Like so many stories, this one starts with a cliché: I had always dreamed of working on a magazine. As a teenager in suburban London, the highlight of my week was a Tuesday, because I would buy Heat magazine on the way to school. I read it with such intensity I felt I became part of its universe. The writing was so funny, the stories so surreal, the world it occupied so far away from the one I lived in—in dental headgear and an itchy gray school uniform—that I knew this was the only path for me.
When I finally entered the big bad world of professional journalism, things were on the slide for magazines, and the industry in general. But while the celebrity magazines I once devoured might have lost their luster, they still looked like they'd be fun to write for.
I started working at a celebrity-focused weekly magazine (not Heat, FYI) expecting frivolous gossip and silly interviews, but I found myself part of an endless cycle of embellished non-stories—the same cycle that Jennifer Aniston criticizes in this op-ed she wrote for the Huffington Post. In this piece, she talks of her revulsion at the constant speculation over her love life, what her womb is up to, and how much she weighs. For half a year, I was part of this industry of speculation.
Beyond excited to be assigned my first story during my first week, I was pretty surprised when I realized that stories weren't commissioned based on what was newsworthy—or even true. Aniston (along with a small handful of other celebrities such as Beyoncé, Kim Kardashian, Taylor Swift, or any member of Girls Aloud) ends up on the front cover of magazines constantly because she sells copies—it's that simple. Consequently, my editors wanted entire ideas lists with wildly varying stories for very small pool of celebrities; it didn't matter what the source was, or if there were one at all.
That week, I found myself writing a story about Victoria Beckham almost as fiction, occasionally pausing to rip off quotes from interviews she or her husband David had given in the past 18 months, then peppering it with details emailed over by a senior editor about life "chez Beckham." I can't say I was proud of the finished product, but I didn't mind because that's what I was paid to do. Nobody else seemed to question it. Professionals get on with the job at hand, I thought.
Thanks to ever-squeezed budgets, there wasn't enough money to send reporters out to parties to become chummy with celebrities and their agents and friends, so my research was done online. Gossip was often emailed over by media agencies, complete with quotes from sources. They had a network of contacts, and they would email daily round-ups of what their little birds had been telling them. Some were personal trainers or actual friends, but much more often it would be someone who once worked on a film with the celebrity as an extra.
I found myself taking unreliable quotes as gospel. I would go back to the agency and ask them for additional or extra quotes, which were sometimes emailed over suspiciously quickly. Occasionally—not always, but occasionally—it felt like they were just being invented on the spot. In the story, the quotes would be masked as having come from "a friend close to the star." Dutifully, I would then pay the agency or tipster up to £500.
During my stint at the magazine, I never stopped being surprised by how "research" worked. I would comb the Daily Mail showbiz sidebar, the National Enquirer, and pick quotes from these aforementioned factually ambiguous emails to put together an ideas list for the editors in meetings.
Staff members would routinely cry after these meetings.
The editorial meetings were intimidating at first, but I quickly became used to the through-the-looking-glass insanity of conferences where everything lived or died on the whim of a few frazzled editors. Ideas—even diligently researched ideas for stories that were true—would be dismissed with a vague "mmm, I just don't see it" or a ruder "I literally do not understand what you're talking about. Have you done any research?" Staff members would routinely cry after these meetings.
It would be difficult not to be grumpy as an editor, having seen the same old celebrity nonsense go round and round again but with a smaller budget every time. Working out what's a story and what's not—and what you can invent and get away with—is exhausting.
After most of your ideas had been savaged, the pictures team would present the latest paparazzi shots and celeb Instagram posts. Once the editors had settled on whatever batshit theme they wanted, you would cook your story to be whatever your boss desired. Much as with supposed rumors of Aniston's pregnancy, a picture of a size six celebrity looking slightly bloated in a bikini would be met with ideas for a "my baby joy" article. "She's definitely pregnant!" the editors would crow. (She wasn't.) Or a frowny photo would be accompanied with a "love on the rocks" article. "Can't be long now till they split!" the editors would say. (As usual; wrong.)
In this environment, I quickly learned the loopholes so you can imply whatever you want without getting into legal trouble. That is, if I'm honest, the main skill I learned. We were told that—perhaps wrongly—that under English law, publications could use single quote marks even if the celebrity never said the line in question; think of all those 'Why I Can't Wait for Baby Number Three' headlines, for instance. We would only get into dubious territory if the statement was in double quotes, even though the average reader would never distinguish between the two. Our editors could make a celebrity say pretty much anything on the cover of a UK magazine.
Initially, none of it bothered me. It's part of the game that celebs play and some are good at keeping their personal lives personal, showing that privacy is possible. It didn't even bother me that my team never once asked me to cross-check a fact with anyone who might actually have real information. But, after a few months of typing up these slightly crazed non-stories, what did begin to bother me was the faux-concerned—even faux-feminist—slant that the publication was increasingly taking. That felt, to me, like horseshit. And that was when I started to feel uncomfortable with the work I was doing.
Rather than doing a tried-and-true "celeb wants a baby!" or "looking fat in swimwear!" story, we'd have to write it in a psuedo-empowering way. For example: "Poor [insert name of sad sack celebrity here] is depressed because she doesn't have a baby. She's a strong, independent woman with the world at her feet, but pals say she's secretly yearning to get pregnant. 'Her new apartment comes complete with a nursery that she's started painting pink,' a source close to the star said. 'Let's just hope her partner takes the hint!'"
Or: "Haters are saying that [insert name of non-size zero entertainer here] looks out of shape, but she couldn't care less! She's gained an unhealthy 25lbs but is feeling kick-ass and has been telling her pals that her sex life is better than ever! 'Her philosophy is that life is for living,' a friend says. 'Who cares about a few extra pounds?'" Really feminist, right? Move over, Judith Butler!
I was lousy at my job, and I left after about six months of writing these stories. My editors didn't really believe in giving feedback as they were always so busy with deadlines looming and pages to fill, but I already knew in my heart this was not where my strengths lay. I now report on other things for other people and nowhere else I've worked since has relied on such shaky source material or written in such a condescending manner about its subjects. "Poor Jen" is right about the ridiculous cycle of celebrity news—but it's not just the celebrities who suffer. Spare a moment's thought for the people who write this shit. We're all cogs in the same machine; some of us are just smaller and more insignificant than others.