Anne H Petersen. The Business of Entertainment. Editor: Robert C Sickels. Volume 1. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009.
In early May of 2006, Tom Cruise grinned wildly at the reader from the cover of Entertainment Weekly. Only instead of promoting Mission Impossible 3, Cruise’s million-dollar smile was paired with a questioning caption: “Is Tom Cruise Really Worth $100,000,000?” For a star whose box office track record has established him as one of the few remaining sure-fires in an industry with increasing resemblance to a Las Vegas craps table, the gravity of such a headline is immense. Arguably the most iconic actor of the last 20 years, considerable damage must have been inflicted in order for anyone, let alone a national magazine, to question the drawing power of the cinematic colossus that is Cruise.
Many will argue that Cruise shot himself squarely in the foot with a year of Scientology speechifying, couch-jumping, his public condemnation of psychiatry, and the micromanagement of fiancée Katie Holmes, and they are correct: Cruise’s actions were a clear departure from his once immensely-private personal life. But what truly brought Cruise’s actions into the limelight, what scrutinized them, parodied them, and facilitated their massive proliferation, is an institution even older than Hollywood: celebrity gossip. Us Weekly, People, and Entertainment Tonight, of course. Even more significant to the deterioration of Cruise’s image, however, is the advent of the Internet gossip blog. With easy accessibility and immediacy, gossip blogs have set up shop in the massive mechanism that is the Hollywood star system. By combining snarky commentary with links to the actual video, clips, and recollections of Cruise’s recent television appearances, gossip bloggers have been credited with causing Cruise’s star to begin its fall, M:I:III to perform below expectations, and Entertainment Weekly to question his worth on the marquee. The greatest evidence of Cruise’s descent came in an August 22, 2006, article in the Wall Street Journal, where Paramount CEO Sumner Redstone publicly severed the studio’s ties with Cruise, explaining “his recent conduct has not been acceptable to Paramount.” As evidenced by the case of Cruise, a blogger may use posts to significantly influence box office pulls and simultaneously dent, inflate, and damage a star image.
The most notorious of these bloggers is Perez Hilton (real name Mario Lavandeira) whose blog currently boasts more than a million hits a day. Along with fellow gossip bloggers at The Defamer, Lainey Gossip, The Superficial, Jossip, and Pink Is the New Blog, Perez and his blog function as the newest component in the business of entertainment, integrating the established mechanism of gossip with the new, immediate accessibility of the Internet. Hilton and his blog may be situated within Richard Dyer’s landmark meditation on stars, with particular focus on the blogger’s novel role in the “production” of stars. As Paul McDonald notes in The Star System, much of the work on stars in the last two decades has focused on stars as a “phenomenon of consumption,” rather than one of production, effectively “los[ing] sight of where stars come from.” While McDonald primarily concerns himself with star production on the part of the studio, the blogger occupies a unique position in the entertainment industry, functioning as both producer and consumer of the star image, providing a rich site for analysis.
I focus specifically on Hilton, in part because his blog is the most read, most publicized, and most thoroughly pervaded by the blogger’s own personality. As such, it exemplifies the union of traditional gossip columnists and new media technologies. But even more interestingly, Hilton, as an openly gay “queen” with an unabashed affection for all things camp, complicates these phenomena of production and consumption. Whether by comparing an unflattering photo of a celebrity to a celebrated drag queen or launching incessant campaigns to “out” a star, Hilton’s position in the queer community cannot be discounted. The gossip blogger may be traced in relation to five key aspects of star production—economics, manipulation, fashion, magic/talent, and the nature of the medium, with attention to the extent to which each element of production is (or is not) influenced by Hilton’s queer identity. Ultimately, the gossip blogger’s use of new media may be situated as a stripping of the mediated mechanisms of the entertainment business. New media technology makes such mechanisms visible, and gossip bloggers utilize this visibility to influence consumption. Bloggers illuminate the star system, and in so doing, alter our expectations and understanding of stars and their importance in contemporary society.
One of Dyer’s major assertions focuses on the fact that society, as opposed to the success or failure of a film, truly makes or breaks a star. How we “feel” about stars—whether they are likable, admirable, down-to-earth, worthy of devotion, glamorous, and so forth—determines whether or not we attend their movies. With this in mind, as Internet gossip continues to proliferate, how does it influence, much more than printed media, our perception and subsequent consumption of stars? How are Internet gossip sites any different than the gossip columns of Classic Hollywood? The answer is in front of my eyes as I type this sentence on my laptop: Blogs represent a recent yet significant component of new media, a term loosely defined as the current cultural shift resulting from the ubiquity of and reliance on computers, digitalization, and the Internet.
Blogs first garnered attention as a means of rapid-fire discourse surrounding the 2004 presidential campaign. At the time, their ability to swiftly post material, engender debate, and garner a readership that was at once loyal and diverse served as a remarkable point of interest. Blogs emerged as a new way to stimulate discourse, disseminate opinion, and reach out to the technology-dependent audience. The gossip blog serves the same function, focusing on the “new” business of entertainment: smut and glamour. As tickets sales and television viewership continue to drop, the industry has amped up promotion of its most reliable commodity, namely, celebrities. Whether it’s shots of Britney’s crotch or Angelina’s babies, the buying and selling of celebrity information—pictures, video, gossip, interviews, exclusives—serves as a solid foundation for the market. Stars are a near inexhaustible resource: While one may fall, another will certainly rise in her place. Indeed, the dynamicism of celebrity culture is what keeps us hooked—someone’s always falling in or out of society’s graces. We want the dirty details and the sparkling gowns, the mugshots, the sex tapes, and the latest proof of Jennifer Aniston’s nose job. The gossip blog trades on this very desire: Even though Perez’s catchphrase announces his blog as “Hollywood’s most hated website,” he’s actually providing the exact sort of sustained feed necessary to generate and maintain societal interest. Hollywood may dislike his speculative and snarky ways, but Perez keeps attention focused exactly where the industry wants it most: on the product.
Gossip blogs, PerezHilton.com in particular, follow the same general format. A picture is posted; the picture is accompanied by a comment, story, or a link to a more detailed article. The picture itself is the focal point of the post, but the text influences the manner in which the picture is received. The text and photo, received in tandem, thus become part of the star’s “image.” I use the word not in its traditional sense—as a visual representation of a thing—but in Dyer’s conception of the image, which he summarizes as “a complex configuration of visual, verbal, and aural signs …. it is manifest not only in films but in all kinds of media texts.” Bloggers concentrate not on only the image itself but also on the means of its production. While the public has long been knowledgeable of the strings of production—Joan Crawford’s persona and name were chosen through a Photoplay contest; Rita Hayworth’s cosmetic transformation was highly publicized, to name just a few—the difference is that those strings were meant to be seen. Like any other part of a star’s public image, they were constructed and willfully disseminated by the studio. Yet, bloggers, even more than the gossip columnists who came before them, have broken through those walls, effectively exposing the “phenomena” of production. Here, for the purpose of better understanding its contemporary importance, star production is explored through four of Dyer’s categories: economics, fashion, magic/talent, and the nature of the medium.
Stars are essential to the business of Hollywood: More than any other cinematic variable, they may be used to predict or ensure the success of a film. And yet, as Dyer explains, “even in Hollywood’s heyday, stars did not absolutely guarantee the success of a film. Stars move in and out of favour, and even at the height of their popularity may make a film that nobody much goes to see … for this reason stars were a very problematic necessity from an economic point of view.” In other words, stars represent the ultimate in Hollywood paradoxes: A studio needs them, but they cannot “insure” them with good roles or promising parts. The studio must rely on their specific appeal in a specific societal moment. As society is historically as moody as a 13-year-old girl, this makes for mercurial rises and falls. For most of the twentieth century, the task of recording (and influencing) a particular star’s fortunes (and appraised economic value) fell to print media, specifically the form of the gossip column.
Celebrity gossip is as old as Hollywood itself—for decades Louella Parsons, Hedda Hopper, and dozens of others served to arbitrate and disseminate all the star “news” that was fit to print. But with newspapers and magazines, the reader had to wait for a weekly update on the dynamic star lifestyle. The wait was cut with the introduction of celebrity “news,” especially Entertainment Tonight and E!, a network devoted exclusively to celebrity culture and entertainment. The majority of E!’s programming schedule is filled with repeat broadcasts of True Hollywood Story, 50 Biggest Fashion Mistakes, and similar productions, and while these shows undoubtedly contribute to a star’s image and subsequent economic value, once produced, they remain static—unable to match their content with that of the ever-fluctuating star. E!’s daily gossip show Talk Soup does provide dynamic, up-to-date accounts of a star society. But the show is more of a forum for other gossip guests, not a gossip-getter itself. “Talking gossip heads,” including Perez and other gossip bloggers, now regularly appear to dish on specific stars or subjects. What’s more, a onetime broadcast requires the viewer to be present at a certain time, in a fixed location.
But the Internet, with the mobilization enabled by wireless technology and PDA devices, is accessible at all times, in nearly all places. Because Hilton posts continuously throughout the day, the consumer can check in several times, charting the progress of a celebrity event; the sheer volume of posts allows for a more minute examination of rises and falls. In this way, Hilton’s blog proves reflexive: it serves not only as a detector of public disfavor but a catalyst for it as well. Farming gossip from a variety of sources, Hilton disseminates this “news” to an audience of millions, thus amplifying public awareness. Even if a star was not previously in public disfavor, the fact that Perez reports that she is effectively morphs rumor into reality, working to bolster or break the economic value of a star.
Hilton’s treatment of “TomKat” (gossip’s moniker for Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes) exemplifies this relationship between blogging and the star’s economic value. In a post from June 1, 2005, just weeks after the first public appearance of the couple in Rome, Hilton highlights a suggestive gossip bit. Quoting the National Enquirer’s story of Cruise gifting Holmes with a “hightech GPS phone” that could “track her whereabouts, minute by minute,” Hilton follows with his own commentary: “That story is just so ridiculously sublime, who cares if it’s true!” Here, Hilton’s afterthought is significant—while he acknowledges that the gossip may be far-fetched, his perpetuation of such a story subtly influences the reader to believe that regardless of its veracity, such behavior may be believably attributed to the stars in question. Put differently, even a story acknowledged as fake may influence a star’s image, simply by associating that star with a certain type of behavior. Such stories also set a precedent: From June 1st on, Hilton posted dozens of quips concerning Cruise’s purported micromanagement and “control-freak” antics with fiancée Holmes. Each story made the next more believable, leading to Hilton’s speculation that Holmes was paid by Cruise to bear his child in synchronization with the premiere of Mission: Impossible III.
Once again, it matters little whether or not Cruise actually paid Holmes. What matters is that the item was so heavily circulated by Hilton and other bloggers that it has appreciably deteriorated Cruise’s star.5 Granted, print gossip was publishing the same bits of gossip, but pressure from advertisers and libel laws generally hold them more responsible for the factualness of their gossip. What’s more, the frequency with which Hilton blogged these bits substantially intensified their effect and influence—as discussed later, the categorization function of the blog allows the reader to click on a link labeled “TomKat” and read Hilton’s critical posts in succession, further intensifying the negative sentiment and suspicion of Cruise.
Mission: Impossible 3 opened with a disappointing $48 million in domestic box office—a stellar number for most films but well below the opening weekends of both Mission Impossible 2 (Woo, 2000) and War of the Worlds (Spielberg 2005), a statistic that lead CBS “blogophile” Melissa McNamara to title her May 10 article “Did Bloggers Doom M:i:III?” McNamara cites Hilton’s call for a boycott of the film as a potential explanation for its underwhelming performance, quoting his May 5th post proclaiming, “If you believe that good should triumph over evil … if you believe in the power of the people, democracy, free speech, and popping pills … Then join the campaign!”6 Clearly a blogger with Hilton’s readership may potentially alter public perception of a star. With the release of M:i:III, the evidence leads us to believe that he may likewise possess the power, even more than print gossip, to influence the economic value of a star.
Perez’s ability to economically affect a star thus established, the question remains: Why would he choose to do so? Perez effectively launched a campaign against Cruise and his movie, but to suggest he did so arbitrarily is to neglect one of the juiciest rumors in Hollywood: namely, that Cruise is an intensely closeted homosexual. Perez promotes/demotes a star based on their skill of production: For him, one practice particularly denotes an inattention to the current attitude of star consumers and that is a refusal to come out of the closet. For Perez, denying one’s homosexuality reinforces what he views as the “myth” of gayness as box office poison—stars who view homosexuality as a potentially negative component to their star images are woefully ignorant of burgeoning societal acceptance on all fronts. Furthermore, and perhaps even more economically importantly, such thinking neglects the homosexual community as star consumers. Many homosexuals, especially self-identifying queens such as Perez, have embraced the “fabulousness” of Hollywood glamour as part of their external culture. As homosexuals statistically enjoy relatively large sums of expendable income, they should be acknowledged and appreciated as a significant segment of star consumers. In other words, for Perez, neglecting or insulting such a key segment of the consuming public constitutes poor image production values and merits exposure and ridicule through his blog.
Fagalicious: Perez and Outing
Perez self-identifies as an “outing” homosexual. While the first waves of massive outing resulted from deaths by AIDS in the 1990s, many homosexuals, following the lead of Michael Musto and Michaelangelo Signorile, came to regard outing as a moral obligation to the gay community. As Richard Mohr explains in Gay Ideas, “to accept the closet is to have absorbed society’s view of gays, to accept insult so that one avoids harm.” Perez wholeheartedly espouses this ideology, inspiring both criticism and praise. As Mohr elaborates, “to break such a community-defining convention is to appear to be a traitor to the community. But what appears as treason to some can actually be social reform, as exemplified by civil disobedience, in which, when one breaks a current convention, one hopes thereby to establish a morally improved community.” While Perez does not use the exact rhetoric, he, like many others, believes that there is no “right” to any closet, especially the celebrity closet.
Perez hints at the homosexuality of a number of celebrities—Cruise, John Travolta, Clay Aiken, Jodie Foster, Queen Latifah, among others. His disdain for these celebrities hinges on what he perceives as their refusal to emerge from their very obvious closets. He disseminates this criticism through a number of channels, from the boycott of MI:III to calling his readers to send flowers (and providing a link to do so through ftd.com) to both closeted and open homosexuals on National Coming Out Day.
Starting in September 2005, Perez embarked on a full-fledged campaign to out former N’Sync’er Lance Bass. He focused on slips in Bass’s production of a straight image—for example, Hilton coined the term “man-sharing” to explain the fact that Bass and friend Reichen Lehmkuhl, an openly gay reality star, were consistently photographed wearing each other’s clothing. Perez was not only criticizing Bass’ refusal to come out but his faulty image production. Hilton’s efforts culminated in the July 26th, 2006, cover of People Magazine, with a picture of Bass and the announcement “I’M GAY.” Members of Bass’s family had read bits on his purported homosexuality in blogs such as Perez’s, leading the actor to at last publicly proclaim his sexuality. Perez defended his actions, explaining, “I know there is some controversy about outing people, but I also believe the only way we’re gonna have change is with visibility … if I have to drag some people screaming out of the closet, then I will. I think that lots of celebrities have an archaic fear that being gay will hurt their career but look at Rosie. Look at Ellen.” Indeed, coming out has served as an immense boost to Bass’s formerly stagnant career—supporting Hilton’s underlying assertion that coming out isn’t just a moral obligation, it’s an aspect of economic production.
In 2001, Cruise filed suit against Chad Taylor, aka Kyle Bradford, over an interview with international magazine Acustar in which the former porn star claimed to have engaged in a homosexual affair with Cruise. The Complaint of Defamation, available in full at The Smoking Gun, claims:
Bradford’s defamatory remarks are of the kind calculated to cause Cruise harm in his profession and his ability to earn […] Losing the respect and enthusiasm of a substantial segment of the movie-going public would cause Cruise very substantial sums. While the plaintiff believes in the right of others to follow their own sexual preference, vast numbers of public throughout the world do not share that view and believing that he had a homosexual affair and did so during his marriage, they will be less inclined to patronize Cruise’s films.
In other words, Cruise believes that public insinuation of homosexual activities will damage his star image and, in the process, his economic value. Perez’s criticism of Cruise is thus double-sided: If Cruise is indeed gay, he is not only shirking his personal responsibility to the homosexual community but perpetuating what Hilton views as an antiquated equation of homosexuality with economic depreciation.
Cruise has produced and profited from an unambiguously heterosexual star image. As an actively outing gay man, Perez subverts Cruise’s meticulous production, calling attention to the manner in which Cruise has constructed himself, focusing on his overly public relationship with Holmes. Through posts and gossip proliferation, Perez supplants Cruise’s star image with one of his own: as a closeted homosexual whose efforts at production are so poor, so out of touch with society, that bloggers could pull them apart and expose them to the consuming public. In essence, Cruise misjudged his consumers—his conspicuous heterosexual displays only bolstered Hilton’s claims. Perez claims, “being gay is not a death sentence in show business. We need to get out of that mind frame. It’s 2006, people!” And in 2006, while being gay may no longer economically kill a star, being the target of Perez’s production-exposing blog very well may.
Dyer positions manipulation as the second component of the phenomenon of star production. In his conception, “out of this emphasis on manufacture, there develops an account of the star system as ‘pure’ manipulation. That is, both stardom and particular star are seen as owing their existence solely to the machinery of their production.” Hilton and the gossip blogger function as star manipulators themselves but likewise put pressure on the idea that Hollywood can manipulate an image to please the public. Gossip bloggers are simultaneously engaged in and critical of the system—pointing to its holes as they stitch themselves into the fabric. Perez’s choice of “cousin”/name-sake, Paris Hilton, exemplifies this paradoxical practice.
Interestingly, the underpinning of “Perez” and his blog is the empty promise of a star—and not just any star, but Paris Hilton, who has built her celebrity on being nothing but herself and doing nothing but existing. Paris Hilton is what Daniel Boorstin defines as a “pseudo event”; or, as Dyer summarizes, a star who “appear[s] to be meaningful but [is] in fact empty of meaning. Thus a star is well-known for her/his well-knownness, and not for any specific quality.” Perez, like Paris, is a signifier of celebrity. People talk to him, give him clothes, and feature him in articles not because of any talent of his own but for becoming well-known through his association with stars. In similar fashion, Perez has manipulated his image through his blog to be that of the quintessential “schwag-seeking” star-lover. These are their public “personalities,” but as Boorstin points out, “stars do not have a strong character, but a definable, publicizable personality: a figure which can become a nationally-advertised trademark.” Both Paris and Perez perform as “nationally-advertised” trademarks: They trade public appearances for cash, make outlandish statements to generate press, and sell their image, whether on t-shirts or lunchboxes, to the highest bidder. The persona, Web site, graphics, catchphrases, and content of Perez Hilton and perezhilton.com are all legally trademarked.
Such immaculate control over a rather outlandish image speaks to an additional facet of Perez’s public persona: his “camp” sensibility. As Susan Sontag notes in her seminal essay, “indeed the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” Reading through Perez’s posts, his love of and revelry in “the spirit of extravagance,” “corny flamboyant femaleness/exaggerated he-man-ness,” and “things-being-what-they’re-not”—all hallmarks of camp—is overwhelming. Perez commits the bulk of the blog to the lives of high-profile celebrities, but he also consistently celebrates campy idols: “Chyna,” an androgynous professional female wrestler; British glamour model “Jordan,” known for her flamboyant personal life and multiple breast enhancements; plus others as various as singer Ricky Martin and fashion maven Karl Lagerfield. But these pseudo-stars represent only the most exaggerated of Perez’s camp tastes; indeed, these men and women are so fantastically camp that it’s difficult for those unacquainted with camp to appreciate such posts.
In contrast, Perez’s attention to Paris Hilton exemplifies a subtler form of camp taste that permeates the blog, based more on a love of surfaces and “instant character” that constructs what Sontag refers to as “a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation—not judgment.” Paris may very well be “empty of meaning”—she has manipulated her image to be that of a jet-setting, spoiled, ditzy fashionista, nothing but surface and image, as one-dimensional as the photos that appear on the screen in front of us. Producing such a tightly controlled image, devoid of nuance or complication, is a feat worthy of celebration. Perez lauds Paris’s immaculate self-construction, but the manner in which he does so—with an underlying sense of camp—effectively undercuts the seriousness with which Paris takes herself.
For camping, at its heart, is innately duplicitous: There is a “straight,” public sense of a thing, contrasted with a “private, zany experience.” Put differently, there is the way that the star means her image to be perceived and the very different way that camp receives it. Reveling in this disparity between intended and received meaning, camp makes the means of manipulation obvious to the point of enjoyment. With his blog, Perez has free license to camp writ large—blogging to an audience of millions; he lets others in on what has long been a members-only form of humor.
Perez characterized his early career by lambasting Paris on a regular basis—in a post from November 5, 2005, Perez proclaims “Paris’ new book allows YOU the opportunity to confess your deepest, darkest, dirtiest secrets to the bitch that’s … outskanked you and whom we all aspire to be!” But in the last year and a half, Paris and Perez have become “friends”: Perez has posted dozens of photos documenting his attendance at various events hosted or attended by Paris. Here, the celebrity blogger is interpolated into the world of the pseudo-event. While the photos undoubtedly assist in manipulating Perez’s own star image as gossip authority, the fact that the photos are sweaty, somewhat unattractive, ordinary, and even boring affects the star of both Hiltons in a different way. By posing for and posting these photos, Perez reifies the pseudo-event of both Paris and himself; at the same time, he calls attention to the fact that Paris has normal, boring house parties like anyone else—exposing the cracks in her image as impeccably styled socialite.
Such exposure was made possible by new media. The fact that Perez could attend a party by himself, shoot dozens of pictures on his digital camera, and post those photos the next morning attests to the immediacy of the blogger. Usually, gossip mongers are forced to wait for paparazzi photos to accompany their columns, which are published weekly or daily. Perez transcends the traditional model by going to the celebrity herself, documenting the night, posting it on his blog, and making it an event. Lev Manovich emphasizes, “with new media, a new area has emerged. As ‘professional technology’ becomes accessible to amateurs, new media professionals create new standards, formats, and design expectations to maintain their status.” Amateur photographer and Web designer Perez takes blurry photos on his digital camera. He posts them to his blog using a preset template. Yet, these, and other photos posted to the “Personally Perez” section of the site, have worked to close the gap between “professional” blog sites—Gawker is a good example of a slick, professional site—and “amateur” sites such as Hilton’s. If Perez is getting the first-hand scoop, he maintains his status, regardless of amateur standards. Or, better yet, Perez’s style—first-hand star-loving, low production standards, camp humor—becomes the new standard.
Celebrity fashion has always generated gossip, and Internet gossip takes no less of an interest. While fashion may appear the purest, most superficial form of manipulation, as I. C. Jarvie points out, “one function a star serves is to fix a type of beauty, to help a physical type identify itself.” In this way, “types of beauty” are made to “define attractiveness.” Dyer likewise asserts that a change in fashion is a change in social meaning—when a star dyes her hair from blonde to red, for example, it constitutes a change in the social meaning of her star. If, as previously asserted, stars rise and fall because of the ability of their individual social meanings to resonate within society, then a change in fashion can prove disastrous or fortuitous. The gossip blog does more than display the fashion of the star—through the innate functions of the blog, it subtly calls attention to fashion as a means of production.
Perez Hilton is by no means the blogging authority on fashion. For sites devoted to celebrity fashion, see The Sartorialist or Manolo’s Shoe Blog. With that said, Perez, like all those interested in celebrity gossip, cannot escape commentary, criticism, and promotion of fashion. The dependence of Internet gossip on visual imagery makes it a constant topic: With each picture, one is immediately drawn to comment on appearance—clothes, face, hair, shoes, skin tone, hands—and use it as a starting point for interpreting the meaning or significance of the photo. Perez’s camp sensibilities naturally translate to an attention to fashion and surface. As Dyer explains in his essay “It’s Being So Camp As Gets Us Going,” camp “is a way of prising the form of something away from its content, of reveling in the style while dismissing the content as trivial.” Focusing on these elements of style, Perez has his clear favorites and, of course, his subjects of consistent ridicule. What distinguishes Hilton’s treatment of fashion from print media lies in two key components to the blog: categorization and reader response.
Blogs often build sorting and categorizing options into their design. Perez’s categorizing method is rather straight-forward: Each photo receives several tags, one for each star pictured, plus additional tags if it falls into a Perez-pre-established category, including “Gay Gay Gay,” “Fashion Smashion,” “Fun ‘n’ Fluff,” and “SIGHtings.” As evidenced by the titles, in sorting a picture into an established category, Perez establishes the meaning of the photo—for example, a photo of Jake Gyllenhaal and a male friend working out, once filed under “Gay Gay Gay,” takes on new significance. The same holds true for Perez’s labeling of fashion: Placing a photo in “Fashion Smashion,” as opposed to “Fashion & Beauty,” automatically tips off the reader as to the intended meaning. Print media uses a similar technique to distinguish between the front pages (filled with celebs wearing beautiful dresses) and the back pages (“What Were They Thinking,” fashion designer critique of fashion mistakes, etc.). The blog one-ups the fashion mag with its ability to catalog all “Fashion Smashion” posts, from one week to one year ago, in one easily clickable location. Manovich calls attention to the manner in which New Media creates “predefined menus” (Perez’s database of photos, sorted into categories) prepped for user-selection, a process that allows “end users [to] feel that they are not just consumers but ‘authors’ creating a new media object or experience.” When a reader uses the “StarSeeker” pull-down menu to select a category, he is creating his own experience of the blog, viewing it in a completely different form, order, and context than it was originally displayed.
This power of authorship over one’s own gossip experience takes on particular meaning when applied to fashion. Scrolling through the “Fashion Smashion” section, posts that initially appeared in no relation to each other coexist on the same page. Jennifer Lopez appears smartly dressed and styled in a post titled “THIS is why Jennifer Lopez is a style icon” followed by a picture of Kirsten Dunst, hair and dress haphazard, stumbling down the street. The contrast changes the meaning of the original post—Lopez’s fashion sense and classiness are heightened, while Dunst’s are lessened. In this way, Perez assists in establishing stars as superlatives—an idea key to Dyer’s conception of the star. Perez’s sorting allows the reader to insinuate Lopez as the “most stylish,” while Dunst becomes the “most bag-ladyish.” The star thus “dissolves into the superlative, [is] indistinguishable from it, they become superlative.”
Hilton pressures notions of fashion by inviting readers to comment on or decide whether an outfit, dye job, or new look is attractive. On May 8, Hilton posted a picture of Jessica Simpson presenting at the 2006 ALMA Awards, which honor Hispanics in Hollywood. Hilton challenged his readers to examine Simpson’s curly auburn bob, tightly fitted orange dress, and deeply bronzed skin, and debate “Jessica Simpson’s New Look: Love it or Leave it? YOU Decide!” Over 300 reader comments follow, including “She looks like an oompa loompa,” and “Does anyone else ever notice that in some pictures she looks like an old ass Texan grandma?” As the comments proceed, they transcend mere fashion commentary, declaring, “She is trying way too hard these days to be something she not,” “She and her sister symbolize everything that is wrong with our culture,” and “kinda racist to go in black face (or in this case ‘brown face’) to the ALMA awards, no?” Here, we see a change in fashion denote a change in social meaning: As opposed to her former All-American, blonde-haired, innocent image, this picture encapsulates the change in Simpson’s star and social meaning following her divorce from Nick Lachay. From reader responses, we gather that she appears as an absurd and fake chameleon, racially insensitive, and an embodiment of “all that’s wrong with our country.” While many visitors to Hilton’s site do not participate in or read comments, such commentary nevertheless documents greater societal reactions. Unlike letter sections in print gossip, these responses are immediate, uncensored, and interactive—they feed on one another, constructing an overarching sentiment toward the star and his/her fashion choice. In this way, they constitute a veritable goldmine of public opinion, a way to monitor how society feels about a particular star at a particular moment.
As celebrities are dependent on visual imagery to maintain their presence in society, fashion will most likely always be a determining factor in their popularity. Gossip bloggers represent a heightened awareness of fashion—not only through their ability to post large numbers of images but also through the particular characteristics of the blog that pronounce and reify the social meaning of each fashion choice and, by direct association, the star who wears it.
Magic and Talent
Public sense of a star’s “magic and talent” likewise influences production and consumption. Dyer explains that “a very common view … though not intellectually very respectable, is that stars are stars because they are exceptional, gifted, wonderful.” If we accept this idea, then we must determine at what an actor is exceptional or gifted—according to Dyer, the skill is “not ‘acting’ in the classic sense, as numerable examples show. Skill then at being a certain sort of person or image.” Hilton and his blog showcase magic and talent in becoming “a certain sort of image” in two ways, functioning as pure fan and as critical observer.
There is no doubt that Hilton is a fan. It seems a requisite for blogging with such frequency and passion. When dealing with his favorite stars (Paris, Madonna, Janet Jackson, Britney Spears, and Angelina Jolie), Hilton is not shy in expressing adoration. The words “brazilliant,” “hot,” and “this is why we love” convey affection and admiration. For Perez, such admiration is often explicitly linked to a smart self-marketing move on the part of the star. On April 16th, following the birth of Gwyneth Paltrow’s son Moses, Perez posted the following:
Do the laws of supply and demand apply to the paparazzi? Gwyneth Paltrow hopes so! The new mom to Moses was glowing as she carefully unveiled her new baby boy to the world, in front of A LOT of paparazzi, which means that no one particular shot will be worth more than the other. In fact, all of them will be worth probably the same and the market will be saturated with that shot. Knowing Paltrow, she will probably not keep new baby Moses in hiding, hoping that by doing the same repetitive tasks with the baby each day—maybe even wearing the same clothes—the paparazzi will see no monetary incentive to follow her around every day. Yay for economics! Enjoy your mommy time Gwyneth.
With this post, Perez lays bare the economics of the paparazzi and Paltrow’s savvy manipulation of them. With her baby’s photo so readily available, the market will close for new pictures, allowing Paltrow and her family privacy from the paparazzi. In a similar vein, following the much-anticipated birth of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s daughter Shiloh Nouvel, Perez posted, “She’s such a smart cookie! On the same day The Baby was born, Santa Angelina had her lawyers snatch up the domain name ShilohNouvelJolie-Pitt.com. Crafty!” (May 31st). His praise for Jolie is not based on any acting skill but on her knowledge and control of the media. Control over media extends to control over one’s own image; the tighter hold a celebrity possesses of his/her own image, the more authentically magic and talented he/she appears. One may readily discern who does or does not have “magic and talent” in Perez’s eyes through observation of his posting styles. In his opinion, there are two categories of stars: those who deserve to be famous and those who do not. His posts concerning “real” stars focus on lifestyles: their ability to present themselves as a particular “type” through commodity consumption. In these posts, the woman is presented as “spectacle”—her clothes, her children, her dining habits are deconstructed and analyzed, all because she is interesting enough (talented enough) to garner such attention. Put differently, she deserves the attention of the media, Perez, and his readership, for she has produced her image so skillfully as to appear seamless, believable, real.
Conversely, celebrities who do not deserve attention are ridiculed for their attempts at spectacle. Their displays of conspicuous consumption—as defined by Dyer, “the way by which the wealthy display that they are wealthy;” the very backbone of the star lifestyle—are criticized instead of celebrated. Perez calls attention to stars that continue to posture as famous long after the capital of their talent has been exhausted—favorite examples include Jennifer Love Hewitt, Tori Spelling, and former boy band members. Unlike the caricatures of celebrity in which Perez revels, these stars land somewhere between the truly magical and the truly camp; they are neither a pure construction nor pure talent but a sad mess in between. In the language of camp, they’re simply not “bad” enough to be good.
The Nature of the Medium
Dyer stresses the manner in which “the close-up reveals the unmediated personality of the individual, and this belief in the ‘capturing’ and the ‘unique’ ‘person’ of a performer is probably central to the star phenomena.” The close-up, a key element to narrative cinema, should create what Bela Balazs terms a “silent monologue,” forming a connection between the star and the viewer. The “medium” of Dyer and Balazs’s discussion is film, but the same principle may be readily applied to the Internet blog. The medium in question is both the celebrity photo and the blog; their collective nature performs a specific function in connecting or alienating the viewer from the star.
In his essay “The Face of Garbo,” Roland Barthes draws attention to the power of the close-up. Barthes asserts that, “Garbo still belongs to that moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy, when one literally lost oneself in a human image as one would in a philter, when the face represented a kind of absolute state of the flesh, which could be neither reached nor renounced.” He concludes that, “the face of Garbo reconciles two iconographic ages, it assures the passage from awe to charm,” situating Audrey Hepburn and her “unique specification of the face, which has nothing of the essence left in it” as the face of charm. As such, “Garbo’s singularity was of the order of the concept, that of Audrey Hepburn is of the order of the substance. The face of Garbo is an Idea, that of Hepburn an Event.” Barthes was writing in the late ‘50s, but this idea of cultural significance connected to the close-up still applies. With New Media, we have moved to yet another iconographic age: from awe to charm to disbelief. If the face of Garbo is an Idea, and Hepburn’s face is an Event, then the face of Jessica Simpson, of Angelina Jolie, of Paris Hilton is a Question. Is the photo real? Have wrinkles been airbrushed; have the lips had collagen injections? Has the picture been manipulated to represent an idea or event that does not, in fact, exist? Whose image has been recycled to form that of the new celebrity? In short, Photoshop and digital technology have forever altered the meaning of the close-up and the celebrity photograph in general, working to endlessly question the signs of star production.
As a thoroughly postmodern facet of new media, Photoshop allows for perpetual reselection: If a celebrity doesn’t like her lips, they may be airbrushed to resemble another set, one more compatible with her desired image. In this way, “rather than assembling more media recordings of reality, culture is now busy reworking, recombining, and analyzing already accumulated media material.” To put it in Manovich’s terms, a star is thus the “author” of the “object” of her image; as she composites her image from pieces that she did not create, “the creative energy of the author goes into the selection and sequencing of elements rather than into original design.” Production of star image in postmodern times dictates a process of selection, attempting to reproduce the awe and charm of earlier un(digitally)mediated stars. The resulting image is an attempted semblance to the ideas of awe and charisma made iconic in the faces of both Garbo and Hepburn.
Hilton and his fellow gossip bloggers call attention to the mediation that occurs in the postmodern, Photoshop-dependent era. In other words, gossip bloggers attempt to answer the question posed by the images of contemporary stars, repeatedly addressing issues of manipulation. Wielding his own rudimentary knowledge of Photoshop, Perez uses the “paint” function to point to specific questions of production. In this way, Perez denies stars the chance to author themselves by drawing attention to their attempts. With a picture of Victoria Beckham posted March 7, 2006, Hilton declares, “Victoria Beckham would be so pretty … if she hadn’t had so many damn procedures.” In the accompanying photo, four hand “painted” arrows point to Beckham’s nose, cheeks, brow, and breasts. This photo, along with dozens of others posted under the category “Knifestyles,” make visible the question of the mediated image, simultaneously providing an answer.
Perez, like many other gossip bloggers, follows Beckham very closely, and with good reason: Like Paris, she is composed only wholly of surfaces, a true pseudo-event. She first came to fame as a member of The Spice Girls, a group composed of five women, each of whom took on a singular personality characteristic to be emphasized through their dress, attitude, and general image. The group was extravagant, enormously successful, and wholly dependent on surface-level stereotype: pure camp. Beckham, formerly Victoria Adams, was labeled “Posh Spice,” a look she manifested in the form of short black dresses, heavy eyeliner, and disinterested stares in public appearances, a somewhat blunt evocation of classic Hollywood sophistication. Beckham’s current look is a selection of past “posh” looks, revamped in order to disassociate herself from the connotations of her old image, that is, fake, cheap glamour. Beckham is attempting to “author” herself. After several failed albums, Beckham’s former avenue to stardom is essentially blocked. The only way for her to still be a star is to continue appearing in public as a star. In other words, she “shows up” places where one is certain to be photographed, such as Ivy in London, Koi in Los Angeles, or at Fashion Week in Paris, in outfits that solidify her selected posh image. The contents of Beckham’s category on Hilton’s Web site are variations on this self-same theme: Posh dines out with fashionable husband; Posh goes skiing in all leather; Posh tries on shoes with Katie Holmes at Barney’s. Regarded collectively, they illuminate Beckham’s attempt at image production.
Beckham, along with stylish, soccer-star husband, David Beckham, has successfully acquired the visual accouterments and commodities of a posh lifestyle. To sustain her star, Victoria Beckham need only sustain her established image, even if this process necessitates plastic surgery and a suspected eating disorder. If the reader selects the Victoria Beckham category, Perez’s photoshopped post of Beckham’s surgeries appears between numerous others, exclamations of “Feed me!” scrawled beside bony arms and Beckham’s somewhat emaciated face. When regarded as such, Hilton’s posts serve as an amplification and critique of Beckham’s process of image selection.
Dyer and Balazs believe that the close-up possesses the ability to connect star to viewer by portraying the uniqueness of the individual. In a world dominated by new media, uniqueness is impossible, even irrelevant—stars succeed in connecting to the individual through their ability to best select pre-established traits, poses, ideas, and images to form a composite of a likable star. The manner in which they do so is heavily reliant on new technology—plastic surgery and Botox, of course, but also new media technologies such as Photoshop, official Web sites, and the proliferation of their image on sites such as Hilton’s. While Hilton and others undeniably take part in the perpetuation of this cycle, republishing photos and reifying images, they likewise draw immediate attention to the cracks in their carefully crafted image. This process represents the new nature of the medium, with skill of construction (and resultant believability) functioning as the key determining factors of a star’s popularity.
Through his blog, Perez has initiated a new way to perceive stars, using a sort of absolute value scale to evaluate the signs of production. To obtain Perez’s attention and endorsement, a star must be completely surface level—glaring signs of production, pure camp, bad enough to be good—or so skilled at production as to erase such signs entirely. The million-plus readers of his blog have, perhaps obliviously, begun to co-opt this method of judgment. What does this tell us about the state of the star system, the gossip it inspires, and the society that consumes it?
To address this question, one must only return to the example of Cruise, a major star for the last 20 years. In 1983, there was something distinctive in the way that Tom Cruise appeared in All the Right Moves (Chapman)—the film opens with shots of his dreary mill town home, shifting to a sleeping Cruise, who awakes with an endearing bleariness, his eyes still sparkling from dreams. Throughout the film, Cruise is earnest, impassioned, and cocky—his set, square jaw; his self-assured flirtation with girlfriend, Lea Redmond; the affected swagger of the 5’6” man. This film, juxtaposed with Risky Business (Brickman, 1983), released just months apart, is what first made Cruise a star: He appears equally authentic as a home-alone son, taking over the mansion and the scrappy cornerback, desperate for a way to escape the steel legacy of his family. His image, meticulously constructed by top publicist Pat Kingsley, served as the common denominator of the films that solidified Cruise’s star—Top Gun (Scott, 1986), The Color of Money (Scorsese, 1986), Born on the Fourth of July(Stone, 1989). In short, his image was so unified, so believable, that the signs of this construction were invisible.
In 2002, David Thomson wrote that for Cruise to maintain his star, he would have to “remake himself at every turn—and there may not be enough good people to trust. He is very professional—but is there now a profession?” Thomson returns us to an essential realization: While I would not go so far to assert that the profession is completely dead, it’s clear that the star system will never be the same, and the emergence of New Media, gossip blogs included, is the reason. Cruise was often likened to another broad shouldered lady’s man by the name of Clark Gable, and for a time, he seemed ready to join the colossal stars of the past—Gable, Grant, Garbo, Hepburn—as one who could play both the everyday and the extraordinary. He was simultaneously likable—you could be pals, if he moved into the rambler next door—but, at the same time, on a completely different level, untouchable, godlike, a Top Gun, worthy of devotion and admiration. A large part of that which established the above stars was a conflation of star image and star role—the fact that Cary Grant married his fifth wife at age 76 only reinforced his image as the ultimate likable cad; you looked at a picture of him, watched a film of his, heard gossip about him, and it all fed back to a single united image, so immensely attractive in its harmonized message.
What has changed, then, and where Cruise has run into trouble, is that in the age of New Media, there are no colossal stars, nor will there ever be. No one is larger than life—rather, they are manipulated simulacrums of life. With New Media, there are simply too many aspects of the image, too many roads leading to a permanently decentralized Rome. I am in no way asserting that the images of Gable, Garbo, or Grant were not, at their heart, constructions—the public was more accepting then; there were fewer discourses surrounding the star, which allowed the viewer to forgo skepticism, finding herself willing to believe. The problem, then, is that we are no longer willing to believe anything—we have been disillusioned and made skeptical by so much technology, so much manipulation, that perhaps the only film that we are willing to believe is that of a plane flying into the World Trade Center. And even then, there’s a cult of doubting conspiracy theorists. Tom Cruise has fallen from the limelight because he attempted to make the shift from twentieth- and twenty-first-century star, trading his rare appearances and relative secrecy for overexposure and outspokenness. Before our current age of digitalization, Cruise’s infamous couch-jumping would have been documented and disseminated but, after a few months, perhaps forgotten, fading from public consciousness. New Media, however, allows that tape to be circulated and viewed again and again, its audio track morphed into a dance remix.
The legends of the early stars of cinema were in large part attributed to the novelty of the medium, and we have become wearied, disaffected, and unimpressed by mere film projection. We clamor for the next level, demanding immediate access to photos, film, music, and gossip. We are addicted to the likes of Perez Hilton because he feeds us exactly what we want: He makes visible the signs of production, telling us where to direct our consumption. Our inability to be awed, our reluctance to believe—this is what has changed the star system.
As a film scholar, I suppose I thrive on my own ability to make visible the signs of production, to draw attention to why we like stars. In this way, I am not so different from Perez—I write scholarly papers, he posts snarky posts—but we both concentrate on and call attention to the machinery of Hollywood. At the same time, I’m saddened by my own assertion that we will never again believe enough in anything to hold it up for true adoration. But Perez and I grew up in the ‘80s, when Cruise, Madonna, and Michael Jackson were indeed larger than life—they were still something to believe in, especially as children. So long as our generation is a part of Hollywood—both as scholars and gossips, viewers and fans—then a modicum of fascination and adoration will remain. I do wonder, however, what will occur when my own children, the babies of New Media, are born into a world that is rapidly becoming digitalized and, as such, turning into an immense image of itself, an overwhelming Question—what will remain for them to believe in, and who will think it important, as both Perez and I so obviously do, to tell them the answers?