I don’t know what I expected when I cracked open this week’s Us Weekly. Perhaps, in the small, shriveled part of my brain that still believes in the capacity for change, I thought that the tabloids would be doing anything but telling me about Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt’s secret quarantine love shack. Luckily, the last few neurons keeping that dusty corner of my skull operating have now died.
Since the shutdown in March, when the world ground to a halt, and the celebrities retreated inside their Bel Air estates and Hamptons getaways, the industry involved in reporting on these celebrities all but collapsed, unable by design to engage with the crises of gossip in our current world. The tabloids are no exception. Even though there is currently nothing to talk about (or really even care about) in the goings-on of celebrity culture, save the occasional post by usmagazine.com claiming to list every single famous person who’s even been so much as tested for coronavirus, American Media’s tabloid empire has trundled along. Everyone is holed up and streaming innumerable Instagram Lives while the world is shutting down around them, and still, they’re doing the same old stage play. Jilted lovers reunite in secret; family feuds are quashed through the power of love; secret babies are born again and again and again until a not-so-secret baby finally pops up, cluttered by the specter of all the others.
I speak, of course, from a short horse; I report on people who report on other people. Like everyone with a parasitic relationship to celebrity, I am just another link in a chain. But what else is there to do? Tabloids like American Media’s Us Weekly, Star, In Touch, and Life & Style, built on escapism for their audiences and layered with pages upon pages of perfectly sculpted bodies and glittering Oscar de la Renta gowns, have no room for the troubles of the world at large. Coronavirus has no place in the fantasy they’ve constructed, because the disaster looming over Hollywood cannot be coherently understood as a crisis of the self alone. Problems manifest themselves as merely the sufferings of the interior life, of emotional turbulence in a marriage, or a stilted friendship with a coworker. Sure, there are blurbs about the heroic and valiant efforts of various celebrities to raise money for charity, but even those prioritize the “hero” over the recipients of their valor. And besides, there is nothing more narcissistic than the archetype of the modern American hero, who through determination alone can the apocalypse be reverted‚the invading aliens pushed back, the lonely cat rescued from the tree.
The tabloids are not alright, and they will probably not be alright for quite some time. The celebrities are running out of sourdoughs to photograph themselves baking. There’s been enough random news the last few weeks, and pre-existing plot lines—Meghan Markle’s move to Los Angeles, Jennifer Aniston’s love life, Bindi Irwin’s wedding—to last another couple issues. But when the shutdown reaches its second full month, and then its third, and maybe even its fourth, what then? I’d say this fantasy can’t sustain itself, but then again, the Hollywood dream has always proved us otherwise.