Decoder Ring

When Us Met Jen

The history of the tabloid creation Sad Jennifer Aniston.

A pointillistic image of Jennifer Aniston.
Benjamin Frisch

The following is an excerpt from the latest episode of Slate’s podcast Decoder Ring.

Listen to the full episode using the audio player below, or via Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, or Google Play.

In May of 2002, two of the stars of Friends, Jennifer Aniston and Courteney Cox, appeared on the cover of Us Weekly. The headline said, “Will They Ever Have Babies?”

Us Weekly had recently made itself over from a monthly magazine into a weekly one, a magazine that was devoted to celebrities but that didn’t adore them. Us was funny and trashy and impertinent. It had the point of view of your curious, shameless celebrity-obsessed friend. It didn’t only show famous people as they wanted to be seen, in photo shoots or primped and ready on a red carpet—it showed them pumping gas in Uggs and no makeup. And it became a genuine cultural and publishing phenomenon, because it was unlike anything else on the market.

At the time, celebrity journalism was dominated by People magazine. People had been founded in 1974, a new kind of magazine devoted to “personality journalism,” to sharing with readers what relevant public figures—celebrities, politicians, athletes, special interest subjects—were really like. An early issue had a man on the cover in a swimming pool, a man the magazine referred to as “Jerry”: It was President Gerald Ford. People was a Time Inc. magazine, and it worked hard to maintain the company’s reputation for veracity. When it ran a story, it usually had its subject’s cooperation: They sat for an interview; they posed for a photo.

People was a huge success, selling nearly 1 million copies of its very first issue. But by the late ’90s, the kind of celebrity coverage it was offering—respectful, authorized, access-oriented—was no longer new. Jann Wenner, the co-founder of Rolling Stone and the owner of Us magazine, saw an opening in the market. He wanted to turn Us, a monthly that had existed since 1977—and was originally created as a People magazine copycat—into a weekly that would compete directly with People by channeling the spirit of European celebrity weeklies such as Hello! This new magazine would focus on newsstand sales, which depend on catchy, salacious covers and make way more money for magazines than subscribers, who pay a deeply discounted rate.

So in March 2000, Us magazine became Us Weekly. But it didn’t really find itself until early 2002, when Wenner hired the editor Bonnie Fuller, who had already had success at magazines like Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and Marie Claire. Fuller’s Us was mostly photographs, lightly dappled with text. You didn’t read Us Weekly so much as look at it. It was printed on glossy paper that made it appear classier, less cheap than other tabloids at the time, and more like an upscale, “real” magazine. It’s hyperbolic covers often promised gossip the corresponding article didn’t deliver. The “Will They Ever Have Babies?” cover, for example, was teasing a pretty thoughtful reported piece on the stigma pregnant actresses face while trying to keep working, not anything concrete about Aniston’s plans to have kids.

Us’ most well-known photo spread was “Stars—They’re Just Like Us,” in which famous people were shown doing extremely regular things: going to Starbucks, staring off into space, feeding the meter. It was the perfect example of Us Weekly’s originality, of the magazine’s intuitive understanding of its readers’ deliciously ambivalent relationship to celebrity, to the way that you can love some celebrities and hate others, and want to see them both on the red carpet and with bed head.

Since the start of US Weekly, so much about the magazine industry and the logistics of celebrity has changed. Us took off before Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat and YouTube and the Kardashians. It took off before magazine sales cratered. The big couples from that time now sound like barely comprehensible early-aughts word salad: Jared Leto and Cameron Diaz, Cameron Diaz and Justin Timberlake, Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears, Britney Spears and that guy she married for 55 hours. But there’s one thing that’s stayed the same: the fascination with whether Jennifer Aniston is having a baby.

A couple of months of ago, I was at the dentist’s office and I saw a copy of the tabloid InTouch. On the cover, there was a picture of Jennifer Aniston and her ex-husband, Brad Pitt. The headline said “Brad and Jen: Wedding and a Baby!” There have been more. Also in 2018, InTouch ran an issue with the cover line “Brad Stuns Jen! Marry Me Again!” and another about Brad and Jen’s Italian honeymoon. OK! had a cover that said “Yes, I’m Pregnant—With Brad’s Baby!” And Star published an issue in November that said, “Brad and Jen: Meet Our Baby!”

What is going on? How is it still going on? Why is it still going on?

So today on Decoder Ring, an honest to God mystery: Is Jennifer Aniston having Brad Pitt’s baby?

For the answer to this question, listen to Decoder Ring’s “Sad Jennifer Aniston.”