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100 Percent Positive News

How Closer magazine creates analog clickbait for celebrity-obsessed older women.

closer magazine.

Illustration by Slate. Images by Closer.

Even for an avid follower of gossip, keeping up with contemporary celebrities can be a baffling experience. Who is “PartyNextDoor”? Can “Peta Murgatroyd” possibly be a real person? Do you really need to keep informed on what a minor star on a Netflix series thinks about feminism?

It’s not your fault—really. Reality television, social media, and a fractured music scene have conspired to boost dozens of new “stars” onto the pages of tabloids long before most Americans will have been exposed to their actual work. Sure, the bewildered could Google their way to comprehension or turn to a trusted source like the podcast Who? Weekly. But what if you’d rather just ignore the whole exhausting lot of them?

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In that case, there is a place for you in the soothing pages of Closer magazine, where the stars are starry and there’s no need to try to figure out what a “Candice Swanepoel” is. The weekly tabloid launched here in 2013—the same publisher sells a very different tabloid under the same name in Europe—making headlines at the time because it promised to be Kardashian-free. At first glance on the newsstand, Closer looks like just another Us Weekly copycat, with big bright photos, a familiar sans serif font, and glossy pages. But it’s really a whole other species: a tabloid for older women, featuring “real” stars and an explicit mission to deliver 100 percent positive news.

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Here are some of Closer’s lead cover stories within the past few months:

“Tom Hanks & Rita Wilson: How Faith Saved Our Family”
“How They Became the Golden Girls: From Feuding to Lifelong Friends”
“Natalie Wood: Why She Never Found True Love”
“Kathie Lee Gifford: I’m Learning How to Be Alone”
“Burt & Sally: The Truth About Their Red-Hot Romance”
“Jack Nicholson: His Greatest Love Affairs”

Closer is put out by Bauer Publishing, a German-based media company whose American offices are not in Manhattan but in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. Bauer also published In Touch, the popular Us Weekly rival, and Life & Style, a tabloid interspersed with fashion and beauty features. Closer barely has any ads at all, and they are palpably low-rent: Omaha Steaks, the Bradford Exchange, and a Minnesota-based jewelry company hawking a $99 “opal anniversary ring.” One recent issue included a full-page ad for a collectible talking doll based on the 1960s sitcom Family Affair.

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But Closer doesn’t really need ads. Like other Bauer titles, it relies on newsstand sales more than advertising or subscriptions to make its money. And as a magazine that counts on impulse purchases, it traffics in a kind of analog clickbait. Cover lines like “Dolly Parton: Why She Left Her Husband,” “Dolly Parton: I’m Getting Married Again!” and “Dolly Parton: Life on My Own” (“The queen of country says goodbye to her husband of nearly 50 years”) suggest an awful lot of recent upheaval and tragedy in poor Dolly’s life. In that way, Closer looks like a descendant of older tabloids like the Globe, which rely on cover stories declaring various elderly stars to be on the brink of death several times a year. (In a few decades, Jennifer Aniston is sure to be declared “near death” as often as she is currently declared pregnant.) At heart, however, Closer is anything but morbid. The magazine has repeatedly reported inside its pages that Parton is happily married and in fact celebrated her 50th wedding anniversary this summer. She “said goodbye” to her husband because she was heading out on tour.

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It’s not just Closer’s cover lines that can be sketchy—oftentimes, the magazine doesn’t bother to spell out where it finds its material. In the cover story on Tom Hanks’ family, Rita Wilson “confides” that Easter week “is about renewal and faith.” (Stop the presses!) Though you’d never know it by reading Closer’s feature, the quotes actually come from a 2007 op-ed she wrote. And here’s the opening paragraph of a story on Vivien Leigh, which a reader would be forgiven for interpreting as a recent interview with Leigh herself, who died in 1967:

As Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, Vivien Leigh coquettishly sprayed perfume at Marlon Brando, then stepped away, biting her lip out of insecurity. The brilliant, subtle performance won Vivien her second Oscar, in 1952—but the role came with a hefty price. It “tipped me over into madness,” the actress confessed.

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Then again, why not fuzz the rules when you’re promising 100 percent positive coverage? Unlike bigger and buzzier tabloids that rely on a balance of flattering and critical celebrity news (and that mostly play within the traditional rules of journalism), Closer features only stories that subjects would be happy to mail to their own mothers. (When other gossip sources reported that Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne had split up over his affair with a hairdresser, Closer postulated that Ozzy was merely jealous of Sharon’s career.) Reading an issue of Closer is like a retreat to a parallel Hollywood universe where love almost always lasts forever, and even when it doesn’t, everyone is at peace. Warren Beatty is making a comeback! Heidi Klum has a positive attitude! Connie Chung and Maury Povich are happier than ever!

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So who actually reads this stuff? The magazine’s readership is overwhelmingly female, with a median age of 54; its own publicity materials say it’s targeted at “the underserved Generation X demographic.” (Yep, some Gen X–ers are in their 50s.) That means half the readers are older than 54. And many of the magazine’s subjects are … off the scale. In the June 6 issue, Today host Kathie Lee Gifford shared the cover with photos of her husband Frank (deceased), Joan Rivers (passed away), and Shirley Booth (RIP), along with cover lines on Larry Hagman (gone too soon) and Morley Safer (you get the idea).

David Perel, the editorial director of In Touch, Life & Style, and Closer, told me the Closer covers that tend to do best are those that tap into “a piece of Americana”: Sonny and Cher, Elvis and Priscilla Presley, Paul Newman. Closer readers love Kate Middleton, too. But “there is no Kardashian coverage. We hear time and time again from readers they don’t want it,” Perel said. “They want coverage of what they call ‘real stars,’ superstars, whether it’s Marie Osmond or something about Shirley Temple’s life … there’s a certain amount of real star power this magazine brings to market that others don’t.”

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Pause for a moment to consider the world in which Marie Osmond is a “real” star and Kim Kardashian is an upstart phony. This is upside-down Hollywood, where age beats youth, Donny & Marie beats Snapchat, and sensible beats sexual. Take Closer’s delightful twist on the tabloid staple that pits star against similarly dressed star to determine who looks best. Closer’s version is “Which Generation Wore It Better?” In the eight weeks of magazines I’ve perused, the older celebrity has triumphed every time, usually because they are deemed vaguely classier. Melanie Griffith’s crewneck sweater is more tasteful than Jordin Sparks’ (adorable) crop top; Susan Lucci’s fuchsia frills are superior to Miley Cyrus’ because “you’ve got to know when to say when.”

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At heart, celebrity gossip is storytelling. By reading and talking about stars finding love, breaking up, and getting pregnant, women in their 20s and 30s process those same inflection points in their own lives. (The median Us Weekly reader is 37; at In Touch, she is 34.) Closer’s readers are going through different things: aging, widowhood, second or third marriages, grandmotherhood, and downshifting careers. If those events aren’t as sexy as twentysomething love, they’re certainly every bit as dramatic. Closer, which is somehow both dim and overly sunny, isn’t quite the magazine that older women deserve. But I hope some version of it is around for me to read by the beach in retirement.

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