Voyeurising the voyeurs: inside the celebrity business

Article published on May 1, 2006
Article published on May 1, 2006

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Celebrity magazines use sensational photographs and the promise of intimacy to create a public going crazy for the next scoop. How this came to dominate journalism is a story of consumer manipulation

FREDDIE STARR ATE MY HAMSTER was the headline of The Sun, March 13, 1986. It heralded a new wave of journalism around Europe. This new journalism was dominated by images that promised exclusive glimpses into the personal lives of our idols. It sold stories as if they were commodities – not on the basis of information, but through flashy pictures and catchy headlines. This new journalism became big business.

Selling ourselves

Everything is revealed, nothing seems too personal. Pictures make the story. This business is so successful that each week companies bring out new magazines, or even expand their titles into TV programs. For instance, the English magazine Closer, which was launched in France in 2005, has already taken fourth place in the French market with 420,000 copies sold each week. Closer fought a media war with its rival Voici in the summer of 2005 – this brought even more scandals and even cheaper prices. For these images are big business – in France three million celebrity magazines are sold every week, Voici is sold by Gruner & Jahr, Europe’s biggest magazine publisher. They sell Voici’s sister publication Gala in France, Germany, Poland, Spain and Russia.

There is a huge market in Germany, with 37 weekly women magazines selling a total of 12.4 million copies. Other big players in the gossip business are tabloids like The Sun – the biggest selling paper in the United Kingdom with daily sales of 3.3 million. But even this is trumped by the German tabloid Bild, which sells 3.6 million copies and is the biggest selling paper in Europe.

Creating the demand

The celebrity press is constantly searching for the next scoop. Royal families, movie and music stars are the preferred targets. The constant sensationalism of these stories is played on by the press to attract more readers, hooking them on the constant rise and fall of celebrities.

Such stories have to be accompanied by pictures. A series of legal battles around Europe have been fought to determine whether the photographs of paparazzi violate people’s right to privacy. French courts recently issue a one Euro symbolic fine for the photographers chasing Princess Diana at the time of her death. It is likely to have done little to dissuade them.

These photographs encourage demand. The more revealing the photographs, the more the reader thirsts for something even more revealing, even more intimate. Two years ago it was enough to show celebrities on a beach in a bikini. Today it is necessary to show half-naked celebrities on your cover if you want to sell copies of your magazine. No topic seems to be too trashy or taboo. In this search for sales, the magazines created a demand among their readers for trashier and trashier pictures.

The celebrities themselves also helped to create this demand. In order to stay famous they have to stay in the headlines. This has reached an epiphany with celebrities like Paris Hilton, who are famous simply because they are famous. Exhibitionism has become the sellable characteristic today.

Want to launch a new book? Reveal something intimate on live television! Except these revelations are never intimate – they are stage managed to create demand for a product. This is a faux intimacy that promises the reader a gratification that always escapes him. To continue to develop this demand, magazines also need to destroy the celebrities that their voyeurism has created, making the reader complicit in the story. Recently, English tabloids took great delight in revealing Kate Moss sniffing cocaine in a London nightclub. What is interesting about this event is that, as everyone in fashion will tell you, taking cocaine is not news. It is solely the context of the photo which creates the news: the opportunity to bump up circulation by whipping up a frenzy of fake moralists and excited voyeurism.

Reading the pictures

Why do readers allow themselves to be exploited in this fashion? Laurence Debril, of the news magazine L’Express has one answer. “The typical reader is under 30 and does not feel guilty while reading. It is a generation that does not have access to politics or institutions. By reading these magazines, they have the impression that everything is possible.”

Celebrity scandals have become as interesting as major political events. In England, an MP recently appeared on Big Brother, and in France the Sarkozy saga gripped the nation last summer. Indeed, in the recent Merkel scandal, where The Sun took pictures of the German Chancellor’s exposed behind, the line between celebrity scandal and political event became indistinguishable. As Arnaud de Puyfontaine, the director of Emap France, which publishes Closer, explains, these magazines “offer you everything that you could not even imagine. We will do for you everything that you did not even dare to think about.”

For a generation isolated from politics and fully integrated into a consumer culture, perhaps celebrity magazines are the nearest thing we have to a public sphere today.