Keeping Tabs

Since Diana

The tabloids learn to cope with tragedy.

The headline in the Globe reads, “Sharon Stone Cellulite Shocker.” The photo–an enlarged patch of thigh–is highlighted with a circle and an arrow, a graphic like one the New York Times might use to indicate the Bosnian village where a massacre took place. Together, headline and image signal that the tabloids finally have returned to form.

Yes, the Diana hagiography continues. Last week, the Star did a story on “The Real Princess Di,” with such unlikely revelations as the alleged fact that she did her own ironing and joined the help in washing dishes. The article also stated, “In an age when so many celebrities put on one image in public and hide an ugly, private side, Diana was just who she was, wherever she went.” Of course, a chance to look at that ugly, private side is the reason readers pick up the tabs in the first place. So it was comforting this week to be told by the Star that Melanie Griffith’s bee-stung lips “appear to be the result of collagen overload,” and by the Globe that Shaquille O’Neal supposedly just had breast-reduction surgery.

Both the Star and the NationalEnquirer proffered written manifestoes denying that publications such as theirs were responsible for Diana’s death, or even for harassing celebrities in general. The Enquirer, which is staking out the strategically questionable territory of the tabloid with taste, explains that many celebrities “ask us to interview them and take their pictures.” However, other celebrities “are furious because they can’t stop us from telling the truth, even with their powerful publicity machines.” The statement ends on a constitutional note: “You live in America. You have a right to buy TheEnquirer.”

But for a few weeks, the Enquirer seemed to lose its way. There was a strange, celebrity-thin issue, full of stories such as one about a nurse who was fired for trying to perform CPR on a dying baby chimp; and another about a ring, lost for 22 years, that was found embedded in a potato. And then there was this shocking headline last month: “JonBenet Top Cop: Mom and Dad Are Innocent.” Could it be that, after almost a year of relentless accusations against John and Patsy Ramsey, the Enquirer was having second thoughts? No, as it turned out. The article alleged that the retired detective brought in to work on the case was not admired by the other cops. And this week, the story was back on track with “Mommy and Daddy to Be Arrested by Christmas–Cops Convinced.”

“Viewers are tired of Fran Drescher,” the Enquirer reveals pluckily this week. Their target–the star of the sitcom TheNanny and one of the tabs’ noisier critics–has “turned off too many viewers, especially with her complaints about the tough lives of super-rich celebs.” The Enquirer predicts her show will be canceled. On the other hand, do we detect a defensive note in a story about singer Merle Haggard, which finds it necessary to explain why the Enquirer had chosen this moment to portray Haggard as a bad husband and father? Haggard’s son, Marty, is speaking out, the article explains, because “his famous father is working on a biographical feature film that Marty says will be an outrageous whitewash of the truth.”

T he Star has maintained a more pugilistic pose since Diana’s death. It, too, has attacked celebrities who attacked it: “George Clueless–sorry, Clooney–used to beg us to run stories on him … when he was a struggling nobody appearing in such schlocky movies as Return of the Killer Tomatoes!” The Star rewards celebrities who understand its rules. Sylvester Stallone even signed up for an endorsement: “Like all artists, I love the art of communication and I fully support the freedom of the press,” he says. “I love Star.” The caption on a photo of a pregnant and smiling Heather Locklear reads, “She’s one celebrity who really knows how to act like a star as she happily smiles for our photographer.” Hint, hint.

The Star also has taken to congratulating itself for the people it gets to speak willingly. On a recent cover, the logo “Look Who’s Talking to Star” appeared over stories about singer Mariah Carey and the Duchess of York. And what talk! Mariah Carey tells all about Camp Mariah, her camp for inner-city children. Of her life she says, “It’s all about my career–and those great kids at camp.” Fergie, meanwhile, both mourns her late sister-in-law and touts her Weight Watchers holiday diet. “For the first time in my life, I’ve found a way of eating that works.”

Offering no self-justification is the Globe–which earlier this year helped arrange the one-afternoon stand that’s turned into a cottage industry: the one between surgically enhanced former flight attendant Suzen Johnson and football commentator Frank Gifford, perhaps now better known as the cheating husband of talk-show host Kathie Lee. During the Diana mourning period, the Globe went supernatural with this exclusive: “Princess smiles down from Heaven on her Brave Boys.” But it returned to Earth last week, interviewing an unnamed psychiatrist who had treated Dodi Fayed. The shrink’s diagnosis: Fayed suffered from something called Borderline Personality Disorder. “When I first heard Di was dating my former patient, I wanted to phone Kensington Palace and scream: ‘Run, Di, run.’ “

In the weeks following Diana’s death, it appeared that even the Globe was trying to find the pretty side of things. Take this October story on the volatile marriage of John F. Kennedy Jr. and his wife, Carolyn. “Let’s Start Over!” read the headline on an account of how the “battling lovebirds” were “vowing to put passion and togetherness back in their marriage.” The logical outcome, said the story, was “an heir for Camelot.” But all that togetherness was apparently a mistake, judging from this week’s Globe headline, “JFK Jr: I married the wrong woman.” The Globe has him telling a friend, “Some nights I wake up shuddering and bathed in sweat.”

The differences among the three publications are probably best illustrated by their varying explanations for the mysterious cast that recently appeared on JFK Jr.’s arm. According to the Enquirer, the editor of George slammed down his hand during an argument with a staffer and broke a bone. The Star’s version is that he injured his hand while kayaking. Leave it to the Globe to conclude, “JFK Jr, Slashed! Emergency surgery after wild brawl with Carolyn–say sources.”

This week, all three have cover stories about plastic surgeon to the stars Dr. Steven Hoefflin (the man who takes credit for Michael Jackson’s nose) and whether he exposed and discussed the genitals of his celebrity patients while they were under anesthesia. It’s a natural story for the tabloids, but it caught them all with their pants down when it first appeared in a long, entertaining piece in the WashingtonPost.