Se­cret sources re­ally mys­tify

Los Angeles Times - - Calendar - james.rainey@latimes.com Twit­ter: la­times­rainey

It’s been more than two years since pop queen Brit­ney Spears bot­tomed out with be­hav­ior so er­ratic she had to un­dergo psy­chi­atric care, tem­po­rar­ily lost cus­tody of her two boys and had to be ap­pointed a con­ser­va­tor.

Now a Spears im­age-restora­tion cam­paign (or is it a real-life res­ur­rec­tion?) has taken flight, and you might think friends and fam­ily would be lin­ing up to pro­nounce the en­ter­tainer all bet­ter.

But that’s not the way Hollywood’s glossy im­age ma­chine works these days, as demon­strated by a three­p­age spread in a re­cent is­sue of Peo­ple mag­a­zine. The story (with half a dozen pho­tos) lets Brit­ney’s res­ur­rec­tion team go on and on about her new life, joy­ful moth­er­hood and reignited ca­reer. But not a sin­gle one of the Brit-cel­e­brants gives his or her name for the record.

While it’s long been un­der­stood that dirty dish­ing in the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try would be done with­out at­tri­bu­tion, it’s in­creas­ingly clear that the in­fo­tain­ment press will de­liver even glow­ing tes­ti­mo­ni­als, char­ac­ter en­dorse­ments and gushy back­slap­ping from un­named sources.

In UsWeekly, In Touch, Star and even Time Inc.’s ven­er­a­ble Peo­ple, anonymity has be­come the stock in

trade. When sources tell the world what a good spouse, par­ent, hu­man­i­tar­ian, ro­man­tic, an­i­mal lover, soul mate and ab-cruncher a celebrity re­ally is, they al­most al­ways do it with­out giv­ing their name.

Wedged be­tween the show­case photo gal­leries in these and other mag­a­zines is an army of “in­sid­ers,” “pals,” “on­look­ers,” “wit­nesses” and “sources.” Even the small­est and most sac­cha­rine news squibs come sourced like the dark­est rev­e­la­tions from the Nixon White House.

Build­ing a brand

The tabloid press loves only one thing more than celebrity tear-downs, and that’s celebrity res­ur­rec­tions. So why not let stars or their en­tourages build their rep­u­ta­tions with a lit­tle quiet per­sua­sion? Isn’t the au­di­ence, in these try­ing times, prac­ti­cally beg­ging for sto­ries of re­demp­tion?

Are­cent UsWeekly head­line about singer and babe­mag­net John Mayer read, “No Girls for Now.” Months ear­lier, Mayer’s randy sex con­fes­sions over­shad­owed his mu­si­cian­ship as he talked about his sex or­gan as a white su­prem­a­cist and called one­time girl­friend Jes­sica Simp­son “sex­ual na­palm.”

The Us item al­lowed his ad­vo­cates to fashion a kinder, gen­tler Mayer. It quoted a source say­ing he now ig­nores “booty calls” from women, sees the iPad as his new “late-night love” and en­joys a good go at Su­doku. Voilà, the young heart­throb had been re­made into a ver­i­ta­ble Gar­ri­son Keil­lor.

The same Us is­sue had an “on­looker” cred­it­ing at­ten­tive Ge­orge Clooney for keep­ing lov­ing tabs on girl­friend Elis­a­betta Canalis as they rode a mo­tor­cy­cle. It had a “source” de­scrib­ing Ali­cia Keys’ “sum­mer of love” with her newhus­band. It had a “pal” say­ing re­al­ity star Kristin Caval­lari is ready to move to Chicago to pur­sue a ro­mance with Chicago Bears quar­ter­back Jay Cut­ler.

Anony­mous celebrity-pol­ish­ing flour­ishes over at Star mag­a­zine too. We learn from an­other “in­sider” that Os­car win­ner Char­l­ize Theron and ac­tor Eric Thal are hit­ting it off be­cause “they are both easy­go­ing and love to laugh.” The two feel “no pres­sure,” we are as­sured, and are just “hav­ing a great time to­gether.” You can bet that nei­ther wants to sti­fle the other’s artis­tic am­bi­tions. And both, no doubt, prac­tice im­pec­ca­ble hy­giene.

In Touch, sim­i­larly, in­voked an “in­sider” to put “The Bach­e­lor” star Jake Pavelka to­gether with a new love in­ter­est. “It’s very ca­sual,” the mag­a­zine’s source told us, “but they’re hav­ing a great time.”

Love is ef­fort­less and free when the prin­ci­pals don’t have to talk about it and the wit­nesses go un­named. It also opens the door for a boat­load of en­dorse­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties. The short squib on “The Bach­e­lor” pro­tag­o­nist man­aged to name a cou­ple of Las Ve­gas ho­tels, a res­tau­rant and a night­club, all in the space of just a few lines. (Surely no one could be pay­ing a source for this kind of brand build­ing, could they?)

I called Bon­nie Fuller, the for­mer UsWeekly edi­tor, to ask her if it wasn’t kind of silly to em­ploy all these anony­mous sources, not just when ex­pos­ing celebrity mis­steps but on sto­ries that pol­ished the stars’ glossy im­ages.

Fuller, an icon in celebrity jour­nal­ism who now runs Hol­ly­woodLife.com, as­sured me that the anonymity helps the pub­lic to know more.

“We strive to get as many peo­ple on the record as we can,” Fuller said. “But it’s a fairly stan­dard tool for peo­ple to speak on back­ground.”

David Ca­plan, a for­mer se­nior edi­tor at Peo­ple now work­ing as a con­sul­tant for Hol­ly­woodLife.com, said read­ers shouldn’t as­sume that celebri­ties or their han­dlers plant all those glow­ing quotes and tes­ti­mo­ni­als.

Re­porters get their in­for­ma­tion from friends, busi­ness as­so­ci­ates and an ar­ray of other sources, Ca­plan said. Some of the best sources are scen­esters who get a “feel­ing of power, be­ing on the in­side and be­ing in­volved” when they pass in­for­ma­tion to celebrity mags. They do it for the buzz, not money, Ca­plan said.

But even so-called friends pass­ing on “good” news — like the con­stant up­dates as­sur­ing us that Jen­nifer Anis­ton re­ally is happy and thriv­ing with­out ex-hus­band Brad Pitt — seem to never tell us where the in­for­ma­tion is com­ing from. Why?

“Even if it’s some­thing good, some in Hollywood don’t like to feel like they are con­stantly be­ing watched,” Ca­plan said. And see­ing their friends quoted in a story, no mat­ter how glow­ing, just con­firms the fear that they have no refuge.

No one should as­sume some­thing “sketchy” is go­ing on be­cause of the use of un­named sources, said Fuller. “There are many ex­cel­lent sources that can’t or won’t go on the record,” she said, say­ing the mag­a­zines go to some lengths to make sure what they print is true.

When I called the mag­a­zines “tabloids,” Fuller cor­rected me. “We call them celebrity news week­lies.” She de­clined to pick one as more ac­cu­rate or suc­cess­ful than the oth­ers, say­ing they all had bro­ken big sto­ries. She pointed to the In Touch piece say­ing that Jesse James had cheated on wife San­dra Bul­lock. She cited Star for re­veal­ing that John Tra­volta and wife Kelly Pre­ston would have an­other child.

“Water­gate,” she schooled me, “was all of­fthe-record, un­named sources. That was an ex­tremely large, his­tory-mak­ing story.”

An­other world

Thanks for the civics les­son, I thought. But I didn’t say any­thing. Maybe I felt a lit­tle cha­grined, spend­ing even one day wor­ry­ing about the Candy­land rule book for celebrity jour­nal­ism. Doesn’t ev­ery­one al­ready know this stuff ex­ists in its own par­al­lel uni­verse, where good, bad and even real are judged by dif­fer­ent cri­te­ria?

Apub­li­cist for one celebrity news out­let as­sured me about the earnest ef­forts it made to get sto­ries right. But that in­tent clearly didn’t come out of any high re­gard for the au­di­ence.

“You have peo­ple in Mid­dle Amer­ica who live their lives through these celebri­ties,” she said. “These are peo­ple who be­lieve ev­ery­thing they read.”

I’d tell you the pub­li­cist’s name and who she worked for. But I must have caught the bug. I had al­ready told her I wouldn’t quote her, if only she would tell me what was re­ally go­ing on.

Matt Sayles

GLOSS: Brit­ney Spears’ pals gush anony­mously.

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