With its Future in Peril, Remember That Us Weekly Fundamentally Changed the Entertainment Machine.
If I were to say to you Britney Spears, bare feet, gas station and Cheetos, I’m guessing you would know what I was talking about. Or if I were to ask if you remembered those first photos of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, building sand castles with a young Maddox off the coast of Kenya, that would maybe, probably, ring a bell. If I were to wonder about how much time you spent analyzing photos of your favorite celebrities pumping gas Just Like Us! or eating ice cream Just Like Us! or licking stamps Just Like Us!, if you were truthful, you would admit, “hey, you know, it’s kinda been of a lot of time.” All of this to say is that I’m sad about the news of Us Weekly because it’s the possible demise of something truly iconic that lots and lots of us truly enjoyed.
I’m not an unbiased newsstand reader here. I worked at Us Weekly for a decade, starting as a junior reporter (my main job: chasing Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez up and down the east coast as they filmed Gigli, fell in love and then fell out of love). I grew up there and was Editorial Director when I left. I had a front row seat as the magazine became an undeniable, pop culture institution. I worked with some truly visionary and talented editors in Bonnie Fuller, Janice Min and Mike Steele. I had some amazing, smart, innovative, dedicated, hilarious and talented colleagues, many of whom played an active role in building the magazine, many of whom are still there (and reportedly now being forced to re-interview for their own jobs).
But I think what made me a good Us Weekly employee was that I was always a superfan of the magazine and it’s ethos. I live in the Bay Area now, where people LOVE to talk about and celebrate a culture of “disrupting,” and Us Weekly fundamentally disrupted the Hollywood entertainment machine. Before Us, entertainment press was largely limited to staid, controlled and often mind-numbing cooperative cover interviews. Where star X met writer Y at a Hollywood institution like Shutters by the Beach, or perhaps, The Ivy. The star’s publicist was there, there was a tacit agreement in place about what could and couldn’t be asked, and the focus mostly stayed on “the craft.” Enter Us Weekly with a groundbreaking, two pronged approach: First by treating entertainment journalism as a serious news beat, often breaking stories that stars (and certainly the publicists and stakeholders surrounding them) didn’t want told. And second, with a host of smart, tongue-in-cheek features like Stars are Just Like Us and Who Wore it Best, designed to humanize these luminaries and remind us that they were in fact folks who waited in line at the DMV and hit the McDonalds drive thru just like the rest of us.
This is not to say that we got everything right. Us Weekly and the copycat magazines that followed, bred an overly invasive paparazzi culture (though Us Weekly, under Steele’s leadership, led the industry being the first to adopt a policy where they wouldn’t run unauthorized paparazzi photos of children).
Ultimately though, this humanization of stars drove them to communicate directly with their own fans through their own social channels like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat. You can trace a through line from Stars are Just Like Us to Chrissy Teigen live-tweeting her love of breakfast burritos. Which, sure, may not seem particularly important, but this direct communication continues to grow and change and evolve. Celebrities are now vocal and use their platforms to direct attention towards issues they’re really passionate about (like Teigen speaking bravely and honestly about her battle with postpartum depression). Coming down from their pedestal, entering the conversation, and shining a light on things that matter to them the most.
I can remember counting the number of people reading Us Weekly when I got on an airplane or waited in a checkout line or sat by a hotel pool in the mid-aughts. Juicy sweatsuits and Uggs and TomKat covers and delighted faces, completely sucked in. It was pervasive. It felt like the brand was unstoppable. And a lot of people were delighted. I hope Us’s new owners remember and respect this. There are not a lot of brands that are Just Like Us.