Numlock Sunday: Clare Malone on how celebrities became Just Like Us
By Walt Hickey
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.
This week, I spoke to Clare Malone, writer at The New Yorker, my former FiveThirtyEight colleague and the host of the brand-new podcast from The Ringer called Just Like Us: The Tabloids That Changed America.
Clare’s brilliant, and Just Like Us, which premiered last week, is a perfectly-timed revisiting of early 2000s tabloid culture. It’s about a media shift that fundamentally changed the relationship between famous people and their fans, between viewers and the media, and between the internet and the rest of the world. It’s a great angle on an incredibly relevant question: What is celebrity culture doing to culture?
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Clare, you have a brand-new podcast called Just Like Us. It talks all about the tabloid revolution and how it reflected the change in media. What made you think that this would be a good time to revisit the early 2000s?
It's funny, I started talking with an editor at The Ringer, Amanda Dobbins, a while ago just generally about what would be fun to do. She said, "Do you have any ideas for a narrative podcast?" and we're both interested in pop culture, and we went back and forth for a while, and from that came this series. We thought about it as a way to talk about this decade of the 2000s, when tabloids were really just juicy and everywhere. We wanted to dive into the history of that, but also as a way to explain where we are in celebrity culture now, which is this very, as we all know, celebrity image-controlled place. The mechanisms of celebrity are really different because of Instagram.
We wanted to do something about the golden age of tabloids, which were the 2000s. And through that, we're also talking about the history of the 2000s' American mindset, too, because we chart the rise of the internet, the way that people are, the way people's minds are being changed by the internet, the way we behave, the way we act, and we chart that through the rise of like TMZ and Perez Hilton. I really do think, something Amanda and I talked a lot about, is the way we talk about celebrities in the past five years is really different than it was in the "old internet." I think we're a little bit more compassionate. One person I interviewed said we're a little more humanistic about the way we view celebrities, less as cardboard cutouts and more as full people. I certainly think we were not viewing them as full people back in the early 2000s.
The gears on this podcast I imagine started turning rather early, but even with the recent Britney news in the past six months, you've seen a reckoning. A lot of people had long been like, "Yeah, this was a problem the whole time," but a lot of more conventional media outlets are acknowledging their own role in it.
A lot of the second episode talks about how there's a direct demand link between the viewers and buyers of the magazines, and the photographers who are harassing these celebrities. Do you want to talk a little bit about that engine?
The second episode is all about the paparazzi business. I think the two big meaty threads of that episode are one, just how the paparazzi business actually transacts, and the ethics of it, which as a whole sets up the conversation about the economics of the paparazzi industry. During the 2000s, the economics were really good for these paparazzi agencies and for independent paparazzi for a number of reasons.
One was, as you said, there were a bunch of these classic TV programs that always needed footage — Extra, ET, that kind of stuff — but then Us Weekly was ascendant in this new mixture of glossy tabloid form and it was competing with People Magazine. There were huge photo bidding wars between Us Weekly and People. That helps drive up the price of photos immensely. People and Us Weekly bidding every week, into six figures, really changed things for a lot of these guys.
And as people realized, "Oh man, this is really lucrative,” as the technology of photography changed, it went from the purview of guys who had been photojournalists to, we all have digital cameras and anyone can point and click at a celebrity. There was one paparazzi agency in particular that realized this innovation. They said, forget traditional paparazzi photos where you hide in cars and take pictures of celebs; let's get really up close, follow them with cameras, follow them with video, and also try to interview them.
And that was a real shift. Then you have a site like TMZ to sell to — there was just a whole different market and appetite. The mainstream news outlets, your cable places like CNN or even CBS News and ABC News, started carrying celebrity coverage because it was getting eyeballs. It really just laundered itself into the mainstream in this really fascinating way.
That's incredible. You speak to a ton of people who were working in the era, whether the folks who were running the magazine or adjacent to the people who were running the magazine, and the paparazzi. Honestly, you seemed to talk to a lot of maniacs, too. You have a really, really compelling group of people that you spoke to for this podcast.
They're really compelling. It's funny, it's definitely a personality type that it takes to be a paparazzi. In some ways, I think the people who are paparazzi actually do have certain similarities with journalists, where they're willing to be uncomfortable or ask uncomfortable things or do uncomfortable things. I do think they have this sense that they're, in a certain way, holding the powerful to account. I know that might sound weird to people, but some people express it to me as, "These are really beautiful, powerful people who are selling you things, and we are also showing you that they're just human." That was an interesting psychology.
In particular I can think of this guy, Peter Brandt, who is on the second episode. He was very famously sued by Jennifer Aniston for taking topless photos of her while she was in her backyard. He defended that, but at the same time in the same interview, he talked to me about how he thought a ton and was really torn over the ethics of paparazzi, particularly at the beginning of his career, which I thought was really interesting. It's certainly a motley crew, and certainly there are a lot of British guys, too, who are in it. It's certainly a British profession in a lot of ways. But it's definitely character-laden. Really, you got to have a different DNA to be doing that job.
It was striking that you're comparing to journalism; I have journalist friends who are very involved with that First Amendment bleeding edge of what exactly can and can't be done. It does sound very similar!
It's totally true. A lot of paparazzi that you'll talk to — when Schwarzenegger was governor of California, he pushed for a lot of more restrictive photo laws, privacy laws, particularly surrounding celebrity children. You heard paparazzi bring this up over and over, these First Amendment things. I mean, they have a very particular point of view on the First Amendment, right? Because it affects their bottom line. That's also where we get into these ethical questions, particularly with kids, where I think there were occasions when things got pretty out of control. But it's interesting to hear them talk about First Amendment stuff.
I've really enjoyed it so far. You talk about how paparazzi changed what it meant to be famous and changed what fame entailed and what it evolved. What's your view on that?
This is the rise and the mainstreaming of the B-, C- and D-list celebrity. I think TMZ made a lot of really random people famous for no reason. That's the trite thing to say, but it really did change! We realized that people like reality stars or people like Paris Hilton and her entourage, like the Brandon Davises of the world. If you're not of a certain age, I don't think you know who Brandon Davis is: He was this heir who also hung out with Paris Hilton and went to Hollywood clubs with her and said nasty things about Lindsay Lohan to TMZ cameras.
I think the A-list celebrities started getting really freaked out a little bit by the paparazzi atmosphere, but then the B-, C- and D-list celebs were like, "This is great. I'm going to get more famous."
Reality TV was really rising in prominence. We started to realize, and frankly the tabloids started to realize, Oh, these people want to be covered. They're easy copy. They're just as pretty as the A-list celebrities. They're crazier. This is fun. Let's write about them.
So we started to see people who were famous just for fame, and the commodification of fame. It wasn't red carpet glamour famous, right? It was like human shadiness famous, mixed with beauty and money and glamour. I really do think it knocked the idea of celebrity a little bit sideways and did trash it up a little bit.
I think in the second episode, you're talking to a publicist, who's like, Kim Kardashian had to be following what we were trying to do at the time, because you can really see it in even the rhythm and the beats of how she works with the press.
I mean, Kim Kardashian, which, we will get to her in-depth in a later episode, don't worry. Another person I get to in-depth in a later episode is Spencer Pratt, who talks a lot about Kim and the Kardashians and how they were all students of fame and also, I think pertinently, kids of Hollywood.
They saw it, while the rest of America was despairing, "Who are all these people who are just famous for being famous? What are we coming to?" and having a certain moral panic. A lot of these savvy Hollywood kids, like the Kardashians, like Paris, like Spencer Pratt, they were realizing the business side of it.
Now we see the end game of that, in the Instagram age, where every celebrity is flogging something. Everyone's getting some payout from their photos or being famous. I do think there was this fame innovation period, right? On a later episode, I've got someone who talks about how Paris Hilton invented the attention economy that a lot of teenagers on Instagram and TikTok are really living by these days. There's real savviness and business savviness tied up in all of that.
So there's a thing that I've noticed about famous people, and I would like to hear your thoughts on it, because I know that you've clearly spent a ton of time in the space and looking at the evolution of it.
I have been a little worried about famous people! I'm a big fan of the Oscars. I think that the Oscars thrive when people tune in because they want to look at famous people. But there's been this trend lately where people realize that it is far more lucrative to be relatable than it is to be famous. I think of a type like Reese Witherspoon. What are your thoughts?
Oh my gosh, it's so true. We talk about this, we've got people talking about how famous people killed the magic of being famous. The podcast series is called “Just Like Us,” which is a play on this section that is in Us Weekly, of celebrities just doing like regular schmegular people things, like pumping gas and stuff. It's like, "Oh, they're just like us." But three pages ago you saw them in red carpet glamour.
In the Instagram age, celebrities do want to play it being, "oh, just like us, I make bread in my kitchen." I'm thinking of Jennifer Garner. You don't really show the nannies or like the household staff. It's just, "I'm here. I'm just like you." Sometimes they're getting sponsorship stuff for that.
It's weird because I think they saw the public really connecting with these random reality stars who were like the public, but then they got suddenly famous and they were like, "Oh, okay. That's cool. I want to be relatable." That's the A-list, someone like Reese Witherspoon who wants to talk about what she's reading and does mom memes on her Instagram. Those people have, I think for business reasons as well, have also pivoted to that.
Then I think you see this really interesting thing with younger stars. I'm thinking of a quote Timothée Chalamet gave to TIME where he said something like, "I don't want to be a movie star. When I hear the term movie star, I think of like ‘90s nostalgia Instagram accounts." And that quote killed me, because it was just a perfect encapsulation of where we've come. Our first episode is about Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, and Ben Affleck is about the same age in the start of our podcast that Timothée Chalamet is when he makes this comment about how he doesn't want to be a movie star, and all Ben Affleck wanted to be was a movie star.
There's this thing among younger millennial or Gen Z stars where they know that the idea of being famous is terrible. It's just in their cultural milieu that fame is bad or fame is somehow evil, and yet they are famous. It's this really interesting evolution, I would say, of the A-list, where the younger A-list doesn't want to be a movie star, knows that puts you in this weird place in the culture. I don't know if it's particularly coherent, but there is something going on with the desire to be famous and super-famous actors where they don't want to be famous anymore. But like B-list singers or hosts or whatever, really, really, really want to be famous. They've become the new tabloid fodder. It's an interesting switcheroo.
That's amazing. And people can track that switcheroo in Just Like Us. Clare, where can folks find the podcast and where can they find you?
You can find Just Like Us: the Tabloids that Changed America in the Ringer Dish feed, wherever you get your podcasts. The first two episodes are out, and they will be dropping every Monday until the end of March. Please listen, they get really fun. Then you can follow me and my writing at The New Yorker; I write about media and politics. I'm at Twitter @ClareMalone.
If you have anything you’d like to see in this Sunday special, shoot me an email. Comment below! Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for supporting Numlock.