GOSSIP, STORIES & RUMOURS: THE MEDIA’S EFFECT ON CELEBRITIES by Avrel Festinger

In December 2013, singer Selena Gomez cancelled her world tour without explaining why. Immediately, tabloid magazines determined that they would answer this question for her without her consent, and a few days later the story broke. Apparently, the once pure and innocent Disney star had gone bad and cancelled her tour because of a drug addiction.

In 2015, Gomez returned to L.A. after taking a long break and announced the release of her new album “Revival.” Although this was an exciting time for her fans, much of the media world remained stuck on her “drug addiction.” In an interview with Billboard Magazine, Gomez confronted the media over what they had been saying about her and revealed that she suffered from an autoimmune disease called Lupus.

“I was diagnosed with Lupus, and I’ve been through chemotherapy.” Selena revealed, “That’s what my break was really about. I could’ve had a stroke. I wanted so badly to say, ‘You guys have no idea. I’m in chemotherapy!’ I locked myself away until I was confident and comfortable again.” Gomez chose to take her anger and exasperation over the tabloid story and channel it into her music, making Revival one of the best-selling albums of 2015. The “hate” it seemed, had motivated her.

For countless years celebrities have been watched, monitored and portrayed incorrectly by the media. This invasion of privacy can affect the health of celebrities and even lead to a change in their behaviour. Although this change is sometimes for the better, many times it can have the opposite effect.

The first modern tabloid newspaper, “The Daily Mirror” was created in 1903, consisting of celebrity gossip, sports, as well as human tragedy and crime stories. By 1909 the tabloid was selling a million copies a day and reading tabloids had become a way of life for millions of people. With time, these tabloid newspapers have evolved into magazines such as “Star” and “Ok!” or blogs like “TMZ.” Although these media outlets are entertaining, they are rarely entirely factual “There is a massive instability of information around celebrities” says David Marshall, Professor of New Media at Deakin University (Australia) in a recent interview. “In magazine covers the story as it’s described in the headline is often so much conjecture that when you get into the story it’s minor, it might have a fragment of truth.” This manipulation of the facts is partly why tabloids affect celebrities to the extent that they do. Additionally, celebrity tabloids do not only rely on credible sources. While speaking with Professor Marshall he said, “In those things (tabloids) it is rare that they have more than a source that vaguely knows the celebrity…sometimes they (the source) met them (a celebrity) literally at a party and they don’t really know them but they are willing to talk about them.” This effectively means that anyone who has met a celebrity even in passing has the ability to “confirm” a rumour and impact the celebrity’s life. Moreover, tabloids can acquire much of their information using immoral techniques. Former tabloid writer Marlise Kast writes in an article, “rumour had it that the Globe paid $150.00 for each celebrity’s social security number.” Besides the use of questionable tactics behind the scenes, tabloids enlist the help of the paparazzi who are also highly invasive. Eitan Levine, a writer for the website “Elite Daily” shadowed the L.A. paparazzi for one week. Although in his article Levine talked about how the paparazzi are misunderstood, he did share some rather disturbing stories. For example, he described how he and four other men sat outside of 19 year old actress Ariel Winter’s house at 7:15 AM. They waited for her to come out and then proceeded to follow her to Starbucks just to get a few pictures. With the help of the paparazzi, a small part of life, like going out for a coffee, is blown up so that the whole world can see and comment on it. Daily errands turn into cover stories on slow news days, and the privacy and dignity of the celebrity are eroded.

Very often, when a celebrity hears about something that is said about her that is untrue, or feels she is being unfairly targeted by the media, there is a flood of angry tweets, Instagram messages or other forms of social media rants. However, there are many times when the celebrity cannot merely “keyboard smash” her issues away. In these instances, the celebrity is at risk of allowing the negativity to consume her, possibly even resulting in adverse mental health repercussions. Consider Britney Spears, who in 2007 lost her two children in a custody battle. Previously, she had made several efforts to rehabilitate herself from drugs, and most famously, had shaved her head. Each aspect of her mental health breakdown was documented by the media, and today that information is still readily available on social media. In a paper entitled “The Negative Effects of the Media on Celebrities” author Sara Wright, states, “The day of peak ‘Britney meltdown’ “The Sun, Mirror and the rest weighed in about “Psychotic Brit at rock bottom.” The world watched as Britney fell deeper down the rabbit hole, despite the fact that she was suffering and that her pain was clearly palpable. In a recent interview Britney looked back on her darkest times and reflected, “my twenties were awful…From an early age I always felt that everyone was testing me. If something was not in place, it would have been enough to get me to this point of anxiety.” Spears felt as if she needed to please every media outlet and every paparazzo. Her life became more about making others happy and less about taking care of herself. In Wright’s paper, she quotes physiology expert Angela Davidson who perfectly summarizes Spears’ experience, observing, “the media makes it difficult for celebrities to feel in control of their public image. Having an external locus of control, in which one has little feeling of control over life events, may result in deteriorated health.” Instead of getting the help that she needed, Spears received hundreds of letters and emails criticizing her for “losing it”. Similarly, hundreds of pictures were posted on the internet of Spears entering rehabilitation. She got lost in a battle for perfection, allowing the tabloids to gain control of her narrative. Every part of her breakdown became public knowledge and even though Britney Spears is now in a better place, the negative photos and articles are still out there. It is conceivable that her life would have been very different had she not felt constantly tested and judged by the media.

Despite the negative aspects that often result from an invasive media, it is equally fair to say that sometimes there is good that can come from it. One major problem with the approach of the paparazzi is that they will work tirelessly to take a picture of not only the celebrity, but anyone related to the celebrity, even young children. In the summer of 2013 a paparazzo decided to call Suri Cruise (daughter of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes) a “b**ch” and a “brat” because she told the paparazzi crowd hounding her to get out of her way. In an effort to end this kind of harassment, actress Halle Berry appeared before the California State Capitol in 2013 to testify in support of a bill that would restrict the photography of children of celebrities and other public figures. In her testimony she stated, “My daughter doesn’t want to go to school because she knows ‘the men’ are watching for her.” Additionally, actress Jennifer Garner testified, speaking out about the mentally ill people who blend in with the paparazzi to get close to her children. She offered one example of a man who had threatened to “cut the babies out of her belly” and who was arrested waiting behind her daughter’s preschool, standing amidst a crowd of paparazzi. The bill passed and is now part of the law of the State of California.

While not all celebrities are advocates in the legislatures, some speak out against the media in other ways. For example, Jennifer Aniston who has been shamed by the media on countless occasions, posted on her Instagram account the following, “For the record, I am not pregnant. What I am is fed up. I’m fed up with the sport-like scrutiny and body shaming that occurs daily under the guise of ‘journalism,’ the ‘First Amendment’ and ‘celebrity news’”. She continued, “We get to decide how much we buy into what’s being served up, and maybe someday the tabloids will be forced to see the world through a different, more humanized lens.”

On any day of the week, it is remarkably easy to come across a tabloid story. It is at the check-out counter of a grocery store and it is online as so-called ‘pop up’ articles cross computer screens. It is also on the radio and it is even on the street, as two people walk by exchanging the latest in celebrity gossip. Stories about celebrities are everywhere, all the time, and very often are factually inaccurate and obtained in ways that are ethically questionable. Yes, celebrities are rich, often with multiple pairs of shoes and large houses but, most importantly, they are also among the people who check out at grocery stores, listen to the radio, spend time online and even walk down streets. As a result, they have to endure the false and painful stories that are written or said about them as they try and go about having some version of normal lives. Celebrities are people too, and are not oblivious to the hurtful comments that are made about them. Celebrities see those comments and they feel them, and sometimes the pain is so profound that it affects their mental and physical well-being. Michael Hirschorn, executive vice president of original programming and production for VH1, very well captures how the media and some members of the public treat celebrities. He observes, “The public — still enamoured of famous people, but now looking down at them instead of up, or at least sideways — picks over the hideous fashion choices, the delicious quotes, the overdoses, and the suicide attempts with the relish of hyenas tearing apart a wildebeest.” The lesson is, that it is best not to be the hyena.