This is a story about the birth of modern celebrity media coverage.
It was early 2002 at Us Weekly magazine, which had recently started publishing every week after 23 years as a monthly. I had been working for the editor-in-chief, Terry McDonell, until he left to run Sports Illustrated. To shake things up, Us's owner Jann Wenner had just brought in Bonnie Fuller and Janice Min as the new top editors.
This was a different time. There was no Facebook or Twitter, and Gawker wouldn't launch for another year. Magazines barely had websites, let alone a web strategy. Us’s main competition was People, not TMZ. Star, OK!, and Life & Style had all yet to enter the fray. Us was trying to compete with People on People’s footing — a difficult task.
At the daily late-morning editorial meeting, the photo editor brought in images, many taken by paparazzi, that had come in over the wires overnight. He spread the color print-outs of celebrities all over the table: movie premieres, vacations, nights on the town. Bonnie sifted through them and focused on a photo of Drew Barrymore leaning over to fetch a coin off the sidewalk.
“Look at Drew Barrymore picking up a penny," she said. "It’s like, stars, they’re just like us.”
At that moment, the direction of the magazine — and, arguably, the nature of all celebrity coverage — shifted on its axis. Bonnie came up with a brilliant formula that heralded the era of accessible celebrities: stars who weren't distant icons but relatable "friends." They might be richer and more beautiful than us, but in unguarded moments, celebrities face the same mundane problems. If that seems obvious now, trust me, it wasn't then.
“Stars — They’re Just Like Us” ran in the magazine for the first time on April 1, 2002. You can see it in the photo at the top of this post. While Drew Barrymore’s picture wasn’t there, the fast-food-themed edition featured Jennifer Lopez, David Hasselhoff, Mel Gibson, and Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz.
It's been a feature of the magazine ever since.