Celebrity Publicity vs. Privacy: The Eternal Debate


Water for Elephants, Fox 2000 Film, 2011  

by Anne Helen Peterson

Earlier this week, Lainey Gossip posted a particularly critical reading of Reese Witherspoon’s current publicity attempts, with specific attention to the contradiction between Witherspoon complaining about her lack of privacy and the recent sale of her wedding photos to People and OK!

The Witherspoon quote from the Vogue interview/cover story/massive photo spread

But one thing that hasn’t changed is that she is as private as ever. Indeed, she seems almost constitutionally unsuited for the level of fame she has to live with. At one point, I ask her what is the worst thing about being Reese Witherspoon, and she pauses for a very long time. Finally she says, “I mean, I feel like an ingrate for even thinking anything isn’t good. I’m very, very, very lucky. But . . . umm . . . probably that I parted with my privacy a long time ago. We went different ways. And sometimes I mourn it. Sometimes I will sit in the car and cry. Because I can’t get out. That’s the only thing: I mourn the loss of my privacy.” 

And Lainey’s take: 

Um, remember when Reese Witherspoon sold her wedding to People Magazine and Hello Magazine?  

Oh but she’s just a girl from the South who doesn’t know about these thangs! It’s preposterous to think that Reese would up and marry only to go back to work and sneak in a quickie honeymoon only to have to return to go back to work for anything other than necessity. After all, people like Reese, with access and opportunity and resources, they are bound by necessity, aren’t they? They have NO choices, not in their schedules, not in their spending, in not much at all.  

So of course not, Reese could not know about, you know, wedding planning around a theatrical release and the potential effect that could have on a movie’s performance, hell no. She’s way too authentic for that. 

There are a number of things going on here — with Witherspoon’s actions, her choice of words in her interview, and Lainey’s response to them — and all of them revolve around claims to authenticity and transparency. 

First of all, it’s crucial to understand that the tension between celebrities and stars desiring privacy….in the selfsame moment that they expose themselves to the public via interviews, films, and other products….is absolutely, positively nothing new. Even Charles Lindbergh attempted to fiercely guard his private life, which he thought was, frankly, besides the point when it came to his aviation achievements — even as he continued to make public appearances and profit off his fame.  During classic Hollywood, there was less complaining about privacy, in part because every statement from the stars was vetted by the studios themselves, and complaining of lack of privacy was tantamount to complaining about the studios, the fan magazines, and the generalized publicity apparatus that sustained the stars. With the mandate of the studios that employed them, stars shared all manner of details of their “private lives” with the fan magazines and gossip columnists, even if those private lives were actually a sham, conjured to harmonize with their manufactured star images. 

As the studio system transformed in the 1950s, stars gradually dearticulated themselves from management at the hands of the studios, hiring their own staffs to handle publicity.  At the same time, paparazzi culture became gradually more invasive, especially following the frenzy over Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton filming Cleopatra/holding hands/canoodling in Rome.  The fan magazines became increasingly bombastic in their handling of the stars, using scandal-tipped headlines, exclamation points, and other suggestive aesthetic means to imply, if not actually name, scandal.  The move was at least partially motivated out of necessity: the stars refused to cooperate and offer access, forcing the magazines to “write around” their lack of content.  Which is all to say that there was less explicit collusion between the traditional gossip outlets and the stars — a process that continued for most of the ’60s and ’70s.  The stars began to publicly complain of the fan magazines and gossip columnists, something they never would have dared to do during the studio system, when such a complaint could inspire negative coverage and effectively doom his/her career.  But by this point, the traditional fan magazines and gossip columnists held less sway, and it became common practice for stars not only to complain about the incursion of authors, photographers, columnists, and other forms of publicity, but to sue them as well.  (There were dozens of libel suits levied by stars against various outlets during this period). 

In other words, the relationship between the stars themselves and the gossip outlets became antagonistic where it had once been incredibly, necessarily cooperative.  Starting with People in 1974, however, the cooperative relationship gradually began to reform, as People, Entertainment Tonight, and their various imitators  (Extra, Entertainment Weekly, E!, early versions of Us Magazine) all served explicit promotional functions for the star.  Exclusives are approved and vetted by the star and his/her publicist and usually timed to promote the his/her upcoming or ongoing project.  Importantly, these outlets do not look for or break scandal.  They will report on it out necessity (if they didn’t, they’d seem out of touch), but they do not stir the scandal pot, as it were, and often provide space for stars to tell “their sides of the story.” 

When Reese Witherspoon sold her wedding photos to People Magazine, she was doing two things.  First, she was promoting her upcoming film, Water for Elephants, in which she stars with Robert Pattinson. 

As Lainey and others have pointed out, this film really, really needs to succeed if Witherspoon is to maintain her status as a top female star (with a $15 million per-film pricetag) with the ability to open a major picture.  (Her last hit was Walk the Line in 2005; her last major hit was Legally Blonde 2 in 2003).  The reason stars have offered themselves up for celebrity gossip in the form of interviews, photo shoots, etc., has always been PROMOTION.  For some celebrities, such as Paris Hilton, they are simply promoting their entire image on the hope that the visibility of that image will help sell products emblazoned with it: perfume, books, nail polish, etc.  But stars whose stardom is the result of actual skill — singers, actors, etc. — time their gossip availability to coincide with a specific product showcasing that skill. A film, a television premiere, an album release, a voting period for the Oscars, etc.  The announcement of Natalie Portman’s pregnancy was no coincidence, and neither is the timing of Witherspoon’s wedding.  I know this might be hard to hear, but it is the absolute truth.  Of course, Portman (probably) did not time her actual pregnancy.  But she (and her publicist) sure as shit planned the announcement. 

The reasoning is simple: the more your name, face, and image is on the minds of the public at large, the more likely they will be to consume a product branded with that name, face, and image. 

Water for Elephants, Fox 2000 Film, 2011

Witherspoon working hard to remind you that she is appearing in a film with ELEPHANTS, coincidentally entitled “Water for Elephants.”

Witherspoon and publicist were (and are) doing their job, attempting to heighten her visibility and, hopefully, open Water for Elephants in a way that makes a statement about her power and popularity. 

The problem, then, is that Witherspoon paired her efforts with an interview in which she complains about the incursions of the press.  To be specific, however, she was complaining about a lack of privacy, which is generally associated with papping photographers….not interviews with Vogue, or the two carefully chosen photos she offered to People.  She’s complaining about unauthorized publicity; she has no problem with authorized publicity.  The problem, then, is that the former is generally incited by the latter.  Under the studio system, there was no such thing as unsanctioned publicity, as the columnists, magazines, and other interviews were all beholden to the studios.  Now, authorized publicity breeds unauthorized publicity. 

Witherspoon is obviously game to pose for magazine covers, look great at premieres, present at award shows.  All of these contribute directly to the performance of a film and are, most likely (it not specifically) built into the contract she signed.  (Star contracts generally require that the star promote the film — attending premieres, junkets, etc.) The problem is that such highly orchestrated photos and stories aren’t nearly as interesting or tantalizing as those obtained without her permission, which seem to offer a window onto the “real,” authentic Witherspoon, valuable in large part due to its scarcity. (Reality stars prove that we don’t simply hunger for authenticity and “being real” — it’s what we don’t have, or haven’t been able to read about, that we hunger for the most. Details of Brangelina’s sex life, for example). 

So Witherspoon ends up looking hypocritical, at once seeking and complaining about the spotlight. But think about how you would feel if Witherspoon said she loved the spotlight, loved paparazzi coverage, loved seeing photos of her children all over the place.  Wouldn’t we call her Tori Spelling?  Isn’t the SPOKEN reticence towards exposure part of what makes certain stars “classy” and likable?  If she relished exposure, she would be forsaking her claims to being “just like us,” a “Southern girl,” a dotting mother, modest, etc.  The disavowal is thus absolutely crucial to Witherspoon’s image — even if it’s false or an act or contradictory, it needs to be there.In general, this simultaneous embrace and disavowal of publicity is at the heart of stardom.  Stars are stars because the way that they act on screen, combined with what they seem to represent in their “private” lives, seem to embody something that matters to a large swath of people.  But in order to be stars and not just actors, they need to make that private life available, even when it leads to unsanctioned, unwanted, invasive and potentially dangerous coverage.  With that said, star scholars have long written about the ways in which contradiction composes the very core of stardom: a star is simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary, “Just like Us” and absolutely nothing like us.  From time to time, that contradiction becomes more visible.  The more visible and flagrant the contradiction, with little to smooth it over, the more ridiculous a star seems.  See, again, Tori Spelling, but also Gwyneth Paltrow and Tom Cruise.  We want our stars to embody contradictions seamlessly, and when the seams show, we reject them.  Ultimately, the most enduring, valuable, and esteemed stars are those who, with the help of their publicity teams, manage to hide these seams, even as they expand to contain multitudes, embodying all of the meanings we map onto them. At this point, Witherspoon still seems to be in control. We’ll see how the film fares — and how her subsequent publicity attempts address the perpetual contradictions of stardom.

Piece originally posted on Anne Helen Peterson’s website | Creative Commons License