The invention of Us Weekly’s “Stars—They’re Just Like Us” feature.

How “Stars—They’re Just Like Us” Transformed the Celebrity Economy

How “Stars—They’re Just Like Us” Transformed the Celebrity Economy

How the past two decades will shape the future.
Sept. 22 2016 11:00 AM

One of Us

“Stars—They’re Just Like Us” and the future of always-“on” celebrity coverage.

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Photo illustration by Slate

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The nearest star to our sun is Proxima Centauri, about 25 trillion miles out in space. For most of Hollywood history, movie stars seemed almost as far away. Celebrities weren’t necessarily better than us—in fact, often they were brazenly debauched. But they started from a higher level of glamour and decadence than the rest of us, and did everything on a grander scale. They were citizens of a different solar system.

Ruth Graham Ruth Graham

Ruth Graham is a regular Slate contributor. She lives in New Hampshire.

That all changed on April 1, 2002. That’s when “Stars—They’re Just Like Us” appeared in Us Weekly for the first time. Suddenly, we saw the beautiful extraterrestrials pumping gas, schlepping FedEx packages, and tying their shoes. They ate junk food, picked up dry cleaning, and got parking tickets. The proof was right there on the same glossy paper that showed them walking the red carpet. Just like that, they had fallen to Earth.

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The feature was the invention of editor Bonnie Fuller, who was in the early stages of turning Us into the influential newsstand powerhouse it remains. Here’s how former Us reporter Kate Lee has described the eureka moment, which came soon after the magazine had transitioned from a monthly entertainment magazine to a weekly photo-heavy tabloid:

At the daily late-morning editorial meeting, the photo editor brought in images, many taken by paparazzi, that had come in over the wires overnight. He spread the color print-outs of celebrities all over the table: movie premieres, vacations, nights on the town. Bonnie sifted through them and focused on a photo of Drew Barrymore leaning over to fetch a coin off the sidewalk.
“Look at Drew Barrymore picking up a penny,” she said. “It’s like, stars, they’re just like us.”

Drew Barrymore picking up that penny went on to change Us Weekly, tabloid media, the paparazzi economy, and the celebrity ecosystem as a whole. A photo of an actress casually bending over on the street was suddenly interesting to readers and valuable to editors, which incentivized photographers to capture more everyday moments, and ultimately nudged celebrities to become willing participants in the process. A penny shot quickly turned into a money shot.

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Paparazzi photographers thrived in Los Angeles and New York long before “Just Like Us,” of course. But previously, they had focused on stalking big game, attempting to catch celebrities pursuing affairs or dangling babies off balconies. Those were stories. The moments that photographers caught in between were near-worthless inanities. Stopping by the dry cleaner is too boring even to tell your friends about, so who would want to read about it in a magazine? But the “Just Like Us” framework gave those throwaway shots narrative momentum, turning them into proof of a star’s off-screen relatability. Just a few years into the reality TV era, the thrill came from the idea that we were peeking at seemingly unguarded moments.

The first “Just Like Us” spread reads as jarringly mean in comparison to its current iteration. “Busted! Fast Food Fiends,” the 2002 headline crowed. There was Russell Crowe furtively exiting a KFC, Jennifer Lopez with her mouth full of pizza, Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz lurking grim-faced in a Johnny Rockets. “For all their talk,” the accompanying story sneered, “you’d think celebrities subsist on celery sticks and Zone bars alone.” The actors are dressed like Kohl’s employees, and they appear either mortified or genuinely unaware they are being photographed. They really do seem just like us, and it’s not a good look for anyone.

Fourteen years later, the “Just Like Us” rubric is as gentle as a soft-focus lens. Celebrities jog; even better, they jog with other celebrities. They carry shopping bags and packages and groceries. They ride bikes. The most specific captions have a beautiful loopiness that suggests Us Weekly is very much in on the joke. Harrison Ford clutches an unwieldy Apple charger: “They Carry Their Cords!” Pippa Middleton carries a small flower down the street: “They Love Potted Plants!” Jennifer Garner breezes past Tobey Maguire on the sidewalk in Santa Monica: “They Fail to Notice Friends!” And on and on: “They Use Drink Holders!” “They Use Baskets!” “They Use Caulk Guns!” “They Read Us Weekly!”

Photo editing and caption writing are forms of storytelling. When we see Marcia Cross in full makeup and curlers serving herself a sad, small salad from craft services on the set of Desperate Housewives in a 2006 spread, what are we looking at? A pampered, underfed actress? A typically glamorous woman caught in an embarrassingly unglamorous moment? Or proof that Marcia Cross is a regular gal who, like you and me, “Really Love[s] Lettuce!” Even when the stars are behaving nothing like us, the “Just Like Us” brand connects their magic to our mundanity, to everyone’s benefit. Here’s George Clooney on Letterman last year, laughing over an iPhone: two famous millionaires performing on television. But just like us—voilà—“They Mug for Selfies!”

“Just Like Us” was so successful at turning street photography into a commodity that today, it’s obvious many striving celebrities dress up to take out the trash and go to the grocery store. Some call photographers about their plans to do so, or show up at the particular shops and outdoor cafés where paparazzi cluster. At the very least, they smile while pumping gas or feeding the meter. Garner spends so much time at Los Angeles farmers markets that it’s possible she is an actual farmer.

Inspecting zucchini in a perfect sundress is still a savvy strategy, but modern fame-maintenance no longer requires the cooperation of the paparazzi. Today, some of the best photos in Us Weekly come from Instagram, one of the many descendants of the “Just Like Us” Weltanschauung. In 2016, stars don’t need to be “busted” behaving like regular people, and they don’t need middle-man photographers to prove their realness. Social media lets them share everyday occasions on their own terms: wearing the right outfits, shot from the right angles, with just the right friends and cocktails and sunsets—just like us.

For better or for worse, it’s a more direct kind of personal-brand building that may foreshadow the real future of “Just Like Us” and the always-“on” celebrity culture it helped invent. Us readers now must slog through transparently promotional photos of stars who just happen to be gazing thoughtfully at SlimFast shakes, Dole Squish’ems, and Clairol Nice ’n Easy Root Touch-Up kits with the logos facing the camera. Even the biggest stars don’t get to skip this rigmarole. C-listers “partner” with brands; A-listers build their own. Here’s Reese Witherspoon, fashion entrepreneur, reading the new cookbook by lifestyle guru Gwyneth Paltrow last month in her artfully styled kitchen on Instagram. Once upon a time, an actress’s job was to convincingly pretend to be someone else. In the future, her more important job may be pretending to be herself.