The break-up of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston was announced in a statement issued on the evening of Friday, Jan. 7.
"We would like to announce that after seven years together we have decided to formally separate," it read, adding that "our separation is not the result of any of the speculation reported by the tabloid media."
But celebrity media were part of the story. To begin with, the so-called press release was given exclusively to People magazine. And beyond the personal tragedy of one couple's struggles lies an industry poised to reap hundreds of millions of dollars from misfortunes such as theirs.
"It's just huge news, and that translates into huge newsstand sales and I'm sure huge ratings for the celebrity entertainment shows," says Bonnie Fuller, the editorial director of American Media Inc., which publishes The Star magazine.
Kent Brownridge -- the general manager for Wenner Media, which publishes US Weekly -- told the New York Post that "for a celebrity weekly, this is our tsunami."
On Sunday, when the Academy Awards are held at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood, the stars will bask in the kind of worshipful coverage they seek and have always sought. But as the world of celebrity media has exploded in recent years, they now also have to contend with coverage not of their beauty but their blemishes, not their achievements but their flaws.
So what historically has been a cozy and symbiotic relationship is now in many cases turning sour, and celebrities are seething. In the new issue of Details magazine, pop star Britney Spears refers to the publisher of Us Weekly, Jann Wenner, as a "big old fat man." Last November, actress Cameron Diaz and boyfriend Justin Timberlake got into a scuffle with some paparazzi that has resulted in legal action. Tensions are running high.
'Was There Any Jennifer Aniston?'
On a recent Thursday morning editorial board meeting at The Star magazine, staffers sat around and dished about celebrities like high school students in a cafeteria.
"Any good pictures this morning?" asked Fuller. "Justin and Cameron?"
"Jessica Simpson?" asked editor-in-chief Joe Dolce. "Was there any Jennifer Aniston?"
"What about Britney and Kevin?" asked Fuller.
Last year, American Media Inc. hired Fuller away from Us Weekly to turn The Star -- formerly a supermarket tabloid printed on paper -- into a glossy, photograph-driven cash cow. In 2002, Fuller had refashioned Us Weekly into a highly profitable celebrity glossy and AMI wanted the same, offering Fuller a lucrative contract worth at least $1.5 million a year.
People magazine launched in 1974, but glossy weeklies devoted entirely to celebrities burst onto the newsstand in just the last few years. The Star was re-launched last year; Us Weekly, re-packaged in 2002; In Touch Weekly, launched in 2002; Life & Style magazine, launched in November. While overall magazine circulation is down, for celebrity glossies it's up. Publishing insiders estimate newsstand sales alone on these magazines add up to $25 million a week, or more than $1.3 billion a year.
The Price of Fame?
On the day "Nightline" visited The Star's editorial meeting, the magazine seemed to have a tip on the Nick Lachey-Jessica Simpson marriage. Two of The Star's reporters had spent some time with Lachey the night before, at the bar at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in New York City. Lachey, according to this account, was flirtatious and expressed irritation with Simpson when her tour bus showed up at the hotel. By The Star's account at the meeting -- and in the magazine published the following week -- theirs was a marriage in trouble.
"OK," Fuller said after the dishy story had been shared with the editorial staff, to many ooohs and aaaahs. "Brad, Jen and Angelina -- how are you doing on that, Mark?"
It is, Fuller says, the price of fame. "They're paid for being famous, they're paid because we're interested in them." That includes, apparently, interest in celebrity cellulite, which is often highlighted in special issues. "You want to know that celebrities are human too," she says. "That they aren't perfect, that they get cellulite."
Celebrities, not surprisingly, are not fans of Fuller's approach. Gwyneth Paltrow once referred to her as "the devil."
"I have a no-reading policy," Pitt told ABC News' Diane Sawyer in December. "I like the pictures. You know, I found life much easier if you just abstain. You know, it was Julia (Roberts) who actually told me 'Don't read.' She said, 'Don't read them.' Yeah, she was the first one to tell me that. 'Don't read them, just look at the pics.' "
"When these things are written in magazines and taken out of context, it's so frustrating, 'cause people then take it and run with it," Aniston told Sawyer in January 2004.
The Part of the Paparazzi
In the Fuller school of journalism, photographs reign supreme. There is less of a need for actual words in the magazines. "We're looking for photos that tell the story," Fuller says. "That you see that shot and it tells you exactly what is going on." Fuller says the right shot "can propel sales, you know, anywhere from, let's say 100,000 to three, four hundred thousand."
Jeff Kravitz, a Los Angeles photographer who works cooperatively with stars and studios, sees how much money is being made by the swelling ranks of more combative guerrilla photographers known as paparazzi. "I see that one good shot is a million-dollar shot, you know? Think about Justin Timberlake on vacation with Cameron Diaz in Hawaii. And the two go surfing and then they're on the surfboard and they lean over and they kiss each other and then there's a photographer on the beach who gets that photograph. That guy made millions of dollars."
But how did there happen to be a photographer on the beach? Meet Mel Bouzad, paparazzo. "I have sources all over the world," says the British-born Bouzad. "I have people at the airlines, people who check people in. They'll check in a celebrity, phone me up and say Madonna's gonna be flying to the Bahamas -- here's her flight details." Bouzad says that a photo his company recently took of Pitt and Angelina Jolie filming a wedding scene sold for more than $100,000 worldwide.
While few defend the more extreme measures taken by paparazzi, Dolce says the alternative is pure puff -- studio-approved sanitized lies.
Misery Loves Company
Dolce traces The Star's DNA back to the creation of tabloids like Hollywood Confidential (which launched in 1952 with the declaration, "The lid is off!"), the creation of the supermarket tabloids in the 1960s, and People magazine in 1974. Dolce says The Star provides its readers with the truth beyond the air-brushed fairytales official Hollywood has always tried to spread, like, he says, the short-lived marriage between Rock Hudson, who was secretly gay, and his agent's secretary.
Fuller, however, insists The Star does draw lines. The magazine does not "out" closeted gays and lesbians, publish pictures looking into people's back yards or photos of kids without their parents. "I have to be honest," she adds, "we hear about a lot of miscarriages. We don't report on those, you know, very personal things. Well, I mean, I guess you would argue that some other things are personal, but that's a line that we have drawn."
Says Bouzad: "People want misery. End of the day, people buying the tabloids have miserable lives."
On Thursday night, Fox Television ran an hour-long special entitled "Stars Without Makeup." It seemed a direct offshoot of the more aggressive approach to celebrity journalism from the Fuller school. But on television, such a show is the exception. The world of celebrity TV works far more hand-in-hand with official Hollywood.
In a measure of just how close some in the world of entertainment media are to their subjects, it's at the Paramount lot -- alongside movie and TV sets -- where two of the biggest celebrity media TV shows are filmed: "Entertainment Tonight" and its brand new spin-off "The Insider."
The day begins for those shows at the crack of dawn in Los Angeles, 5 a.m. PT. That's when the editorial board meeting for "Entertainment Tonight" and "The Insider" begins.
"Tell everybody who you saw at Mr. Chow's last night," the executive producer of the shows, Linda Bell Blue, instructs "The Insider" anchor Pat O'Brien.
O'Brien cheerfully takes center stage. "We're at Chow's last night. Table 1 was Brad Pitt and Brad Grey. Table 2 was Sarah Jessica Parker. Table 3 was me and Bill Gibbons. Who knows who Billy Gibbons is?"
One staffer seems to have an idea: "ZZ Top," he says.
"ZZ Top, thank you very much," says O'Brien. "Lionel Richie was at Table 4. So it was a good night."
"What did you have?" Bell Blue asks.
"Peking duck," says O'Brien. "That's what you have at Mr. Chow's."
More Than 100 Million Viewers
"Entertainment Tonight averages 7 million viewers a day. Combined with viewers of "The Insider," "Inside Edition," "Access Hollywood" and "Extra!," these celebrity news magazines grab more than 100 million viewers a week.
Much of the talk at this meeting not surprisingly deals with the shows' coverage of the Academy Awards.
"Do Ray and Leo split the vote, do you think?" asks O'Brien, then corrects himself: "Sorry, I mean Jamie and Leo," referring to Jamie Foxx, star of the Ray Charles biopic "Ray" and Leonardo DiCaprio of "The Aviator." Then O'Brien explained: "By the way, the fact that I said 'Ray' means that that is what is on everybody's mind."
A source at "Entertainment Tonight" says the show makes more than $100 million a year. Hence the new spin-off, which launched six months ago. "There's more news than one show can handle," says Bell Blue. "And so we decided to create 'The Insider' as a sister-show to 'Entertainment Tonight.' "
Adds O'Brien, "When they came up with this show and asked me to host it, I thought to myself, 'Is there room for another half-hour of television across this country to talk about Ben Affleck, Jennifer Lopez and the (Olsen) twins?' And the answer is, yes there is, and there is probably room for a couple of more."
As a local TV reporter in Chicago, O'Brien used to cover legendary Mayor Richard Daley. "There was a time when I was in news where if they said 'You go cover a movie star,' I would say, 'To hell with you, I am not going to do it. That's for the entertainment guys.'" But in today's media world, he says, "The line has been completely erased. It's news, sports and entertainment. It is all the same. It is all entertainment, it is all big money and there is just no separation between the three anymore."
O'Brien covered sports for 18 years, and then in 1997 switched to celebrities and entertainment full time as the anchor of "Access Hollywood." He makes no bones about what the show has to do to preserve its access in Hollywood. "We are 'The Insider,'" he says. "We are here to show behind the scenes in Hollywood. It's as simple as that."
It's a platform that other kinds of celebrities have come to appreciate. In 2004, "The Insider" scored interviews with President Bush and Vice President Cheney, as well as their Democratic challengers, Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards. O'Brien was recently given a tour of the White House by first lady Laura Bush. Many in political journalism resented the access he was able to get, in exchange for perhaps a somewhat more comfortable interview.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the stunning growth of celebrity media has increased the power of those charged with protecting celebrities from the media -- the publicists.
"Sometimes you have to be like a Hoover vacuum and clean up the mess, and you have to do it with a very deft hand," says Cindi Berger, a managing director at power firm PMK, which counts Aniston among its clients. "And that's where you really rely very closely on the relationships that you have with journalists, columnists, magazine editors."
Producers at the celebrity TV shows are far more dependant upon the cooperation of stars. So after the Pitt-Aniston breakup they were far more agreeable to arguments by publicists, who wanted certain aspects of the story -- say, the role possibly played by Angelina Jolie -- kept off the air. That lasted for a few days, until the glossy magazines made the speculation so ubiquitous the TV shows had to mention it.
But why would anyone keep something off air or out of print if they didn't have to?
"They do it because there are arrangements that can be made, depending upon what it is," says Berger. Hollywood insiders say publicists regularly cut deals with celebrity media, making promises of better stories down the line or other "arrangements."
They have a serious task -- one on which billions of dollars ride: protecting their clients' image.
"I definitely felt that there was Brad spin going on immediately" after the breakup, says Fuller. "And it was excellent because the first couple of days of the story were all about how it seemed to be Jennifer's fault, that she would not have a baby and he was desperate, and he was this loving husband being thwarted by a woman who was just far into her career."
It is a sign of the times: publicists for actors and singers spinning like presidential campaign press secretaries in the throes of the New Hampshire primary. Pitt, after all, is not just an appealing actor. He is an industry with a net worth of $100 million, and an asking price per picture of $20 million. Aniston has a net worth of $80 million, and makes $7 million to $8 million per picture. A messy divorce is in the interest of neither one.
Stars' Careers Based on 'Salability'
"It is in the best interest of Hollywood and the studios to make sure that it is clean, I suppose," says O'Brien.
Adds Dolce: "These guys' careers are based on their salability, which is based on their appeal and their attractiveness to the big public. And that has to be maintained. If it came out that Brad was having an affair, cheating on his wife, there might be a couple years where Brad couldn't 'open' a movie depending on what that movie was. You know, if his main draw was women and women are angry at him for messing around on his wife with another beautiful, gorgeous Hollywood starlet, they might vote with their daughters and not go see his next movie."
In December 2003, after the nonstop coverage of his ill-fated relationship with Lopez, Affleck said "my relationship with Jennifer has absolutely been bad for my career. The overexposure this year has been really damaging."
Ken Sunshine -- a powerful publicist representing Affleck, DiCaprio and Timberlake, among others -- recalls his initial reaction to hearing the news about Pitt and Aniston: "It'll take some heat off of Cameron and Justin, and Ben and Jennifer," he thought, "because those are the situations that I have to deal with."
"My second response is: look out, because I can see [the celebrity media] licking their chops and they're going to exploit this big-time."
Sunshine takes a somewhat more adversarial approach to the paparazzi than other publicists. "I wish the public were a little more cognizant of the means by which some of these photos are gotten and the fact that much of what they're reading is a lie." The role of the celebrity media and their dependence upon paparazzi creates a situation, he says, that "is criminal; it's often way over the top and it involves things like chasing celebrities down the Hollywood Hills trying to cut them off in a car. Seeking to cause an accident. Bumping the car to get the most embarrassing reaction photo of a celebrity."
'Out of Control'
Last December, DiCaprio told NBC that the paparazzi "are out of control. They're not journalists. They're not photographers."
Says Sunshine: "Princess Diana is dead, at least in part, because of maniacal stalkerazzis. I predict something like that's gonna happen in the Hollywood Hills unless something's done about this." Sunshine is working with California state lawmakers to make it tougher for photographers to pursue celebrities.
But Sunshine also says it's not just the paparazzi -- or the celebrity media -- who are to blame. He also faults some of his own colleagues. "The publicists are making deals with the publications on the backs of their A-level celebrities. And that's outrageous."
What do they do?
"Pay 'em off," Sunshine says. "Or say, you know, 'I'll look the other way but this is where my A-level celebrity will be tonight. You can get that shot but you gotta print a shot of these B- and C-level celebrities and get it in there."
"Publicists can be very helpful," says Fuller. "Many, many of them definitely understand the business that their stars are in. And they want their celebrities in the magazine and they enable us to work with them in many ways."
Paparazzo Mel Bouzad, who started his own company last year, says American paparazzi, or "paps," tend to be too polite. He prefers those raised in Europe where paparazzi are even more aggressive. And he has no pity for the stars he follows.
"Five years ago they're begging to have their photos taken -- the same celebrities that are moaning about paparazzi are the same ones that phone me up, or other paps up, to tell us where they're going on holiday, what they're doing," he says. "They pay us and we pay them. It's a love/hate relationship, end of the day."
Does it bother him that they're out there complaining about paparazzi?
"They're playing the game," says Bouzad. "End of the day, we're always gonna be here, they're always gonna be here, and there's always gonna be publications."
The Unending Craze?
But some in the industry are concerned about the direction the explosion of celebrity media has taken journalism and the entertainment industry in general. "The standards have gotten much lower," says Sunshine. "What is put in so many of these publications or put on video, it never would have been printed in the past or gotten the kind of circulation it does. And the slush funds to pay off lawsuits, to settle lawsuits, for insane amounts of money, that didn't exist the way it did before. Stalkerazzi were not at the level of hiding in bathroom stalls or trying to start fights in front of children."
A few years ago, actor George Clooney tried to get colleagues to join him in boycotting media outlets that bought photographs from paparazzi. That did not go very far. Few celebrities agreed to join him.
"I don't know if it is the war in Iraq or if it is the economy -- I don't know if it is the weather -- but people have an insatiable appetite right now for celebrity news," says O'Brien, "and we are happy to help them out."
"The reason there's so many publications is because the public wants it," Bouzad says. "They're the ones that put money in my pocket."
The 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once said fame was like sea water -- the more you drink, the thirstier you get. The publishers and producers of this new type of media have discovered to their delight that the famous are not the only ones with an unquenchable thirst.
Hillary Profita and Melinda Arons contributed to this report.