American Pie 21.02.2006

By Jeffrey Blyth in New York

Hands off the goodie bags — the tax man may be watching! At least here in the US.

Goodie bags – or swag bags as some call them — have lately grown much bigger and worth a lot more. Introduced initially as a “thank you” to celebrities attending such events as the Academy Awards, they are now often packed not just with cosmetics and make-up kits but with such costly items as mobile phones, digital cameras and other electronic gadgets, and sometimes even tickets for free trips to tropical spas or holidays in Europe.
The novelty this year: a miniature but playable (and quite expensive) Gibson guitar. These days some publicity-conscious companies, according to the firm that specializes in assembling the goodie bags for many Hollywood events, actually vie to have their products included.
And nowadays it’s not just celebrities and stars who take the bags home: some journalists have been spotted pocketing the goodie bags as they leave an event. Is it ethical? Some would argue that it’s not wrong if there are bags to spare. But that’s where the tax man comes in. The contents of the bags – if valuable – could be regarded as income, as payment for attending an event. After the recent Golden Globes awards, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association discovered that it had several bags left over. The contents of each bag, it was estimated, was worth several thousand dollars. What to do with them? On the advice of the association’s tax lawyer it was decided not to give them to any of their members or their families, but hold them for some other occasion.

◊ All’s not too OK at the new US edition of OK! Despite a massive (and expensive) launch late last year, the American version of the successful British celebrity magazine, is having problems. Editor Sarah Ivens, in an interview with the New York Post, confessed: “We came over being very British. We thought we could take on America but we found American readers are totally different.”

Changes are being made. The cover price has been slashed to under two dollars. The size has been shrunk. And gone is the trademark red logo – replaced with a quieter pink and white imprint. Whether it will do any good remains to be seen. Reducing the size will certainly help in the notoriously space-tight supermarket magazine racks.

Editorial director Paul Ashford, also interviewed by the Post, admitted the red logo, popular in the UK, came to be regarded as brash and downmarket in the US. Still uncertain is whether Sarah Ivens will continue as editor when her present contract expires in April. Originally the magazine wanted Nicola McCartney, the former UK editor of OK! to helm the US version, but she had problems over a “no-compete” clause in her contract with Us Weekly. That expires in April – but now McCartney is pregnant and is not expected to be available for at least six more months.
 
◊ The ghouls who made a big business of selling the parts of dead bodies for medical operations are expected in court in New York any day soon. The most notable victim: British newsman Alistair Cooke, who died in 2004. Parts of his body, which was to be cremated, were sold allegedly for more than $7,000. It is expected to be claimed in court that a “donor form”, which faked his age (it said he was 85 when he was really 95) and claimed he died from a heart attack, whereas he suffered from lung cancer, was forged. Altogether it is alleged more than 1,000 bodies, over the years, were illegally sold by funeral homes in New York and elsewhere in the United States. Reportedly after being opened up, the bones and body parts were replaced with fabric and plastic piping. Parts were sold, it will be claimed, to orthopedists, heart doctors, skin surgeons and dentists. It was, police say, a multi-million dollar business.
 
◊ The annual Swimsuit Issue of Sports Illustrated is getting sexier – and showing more skin. This year the cover features eight topless models. Over the years, bathing suits have become skimpier. In the early days some of the models wore skirts over their swimsuits. Then one-piece swimsuits were replaced by bikinis. Bare tummies have been standard in at least 27 of the last issues. This year, for the first time, eight video versions of the magazine – one for each topless girl – are available. Next year we are promised the “body-paint issue” We assume that means the swimsuits will vanish completely.
 
◊ Art Buchwald, the celebrated American columnist, who started writing his humorous column for the Herald Tribune in Paris in the 1950s, is recovering in a Washington medical centre from the amputation of the lower portion of one of his legs because of kidney and vascular problems. “He is doing well – considering” reported his long-time assistant, Cathy Clary. Buchwald was 80 last year.
 
◊ The Voice of America, which next to the BBC is probably the most prolific of English-language radio news services, is cutting back. It plans to drop many of its English-language broadcasts. Also its news broadcasts in Croatian, Turkish, Thai, Greek and Georgian. Broadcasts in Albanian, Bosnian, Serbian, Russia and Hindi may also be cut back. In their place VOA will concentrate its efforts – and money – on broadcasts to the Middle East, especially to countries where the US is spending the most effort on combating terrorism.
Also scheduled to go is News Now, the VOA’s flagship English-language programme, which broadcasts world-wide 14 hours a day and includes hourly news updates. The move has angered many journalists here, who say that the move will virtually eliminate English-language radio broadcasts to almost everywhere but Africa and potentially put many journalists out of work. Also they note the change comes at a time when Russia, China and the Qatar-based al-Jazeera network are all adding television or internet programming in English. “It’s painful but necessary” claimed Kenneth Tomlinson, chairman of the VOA board of governors.

◊ Even though most of them don’t want it (or say they don’t) all 535 members of the US Congress each month receive a free copy of Hustler magazine. It arrives in conservative-looking manila envelope, courtesy of the publisher Larry Flynt.

Most of the Congressmen claim it gets thrown in the trash bin – along with unwanted circulars and advertising fliers. Some Congressman have tried to stop the monthly freebie. “It’s disgusting” said Chris Cannon, a Republican congressman from Utah.

Flynt insists he has no intention of stopping mailing the freebies. He is not upset, he claims, that most of the likely readers are young interns. “I am sure they are all over 18,” he said. “They need some help getting through puberty anyway.”
 
◊ It’s called Shock – and that’s its intention, to shock readers with stories and pictures of frightening and horrifying events. Modeled on the French magazine Choc, it makes its debut on America newsstands in May. It’s being published by Hachette Filipacchi and is considered here to the biggest publishing gamble for years. It will be edited by Mike Hammer,, a former editor of Stuff.

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