In 1918, in a magazine devoted to chronicling the lives of movie stars, an up-and-coming starlet named Lila Lee posed for a publicity photo on her hands and knees, next to a bucket. In the image, the comely brunette is looking up, her expression sanguine and slightly surprised, as if she didn't expect the photographer from Motion Picture to catch her scrubbing the floor with her hair perfectly coiffed. The copy focuses on her love of hard work, but the implicit message is that modern gossip rag cliché:
Stars … they're just like us!
Karen Sternheimer, a sociologist at the University of Southern California, spent four years analyzing movie fan magazines for her new book Celebrity Culture and the American Dream. In their heyday, during the first half of the 20th century, fan magazines worked hand-in-glove with studios to provide upbeat, fawning coverage of Hollywood stars' lifestyles, hairstyles, and love lives. What Sternheimer discovered is that many of the conventions of contemporary celebrity journalism—as showcased in magazines like People, Us Weekly, In Touch, and Life & Style—have centurylong pedigrees. Articles suggesting that celebrities are ordinary folks who perform ordinary chores, only with better clothes? Check. The obsession over stars' babies? Check. Public dissections of who had lost the perfect amount of weight, who had lost too much weight, and who had gotten her body back after pregnancy? Check, check, and check.
These similarities across history are surprising, because when we talk about celebrity journalism today we tend to focus on how much it's changed in recent decades—how furious the pace of production has grown and how insatiable the public's appetite for gossip has become. Ever more mundane minutiae are being served up as "news" and the definition of who, exactly, gets to count as a "celebrity" collapses by the day.
But fan magazines helped create the very idea of "movie stars" and legitimize our fascination with the intimacies of their lives. Motion Picture Story Magazine, the first of what would become nearly 300 titles in the genre, was launched exactly 100 years ago, during the era of silent films. Photoplay, Picture Play, Modern Screen, and many others followed. Burgeoning Hollywood studios saw the magazines as an opportunity to promote their fledgling industry. The magazines, in turn, were deferential to the studios, which controlled access to their stars; in some cases, says film historian Anthony Slide, studio publicists actually wrote magazine copy.
At first, these magazines focused on describing the plots of upcoming films and promoting the idea that movies were educational and wholesome. (Up till then, movies had been thought of as tawdry, working-class diversions.) But the magazines quickly shifted their focus to the beautiful people who starred in the films—presumably in response to readers, who wrote in with questions like "Are they married?" and "How does she keep her skin so lovely?" The coverage was largely fawning, of course—there were no close-ups of cellulite or worst-dressed lists, and for decades no mention of scandal. Slide—whose book Inside the Hollywood Fan Magazine came out last year—says that in their heyday, fan magazines offered the faintest whispers of salacious gossip, obvious only to insiders who could read between the lines. Gay relationships were merely hinted at, and as for abortions, Slide says, "They would always say the star was having their appendix removed."
By the '50s and '60s, however, the studios were becoming less powerful, and the magazines more willing to report on scandals. But with monthly issues and long lead times, they couldn't compete with timelier newspaper gossip columns and, later, weekly tabloid magazines. Plus, Slide says, the advent of television meant that there was a whole new class of celebrities to become obsessed with, lessening the focus on movie stars. Most of the last hold-outs in the movie fan mag genre had disappeared by the early '80s, as general celebrity magazines like People and Us Weekly took over.
Sternheimer's book focuses on how fan mags sold America on rags-to-riches storylines and the myth of Hollywood reinvention. But they sold us, too, on our early notions of what a celebrity should look like—just like us but better, glamorous yet surprisingly humble, coy on her love life but eager to share tips for weight loss and smooth skin. They sold us on the perfect quote, the perfect photograph, the perfect life. It's possible that even now, in the age of the Everywoman Celebrity and of cellulite close-ups, we still want to believe.
Click here to read a slide-show essay on the history of celebrity magazines.