Sweet and Lowdown

Which gossip magazine is the best?

Superficiality, envy, cattiness, schadenfreude, mockery, and melodrama: I normally try hard to deplore them all—except when I’m buying a celebrity gossip magazine, in which case they are just the ticket. Between tabloids and glossies, there are seven weekly gossip magazines from which to choose my opiate. Tabloids (the National Enquirer, the Globe, the National Examiner) are printed on newsprint and run not only sensationalistic stories about celebrities (the majority of whom reached the apex of their fame decades ago), but also pieces on the particularly bad, bizarre, or heartwarming behavior of “real people.” They are padded with health tips, crosswords, and photos of readers’ babies and, unlike the more legitimate magazines, will pay sources for gossip about the stars. Glossies (Us Weekly, In Touch, People, and, after a recent extreme makeover, Star) are printed on shinier, thicker paper stock. With the exception of People, they focus exclusively on celebrities—primarily youthful ones—and their tone is more upbeat, irreverent, and less credulous than their tabloid counterparts.

In the last few years, two developments have changed the landscape of these magazines. The first is that the tabloids (the Star included) have all come under the ownership of a single company, American Media Inc. The second is that, while for decades respectful People and the lurid tabloids were the only games in town, cheeky UsWeekly and its Johnny-come-lately clone, In Touch, have begun crowding in on the market share and making the other magazines rethink their strategies.Bonnie Fuller, the editor responsible for the Us Weekly approach—an interest not so much in the dark secrets of the stars as in how banal their lives can be, how they’re “just like us”—was even wooed away to the American Media empire and charged with remaking Star in Us’ image.But, although all the weeklies are converging on younger, hipper celebrity coverage, there remain important differences in prose styles, perspectives, scopes, and degrees of turpitude.

I spent the last four months reading all of these magazines every week in an attempt to pick the one (OK, two) worth buying regularly. A welcome byproduct of the testing was that I finally exhausted my seemingly limitless ability to wring enjoyment, diversion, and procrastination from the lives of the stars and am looking forward to reading something without pictures and exclamation points, preferably a dry philosophical treatise.

My Criteria

Reliability (10 points): This category was, admittedly, somewhat hard to score. Are Demi and Ashton planning a June wedding? Is Sandra Dee drinking herself to death? I have no idea. The best I could do was dock points when a magazine published something that, in the course of the last few months, was subsequently proven false. (Kate Hudson gave birth to a boy,not a girl, In Touch!) I also frowned on particularly misleading cover questions—the answers to Star’s “Justin: Cheating on Cameron?” and “Nude Apprentices? Will they pose for Playboy?” are both revealed inside to be, simply, no—and, worse, misleading cover statements. (The Globe’s cover story on John Kerry’s “Sex Disease Scandal—It could keep him out of the White House” turns out to refer only to the fact that he may have had an STD while he was serving in Vietnam.)

Exclusives (10 points: 5 for scoops, 5 for access): Will a magazine be the first to bring you the latest happenings or, at least, the latest news on old happenings (e.g., the Enquirer’s recent piece—”The Passion of Mel!”—about a woman with whom Mel Gibson allegedly had cheated on his wife—in 1988)? Separately, will celebrities actually grant it interviews?

Subject matter (10 points): Magazines get points for breadth of focus—Star covers The O.C. starlets and Tina Louise of Gilligan’s Island—and percentage of things covered that are inherently (i.e., to me) interesting: couplings, feuds, scandals, reality TV, “where are they now?” features = interesting; losing weight, having babies, makeovers, whether J. Lo is going to return Ben’s ring = not.

Story quality (10 points): Even if I haven’t heard about or don’t care about the subject of the story, is the prose sensationalistic, wide-eyed, or saucy enough to keep me reading? (For the record, this is not the prose I seek in a non-celebrity magazine.) And is the piece a well-reported exposé I can sink my teeth into, as opposed to something I could skim in a checkout line?

Value (10 points): All of these magazines have flashy headlines designed to pull the reader in, but will it reward more than a casual flip-through? I factored in the presence and interest level of regular features—from fashion coverage and reviews to advice columns and contests.

Fun (10 points): Is the magazine juicy, playful, and irreverent, but still gripping?

Here are the results, from worst to best:

Globe $2.35
Any celebrity magazine is, of course, a guilty pleasure. Usually this guilt is manageably mild and stems from both the opportunity cost (oh insidious concept!) of time spent reading it as well as from supporting a culture of vapid celebrity worship (oh well). Buying the Globe, however, ups the guilt quotient a thousandfold.I feel awful paying money for a publication that repeatedly prints the name and full photos of Kobe Bryant’s accuser, brandishing pictures of her partying as proof that Kobe must be innocent; that loves to do all it can to tarnish the reputations of politicians, as long as they’re Democrats; that is rabid on the scent of any behavior that might be GAY, a word which is never mentioned without being in all caps; and that is just plain mean—it seems one thing to point out that a celebrity has had cosmetic surgery but another altogether to run a photo of Mary Tyler Moore with commentary from a doctor about why she needs more work done. So don’t give them your money. Now that I’ve made that clear, I can bemoan the baby I’m throwing out with the bath water: the dish from people who’ve had sex with stars; the “Globe Trotter” section, in which readers send in pictures of themselves with celebrities (“He smiled his famous smile when I asked if he was indeed THE Donald Rumsfeld”); features like “10 Bloopers and Blunders From The Passion of the Christ” (“No. 4: While Mary is holding Jesus after he dies, you can see him blink a few times”); and Ivana Trump—the Globe’s unlikely advice columnist—gamely fielding questions such as, “My son takes great delight in chopping up frogs, lizards, and anything else that moves … Do you think he could have a problem?”
Reliability: 3; Exclusives: 5.5 (scoops: 4.5/access: 1); Subject matter: 6.5; Story quality: 8; Value: 10; Fun: 6; Special REPREHENSIBILITY category: -10.
Total: 29.

National Examiner $2.19 The Examiner’s celebrity coverage is mostly limited to people over age 70. (“Janet Leigh’s Sad Last Days,” “Tony Randall’s Brave Last Days,” “Jerry Lewis Cheats Death,” etc.) A younger star has the best chance of making it in if he or she exhibits behavior that wouldn’t have passed muster in the 1940s (a headline trumpeting Gwyneth Paltrow’s “baby scandal” turns out to be about how “Old-time Hollywood wouldn’t have forgiven an out of wedlock pregnancy”) or if he or she is dead (Princess Di, John Ritter). The Examiner also has the highest percentage of stories about non-celebrities, most of whom, like the “97 year old [who] has cleaned buses for 70 years and only missed one day of work” are of the vintage of their Hollywood peers. But while even the freshest issue off the press reeks of mothballs, there’s good reading material to peruse as a consolation. You might find a story about the unlucky senior who was nearly put to sleep by his vet (“We were just going to euthanize our little Yorkie …”) or empathize with the problems of readers who write in to “America’s Top Psychic Healer.” (“Dear Tony: I was a flower child of the ‘60s, full of love and hope. It’s been downhill ever since.”) One of my favorite things about the Examiner, as well as about the Globe and the Enquirer, is its ads—from full-page color spreads of Tractor Sounds Wall Clocks to classifieds where you can find everything from a new identity to a service offering “personalized, heartfelt” love letters. (“Send yours and sweetheart’s nicknames, reason for letter.”) Reliability: 6.5; Exclusives: 2 (1/1); Subject matter: 2.5; Story quality: 8; Value: 8; Fun: 3.
Total: 30.

People $3.29
is the only magazine that seems to actually like people, celebrity or not. It isn’t giddy when announcing breakups (c.f. Us and Star) or impending deaths (Globe, the Enquirer, and the Examiner). It likes people most when they have just lost weight (in the issues I read in the last few months, covers celebrated the shed pounds—whether by surgery or more old-fashioned methods—of everyone from Drew Barrymore to Randy Jackson), but it will applaud them, sympathize with them, and, above all, profile them for whatever they do. People gets the most access to celebrities out of all these magazines, but this is a double-edged sword. It’s nice, of course, to read exclusives (even the president sits for an annual interview), and hearing things straight from the horses’ mouths makes People seem more trustworthy. Celebrities talk to People, however, because they know they’ll be handled with kid gloves. Exclusive interviews are rarely more than puff pieces—Bush was asked about his “favorite family traditions” and what he puts in his girls’ Christmas stockings (“lip gloss, gum, socks, books”). But my main complaint is that its range of coverage can make for a not nearly mindless enough read. Sure, you’ll find pages of celebrities and tales of hero pets, but your update on the winner of Average Joe is as likely to be followed by a story on John Edwards, or the Madrid bombings, or a teen who died after taking an antidepressant, as by a spotlight on Matt LeBlanc’s new baby. The real world impinges too jarringly on the fun. Reliability: 9.5; Exclusives: 6 (1/5); Subject matter: 4.5; Story quality: 7; Value: 5; Fun: 4.
Total: 36.

In Touch $1.99
In Touch
is a poor man’s Us (see below), literally—$1.99 to Us’ $3.29—and idiomatically. It covers the same stars and much of the same gossip but in a slightly nicer, slightly blander, and slightly more cringe-worthy manner: Among “secrets” revealed about Christina Aguilera’s boyfriend, for example, No. 2 is that “his favorite color is blue,” and a regular page has a C-list celebrity talking about which A-list celebrity his or her pet most resembles. (“He’s like Ben Affleck,” an actress who has had small parts in some recent hit movies says of her Dalmatian. “He’s killer handsome.”) Sometimes, though, In Touch gets the balance between earnestness and irreverence so right that a shiver runs down my spine: Each photo in a feature on stars breaking down during TV interviews came accompanied by commentary from a body language expert. “This is really profound crying,” the expert decreed about Britney Spears, shown sobbing in a freeze frame from a Prime Time Live interview in which she discussed her split from Justin Timberlake. Meanwhile, Jennifer Aniston, who shed tears on Oprah over the imminent end of Friends, “feels vulnerable but doesn’t want to mess up her makeup.”Reliability: 7.5; Exclusives: 5.5 (3/2.5); Subject matter: 7; Story quality: 4; Value: 6; Fun: 7.
Total: 37.

Us Weekly $3.29 Although Bonnie Fuller has left the building, the breezy formula she pioneered remains: Us opens by showing celebrities looking glamorous and enviable on the red carpet, points out with fond amusement a few pages later ways in which celebrities are not like us (“they have people who hold umbrellas for them!”), goes on to print paparazzi photos of them getting parking tickets or sneezing into a napkin or buying coffee in the now-widely copied “Stars—They’re Just Like Us!” feature, then ends with the “Fashion Police” gleefully weighing in on sartorial missteps. For a star to make it into the lustrous pages of Us in the first place, he or she should be 1) young and pretty; 2) an actor, singer, or reality-TV personality; 3) and, ideally, Jessica Simpson, Jennifer Aniston, or Jennifer Lopez, one of whom has been on the cover of almost every issue I’ve bought during the past four months. No one in Us is ever dying—it helps matters that no one is ever old—and the only bad things that happen are fashion missteps and breakups, the latter of which are conveyed by a perky headline (“It’s over!”) and a picture of the couple in happier times with a Photoshopped rip down the middle. Us is like a sugar rush—enjoyable while it lasts and over quickly. There’s not much there there, as Gertrude Stein would have said, but Us is a consistent source of entertaining photos, snappy captions (“Faux Lo” is Us’ term for Ben Affleck’s assistant, who has been caught dressing like Ben’s ex-fiancee), the latest gossip (“Apprentice’s Bill is dating Bachelor’s Jen!”), and fun features (a piece on “Fur Lovers vs. Fur Loathers” includes a sidebar of “Fur Flip-Floppers” like Naomi Campbell, who once posed for a PETA ad but has since modeled fur).
Reliability: 8.5; Exclusives: 8 (4.5/3.5); Subject matter: 8.5; Story quality: 3; Value: 6; Fun: 10.
Total: 44.

Star $3.29 Star’s transformation from tabloid duckling to magazine swan has not been without its glitches: In the four months since I started reading it, it has tried out four “regular” back pages—from the lame “Public Displays of Consumption,” which spotlighted products purchased by celebrities (and was little more than advertisements for said products) to the more hard-hitting “Style Stalkers,” in which a star’s outfit might get described as “1 part Oompa Loompa + 1 part Michael Jackson” to the current “Hey! Remember Me?” featuring the likes of Susan “Cindy Brady” Olsen and the members of Abba. Its new incarnation swings somewhat vertiginously between the fawning interview of People and the starlet-centric frivolity of Us. When it attempts the latter, it does so with its dark tabloid roots showing through: Where Us did a cover on a slow news week touting the “20 Best Makeovers” (Jennifer Aniston is No. 1, Jessica Simpson is No. 2, Jennifer Lopez No. 4), Star entered the fray with “Scariest Hollywood Makeovers!” featuring Farrah (“What has she done?”) Fawcett. And while every publication ran a bit about Courtney Love’s recent meltdown, Star was the only one to print a picture of the random man in Wendy’s actually sucking at her breast. Star also gets points for its breadth and for its often surprising choice of cover stories: Kirstie Alley’s weight gain, Cindy Crawford’s cheating husband, and a riveting piece on the South-African relatives Charlize Theron is snubbing (including a “dying granny” and a 9-year-old cousin who waits fruitlessly for an autograph as Charlize’s limo zips by). If Star can work out its kinks, it’ll serve as a nice bridge between the vapid world of the glossies and the tawdry world of the tabloids. Reliability: 7; Exclusives: 7 (4.5/2.5); Subject matter: 9.5; Story quality: 4; Value: 7.5; Fun: 10.
Total: 45.

National Enquirer $2.65 There is something comforting about having your celebrity news delivered to you with no waffling, no wondering, just blithe certainty. And no other magazine cover comes close to the Enquirer’s exclamation-point-to-question-mark ratio of 31 to 2. (At the other end of the spectrum, People’s ratio is 18 to 15.) In order to produce the news with such assurance, the Enquirer’s virtuosic reporters hunt down old yearbooks, find ex-husbands, investigate murders, and demonstrate conclusively that Suzanne Somers has lost weight by comparing two photos of her in the same belt worn on different notches. And I love how the Enquirer writes about the furthest fringes of celebrity: those who were once mildly famous (“Hazel child star: ‘Mold may kill me!’ “), those who are famous in the narrowest of arenas (“It took 5 years, a civil suit and a court ruling to say what I’ve known all along—that I’ll always be Mrs. Pennsylvania 1998”), those who are intimate with someone famous ("Zsa Zsa’s Hubby hits back at driver in crash”), and those whose work in Hollywood has brought them into contact with many of the famous ("Kenny Rogers ordered fresh salmon for himself, and chicken parmesan for the rest of his crew. But he didn’t touch the salmon,” dishes a caterer.) And I love the Enquirer’s subscription page, which lures readers with the offer of savings and a lucky blue dot, almost exactly like the “simulated” one depicted, only “specially energized and numbered for your good fortune.” (Subscribers credit their blue dots with helping them to catch fish, survive car accidents, and, above all, win big at casinos.) If you’re looking for more mainstream celebrity news, you’re better off with Us or Star, but you can’t beat the Enquirer for counterprogramming. Reliability: 6; Exclusives: 7 (4.5/2.5); Subject matter: 7; Story quality: 9; Value: 10; Fun: 7.5.
Total: 46.5.