Britney Spears wanted to slip into something more comfortable.
For much of 2007, the pop diva had been on a jag of increasingly erratic behavior: shaving her head, attacking paparazzi with an umbrella, a stint in rehab. And at a party at the exclusive West Hollywood nightspot Winston's, Spears was acting out again. She downed some vodka, befriended a barmaid and convinced the woman to switch clothing with her in the club's restroom — all the way down to her undergarments.
Celebrity obsessives know these details thanks to a reporter who said she witnessed Spears' wardrobe swap and supplied her account to a British tabloid, creating a worldwide gossip sensation. "I was in the bathroom when they exchanged clothes," the reporter recalled. "I was by the bar and heard everything the bartender said about it: 'She loved my bra and wanted to switch with me.' I was like, 'This is brilliant!' "
A statuesque former model who now works for a major American celebrity magazine, the woman spoke on condition she not to be identified for fear of blowing her cover as a so-called "club girl," a glamorous breed of covert reporters who infiltrate Hollywood's VIP sanctums to write celebrity exposés for the tabloids.
A well-established yet seldom-discussed fixture of A-list Angeleno nightlife, they have good looks and air-kissy access beyond the velvet rope that enable them to eavesdrop on celebrities, send surreptitious text messages and snap iPhone photos in pursuit of gossip gold.
"I always say, it's living like a call girl without the sex," former club girl Suzy McCoppin said.
Well, not exactly.
A onetime Playboy pinup who worked as a nightclub reporter for Star magazine for three years before getting "banned from every club in the city," McCoppin said she once sold a story describing a weekend tryst with British pop star Robbie Williams to the London tabloid News of the World for $40,000. She embodies the kind of club girl who goes beyond reporting the story to becoming the story.
"A lot of club girls want to be famous," said Evan Matthew, a former senior reporter for Star magazine who also recruited nightclub reporters for four years. "The hope is, being a club girl will get them closer to the celebrities. And they'll become an actress. Or they'll start dating a celebrity."
Moreover, they help service three distinct economies: Hollywood nightclubs, whose bottom line can be goosed by mention in a celebrity magazine; certain B- and C-list celebrities who knowingly partner with club girls, feeding them "exclusives" about their better-known pals in exchange for positive press; and the tabloids such as Life & Style, Us Weekly, OK! and Star engaged in a minute-to-minute website race for the latest gossip and a weekly struggle for the most sensational cover stories.
According to several former nightclub reporters and one retired tabloid editor, the publications typically employ one or two club girls at a time who generally earn around $300 a night. But that pay range can stretch into tens of thousands of dollars for "inside inside" exclusives. "You went to a certain club on a certain night," said one, who worked as a nightclub reporter in 2008. "Wednesday was for Les Deux. Thursday was Goa or Opera. Monday was celebrity karaoke night at Guy's. So you'd basically take notes and then send the file in at 5 a.m."
She added: "I love celebrities and I could not believe there was a job that involved going out and doing celebrity reporting like this. I would have done it for $20."
McCoppin, who said she parlayed her club girl days into a series of affairs with athletes and actors, a column in Playboy magazine and an as-yet-unpublished memoir, makes no apologies for her less-than-conventional reporting techniques. She recalled that her first reaction when her editor suggested she could turn her relationship with Williams into a tabloid payday was "absolutely not. This is tacky."
When she discovered the amount of money involved, however, she produced a detailed account of her affair that included explicit descriptions of "total rock star sex." "Tacky aside, I will look tacky for $40,000!" she said.
To hear it from Ken Baker, E! Entertainment Network's chief news correspondent who worked as Us Weekly's West Coast executive editor for five years, club girls emerged around 2003, "the heyday of the L.A. club scene," when professional partiers like Paris Hilton, Spears and Nicole Richie were objects of intense public fascination. Freelance reporters already out and about on the scene began to be enlisted by the tabs with fairly low expectations. "We'd say, 'Report what you see,' " Baker recalled.
While certain core journalism skills — like observational reporting and writing talent — were prized, the ability to be accepted into celebrity venues quickly became crucial.
"They need to get access," Baker said. "In this case, it's not having a [press] credential. It's having the look."