The American humorist Fred Allen once observed that a celebrity is a person who works hard all his life to become well known and then wears dark glasses to avoid being recognised. But Allen has been dead for approaching half a century and times have changed considerably in the intervening years. Today's celebrity is a person who experiences 15 minutes of fame and promptly gets on the cover of Hello!
Maybe not Hello! Maybe OK!, or Now, or Heat, or any one of the other celebrity magazines jostling for position on newsagents' shelves. Such is the public appetite for tittle-tattle about and pictures of the famous that there are so many celebrity-based titles you would need a wheelbarrow to get them home all at once.
But latest circulation figures suggest the boom may be over. Jane Ennis, editor of the hugely successful Now, has warned in this publication that she doesn't believe there is much growth left in the market, nor room for "any more launches of Now clones". "The bubble will burst," she said.
Richard Desmond patently wasn't listening. A couple of weeks after Ennis's ruminations Desmond dropped his 60p New! into the celebrity pond, sending out ripples that lapped uncomfortably around the socks of the other fawning-to-the-famous mags, Desmond's own OK! probably among them. Next up, we are told, will be a retaliative celeb title from Associated Newspapers, mad at Desmond for planning to launch a new evening paper against the Evening Standard. (Associated's antipathy towards the Express Group boss was not helped when he laid into the present Lord Rothermere's grandfather for thinking Hitler wasn't all bad. "I go to the gym three times a week," warned Desmond in the same speech. Why someone that tough doesn't make the gym come to him, I don't know.)
David Hellier, writing in the current British Journalism Review, reflects that Desmond "doesn't appear to value the skills of most journalists, believing they can be replaced easily enough by a lower cost option." New! certainly subscribes to that. It has a hand-me-down feel, some of the "interviews" are byline-free zones and the predictable, anodyne content includes much that smacks of PR fodder - New! to former Spice Girl Melanie C: "Describe your new album".
Celebrity trivia dominates the popular press, too, in a way that makes past coverage of big names look like prize-winning stuff, as indeed sometimes it was. Donald Zec's interviews for the Daily Mirror, for example, were brilliant and often acerbic, but seldom appeared more than once a week Ã there were only so many Humphrey Bogarts and Marilyn Monroes to go round Zec and his contemporaries.
Today the sheer amount of space to be filled in the papers and magazines dictates that every Johnny - (or Jenny) - come-lately commands acres of it before the ink on their contracts is dry. Such has been the explosion of the celebrity culture that even Piers Morgan's swerve towards the serious with the modern Mirror did not encompass ditching or reining back the 3am Girls' daily spread of gossip in Technicolor.
Can the public's appetite for cuttings from the dressing room floor sustain even more celebrity titles? I doubt it. As fast as we manufacture minor celebrities, they are being used up and spat out. And while those instantly forgettable Big Brother saps were responsible for the destruction of several Scandinavian forests, the popularity of reality television now appears to be on the wane.
This may be why some chroniclers of the fame game are themselves becoming celebrities. The 3am Girls are better known than some of those they write about. Now Richard Desmond has become a celeb, too - four pictures of him mingling with such luminaries as Jonathan Ross appeared in last week's OK!
But the writing's on the wall. The second biggest percentage rise among magazines grouped in the women's weeklies category of the ABCs for the final six months of last year was recorded by Chat. Unlike Hello!, OK! and the like, Chat doesn't trade in celebrity: the bedrock of its success is stories with headlines such as "I had phone sex with a chicken" and editorial initiatives that have included a search for "Britain's randiest gran".
Chat's editor, Paul Merrill, told Press Gazette: "It shows people are more interested in ordinary people living extraordinary lives than boring celebs." Ordinary people? Try telling that to the chicken.
Do any of you find yourselves, like me, unconsciously trying to rub away the dirty smudges under the new masthead of the tinkered-with Daily Telegraph? It is, I think, a shadowed Gothic typeface, which probably explains why I can't get rid of the dirty bits, not even with the aid of an India rubber.
Can the public's appetite for cuttings from the dressing room floor sustain even more celeb titles?
In his book The Aisle is Full of Noise, Michael Coveney discussed the sloppy sartorial style of most theatre critics and recalled Oscar Wilde's observation in The Picture of Dorian Gray concerning the bribing of reviewers - that judging by their appearance, none of them would be very expensive.
Among those cited by Coveney, now reviewing for the Daily Mail, as looking as if they permanently carried with them a hedge through which to be dragged backwards whenever in danger of looking smart were Benedict Nightingale of The Times, The Guardian's Michael Billington and Charles Spencer of The Daily Telegraph.
No longer, it seems. For the current issue of Theatregoer magazine, Trevor Leighton photographed 10 leading critics in the stalls of the Lyric Theatre, among them Billington, Spencer and Coveney himself, all so radiant it was as if they have been put through a carwash and then spent the morning at Trumper's and Austin Reed. Both the Evening Standard's Nicholas de Jongh and John Peter, of The Sunday Times, look as if they're auditioning for a James Bond movie - as the villains, naturally - and most striking, too, are the three lady critics present (there were few such when Coveney's book came out nine years ago).
Nightingale, God bless him, has patently undergone a vanity bypass and in the photograph retains the appearance of a comfortable if badly made bed. And that shrinking violet Toby Young, crumpled all over, is the only one of the men not to bother even to wear a jacket. It was Young who confessed to knowing absolutely nothing about the theatre when he succeeded Sheridan Morley at The Spectator. He fibbed. He obviously knew the critics' dress code.
The picture is, however, a total sham. I saw the photograph at an opening night when most of the aforementioned were present. En masse, my friends still looked like delegates at a totters' convention.
I was resplendent in blue suit and turquoise shirt and tie, just in case you were wondering.
Bill Hagerty is editor of British Journalism Review (and theatre reviewer for The Hollywood Reporter). He'll be back in four weeks
lNext week: Janice Turner