Jann Wenner is taking the high road.
This is kind of funny, because he's talking about Us Weekly.
"A bra strap slipping, dirty shoes, Britney walking barefoot-they're fun," says the sharply dressed, slightly stubbled chairman of Wenner Media, who's gazing down, mogul-style, onto midtown Manhattan from his hushed corner office. "To show people's unfortunate body parts, which the Star has"-it has, both traditionally and under the leadership of former Us Weekly editor/reinventor Bonnie Fuller-"that's just uncomfortable. It's compelling, but it's uncomfortable."
Ah, yes. Us Weekly: class act.
Roll your eyes; purse your lips and shake your head; slip it inside your bag so your smarty-pants friends don't see it. But resistance is futile. Thanks to its unprecedented fusion of newsstand heat, advertiser interest and-most incredibly-the way it's found a younger and wealthier audience, Us Weekly is Advertising Age's Magazine of the Year.
A RIOTOUSLY FUN `READ'
And, perhaps most importantly, it's a riotously fun read, assuming "read" is the right word. "No one ever says, `Did you read that in Us Weekly?' " says Simon Dumenco, former culture columnist for New York Magazine. "It's always `Did you see that horrific picture in Us Weekly?' "
Like it or not, Us Weekly has become a cultural reference point, if not an entire world view. It's one in which the absolutely insignificant-the hookups, breakups and baby-making of the youngish and beautiful-is what's most important. It's one in which people look at, rather than read, magazines. It's one in which Britney Spears twice prancing barefoot into gas station bathrooms merits news analysis, assuming a delirious picture page headlined "Britney: Totally Trashtastic!" qualifies as news analysis. (Oh, all right: It does. These days, it does.)
Ask yourself if anything will attenuate America's obsession with celebrity-and decimate sales of the Us Weeklies of the world-if you must. But also ask yourself : Would the likes of Bauer Publishing's In Touch and American Media's revamped Star-and Bauer's upcoming Life & Style Weekly-exist were it not for Us Weekly? Ask yourself: Is there nothing about the most pedestrian acts of celebrities-grocery shopping, struggling with sloppy ice cream cones-that America won't devour?
As Mr. Wenner might put it, the answers to these questions are uncomfortable. But compelling. Wenner General Manager Kent Brownridge cites internal data showing the average celebrity weekly reader buys 2.1 copies of them on the newsstand. Each week.
Celebrity life "is a form of entertainment," says Neal Gabler, author of "Life: The Movie" and a biography of ur-gossip columnist Walter Winchell. "I would go as far as to say it's the most popular narrative of the last 15 years."
For the first half of 2004, US Weekly's newsstand sales rose 47.3% to 745,887. Next year, an executive familiar with the financials says, Us Weekly will likely turn a profit of $50 million, and it's expected to outpace longtime Wenner flagship Rolling Stone in total revenue as well. Mediamark Research Inc. released figures this year that showed Us Weekly's women readers have a higher median household income-$83,365-than readers at Conde Nast Publications' Vanity Fair and Time Inc.'s In Style. This year, Mercedes-Benz USA was among the advertisers pumping up the weekly's pages 25.2% through September vs. a year ago, to 1,157.9, according to Publishers Information Bureau.
Remember when Sept. 11 was going to kill frivolity? Neither do we.
It's a clear early-autumn morning, and the white-hot center of celebrity culture-in other words, of American pop culture itself-may well be this undistinguished conference room in midtown Manhattan. It's stuffed with a standing-room-only crowd, where a mostly young, mostly female editorial staff of Us Weekly discusses recent fashion choices made by Ms. Spears and her new husband, Kevin Federline.
Mr. Federline, a staffer reports, was photographed wearing a hat urging all to "Rock out" with a crucial portion of the male anatomy exposed. Amid stifled giggles, staff writer Kevin O'Leary recalls, "Britney had a really gross hat, too."
"Her hat was `Shut up and do me,' " says a grinning Editor In Chief Janice Min.
This, friends, is how photo features at Us Weekly are born. "Consider it done," deadpans Deputy Editor Mike Steele, nodding while scribbling onto a pad. The hats in question turn up on Us Weekly's next back page, under the chirpy headline "Classy Hats!"
So goes the remora-shark relationship Us Weekly has with today's celebrities, though it's sometimes hard to tell who's the shark and who's the remora. If certain celebrity couplings are good for all parties' careers-think Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher or Justin Timberlake and Britney-then who's feeding whom?
"There is a relationship between the medium and the personality," says Mr. Gabler. "Justin and Cameron [Diaz]-she makes movies, he sings-but ultimately they are better known for their narrative than anything they do in the world."
Consider, says Michael Hirschorn, exec VP-production and programming at Viacom's VH1, "Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson. They've very smartly put their dirty laundry out there, literally, and have been very successful" because of it.
Ms. Min likes to say that Us Weekly focuses on "aspirational" celebrities, those with fantasy looks and fantasy paychecks and fantasy mates, like Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon. But the magazine's take on "Life: The Reality Show" gets much juice from these celebs' musings on the mundane. "Gwyneth [Paltrow] gave a quote where she said she was secretly wearing a girdle after she gave birth. That's why she looked so thin," says Ms. Min. "For our readers, that's really interesting."
Today, Us Weekly's DNA is a convoluted helix with genetic material grafted from '50s scandal sheets like Confidential, supermarket tabloids, the newest wave of British weeklies like Heat and OK!, the E! channel, In Style, and even the warhorse women's-service category.
It was not always this way. At Us Weekly's launch in March 2000, under the stewardship of former Esquire and Men's Journal Editor Terry McDonell, its sharply defined target of women had not yet fully coalesced, and Mr. Wenner struggled against his instincts.
"It was trying to be too much like Rolling Stone. I really had to learn to give that up," he says. "Three or four pages is way too long [for an Us article] ... 700 words is too long." (Cynics may counter that three paragraphs is too long for Us Weekly.) In its first year, executives say, Us Weekly lost around $30 million and newsstand sales fell far short of stated goals. Wenner Media had to cut rate base 20% to 800,000.
In February 2001, Walt Disney Co. bought a half-interest in Us Weekly for $35 million. (Mr. Wenner had spent a year in the '90s trying to find a partner for Us Weekly, recognizing a weekly launch was a mammoth undertaking for a company with a revenue base then well under $300 million.) More importantly, Ms. Fuller came on in February 2002, remaking the title and starting its string of double-digit newsstand increases. But she resigned abruptly in June 2003 to take over the Star, and is not always remembered with great fondness at Wenner.
"Bonnie's nuts. Bonnie is not a good boss," says Mr. Wenner. "And her instincts and editorial policies were beyond what I consider to be tasteful or acceptable. There is a nasty edge." (That edge, though, is precisely what first brought the media cognoscenti into Us Weekly's corner.)
Ms. Fuller, through a spokesman, declined to respond. But David Pecker, American Media's chairman-CEO, said in a statement: "It seems strange that he says that, since he aggressively attempted to keep her at Wenner Media. I have not experienced any of that with Bonnie. Her success on the newsstand [at the Star], in that she has already increased our sales, mirrors the impact she had there." In fact, for the first six months of 2004, the Star's newsstand sales slipped 10.5% to 916,022, though an American Media spokesman says that since then, newsstand sales were "regularly breaking 1 million."
In any event, Ms. Fuller's template proved durable enough to outlast her. Under her successor, Ms. Min, the numbers continue to skyrocket. (Much can be said about Michael Eisner's stewardship of Disney, but his Us Weekly deal proved remarkably prescient.) Ms. Min paints her Us Weekly as having a softer focus-key celebs' publicists might disagree-and appropriately wears her job-mandated obsession with celebrity effluvia lightly.
"You really want to feel like you can make a connection, whether that's delusional or not, to these [celebrity] women who are reflections of readers' lives," she says. "Breakups. Babies. Vacations." The traditional tropes of women's service magazines, played out on the red-carpeted landscape of today's celebrity culture.
"You can read Us, and I guarantee you not one story will make you feel stressed out," Ms. Min says. "That's not a bad thing!"
"You kind of need this sort of stuff when the world is going to hell in a handbasket," agrees Mr. Dumenco. "It's much more comforting to look at a horrific picture of a zitty, boozy Britney Spears than to think about what's going on in Iraq."