A famous person calling their child something weird is a golden ticket for celebrity journalists. First, you can break the hilarious news, then run some "man in street" reactions, then follow up with a feature about other kids with the same bizarre name. But to find those kids, you need to find the parents.
Stacey, a 35-year-old NHS administrator from County Durham, was nervous when her friend tagged her in a Facebook post by a journalist looking for mums of kids named Bear – but before long she was on the phone to the reporter, and not long after that she found herself lying on her side like she was in an aerobics class, her son proudly presenting his plushie animal namesake while a photographer captured the scene.
Stacey had been bitten by the bug: she inexplicably and unreservedly loved being a tabloid case study.
The FeatureMe! Facebook group was a way she could access more of these opportunities. Soon, she and her husband were posing in front of their house looking surprisingly upbeat under the Daily Mail headline "We sold our house last year for £7,500 loss". Next, she was being fussed over by a photographer and makeup artist for a high-spirited piece about disaster weddings ("you name it, it went wrong").
Stacey is one of an increasing number of women across the country who enjoy putting themselves forward as interviewees for this type of lifestyle journalism. "The perks are real," she says, telling me she was agonising the other week over whether to be featured in a makeover where she'd go from brunette to blonde. "You hear of all the expenses and a trip to London and a top salon and— who gets to do that?" she says. "It's really good for the women to go ahead and do something to feel better about themselves. That's a massive factor."
The Facebook group works like this: journalists contact the admins with a story they want, then the admins make post including all the details – one of which is usually a fee between £50 and £500 – asking if any of the members want it. Jill Foster, a longtime journalist and ex-Daily Mail Femail editor set up the group in 2012 to procure case studies for herself more easily, since she was already using Facebook to find most of the women for her articles.
"In the 90s I set up little email lists from my Hotmail account, and it would allow you to email 50 people. I'd have to send out ten emails to reach 500 people. There was no Mail Chimp," Jill tells me over the phone. "Before that, you'd just be on the phone, ringing people, saying, 'Do you know anyone who…'"
Social media has revolutionised journalism in countless ways, allowing reporters access to thousands of sources and case studies at the click of a button. But the FeatureMe! group has made that process even easier, with over 11,000 people – mostly women – ready and waiting to be picked. As Stacey says, "You did wonder how people get in the paper, but now this group has made everyone a bit more knowledgeable."
Traditional agencies – those that buy people's stories and sell them to papers – still exist, but Jill says they don't match up to the group she founded. "I won't name names, but they promise the earth and don't deliver, saying they'll sell your story for thousands of pounds," she says. "We tend to work the other way: if an editor or staff writer wants a specific story, they'll come to us and we know we have the commission." It doesn't matter how freaky or obscure a gig is, Jill knows dozens or even over a hundred people will apply.
Until recently, journalist Natasha Wynarczyk worked at Chat and Pick Me Up!, where – among other methods of getting women onboard – they would bid for people's stories. "It could be for up to £5 or £6,000," she says, explaining that working ethically was a priority for her. She spiked a couple of interviews because she simply didn't think the individual was emotionally and mentally ready to deal with them running. The stories she had to carefully consider were case studies about illnesses, hospital stays or domestic violence.
While those kind of requests do appear in FeatureMe!, the group deals more in the odd everyday. After a few months of scrolling, I began to see repeat offenders. The same names appearing to claim all manner of wacky lived experiences, all the way down to the banalities of the daily grind – experiencing sibling rivalry, food intolerances, basic phobias. Jill has to keep an eye on the Facebook group for these sorts, and although they're not blacklisted, she is wary.
It might seem like the offer of a fee is the main motivator – and it's certainly one – but the range of reasons people get hooked on sharing their stories is broad.
Janet, 72, from Essex has appeared in features via the group. Her first was for the Daily Mail, about her husband's six-year affair saving their marriage. "It's a way of giving people the chance to see themselves in print," she tells me. "It's all good fun and no pressure. We’re not being exploited, we put ourselves forward, and let's face it: we would leave the group if we didn’t enjoy being in the media." Janet talks of the glamour Stacey outlines, the fun of the day of the interview and photo ("thrill is too strong a word, but the thrill of having an experience that's somehow out of your ordinary day").
Some women in the group mention their "five minutes of fame", while others say Facebook groups like FeatureMe! have created a genuine community. "Part of our success is because we talk to people. So many journalists just dump case studies after they've spoken to them," says Jill, who'll post the completed stories in the group after they're online and tag each source, thanking them by name. Women flood the comments underneath with praise and thoughts, especially for features that involve dressing up, makeovers or wearing Amanda Holden's catsuit. There's also the comfort of seeing others with the same problem or life experience. "What's so nice about it is that there are weird requests on there and you'll reply, but better than that, someone else will reply too," says Janet.
Jessie, a 24-year-old from London, tells me she joined the group to earn extra cash, but has stayed for something different: "I think women love to share with others and tell our stories, as that's the way we've been socialised."
I ask Jill why the group is mostly made up of women, and she doesn't have an explanation. "We have had people say, 'Why aren't you doing more men's features?' but whenever we’ve had them, they just don't want to do them," she says. "Men are just not as reliable when it comes to being a case study as women."
Both Natasha and Jill agree that it's mostly working class women who participate. Having spent her twenties working for these types of publications, Natasha has a good idea of the way in which these women are thought of.
"You get people being quite snobby about the women and snobby about the magazines," she tells me. "But they are working class mothers, young or older women who aren't in a lot of the mainstream media. When you do see them on the TV, it's Benefit Street or being stigmatised. This is genuinely a time for their stories to be told: they’re interesting and unusual stories to tell. Some of them were quite horrible as well."
Natasha worked on many domestic violence stories and noted that the wider media would typically focus on the crime itself, or the jailed partner, while case study features spotlighted the women's side of events: "People would write in to the mag and say they'd seen the stories [about domestic abuse] and learned the signs, and got the courage to leave their partner, or how it had really helped them in their own lives."
Near the end of my conversation with Stacey, she says, wistfully, "It's interesting to think that women are out there living such a varied life with so many stories. I've done plenty of features and I’ve lived a sheltered life compared to some in that group." She's still thinking about the hair-dye makeover she could have had, and doesn't know when the next time she can join in will be.
"I was kicking myself," she says. "I should've just done it, had another fairytale. I'd have been on that train to London…"