Not much about celebrities surprises me anymore.
For a couple of decades, my job has been to write about stars. Some days were better than others.
Like helping a hopping Sarah Jessica Parker wrestle off a Louboutin when her foot cramped, talking Scandinavian poetry with Viggo Mortensen in a hotel room and seeing Naomi Campbell meet my eldest son with a kiss while Salt’N’Pepa rocked a Sydney party.
But actress Rebel Wilson, 37, caught me off guard by appearing in person at her marathon three-week court case in Melbourne’s Supreme Court, which heard closing arguments on June 8.
On June 9 it was revealed Wilson would soon be back in court, this time being sued for defamation by Bauer journalist Elizabeth Wilson.
The actress launched a Twitter tirade against Wilson in 2016, claiming she had harassed her grandmother.
But she identified the wrong Elizabeth Wilson – there are two Elizabeth Wilsons working for Bauer – and instead called the entirely innocent House and Garden features’ editor “total scum”.
In her own defamation trial, Rebel Wilson put in a bravura performance, posing for selfies with fans and sometimes weeping during six days on the stand in a defamation case against Bauer Media.
Wilson’s grievance? That a series of eight stories in Woman’s Day magazine in May 2015 dealt her Hollywood career a serious hit by doubting her previously-peddled back story.
An anonymous source who was paid $2000 claimed the star sprinkled her background story with “fantasy” to bolster her self-proclaimed “bogan” showbiz image.
The trial heard the NSW-born star believes she’s related to Walt Disney and saw actor Hugh Sheridan talk via video link about mermaids. At the heart of the case were issues which could seem trivial in a different context: Wilson’s age and birth name, and whether her family ever owned show dogs.
Wilson slammed as “absolute bulls****” the suggestion she was a serial liar, insisting, “I’m an authentic candid person. I didn’t have to invent anything.”
Former Woman’s Day reporter Shari Nementzik testified her “Just Who Is The REAL Rebel?” story wasn’t meant to be “mean”, and that everyone knew tabloid magazines use “cheque book journalism” to secure stories.
Whatever the verdict, one truth is that for those not in the showbiz or media industries, the case provided a rare front row seat to how celebrity journalism works.
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This is a condensed version, but the fact is media outlets need content. Agents want to drum up publicity for their star clients’ projects. Without money changing hands, a mutually satisfactory story appears.
Another scenario is a series of photos of famous people on holidays, working out or grocery shopping with their kids are bought. They need words to match, and journalists have to magic up some.
The result? “Sites just run twenty of almost the same ‘pap’ shots with minimal text in between,” journalist Jane Nicholls, a former WHO magazine editor and People editor-at-large, tells The New Daily.
“Because of that, the bar for what I would deem in the public interest is now so low it’s almost lying on the ground.”
Despite Nementzik’s testimony that paying anonymous sources was the norm, Nicholls says it wouldn’t have happened on her watch.
“If it’s somebody who’s prepared to put their name to it, then we can have a conversation,” she says. “Even then, I’d ask, ‘What’s the agenda?’ and make sure I wasn’t just stripping down someone for the sake of it.”
Six months after the stories in question appeared in print—a time she said her professional life was on the skids—Wilson rang me one morning from Los Angeles.
My breakfast plate was still on the table, and she was fresh from appearing on The Ellen DeGeneres Show that day.
I asked how life was. “Everything’s great,” she said.
She really sounded like she meant it.