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Image: Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt
Kevin Winter  /  Getty Images
Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt make tabloid magazine readers feel as though they have a glimpse into a real-life soap opera.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/17/2009 9:05:18 AM ET 2009-08-17T13:05:18

Let’s see, there’s Britney, Jessica, Lindsay, Paris, Angelina and Jennifer. Oh, and there’s the other Jennifer.

Not only do we all know them by their first names, we know them by whatever drama is unfolding in their lives. In the past decade, this small group of stars has become omnipresent, dominating magazine covers and becoming fixtures in tabloids and on countless blogs. They’re in the news whether or not they have anything new to promote — and when there is a new movie, CD or tour, that seems almost incidental to their ongoing life stories.

It wasn’t always this way. Years ago, the tabloids were like a conveyor belt that continuously brought new stars to the masses, while dumping the old ones. These days, it seems like there’s a revolving door in which the same bunch of megastars go round and round. Back in the day, unless you were a legend on the level of Elvis or Marilyn Monroe, you got a year at the top and then went the way of yesterday’s papers. The names used to explode one year, then fade away the next: Cheryl Tiegs, Cheryl Ladd, Brooke Shields, Tina Turner, Cybill Shepherd (add your own favorite here).

Then something changed. The system got stuck on a small group that’s stayed in the headlines for the past decade. Occasionally, new faces like Jon and Kate Gosselin pop up for a while. And Miley Cyrus seems to be looking for inclusion in this club with her constant attention-seeking antics. But all these newcomers get swept out of the news as soon as Lindsay and Samantha break up again.

The main reason for this, says entertainment writer Leslie Gornstein, is that the past 10 years have brought about a new breed of celebrity — the kind whose self-promotional skills equal or surpass whatever artistic talents they have.

“I think these people have all been in the spotlight so long because they’re the first generation to really become the masters of media manipulation,” explains Gornstein, an E! online gossip writer and former Us magazine reporter. “In a way, they’ve even made it into a job.”

Gornstein cites as an example Angelina Jolie’s flair for making her life into a series of publicity events: “When she left Billy Bob Thornton, she did a big interview (with Us). And one of the editors said ‘Can you pose for a photo?’ She said ‘No, but I’ll be in the park tomorrow with my newly adopted son at this time and in this place and you’ll want to send a paparazzo.’”

All publicity is good publicity
Slideshow: Madonna Madonna can be considered the godmother of media machinations, since she became notorious in the 1980s for her publicity ploys as well as her music (and with her very public adoption battles, she now seems to have ripped a page from Jolie’s playbook). But the rules of the fame game have also been altered because stars have stopped having publicists try to cover up their troubles. Nowadays their personal tribulations are fair game for magazines, says Us magazine West Coast Bureau Chief Melanie Bromley.

“Britney tends to sell better when she’s not doing well,” Bromley explains. “If we put Britney on the cover now, I don’t know if it would sell very much because she’s doing so wonderfully. Britney was selling the most magazines when she was having her public breakdowns.”

Slideshow: Miley Cyrus The public then gets a running narrative of a star’s life that often dwarfs whatever made-up narrative they are acting out on screen or in song.

“These are people who tend to sell magazines because the public has kind of a vested interest in their story,” Bromley continues. “People see their story as kind of a soap opera that they want to get the latest installments of. Angelina, Brad and Jennifer Aniston — that love triangle has sold magazines for many, many years now.”

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The combination of changing technology and press coverage has altered the public’s taste in what they want to read about mega-celebs, says Liz Kelly, who writes the Celebritology column for the Washington Post.

Slideshow: Angelina Jolie “I think it’s the (influence) of the Internet and maybe a little bit of a shift of what the magazines are willing to publish,” Kelly says. “Back when we saw Scott Baio or Dana Plato it was when they were at the top of their game. Now we get Lindsay Lohan not only when she was a teen star and really big, but also when she went off the deep end.”

Kelly also notes that the paparazzi play a role in keeping these uber-celebrities in the news non-stop, since many of them work on a pay scale: “The bigger the target, the bigger the pay, so their targets are Linsday Lohan and Britney Spears.”

There are also more places to run such photographs, with the explosion of gossip blogs like the Superficial, Dlisted and, of course, Perez Hilton. “There’s more people digging and more stories that are being brought out,” observes Hilton. “And there’s more angles that the media takes to keep being able to talk about these people — because they bring them money.”

A new metric for stardom
In a recent Slate article, Jonah Weiner, a former editor at the now-defunct music magazine Blender, observed a similar situation in the music world. There are now fewer pop superstars, Weiner noticed, so the same musicians show up on every magazine cover. The Internet, Weiner says, has “democratized” the music industry, which has resulted in a lot of small stars but only a few remaining big names. A two-tier star system has been created, which is somewhat indicative of what’s happened in all celebrity culture.

“You’ve now got this wild proliferation of voices on the Internet,” Weiner explains. “So there’s this new kind of emerging metric for stardom. To that extent, this idea of a two-tiered system might sort of make sense, with the point being that that top tier is getting smaller by the day.”

Gornstein says, the “elephant in the room” when discussing these super-celebrities is that the stars are all women. Women, says Gornstein, are more likely to read gossip magazines, as the demographic breakdowns of Us’ total readership and People magazine’s male and female readers show. In her time at Us, Gornstein observed that “men on covers do not sell unless it’s Brad Pitt — because it’s about Angelina Jolie and the great sex life they’re having.

“Will Smith and Tom Cruise have been consistently over-the-top money makers in Hollywood for years and years,” Gornstein says. “Do they sell magazine covers? No. Women read the magazines, and they want to hear about other women — they want to hear about other women (messing) up, other women triumphing, other women acting scandalously, women being more gorgeous and fabulous than they could ever be and making mistakes and pulling themselves back up.

“That’s not a small factor,” she says. “That’s a huge factor. You can’t argue with a number.”

Finally, if you’re looking to place blame for all this, blame everyone involved, says Gornstein, who dissects Hollywood culture in her book “The A-List Playbook: How to Survive Any Crisis While Remaining Wealthy, Famous, and Most Importantly, Skinny.”

“The press knows what makes good drama,” she says. “Jennifer Aniston knows how to keep the drama in the press. Jolie certainly knows how to keep the drama in the press. So they helped each other out in a never ending loop. You couldn’t do it with just the magazines, or just the celebrities, or just the public. You need the three pillars for it to work. Pull out any one of them and the whole thing collapses.”

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