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!”


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.