The TABLOID world -- led by the magazine Us Weekly, along with the paradigm-exploding websites TMZ and Perezhilton.com -- is simultaneously bursting and flat.
Bursting, in the sense that these media spill over with several dozen characters whose ongoing stories are meticulously and minutely dispensed to readers in the same lurid and addicting manner that a 19th century Penny Dreadful once was. The unbalance of Britney Spears, the growing pains of Miley Cyrus and the druggy tailspin of Amy Winehouse -- to name a few favorite plots -- add up over the hours to grand Flaubertian narratives about femininity, drugs, mental health, motherhood, legal proceedings, controlling parents and violence.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, May 11, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Heidi Montag: An article in today's Calendar section about Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt of MTV's "The Hills" says that Montag came to Los Angeles in August 1985. It was 2005.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, May 18, 2008 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Heidi Montag: An article last Sunday about Montag and Spencer Pratt of MTV's "The Hills" said she came to Los Angeles in August 1985. It was 2005.
But it's flat in that every story seems just as important as every other, and the monster needs feeding. That's what tabloid fame is now: Weekly, and sometimes hourly, we must have stories; the lives of the chosen people must appear to move forward. Into the breach between supply and demand have stepped Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt, the villainous couple from MTV's docu-soap "The Hills" -- while they may not be the most famous, they are definitely the most fame-ish. Creatures of the game in every way, they have mastered the new realities of celebrity culture.
The two know what commodity they're selling and what its value is. "There's only so much gossip," as Heidi said over lunch recently.
"We're always the juicier story," Spencer said. Switching to the third person, he added, "And when Heidi and Spencer are gossip machines, it's like, 'What did Heidi and Spencer do?' "
Heidi and Spencer. "Speidi" for short. He's 24, went to Crossroads School and then USC, having grown up in Santa Monica and the Palisades. She's 21 and was raised in Crested Butte, Colo., which she referred to as "the smallest place in the world." She came to Los Angeles in August 1985 after a miserable fashion-school year in San Francisco where she met Lauren Conrad, late of MTV's "Laguna Beach," whose move to L.A. was to become the raison d'etre for "The Hills."
TMZ calls them "celebutards." Perez Hilton calls them "famewhores" and "promosexuals." Spencer's response: "Anybody who wants to promote our brand, negative or positive, give me a call."
A steady drip stokes the spotlight
Over quesadillas recently at Don Antonio’s -- the West L.A. restaurant that is Speidi's version of mecca -- they were both polite and, in suspicious contrast with the spectacular pugilism that is one of their major gossip assets, happy-seeming. The disparities don't stop there: On the phenomenally popular "Hills," which ends its third season Monday and averages 3.3 million young adult viewers per week with millions more on MTV.com, Spencer is Heidi's boyfriend/former fiance/Svengali, and he's taken her away from her friends. In real life, their romantic relationship appears solid, and he's her manager (Heidi is embarking on a singing career and has a fashion line, Heidiwood).
Together, they have leveraged many bits of their lives -- Heidi's plastic surgery (nose job, breast implants), her real and continuous falling out with Lauren, the possibly faked ups and downs of their relationship and the cruel public mockery of Heidi's popstar aspirations -- to fit the 24-hour news cycle. They have retained a publicist, Cindy Guagenti of BWR Public Relations, but she seems to have a hands-off approach to their full-on courting of the press. Often, staged-looking paparazzi shots accompany their doings: It's Easter, and Heidi and Spencer have bunny ears on! Spencer comforts a crying Heidi after people are mean about her music video for "Higher" on the Internet!
So, Heidi and Spencer, what would happen if some media person texted you, trolling for some gossip, while we're having a perfectly calm conversation at Don Antonio's?
Heidi, with a sly look, said: "Obviously we're entertainers. We are trying to entertain in every aspect of our lives. Whether it's on the show or in the tabloids."
Harvey Levin, the TMZ guru, said this fakeness factor actually adds to the fun: "They are so lame, and so staged and canned, that it makes it almost entertaining and fun to poke fun at. The secret for them is that they get the joke."
And Hilton, whose lawless blog has caused frequent earthquakes that shake the publicist-driven and fawning Celebrity Industrial Complex, mused over the setups and fictions in a telephone interview. "Genius and pathetic at the same time," he said. "But more genius than pathetic."