Getting our weekly celebrity fix from People

February 26, 1994|By ALICE STEINBACH

Even now, 20 years later, who can forget the week of March 4, 1974? That was the week three historic events took place in the nation:

* Seven Nixon aides were indicted on Watergate cover-up charges.

* Reggie Jackson signed a one-year contract with the Oakland A's for $135,000.

* The first issue of People magazine hit the stands.

Long gone, of course, are President Nixon and his roving band of merry followers.

And long gone are superstar baseball salaries in less than seven digits.

Still here, however, is People magazine which on the eve of celebrating its 20th anniversary can lay claim to being one of the world's most successful publications.

And one of the most consistent in its editorial content.

Consider, for instance, the very first issue of People which featured Mia Farrow on its cover. The March 4, 1974, issue included such stories as: "Gloria Vanderbilt: A fourth marriage that really works." "Stephen Burrows: Fashion king of the sexy cling." "Marina Oswald: Finally at peace with herself." "Palm Beach Whirl: The parties, pets and personalities."

Now, fast-forward to the Feb. 21, 1994 issue. "Melrose Mania!" screams the headline next to the cover photo of those three scandalous residents of TV's "Melrose Place:" Andrew Shue, Laura Leighton and Heather Locklear. Stripped across the top of the cover is another TV teaser: "Northern Exposure's Cynthia Geary lassos Luke Perry."

Thank heaven for People. Although the names change, the magazine remains the same. In a world shrouded in the fog of ambiguity and change, People is like the reassuring beam from a lighthouse, guiding us to familiar shores: The safe haven of Celebrity Land.

We have become, it seems, a nation obsessed with celebrities. According to the massive, 20th-anniversary press kit released by the magazine, one out of six Americans is a People reader.

Which suggests that for those interested in learning who and what has interested us over the last 20 years there may be no better research tool than People magazine.

The celebrities who most interested us? Judging from People's list of its top-selling magazines, they included: Prince Charles and Princess Diana, Jeffrey Dahmer, Prince Andrew and Fergie, Julia Roberts, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Lucille Ball, Liz Taylor and Larry Fortensky, John Lennon, Olivia Newton-John, Karen Carpenter.

In that list, of course, the name that stands out -- the one non-entertainment figure -- is Jeffrey Dahmer. Celebrities, it seems, now can wear black hats as well as white ones.

That's partly because there aren't enough old-fashioned (read: admirable) celebrities to go around in our celebrity-crazed culture. As a result, celebrities now include the likes of Jeffrey Dahmer or Charles Manson.

In a magazine like People, says Lawrence Mintz, University of Maryland associate professor of American Studies, "You get all kinds of negative and positive examples; people who inspire and the ones who make you think 'There but for the grace of God go I.' "

And, says Mintz, a magazine such as People serves a need. "The role of looking at the life of a celebrity, thinking about it and filtering it through our own values may be a more sophisticated phenomenon than we realize. Reading about Roseanne [Arnold], you may think about your own family, about your relationship to them, about what you think about aggressive women. But it's not just sitting there; there's a reaction of the thinker to these stories."

Reading about celebrities in a magazine such as People may also serve to keep us in touch with celebrities who are like friends and family to us, says Loyola College professor of popular culture Neil Alperstein.

"Celebrityhood is very important to us," he says. "In a society where people are alienated and traditional relationships don't exist, we maintain imaginary social relationships with celebrities. . . They have replaced some of the real relationships in our lives: the dear aunt, sister, uncle . . . and when you read People it's like a way of staying in touch with a friend . . ."

And that's probably just how the folks at People would like you to see them, now and for the next 20 years: as your friend.

Or to put it another way:

People. People who love People -- are the luckiest people in the world.

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