A few months ago, after pooh-poohing them for years, I picked up my first celebrity tabloid and fell in love. I'm ashamed. But I keep going back.
I'm not alone. The celebrity tabloids are posting record circulation gains amid declines in the more serious newsweeklies like Time and Newsweek.
And I'm not the first feminist to confess to a "low" culture addiction. Some read Cosmo; others (gasp) read The Province. And some, like Leah McLaren, even overdo it and have to go on a celebrity diet.
There are tabs, and there are their earnest, uptight cousins, the glossy fashion magazines like Elle and Vogue, and the new Canadian magazine launching next month, LUSH. As a teenager I used to pour through the pages of such glossies. Like many of my friends, I had "magazine wallpaper" and I woke up looking at the faces of models and actors. But then, in university, I tore the staples and pages from the walls in a bad break up, embracing instead my newly found, magazine-free feminist fervour.
It wasn't cold turkey. I kept up my low grade glossies habit through my 20s, but now, as I plunge into my 30s, I've realized I'm just not interested in hanging out with the highbrow bibles of fashion anymore. Not because I've turned my back on pop culture or fashion - quite the opposite. It's because for years I accepted that the glossies thought they were better than me and pushed me around. And suddenly, I got bored of that old dominatrix. Now, I spend time with my new friends, the tabs, and they don't ask those things of me.
It's made me wonder if others have come to the same conclusion in one way or another, accounting for their newly soaring readership. While my September issue of Vogue (the one inch thick tome) is sitting on my table, unread, I've already plowed through the four tabs I bought on Friday, as has everyone who came over this weekend. People have lightly flipped through Walrus, The New Yorker, Vancouver Magazine and Vogue but jumped on and even wrestled for (I admit there was wine involved) People, Star, In Touch, and Us.
I'm enjoying their interest because I'm still in the honeymoon phase of my new tab addiction. I see revelatory parallels between celeb culture and my friends' lives and rudely offer them unsolicited (usually well-received). Now, when conversation about some topic like politics or the environment hits a lull, I insert a salacious tidbit of celebrity gossip or ask people's opinions of celebs' latest antics. Even hard-core environmentalists light up and wade in to the debate about Brangelina, TomKat, and SiennandJude's latest media stunts.
Vogue and the other fashion glossies only want to talk about a culture that I'm just not part of. Hanging out with those editors and writers (on the pages) gave me a "special spectator's pass" to a secret club built on exclusion and envy. They made sure I was familiar with $2700 cardigans and $15,000 dresses; with the profiled people who "started at Harvard" and used their trust funds to launch meaningful charity projects; and with the movers and shakers in the New York scene. But they made it clear I'd never be a member of their clique. And I'm not crazy about paying for that kind of friendship.
The wrong crowd
But with the tabs, I prefer the fantasy they're selling -- one of familiarity instead of exclusion.
The tabs are also my new best friends because their pages are full of celebs who often look terrible and behave even worse. Sure there are the fully styled movie premieres, but later in the issue, there'll be a photo of a celeb spilling a (fat free) coffee on herself while trying to plug her parking meter. I can relate to the latter. Then there are the "stars" like Brittney and Kevin Federline (K-Fed), the details of whose lives can actually make me feel nauseous. So even though those stars have more money and power than I do, I often leave the mag feeling, if not always smugly superior, at least better off than them.
That's why Vogue's famed editor Anna Wintour tried to kick those girls out of her party. In her editorial in the September 2004 issue of Vogue, she said she was taking celebs off the cover and replacing them with real models (read: anorexic teenagers). She wasn't even going to grace the pages with supermodels (since they have their own kind of celebrity) but stick to largely unknown models so the reader would focus on the clothes, not the personality. She didn't want to be pushed around. Needless to say, old Anna didn't get her way and the celebs get a permanent seat at her lunch table.
Trashy insider trading
But even though the friendly celebs are back (this September Vogue flashes the biggest fashion celeb of all -- Sarah Jessica Parker), I have yet to lift the cover. I know it'll still be full of clinical, highly styled fashion shots, and endless blurbs about how fashion is a very serious business.
No, I like tabs because I know they're trash. And I think everyone does too, despite arguments to the contrary. When I was a teacher, I assigned students to read five novels a year of their own choosing in addition to the curriculum. Invariably, some students (girls) would bring in a tabloid as their "novel." I didn't get away with that; they had to read novels. However, (and I know not everyone agrees with this) I would tell those students that as a text describing all the baroque ambitions and foibles of the human spirit, the tab was equally valid as a novel. The form and quality of language was surely different, but the themes were not so far from the Greeks and Shakespeare.
I told my students I wanted them to be conversant with tabloids and the most serious postmodern fiction so they could have access to every part of the world. My students would indulge me. They always smirked at my lecture, and brought in their "real" novel the next day. Not that they or I ever expected them to stop soaking up the pages of tabs.
Of course the question arises: who is playing whom when minds (young or even as rapidly aging as my own) give themselves over to the celebrity obsessive messages of the tabs? Not all readers are conscious of the elaborate workings of the behind-the-scenes PR machines. Most of my teenaged girl students who read the mags were unaware, for example, that professional PR handlers played a key role in what products and celebrities show up on the pages. And that a star's appearance in the mag isn't actually about connecting with their fan-friends but selling more products and tickets.
And still. Feminist and practical knowledge aside, mags - whether they be glossies like Vogue or tabs like People are all about pure escapism. They are, at best, a mere ironic indulgence. So here's the thing. My old friend Vogue leaves me feeling inadequate, poor, like I was born into the wrong city, and not nearly glamorous enough. At end of People, I think "God, Brittney's pathetic; I'll NEVER wear short shorts when I'm pregnant, but ooh I love those shoes and I think I saw some like them for $30 last week."
If celebrities are symbols of power in our distorted society, then I prefer the power relations that tabs afford. They expose celebs for the garishly flawed humans they are, and remind me that despite my lack of film credits or millions, I'm likely to end up happier than Posh Spice, wearing "the Victoria Beckam" cut of Rock and Republic jeans, blinking into the paparazzi's flashbulbs, holding one of the sons she shares with her cheating husband.
Vanessa Richmond is the culture editor at The Tyee.
Got a trashy magazine addiction (sports, fashion, fishing…)? Why not come out of the closet and confess it below.