ICorrect and Celebrity Rumor Patrol

8 04 2011

What I love most about celebrity culture is the constant battle for dominance amongst its various players. My own work focuses on these tensions, drawing out how gossip media outlets, for example, are based on the idea of breaking down the celebrity facade so carefully constructed by publicists, managers and even the celebrity him/herself.

Tabloids are built on the premise that audiences want to know more about the stars than the stars will give up. Audiences love to play the game of determining what is “real” about the star and what is “fake” or controlled by other forces. Are Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson really dating, or is it just for publicity? It’s the ability of tabloids (and, of course, blogs) to intervene into the more controlled system that makes them so appealing.

Is she really going out with him?

At times, this intervention into the star’s image has radical implications. Britney’s shift from good girl pop star to party girl to Hollywood cautionary tale is largely related to the tabloid construction of her image. She and her manager/publicist/other official team members work(ed) hard to counter these constructions and regain control of her image, its circulation and its meaning in popular culture. I’ve written about a component of this particular struggle before, and am currently working on an article about how bloggers offer a new sort of intervention into celebrity culture that draws on both their roles as audience members and as producers or official commentators on celebrity culture. I’ll be presenting a part of that project at ICA this May.

Anyway, such interventions are a necessary part of the celebrity system, in part because they keep us the celebrity in the public eye. Celebrities (and their handlers) know this, and certainly turn to media outlets (including tabloids) to attempt to counter stories that tarnish their image. They typically turn to more “legitimate” celebrity media sources, notably places like People magazine, because they’ll be treated with kid gloves and get the chance to at least attempt to regain control over a tarnished pubic image in a way that gives the appearance of authenticity and truth.

In the midst of a potential divorce scandal, Britney turned to People to set the record straight

This is nothing new, stars have been doing this since the earliest days of the studio system. For example, in exchange for “exclusive” information, Louella Parsons would allow stars to put out their side of the story during scandals (often ones she herself broke and perpetuated). In addition to using these media outlets, celebrities now can harness the tools of new media (indeed, the same tools that are used to expose them via blogs etc) to attempt to control their own images. Celebrities have official websites, some cultivate relationships with fan sites, and many have turned to Twitter as a place to get the news “direct” from the source–the celebrity herself.

Within this tension filled system comes a new, and frankly puzzling, mode for the celebrity to “correct” rumors and media reports: ICorrect. The site’s founder, David Tang, was the guest on Wednesday’s episode of The Colbert Report. You can watch the interview here. Basically, for an annual fee, Tang’s site offers a place for celebrities to write their own corrections/rebuttals to any and all rumors they feel need to be addressed. My cursory look at the site reveals such shocking revelations as Tommy Hilfiger countering the (age old) rumor that he doesn’t want black people to wear his clothes and Cherie Blair denying she will take part in Strictly Come Dancing (the British Dancing with the Stars. Riviting.

I have to say, I don’t get it. Why does this site exist? Who is reading it? And what’s in it for the celebrity, who could find many other outlets to do this sort of image correction/management? The stars have historically turned to places like People because they already have an audience, and I just don’t see a large audience being drawn to this site (in part because the layout is terrible, imo). It seems the cache is that the celebrity (or, let’s face it, a manager or publicist) can quickly correct and control a rumor. Not every star or rumor can get on the cover of People, yet every little rumor can play an important role in the star’s overall image. So ICorrect offers a way for stars to deal with any intervention into their public image.

But how does that make ICorrect different from Twitter or a celebrity’s official website? I’m not seeing how the fact the correction is on ICorrect makes the audience feel it is more “real” or “true.” ICorrect positions itself as “the first website to correct permanently any lies, misinformation and misrepresentations that permeate in cyberspace.” Um, how is a correction on this site any more “permanent” than any other?

In his interview with Colbert, Tang says ICorrect addresses the fact that sites like Twitter don’t verify that the person tweeting/writing is actually the celebrity. But Twitter does verify “well known account users” and gives them a “verified account” checkmark to indicate they have passed the “real” test. It’s all here. So, again, how is ICorrect offering a new sort of intervention into the gossip game that allows celebrities greater control? Yes, Twitter can be more fleeting, but, really, so are most rumors in terms of impact on a celebrity’s image. Remember when Ashlee Simpson got busted for being drunk at McDonald’s? Yeah, I thought so. Are audiences going to look up the “truth” about older rumors? Is such permanence really necessary, particularly in the age of new media where celebrity rumors are constantly changing?

Furthermore, how ICorrect is supposed to reach a larger audience than any other source? This is the most important part of rumor control. If no one reads it, who cares? Now, when celebrities use their websites or Twitter to counter a rumor, you often see those posts/tweets pop up on blogs or in other celebrity media as part of the story. This is crucial for the recuperation of control over a particular story. I know my gossip blog reading isn’t what it used to be, but I haven’t seen ICorrect popping up anywhere. The first time I heard about it was on Colbert. It needs way more access to the media side of the production system in order to become truly effective.

ICorrect also claim it “enables the Corrector [celebrity] to post precise corrections, without the danger of third parties quoting them out of context.” How are they going to prevent third party persons, like a blogger who reposts the “correction,” from quoting them out of context? If they need outside media exposure to bring attention to the correction, how can such a thing be controlled?

So while I love a good intervention into the celebrity system of production, this is, well, lame. It strikes me as an attempt to catch up to new media’s impact on celebrity culture, but one which is way behind. As my friend Zach would say, “Welcome to 2005!”





Stars–They Tweet Like Us!: Some Thoughts on Celebrity and Twitter

23 10 2010

This post is really overdue, as I’ve actually had it written for some time. I attended the *amazing* Flow 2010 Conference at UT-Austin just over three weeks ago, and this post is taken from the position paper I submitted and presented at that conference. I really cannot say enough positive things about this conference. It’s non-traditional set-up consists of panels where presenters have 5 minutes (no, really!) to discuss their position papers around a common topic and the rest of the time is used for discussion between panelists and audience. This allows for a really productive dialogue to emerge and everyone (from grad student to senior scholar) has the opportunity to participate. It meets every other year, and you can bet I will be submitting for 2012. I highly encourage any media scholars to check it out. Plus, Austin = awesome.

Since completing my dissertation on gossip blogs, I’ve been widening my view to think about intersections of celebrity culture with other forms of new media. Twitter and celebrity is basically a match made in heaven. I know Twitter can serve lots of different functions (and I highly recommend checking out the other position papers from the Flow Twittertube panel) , but its use by and for celebrities is really fascinating to me because it so perfectly encapsulates the private/public blurring that is inherent to the celebrity image. It’s also very distracting, as I can’t seem to go through a day without checking for Kanye’s latest tweets. Where is his antique fish tank anyway?

So here is my position paper, which explores how celebrities use Twitter to manage the private self and manage scandal. I will also mention that I have a post on celebrities using Twitter for more straightforward self-promotion that will appear on next week’s In Media Res. I’ll post the full link when it is published on Thursday, October 28.

Celebrity Twitter Feeds and the Illusion of Intimacy
The media product known as the celebrity emerges from a “circuit of celebrity production” in which various cultural intermediaries—the celebrity, her industry producers, the “legitimate” and the gossip-oriented celebrity media—feed off of each other in a constant struggle to control how that individual is represented to audiences.

In modern celebrity culture, the extratextual media coverage of stars has played an increasingly important role in promoting the “illusion of intimacy” between a star and her fans/audiences by elevating the private side of the image as the privileged site of meaning. Tabloids and other entertainment-oriented media forms encourage the audience to pursue the “real” person behind the star persona with the hope that, beneath the controlled surface, the star “really” is who she seems to be.

Tabloids, in particular, seek to disrupt the carefully constructed public image forwarded by the celebrity-industry producers (studios, publicists, managers, etc) through the revelation of the “unguarded” private self as the “real” or “authentic” star, often challenging the dominant meaning of the celebrity’s image. But the contradictory and ambivalent nature of celebrity means the circuit of production is a highly unstable process and no one player ever fully controls the meaning of the celebrity image for audiences. In other words, the meaning of the celebrity is constantly contested terrain.

Tabloids attempt to define the meaning of Angelina's image. This certainly is not sanctioned by her or her management. But nevertheless becomes an important part of how we read her image.

Social networking platforms, particularly Twitter, offer new insight into this fraught process of production by highlighting the ways in which the illusion of intimacy can be manipulated by various players in the circuit. On Twitter, unlike traditional celebrity media outlets, audiences are offered immediate and interactive engagements with the celebrity that (purportedly) originate outside of industry control and even specifically challenge other representations of the “real” celebrity. Though celebrity media outlets have also taken to Twitter, I suggest that Twitter offers the celebrity-industry intermediaries a way to recuperate control over the image using the same appeals to the unguarded and private self central to gossip media constructions of celebrity. That is, celebrity Twitter feeds recuperate celebrity-industry control over the image by explicitly engaging the same media discourses and platforms that typically disrupt that control.

The most successful celebrity Twitter users offer a glimpse of the everyday and even mundane details of their private lives, thus stressing the ordinary self behind the extraordinary public image.

Twitter’s appeal is based in its interactive nature, offering audiences a more direct sense of engagement with the celebrity than, say, reading a publicist-sanctioned interview in Vanity Fair. Though there is typically no way for a fan to know whether a Twitter feed is actually written by the celebrity (or to what degree other intermediaries influence the tweets), the very nature of Twitter as a social network gives at least the illusion of the celebrity herself as the sole author of her tweets. [NB: Annie Petersen has an excellent blog post about the believability of celebrity tweets]

This is not to suggest that celebrity tweets are not “real,” and indeed many are genuinely authored by the celebrity. Yet as a site of image production, celebrity Twitter feeds offer glimpses of the star’s private life that appear uncontrolled and authentic, even as these glimpses are limited and, often, deliberately staged. In this way, Twitter provides the celebrity and her intermediaries greater control over her image by engaging the same appeal to the unmediated and authentic self more typical of the tabloids.

The illusion of intimacy promoted by Twitter’s interactive access is also a site of struggle in which the star can challenge the tabloids’ construction of her as the “truth.” For example, in the days leading up to Lindsay Lohan’s court appearance and jail time, she used her Twitter account to challenge the negative way she was represented in the gossip media. Such a move uses the illusion of intimacy promoted by Twitter as a means to control the representation of her image to her most important audience, existing fans. In fact, she explicitly encouraged fans to “get the news straight from me” via her Twitter feed rather than turn to other media outlets, thus rejecting their representations of her as false and untrustworthy.

Of course, using Twitter cannot guarantee her version of her image will be the dominant one, and many of Lohan’s tweets have been used by the gossip media as further evidence of her instability. Nevertheless the ability to speak directly to her fans about the “truth” of her situation exploits the illusion of intimacy and offers Lohan and her producers a controlled platform from which to “fight back” against tabloid gossip in the midst of scandal. In these tweets, Lindsay attempts to control the scandal after she tested positive for drugs and alcohol just days after being released from jail:

Such image control is crucial if she wants to rebuild her public career post-incarceration. Within the contested terrain of celebrity culture, Twitter enables the celebrity to (at least appear to) bypass other players in the circuit of celebrity production, recuperate (if temporarily) control over her image and, most crucially, increase the illusion of intimacy with her audience/followers.





Too Good To Be True, But I’ll Believe It Anyway

21 07 2010

While I have about a ba-jillion other things I should be doing today with my move looming over my head and my apartment still a mess of chaos, I had to say something about this little gossip gem because of the way it perfectly encapsulates the role of rumor in celebrity media and celebrity images.

First, some background. Are we all familiar with Alexis Niers, star of E! reality show Pretty Wild and member of the Hollywood Bling Ring? No? I highly recommend this excellent Vanity Fair article about the celebrity-wannabe and her involvement in both the reality show and the Bling Ring. Niers hates this article and feels it paints her in an unflattering light. But I dare you to watch one episode of Pretty Wild, especially the one where she freaks out about the article, and not see the same fame-hungry ridiculousness on display.

As a side note, I can only imagine how much the E! executives were peeing their pants with excitement when this whole scandal broke out, as they had already signed the family and begun shooting the reality show before the Bling Ring members were arrested and tried in court. I don’t think the particularly successful, in part because they are really all so obnoxious and vapid without a pre-existing reason for us to care about them as celebrities, but this scandal certainly helped draw an audience. It has yet to be picked up for a second season, but when one of your stars is in jail, it’s probably hard to put together a production schedule. ZING!

In a nutshell, while Niers and her family were filming their reality show, the 19-year-old was arrested for being a part of a robbery ring targeting celebrities. Essentially, these spoiled Hollywood teenagers would troll celebrity gossip sites (like Perez and TMZ) in order to case the fashion and jewelry of Hollywood stars. Then, knowing the star was out of town working or whatever (thanks again, gossip media!), they would break into the celeb’s home and steal clothes, jewelry and cash. Their celebrity victims included Orlando Bloom, Paris Hilton, Megan Fox and Lindsay Lohan. Neirs denies that she was actively involved, claiming she didn’t really know what they were doing or whose homes they were in. She is, however, serving a six month jail sentence for her involvement in the heists.

Why is this important now? Unless you’ve been living under rock or simply try to ignore all celebrity-related news (though why are you reading this blog if that’s true?), Lindsay Lohan was sentenced to 90 days in jail for breaking the terms of her probation. Though there are so many things to be said about this whole celebrity drama, this headline from tabloid-mainstay The New York Daily News’ online outlet struck me as hilarious and perfectly scandal-oriented:

Lindsay Lohan in jail cell next to Alexis Neirs, E! reality star charged with robbing celeb homes

Here we have a headline that adds another level to scandal-du-jour Lohan by putting her in a jail cell NEXT to Alexis Neirs, who allegedly stole a Chanel necklace from Lohan (police found the missing necklace in Neirs’ house during a search related to the Bling Ring case). This allows the audience to speculate about a jail time showdown between the two that calls up both women’s “bad girl” personas. Even a casual glance at celebrity gossip media will illustrate that the tabloids love nothing more than a catfight (real or imagined). Just look at any story involving Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Aniston potentially being in physical proximity of each other.

Celebrity Prison Rumble?: Lohan and Neirs

What’s hilarious and awesome about this is that it isn’t even true, and that the article accompanying this headline tells us its not even true. It states that “it remains unknown whether the women will share the same module,” meaning that not only are they not NEXT to each other, they may not even be in the same part of the jail. But, gossip doesn’t always have to be completely true to be delicious and pleasurable. It just has to speak to some sort of existing knowledge and expectation about a star in order to work. It allows the gossip media to call up other existing scandals (Lohan’s known volatile behavior and the big story of her incarceration, Neirs’ involvement in the Bling Ring and her fame mongering, the overall love of celebrity catfights) to keep the story going. In other words, it’s close enough to true to work as gossip. It doesn’t have to be completely true, but I (and I think gossip audiences more broadly) kind of want it to be…or at least find it entertaining to speculate about what would happen if it WERE true. And that’s key to the pleasures of gossip.

Neirs should probably be grateful that Lohan was sentenced to jail time and is serving in the same facility because it’s getting her name back in the press. For Lohan’s image, this is probably just a minor blip within a larger scandal that won’t really have any lasting effect. For me, the gossip media watcher, its an intriguing mix of fantasy and reality that makes reading celebrity gossip so much fun.





Brief Thoughts on Jesse James’ Nightline Interview

27 05 2010

As is probably evident, I’ve gotten quite wrapped up in the Sandra Bullock/Jesse James scandal and its coverage in the gossip media (as well as the “legitimate” media). So of course I watched James’ first public interview on Nightline , though on DVR the day after the actual airing. The post-scandal “apology tour” is a facet of celebrity publicity that fascinates me. Scandal (or at least some level of personal drama) has long been a crucial part of celebrity culture, and audience fascination of what goes on “behind-the-scenes” of a star’s life often eclipses interest in his or her public performances. In addition to consuming the details of the actual fall from grace, the star’s attempt to rebuild his or her shattered image has become a central part of the cycle of scandal. We watch them rise, we watch them fall, we watch them attempt to put it back together (and maybe wait with baited breath for them to fall again?).

The apology tour is a carefully managed publicity moment that is an attempt to regain control of the story and the star’s image. It’s a chance for the star to answer for his or her transgressions, but usually in a safe and controlled media environment with publicists/managers/agents present to help control the presentation of the image. Consider Tiger Woods’ first apology via press conference. He read a statement and took no questions. Ultimate control that ended up backfiring because it seemed disingenuous, largely because of the unwillingness to give up any control. Answering questions in an interview, like James did, gives more of a sense of lack of control on the part of the star, even though we can be sure publicity teams were present and consulted with the reporter prior to the interview. But it seems more authentic, unscripted and uncontrolled. Though stars can go to far into uncontrolled presentation…witness Britney’s disastrous Dateline NBC interview with Matt Lauer from 2006 (read some of the interview here and some of the mocking it received here

Britney's Lack of Control in 2006 Dateline Interview

Even though I think ABC News reporter Vicki Mabrey was tougher on James than most typical post-scandal celebrity interviewers, I think she had to be in order for the apology to work. And I think James and his people knew it. He’s the villain in this scandal, and given popular support of Sandra Bullock combined with existing preconceptions about him (confirmed by this scandal), James certainly had some explaining to do. He did a fair job, came off not only as repentant but also clearly took all the blame for himself. Even though he claims that his troubled and abusive childhood is at the root of his problems, he consistently used language of personal responsibility. Most importantly for this moment, in no way blamed anything on Sandra Bullock. She was perfect, their marriage was perfect, and he threw it all away. For me, this part of the interview made him seem more sympathetic. I’m still firmly Team Sandra, but not entirely unsympathetic to Jesse James at this point.

Jesse James interview on Nightline

That said, the most interesting part of the interview for me was his discussion of the rumors that he is a racist and the Nazi salute picture. This did not go quite as well for him. I can’t embed a clip because I still only have the free account on wordpress that limits me to certain video sites and was unable to find this particular clip on any of them. However, you can see this moment on the Jezebel discussion of the interview here in the second video clip on the page.

He’s sticking with the “it was just a joke” and “photo taken out of context” explanations for the Nazi salute photo. Mabrey pushes him a bit, saying that some people don’t even see a Nazi salute as funny. Though he agreed with that idea, he seems to think that saying “doesn’t have a racist bone in [his] body” gives him a pass on the photo. And Mabrey gives it to him. Not very satisfying. But he did say something that stuck with me, though probably not for reasons he intended. In the clip, he says that the photo was only a really big deal because it came out in the wake of the infidelity scandal. If the photo had surfaced months before when none of the cheating stories were circulating, he “would have released a statement…People would have murmured about it” but it would have quickly gone away.

The thing is, I think he’s right. Celebrity culture and gossip media are so whitewashed that they don’t really know how to deal with race other than to ignore it. There have definitely been race related scandals (Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic rant immediately comes to mind), but they don’t take hold the way sex scandals do. Maybe it’s the salacious details involved in a sex scandal that makes them more appealing to media producers and audiences. But I think more accurately celebrity media (like a lot of American culture) just doesn’t want to talk about race.

Look at how they basically ignored the fact that Sandra Bullock adopted an African-American baby in favor of the typical “Baby Joy!” sort of perspective. They want to pretend they are open-minded and accepting, but not talking about it is not quite the same. Additionally, the fact that the overwhelming majority of celebrities regularly featured in the media are white is another way of erasing race or refusing to talk about it. But when presented with a clear opportunity to talk about it with the Jesse James photo scandal, it still didn’t really happen. James’ scandalous picture was used more as further evidence that he was bad for Sandra Bullock rather than opening a real critical dialogue about race and racism in America.

To simply dismiss James as a racist is not useful. Nor is giving him a pass because it was “just a joke.” Nor is ignoring it because the sex scandal is juicier. Particularly in light of all the racist rhetoric and images coming out of certain segments of the Teaparty movement, I think this could have been an important moment for public discussion. Not that the celebrity media industry is particularly interested in critical dialogue, but I wonder what such media would look like if race mattered as much as sex (and I mean sexuality or sexual behaviors…the celebrity media’s gender issues are a whole different post!).





New Media and Bieber Fever

25 05 2010

I’m in the midst of preparing my dissertation defense (that’s why I haven’t been posting…I swear!). In trying to discuss future directions for my research, I’ve been thinking about the role of social networking platforms (most notably Twitter) in celebrity culture. Celebrity gossip blogs have already changed the game in important ways that are directly related to the rise of new media as technology and social space. The most obvious way is the immediacy of the internet. No longer do we have to wait for the weekly tabloids to hit the newsstand to get our latest gossip fix. In fact, the magazines can’t even keep up at this point, and my survey of gossip blog readers suggests many see the magazines as “old news” and don’t necessarily read them regularly, let alone subscribe. Yet we are also closer to the daily lives of celebrities than ever before thanks to the constant stream of gossip updates provided by paparazzi photos on gossip blogs.

Which brings me to Justin Bieber. I do not personally have the Bieber Fever, but after seeing him perform “Baby” on SNL (rerun last week), I get it. I mean, OMG, he is so cute!!! His songs are typical catchy pop and he has a cute baby face and fancy hair. So I get it, tweens, but he’s still not for me. But then again, he’s not supposed to be. If you are unfamiliar with the non-threatening boy adorable-ness of Bieber, here is the official video for “Baby.” I’m not saying he’s the greatest singer ever to grace this Earth, but he is a reliably cute and reasonably talented boy band sort of pop star. Watch at your own risk, as this song will get stuck in your head for DAYS…DAYS I TELL YOU!!

He may not be for me, but he is ENORMOUSLY popular with younger audiences. Which makes it particularly interesting that he apparently doesn’t move magazines. He still is regularly featured in teen-oriented celebrity magazines in their “gallery of stars” type coverage where they feature photos of a bunch of young stars, but his solo covers are not big sellers. This seems to indicate that how and where (particularly the young) audiences go for extratextual and “private” side personas has changed. By which I mean, social networking platforms.

When Bieber was on the cover of People back in April, the issue sold 20% below average. But in the new media age, this makes perfect sense to me. Why buy a magazine when you can read his inner most tweets for free? Indeed, Beibs has over 2 million Twitter followers and frequently among the top trending topics, indicating that he has a large fan base who are interested in the details of his private life. Even more interesting for the old vs. new media divide is that Bieber actually tweeted that he thought he “looked as crazy as heck” in the People photo just before the issue was released.

I doubt this is the only reason for the poor sales of Bieber’s People cover (a magazine aimed at an older audience than Beiber ‘s typical fans), but it does reflect a change in how fans interact with their favorite celebrity. Though you can’t hang a tweet on a wall like a pull out Tiger Beat poster (or a People cover), social networking platforms like Twitter offer access to the star that (at least in appearance) is more authentic and intimate than a magazine profile. For (young) audiences well versed in the revelation of the self through social networking platforms, it seems this would be more satisfying than any magazine profile.

But the move away from old media as primary extratextual source of celebrity lifestyles is not related just to the youth of Bieber or his audience. This Daily Beast story argues that celebrities as cover models are not selling (non-gossip) magazines as much as they once did. Unless they are young celebrities, like Miley Cyrus or Taylor Swift (because Angelina Jolie is so 2008). Even though these younger stars are more likely to be active social network users (Cyrus in particular famously “quit” Twitter and even used her YouTube channel to let fans know why), there is still some sort of appetite for magazine features on the (new/young) celebrity. The key seems to be integrating the two by giving something new across the platforms to keep fans/audiences interested. Younger audiences may be much more interested in the daily minutiae of a Twitter feed, so the magazines have to figure out how to give something new in their profiles that will still draw these audiences. Often it is images in the form of official photos exclusive to the magazine (as seen in the above People cover) that are glossy and beautiful in contrast to grainy paparazzi photos. So maybe Bieber’s “crazy as heck” cover photo was not enough of a draw both because of his Twitter-take on it and a lack of appeal to the fans.

Celebrities and magazines both have to adapt to this new media world. But, celebrity-oriented magazines, whether gossip tabloids or more legit outlets like Vanity Fair, are not going anywhere. Sure, their numbers are down, but they still rake in millions. Some, particularly Us Weekly and People, have online counterparts that, along with the print versions, remain major players in the gossip industry. More importantly, the magazines continue to have access to celebrities that the blogs and other online outlets do not, Twitter-feeds notwithstanding. They still claim to bring us a private and unguarded side of the celebrity that one wouldn’t necessarily get in a 140-character tweet.

As I mentioned before , the bloggers I interviewed pretty emphatically told me they are not journalists. Blogs, even Perez Hilton and all its alleged “exclusives,” are largely reactive. They rely on existing online content (culled from places like People.com) as a springboard for their commentary and gossip talk. This is certainly a problem for the magazines, as audiences may be less likely to buy a magazine if they’ve seen the pictures or heard the details of the story online. But it can also help. I’d wager the Sandra Bullock People cover was helped by the fact that the gossip blogs were exploding with this revelation and many audiences wanted to see it for themselves. Even though I saw all the pictures online and knew most of the details of the story, I still bought this issue (which, unlike Bieber’s cover, sold twice as many newsstand copies as a typical for that week).

So there’s still a place for print magazines as well as the type of content and access they bring to the gossip media landscape. But I’m fascinated with the increasing popularity of Twitter as a medium for celebrities to (again, allegedly…many celebrities (like Britney) do not actually write their own tweets) bypass these media outlets to bring their fans a more intimate view of themselves. And how the media (both “old” and “new”) is working to incorporate this sort of perspective into their own content.

Finally, is it wrong that I find it oddly soothing to watch Justin Bieber dry his famous hair? It’s some sort of Zen moment for me.





Shattering the Image: Tiger Woods and Star Scandal

19 05 2010

Perhaps the most important element of understanding stardom as a cultural phenomenon is the idea that stars are made up of, as Richard Dyer says in Heavenly Bodies, “everything that is publicly available about them.” Our knowledge of stars comes is based on their on-screen/public performances (whatever that may be or how tied to talent such performances are) AND all extra-textual moments that occur outside of these “official” public performances as an actor, singer, etc. The extratextual includes public appearances specifically tied to their public performances (such as a star being interviewed on a late night talk show as a means to promote his or her newest film) but, more importantly, glimpses into the star’s private and everyday life. As audiences, we put these textual and extratextual moments together in order to arrive at the overall image of that star.

These extratextual glimpses are “freely” given in the aforementioned publicity moments in order to support a certain perception of the star image and to promote his/her latest project. They retain a certain sense of “truth” because they come from the star, but are always a part of a larger constructed image controlled by various media and celebrity producers. Enter the gossip media and their preoccupation with revealing the “truth” behind this constructed façade. If the audience is preoccupied with discovering who the star “really” is through these glimpses of their private lives, the tabloids promise to deliver this by (purportedly) going around the publicists, managers, studios, and other industry producers who carefully construct a coherent public and private star image. In so doing, they add an important extratextual layer that seems outside of any producer control, when it actually often serves to reinforce a carefully crafted image. Anne Petersen usefully points out that “gossip matters not because it’s true, or because people even necessarily believe it, but because its suggestions become permanently affixed to the star image. And gossip especially sticks when it seems to complement a pre-existing star image.”

Gossip can be a way to confirm what we know (or think we know) about a star based on the textual and more controlled extratextual images. Consider how closely Angelina Jolie’s image is tied to a sexy bad girl self that is constantly reinforced by the gossip media. Despite some attention to her charity works and her role as a mother to her children, the core of her image, I argue, is rooted in this bad girl/sexy siren persona that is reinforced in her films (like the upcoming action flick Salt) as well as in the gossip media, particularly in the ongoing coverage of the “love triangle” between Jolie, Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston in which Jolie is still portrayed as a man-stealing hussy. Jolie’s existing star image was, and is, central to the scandalous nature of her initial relationship with Pitt as well as the ongoing coverage of it. Even when her public performances go against this, such as her role in A Mighty Heart, she can’t shake this overarching image. The fact that those movies don’t do particularly well at the box office speaks to the power of the off-screen image to influence audiences’ perception of her on-screen performances.

Good Girl? I think not.

But there also seems to be an important branch of celebrity gossip, perhaps more clearly categorized as celebrity scandal, that rests upon the contrast between star image and “truth.” Instead of rumors confirming what audiences want to believe about the stars based on their public personas, the biggest scandals seem to arise from private life rumors that shatter the carefully constructed star image, particularly squeaky clean images. It’s a battle over the definition of “authenticity” in the star image and who, ultimately, controls it. Who is the “real” star? The one we see presented textually and extratextually and under the control of the celebrity producers? Or the one revealed by the gossip media? Or the one pieced together by audiences? This inherent battle for control is breeding ground for scandal.

Lull and Hinerman suggest the star scandal is a unique type of scandal that erupts when the “private behavior of a public persona enters the public arena under circumstances that are outside of the star’s control.” I discussed, briefly, how this sort of moment of contrast played a role in the recent Sandra Bullock/Jesse James scandal because of Bullock’s role as America’s Sweetheart. But it is even more apparent in scandal surrounding Tiger Woods that dominated the gossip media back in the fall and just won’t go away.

TIGER WOODS
Caveat: I’m not a sports fan, and my knowledge of Tiger Woods is entirely extratextual and largely based on the most recent discussion of his image post-scandal. I recommend David L. Andrew’s piece on Tiger on FlowTV for a more through reading of Tiger’s image. I’m going to focus here on using Tiger and the scandal as an example of this moment of contrast that feeds gossip scandal.

In order to qualify as a scandal, the behavior revealed through the media has to go against the dominant social or moral code. Certainly a star’s sexual escapades or drug addiction, whether it fits with their image or not, has the potential to turn into scandal, and gossip tabloids and blogs are filled with salacious details about the private lives of stars as a way to both build up and break down the glamorous façade of stardom. But there seems to be some difference between the everyday gossip (even if about sexual lives or drug abuse or other particularly potentially morally objectionable behavior) and the “big” scandal that grips the gossip media for weeks, if not months.

For example, it seems hardly a day goes by that Lindsay Lohan and her allegedly drug fueled antics are not mentioned on gossip blogs like Perez or TMZ. Though the first revelations of her alleged drug abuse, stints in rehab, and court appearances were more of a “big” scandal (probably based on the contrast of good girl Disney star gone wrong), now it’s just part of the everyday gossip landscape. Lindsay, and celebrities (who are mostly female) like her, keep the gossip engine moving. They give audiences something new, but something that reinforces what we already knew about her. At this point, this gossip about her is simply the background chatter of the gossip media, not really even a scandal.

The heart of the Tiger Woods scandal rested on the revelation of a “double life.” You didn’t need to be a golf fan to know Tiger, the most famous (and well paid) athlete in the world, as a public figure. Setting aside (for the moment) the notion that his public image was itself highly constructed, the revelation of Tiger’s multiple mistresses and other raunchy behavior completely shattered the “good” Tiger image supported by his athletic achievements and numerous endorsement deals, all of which presented him as accomplished but fairly banal and safe.

"Good" Tiger as Professional Athlete

Tiger rarely appeared in gossip media, and then usually around positive stories like his marriage to Elin Nordegren or the birth of their children. But that is precisely what gave the scandal such traction. I don’t think there was any evidence, prior to the Thanksgiving car crash that started this whole mess, indicating Tiger led a double life or that audiences would even want to believe that he was like all those other celebrities whose public images masked the truth that the rich and famous are also debased and immoral (in other words, NOT AT ALL “just like us,” right?).

"Good" Tiger in an extratextual moment

A range of media sources, and not just strictly celebrity gossip oriented media, gleefully trotted out this binary of the inner and authentic Tiger-as-bad-boy as the “real” Tiger that was carefully hidden by his well managed public image. Even better, for the media, the scandal just kept coming as more mistresses surfaced and the details got more and more salacious, further challenging dominant moral codes. This loss of control over the Tiger’s image was central to this turning into such a major scandal because it intensified the moral violation. Not only had he offended our moral sensibilities by allegedly having multiple affairs, he did so while having the public image of the squeaky clean star athlete. That is scandal at its most fundamental.

The extratextual emergence of "Bad" Tiger

More extratextual evidence of Bad Tiger

Tiger’s subsequent attempts to move past the scandal have generally been focused on his return to golf. That is, to his public performance as an athlete. The few press conference “apologies” aside, he’s not really using the extratextual media (and certainly not the gossip media) as a vehicle to reframe his image. Unlike celebrities who hit the apology circuit in an attempt to reframe their images by appealing to their private selves (People magazine is usually the go-to for this sort of image maintenance, just ask Miley Cyrus or Jesse James ) This may be the wisest move, as it affords him greater control over his image and works to remind audiences of the talent that is at the core of his stardom anyway.

But the reality of star scandals is that they never really go away. They may diminish in intensity, as already the fickle public has moving on to a new scandal du jour and the media frenzy around Tiger has died down somewhat. But this scandal will always remain tied to his overall star image. Interestingly, Nike, one of the few sponsors who didn’t flee from Woods in wake of the allegations, used this in Tiger’s first post-scandal ad, but in a way that speaks to a sense that Tiger is repentant and has “learned” from his mistakes. This is an interesting attempt to recuperate the “scandal” Tiger back into the image in a way that allows him to move forward as a talented golfer (and remain a profitable spokesperson for Nike).

He’s back playing the sport that made him famous, and can use this public performance to rebuild his image. But it will never be quite the same because it will forever be marked by this public revelation of contrast and the ensuing scandal because stars are never simply public performers.