Margaret Simons writes:

The
role of celebrities is the same as the role of any character in any myth: to
give the audience the opportunity to reflect about their own ethical and
spiritual condition.”
– Stephen Stockwell, Reconsidering
the Fourth Estate

If Stockwell is right, we live in a very reflective age. Yesterday Pacific
Magazines launched the latest celebrity magazine, Famous, into a crowded but booming market.
Famous joins last
year’s newcomer, FPC Magazines’ Star.
Meanwhile the established players – Woman’s
Day
and New Idea – are battling it
out on circulations of525,935 and
432,118 respectively. Who Weekly sells
160,851, and New Weekly 200,425. These circulations dwarf those of most other
magazines, and nearly all newspapers. The trend is international. In England celebrity
gossip magazines Heat, Now, Hello! and
OK! sell over 500,000 copies each. In
the United States circulation for celebrity magazines has jumped 8.9 per cent at a
time when other magazine circulations are declining.

So what’s going on? None of the magazines
are well crafted. It seems all you have to do is search the image libraries, sling
syndication dollars to the paparazzi then stack the magazines on the news-stands
and watch them disappear.

The first issue of Famous tells us that Tom Cruise and Kate Holmes deny they are
splitting up, but Kate has been seen not once, but three times in coffee shops.
She wasn’t smiling and she was on her own. “Is this the beginning of the end?” And
guess what, Ashlee Simpson (a singer) has a messy bathroom just like you. Then
there is a fetching picture of Jake Gyllenhaal in a wet see-through shirt under
the heading “famous men who should never own umbrellas.”

Louise Matthews, Managing Director of Emap
Entertainment, says celebrity magazines are a substitute for gossip over the
fence about what the vicar’s doing. “Now you gossip about Posh and Becks
instead.”

One thing springs out about celebrity
magazines. People like reading advertising. Up to 70% of these
magazines is advertorial, and that doesn’t include the minor celebrities seizing
publicity.

Journalism academic Stephen Stockwell writes that celebrity
journalism is best understood alongside the decline in ratings for “serious”
current affairs. Audiences no longer find “fourth estate” journalism “important
and sustaining”. A distance has
developed between the public, and public life.

So should we worry? The celebrity magazines must
make a kind of public life seem closer. Like myths, they make the world seem more
connected, more understandable, and more fun. Nothing wrong with that, so long
as we understand what it is – not journalism, but a kind of fiction strung
around the available images, and given a frisson by being about real people.

Peter Fray

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