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On the Media: Celebrity magazines' odd anonymous outlook

Even when sources have good things to say about Britney Spears and other stars in People, Us Weekly and other outlets, they're often anonymous. But what's the big secret?

September 22, 2010|James Rainey

It's been more than two years since pop queen Britney Spears bottomed out with behavior so erratic she had to undergo psychiatric care, temporarily lost custody of her two boys and had to be appointed a conservator.

Now a Spears image-restoration campaign (or is it a real-life resurrection?) has taken flight, and you might think friends and family would be lining up to pronounce the entertainer all better.

But that's not the way Hollywood's glossy image machine works these days, as demonstrated by a three-page spread in a recent issue of People magazine. The story (with half a dozen photos) lets Britney's resurrection team go on and on about her new life, joyful motherhood and reignited career. But not a single one of the Brit-celebrants gives his or her name for the record.

While it's long been understood that dirty dishing in the entertainment industry would be done without attribution, it's increasingly clear that the infotainment press will deliver even glowing testimonials, character endorsements and gushy backslapping from unnamed sources.

In Us Weekly, In Touch, Star and even Time Inc.'s venerable People, anonymity has become the stock in trade. When sources tell the world what a good spouse, parent, humanitarian, romantic, animal lover, soul mate and ab-cruncher a celebrity really is, they almost always do it without giving their name.

Wedged between the showcase photo galleries in these and other magazines is an army of "insiders," "pals," "onlookers," "witnesses" and "sources." Even the smallest and most saccharine news squibs come sourced like the darkest revelations from the Nixon White House.

The tabloid press loves only one thing more than celebrity tear-downs, and that's celebrity resurrections. So why not let stars or their entourages build their reputations with a little quiet persuasion? Isn't the audience, in these trying times, practically begging for stories of redemption?

A recent Us Weekly headline about singer and babe-magnet John Mayer read, "No Girls for Now." Months earlier, Mayer's randy sex confessions overshadowed his musicianship as he talked about his sex organ as a white supremacist and called onetime girlfriend Jessica Simpson "sexual napalm."

The Us item allowed his advocates to fashion a kinder, gentler Mayer. It quoted a source saying he now ignores "booty calls" from women, sees the iPad as his new "late-night love" and enjoys a good go at Sudoku. VoilĂ , the young heartthrob had been remade into a veritable Garrison Keillor.

The same Us issue had an "onlooker" crediting attentive George Clooney for keeping loving tabs on girlfriend Elisabetta Canalis as they rode a motorcycle. It had a "source" describing Alicia Keys' "summer of love" with her new husband. It had a "pal" saying reality star Kristin Cavallari is ready to move to Chicago to pursue a romance with Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler.

Anonymous celebrity-polishing flourishes over at Star magazine too. We learn from another "insider" that Oscar winner Charlize Theron and actor Eric Thal are hitting it off because "they are both easygoing and love to laugh." The two feel "no pressure," we are assured, and are just "having a great time together." You can bet that neither wants to stifle the other's artistic ambitions. And both, no doubt, practice impeccable hygiene.

In Touch, similarly, invoked an "insider" to put "The Bachelor" star Jake Pavelka together with a new love interest. "It's very casual," the magazine's source told us, "but they're having a great time."

Love is effortless and free when the principals don't have to talk about it and the witnesses go unnamed. It also opens the door for a boatload of endorsement opportunities. The short squib on "The Bachelor" protagonist managed to name a couple of Las Vegas hotels, a restaurant and a nightclub, all in the space of just a few lines. (Surely no one could be paying a source for this kind of brand building, could they?)

I called Bonnie Fuller, the former Us Weekly editor, to ask her if it wasn't kind of silly to employ all these anonymous sources, not just when exposing celebrity missteps but on stories that polished the stars' glossy images.

Fuller, an icon in celebrity journalism who now runs, assured me that the anonymity helps the public to know more.

"We strive to get as many people on the record as we can," Fuller said. "But it's a fairly standard tool for people to speak on background."

David Caplan, a former senior editor at People now working as a consultant for, said readers shouldn't assume that celebrities or their handlers plant all those glowing quotes and testimonials.

Reporters get their information from friends, business associates and an array of other sources, Caplan said. Some of the best sources are scenesters who get a "feeling of power, being on the inside and being involved" when they pass information to celebrity mags. They do it for the buzz, not money, Caplan said.

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