The XX Factor

Celebrity Is Dead, Long Live Uncelebrities

For the sixth consecutive week, Kate Gosselin’s on the cover of Us Weekly . “Mommy You Are Mean” screams the headline, while her husband Jon declares, ” Enough is Enough ” on the cover of People . In Touch and Star are selling the Gosselins as well . Only the Enquirer has chosen an old standard for its cover, Brangelina, and even the most famous couple in the world had to share the front page, with, you guessed it, Jon Gosselin.

Up until a few months ago, chances were good-to-great that if you picked up a tabloid one of the following subjects would appear on the cover: Brangelina, Jennifer Aniston, TomKat or Britney Spears. But recently, the attractive, famous folk who have dominated gossip for years and years (even when, as with Aniston, the relevant story happened eons ago), have suddenly, ignominiously been shoved to the side by a rag-tag crew whose members include the Gosselins, Octomom, Susan Boyle and, to a certain extent, Michelle Obama. These women share one characteristic in particular, and it is not an unsettling fecundity: they’re not rich. (Heather Havrilesky just wrote a piece for Salon about this exact same group appropriately titled, ” The Triumph of The Uncelebrity “)

The collapse of the economy has plainly altered our taste in celebrities. Conspicuous consumers like Lindsay, Paris and Britney are out. In are a group of women that, if not quite like the rest of us, are certainly not members of the richest one percent. This isn’t the first time serious circumstances have altered our gossip preferences. D.J. Taylor’s group biography Bright Young People , published a few months ago in the States, chronicles the rise and fall of a cohort of rich kids famous just for being famous in 1920s and ‘30s London. (This cadre was also the subject of Evelyn Waugh’s scathing Vile Bodies ). They threw the best parties, made the biggest scenes, and dominated the gossip columns. When the war started, and many of them had long since turned into ne’er-do-wells and alcoholics, their hijinks tapered off, seeming out of sync with a more serious time. In other words, Paris et. al. were not the first of their kind to hog the spotlight, or the first to lose it.

Still, I am surprised by the speed with which the tabloids have transitioned to a whole new cast of characters, and how exactly that transition maps onto the recession. Maybe there’s a little cause and effect here. Celebrities, the rich, spoiled, private-jet owning kind, (who had already, as Havrilesky points out, gotten pretty boring) had to curtail their ways, not just for the sake of propriety but because random clubs in Vegas stopped opening and the rest stopped being willing to pay them $20,000 just to show up and drink a Red Bull. The party is literally over, and so are all the related photo ops.

But it’s not as if what the tabloids cover-babymaking, marriages, divorce, breakdowns- or what they fundamentally are-a celebrity making machine- has changed. In that light, the decision to cover the Gosselin’s marital strife and not Brangelina’s, or Michelle Obama’s baby bump and not Katie Holmes’s, or Susan Boyle’s breakdown and not Lindsay Lohan’s becomes a real either/or choice. Us Weekly will write about pregnancy: do they obsess on a celebrities’ experience? Perhaps a young starlet has a bun in the oven? Or do they pick a woman who, if not quite normal, is at least regular, physically and financially (and in the instance of Octomom, actually strapped for cash)? In short, do they pick a celebrity or an uncelebrity?

These uncelebrities are regular in another sense: they’ve plainly been altered by the tabloid culture of the last decade. Imagine for a second that our collective, societal obsession with famous people actually sent out some sort of dangerous, mind melting, fame rays (actually, you don’t have to imagine): These women are the mutant results. There’s Octomom, the mother who wants to be Angelina, The Gosselins, a family torn apart (in the tabloid’s estimation) because they’ve pursued fame, and Susan Boyle, a woman who lost her mind because of spotlight. The tabloids have been obsessed with rich, famous, glamorous people for years and now it’s the uncelebrities turn to be the show. Who will be unlucky enough to come next?