SIMPSON CASE TITILLATES COVER EDITORS

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Truth may be stranger than fiction, but even more peculiar is when truth is stranger than the supermarket tabloids. Last month, however, the tabs devoted much of their ink to a titillating, true-life pulp tale even they couldn't sensationalize-the O.J. Simpson murder case, July's Cover Story winner.

Cover Story is a monthly ranking of celebrities' popularity as reflected by their appearance on the covers of more than 30 of the nation's leading publications.

With more grist and twists and zany, suspect characters than John Grisham or even the writers of "Matlock" could (probably) dream up, Simpson mania riveted the American media and the public last month.

TV networks often sacrificed ad time to bring gavel-to-gavel coverage of Mr. Simpson's pre-trial hearings to a nation of La-Z-Boy jurors, each with their own take on whether the former football great could have killed his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman.

On the print side, reputable newsstand fare like Newsweek, Time and People weighed in with legal analysis and discussions of the wife abuse issues the case has raised.

But the National Enquirer, the Star and the rest of their ilk covered the story week in, week out, digging up the dirt on Nicole and O.J., Kato and Shapiro, and even reported on conspiracy plots to frame Mr. Simpson for the deaths.

The case, which topped the June Cover Story survey with 8 points, captured first place again in July with 12 points, with 8 points alone coming from the tabloids.

With a trial date set for September, Mr. Simpson figures to be a Cover Story fixture through the fall.

Quietly settling into second behind the sound and fury of Mr. Simpson was the late Jacqueline Onassis with 7 points. Vanity Fair was among the magazines that weighed in with remembrances of the former Mrs. John F. Kennedy, who died in late May.

Actress Julia Roberts finished third with 5 points. Ms. Roberts, trying to plug her summertime film (and box office disappointment) "I Love Trouble," instead continued to deny rumors of friction between herself and husband Lyle Lovett.

A pair of actors wrestled to a standstill for possession of fourth place: Jeff Bridges and Michelle Pfeiffer tied with 4 points each. Both were also touting new movies: Mr. Bridges for "Blown Away," a mad bomber thriller that's been a relative box office dud, and Ms. Pfeiffer for "Wolf," a werewolf flick for the respectable set that's been scaring up decent ticket sales.

A gallery of glitterati gluts up the sixth-place slot to round out the July survey, each with three points: Icelandic pop singer Bjork; actress Melanie Griffith; Ms. Pfeiffer's hairy "Wolf" co-star, Jack Nicholson; and, respectively, the star and the director of "Wyatt Earp," Kevin Costner and Lawrence Kasdan.

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