February 3, 2005
Read All About It
At this moment, I have no idea if Jennifer Garner is having Ben Affleck's baby, who Hilary Swank is wearing to the Oscars or what brand of moisturizer Catherine Zeta Jones has shipped in from a nunnery in Peru.
I am no longer binge reading. As of now, I'm out of touch with In Touch.
There's nothing inherently wrong with reading celebrity gossip magazines. If you can do it in moderation, I applaud you (and please let me know if Lindsay Lohan's dad ever gets his act together). In my case, however, I was a problem reader and I had to put the magazines down. It started innocently enough. I was working on a morning news show in New York and doing occasional segments with writers from Star Magazine, In Touch, People and other weekly magazines. I'd interview gossip writers about the celebrity news of the day, how Julia Roberts was handling her pregnancy, what new freebies Star Jones was hoarding. This was all part of my job, and it never went to "a bad place." Soon, the magazines started showing up at my office, sent to me by publicists. They'd sit on my desk, as enticing to me as a fistful of Vioxx. Inevitably, a co-worker would glance down and notice a particularly poignant headline, for example "Celebrity Flaws."
"No way! That is not Jerry Hall's thigh," they would squeal, snatching the glossy from my desk. "Are you telling me those are Paris Hilton's feet? Those are huge!"
Like children hearing the muted tones of an ice cream truck entering the cul-de-sac, other women would materialize, hungry for cellulite secrets and maybe a scoop of schadenfraude.
"Let me see that. Are those Angelina Jolie's hands? She has man hands!" someone else would chime in, peering down at the cover. The excitement would build until I'd give the magazine away.
One moment, I was indifferent to celebrity hands, the next they had a choke hold on me. I started smuggling the magazines home in my purse.
Because I worked the early morning shift and kept odd hours, I found a stack of magazines really took the edge off trying to busy myself during the day. I'd climb in bed with dozens of stories about Tara Reid and Ashton Kutcher, a cold Fresca and the compelling desire to disappear into a world of customized crystal cell phone covers and anorexic Olsens.
This went on once a week for nearly six months, until I finally saw the correlation: pop culture binge reading sessions were always followed by fitful naps and waking up with a vague but nasty sense of emptiness. Strangers like Pamela Anderson and Britney Spears wormed themselves deeply into my subconscious and wandered lost like ghosts with excellent teeth and Uggs. No matter how much I devoured their stories, one truth remained. They were on the Red Carpet -- I wasn't even at Red Lobster.
I'd like the say it's just that simple, that reading about the rich and famous is painful unless you're one of them, but I doubt that's it. I'm going to guess that even the rich and famous suffer low-grade ennui after thumbing through the pages of Star. There's just something about immersion in a sea of other people's lives -- from their handbags to their Oscar parties to their kabbalah bracelets -- that drowns out anything real. What's so dazzlingly distracting is also what's numbing and uncomfortable.
When you think about it, garden-variety gossiping usually gives you a temporary high but leaves you feeling out of sorts. Binge reading works on the same principle, but it's even more distressing. It's gossip without the human interaction, a one-way conversation about people you don't know, a mindless activity that quietly fosters longing and loneliness, at least for me.
On the subway once, I saw a young woman flipping through an Us Weekly. I was surprised, because she didn't look the type. She was all no-fuss hair and debutante angles and perfectly fitting khakis. I studied this woman, with her tennis-lesson body and lightly worn monogrammed bag. When the subway stopped at 59th, she was halfway through the magazine. I saw her put it on the seat next to her, and snatch it back up again, and put it down before she gathered her things and stood up. I wanted to tap her and say, "I know."
As long as life is sometimes uncertain and boring and as long as there are airplane flights and waiting rooms and eating meals alone and afternoons gaping with open spaces, I'll always be looking for distractions. All I can hope for now is that they involve far less of Melania Knauss.
As it turns out, people who need People are not the luckiest people in the world.
Teresa Strasser is a TV host and Emmy Award-winning writer. She's on the Web at target="_blank">teresastrasser.com.