Metaphysics of a Magazine

The invitation- my invitation-to the relaunch party for Radar magazine arrived in the form of Martha Stewart’s head, in stiff paper, with a stick to glue it onto. Other invitees apparently received other celebrities (Gawker showed one that was Michael Jackson’s head), but mine is Martha: luridly colored, like a tinted Daguerreotype, and with the eyes cut out to serve as a mask.

The head of Martha on a stick, with its empty eyes, is an unpleasant icon. Ms. Stewart herself is more ordinary at first sight. When she presented herself on stage last month at the National Magazine Awards to claim the trophy for Martha Stewart Weddings-general excellence, 250,000 to 500,000 circulation-it took a second to figure out what was going on. Is that … ? Did she … ? The gathering buzz in the hall certified her identity. Magazine editors and executives applauded.

Martha Stewart is a celebrity who publishes magazines. The magazines exist because the brand identity of Martha Stewart is behind them. At the awards ceremony, a series of video montages had played, interlacing news footage with images of significant magazine covers from various eras. Before Ms. Stewart got up on stage (a moment that publishers usually yield to editors), the clips had reached the mid-80’s. The old covers, previously an assortment of striking single images, had begun to converge on a new look. Stark blank space was filled in with an ever-thickening collection of cover lines, the burgeoning text framing not an illustration but a photograph, and a specific kind of photograph: a portrait of a celebrity.

Radar magazine, editor Maer Roshan said in a phone interview, is “alternately amused and appalled “by celebrity. The cover of the upcoming issue features a not-too-smooth photo composite of President George W. Bush hanging a medal around the neck of Paris Hilton. “No talent? No problem!” the cover line says. “How to be FAMOUS for doing nothing at all.”

This, Radar knows. After producing a pair of sample issues in 2003, Mr. Roshan kept Radar hovering in the public consciousness for nearly two full years without actually printing any more magazines. Now, with the backing of Mortimer Zuckerman and Jeffrey Epstein, the operation is up and running. The summer 2005 issue, the first of its planned bimonthly offerings, is due on newsstands next week.

But in the meantime, Radar has quasi-accidentally evolved into a new kind of thing: the celebrity magazine has become a celebrity/magazine. Radar is a celebrity.

“You need a lot of buzz to sell advertising,” Tina Brown said. “You can’t sell advertising without buzz.” Ms. Brown was on the phone to discuss Radar and the magazine business. Ms. Brown did not invent buzz, any more than Henry Ford invented the automobile, but she was the one who made buzz an explicit commodity, rather than a lucky side effect of putting out a magazine.

People haven’t quite forgiven Tina Brown for this. Maer Roshan was Ms. Brown’s deputy at Talk magazine, which could be viewed as the high-water mark of buzz, or in the popular retelling, the moment that buzz reached the point of diminishing returns. First there was the sensational success of Vanity Fair, where Ms. Brown formulated the notion that celebrity and power were interchangeable-that celebrity was power. Ronald and Nancy Reagan could go on the cover of a celebrity magazine, dressed as celebrities. Demi Moore could go there naked and pregnant. Sensation!

And then there was The New Yorker, Ms. Brown’s New Yorker, with the Hasid kissing the black woman and the nude photographs and the celebrity guest editing. Sensational, again, but not completely successful-though The New Yorker came out of it with a healthy flush, ready to face the future, like an Amish teenager fresh off rumspringa.

But then came Talk, the synergetic whatever-it-was with Miramax, and its noisy and rapid collapse, and a certain schadenfreude attached itself to Ms. Brown and her heirs and assigns. That’ s what buzz gets you. And that: a stream-of-consciousness column in The Washington Post. And that: a tiny, soon-to-be cancelled talk show on CNBC.

And then, in the next generation, some goofy goddamn magazine that needs two years to get off the ground.

“I think a lot about Tina as we go along,” Mr. Roshan said. Ms. Brown had expressed the wish, he said, that they “could have taken Talk on out-of-town tryouts.”

“But we don’t have that luxury,” Mr. Roshan said.

A startup, Ms. Brown said, is a work in progress. Things are going to need to be tweaked and revamped. But to sell it, she said, “You have to go in and say, ‘It’s going to be great. It’s going to be fabulous. It’s going to be hot.'”

Buzz did not die or even falter. Buzz has been purified and distilled, and it arrives every week in the mail, in the form of Us Weekly. “I would say that Us magazine is the magazine of the moment,” Ms. Brown said.

George W.S. Trow, writing at the time when People magazine was ascendant, diagnosed a change in the function and meaning of gossip. “[M]ost of what is spoken of as gossip cannot aspire to that title but is, rather, synthetic talk, contrived to meet a supposed need for talk, as television programs are contrived to meet a supposed need for entertainment,” Mr. Trow wrote in Within the Context of No Context. ” … People does not assume dignity or powerful history, nor does it assume that the figures it is writing about are actually very important.”

Us Weekly owns the moment because it has taken People’s reasoning one step further: It insists on the unimportance of its subjects. Every week, the front of the magazine features a photo spread labeled “Stars-They’re Just Like Us!” Big captions, in a cheery font that looks like handwritten notation, flag the mundanity of mundane celebrity moments caught on camera: “They Play Ball!” “They Buy CDs!” “They Lick Their Fingers!” “They Quench Their Thirsts!” “They Hang Out In the Park!”

What matters is simply that something was caught on camera. Earlier this month, it was Us that paid a reported $500,000 for photographs of Brad and Angelina on the beach together-not touching, not holding hands, just standing in the same place. The rival Star was forced into the humiliating expedient of doctoring two separate photos, on separate beaches, into a composite.

Buzz magazines like Us are agreeably minimal, or minimally agreeable. “You get through them in six minutes,” Ms. Brown said. If not six seconds, she added.

There’s one problem with the image of Tina Brown, flameout artist: Nobody has topped her since. She remains the last editor to have harnessed the buzz to a magazine that people wouldn’t be ashamed to be toting on the F train. The disturbing question isn’t why she can’t keep a magazine lately. It’s What if she were still employed? What if she we re letting us down, too?

Seeking to position itself as the magazine of the moment, Radar in its promotional materials cites Vanity Fair in the 90’s, and Spy in the 80’s before it. As it happens, Vanity Fair in the 00’s is being put out by Graydon Carter, formerly editor of Spy. On the cover of the current issue is: a celebrity photo. Angelina Jolie, in fact. Ringed by cover lines.

Inside, in his monthly editor’s letter, Mr. Carter demands, “Excuse me, but what ever happened to the war in Iraq?” Directly below his picture is the cover shot of Ms. Jolie again, head tipped back, hand pressed to her chest to keep the top of her dress from falling down. “The war is not gone,” Mr. Carter writes, “but in this land of serial obsessives, it is forgotten.”

It’s easy to be forgotten. A few months ago, sometime after Mr. Carter had been caught accepting six figures’ worth of “consulting fee” money from Hollywood, I had a strange and vivid nightmare: I was at a party, and someone had dragged Mr. Carter into the bathroom and left him there to die. He lay in a corner of the tub, like a slackened mummy, shoulders down and feet propped up against the wall, slowly expiring.

That’s what Vanity Fair feels like throughout. Further on, the current issue offers Michael Wolff, former terror of the media-criticism scene, desperately trying to start a fight with somebody by arguing that liberals in the media are career-minded stuffed shirts who don’t know how to be funny.

The vigor is all in the subtext: Mr. Wolff takes a whack at New York editor Adam Moss-“very correct”-who took over that magazine after Mr. Wolff’s bid to buy it and install himself as editor failed; he launches a personal attack on Slate editor Jacob Weisberg, who panned Mr. Carter’s most recent book in The New York Times Book Review. (Disclosure: I have freelanced for Slate in the past.)

But the personal score-settling is less interesting than the institutional angst. Mr. Wolff writes that “nobody who works at Slate actually wants to be working at Slate.” Pace Mr. Wolff, Time’s John Dickerson jumped to Slate this week. Moreover, since when does a Vanity Fair columnist feel the need to take potshots at a Web magazine? In fact, Mr. Wolff’s own stable mate Christopher Hitchens writes for Slate, whenever he wants to weigh in quickly on the latest news from Iraq. And Vanity Fair columnist James Wolcott swiftly took to the Web to rebut Mr. Wolff (though not by name) on his blog, jameswolcott.com.

What Mr. Hitchens and Mr. Wolcott-and Mr. Wolff, in his own way-are reacting to is that Vanity Fair is too slow. The magazine got around to doing a Desperate Housewives cover the same month that Playboy came out with its “Real Desperate Housewives” cover. Playboy! In the piece immediately before Mr. Wolff’s, a pull quote from Dominick Dunne exults, “I am so happy the national drama of Terri Schiavo is over.” Yes, good for you, Mr. Dunne. Have you heard there’s a new pope?

The moment is moving faster than ever. “I think a monthly is very, very hard,” Ms. Brown said. “I don’t think I’d ever want to do a monthly again.”

“I’d be an idiot not to worry” about the pace of public’s roving attention, Mr. Roshan said. To stay abreast of things, Radar is being accompanied and preceded by Radar Online, a Web site dedicated to pushing out new material on a daily pace, to “showcase the sensibility and style of the magazine,” as Mr. Roshan put it.

The site features a ticker of celebrity trivia, flash movies mocking famous people, media-blog items … and a feature in which readers submit photos of themselves, to be posted for 15 minutes, per Andy Warhol. A clock counts down the remaining time. Stars! They’re just like us! Also: We’re Just Like Stars!

Already, Radar has had some of its prime gossip items picked up. The news that Kevin Federline can’t say the word “paparazzi” right made it into the Detroit Free Press. Rush and Molloy in the New York Daily News ran with a handful of Radar revelations, including the story that nude photos of Melania Knauss had surfaced right before her wedding to Donald Trump. The fact that Jennifer Lopez had vetoed a D.A. Pennebaker documentary about the making of her new album was carried by, among others, the Indo-Asian News Service.

And Radar has already been drawn into online squabbling, thanks to Gawker’s decision to provide absurdist saturation coverage of every step of the relaunch (a.k.a. “The Greatest American Magazine Launch”). Though Gawker’s Jesse Oxfeld wrote that “the romantic in us wants to believe in Radar” and described “a mix of hope and poignance and admiration and sadness” in following the launch, Radar bristled at the taunting.

“Up till now, the buzz on Radar has been dominated by a few predictable pessimists, like Gawker, with obvious commercial incentives to root for our demise,” Mr. Roshan wrote in a 600-word letter to follow up on his phone interview. “Gawker posted nearly 50 items about Radar before we produced our first issue, most of them by underemployed freelancers who were simultaneously begging us for work.”

(Disclaimer: Everybody involved in the Gawker- Radar spat works for or with everybody else involved, including The Observer.)

But Radar is not a Web site. Web sites launch all the time. Radar, despite its long career as a floating concept, is meant to be a physical object. That’s why it is a magazine.

“I like magazines,” Mr. Roshan said. “I love magazines. I love the way they feel.”

Ms. Brown said the same: “I still think that the tactile pleasure of a magazine is something that can’t be denied.”

So: Radar. The cover is slick and a little plasticky. The pages have a clean smell of ink-not, mercifully, of perfume samples. The type is crowded, crammed into little doodads and charticles, as if they were trying to get as many ideas into the issue as possible. It makes the reader squint.

“I’d be the first [to] admit that Radar isn’t perfect,” Mr. Roshan wrote in his letter. “Few new magazines are …. Tina would be the first to tell you that new magazines need time and room to grow.”

Mr. Roshan noted that Ms. Brown had been the third editor hired by Si Newhouse to revamp Vanity Fair, and that she spent two years on it before it took off. “I hope that Radar will be as prescient and relevant as Tina’s Vanity Fair proved to be,” he wrote. “But it’s a bit unfair to subject us to such exacting standards before the magazine is even out of the gate.”

So the editorial design is a work in progress. The ads, on the other hand … the ads are roomy and gleaming and full of luminous flesh. Magazines make their ads look good, in a way that plasma displays are nowhere near catching up with.

Hence the other magazines of the moment: Lucky and Cargo and Domino, the Condé Nast shoppers, designed so the editorial content matches the aspiration and acquisitiveness of the ads. And hence Absolute, the upscale lifestyle title, which has the lush look and heavy feel of a book of stock photography. Its debut cover, an enigmatic close-up that turned $430 bottle of Krug into a green abstraction, somehow looked like a throwback to pre-celebrity, design-first days.

“[F]ashion magazines,” Mr. Trow wrote in 1980, “have been more successful than ever, until they have approached the context of a Hit: they are advertised in because they are advertised in.”

“Our debut issue,” Mr. Roshan wrote, “features an impressive roster of blue-chip advertisers from Calvin Klein to Guess to Alt ids to L’Oreal to HBO. For all the talk, they are the real predictors of Radar’s failure or success.”

Fine, then. That’s not the same as the mission, though. “We’re trying to do a magazine,” Mr. Roshan said, “that has values and is fun and smart and entertaining and will actually do well as a business.”

Radar’s aim, Mr. Roshan said, is not to collaborate with the machinery of celebrity, but to offer “a very different treatment.” He returned to the words “irreverent” and “irreverence” again and again, confessing at one point that he was looking for a better term for it.

Well, what’s in the thing? A lot of labels, to start with. In Radar, the fad for cryptic headings on departments or items reaches an apotheosis of non-meaning: STATIC, THE SELL, MEMBERS ONLY, INCOMING, FRESH INTELLIGENCE, IN PLAY, CULTURE SHOCK, THE POP REPORT, POP SCIENCE, THE GOODS, THIS MINUTE, HYPE REPORT, THE LIST.

Broadly speaking, this all amounts to a bunch of busy little stuff in the front and middle, some longer stories toward the back, and then another bunch of busy little stuff at the end. The first bunch includes a hypothetical seating chart for the Four Seasons, an interview with New Order, and a prank in which people on the street were invited to taste and rate Poland Spring water served up in fake celebrity-brand bottles. (“It speaks a lot about something,” Mr. Roshan said, ” … what people invest in celebrities and celebrity culture.”)

Then come the features: gay children of right-wing politicians; the woman who stalked-slash-befriended celebrities by raiding their AOL information. The last of the features is printed on newsprint and is an account of life among the troops in Iraq (accompanied by a cartoon about being a cartoonist among the press in Iraq).

“I think it’s very part and parcel of the rest of the magazine,” Mr. Roshan said.

Young men in Iraq, Bartle Breese Bull reports, are fighting and getting wounded and brooding. But also playing Xbox (they’re just like us!).

“I love that piece,” Mr. Roshan said. “It’s my favorite piece.”

Then come the funny lists again: roles Ashton Kutcher didn’t get, next to fatal accidents in which celebrities were the drivers. Headline: “Look, Mom! It’s Matthew Brod-” Is it funny that Matthew Broderick killed two people in a head-on collision in Ireland in 1987? Is it deplorable? (Contemporary AP headline: “Actor Matthew Broderick Injured in Car Crash.”) Is it like Ferris Bueller crashing Cameron’s dad’s Ferrari through the glass wall of Cameron’s house? Stars: They Kill People in Car Crashes!

It’s all a matter of leveling. Besides the big cutout head of Martha Stewart on a stake inviting me to the party, there are flocks of little cutout heads in the magazine-an old Spy trick, which has grown into a near-universal way of depicting celebrities. Ms. Stewart’s little floating head is in the magazine. So are those of Bernard Kerik and Kim Jong Il. And: Moby, Tom Sizemore, Richard Branson, Michael Ovitz, Fat Joe, Matt Drudge, Muammar Qaddafi, Seth Green, Rush Limbaugh, Keith Kelly, Lil’ Kim, Jason Giambi, Anna Wintour, Russell Crowe, M.I.A., and Equatorial Guinea’s dictator Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo.

Also Bonnie Fuller, who made Us Weekly into a hit. And Graydon Carter.

Are Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo and Graydon Carter really interchangeable incarnations of celebrity?

“Don’t you think,” Mr. Roshan said, “that’s, first of all, true in our modern culture?”

Tom Scocca can be reached at tscocca@observer.com.