In 1918, in a magazine devoted to chronicling the lives of movie stars, an up-and-coming starlet named Lila Lee posed for a publicity photo on her hands and knees, next to a bucket. In the image, the comely brunette is looking up, her expression sanguine and slightly surprised, as if she didn't expect the photographer from Motion Picture to catch her scrubbing the floor with her hair perfectly coiffed. The copy focuses on her love of hard work, but the implicit message is that modern gossip rag cliché:
Stars … they're just like us!
Karen Sternheimer, a sociologist at the University of Southern California, spent four years analyzing movie fan magazines for her new book Celebrity Culture and the American Dream. In their heyday, during the first half of the 20th century, fan magazines worked hand-in-glove with studios to provide upbeat, fawning coverage of Hollywood stars' lifestyles, hairstyles, and love lives. What Sternheimer discovered is that many of the conventions of contemporary celebrity journalism—as showcased in magazines like People, Us Weekly, In Touch, and Life & Style—have centurylong pedigrees. Articles suggesting that celebrities are ordinary folks who perform ordinary chores, only with better clothes? Check. The obsession over stars' babies? Check. Public dissections of who had lost the perfect amount of weight, who had lost too much weight, and who had gotten her body back after pregnancy? Check, check, and check.
These similarities across history are surprising, because when we talk about celebrity journalism today we tend to focus on how much it's changed in recent decades—how furious the pace of production has grown and how insatiable the public's appetite for gossip has become. Ever more mundane minutiae are being served up as "news" and the definition of who, exactly, gets to count as a "celebrity" collapses by the day.
But fan magazines helped create the very idea of "movie stars" and legitimize our fascination with the intimacies of their lives. Motion Picture Story Magazine, the first of what would become nearly 300 titles in the genre, was launched exactly 100 years ago, during the era of silent films. Photoplay, Picture Play, Modern Screen, and many others followed. Burgeoning Hollywood studios saw the magazines as an opportunity to promote their fledgling industry. The magazines, in turn, were deferential to the studios, which controlled access to their stars; in some cases, says film historian Anthony Slide, studio publicists actually wrote magazine copy.
At first, these magazines focused on describing the plots of upcoming films and promoting the idea that movies were educational and wholesome. (Up till then, movies had been thought of as tawdry, working-class diversions.) But the magazines quickly shifted their focus to the beautiful people who starred in the films—presumably in response to readers, who wrote in with questions like "Are they married?" and "How does she keep her skin so lovely?" The coverage was largely fawning, of course—there were no close-ups of cellulite or worst-dressed lists, and for decades no mention of scandal. Slide—whose book Inside the Hollywood Fan Magazine came out last year—says that in their heyday, fan magazines offered the faintest whispers of salacious gossip, obvious only to insiders who could read between the lines. Gay relationships were merely hinted at, and as for abortions, Slide says, "They would always say the star was having their appendix removed."
By the '50s and '60s, however, the studios were becoming less powerful, and the magazines more willing to report on scandals. But with monthly issues and long lead times, they couldn't compete with timelier newspaper gossip columns and, later, weekly tabloid magazines. Plus, Slide says, the advent of television meant that there was a whole new class of celebrities to become obsessed with, lessening the focus on movie stars. Most of the last hold-outs in the movie fan mag genre had disappeared by the early '80s, as general celebrity magazines like People and Us Weekly took over.
Sternheimer's book focuses on how fan mags sold America on rags-to-riches storylines and the myth of Hollywood reinvention. But they sold us, too, on our early notions of what a celebrity should look like—just like us but better, glamorous yet surprisingly humble, coy on her love life but eager to share tips for weight loss and smooth skin. They sold us on the perfect quote, the perfect photograph, the perfect life. It's possible that even now, in the age of the Everywoman Celebrity and of cellulite close-ups, we still want to believe.
Lila Lee and other starlets perform menial chores in this 1918 feature story titled "Who Says the Stars Dont [sic] Work?" The copy boasts: "Lila Lee hasn't balked at anything yet, not even at going down on her knees before a floor pail." The purpose of articles like this was to underscore how ordinary early screen actresses were—though not, USC sociologist Karen Sternheimer notes, for the same reason that contemporary gossip mags promote these narratives today.
Early silent films often had sexual themes and were intended as cheap diversions for the working class. But by the 1910s, studios were making an effort to promote movies to the middle class. Films got cleaner storylines and fan magazines tried to portray actors as average, hardworking, and wholesome. So these images of Lee and her fellow actresses scrubbing and sweeping were intended to lift them into league with respectable Americans, rather than bring them down from the lofty heights of celebrity.
By the 1950s, movies had long since moved from nascent industry to major cultural force, and the stars truly were stars. The supposedly candid images found in fan mags were intended to do much the same thing that similar features do today—emphasize the accessibility of celebrities despite their wealth, fame, and perfect hair. "Seems these movie stars are nothing but plain old people, just like us!" Photoplay crows in this 1957 feature. On one page, Paul Newman is a "sight-seer," strolling and eating a snack in Los Angeles. On the page shown here, Ernest Borgnine watches TV with a creepy expression and Jayne Mansfield naps on a plane. ("Where's the ample smile? Where's the imposing frontal elevation?" the magazine asks, revealing a knack for impressive euphemism.) These playful images feel at once more intimate and less intrusive than contemporary just-like-us photos—more like they were snapped by friends (or friendly publicists) than by a paparazzo's telephoto lens.
This purple-prosed profile of sexy silent film star Clara Bow explains how she roller-skated her way to svelteness and stardom, treating her flab "as ruthlessly as a vampire does the heart of a man who should know better."
The writer describes the old Clara as a "tubby ribbon clerk" and makes liberal use of the word fat—she was a "fat little girl," who was "fatter than most of her chums" and "too fat to be a film actress." Now, however, she is so gorgeous that the writer can barely find enough adjectives to get his point across. "I looked at the fascinating little youngster," he writes. "With the warm light of a rose-shaded floor lamp softing [sic] the redness of her hair, its mellow glow blending with the vivid brown of her eyes, I would have believed her had she told me that she was Mona Lisa."
There was, of course, such a thing as being too thin, even before the Depression brought on an appreciation for fuller-figured women. Photoplay bravely took on the scourge of what it dubbed "Reduceomania" in 1926. The magazine describes how "a large portion of America is playing with murder and suicide" by taking drugs that can cause "tuberculosis" and "insanity" in attempts to emulate the look of the "corsetless, pliant, bob-haired flapper." (It does not, however, illustrate the piece with photos of knobby-spined starlets in backless dresses, as today's magazines might.) Noting that the country is becoming more and more overweight, Photoplay suggests that women reject drugs and "freak diets" and instead try a series of exercises. In Photoplay's helpful illustrations, a woman does stretches in the comfort of high heels.
In this feature, actress Ann Sothern explains how she got her body back after she had a baby through exercises, dancing, tennis, and a physician-approved calcium-rich diet. Motion Picture magazine's "beauty editor" lays it on thick: Sothern looks so great, she writes, that when the actress reported back to work after having her baby, "the corridors buzzed with delighted voices saying, 'Have you seen Sothern? She looks wonderful! Actually younger, slimmer, prettier than she's ever been.' " Sternheimer writes that the post-WWII period was a boom time for celebrity baby stories, just as the baby boom itself was taking off. Then, as now, baby stories were highly popular with readers—though during fan mag days, Sternheimer says, there was no talk of the now-vaunted "baby bump."
Divorce was not usually a cause for celebration in movie fan magazines. Indeed, one 1932 article worried about the stability of Hollywood marriages in which the women were bigger stars than their husbands. The headline was, "Are Women Stars the Home Wreckers of Hollywood?" As Sternheimer succinctly notes, "the answer was yes."
But Ginger Rogers was such a big star that by 1936, when this article about her separation from actor Lew Ayres was published, criticizing her probably would have been a "suicide mission," Sternheimer says. So here she is, all slim and glamorous, waving merrily at what we imagine to be a throng of adoring fans, happy as a "canary," as the magazine puts it. The glowing coverage is somewhat reminiscent of the treatment Jennifer Aniston got in her post-Brad Pitt days, when the endless paparazzi photos of her great beach body implied that looking hot was her best revenge.
Photoplay says that Rogers is now free to actually say what she thinks and to dine with whatever "Jimmy, Johnny, Joe or Bill" she chooses. It adds that her new hobbies are playing the accordion and "stuffing in berry pie like nobody's business."
In recent decades, people like Anna Nicole Smith and Heather Mills have become tabloid staples because they seemed to embody the term "gold-digger." But the crafty female who ensnares a man in order to dig through his pockets is a trusty old archetype of celebrity magazines. This article from 1927 appears to treat gold-digging as an unsavory trend, something that millions of little girls might succumb to, perhaps out of boredom. Sternheimer suggests that articles like this one reflected a backlash against the more liberated model of woman then emerging, as well as greater divorce rates and a more open view of sexuality. The gold-digger caricature was a way of lampooning this new breed of woman, with her independence, her faster ways, and her flapper styles.
According to this article in Motion Picture Classic, the gold-digger finds that through smiling, coaxing, and crying, she can get her hands on a man's "new platinum watch" and several frat pins "inlaid with diamonds," as well as convince fellows to take her on orgiastic shopping trips.
Until her death last month, Liz Taylor was a staple of tabloid magazines, for better and for worse. In the '50s and '60s, as the studio system fell apart and fan magazines began to report more aggressively on scandals, Taylor became an easy and high-profile target, thanks to her many tumultuous love affairs. In subsequent decades, her weight, her health, and her friendship with Michael Jackson became further tabloid fodder. This 1964 triptych of Liz and Richard Burton reminds us that it was ever thus.