In a climate where everything from box office hits to traffic stops makes headlines in blogs, newspapers and celebrity weeklies, it comes as no surprise that the more substantial life events of an A-lister — say, the birth of a baby — constitutes news.
Time and again, the if-you-build-it-they-will-come approach to covering the birth of celebrities’ babies has worked, but why? While there are some fans who might rush to an online baby registry and buy a token of congratulations, history proves that far more people will rush to a newsstand and part with a few hard-earned dollars so they may catch a glimpse of Celebrity X’s little miracle.
Lucille Ball didn’t have much choice
The precedent for covering the birth of a celebrity baby and the public’s appetite for the related details likely stems from the public’s love of Lucy.
By 1952, “I Love Lucy” was a certifiable ratings hit for CBS. However, its star, Lucille Ball, presented a problem no one was “spectin,” as Ricky Ricardo might say. Ball was in the middle of the show’s filming schedule when she found out she was with child for the second time, and CBS (and basically every other major network) maintained that pregnant women couldn’t be shown on television.
Ball was left with little choice: either challenge CBS on its stance, or don’t work. In the end, CBS negotiated with the parties who’d taken issue with her pregnancy and allowed Ball to stay on the show. Her pregnancy was written into the storyline, but it was agreed the word “pregnant” wouldn’t be spoken on air. (The episode that kicked off the storyline actually borrowed some French and was titled “Lucy is Enciente.”)
On Jan. 19, 1953, Desi Arnaz Jr., Ball and husband Desi Arnaz’s second child, came into the world, and Ball’s Lucy Ricardo character gave birth. Then on April 3, little Desi Arnaz Jr. appeared on the cover of the inaugural issue of TV Guide, and in turn, paved the way for the likes of Prince William, Apple Martin and the Jolie-Pitt children.
Why we care about the kids
Cher, Gregg Allman and their son, Elijah Blue, appeared on the Sept. 27, 1976, cover of People magazine and since then, People has devoted 28 covers to celebrity babies. More than half of those have run since 2000. (There’s no corresponding dollar figure for just how much money has been spent on celebrity baby photos since then. As point of reference, Jennifer Lopez received a reported $5 million for pictures of her twins, which appeared in the March 11, 2008, issue of People.)
Babies in particular offer that up to the readers of celeb weeklies. “Having a baby represents an extremely happy time in their lives, but it’s also something that makes celebrities very accessible,” Sansing said.
“Now more than ever, we want our celebrities to be real and think of them as family,” noted Rob Shuter, executive editor of OK! magazine. “You don’t call her Angelina (Jolie), you call her Angie. You talk about celebrities like you talk about your best friends. Having a baby, getting married, it’s the most intimate thing you get to see from celebrities, and you have to turn to magazines to see it.”
Why celebrities cut the deal
It’s no secret that money changes hands when a magazine scores an exclusive, but this wasn’t always the case. One publicist, who we’ll call Publicist A, who represents for an A-list celebrity who is married and has kids with another A-list celebrity, said the financial aspect is a recent phenomenon that quickly took on a life of its own.
(The publicists who declined to be named did so because of the sensitive nature of current or future negotiations, or to protect the identity of their clients.)
It is hard to look at the current negotiations for the Jolie-Pitt twins (said to be between $15 and $20 million and could go up, according to a sources familiar with the talks) and not think the baby-photo market has reached ridiculous heights. However, aside from the high ticket price, the difference with the Jolie-Pitt photos and most others is the deal has nothing to do with fattening the family checking account.
After the birth of Shiloh and the adoption of Pax, the Jolie-Pitts donated the money earned from their exclusive deals with People to charity, which means despite the exorbitant sum for the photos (Shiloh’s photos alone, according to many reports, went for $4.1 million), the family didn’t appear greedy. They’re expected to donate the fee from the twins’ photos, too. (At press time, Jolie’s philanthropic advisor, Trevor Neilson, couldn’t comment on which charities would benefit from the twins’ photo deal.)
It never sits well with the public when celebrities appear to earn money they don’t need, so the charity option does save face. However, Publicist B, who represents an A-list celebrity who chose not to sell photos of his baby, and instead opted to cooperate with a magazine and its photographer for no fee, said the concept of reaching such a deal and claiming that the charitable aspect makes it OK is ridiculous.
“When you release a photo at least you get the paparazzi off your back, somewhat, anyway. I do understand that. But the same celebrities who sell the photos and donate the money to charity could afford to write a check to any charity they wanted anyway. At the end of the day it’s still selling your baby. It’s just gross,” said Publicist B.
Turning it into something charitable
Publicist C, who has spent the better part of a decade handling celebrities but hasn’t brokered a baby-photo deal, disagreed. “I think turning it into something charitable is a good idea. Most celebrities are wealthy, but their finances aren’t so liquid they can make out a check to a charity for $15 million.”
The concept of controlling the situation picks up where the issue of finances trails off. “No one really understands the level to which these celebrities are hounded,” said Publicist C. “Your choices are basically keep your kid under a bed sheet like Michael Jackson did, or work out a way to get the photos out there. The kid is going to get photographed one way or another, you might as well find a way to make it work.”
And some believe that celebrities’ personal lives are personal, and paparazzi or not, the stars and their families deserve to be left alone. “A celebrity’s personal life is their business and not for public consumption,” said Pubicist D, who has a roster of A-list clients. “Unless they conceived the baby on the street, it’s no one’s business. That’s why people are starting to stop confirming when they’re pregnant even when they’re showing. There is so little to hang on to that is personal.”
There’s a more cynical view out there, too. “I think people forget that one of the things that motivate celebrities is greed. Celebrities like free s--- and will walk off a photo shoot wearing a $10,000 mink coat like it’s theirs,” said a person who has extensive experience in brokering deals between celebrities and magazines. “They feel like part of the payback for being harassed (by the paparazzi) should be cash. It’s only a select few who are motivated by charity and charitable things.”
The $20 million glass ceiling
Obviously, the case of the Jolie-Pitt children is a special one. Their family ties represent a brand of celebrity that isn’t just rare, it’s downright abnormal. Their perfect storm of fabulousness involves beauty, good deeds and now, twins. “You couldn’t write a better scenario if you tried,” said Shuter of OK! magazine. “There are no unknowns here — they have a baby together and she (Shiloh) is perfect, so you can only expect the same from the twins.”
Another point to consider is precedent. “How do you turn back? As long as somebody else is competing for the same photos, they’re going to keep paying more and more,” said Publicist D.
True, but that kind of supply and demand can only happen as long as there’s money in the checking account. “Baby photos don’t necessarily translate into more magazine sales,” said the magazine editor. “It’s about projecting the image that you are an authority. Hopefully down the road (it) will lead to sales, and advertisers will want to come to you. But you’ve got to sell millions more magazines in a given week to offset the cost of an A-lister’s baby.”
The sentiment of this magazine editor is generally accepted. According to a recent New York Times piece that addressed the escalating price of baby photos, the author Richard Perez-Pena says that an extra 300,000 to 500,000 extra copies sold provides less than $1 million in added earnings. Even if the cost of the photos often isn’t as high as is rumored, it still takes a great deal of sales to turn a profit on the deal.
When will the bubble burst?
Can the current frenzy be topped, or will the arrival of the chosen twins mark a waning in interest in celebrity baby photos? It’s hard to say. Everyone is excited about Jamie Lynn Spears, but for different reasons. People are curious as to how the 17-year-old “Zoey 101” star will handle a new baby and what will happen to her career. (Spears gave birth to a daughter, reportedly named Maddie Briann, on June 19.) Not to mention, older sister Britney’s child-rearing experience begs the question of how Jamie Lynn will handle the pressure of parenting.
People are also excited for Matthew McConaughey’s baby, but mostly because the actor — who seems to thrive in a state of perpetual bachelorhood — will make one good-looking dad. Will the baby appear tan and gorgeous too? In other words, the other celebrity babies draw the same sort of excitement, but the genesis of that excitement is just different circumstances.
“The bubble is going to explode, it just has to,” said Publicist E, who has good knowledge of the baby-photo brokering process. Why? Not only has the money involved climbed to ridiculous heights, but there is nothing left to be surprised about when everyone from the teen star of a children’s show to the most powerful couple in showbiz is having kids.
After this current spate of spawn, it appears there will be little cache to what another celebrity baby can bring to the table.
“What else is out there? Is someone going to light themselves on fire? Because that’s essentially what it’s going to take to get this kind of attention and money again,” Publicist E said. “There’s nothing left to be over-the-top about now. Interest has to begin to shift.”