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From the file

Slow Reviews Part IV | The books, films, records, paintings and other cultural artefacts that changed the world around them.

Slow Newscast

Popbitch

Popbitch

Claudia Williams presents a special edition of the Slow Newscast – on a newsletter that both reflected and reshaped celebrity culture


transcript

[Clip montage:

Camilla Wright: The behind-the-velvet rope part of a club, and we always wanted to make it feel like you were joining Club Popbitch…”

BBC News: More now on the news that Boris Johnson’s personal mobile phone number has been available online for 15 years. 

Jamie East: “It’s a perfect storm. People love to gossip. They always have, and they always will. Plus if you’re able to do that about famous people, then it’s all the more interesting…”

The Sean Hannity Show on Fox News: “An account on Twitter that’s called – their words not mine – @PopBitch.

Rachel McGrath: I’ve never submitted a story, but I know people who have. I’ve read stories in it that I’ve heard in the pub the week before.]

Claudia Williams: You might not have heard of it but you’ve probably felt its impact. It’s broken stories, helped change the world of celebrity, and provided hours of water cooler chat. It’s been a thread throughout popular culture for 20 years. 

It’s just a plain-text email so that you can read it at your desk without anyone knowing. And there’s no byline – for a long time, it was actually anonymous. It’s not glossy, and to some extent it’s under the radar, but it’s read by all the insiders… and its footprint is everywhere.

I’m talking about a weekly gossip newsletter… a newsletter called Popbitch.

I’m Claudia Williams, and this week on the Slow Newscast we’re doing something a little different. 

It’s part of a series we publish at Tortoise, the newsroom behind this podcast. The series is called Slow Reviews and it’s overseen by one of our editors, Peter Hoskin. It’s reviews of the movies, books, albums, paintings and other cultural artefacts that really changed the world around them.

And if you’re wondering whether a celebrity gossip newsletter fits within that framework… well, yes, it does. 

Popbitch set the terms for celebrity coverage in the 21st Century. 

[Clip:

Five News: Popbitch broke the mould by allowing readers to post anonymously, and has beaten the tabloids to some huge exclusives.]

It changed the way we do journalism and it democratised gossip. It goes out to more than 300,000 subscribers each week and it has informants everywhere. If you stood next to former MP Lembit Opik at the urinals of a West End club and… got a glimpse… well, you too could have contributed to Popbitch.

Besides, isn’t everything about celebrity now?

Wasn’t Donald Trump better explained according to the rules of celebrity culture?

[Clip:

Shift, NBC: “I was wondering what you would say to President Obama?” “You’re fired!”]

Isn’t Boris Johnson the most showbiz politician we’ve ever had? I mean, he was a comedy panel show host on his way to becoming prime minister.

[Clip:

Have I Got News For You, BBC, Hat Trick Productions: Good evening, and welcome to Have I Got News for You. My name is Boris Johnson…]

2020, the pandemic year, was supposed to be the end of celebrity. The seriousness of the Covid era was supposed to kill off our appetite for influencers jet-setting around the world and actors singing at us from their mansions – but it’s done no such thing. We’re as enthralled with celebrity as we’ve always been. 

So: get ready. Because this week we’re digging into the salacious world of rumour and intrigue – from sex scandals to sticker phobias; otters to the old jokes home.  

This is the story of Popbitch.

What do you picture when you think about the noughties? Is it low-rise jeans and whale-tail underwear? Maybe it’s the Millennium Dome? Or perhaps Kelly Rowland texting Nelly… on Microsoft Excel… in the ‘Dilemma’ music video? 

But when I think back to that time, there is one thing that springs to mind immediately.

[Clip:

Pop Idol, ITV, Thames Television, 19 Entertainment: The winner of Pop Idol 2002 is…]

My primary school was consumed by Pop Idol. It was all we talked about during break. And I remember that moment during the final so clearly: I was watching it from home with my family, standing up so that I was nearer the TV. And the pause before the final result, well, it seemed to take a lifetime.

[Clip:

Pop Idol: …Will]

I was… devastated. Team Gareth all the way.

But whoever’s side you were on, famous people were suddenly starting to look more like… well, people. We had the talent show competitors and reality TV stars.

[Clip montage:

Big Brother, Channel 4, Brighter Pictures: Who is she? Who is she? Where did you find her?”

Fame Academy: BBC Choice, Initial: We’re gonna have Lemar singing the song he would have sung if he’d made it to the final two. Ladies and gentlemen, please give it up for Lemar Obika with ‘Angels’!]

…the footballers… 

[Clip:

Parkinson, BBC: “David is acronymed [sic] Golden Balls now.” “Golden Balls Beckham, eh?”]

…and even their managers…

[Clip:

Channel 4 News: Yes, forget Beckham’s foot. The big soccer story is whether Sven-Göran Eriksson and Ulrika Jonsson are really having an affair.]

who all suddenly seemed to dominate the pages of magazines and newspapers. 

And like the rest of British society, I was enthralled by this non-stop world of showbiz. These were the years when the very fabric of celebrity itself – who we made famous, how we talked about them, and how we accessed them – was changing. 

We went from the Primrose Hill set – Kate Moss, Jude Law – to the TV show Big Brother. Suddenly, anyone and everyone could be famous. And the desire for media coverage was… insatiable. 

We were at the peak of 15 minutes of fame. 

But it took a weekly gossip newsletter to help get us there. Because when Popbitch first crept onto the scene, none of that had happened yet. It was December 1999 and we were at the cusp of a new millennium.

[Clip:

BBC Today: We’re watching as the last year of the last century of the old millennium slouches off stage to make way for the youthful entry of the new.]

Popbitch was set up by Camilla Wright and Neil Stevenson, who were, at that time, a couple. They were both Oxford graduates who had worked a few years in the media industry.

Here’s Camilla Wright: 

Camilla Wright: We used to go out a lot and talk about the stories that didn’t make it out; the things that were cut out of your interviews when you were interviewing really interesting celebrities… so they ended up sounding really bland. The kind of things people behind the scenes talked about.

Claudia: Neil Stevenson was an editor at the celeb magazine Heat, which had just started out itself and had initially flopped. And Camilla Wright was a freelancer, often working on celebrity interviews. 

They wanted Popbitch to be a mix between a grown-up version of a music magazine like Smash Hits and the satirical-investigative periodical Private Eye… only for celebrities. A newsletter that revealed the story behind the story. 

Camilla: We thought it would be fun to put things together and send to each other really. It was never meant to be a business model. It was never meant to be a mass market thing.”

Claudia: It started as an email to 15 of their friends – people also in media, music PR, that sort of thing. 

The first issue was a simple, plain-text message that included a story about a frisbee-related lawsuit for hitmaker Nile Rodgers and artist Boy George’s recent near-death experience with a glitter ball…

After just 20 issues it already had 1,000 readers. 

Camilla: It wasn’t meant to be a massive exposé. And we never really thought through what we were writing about and doing. It was just really the world of entertainment, celebrity music, the kind of world of showbiz that people really liked… it was actually an amazingly entertaining thing.

Claudia: Whatever they intended, Popbitch was disrupting the status quo. 

Jamie East: The world was run by newspapers, by Sunday newspapers, by kiss-and-tells, and by the relationship between journalists and agents. All of our celebrity news up until this point had been carefully curated by these people and carefully selected…

Claudia: That’s Jamie East. Broadcaster, journalist, one time host of TV show Big Brother’s Bit on the Side, and former owner of Holy Moly, a gossip site set up in the early noughties to rival Popbitch. 

Jamie: For a long, long time, it was like that. It was very British, very ‘80s, quite grubby, quite seaside postcard. And then, when the internet hit and internet message boards came along and, importantly, anonymity became part of the puzzle, things changed completely. And things got, I guess, real for the first time in a long time.

Claudia: Soon, Popbitch wasn’t just an email: for over 15 years it was also a message board, too. A fairly infamous one.  

Jamie: Popbitch was one of the first ones that did that under the guise of celebrity gossip. It was kind of unique and pretty novel, and, importantly, you could be completely anonymous doing so as well. So all of a sudden, people like myself – people who had a few select stories under their belt from lives gone in the past – could share these and get kind of kudos and a bit of reverence and a bit of shock factor without anybody knowing who you were… and there being no recourse or no no kind of a comeback on that. It was pretty revelatory.

Claudia: Suddenly, people had somewhere to share the stories – and the rumours and the urban myths – that they’d been telling in the pub for decades. 

Jamie: But it was really refreshing to go, well, hang on a minute, peel back the veneer a bit. And, you know, they all leave skid marks in the toilet, the same as everybody, and here’s exactly why. That was the crux of it all. The glossiness of the eighties kind of celebrity was ready for a bit of a taking down a peg or two, for sure.

Claudia: And, not to get too crude here, but sometimes Popbitch really does get down to the skid marks. 

It is still completely irreverent in tone, and goes far further with the details than most mainstream media. And I really mean far further. Popbitch uses words and descriptions that you certainly won’t see in a newspaper – nor many other publications….

[Quoted story from Popbitch:

Which BBC daytime star left the hotel cleaners a lovely little thank you gift after a recent stay – a huge dollop of spunk right in the middle of the bed?]

From sex to drugs to whatever else, Popbitch sets out to tell the story warts and all… even if they have to dress it up as an anonymised tale – or “blind item” – to save the legal bother. 

In fact, blind items became the Popbitch speciality – and have been copied throughout the industry. 

[Quoted story from Popbitch:

Which unlucky-in-love celebrity might not be quite as jinxed as the stories suggest? A redtop was offered graphic footage of the star being ‘pleasured in a jacuzzi at the Playboy mansion’. The tabloid never used the footage. No doubt entirely unrelated to this is that the star can often be found sharing whatever news she’s got with the tabloids.]

But what really sets Popbitch apart is that it’s… silly. 

[Quoted story from Popbitch:

Julian Rhind-Tutt spotted on a train at East Croydon, texting in the most peculiar fashion. He only uses his right thumb and left index finger.]

Claudia: It’s full of anecdotes about celebrities doing weird and wonderful things, but also just being… people. Like the time the actor Bill Nighy let someone using a Tesco Clubcard to eat a pot of pasta know that, in fact, there was actually a fork they could use under the lid. 

A typical edition includes sections such as the old jokes home: 

[Quoted joke from Popbitch:

I started a boat business in the attic.

The sails are going through the roof.]

Above all, there is a clear voice and tone: mischievous, satirical, and, like Private Eye, the stories generally have a punchline.  

It’s gained a sort of cult following. 

Popbitch is really an insiders’ newsletter, not just read by journalists, PRs, personal assistants, showrunners and celebrities themselves… but fed by them. 

It counts Madonna, Elton John and Sophie Ellis-Bextor among its readers – despite the fact that all have been mentioned in the email, and not always in glowing terms.

The filmmaker Adam Curtis is a long-standing editorial contributor. 

But it’s always been just under the radar enough to feel like you’re learning something other people don’t have access to. And it looks under the radar too: no pictures, no glossy sheen. It feels as if it was made to be printed out and pinned on the doors of toilet cubicles. 

That’s part of the appeal, says Adam MacQueen, from Private Eye. He was at one point what he calls an editorial lieutenant – and tells me he’s still a “friend of Popbitch”, even if they sometimes beat him to the punch on stories. 

As with Private Eye, he says Popbitch makes readers feel like they’re part of a club. Like they’re on the inside. It’s something Camilla Wright mentioned, too. 

Camilla: I guess that’s why Popbitch has survived and thrived, because once you subscribe to it you feel like you’re part of an insider set, that you’re the chattering class, the behind-the-velvet-rope part of a club, and we always wanted to make it feel like you were joining Club Popbitch. That, once you subscribed, the kind of things that people behind the scenes talked about were part of your world.

Claudia: And the people behind the scenes… well, they had a lot to talk about. 

Rachel McGrath: I’m Rachel McGrath. I’ve been an entertainment journalist for nearly ten years and I currently work for OK! Magazine.

Claudia: It’s hard to really grapple with the explosion of celebrity since 2000 – and particularly to understand, really, what reality TV did. 

Rachel: I think Big Brother is a really good example to use. And it’s kind of what then happened on social media, but without the TV companies needing to be involved. So what we saw in Big Brother was that they took regular people, really interesting ones, but they took regular people from the street and they turned them into TV stars overnight. So many huge names: obviously, Jade Goody, Nikki Grahame, Alison Hammond who’s now on This Morning, she started out on Big Brother. It was a time where that idea that anybody on the street could be famous if they were funny and silly enough on television really started to take hold.

Claudia: And with the rise of these new celebrities… 

[Clip montage:

Big Brother, Channel 4, Brighter Pictures: “Welcome back to Big Brother, and welcome to our winner, Brian.” “What other show is there to watch? No other!”]

…came magazines dedicated to them. 

Paparazzi shots… upskirt photos… those little red rings around pictures of cellulite. Looking back now, it’s hard to believe how normalised it all was. I remember, at the time, my mum refusing to buy those magazines, but later, as a kid and then a teenager, I was lapping it all up. No update seemed too personal. 

Rachel: These entertainment shows were king. If you needed to read more about them, if your favorite person left, you needed to get a newspaper, you needed to get a magazine. They were becoming really famous at a time when… they then didn’t have anywhere to go. Love Islanders nowadays come off the show and their Instagram account goes off the chart. They sign all the sponsorship deals. They do it all themselves. But it was a very different time, where these people were becoming overnight celebrities in the UK.

Claudia: This is where Popbitch stood out. They weren’t posting paparazzi shots or constantly pointing out someone’s weight gain or mental health crisis. They specialised in the stories that just didn’t have a place elsewhere in the media. 

But there was one couple that really made Popbitch’s name…. 

[Clip:

Da Ali G Show, Channel 4, Baby Cow Productions:.]

…The Beckhams.

Rachel: Posh and Becks were showbiz royalty. Their magazine cover with the wedding is the two of them in those thrones… I can still remember those wedding pictures more vividly than I can remember weddings I’ve been to… it was that big. And they, for a long time, were the golden couple…

Claudia: The Spice Girl and the football darling were the couple of the early noughties. I can pretty much chart the noughties based on the haircuts David Beckham had. Cos you could bet the boys at school would be trying it out sooner or later. 

If you want a sense of their fame: in 1999 they were paid £1m to have their wedding on the front of OK magazine. 

[Clip: 

9 Morning News]

It marked the start of spiralling deals as weekly magazines tried to beat each other to the next celebrity exclusive. But soon…

Rachel: Popbitch was talking about allegations of infidelity against David long before it made the mainstream press. Those whispers were there. And I actually read recently that the week that that all kicked off – or I think it was the week that they received a legal threat on it – they gained something like 50,000 new subscribers. It was huge. So as much as it is sort of fun and we talk about how funny it is, and that’s what great, the impact that they’ve had on journalism and in the level of the scoops they’re bringing is huge. 

Claudia: Allegations that David Beckham was having an affair were posted on the Popbitch message boards and the team quickly received legal letters. It prompted huge speculation from the newspapers, but they were legally unable to print the rumours – which were, and still are, strongly denied. 

Still, the name Popbitch was out there. And 18 months, later the News of the World alleged that David Beckham was having an affair with his personal assistant, Rebecca Loos. He has always denied the story.

Popbitch, a tiny organisation, was having an outsized impact on the industry. 

When I was reporting this story, Adam Macqueen sent me a Private Eye piece from 2002 that suggests that the papers were simply lifting stories from the
Popbitch email every Thursday. 

And even if they weren’t taking stories, the press were certainly taking inspiration. Popbitch’s style and tone of gossip started seeping through the industry. The Mirror had the 3am Girls. The Star launched The Bitches. The Daily Mail set up Wicked Whispers. 

And it inspired new media, too. Jamie East – you heard from him earlier – set up Holy Moly in 2002. 

Jamie: I just felt that they were missing a trick in terms of the brand, in terms of monetisation, in terms of making it a more of a commercial property. So I went with Holy Moly as a way of doing exactly that, which was taking the bare bones of celebrity gossip, but probably ramping it up a bit in terms of editorial style, or certainly it being a bit cruder and a bit more brazen.

Claudia: Clearly, though, Popbitch was not uncontroversial. They didn’t always get it right. Gossip reporting… it walks a tightrope of legal risk. And there’s a reason the mainstream media doesn’t cover some of this stuff.

They faced a legal challenge from broadcaster Jeremy Clarkson for false allegations posted on their message board. And, in 2008, had to pay out to actor Max Beesely. Here’s Camilla Wright, the founder, speaking about it at the Leveson Inquiry:

[Clip:

Camilla Wright, Levenson Hearing on 26 January 2012: This was a story that appeared to come from two very good sources and I wrote it in good faith, but I made a misjudgment and I have to hold my hands up and say that, on this occasion, this was wrong.]

The current editor, Chris Lochery, tells me that, while many responses to their stories recognise the good humour they were originally written in, they do of course get proper legal pushback sometimes. 

Chris Lochery: We know when that’s an intimidation tactic and we’ll do what we can to stand our ground and keep what we can up. Obviously, we’re not as reckless as people maybe would assume we are. We do take all that sort of stuff extremely seriously because, yeah, it’s not fun to have lawyers screaming at you every hour of the day. That does happen, but we don’t put ourselves in that position unless it’s a story that we know we’re happy to fight the corner of.

Claudia: Although he’d prefer to be writing mainly the lighter stories, he argues that their gossip networks serve a purpose beyond just good fun. He says they act as a source of regulation for an industry that has tonnes of money splashing around – and a seedy side. The job of Popbitch, he says, is to shine a light. A counterbalance to all that money and PR.  

Jamie: For a long time, it was happy days. We did end up settling into quite a good groove… all celebrity gossip websites… for about probably four or five years, where there was kind of an unhappy arrangement between everybody and it just got on and it made money and everyone begrudgingly accepted that we were here to stay. 

Claudia: But as quickly as the celebrity magazine and website boom came around, the world changed, and it started to crumble. 

Jamie: But, over a while, the public mood changed and social media became a thing – and the two of those combined pretty much killed most of them stone-dead. Paparazzi pictures were a huge part of what Holy Moly did, and they just got really grim. For all of the talk of change after Diana was hounded by the paparazzi, nothing really changed. It’s just that Diana was swapped out for Amy Winehouse and Pete Doherty. So it went from being a funny paparazzi pic of someone being sick in the streets, or Jamiroquai headbutting a photographer outside his Lamborghini to… Pete Doherty squirting blood over a kitten from a syringe. It just got pretty grim. And then social media just killed it off stone-dead, because who cares what an anonymous celebrity website says about something if George Michael can just go on to his Twitter account and say, “Well, that’s bollocks!” That will always hold far more currency than anything else.

Claudia: Of course, not everyone would agree with Jamie East’s characterisation – some people would say that most of the paparazzi coverage from this era tended towards the grim. 

But, with social media, the overgrown power of the paparazzi was broken: why would a newspaper pay thousands of pounds for a set of pictures that a celeb might now post themselves online for free?

And, suddenly, anyone with a smartphone could easily post and digest gossip as they walked around. This had its own shuddering effect on the companies set up to do this professionally.   

By 2015, Jamie East’s site Holy Moly had closed down. The Daily Mirror’s 3AM girls column was dropped in 2016.

If you zoom out and look at the wider industry, there has been a real change. 

Celebrity magazines sales are down, and most have had to really diversify their content to stay relevant. 

And what we deem as acceptable reporting has also shifted. Perez Hilton, an American blogger who was once the authority on celebrity news, has been widely criticised for the way he covered pop culture stories and has pretty much faded from relevancy. 

In the UK, the phone hacking scandal led to the closure of the newspaper News of the World and brought about the Leveson Inquiry – a landmark interrogation into the ethics of the press.

And yet… Popbitch is still around. It’s still run by a tiny team. The bulk of the editorial work is done by Camilla Wright and Chris Lochery, with help from a cast of regular contributors and editorial advisors, plus the all-important lawyers.

They have more than 300,000 email subscribers: that’s more than the circulation of the Guardian and the Financial Times daily newspapers combined.

And they still send out an email every Thursday afternoon. Ten short stories, the same font, the same format, the same voice. 

In two decades, we’ve gone from dodgy dial-up internet to millions of people working seamlessly from home everyday. But Popbitch has remained constant.

When so many others have fallen, why is it still standing?

In some ways, Popbitch managed to pre-empt the zeitgeist. 

By sticking with their original format, they spotted – or were the fortunate beneficiaries of –  the fact that the email newsletter has not only survived but grown as a medium. Nobody thought that would happen once social media and apps came along. But it did. Who would have predicted back in 1999 that newspapers around the world would be setting up newsletter teams? Or journalists moving all their content onto email platforms such as Substack?

It’s bitesize, accessible… and it’s free. 

Plus, since 2000, the world has actually become more Popbitch. 

Everything has turned into entertainment. 

Take Donald Trump….

[Clip:

The Apprentice, NBC, Trump Productions: My name’s Donald Trump, and I’m the largest real estate developer in New York.]

In one presidency, the world of reality TV and politics collided. And, more generally, the scrutiny and style of interview we have begun to expect from our politicians is now the same as our celebrities. 

Ben Smith: I’m Ben Smith. I’m the media columnist for the New York Times

Claudia: Ben Smith was first introduced to Popbitch when Buzzfeed News – which he was then editor-in-chief of – was starting to launch in the UK.

Ben: I had never heard of it, actually. And found any given two thirds of it totally incomprehensible; then often it had some incredible scoop on something I cared about. It’s not unique to this sector, but when you are reading somebody who you can just tell has their hand on the pulse of some real inside conversation, you can sort of try to figure out… it’s fun to figure out what’s going on from context. And then, also, occasionally I read something that interests me about Sean Hannity. 

Claudia: What he’s referring to here is something that went down in June this year. 

Ben: I had written a story about how Tucker Carlson basically is a great source to American journalists. Despite attacking the media all the time…

Claudia: Ben Smith wrote an article about Tucker Carlson, the conservative talk show host. Sean Hannity, another conservative talk show host, he complained about Ben Smith’s story on his Fox News show…

[Clip:

The Sean Hannity Show on Fox News: I’m calling on Ben Smith, Maggie Haberman, other so-called journalists at the Times. Just start being honest about who you are and what you believe, and that you have an agenda.]

And Popbitch pounced, reporting that Sean Hannity shouldn’t necessarily jump to Tucker Carlson’s defence… because Tucker Carlson had a habit of saying mean things about him behind his back. 

When Ben Smith tweeted a screenshot of the newsletter… Sean Hannity wasn’t too impressed. 

[Clip:

The Sean Hannity Show on Fox News: The New York Times, with all the prestige that they like to think that they have, they are now tweeting out from an account and using an account on Twitter that’s called – their words not mine – @PopBitch.]

Ben Smith says he doesn’t really read Popbitch for the celebrity stuff, but – clearly – it is still relevant to his work. 

Ben: Politics and media have always been this fabric that ranges between really important life-and-death decisions… and gossip. And it’s the same people who are engaged in both. And there’s an interplay between them, whether you like it or not, and that’s just always been the case. 

Claudia: Gossip. It really is – and has always been – everywhere.

I have found myself conflicted while making this podcast. Every so often, I’ve come across a story that’s made me recoil a bit. Though they might be witty, the quips in Popbitch can be cruel and the stories deeply personal. 

It might appear to operate outside the rules of the showbiz bubble, but in the early years it was still another elite product: two Oxbridge graduates, with extensive contacts, determining the boundaries of acceptability. 

It was Popbitch that coined the terms “Croydon facelift” – about the scraped back ponytail look – and “pramface” – a quip about female pop stars who supposedly looked like they were more suited to pushing a pram around a council estate. It’s hard to see that as anything but classist.  

And, honestly, it’s been a jarring time to dive back into the archives of the noughties – to reassess my own enjoyment of the stories that, just sometimes, might be peoples’ worst moment or deepest secret.  

One of the defining global stories of the past few weeks is about Britney Spears… 

[Clip: 

NBC: Dateline with Matt Lauer: I think anybody who’s doing well in the public eye or whatever… there’s always going to be a shift because people don’t want to see somebody happy all the time.]

…and her treatment by the press at the time Popbitch was really making its name.

She is in the midst of trying to get rid of a conservatorship which probably wouldn’t have happened in the first place if it hadn’t been for the unrelenting media coverage. 

[Clip:

Today: According to a new court filing, her father Jamie said he’s willing to step down as her conservator when the time is right. For the past 13 years he’s been in part of a conservatorship in charge of Britney’s 60 million dollar estate that was put in place after several public breakdowns.]

We’re supposed to have improved and moved on, but, as Britney herself has pointed out, the people raking over her past now aren’t that different to the people who were ogling her at the time. 

For yet another summer, like millions of other people, I’ve spent nearly every evening watching Love Island. It’s not quite celebrity gossip, but it’s essentially watching the love lives of next month’s celebrities play out on screen. 

The worst part is realising that it’s less entertaining because they’ve got rid of some of the most egregious elements. The drama in reality shows comes from tension; tension in real people’s lives is horrible. 

When it’s a bit kinder, people enjoy Love Island less. Just look at the comments on Twitter. When the producers really amp up the drama, the viewing figures skyrocket. 

Although we might want it in a different format or smudged around the edges, our appetite for celebrity gossip and drama and intrigue is not waning. It’s just changing tack, shrouded in acknowledgements of guilt or half-hearted complaints to OfCom. 

As Jamie East says, our attitude towards celebrities and gossip is cyclical: 

Jamie: Because now it’s all about influencers, now it’s about paid partnerships online, it’s become, as it always does, commercialised and saturated and diluted. So that, actually, we’re not actually getting the genuine story now. We’re getting carefully curated Instagram posts that have been done by the glam squad and have been approved by the PRs. So, inevitably, what’s going to happen is that people will seek out – try to seek out – the truth because that’s what they want, or that’s what they think they want until they get the truth.

Claudia: The reckoning that’s come for a lot of showbiz reporting about celebrities hasn’t really touched Popbitch. Perhaps it’s because Popbitch covers such a range of different stories. Sure, some of it can be scurrilous or nasty… but there’s also hard-hitting investigative reporting and genuinely lovely anecdotes or jokes you could easily tell your grandmother without her flinching. 

From the mean to the benign, variety is the spice of Popbitch’s life. There is something in there for everyone. 

And Adam MacQueen, from Private Eye, points out that Popbitch has always stood apart from many of the celebrity gossip magazines when it comes to the type of story they publish. They might discuss the size of someone’s penis, for example – but, generally, only when it’s a positive review. 

Given the rest of what’s out there, I think it’s no wonder that people embrace a gentler version of what some might feel is an invasion of privacy. 

Ultimately, for 20 years, Popbitch has really walked its own path in the industry. And it is undeniable that others have followed. The very substance of the gossip that we read today has been shaped by a low-spec email with an outsize punch. 

I asked Chris Lochery, the editor, whether he’s got any favourite stories from over the years. I think his answer… well, it summed up Popbitch pretty well.

Chris: ​It’s difficult to find one that fully encapsulates my love for gossip, really. Because it can be hard to justify a love for gossip, because it means so many different things to so many different people, and a lot of it not always good. But sometimes it’s just a heartwarming little bit about bumping into a celebrity and borrowing their handkerchief or something like that, which sounds so boring when I talk about it like that. But it’s something that… you tell it about the right person and you warm everybody’s hearts. Similarly, you can find something that’s so disgusting and so far out of the realms of people’s understanding of how humans behave that… all of human life is there, really.

Claudia: It’s a justification that I’m probably going to use myself, every 9pm this summer, as I sit down to watch yet another episode of Love Island – one eye on the  phone in my hand, ready to scroll through Twitter at the same time. 

This episode of the Slow Newscast was written and reported by me, Claudia Williams. It was produced by Studio Klong for Tortoise Media, with additional production by Xavier Greenwood. Original music by Tom Kinsella. Peter Hoskin is the editor of the Slow Reviews series.

Illustrations by Phillipa Warden Hill

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The Velvet Underground & Nico

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