Jennifer Aniston: Why are tabloids so obsessed with 'pregnancy' and 'divorce'?

The Independent spoke to the former entertainment editor of US Weekly about how much one pregnancy or divorce story can net a tabloid magazine 

Heather Saul
Tuesday 26 July 2016 15:00 BST
Horrible Bosses actress Jennifer Anniston
Horrible Bosses actress Jennifer Anniston (Getty Images)

When you think of the most ubiquitous names that appear under the neon-coloured headlines of tabloids and gossip sites, Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie are often the first two to spring to mind. The breakdown of a relationship catapulted both women to the front covers of virtually every front cover and top of every website, the pair both suddenly a part of one of the most enduring tabloid sagas in recent memory. Even now, a decade on and with Aniston and Jolie married to Justin Theroux and Brad Pitt respectively, they continue to find themselves pictured squarely under hyperbolic headlines screaming “divorce”, “marriage on the rocks” and/or “pregnant”.

If the headlines that have followed ever since are to be believed, Aniston has been ‘pregnant’, ‘married’ and ‘divorced’ - sometimes simultaneously - thousands of times over.

In June, InTouch magazine declared Aniston was expecting a “miracle” baby, a story apparently confirmed by an unnamed “friend” and photos of her in a bikini while on holiday. Aniston was forced to swat away yet another false story, with her publicist staunchly dismissing the report and explaining that Aniston had simply “enjoyed a big lunch”. Remarkably, the article still exists under the same headline: “Jennifer Aniston Pregnant With A Miracle Baby at 47”.

Today, Aniston has responded with a blistering comment piece denouncing a tabloid culture that presents women who are single or without children as incomplete.

Taylor Swift is another case in point. Her jaunts around the world with Tom Hiddleston are breathlessly documented by outlets and gossip sites grateful for a new romance to latch onto. In a moment of acute self-awareness, Hiddleston decided to parody the situation by wearing an “I love Taylor Swift” t-shirt. The ‘Taylor pregnant!’ headlines will inevitably and rapidly emerge if the lovebirds now dubbed Hiddleswift by the enamored public decide to move in together. It is only a matter of time before suggestions their relationship is breaking down in some way begin to circulate.

But why do tabloids objectify women so routinely and repetitively with speculation over their fertility, their body or their relationships? In short: because pregnancies, fake pregnancies, divorces and fake divorces are big money-makers for the tabloid industry, particularly in the US. As Aniston highlighted, these stories will continue to exist while readers avidly consume them.

Jennifer Aniston Sparks Pregnancy Rumors in Skimpy Bikini

However, there is a push-back from the subjects of these stories now that social media dominates celebrity discourse. Celebrities are often beating the US tabloids by taking control of their own narratives, using Instagram and Facebook to break gossip about themselves; suggestive pictures with potential partners, to confirm a pregnancy or divorce, or to refute the narrative being perpetuated.

Others, like Aniston, respond with eloquently written, considered essays on the wider implications of obsessing over the personal and domestic, and the perils of wilfully ignoring self-fulfilment.

The Independent spoke to Wynter Mitchell (@wyntermitchell) “Pop Rocket” host, digital consultant and former entertainment editor for US Weekly about why tabloids obsess over pregnancy and divorce rumours to an almost satirical degree.

Why do you think there is such an appetite for pregnancy stories, particularly with women such as Jennifer Aniston?

Because her life choices, which any woman is allowed to make, have been put on a pedestal by readers. The editorialisation of her journey: hard work, superstardom, fairytale marriage, nasty divorce, finding love again, is an arc many can relate to. It fits the ‘celebrity’ narrative that a natural progression in her relationships would include children. She’s a star that many women empathise with and I think many see themselves in her considering how classy and vulnerable she’s been over the years with stuff that isn’t easy to deal with in the public eye.

Secondly, kids are big business for weeklies. The perception is that they rejuvenate careers, calm down starlets and generate wish-fulfillment. Who doesn't love a baby?

How much could a magazine such as InTouch stand to make from publishing a story suggesting women such as Aniston are pregnant?

In the case of InTouch’s story, we’re looking at first week sales with some runoff, but Team Aniston being so swift by shutting down the rumours literally the day the issue hits the stands gives them an opportunity to take the wind out of the cover’s sales. If the magazine is selling at its rate base, which last listed at 425,000 with its current rate of $2.99 per issue, you’re looking at a little over $1.25 million, not including subscriptions. But then there is the operating costs and what they paid for those exclusive photos. Photo prices are definitely down, but getting first hack at a good set is still good business. Also factor in advertising. Say a full page is about $15,000 to $25,000 but there’s also a quarter page and half page ad and costs for those vary. With the addition of online revenue, it’s substantial but entirely dependent on shares and overall engagement. You’re looking at close to $2m now. InTouch’s digital platform is not as sophisticated as its competition. They’re hoping that curious readers engage with the copious adverts on the site. In the case of nailing a cover story - every week it’s a swing and a hit or miss.

Are there any examples of particular celeb stories from ‘sources’ which often turn out to be false, such as divorce stories, that have still made huge sums of money?

The money only comes in when the reader is invested in what you’re sharing. At US Weekly, we were consistently on the money - same with People. With others, sometimes it’s an educated guess or a gathering of small facts and key observations that create a cohesive tale. Either way, it's betting on the appetite of the public. For instance, suggesting that Kim Kardashian and Kanye West were having problems for months after Saint’s birth is a good way to keep a reader engaged and the story in the news. Whether or not they truly were having marital woes, it’s still fascinating for fans to know what’s happening in their lives and follow it week to week. They’re still aspirational figures, love or loathe them; they make for awesome reading whether it's true or just an illusion.

Kim Kardashian-West
Kim Kardashian-West (Getty)

How much could an exclusive story that turns out to be true, such as a pregnancy or divorce, make a magazine?

If you’re not counting the cost of buying photos, which can be in the hundreds of thousands, you’d have to understand, the days of having a story go on and on is much harder to sustain. Whereas Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez lasted almost two years dominating covers (same with Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears, Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart) celebrities take much more consideration in shaping the narrative of what gets out there. Since Twilight, there hasn’t been a couple that has dominated the news and especially with such ferocity in quite some time. It has been Kardashian-centric since 2009.

The tabloid narrative has expanded to include reality stars and shows, because you can watch this story play out for a handful of weeks and never be without content. If we haven’t seen Brad and Angelina in some weeks, does it make people start to wonder? Sure, but they have much better control now of how their information gets out there, they will almost always control the delivery before it leaks. Swift’s breakup and subsequent coupling with Hiddleston is rejuvenating and international. Tabloids are still trying to move newsstand and that gets harder and harder, but if you can get 300,00 off the newsstand and couple that with an exploding online platform, many publishers are attempting to recoup online what they’re losing on the stands.

Which celebrities make the most money for tabloid magazines?

Easily the Kardashians, Swift and stars of The Bachelor and Teen Mom stars. Their stories continue to evolve and expand with no signs of slowing down. The shape and form of it includes many life changes that most people experience. They dominate so many brackets: beauty, fashion, marriage, divorce, pregnancy, heartbreak, home ownership/decor, entrepreneurship, travel, etc.

Don’t think the influx of social media platforms hasn’t hurt the publishing industry, especially in the case of weeklies. If you want to break a story these days you need evidence and you need it quick and to hold. With Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat, celebrities can beat you to it and engage their own audience to tell that story. That’s why the expansion of utilising Facebook Live, proprietary video content and Snapchat satiates the immediacy, something many publishing platforms should and are embracing. If you can break a story live or tease a cover story to encourage a reader to head to the newsstand, you’re extending your brand’s footprint and grabbing a new segment of that audience.

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