Benifer. Britney. Brangelina. Celebrity gossip from the 2000s is well documented, but what made us seek out copies of We Weekly and People? On Just Like Us: The Tabloids That Changed America, Clare Malone delves into the celebrity obsession of the day – from magazine newsrooms to the paparazzi boom to the rise of reality TV – to tell the stories behind the gossip and what the sensation tabloid says of American culture. In Episode 6we discuss black celebrity media, like Boss and Media to gowhich emerged to cover celebrities that magazines have largely ignored.
One thing I think about a lot while working in the media is the importance of its keepers. Sure, every industry has them. But in many of these professions there are also boards or exams to pass: you have to prove yourself against an established standard. In journalism, it’s mostly about relationships. Who you did your internship for, who you were an assistant for, who you went to college with, that’s how you get jobs most of the time.
Nowhere was this more true than in the world of magazines in New York or in the world of cinema in Hollywood at the turn of the century. You had to know someone to get inside. And the interior was made up of a lot of people who saw the same people as celebrities, whose cultural touchstones were shared, and whose beauty standards had all been shaped by similar environments. Because before we talk about how the Internet has disrupted mainstream media and institutions, we need to talk about how those mainstream institutions traditionally worked.
In its analog Condé Nast days,
Jezebel founder Anna Holmes worked on Bonnie Fuller’s version of Charm. As in, Bonnie Fuller who made We Weekly into a cultural juggernaut. Stars, they’re like us, Bonnie.
Anna called Bonnie’s magazines very white. And white was sort of the default in media. Is still. There was not necessarily a sense of urgency that publications needed to diversify their coverage. On the contrary, people seemed to think that there were a few black publications that would deal with black celebrity coverage.
Fred Mwangaguhunga, founder of the celebrity blog Media to go, is part of the “Internet has changed everything” bandwagon. Especially in the early years of the site, Media to go covered black celebrities as closely and as intimately as the mainstream media covered white stars.
They reported that Queen Latifah would announce her engagement to her girlfriend, which the star, who has largely avoided discussing his love life, denied. They’ve been following Beyoncé’s pregnancy rumors as well as those about NBA star Kevin Garnett’s love life.
And a larger segment of the population than you might think was exposed to these celebrity stories.
“Racially, at least initially, it was probably closer to traditional internet demographics,” Mwangaguhunga said. “While we were doing mostly urban celebrities, you’d think there’s a bunch of black people on site, but often that wasn’t the case.”
This is the classic promise of the internet at work, especially in the days when it was responsible for the collapse of democracies and genocides: the internet could expose different people to different things.
It’s not that black celebrities weren’t covered by the tabloids in the 2000s. But it was definitely a hot number. Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, Beyoncé and later Rihanna and the Obamas all graced the cover of
We Weeklyfor example.
But it wasn’t that often that you had a person of color on the cover – and that’s with We Weekly itself led by a woman of color, Janice Min. Hollywood and its symbiotic partner, the famous media, chose white by default.
Which, again, has worked well, commercially, for emerging black celebrity blogs. We talked a lot in Episode 2 about the madness of the paparazzi photo market during the first decade of the 2000s. Well, it turns out that photos of black celebrities fetched very different prices at first. and in the middle years.
Fred decided to use this to his advantage.
“We would go to the paparazzi and say, ‘Hey, any African American celebrity you meet, any black person you see walking into a door, take a picture and we’ll buy it,'” Mwangaguhunga said. didn’t even know who they were. They would just say, ‘Oh, black person. Okay, boom.’ They’d take the pictures. And they’d just send it to us and we’d get a bad deal… Maybe they got $500 for the Britney Spears picture and $100 for all the other pictures. And then $50 for literally every black person who walked through the door.
The idea that blogs were covering black celebrities who didn’t fit into mainstream tabloid coverage was pretty simple. Fred said the stories hit you at first. A lot of traffic could be generated just by writing something basic about a famous black person who had appeared in a big movie a decade before but hadn’t been written about in a while.
But the idea didn’t have to be complicated to work.
“In the beginning, the stories that worked best were the stories of black celebrities that a lot of white people, or a lot of people in mainstream America, didn’t even know black people had an intimate relationship with,” Mwangaguhunga mentioned. “If you walk into entertainment tonight or We Weekly in 2007, and you said, “Hey, black people like Halle Berry.” It would be like, ‘Oh, sure, they do.’ Because Halle Berry is an Oscar-winning actress and she’s in all these movies and blah-blah-blah. But if you told them something about someone like Nia Long, who a lot of people grew up with, for example, they saw her in The prince of Bel-Air. They saw her in movies again and again. She’s kind of been a part of their lives for 20 years. And so, you want to know what’s going on with her.
Nia Long, Sanaa Lathan, Tracee Ellis Ross, Gabrielle Union, Beyoncé, Solange—these were the celebrities that blogs love
Boss and Media to go covered when the mainstream tabloids really didn’t.