“The whole age of the soft interview is gone,” Janice Min said.
Ms. Min, 36, is approaching her third anniversary as editor of Us Weekly. She ascended to the job in July 2003, the same month that George W. Bush, savoring a quick and tidy army-on-army victory, dared Iraqi insurgents to “Bring ’em on.”
Ms. Min has had a better three years than Mr. Bush. Circulation has doubled, to 1.75 million. Since January, Us—“the Newsweek of celebrity,” in Ms. Min’s words—has pulled in some $107 million in revenue. Rolling Stone, Wenner Media’s flagship, which makes room for war and politics, has made $70 million.
“It’s not a pick-me-up to read about American soldiers getting beheaded,” Ms. Min said.
Ms. Min, a onetime reporter for the Reporter-Dispatch in Westchester County, was cheery and matter-of-fact. She spoke briskly between pauses, working her way through a bento lunch at Nobu 57 on June 23. She had just returned from six weeks’ maternity leave, her second. On June 5, the magazine had put out its best-selling issue ever, with Janet Jackson on the cover: “How I Got Thin: 60 Pounds in 4 Months!”
Magazines are magazines; either people read them or they don’t. And people want—at this moment in history, when American Idol outdraws the evening news 7 to 1—to read Us, with its flurries of exclamation points, its snappy captions, its photos of the famous on the hoof with the franchise slogan: “Stars—They’re Just Like Us!”
And who cares to read a soft piece about one of us? Us deals in escapism, but an escape into drama and conflict—human-shaped conflict, if not exactly human-sized. The plot lines are coupling and uncoupling, childbirth and divorce, recounted with cynical affability and enthusiasm for minute detail. “Entertainers are themselves the entertainment,” Ms. Min said.
In recent focus groups (“We almost never do focus groups,” Ms. Min annotated), readers lit up discussing the Us Weekly stars. “This is their recreation, to think and talk about celebrities,” Ms. Min said. “They bond with their girlfriends. They like it because they can relate to their mistakes, they can make fun of their mistakes, they can look up to their fashion … something they can have strong opinions on in a safe way. They can be pro-Angelina or pro–Jen Aniston. They can be pro-Nick and pro-Jessica.
“I guess in an era when probably politicians and many people [are] wishing people would be involved in the Iraq debate, you know, people are more interested in debating did Jen Aniston get the shaft?”
Richard Stolley, the founding editor of People magazine, recalled a similar climate when his title launched in 1974: “The magazine came out and started telling the news of the world in terms of individuals. The country was coming out of war and racial nightmare; the time was right for a magazine to celebrate human beings.”
The early 70’s were also the golden age of Mr. Wenner’s Rolling Stone, which represented rather a different response to a troubled era.
Rolling Stone, Mr. Wenner said by phone, “set out its initial charter to cover politics and culture as well as entertainment and rock ’n’ roll. There was a generational thing at play. Its mission was always journalistic. So it has a right to address serious topics.”
“I think it would be terribly out of place in Us,” Mr. Wenner said.
“That’s a characteristic of anxious times, that people flock to escapism in a way of coping with danger,” said the historian Alan Brinkley, who is writing a biography of Time founder Henry Luce. “World War II was a high point of celebrity …. In the Depression, the most popular movies were big splashy musicals and comedies.”
“I think there has always been a cult of celebrity,” the novelist Joyce Carol Oates said. “The instinct to worship is so deeply embedded in the human soul, we naturally look to individuals elevated above the masses, however minimally they might be elevated, and temporarily.”
Yet that worship, as practiced by Us Weekly, is not traditionally reverential. “The Us reader is pretty sophisticated about celebrities,” Ms. Min said. “They love them, they’re fascinated by them, but they don’t have a fanatical belief in them.”
What sets celebrities apart is that people care about them. This is not tautological anymore; it’s a business model. “This is the whole definition of being a celebrity, is having the public interested in you,” Ms. Min said. “And the ways a celebrity derives their income these days—through endorsements, through different deals.”
The June issue of the American Sociological Review reported that the average American’s number of close friends has declined from 2.94 to 2.08 in the past 20 years; a quarter of the people surveyed had no close friends at all.
They’re just like us—only not alone!
“People like to see where there’s this finest line that separates [celebrities] from quote-unquote normal people that makes them so interesting,” Ms. Min said. Hence the fascination with the famous-for-being-famous. “Nicole Richie was in rehab,” Ms. Min said. “She was overweight. And she achieved fame through the oddest of means, by becoming excruciatingly thin.”
Plain, tranquil, undamaged fame? Who needs it? “Look at the people who don’t sell the magazine,” Ms. Min said. “Who don’t resonate. They are people who have remained almost superhuman in the public eye. Look at people who don’t give anything. Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston all became much bigger stars because of this scenario that happened to them …. They got involved in this crazy, you know, what was most likely an adulterous love triangle. That suddenly put them on the same level as you, as your neighbor, as your friends. That made them relatable.
“To see Jennifer Aniston, who was basically the icon of young women all through the Friends era, to see this perfect—they called them the Hollywood storybook marriage—to see that fall apart: that suddenly made her a much bigger celebrity, where she could become Vanity Fair’s highest-selling cover ever and move millions and millions of magazines. For Us, for all the weeklies, that was a radical shift.”
And in the otherwise depressed world of magazine midtown, that shift has led to a rare success story. “No one is addicted to any magazines,” Ms. Min said. “Except I hear a lot about Us Weekly addicts. People are addicted to celebrity weeklies. You don’t hear people talk with the same passion as they used to about different fashion monthlies, about a different men’s magazine. I think about all the men I know—not one reads a magazine anymore. They get all their information online. And the women I know.
“And I know I’m a good example. The monthlies come in and sit in their polybags and die a slow death before getting carted out to the recycling, sometimes without the polybag getting taken off.”
The power of gossip, Mr. Wenner said, “goes back to the Bible, to who begat whom, and on and on. It has a powerful force for social mores, for values. Britney and Angelina set styles beyond their hair for what’s acceptable in terms of morality and relationships, about having children out of wedlock or not out of wedlock.”
Tom Wolfe noticed a similar impact. “The motif of babies and the bump is just rampant,” Mr. Wolfe said. “Brad and Angelina and Britney and Kevin, it’s all about babies. The one thing that Us Weekly has done that’s a great boost to the nation is, they’ve probably increased the birthrate.”
Ms. Min was not raised on the culture of exposure. As the third of three children growing up in Littleton, Colo., she said, “there’s probably barely a baby photo of me.” She said she didn’t go to journalism school with dreams of covering fetus-bumps and marital spats. “I never thought I would work in celebrity,” she said. “I thought I would have loved to have been a White House correspondent. For a lot of people in journalism, you realize you take a job and see where it goes.”
You take a job. Carve that over the doors at Columbia. And Ms. Min—the legendarily nice heir to the legendarily not-nice Bonnie Fuller at Us—has taken to the job diligently. “I always hated those questions, where you want to be in five years,” Ms. Min said. “You don’t know. No one has leisure to pick and choose. There are no right places; you make the best of what’s available to you.”
Likewise the stars, the troubled stars of today, have learned to leverage their own situations. “They’re pretty much complicit in their own publicity,” Ms. Min said. “Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, despite their pleas for privacy, have played the game really well. They’ve done things to encourage their own publicity. There’s no reason they needed to hold a press conference in Namibia after she had a baby …. It’s all about pulling back and giving a little, and pulling back and giving a little. It keeps the public wanting more.”
Who are the other masters? “Jessica Simpson—she’s very smart, she knows where her bread is buttered,” Ms. Min said. “This is not someone who ever goes on the attack against the press. This is not someone who ever frowns for a photographer, for the paparazzi. This is someone who knows her income is based on the intimacy she has with the public who buys Us Weekly …. Jessica Simpson [is] not going to get her beauty contract if she’s not seen as one of the most popular celebrities out there. What’s part of that popularity is being on the cover of Us Weekly five times out of six weeks.”
Same goes for her ex. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence,” Ms. Min said, “Nick Lachey—the first single on his album is about love gone bad, and the video is a re-enactment of a marriage. They’re finding ways to intersect their personal lives and professional lives in ways that benefits them the most. Remember, Nick Lachey[’s first] solo album sold 175,000 copies total. Two years later, his album sold that in a week. He got no more talented in those two years, but he could capitalize on celebrity culture and the media.”
Life crisis, Ms. Min said, is a growth sector. “You [see] declining box office, declining TV ratings, declining music sales—[and] heightened interest in these people as personalities, and most of them are embracing it to some degree.
“You look at some of the things that celebrities have done in the past—there’s no reason for Hilary Swank and Chad Lowe to announce they’re separating but not getting divorced, that they’re working on their marriage. These are things that wouldn’t have happened before.”
Some people are better able to protect their investment in fame than others. “Jennifer Lopez, happily married to Marc Anthony, is just not nearly as enticing,” Ms. Min said. “And all of a sudden, it’s like someone took an eraser and she just disappeared out of Us Weekly eventually. We started to put her back in a little more. I feel like there’s growing interest in her again. She retreated from that spectacle, which shows you can retreat if you choose to. Someone like Kristin Cavallari, you know, who merited an Us Weekly cover—which became one of our best-selling Us covers—because she dated Nick Lachey for like 32 seconds. She would have to do something equally crazy to get back on the cover. There are people who are one-week covers, certain people who are five-week covers.”
Then there are the people whose five weeks—or five months—are over, raising what Ms. Min calls the “who-we’re-sick-of factor.” Even Britney and Angelina are starting to bore.
“That’s why I was so happy to see Janet Jackson take off,” Ms. Min said. “Let’s try a new person, who pretty much defies the conventions of what magazine editors think will sell a magazine. To have a 40-year-old black woman, and a musician, on the cover shows me not all the rules apply all the time.”
And there are those cold fish who are no covers at all—who, Ms. Min said, don’t play to win the public interest: “They might admire them as actors, but they don’t embrace them as sort of personalities they’re obsessed with. People like Nicole Kidman, who has managed, I’m sure quite happily, to stay out of the Tom Cruise fray. Gwyneth Paltrow—who I’m sure she’s spoken openly about disliking the press—she’s quite happy to stay out of the fray. They are women who are challenged when it comes to opening a movie.
“Gwyneth is less famous now than she was five years ago. I think she wouldn’t trade that for anything. If the very definition of celebrity is to be embraced and loved by the public, then these are people who are not winning that game and might be happy to. No one is in this game to be recognized as the finest actors in Hollywood.”
Nor do they have to be. Over lunch, Ms. Min said that Us was weighing whether to put Ms. Kidman’s wedding on the cover. “Chances are low,” she said. “She’s older than our average reader …. She hasn’t done much. She hasn’t opened a movie big.”
Instead, Us shipped to the printer with Tori Spelling on the cover, telling “how her mother’s betrayal kept the heartbroken star from her father’s deathbed.”
“It is Tori’s first cover,” Ms. Min said by phone. “I think I’d always felt there was a fascination with Tori. We had been talking about her doing a cover when her father passed away …. Tori was pretty much laying low until her romantic life took a twist. She had a million-dollar wedding and a marriage that ended less than a year later, and then hooking up with another guy and having a quickie wedding put her back into the pop-culture discussion.
“That made her endearing to the audience,” Ms. Min said. “She wasn’t ashamed of any of it and embraced it.”