask how I know that! Just move on!
THE DANGEROUS FITNESS DVD
A classic celebrity trick, this, and right now 'tis the season for it: if you see an unflattering beach picture – papped from afar, them wonky and spilling out of a bikini, or jogging clatteringly along some Dubai sand – you can bet your bottom dollar that person has a fitness DVD coming out for the festive season.
Which is, broadly, fine: fitness DVDs are big business, and sometimes it's hard to think what to buy your mum for Christmas. But the false idea of a celebrity's "before" picture (before the inevitable trim "after") is what's sinister: as soon as they land back in the UK, they hit the gym twice a day and basically starve themselves down for the DVD cover shoot over the course of a deeply unhealthy boom-and-bust three months.
They'll then wrongly and dangerously claim (usually to us, in an exclusive interview) that they lost the weight in a healthy way, eating a balanced diet and exercising three times a week. Which is, of course, bollocks. They were shipped to a retreat with personal trainers and personal chefs who specialise in air and water dishes. But do the teenage girls who follow the aforementioned beached celebs know that? No, they don't. Unflattering celeb beach shots might seem innocuous, but look closer and they're a symptom of a far darker side of the industry.
A WHOLE LOAD OF 'HEADLIES'
At the beginning of the week, one editor I worked for would decide what cover lines she'd like, regardless of whether it had happened or not. It's sort of like cosmic ordering or wish fulfilment: she'd be writing things like, "Jennifer Aniston: I've Moved On" and "Michelle Keegan: I Want A Baby", then plan what she'd like the stories to be that week around these invented headlines. In the days leading up to press day, the desk would work hard at trying to find anything remotely linked to any of the stories she'd essentially made up. The result? The magazine sold. Loads.
Fun trick next time you want to suggest Jennifer Aniston is joyfully divorced without getting sued about it: my editor would tell me that – as long as you write single quote marks, not double ones – then, legally, you can get away with anything. Try it: Ryan Gosling 'Could Punch A Horse' If He Had To. Reese Witherspoon 'Believes In Flat Earth Theory'. Will Smith 'Has One Foot Twice As Long As The Other'. Bulletproof.
(Must say here, I checked with the VICE legal team, and it is not bulletproof at all.)
TWO WORDS: POISON. PEN.
If you ever interviewed a celebrity and they were rude to you, you got permission to "poison pen" them. I never did it (notice how I omitted the boybander's name! See! Nice!), but colleagues of mine would do, and use it as an excuse to write the most unflattering, candid intros detailing exactly just how late, rude or arrogant their interviewee was.
An editor of mine had a list of people she'd met, hated, and refused to write about. There were about eight people who never, ever made it into the magazine. The list was printed off and stuck on the wall so newbies in the team knew which celebrities to turn down for interviews: the "Wall of Hate" and the "Wall of Love". Woe betide you if you made it to the hate wall. You might never work in this town again.
It's no real secret that celebrity columns – where the celebrity talks about their week and gives their opinion on gossip that's gone on – aren't written by the celebs. Like, come on. You've seen them try to write an Instagram caption. Come on. They are written by the journalists. Typically, the drill is this: the journalist asks the celebrity questions, and then the journalist writes it up, as if it's the celeb writing it. Then, at the end, you just sign their name and "XOXO" it. Done.
However, a lot of people don’t appreciate that most columns are actually totally made up. I would do one particular reality star’s column each week. She was hungover one day and said she couldn’t do her column over the phone as we’d usually do, so asked could I just "make it up" instead that week. I’d been speaking to her every week for nearly two years, so I knew the type of things she'd generally do with her week (1 x new lipstick ["obsessed"]; 1 x cute thing her son did; 1 x holiday she either enjoyed or was excited for) so – with my news editor's blessing – I winged it.
From then onwards, she’d text me each week at the time we’d usually chat for the column, asking if I could make it up again because she couldn’t be bothered/was hungover/too busy promoting wellness tea, so, for the year afterwards, I never actually spoke to our columnist on the phone, and the one-page she had in every mag was entirely made up. Let me know if you want any recommendations on lipsticks babes, I'm obsessed x
IT'S NOT JUST THE JOURNALISTS MAKING UP STORIES
It's not just editors inventing headlines and bending the news around to suit them: Z-list celebrities have their own sub-economy, where they invent (or exaggerate) stories about their apparent near-death experiences, drug relapses and engagements, then sell the exclusive on to the highest bidder. Essentially: a good Z-list celebrity is like Charles Dickens, constantly inventing serialised fictions and selling them out on a weekly basis.
That's why, as well, you get every single Weird Celebrity Photo Opp ever taken: because they made them that way. It's a constant hustle: celebrities set up pap shots for the most desperate things, then we publish them, then the circle goes round again. Taking rubbish out in their underwear? Check. Dropping eggs outside Tesco Metro? Check. Most of the celeb "pap" pics you see are the result of a delicate working balance between the celebrities, their agents, the photographers and, eventually, us.
CHASING THE EXCLUSIVES
To be the first person to report on a celebrity break-up or feud is a big part of the job, and it means being on constant pally terms with the celebrities. We'd go out for lunch with them, meet up for drinks with them and hang out at parties with them, all in an effort to be the first to get the scoop. Essentially: both the journalist and celebrity would be friends with each other in a very fragile way where they both get something out of the friendship, just not actual, you know, friendship.
This was key to the role: journalists not playing the game would miss out on big exclusives, because any newsworthy story – break-up, leaving a TV show, having a baby, getting married – would be spilled to the closest journalist confidante. This meant I had to chase celebrities into a number of surreal situations in an effort to get closer to them. I was a wing-woman for a well-known TV presenter when she wanted to pull her current boyfriend; I, quite literally, was a shoulder to cry on for a TV personality in the ladies bathroom; a UK pop singer taught me how to do a proper slut drop on the dance floor; and I got very pissed with a group of celebs and ended up in Shack Shake with them at 1AM. Got the story and a tray of cheesy fries.
THE 800-SHOT COVER GIRL
It can be disheartening to hang out with beautiful celebrities, pouting and glittering in hyper-real real life, while you still smell slightly of hangover and have a big spot on the go. But, still: my former art director told me it takes an average of 800 pictures from a cover shoot to get a useable picture. The moral of the story is: don't worry if, after 20 selfies, you still don’t like any of them. Just take 700 more.
Happens with every single person on every single page.
When you read "a source revealed", it's usually one of three people: the celebrity themselves, issuing lies via a PR; just the journalist behind the computer writing whatever fits in with the story; or some personal trainer who half-knew them, once, 18 months ago, and has just enough working knowledge of that person to make their quote seem semi-believable.
UNLIKELY HEROES, EVEN MORE UNLIKELY VILLAINS
Good rule of thumb is: celebrities who you think would be all sweetness and light are usually the worst divas. And, weirdly, vice versa: some of the loveliest, most genuine celebrities to interview haven't got the best public persona. The one constant? Everyone shit-talks you if you show even the slightest sign of rudeness, so be nice.