Exposed! America's biggest scandal sheet

The `National Enquirer', home of the sexpose, the promiscuous exclamation mark and the permanently shocked prose, is celebrating its first quarter-century. John Lyttle dishes the dirt on the world's most popular weekly

Anyone for irony? On the eve of its 25th birthday, the National Enquirer - America's best-selling paper, the world's most-read tabloid weekly, the publication that printed pictures of the OJ prosecutor Marcia Clark topless, blithely ran "candids" of Elvis Presley and River Phoenix in their coffins, unearthed Nicole Simpson's diary ("OJ beat the holy hell out of me and we lied at the X-ray lab"), featured model Donna Rice sat on the lap of then presidential hopeful Gary Hart, and were the first to transcribe the Squidgy tapes - that same National Enquirer demanded that staffers sign a confidentiality agreement barring them from disclosing the tiniest titbit, the merest rumour, the flimsiest gossip to any other branch of the press: a ban that continues for five years after they leave the Florida-based operation, under threat of "punitive damages". The sort of punitive damages - $150,000 - that the Enquirer had to pay Clint Eastwood last year after publishing a bogus interview in which the Man With No Name allegedly demeaned the fairer sex and boasted about his legendary capacity for hard liquor, not to mention the $400,000 out of court settlement the then Roseanne Arnold received for the theft of love letters to her husband Tom.

A gagging clause at the Enquirer, home of the brutal expose, promiscuous exclamation mark and permanently shocked prose - it's like Dean Martin telling you, most sincerely folks, to lay off the sauce. And yes, the Enquirer was first to trumpet the late crooner's galloping cancer, and his six-pack with Valium habit, and do a lip smacking lay-out of the "brave but ravaged star".

Isn't this the same Enquirer where showbiz columnist Mike Walker routinely, gleefully, discloses the top secret plots of every hit soap and sitcom? "On next season's final episode, Roseanne will take her character full circle when she hauls her family to a comedy club. There she'll shock 'em with the news she's secretly been moonlighting as a stand-up comic!" The Mike Walker who invites the masses to e-mail him with hot tips, just as the editorial masthead pimps for spicy revelations ("We've got $500 for you ... we're looking for stories of tragedy and triumph, courage and sacrifice, humor and outrage") and tells punters that it's their duty to grass on "deadbeat dads" ("He hasn't paid his children a dime in 15 years!"). The same Enquirer, as the Daily Mail pointed out, that put 20 hacks to work investigating Michael Jackson, turning over not unwilling bodyguards, cleaners and cooks, and which runs a permanent advertisement in the Hollywood press inviting the servants of celebrities to break the confidentiality agreements their bosses have made them sign, and flog their torrid tales for a juicy profit. And why do Hollywood stars compel their employees to make their mark on such documents? Because of the Enquirer, of course. As the Mail accurately, if hypocritically, sniffed, "Some now take such jobs for that reason alone." Nice work if you can get it.

The executive editor Steve Coz, however, is as mad as hell and he ain't gonna take it any more. "We're sick and tired of the media ripping off our advance stories. Take the premature leak of our recent exclusive, `Grace Under Fire Scandal: Brett Butler's Bizarre Sexual Antics With TV Kid.' It's absurd. We're getting calls on Friday about the issue coming out the following week. It damages our sales ... We're trying to maintain our competitive edge."

Fifteen million-plus Stateside readers will be glad to hear it, as will fans, aficionados and addicts in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and dear old Blighty. Still, having made the world in its image, it ill behoves the Enquirer to whine. After all, its aggression - photographer Scott Harris famously parachuted into the middle of Elizabeth Taylor and Larry Fortensky's wedding, relaying live pictures via video-helmet back to base - and evolutionary long-term success created the perfect environment for such American print rivals as the Globe and True News to flourish. It has made them and their later sensational TV equivalents, Hard Copy, A Current Affair and Inside Edition acceptable to a mainstream which had once despised their progenitor for pandering to, (to quote media analyst Robert Stovall on the occasion of the Enquirer turning from private concern to public company in 1991), "the prurient and puerile in the populace".

The prurient, puerile and poor. Though the Enquirer has for years attempted to reach upmarket - "upmarket" according to one-time Enquirer reporter Gerry Brown, "from two-headed babies to flying saucers, fortune- tellers, psychic phenomena and miracle cancer cures" - it remains resolutely supermarket, peddling death, disaster, divorce and diet tips to bloated white trash waiting in the check-out lane, snouts enviously pressed up against the window pane that forever separates them from the Dream.

The official history states that the original owner, Generoso Pope Jr, bought the 17,000 circulation New York Enquirer from the ailing Hearst newspaper empire with $75,000 borrowed from the bank. The grapevine says he persuaded his real-life godfather, the gangster Frank Costello, to deliver the purchase price. Whichever version you prefer, the fact is that the Enquirer also bought into Hearst's "yellow journalism", the sort that traded in sideshow hucksterism (the lame made to walk, the bald made hirsute) and "true" stories of cursed tombs.

The revamped Enquirer had ambitions - New York yielded to National - and it began by updating the old formula; it went big on bloody car crashes, infants eaten by rats, faithless husbands decapitated by enraged wives and many, many post-mortem pics of unfortunates done in by freak accidents, the freakier the better. How about the lumberjack who cut himself in two with a chainsaw - and lived to tell the tale?

It sold well in the Deep South and in crowded urban areas with blue- collar workers hungry for distraction from the daily grind (or the dim misery of unemployment). It was quite something; as American as aerosol cheese, yet simultaneously UnAmerican, for it paraded lives that any reader could recognise as trapped by a class system the system itself refused to acknowledge.

No wonder the Enquirer's energy, bite and snappy, voyeuristic style - "Mom Used Son's Face As Ashtray" - fascinated and repelled the folks who took, say, the Washington Post, with its leaden editorials, careful reporting and dull "objective" prose. The nobs made all the right, that is to say, proper, noises - "tasteless", "vulgar", "sickening" - and they still do (though in lower and fewer voices) but the Enquirer drilled into a great natural resource: the secret, barely submerged jealousy of the disgruntled masses. The white masses, that is. As Gerry Brown mentions in his astute and lively autobiography, Exposed!, Pope was a racist - black faces do not feature, unless the faces belonged to Sammy Davis Jr or Louis Armstrong, and then only maybe.

Still, as the Enquirer mutated into a mass taste, that prole jealousy would find a convenient target; the nobs themselves, be they royalty (cue the Grimaldis and the inexhaustible Windsors) movie stars, politicans, millionaires or authority figures who let rapists and child molesters out on parole.

That wasn't the original intention, of course. Though determined to push sales above three million, in the early Seventies Generoso Pope Jr's plan was to court respectability - of a sort - with upbeat tales of the occult ("Wife's Ghost Saves Widower!") and small town heroism; soft human interest. Intruding upon, or attacking, the icons of American achievement wasn't on the agenda: Pope might cater to the lowest common denominator but he bought and lived the Dream.

Except that something interesting happened. The hacks Pope recruited to help him change the Enquirer were mostly British. Brown, for instance, had done time on the News of the World and the Mirror, Billy Burt hailed from the Scottish Daily Mail, ditto the editor, Iain Calder, and Jimmy McCandlish; others came from as far afield as the Western Daily Press and the Manchester Evening News. Pope's personal favourite was Noel Botham, sometime Elvis impersonator and perennial scoop machine. Botham got the poop on Princess Grace's demise ahead of the pack and took sales to a near-record seven million.

Yet, as any savaged Brit star will tell you, if there's one thing the British and the British tabloids hate, it's success, particularly the sustained variety. The Enquirer was meant to be cleaning up its act, but the very presence of these hardened hacks subverted Pope's aims, releasing the rabid self-righteousness that was always lurking within the Enquirer ethos. In fact, they opened the door for the British to sweep into the top posts at the New Yorker, Vogue, Harpers Bazaar, Mademoiselle, TV Guide, Details and New Republic. It is likewise no accident that Hard Copy, Inside Edition and A Current Affair should be produced by, as the American writer Richard Ben Cramer sneers, imported Britons "or Australians - who are just Brits with bad accents". That continuing connection might explain how the Sun's Squidgy tapes appeared in the Enquirer first, allowing the Sun to pull its "Well, it's been published abroad" excuse.

By the time Pope died in 1988, the circulation stood at around five million, the empire was worth $403m, and the magazine led a culture now obsessed with sex, celebrity and cold cash. It looked swell in colour, giving over its old black and white press to its sister publication, the Weekly World News, which continues the tradition of "Abraham Lincoln's Corpse Revived" for the terminally naive. The "upbeat" Enquirer was for the jaded. "Grow up!" comedienne Joan Rivers would harangue audiences, "Read the Enquirer!" Which didn't stop the tabloid from hinting that she had driven her husband to suicide or having Anthony Perkins blood-tested for HIV (the result was positive) or generating a $50m lawsuit from Engelbert Humperdinck for claiming he too had the virus. The Enquirer had triumphed, not by cleaning up its act, but by the opposite, a fact that no number of recipes and cute pet pics could disguise. As Gerry Brown brazenly announces, if bribery, break-ins and bullying didn't work, the next best thing was to make it up, or cause the headlines to happen; no, Roseanne and Tom didn't trash that rented house, Enquirer reporters did, but that's partially Tom's fault anyway because he tried to get cosy with the boyos, forgetting that the boyos bite. But one can hardly blame him. The Enquirer's power has become such that stars genuflect before it. Burt Reynolds gave them the goods on his estranged wife, Loni Anderson, and on his own affair, an admission that upped his divorce settlement by some 10 million.

Yet if the act hasn't been cleaned up, everyone is in on it. The market place is getting crowded and the stars as aggressive as their stalkers. The eternally tormented Elizabeth Taylor swears she'll "get those bastards" one day for portraying her as an unreformed boozer, and after coming close in 1991 with a $20m lawsuit that had to be settled out of court with a fulsome apology. Liz has a habit of getting lucky, and next time she might hit the jackpot. Having reached the ripe old age of 25, it might profit the Enquirer to get nice - but not too nice.

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