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A Brief History of “Stepping Out”

How a phrase describing nothing at all took over celebrity gossip

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Have you stepped out recently?

You know — put on a light jacket, slid on some sunglasses, ventured out into the early-March balm, perhaps alongside a friend or your significant other? Maybe you were headed to brunch, or to walk the dog, or to check out that new bookstore down the street. Maybe you held your companion’s hand, as stepping-outers sometimes do. Sound familiar?

Let me help: no. No, you have not stepped out recently, because you are not a famous celebrity (sorry). Though you are, perhaps, perfectly capable of brunching/dog-walking/hand-holding, sometimes while blinking picturesquely into the bright sun with your lipstick and/or hair gel just right, stepping out is not for you. It is an activity reserved exclusively for celebrities, a law enforced by the world’s celebrity-gossip venues.

You might get close to the deed. You can step to or step outside, maybe to have some words. You can step off to avoid them. You can step up and shoulder some more responsibility. Maybe you can step out of the shadows, assuming you are an artist or an enigmatic billionaire, or step out from behind the scenes, maybe to quietly engineer political campaigns. You can step out in front of something, like a crisis manager might urge you. You can step out for a smoke or on a lover, or else you can step out of a car — and onto the earth, where you belong. But you, a mere mortal, can never simply step out, intransitively, an activity unto itself.

Here are some people who can, according to The Daily Mail, a foremost enforcer of the phrase:

(via Google)
(via Google)

Mariah Carey stepped out after her “New Year’s Eve controversy.” Brad Pitt stepped out after news of his divorce from Angelina Jolie was made public. Scarlett Johansson stepped out for her own post-split stroll, as did Christina El Moussa, Robert Pattinson, and Ozzy Osbourne. (Tobey Maguire did not step out after his; his now-ex-wife, Jennifer Meyer, did the honors. Just kidding, they both did!) Rihanna stepped out in a Hillary Clinton T-shirt in October. Back in 2010, Nicole Kidman dared to step out “in a color that’s not flesh-toned.” Once, Kate Middleton stepped out twice in one day. Pregnant women and new mothers, perhaps the most notorious steppers-out, have done so in maternity dresses, glowingly beside their husbands, with carefully masked baby bumps (or with a noticeable baby bump and a smile), with growing bellies, whilst Very Pregnant, and merely days after giving birth. Within the 48-hour period of last weekend, The Daily Mail recorded at least 12 steppings out.

Then there was this, on Monday:

(via <em>People</em>)
(via People)

Amid all the questions about what the Obamas will get up to in their post–White House lives, there is one certainty: They will be famous. “The couple stepped out in Washington, D.C. on Sunday,” People breathlessly recounted, “in their first appearance since a spokesman for the former president denied allegations that he ordered wiretapping in Trump Tower during the election.”

That they now step out — or rather, that they now do it together, since Michelle has been stepping out for years — is an indication of just how quickly they’ve moved, or been moved, into the celebrity sphere. Barack Obama, who just a year and a half ago was granted a rare stepping-out to get shave ice in Hawaii, now steps out to coffee and cheering crowds. They are not alone in their status as hybrid celebrity/political figures: Ivanka Trump stepped out the day after her father won the presidency. “GET THAT LOOK,” The Washington Post’s Philip Bump joked in 2015, “Donald Trump steps out in Scotland.”

So what, exactly, does “stepping out” mean? It isn’t just the act of encountering vitamin D in public, or else anyone could do it. It is disproportionately used to describe women, and carries a hint of another decade’s preciousness: Let’s admire the ladies, all done up with their high heels and matching handbags. It’s frequently used for sightings after some event — a new relationship, a new child, a diet, a hospitalization, a diagnosis — but not to communicate any news. Just that the person is still here, still has a hoodie, a neighborhood Starbucks, friends, lipstick.

“Stepping out” is a perfect celebrity gossip-ism because it denotes nothing. There is no there there except for the fact that the celebrity has continued to exist. Famous person left house. Famous person walks, talks, stands. Famous person left restaurant; probably ate, can’t confirm.

And you click — I click — for the same reason that The Daily Mail wrote about more than a dozen people walking around over a two-day span: We’d all like to see them do it. What does it matter that all they were doing was going to CVS and picking up takeout and getting out of cars and generally not looking terribly happy about being photographed? “Stepping out” generates its own kind of newsiness in a universe where the most salient metric of The Daily Mail’s sidebar is the clicks it can generate — and the governing principle of People’s coverage is still magazine sales. The jargon, after all, makes a bit of basic marketing sense: “Kim Kardashian wears shirt while photographer loiters in parking lot by her car” lacks a certain magic.