My grandmother called them rag sheets. This was back in the day when tabloids were printed on newspaper, before The Star became glossy and vivid and OK! only happened in England. Stacks of old issues would arrive at our home when I was a child, and I could read them for hours. Nothing made me happier than settling into the big chair in the living room, Indian-style, with a turkey sandwich and a Coke, with all of Tinseltown’s dirtiest secrets spread out on the ottoman before me. At eight or nine years old, I didn’t understand the trashiness or the willful exploitation that was being commodified (not that I would’ve cared); to me, those pages were full of glitter and scandals and I couldn’t get enough. Mee-Maw and I were the resident Hollywood experts, knowing all the sordid details about Michael Landon’s “brave last days” and fading starlets’ botched plastic surgeries and the exploits of Hollywood’s favorite bad-boys. I read every word. The rhetoric itself was enchanting: I knew all about who was “pin-thin” and who was “scary skinny”; I knew who had “ballooned” and who was “spiraling” out of control in a cocaine blitz at the Chateau Marmont. They were a revolving cast in a drama that never ended: the tragic (Elizabeth Taylor in the eighties, Princess Diana in nineties, the Kennedy’s in any given decade), the weird (Michael Jackson’s pet monkey! Angelina Jolie’s vial-of-blood-necklace!), and the out-of-control (Anna Nicole Smith, Courtney Love). Within the confines of those tawdry bits of newsprint, to me they were almost like real people, but brighter.
The glossification of tabloids only made them more appealing. My favorites were always the ones that were hard to find in America. I looked forward to plane trips because of the oversized European tabloids that I could only ever find at airports. My favorite was Hello!, but I really wasn’t picky. British tabloids didn’t focus on as many American celebrities then as they do now, and I loved reading about the indiscretions of “footballers” and the behind-the-scenes dust-ups on Big Brother, even though I had never seen the show. I think what pleased me the most was the revelation that people in other countries had celebrities of their very own.
As I got older, reading tabloids became my favorite guilty pleasure and secret shame; the time when I didn’t care if I got caught reading them in public has passed. This happened sometime during graduate school, when I became aware of the fact that college professors (the career I was working toward) are not necessarily entertainment news’ targeted demographic. I didn’t want to out myself as the type of student who spent her time catching up on the romantic woes of Robsten during breaks from studying Baudrillard. Despite my best efforts, there were plenty of close calls. Once, during a Shakespeare seminar in grad school, a classmate of mine was talking about an actor tapped to play a major character in an upcoming adaptation. I shouldn’t have said anything, but sometimes, for me, thinking and speaking are mutually exclusive: I said, “Oh no, he was fired weeks ago. There were problems on the set and he didn’t get along with the director. And his list of demands for his trailer was absurd,” or some nonsense. It certainly wasn’t the kind of information to be gleaned from Shakespeare Quarterly, though they might have an easier time securing a subscription from me if it were. Luckily, the professor moved on to discussing the finer points of Coriolanus before I had a chance to make any more insightful comments.
The thing about my tabloid obsession that bothers my friends the most is that I know better. They lament the waste of time and money that fuels my interest in a world that reads like fiction (though none are amused when I point out that as writers and literary scholars they’re doing pretty much the same thing) and don’t appreciate my comprehensive knowledge of Hollywood bloodlines to the degree I feel it merits. I’m not asking for a MacArthur, you understand, just a little recognition. All this came to a head about a year ago when an old friend from South Florida, teeming hub of a major tabloid newspaper (among other things), revealed a shocking secret about his past. “Look, he said, “there’s something you need to know. I never told you about the time I made the cover of the National Enquirer, did I?” Certainly not. I would remember a thing like that. The floor is yours, sir. He went on, telling me the story about how he and his friends were paid by “some guy” to get photographed on a vacant lot in Boca Raton, dressed as Aruban officials searching for the body of Natalee Holloway. I didn’t believe him until he Googled the image on my phone. There they were, on the cover. My very own friend had been to the other side of the looking glass. I almost died of envy.
Though I’ve known for a long time that much of what gets published in tabloids isn’t true, that doesn’t prevent me from buying into the voyeuristic illusion that there’s a whole secret world laid bare for my reading pleasure, available for the reasonable price of $3.99 at the supermarket checkout counter. I line up my avocados and paper towels on the conveyor belt and pluck a copy of whichever tabloid looks the best that week off the shelf and add it to the pile. When the cashier gets to it, she and I exchange a knowing look. (Cashiers are an exception to my rule about being seen with The Star and its ilk–grocery store cashiers know everyone’s secrets). This week, a mega-star has been caught canoodling with his nanny. Canoodling. The grainy paparazzi photos, which are so blurry they might’ve been taken by a satellite orbiting over Los Angeles, are damning evidence. We expected better of him, but can’t say we’re surprised. The cashier raises her eyebrows, her lips curled in contempt. “Can you believe him?” I shake my head and say, “Well, from what I’ve heard, this wasn’t the first time.” She nods in agreement and goes back to ringing me up, having the grace not to suggest that I buy less chocolate. Luckily for the star in question, a new scandal involving a different celebrity with a wayward spouse will erupt in a week or two, and the tabloids will forget all about him, at least for a while.
But I won’t.
About the author: Courtney Watson earned her Ph.D. at the University of Southern Mississippi Center for Writers. She is an Assistant Professor of English at Jefferson College of Health Sciences in Roanoke, Virginia, and her writing has recently appeared in 100 Word Story, The Inquisitive Eater, Into the Willows, and more.