Pulp Nonfiction: A Brief History of Celebrity Magazines

Posted inFeatured Design History
Thumbnail for Pulp Nonfiction: A Brief History of Celebrity Magazines

In the early 20th century BT (before television), long before the rise of fan and gossip programs like “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “The View” and “Live With Kelly and Ryan,” celebrity magazines served as the core publicity outlets for a growing entertainment industry—especially Hollywood studios. From 1911 on, a slew of fawning magazines with names like Photoplay, Screenland, Motion Picture Magazine, Picturegoer, Radio Mirror, Modern Screen and many other cheaply printed pulps filled newsstands with covers of closeup, nuanced come-hither portraits featuring ingenue silver-screen celebrities.

Fan magazines were wellsprings of the preposterously profitable cult of celebrity, encouraging fame worship and ensuring ongoing newsstand sales. The design evolution of celebrity magazines from the early 20th century until now reveals radical shifts from mass to crass—pulp to sensational. They underscore the public’s trance-endental-state in the face of hypnotic manufactured images and graphic/printing tropes, such as saturated color intensity and blemish-free contrasts, used to make them so compelling. While there are various lenses through which to view the art and photography of these magazines, including the changing look of the manufactured flawless “idol”—and when that paradigm shifted into portrayals showing a fallen idol’s warts and all—there is not an entirely uniform stereotype.

Like today’s genre of TV shows mentioned earlier, each magazine had (and has) hints of a distinct personality. For instance, Photoplay’s earliest covers were made by America’s top painters and photographer portraitists: Neysa Moran McMein, William Henry “Haskell” Coffin, Alfred Cheney Johnston, Rolf Armstrong, J. Knowles Hare, Tempest Inman, Earl Christy and even James Montgomery Flagg, among others. They kept their respective styles but also conformed to an identifiable standard designed to make eye contact with the reader. The images to this day are still compelling.

On the whole, the cult of celebrity began in the 19th century. “Blame the industrial revolution,” as Megan Chance has written. “People suddenly had time on their hands and the disposable income to go with it. Religion began to lose its stranglehold on morality; its disapproval of entertainment for entertainment’s sake was no longer so influential.”

Celebrity magazines, like so many 20th-century newspapers, were in business to satisfy the vicarious pleasures of a public that, as alternatives to religious mythologies, began worshipping matinee idols because the film palace screens and the stars on it were bigger than life—and still are.

Celebrity magazines actually created the platform for what Libby Copeland in Slate called “the very idea of ‘movie stars.’” They validated the public’s fascination in their studio-sanctioned off-screen lives that left big gaps in their authentic real-life stories. The magazines “were deferential to the studios, which controlled access to their stars.” The studios, after all, also wrote some of the stories and provided the visuals, leaving little for the editorial staff to do but copy edit, create a layout and commission a cover.

Attitudes began changing in the postwar ’50s and ’60s when the studios lost power and the ability to control the genre; reporting on scandals, long kept out of the press, became red meat for the reader. Designs began to change as well: Rather than glamorous portraits, newsier, sometimes compromising shots, were de rigueur. The confluence of gossip columnists breaking timely stories in newspapers and the general transition in the entertainment industry cut into the fortunes of celebrity magazines. In the 1980s, People magazine, part sensational tabloid and part Life magazine hybrid, overtook the celebrity journals.

Celebrity obsession later entered a new age in the 2000s with TV, cable, blogs and iPhone voyeurism—and that’s the new photoplay!

Aside: Topping the Bop

During the mid-1960s, 16 magazine targeted starstruck adolescent girls in the manner of the 1920s Photoplay, Silver Screen, Movie Star and others. It was designed as a typographic carnival midway, replete with varied and discordant colorful typefaces and eye-catching headlines. Edited by former fashion model and pop idol–maker Gloria Stavers, 16 was the first bonafide American teenage fan magazine and hype engine for the popular music and television juggernaut headed for America’s baby-boom, teeny-bop generation. 16 was a voyeur’s cornucopia replete with “oodles” of never-before-seen “wow-ee” publicity pics of “adorable” blemish-free stars, and candid canned gossip about pop’s leading heartthrobs—presented without an iota of irony. Though it ceased publication in 2001, its elder relative, Seventeen magazine, first published in 1944, carries on.