Along with the titillating question of whether Jessica Simpson might reunite with her former husband, Nick Lachey, the news coming out of Us Weekly this week is the departure of editor Janice Min, who levitated Jann Wenner's gossip rag into a phenomenon, inspiring a new generation of celebrity-obsessed publications that have gobbled up American newsstands.
At Us, Min, who says she is leaving amicably to explore other career paths, has been an influential tastemaker, particularly by forging readers' relationships with reality TV stars such as Jon & Kate and Heidi & Spencer. Before Us Weekly lavished eight covers on the squabbling Gosselins of "Jon & Kate Plus 8," they were just the stars of a little-seen TLC show. Afterward, nearly 10 million people tuned in for the season premiere that addressed their marital troubles.
Speaking on the phone from her office in New York City, Min, who is leaving when her contract expires Aug. 1, says her star-making strategy, specific to reality television, has been to target a "roaming pack" of "13 million women avidly involved in pop culture."
Min says: "We broke that story at a time when most people had never heard of Jon and Kate. Now they wish they had never heard of Jon and Kate. That's the impact of Us."
Although Min's predecessor, Bonnie Fuller, created much of the template of the revamped Us Weekly -- paparazzi shots and "scoops" on Hollywood hookups and breakups -- Min honed the formula and rode the undulating waves of popular taste.
When she took the helm six years ago, a celebrity was a movie star or someone with a sitcom. "Now sitcoms barely exist," says Min. "Thanks to cable television, reality TV and the Internet, the whole power structure of celebrity has shifted. It's not just that Kim Kardashian is a celebrity and nobody knows why. It's her sister, her mother. Young women in particular have forged a connection with the stars of reality TV that they don't have with Gwyneth Paltrow.
"The whole relationship dynamic between the general population and celebrity has morphed into a belief that there's very little separating you from being like them."
Min has also overseen most of Us Weekly's spectacular growth. It went from a circulation of 800,000 in 2000 to 1.9 million today, second in the category to People's 3 million readers. Ad pages soared during her tenure, though they fell for the last two years, according to Publishers Information Bureau. They were down almost 10% in the first six months of this year, a figure, however, that remains significantly less than the 28% fall-off in the consumer magazine industry as a whole.
As publisher Vicci Lasdon Rose also points out, Usmagazine.com, a relative newcomer to the Internet, "is on fire." According to Comscore, which measures Web traffic, the site experienced 325% growth in the last year, with 6.6 million unique visitors in May.
For her efforts, Min has been famously well-compensated, with a contract worth a reported $2 million, including incentives. Says Min, "I'd like to see what else is out there."
As for Us, readers can expect more of the same cocktail. Michael Steele, Us' executive editor, will act as editor in chief until a permanent replacement is found. "We don't expect any changes," Rose says. "We're very sensitive to what our readers tell us they want."
Though celebrities routinely complain about the paparazzi and the outlets that support them, in actuality publications like Us Weekly have become part of the infotainment establishment. "One approaches them not so much as an adversary than as a potential partner," says Allan Mayer of the publicity firm 42West, who has handled such clients as tabloid magnet Britney Spears. "I've been doing crisis management for the last 10 to 15 years, and you could always approach the glossy if you had a client who is very much in demand and work out an arrangement that would be mutually beneficial" -- i.e. access for positive coverage.
"What's different is those kind of transactions used to be a minority of the interactions with them," Mayer says. "Now they're the majority."
Min takes umbrage at the idea that her magazine just takes publicist feeds, pointing out that they first rocketed to success by breaking such stories as the Britney Spears-Justin Timberlake breakup, Alex Rodriguez and Madonna, and most notably the birth of Brangelina as a couple.
That said, Us' basic attitude toward the celebrity breed is positive, and enthusiastic. "Us Weekly is practically puritanical compared to what you can find online," says Min with a laugh. "The fundamental presumption at Us Weekly is that the readers like celebrity and the world of celebrity culture. I always liken it to the exhaustive coverage of sports.
"On the flip side, sports is primarily a male pursuit. I think celebrity is a female one, but the same sort of intensity is brought to the game."