Hot gossip: Ten years of Popbitch
Just a decade ago, stars of stage, screen and TV had little to fear from the media. But when a young celebrity-obsessed couple launched a weekly gossip email, the game changed forever.
Thursday 14 January 2010
One far-off day at the turn of the 21st century, just as the mythical Millennium Bug was pointedly failing to wreak havoc on the internet, Camilla Wright – a twentysomething, Oxford-educated freelance journalist with a history of NGO work in Eastern Europe – pinged an email newsletter to 15 of her friends. Wright and her then-boyfriend Neil Stevenson, an editor at a fledgling entertainment magazine named Heat, were disappointed by the dearth of irreverent celebrity news since the golden days of Smash Hits, the cheeky weekly that bestrode their beloved 1980s pop scene.
So they injected their mailout with wry commentary and off-the-wall music news, such as charts of the tunes most requested at funerals (number one was Celine Dion). Their first gossip stories included names already fading from popular consciousness: Meg Mathews, Macy Gray, Puff Daddy – now P Diddy – and an anecdote from Eric Clapton's champagne-free New Year's Eve party, at which he and fellow former-alcoholic celebrities saw in the millennium sober. Wright and Stevenson christened their creation, which has just turned 10, "Popbitch".
Popbitch may not have created Noughties celebrity culture – that charge can probably be laid at the doors of others, such as Endemol, Heat itself or Simon Fuller – but, like a Today programme for tittle-tattle, it set the tone for the discourse. "The media landscape was very different when we started Popbitch," says Wright now. "There wasn't blanket newspaper coverage of celebrities, and blogging was in its infancy. The entertainment press was still dominated by publicist-controlled, copy-approved features. We wanted to be Smash Hits for adults: a slightly odd, personal look at popular culture... but we also wanted to be like Private Eye for the celebrity media, looking behind the scenes at things that weren't taken seriously by investigative journalists. It was interesting to us to find out why certain stories got published and others didn't, who was behind them, and what secret deals were being done."
Thanks to the speed and the viral nature of email – still a novelty for many a decade ago – after 10 issues the weekly mailout was being sent to 80 readers; after 20 issues, 1,000 readers. Soon the Popbitch founders built a subscriber database and started throwing fundraisers to buy new servers. Today their circulation is 375,000, and email accounts across medialand are refreshed even more frequently than usual each Thursday, when the mailout is delivered. Meanwhile, the Popbitch methodology has been taken up by the mainstream media, specifically the lawyer-dodging "blind item" (a technique which, for example, became part of the Mirror's 3am gossip column, under the moniker, "Wicked Whispers"). These amusing but unattributed tales about anonymous celebs are laced with clues as to their identity: "It's a fun way to tell stories that are either too boring or too libellous if you actually name the person involved," says Wright.
Though Wright and Stevenson themselves remained officially anonymous for the first five years of Popbitch's life, the accuracy of their stories quickly became legendary. Their earliest subscribers were fellow journalists and entertainment industry professionals who embraced the mailouts and relished the chance to contribute their own stories, despite the lack of payment. (Even now Popbitch refuses to offer cash for gossip, and its income is only enough to cover its costs and Wright's salary; Stevenson, still nominally a director, takes little active part in the running of the site). Among the more highbrow contributors to endorse Popbitch are documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis and Private Eye hack Adam MacQueen, both of whom are among Wright's inner circle of advisers and editors.
In the decade since Popbitch's birth, the coverage of celebrity has been transformed from a largely reverent activity into a vicious clawing down of the famous from their perceived pedestals. And, perhaps misled by the "-bitch" bit of the Popbitch name, many more malign imitators have sprung up in its wake. "We have been happy to prick the pomposity of some of the big stars over the years," Wright admits, "but it was always meant to be done with love. Other sites are more cynical; if you don't love the world of celebrity and pop culture in some way, it's very easy to be nasty about it."
Indeed, Popbitch remains free of the more severe snark that characterises, say, the Manhattan media blog Gawker, or Britain's Holy Moly, which was set up by a Popbitch defector in 2002 and now has a mailout boasting a six-figure readership to rival Wright's. After Stevenson departed Heat to edit The Face, his former magazine reached a circulation peak of half a million thanks to its revised, celeb-bashing agenda. The levels of taste considered acceptable were such that in 2007, Heat printed a now notorious sheet of stickers including one alluding to Jordan's blind son, with the chronically misjudged slogan: "Harvey wants to eat me!"
By contrast, says Wright, the Popbitch stories held in most affection by its readers are gentle, and rarely correlate with the size of their subjects' fame: they include the sexual proclivities of former Doctor Who stars, Dizzee Rascal's love of Battenburg cake, and the sheer bloody niceness demonstrated by former Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant to members of the non-famous general public. Instead of knocking female celebrities for their weight gain or dubious skincare, the Popbitch mailout fills the gaps between gossip with cute animals, quirky world news and recommendations for new music and television shows.
"Pointless" celebrities first seen hanging from the arms of footballers or baring all on reality TV – the Jordans, Jades or Jodies – have dominated the gossip media in the last decade, making it to the pages of even "quality" newspapers. Wright is quick to agree that it's out of control. "I can see why celebrity culture is so big," she says. "Having famous people to talk about is social currency. But sometimes I think 'this must be a spoof'. I saw a headline on my office TV screen earlier today that said 'David Cameron backs Myleene Klass', which sounds like something Chris Morris would invent."
So has the Popbitch effect really pricked celebrity egos, or just blown more air into the balloon? "It's a wonderful comic warning to us all of what happens when you think you are the centre of the world," Adam Curtis, a staunch defender of the site, has said. "It's like that wonderful 19th Century novel about Mr Pooter, Diary of a Nobody. Popbitch is the diary of the nobodies of our time."
Remarkably, most grown-up celebrities enjoy the attentions of Popbitch. It was the 1980s that gave Wright her love of pop, and she can now number Elton John, The Pet Shop Boys, Duran Duran and John Deacon of Queen among her avid readership. "We got a Tweet from Jon Snow the other day saying he couldn't believe he'd made it into the mailout," says Wright, "which got us all very excited!" Not everyone has been so amused: the actor Max Beesley successfully sued the site for libel in 2008, for an unflattering and untrue story about his sex life. On the other hand, when the Beckhams first threatened Popbitch with legal action, the mailout put on 100,000 subscribers in a week.
Popbitch's influence so infected the media that the site's thunder has, arguably, been stolen by its more mainstream rivals. Scoops made it famous, despite being only a modest part of its output, but now they come even fewer and farther between. When gossip news is on the front pages, what's left for the gossip pages – let alone a plucky weekly web newsletter? Now, instead, it is often left to Popbitch to make amusing asides on stories that have already hit the pages of Grazia, or to mop up the leftovers of major scandals like Sachsgate, to which the site contributed Georgina Baillie's porn CV. Interestingly, Wright believes Russell Brand is among the few celebrities who are all but immune to gossip: "How can you gossip about Russell Brand? What could you say about him that he hasn't already said himself?"
Attempts to suppress gossip, she suggests, are gossip's best friend. "In the Eighties, people didn't have brand managers, so celebrities were much closer to journalists and to their fans. A lot of Tiger Woods' problems have come about, for instance, because he accepted all those multimillion-dollar endorsements. He got loads of advisers in to stop the whole world knowing what he was really doing. But there are lots of stars who don't do that, and who can get away with almost anything because they're not trying to protect a fake image. Popbitch came about because there was suddenly a big gap between the private reality of a star and the public image they were trying to promote for money. When that comes about, you get a dislocation – and you get gossip."
Popbitch's Top Bitches
Derek and Skeletor
In the site's early years, the Beckhams were quintessential Popbitch fodder. Known to the mailout's recipients as "Derek" (David was introduced as "Derek" at an event in the US in 2003 and the name stuck) and "Skeletor", Posh and Becks produced some of the site's most famous – and notorious – scoops. In 2002, Popbitch was the first to report that Victoria was pregnant with the couple's second son, Romeo. It published allegations of David's infidelity 18 months before the tabloids. And a regular Popbitch poster broke the news of the footballer's move from Manchester to Madrid more than four months before the mainstream press had the story.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so Popbitch ought to be pleased to have generated as many mimics as it has. The site's most successful spawn is Holy Moly, launched by Popbitch defector "Mr Holy Moly" in 2002, after he became disgruntled at his parent site's London-centric focus and perceived lack of business nous. Holy Moly is generally more celebrity-saturated than its animal-loving rival, and its commentary even bitchier.
Mark Oaten's outing
Along with political blogger Guido Fawkes, who claimed to have broken the story during a podcast, Popbitch beat the News of the World to the sorry tale of married Liberal Democrat leadership challenger Mark Oaten's visits to a rent boy. Unlike the newspapers, Popbitch continued to jokingly allude to the (alleged) precise nature of Oaten and the young man's encounters. The News of the World, recalls Popbitch founder, Camilla Wright, described it as "a sexual act not appropriate for a family newspaper."
Popbitch isn't preoccupied merely with the celebrity species. It also has a distinct fondness for other creatures, particularly otters. Otter tales and YouTube links have featured frequently in mailouts over the years, and reached a high point with the adventures of Jin, the otter who escaped from Auckland Zoo, New Zealand, in 2006 by digging through two walls and climbing over the 1.8-metre barrier surrounding her enclosure. Jin was finally returned to captivity 26 days and 12 miles later, after a series of sightings around the local bays and harbours. Popbitch also has its own otter at London Zoo, named after the dearly departed Popbitch contributor, Reverend Goatboy.
Liam and Nicole
Popbitch correctly linked Liam Gallagher to Nicole Appleton of All Saints long before any other publication claimed the pair were dating. Thanks to some mischievous message board posters, however, the mailout did also once claim that Appleton had a rare medical condition that meant she was born with a tail. This was untrue.
The Old Jokes Home
Two hydrogen atoms walk into a bar. One says: "I think I've lost an electron." The other says, "Are you sure?" The first replies, "Yes, I'm positive..."
An old man goes to the doctor. The doctor says "I'm sorry, you have cancer and
Alzheimer's." The old man replies, "Could be worse. At least it's not cancer."
Q What have a Pelican and a Tax Inspector got in common?
A They can both stick their bills up their arse
Q What's silver and sits at the end of the bed taking the piss o ut of you?
A A kidney dialysis machine.
Q What's yellow and hides in Afghanistan?
A The Talibanana
While the Sachsgate scandal dominated the media for weeks at the end of 2008, Popbitch was the first outlet to mention the resume of Andrew Sachs' granddaughter and Russell Brand's former squeeze, Georgina Baillie. Baillie, the site suggested, wasn't exactly squeaky clean, made a living as a £110-an-hour dominatrix, and had a history in the porn industry. The story was soon followed up by the press.
Madonna is another of Popbitch's favourite celebrities, not least since she namechecked the site on stage during her 2001 tour, when she waved hello to "all you Popbitchers out there" – an incident that Wright took as proof that Madge, as rumoured, had been posting anonymously on the Popbitch message board. Popbitch was also the first outlet to correctly announce the name of Madonna and Guy Ritchie's son before he was born, after a mole informed them that the singer's daughter Lourdes had been addressing her mother's belly as Rocco.
The Blind Item
Popbitch's greatest contribution to media law is the blind item, whereby the mailout reports scurrilous rumours without ever naming the unfortunate celebrities involved - thus avoiding accusations of libel. Which beloved former primetime TV star, for example, was said to preface each penetrative sexual encounter with the words: "Tom's coming in now"? The celeb-savvy could frequently guess the subject's identity thanks to a trail of clues left in each item by the Popbitch posters.
Among Popbitch's many achievements was the introduction of a number of new terms to the urban dictionary. "Pramface", for instance, is taken to mean a young woman who looks like she should be pushing a pram through an underprivileged council estate in a tracksuit. Wright, however, claims that the apparently snobbish term merely denoted the bland female popstars of the era, who had none of the individuality of their 1980s forebears. "Croydon Facelift", meanwhile, refers to the tendency of some young women to pull their hair so tightly into a ponytail that it stretches their facial features. "Gak" is now an accepted euphemism for cocaine, and "Tanorexic" an adjective for the excessively bronzed. Early in the Popbitch lifecycle some such words were turned into popular t-shirts and sold via the website, including one with the legend "Chazbaps", after a certain young celebrity alleged to enjoy having "chaz" (or "gak") snorted from atop her "baps".
In 2008, Max Beesley became the only celebrity to have won significant damages from Popbitch after it ran a false story about his sex life. Other celebrities have taken issue with the site's stories, however, and when Jeremy Clarkson and David Beckham both took legal action over allegations posted by contributors on the site's message board, Popbitch supremos Camilla Wright and Neil Stevenson were forced to update their operation, appointing "board members" to modify anything considered libellous and lacking in "pop" or "bitch" on the boards.
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