Celebrity skin.

Media criticism.
Nov. 20 2003 7:24 PM

Doing the Celebrity Rag

Evolutionary psychology explains the appeal of the Star, Us Weekly, and People.

Us Weekly cover
Perpetually on the rag

Several million years before Bonnie Fuller ditched Jann Wenner's Us Weekly to remake David Pecker's Star tabloid into a shiny celebrity magazine, life on the African savanna had already sculpted the human psyche into a vessel that would thirst for page after page of articles about the mating rituals, health, and drug problems, fertility problems, wealth and status displays, and plastic surgery secrets of actors, rock stars, and other modern luminaries.

No, evolution didn't design us to read Us, but it did knit and purl our neural matter into patterns guiding many of the behaviors that guarantee humankind's survival, evolutionary psychologists tell us. Those patterns still skulk in our unconscious minds, inciting us to eat fatty food, recklessly eyeball the neighborhood for sex partners, collect gossip, and battle others for a place in the pecking order. "Our modern skulls house a stone age mind," as science writer William Allman once axiomized it, and capitalizing on the human ape's basest instincts is what moves 6 million copies of the Star, Us, and People each week. Whether you read them or not, the celebrity magazines help determine the content of newspaper gossip columns, celebrity TV programs (Entertainment Tonight; Access Hollywood), late-night talk shows, and the unavoidable office chatter about Jen, Reese, Britney, Ben, Ethan, and Brad. 

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Celebrity gossip has ruled the media ever since the late '20s when Walter Winchell invented the genre in his syndicated newspaper column. Winchell served a hearty blend of hard news, loose facts, innuendo, and vitriol about stars, politicians, and the rich. Compared to today's celebrity rags, Winchell covered an entire universe of people. But thanks mostly to Fuller's influence, the constellation of people worth gossiping about are the blond and fertile—and a few legacy stars like Liza. It's as if Fuller and her competitors milled the whole grain of Winchell's formula to a pale dust. This gossip is so finite and restricted that only the primal power of evolutionary psychology can explain their pervasive hold on the collective imagination.

On the surface, the celebrity rags seem to be about sex. But their real subject is reproduction and the future of the human tribe. On the savanna, we needed to monitor how our clan was faring, and given our small populations we could do the job by ourselves, gossiping about how Gronk had left Zumba and that last night she slipped into Uggah's cave to make a baby, and what our chance might be to steal one of them as a mate. But in a country of 290 million people, where even our next-door neighbors are strangers, we still need to flex those savanna needs for gossip and information in order to measure our species' prospect. What better proxy than the young, wealthy, handsome, and visible alpha-male and -female breeding stock that Hollywood employs?

In recent months, for example, the magazines monitored every sonogram and report of morning sickness experienced by Reese Witherspoon, an only moderately talented actor. The arrival of her son was heralded on the covers of the celebrity rags as if a new heir to the throne had been born. The news of the submoderately talented Courtney Cox's pregnancy (and after so many miscarriages!) has dominated many recent covers, many linked to the fact that Brad Pitt's seed has not yet found purchase in Cox's co-star Jennifer Aniston. "Poor barren Jen!" as Mrs. Australopithecus might have put it. (Did you know Debra Messing is with child, too? Do you know who the hell she is?)

Star cover
Gyno-mania rules

This reproduction obsession spills over to include its ordinary prerequisites—courtship, engagement, wedding ceremony, and conception. No wonder, then, that the great majority of celebrity rag stories riff off these events. This helps explain the rags' devotion to such reality TV nobodies as Trista & Ryan and Andrew & Jen. They are unavoidable alpha, making them breeders of potentially perfect babies, and their life adventures strum some survival chord in the archeocortex of the average reader. Readers become so consumed by the fate of the alphas chronicled in the rags that they can't help but think that if Pamela and Tommy are kissing on the cover of Us, it's going to be good for their children Dylan and Brandon. And that will be good for social stability! Be gone, Kid Rock (unless you intend to make reproductive use of Pamela's remaining fertility cycles). The obsession is sounded on almost every page. Ben and Jen are eloping. Ethan wants Uma back to preserve their family. Cameron and Justin might be getting engaged!

Ev psych also helps explain the celebrity rags' saturation coverage of who's had plastic surgery and who has not (see Us Weekly's comprehensive Nov. 10 cover story, "Special Report: Plastic Surgery Under 30"). Those breasts. Those lips. Those cheekbones. That butt! Beauty attracts us, evolutionary psychologists say, because symmetrical good looks are a good marker of healthy offspring that will live to procreate. The rags imply (accurately, I think) that cosmetic surgery is the most fundamental lie one can tell a breeding partner, hence their dismay at the practice and their joy in documenting it.

But if the celebrity rags are media proxies for the tribal gossip and mating rituals of the savanna, why are most stories about women? Why are most readers female (67 percent of Us readers are women, the magazine reports)? Setting aside the possibility that most readers are closeted lesbians paging their way from one cheap thrill to another, my best guess derives from the school-dance truism that girls like to look at boys but love to look at the competition—especially the alpha competition. (For further evidence of how women love hints on displaying their fecundity, see their abiding interest in Vogue, Elle, Harper's Bazaar, and the rest of the fashion magazines.) The women who read the celebrity rags fantasize about fabulous courtships, fairy tale weddings, romantic honeymoons, and the everlasting bonding of parenting. When divorce happens, they relish every human detail. For whatever reason, most men can't wrap their minds around the importance of Chris Robinson and Kate Hudson's romance and impending child.

If the celebrities of magazineland belonged to our local tribe instead of our virtual tribe, would men covet the information that Angelina is currently available and Nicole is not? Knowing men as I do, I'd guess no. The gossipy narratives about love and pregnancy that captivate so many women readers don't resonate with most men. But given the success People magazine has had extending its franchise to Teen People and People en Español, perhaps an editorial genius could devise the formula for a celebrity magazine that would appeal to men. People for Guys, you could call it. Are you listening, Bonnie Fuller?

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