Gwyneth Paltrow, Vanity Fair and why this story has everyone talking.

Gwyneth on the cover of Vanity Fair back in 2000

Gwyneth Paltrow does nothing by accident. A couple of weeks ago, when she gave a controversial quote about infidelity (she said that she wouldn’t end her marriage because of it) to a fashion website, I knew something was up.

[Disclaimer: yes I know it is pitifully sad that I would devote thinking time to Gwyneth Paltrow’s media strategy  but what can I say: I’m pathetic and ashamed.]

Gwyneth has been famous her whole life. She comes from a famous family, she has famous god-parents, famous best friends, her ex-boyfriends are famous and so is her husband.

Gwyneth does fame extremely well. Better than anyone, I reckon. Having been burnt by the media interest in her previous high-profile relationships, she speaks openly of the decision she and her Coldplay husband Chris Martin made when they got together to simply not become a Celebrity Couple.

They go to great lengths never to be photographed together: in public or private. Gwyneth does her movies, runs her lifestyle brand GOOP, writes her cookbooks, runs her e-commerce business, raises her kids privately and does it all on her terms, handing out edited glimpses on social media.

Until now.

Vanity Fair has begun work on an unauthorised profile of Gwyneth Paltrow which she has instructed her friends not to take part in. Fair enough. She’s not taking part in the story herself so why would she want her friends to talk to the journalist who is writing it.

But then yesterday, a story broke that Gwyneth is rumoured to have had an affair back in 2005 with the billionaire who is now married to Elle Macpherson. Ahhhhhh. Stories like this – particularly when they involve litigious billionaires and celebrities – are usually around for a while before they surface. I’m not saying it’s true. What would I know.

But suddenly, Gwyneth’s odd comment about fidelity made sense: a pre-emptive strike.

My informed guess is that her people had been warned the rumour was out there and – true or false – she wanted to lay the ground with some context via a controlled comment.

Clearly, she is rattled by this Vanity Fair story and what it will reveal. But why? Why would it be different to any of the thousands of other magazine profiles that you’ve seen (and maybe read) of Gwyneth for decades?

Here’s something you probably didn’t know about how magazines work.

There are two types of magazines: glossy ones and gossip ones. When it comes to the way they cover celebrities, the gossip ones go rogue. They use unauthorised images, usually taken without the celebrity’s permission or even knowledge. They often don’t speak to the celebrities themselves when putting together gossip stories, rather relying on ‘unamed sources’.


Regularly though, they will do a story with a celebrity’s permission. This will invariably be one of the big 5 circulation boosters: an Engagement, a Wedding, a Pregnancy, a Baby or a New Body. This is their bread and butter. The celebrity will sell their story and depending on how much the editor feels it will boost circulation, they will pay the celebrity up to $250K to take pictures and do an interview to accompany them.

It’s a luctrative, professional and mutually beneficial market. The celebrity retains control when they sell their story to a gossip mag.

Gwyneth on the cover of Australian Marie Claire last month.

The glossies work differently. They rely on studio images for their covers. Celebrities are never paid to appear in glossy magazines or on their covers – they do so for the ‘prestige’, the exposure and the control they are given. These images are taken in controlled settings with the co-operation of the celebrity who usually chooses the photographer, hairdresser, stylist and make-up artist. She will always have input into how she is portrayed and she will usually do the shoot in order to promote a new project; a movie, album, perfume launch etc.

For example, last month, Marie Claire had Gwyneth on the cover. It wasn’t hard to find out why she did the shoot, it popped up on the first page of the interview: she is the face of a new fragrance for Hugo Boss.

As part of her contract with the fragrance house (which would be worth around 7 figures to her), Gwyneth would have to do a certain amount of press to promote it. You want access to Gwyneth? You write nice things about her and the perfume. You ask her what she loves about it. You dutifully quote her response word for rehearsed word. You play the game.

It’s a fair exchange. Just like when a celebrity sells a story to a weekly gossip magazine, there’s mutual benefit here for the magazine and the celeb. Some might say the only losers are the readers who are served up pre-digested, PR-approved celebrity spin month after month.

Like this:

Of BOSS Jour Pour Femme, she says, “For me it’s a mood boost. It’s fresh and beautiful and wakes me up in the morning. I think there’s something really optimistic about it while the citrus makes it energising.

At night she moves to the more sophisticated BOSS Nuit Pour Femme. “I tend to always take a bath in the evening so that’s always a natural time to change over to the night-time fragrance if I’m going out.”

Are you still following? This is why celebrity profiles are extraordinarily bland and sycophantic. Because they have to be.

If the editor wants the pictures, she has to publish this kind of fluff. I know. I’ve been there. I did it all the time.

In the case of magazines outside the US and the UK, it’s even worse because you don’t even get the access to do your own shoot or your own interview. In almost every Australian magazine, every month, you just get the chance to pay $20K+ for photographs that were taken by someone else (usually another magazine that has already published them in another country several years ago).

Vanity Fair – there’s no magazine cover more prestigious or high-profile in the world.

Sometimes you can buy a PR-approved interview to go with the photos. Other times you have to cobble together what’s called a ‘write-around’, a vaccuous collection of quotes and anecdotes and recaps of established information – all highly complimentary. It has to be complimentary because the photographer’s agent won’t sell you the photo unless they get the green light from the celebrity’s publicist who demands to see the story that will run with it.

That’s how the game works.

On the rare occasion that any magazine in the world gets access to a celebrity for an actual interview, there are always stringent conditions placed upon what you can ask. These will invariably include anything vaguely interesting, particularly if it’s what they’re most famous for (sex tape, ex-husband, cosmetic surgery, rehab).

Sometimes you will be asked to sign agreements explicitly guaranteeing that you mention whatever it is they’re spruiking and promising not to ask them about anything that’s not pre-approved.

Any journalist springing an ‘unapproved’ question during the interview will be asked to leave immediately by the ever-present publicist. That way, the celebrity never has to get their hands dirty. Their gloss remains intact.

While I found this all incredibly frustrating and depressing when I was a mag editor, these days as a potential reader I just zone out. I know I won’t be reading anything faintly interesting or even truthful. I know it will be spin.

That’s why the Vanity Fair situation is so interesting. For a long time, that magazine held as much power as the celebrites they interviewed. There is no magazine cover more prestigious or high-profile in the world.

It’s always been a widely known secret that to secure a highly coveted cover story on Vanity Fair, a celebrity had to ‘give’ something big. Something they’d never revealed before. Past sexual abuse. A miscarriage. Being gay. The reasons for a divorce. Or pose in the nude while pregnant (back when that wasn’t just standard). Again, it was mutually beneficial. The environment was controlled thus mitigating risk for the celebrity in disclosing something juicy. The celebrity got the cover and both the mag and the celebrity benefited from the publicity spike it guaranteed.


But that symbiotic relationship has recently broken down. With global magazine circulation greatly challenged in the age of the Internet and the 24/7 news cycle, and with the number of potential avenues for disclosure dramatically increasing (from TV to celebrities writing their own books and posts on websites such as Huffington Post to warm and fuzzy interviews with Ellen or Oprah), Vanity Fair has been struggling to land the big celebrity fish for their covers and the big scoops to go with them.

So they’ve started to go a different way. To the dismay and indignation of many celebrities, Vanity Fair has been forced to climbed out of bed with famous people and start to report about them instead of with them. It’s like the difference between an autibiography and an unauthorised biography.

Unlike most other glossy magazines, Vanity Fair don’t have to worry about securing images to go with the unsanctioned stories because they’ve been photographing celebrities for so long, that they have a massive war chest of images to choose from.

They’re able to buck the celebrity system and do stories that might actually be interesting to their readers.

The Scientology cover story.

First up was Tom Cruise in an investigative piece into the role Scientology played in his divorce from Katie Holmes. The cover story was an extraordinarily well-researched piece of journalism that predictably had Cruise horrified because he could not control it.

Next up was another meticulously (to the point of being a bit boring unless you worked in the film industry) detailed cover story on the true story behind the making of Brad Pitt’s recent zombie movie World War Z. It wasn’t salacious, it wasn’t tabloidy (neither was the Tom/Katie story). It was simply spin-free and impartial. Which made it extraordinarily interesting.

Now it’s Gwyneth’s turn and it’s understandable that she’s pissed off. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have a respected journalist like Vanessa Grigoriades (the freelancer who has been commissioned to write the cover story) investigating your life.

For a long time now, celebrities like Gwyneth have been able to maintain a level of control of their image, aided and abetted by a media industry who has needed their co-operation. But now, at Vanity Fair at least, all bets are off.

This is certainly bad news for celebrities. But is it good news for readers?

That depends on your interest in celebrity.

I, for one, will be reading.