May 20, 2008 -- On the red carpets of L.A. and New York, a celebrity's value is measured in flashes and shouts. In person, the stars' poses look ridiculously unnatural. But they're not intended for the hundreds present at the event; they are posing for the millions out there who will read about it later.
Because if they're hot enough, and well dressed enough, one of those flash-lit moments might just end up on the pages of Us Weekly magazine.
And on a Manhattan morning, the woman who decides who will be worthy this week arrived at the office. She is editor-in-chief Janice Min, a 38-year-old mother of two and graduate of Columbia University's prestigious journalism school.
Each week, she sets out to show the women of America who and what is "in," and she is most interested in seeing how the stars spent the weekend off the red carpet.
"When we've talked to women who are big fans of the magazine they constantly describe it as 'me time,'" said Min. "They say they will lock the door in the bedroom or while they're in the bathtub — that it is the only time they get to themselves."
With more than triple the readership, People is still the king of the star-gazing magazines. Us Weekly skews to a younger, more affluent demographic, reminding readers that their favorite celebrities may be rich and beautiful, but "they're just like us."
A generation ago, we never saw this side of our icons. There were no pictures of Bogart buying toilet paper or Bacall working off the baby weight. And no one knew that Tracy and Hepburn were having an affair. But in the age of "reality" TV, anyone can be a celebrity. And with sources like Us Weekly, Americans can discuss the intimate details of celebrity lives as if they're family.
"There was a lot of depressing news out there, obviously, beginning with 9/11 and then a prolonged involvement in Iraq and a presidency that a lot of people felt very upset about," Min said. "I do feel like to some large degree, people look for escape and US Weekly was waiting for them. And it was just this great distraction from other issues out there."
Min says that Us Weekly has changed the way the celebrity beat is covered, showing "that it could actually be covered as news," but she also adds that, "it's just fun!"
"I think any woman who's questioned about her interest in celebrity should turn and ask her husband, 'Why do you want to watch the Yankees-Red Sox baseball game? What does it matter to you? It is man chasing a ball around a field. It is of zero consequence to you,'" she said. "And that's sort of the same as wondering, you know, if Jessica Simpson is dating Tony Romo."
Worth a Thousand Words
The first order of business for Min and the staff is to close an issue and select a cover. On this day, the leading contenders were Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt, the villain couple from "The Hills," an MTV reality show made even more popular by eight Us Weekly covers.
And then there's singer Mariah Carey, whose roller coaster career is reaching another high with a new album … and a new body.
"A lot of people are wondering, what in the world did she do to lose all that weight?" said Min. "For this mass audience going to the grocery to buy Us Weekly, that's very relatable, I don't think there's a woman alive who can't relate to the idea of yo-yo dieting."
The singer didn't have time to sit for a shoot, so Min would only put her on the cover if Mariah's people could send them the right photo.
"That's not bad," she says, examining one choice, "but again, you don't see enough of her body."
The right photo, either posed or candid, can make or break an issue. And in the age of publicity hunger, it is sometimes hard to tell the difference.
The person in charge of these "candid" shots is news photo editor Peter Grossman. He says his dream photograph is "one that tells the story just by looking at it."
"You know, the dream photographs to me are the last pictures of Brad and Jen on the beach," he said. "The other side of that was the first picture of Brad and Angelina together in Africa. These are both pictures that we had exclusively on our cover … you didn't need words, you just looked at them and it was like, 'Oh my God.'"
The Word 'News' Means Something Different to 'Us'
Grossman says that when it comes to respecting celebrities' privacy, "there are certain lines that we don't cross."
"If someone is trying to take a picture into someone's house that's not even something that we consider running," Grossman said. "On the flipside though, everyone has something about their job that they don't like, and I think being a celebrity is these people's job and this is sort of one of the things that comes along with it that is probably not their favorite part of the job. What these people are doing is news."
So when Britney Spears goes out for sushi it qualifies as news?
"The word 'news' means something different to us than other people, for sure, but just going out for sushi — I don't know if that qualifies as news," he said. "That's like a 'just like us' picture maybe. Britney getting sushi is not a cover story."
He says that the people who get the most coverage are simply asking for it, in the places they go and the things they do. And as proof, he points to mega-stars who do manage to maintain private lives.
"You know, the thing is, there are some celebrities that absolutely get it," Grossman said. "One of my favorite celebrities is Matt Damon. He's smart enough to not live in certain parts of Los Angeles and to not go in places where celebrities are always having their picture taken and he didn't marry another celebrity and he's the kind of person that has it all. You can look at him and say it is possible."
By midweek Min and her staff had settled on a Mariah Carey cover.
"It's cute — showing enough body, looks great, but it isn't too skanky," said Min.
'People Think They Really Know You'
There were no hard feelings from "The Hills" stars Montag and Pratt. In fact, they showed up to have lunch in a conference room, holding court like prom king and queen visiting the yearbook staff.
"The Hills" is an unscripted soap opera following a group of 20-somethings through often mundane life in L.A.'s fashion industry. MTV has perfected this genre, turning photogenic unknowns into stars by editing their every flirtation and spat into glossy high drama. When the show first caught fire with young women, Us Weekly poured on the fuel.
Pratt says that he and Montag consider themselves to be entertainers.
"I mean, we entertain people on a weekly basis … they either love us or hate us," he said. "They're affected emotionally about us."
"I think reality shows are harder than being in a film sometimes," Montag said. "It's not as easy as people would think. Or else everyone would do it!"
What's the best part about their newfound fame? Special treatment at the airport, the two agree.
And the worst part?
"People thinking they really know you, you know, when they really just see minutes of us, seconds of us and read a line or two," said Pratt. "It's like, you don't really know us, we didn't grow up together, you know nothing about us. You only know what you read or are told."
Montag's first Us Weekly cover came when she revealed her extensive plastic surgery, the sort of thing stars of yesteryear might take great pains to hide. But these days, it seems the only thing worse than embarrassment, is obscurity.
"Oftentimes if we get an interesting set of photos we'll follow-up with a call to the rep and ask, you know, 'can you ask your client, was this an uncomfortable situation? Are they fine with us running the photo?'" said Min. "And I would say, 9 times out of 10, they're fine with us running the photo."
The 'Potency' of the Red Carpet
That "I'll scratch your back, you scratch mine" arrangement is on full display one Thursday night in L.A. when the magazine is throwing its annual "Hot Hollywood Party."
It's a great arrangement: the magazine gets gossip and photos, the celebrities get in the magazine.
"Fewer people are buying albums, nobody is watching as much TV and nobody is going to the movies anymore. This is in many ways a true barometer of your popularity," said Min. "Those other traditional avenues to determine your fame and popularity don't have as much potency as the red carpet these days."
The next morning, Min tucked into her breakfast and began thinking about how she'd fill the last six pages with juicy tidbits and party pics.
"The gossip from the parties will start to roll in, all the reporters from L.A. will be buzzing about various things that happened last night, and I can't wait to hear about the drama involving people from 'The Hills,'" said Min. "And I'm 38 years old and I care."
This issue will be read by around 12 million people, proving she's not the only one who cares.