Bennifer. Britney. Brangelina. The celebrity gossip of the 2000s is well-documented, but what was it that kept us reaching for copies of Us Weekly and People? On Just Like Us: The Tabloids That Changed America, Clare Malone dives into the era’s celebrity obsession—from the magazine newsrooms, to the paparazzi boom, to the rise of reality television—to tell the stories behind the gossip, and what the tabloid sensation says about American culture. In Episode 6, we’re discussing the Black celebrity media, like Bossip and Media Take Out, that emerged to cover the celebrities whom magazines largely ignored.
A thing I think about an awful lot working in media is the importance of its gatekeepers. Of course, every industry has them. But in lots of those professions, there are also boards or exams to pass: You have to prove yourself against some set standard. In journalism, it’s mostly about connections. Who you interned for, who you were an assistant to, who you went to college with—that’s how you get jobs a lot of the time.
Nowhere was that more true than in the magazine world of New York or the movie world of Hollywood at the turn of the century. You had to know someone to get on the inside. And the inside was made up of a lot of people who thought of the same people as celebrities, whose cultural touchstones were shared, and whose beauty standards had all been shaped by similar environments. Because before we talk about how the internet upended traditional media and institutions, we have to talk about the way those traditional institutions traditionally functioned.
In her analogue Condé Nast days,
Jezebel founder Anna Holmes worked at Bonnie Fuller’s version of Glamour. As in, Bonnie Fuller who made Us Weekly into a cultural juggernaut. Stars, They’re Just Like Us, Bonnie.
Anna called Bonnie’s magazines very white. And white was sort of the default in media. Still is. There wasn’t necessarily a sense of urgency that publications needed to diversify their coverage. If anything, people seemed to think that there were a couple Black publications that would take care of Black celebrity coverage.
Fred Mwangaguhunga, founder of the celebrity blog Media Take Out, is on the “the internet changed everything” bandwagon. Especially in the early years of the site, Media Take Out was covering Black celebrities as closely and as intimately as mainstream outlets covered white stars.
They reported that Queen Latifah would announce her engagement to her girlfriend—something the star, who has largely avoided addressing her dating life, denied. They tracked Beyoncé pregnancy rumors along with ones about NBA star Kevin Garnett’s love life.
And a broader segment of the population than you might expect was being exposed to those celebrity stories.
“Racially, at least in the beginning, it was probably more closer to the traditional internet demographics,” Mwangaguhunga said. “Whereas we were doing primarily urban celebrities, you would think there’s a bunch of Black people on the site, but a lot of times it wasn’t.”
This is the classic promise of the internet at work, particularly back in the day before it was responsible for crumbling democracies and enabling genocides: The internet could expose different people to different things.
It’s not that Black celebrities weren’t being covered by tabloids in the aughts. But it was definitely a select number. Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, Beyoncé, and later Rihanna and the Obamas all made the cover of
Us Weekly, for instance.
But it wasn’t all that often that you got a person of color on the cover—and that’s with Us Weekly itself being run by a woman of color, Janice Min. Hollywood and its symbiotic partner, the celebrity media, defaulted to white.
Which again, played well, business-wise, for emergent Black celebrity blogs. We talked a lot on Episode 2 about how crazy the paparazzi photo market got during the first decade of the 2000s. Well, it turns out photos of Black celebrities fetched very different prices back in the early to mid aughts.
Fred decided to use that to his advantage.
“We would go to the paparazzi and we would say, ‘Hey, all of the African American celebrities that you get, any Black person that you see walking into a door, take a picture and we’ll buy it,” Mwangaguhunga said. “They didn’t even know who they were. They would just say, ‘Oh, Black person. OK, boom.’ They’d take the photos. And they would just send it to us and we’d get a rough deal … Maybe they’d get $500 for the Britney Spears photo and $100 for all the other photos. And then $50 for literally every Black person that walked in the door.”
The idea that the blogs were covering Black celebrities who weren’t making it into mainstream tabloid coverage was a pretty simple one. Fred said the stories fell into your lap at first. Lots of traffic could be driven just by writing something basic about a famous Black person who’d appeared in a big movie a decade before but hadn’t been written about for a while.
But the idea didn’t need to be complicated to work.
“Early on, the stories that kind of worked the best were the stories about Black celebrities that a lot of white people, or a lot of people in mainstream America just didn’t even know that Black people had an intimate relationship with,” Mwangaguhunga said. “If you walked into Entertainment Tonight or Us Weekly in 2007, and you said, ‘Hey, Black people like Halle Berry.’ It would be like, ‘Oh, of course, they do.’ Because Halle Berry is an Oscar-winning actress and she’s in all these films and blah-blah-blah. But if you told them something about someone like Nia Long, who a lot of people had grown up with—like, they saw her in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. They’ve seen her in movies over and over again. She’s kind of been a piece of their life for the last 20 years. And so, you want to know what’s going on with her.”
Nia Long, Sanaa Lathan, Tracee Ellis Ross, Gabrielle Union, Beyoncé, Solange—these were the celebs that blogs like
Bossip and Media Take Out covered when mainstream tabloids really didn’t.