Supply and Demand Stokes the Fires of the Illicit Press

Tired of the Kardashians and their kind? Sorry, but they are keeping an industry alive.

Though you might not recall it, Jessica Simpson actually entered the celebrity realm as a pop singer, though not a particularly successful one. Later, she gained greater fame as a reality star (of Newlyweds on MTV from 2003-2005) and then as a go-to punchline based upon her ditzy TV persona. Today, she is primarily known for a brand of shoes she sells exclusively at Macy’s.

For someone’s who is, today, best known as a shoe designer with a medium-priced line, Simpson nevertheless gets an awful lot of attention, with frequent mentions on TMZ, in Us Weekly and in other publications, both online and in print. Her recent wedding was profiled in an issue of People magazine with a multi-page spread.

Are Jessica’s shoes really so special that their “creator” demands such media coverage? Do we really still care about her that much?

Well, we probably don’t, but that’s kind of beside the point. The case of Jessica Simpson, as is the case with most other tabloid celebrities, is a simple instance of supply and demand in action.

Thanks to the internet and a semi-recent explosion of celebrity-oriented magazines such as Life and Style, InTouch, OK, and Hello, which have joined such long-standing stand-bys as People, The National Enquirer and The Star, we now have more demand for “celebrity” information than ever before. Unfortunately, we just don’t seem to have enough bona fide celebrities—little lone actual, legitimate “news”—to keep up with these readable beasts’s constant hunger for more, more, more. Hence, we’ve seen the rise of the pseudo-celeb along with all the mocktors and mocktresses, the has-beens still surprisingly hanging-on, and, of course, a crazy number of people with the last name Kardashian.

Of course, in some ways this plethora of pulp is not totally new. In the ’30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, the newsstands were clogged with an assortment of screen, radio, and later, television-related fan magazines bearing names like Photoplay, Modern Screen, Screenland, Silver Screen, and Radio Mirror. Back then, entire departments in every major movie studio in Hollywood existed solely to feed photos and breathless content to these inexpensive weeklies and monthlies. What is easy to forget, however, is that for every profile of a Cary Grant or a Bette Davis that graced some of their pages, there was an extraordinary amount of space devoted to now largely-forgotten starlets and male B-movie leads also crammed inside in order to fill out each issue.

Additionally, even the media omnipresence of such fame-for-the-sake-of-fame “stars” as Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian is not altogether new. In the ’30s up through the ’50’s, America often overdosed on pictures and prose devoted to such vapid society debutantes as Brenda Fraizer, Barbara Hutton, and Joanna Connelley, not to mention, later, Edie Sedgwick. They were a group of girls who garnered a mad number of mentions in newspapers and magazines and had done nothing more than be born pretty and rich. Sound familiar?

Since that time, certainly the popularity—and profitability—of the gossip trade has never abated. The arrival of television as a mass medium in the early 1950s ushered in a whole new industry to write about, as did the exploding teen market. TV Guide was born in 1953; Teen magazine debuted in 1954. The industry further stayed solvent by dispensing with all the upbeat, innocuous studio-sanctioned stories and instead focused on the more lurid details of some of Hollywood’s heaviest hitters. Equipped with jazzy names like Confidential, Hush-Hush, and Exposed, these tabloid mags sold briskly by delighting in scandal and printing unflattering stories and photos of stars, both vintage and up-and-coming.

Lawsuits eventually drove Confidential and its brethren out of business but they were soon replaced with just-slightly more upscale titles like Rona Barrett’s Hollywood, Movie World, Photo Screen, and TV Picture Life, who, in the ’70s, documented every hair flip of Farrah Fawcett’s mane and every move Elizabeth Taylor or Jackie O. dared to make. By the late ’70s, celebrity and gossip magazines had become institutions with People taking the slightly higher road but The National Enquirer and The Star remaining popular via the grocery store checkout line.

As Jeanette Walls detailed in her excellent 2000 history of the illicit press, Dish, if the celebrity gossip industry was ever under threat, the closest time it ever approached total catastrophe was in the final years before the new millennium.

First, in the fall of 1997, the death of Princess Diana shined a harsh critical eye on the morals and methods of some members of the paparazzi. Many publications saw a significant uptick in their sales immediately after Diana’s death, as people rushed to read more about the accident that took her life and how her children’s were coping.

But Diana’s passing was only part of the story. The industry’s biggest threat in the late ‘90s and early ’00’s was the encroachment of the internet onto the printed press’s once sacred turf. With celebrity access and “news” now available via your fingertips, be you at your home or office, all the venerable publications from People onward saw their readership and sales sink.

But, it turns out, we need not to have worried.

If anything, via the net, gossip got reborn and amplified. Believe it or not, there was a time before TMZ.com, Perezhilton.com, PopSugar.com, TheSuperficial.com, and a gazillon other “coms” came to us with minute-by-minute updates about Katy Perry and Justin Bieber.

Like everything else the internet has done, it has forever altered the gossip press and, with it, our culture, perhaps even our perception and priorities. With gossip now available on demand and readers/viewers always demanding content and updating, no matter how hard they try, Julia Roberts and Beyoncé just can’t stay that busy or do that much to keep the webmasters satisfied. And even if they are that busy, professionally or personally, they just don’t want to be bothered that much with such prying eyes.

Hence, enter Jessica Simpson. Again. Not to mention Jessica Alba, Demi Moore, and a few other column regulars whose last hit movie was… well, when?

At point and time, with gossip’s new insatiable hunger for New! Now! More!, the likes of Jessica Simpson–with her musical output a long-ago, almost nonexistent memory, and even her TV reality fame (what really put her on the cultural map) now also something best left to trivia contests—are more needed now than ever before. Something, someone, has got to fill those pages.

Certainly, it was good news for the industry then when reality TV came along. If film and TV stars are sometimes reluctant to expose every personal thing about themselves, then a gaggle of Real Housewives, Teen Moms and other “stars” are more than happy to sell their privacy for a tiny bit of “fame.”

Therefore, I give you the Kardashians. Kim, Khloe, and the other one, and their extended family, whose everyday comings and goings and fashion disasters help fill up an untold number of glossy pages for a host of magazines and websites.

This of course necessarily leads to a followup question: did the modern gossip industry create the Kardashians, or did Kardashians help create the modern incarnation of the gossip industry?

Either way, it’s a symbiotic, co-dependent relationship between the two of them. One that is not likely to decline anytime soon, not as long as the global desire for fluff remains undiminished—and, as we’ve seen, history paints a picture of the gossip industry’s endurance, rather than its demise.

In short, we aren’t going to be free of Jessica Simpson, and others like her, for a long, long time, no matter how hard we try.

* * * Above: Jessica Simpson press photo