Less than a week after Lohan’s birthday, Rolling Stone contributing editor Mark Binelli met the “Mean Girls” star to profile her for the cover of the magazine’s “Hot List” issue. His article begins with Lohan’s assurance that her breasts are real; he writes that he discerned as much through “reporting” that consisted of “discreet visual fact checking” and “a goodbye hug.” In the life of any girl who begins her career under Mickey Mouse ears, he writes, there comes a point at which she is as appealing to adults as she is to children, and that for Lohan — “or, more accurately, for Lindsay Lohan’s breasts” — that moment had arrived. “It became socially acceptable to note that the redheaded child actress was hot.”
In 2021, these sentences are objectively disgusting. But they fit right in with the media of that moment. As Binelli remembered via email to The Washington Post, news coverage of Lohan in the months leading up to his interview “had fixated on the teenager’s breasts to such a crazy degree that she brought the topic up, wholly unprompted, during our interview.”
Look up old profiles of young female celebrities from that time and you’ll consistently find something that, if it were published today, would be captured and shared across Twitter and ripped to shreds. But 20 years ago, a leering tone was the industry norm, whether the subjects were actresses, models, reality stars or one of pop’s ascendant blondes: Jessica Simpson, Christina Aguilera, Mandy Moore or, the girl who set the mold, Britney Spears.
Spears is the subject of a new documentary, “Framing Britney,” which has sparked a reexamination of media treatment of the era’s female celebrities. Many of them entered public life as minors yet were regularly interrogated about their developing bodies and sex lives.
It was not unusual to find a teenage Spears fielding inquiries about whether she was a virgin, if her breasts were real or fake, or if she was dressing in a way that made her an unsuitable role model for her young fans. Male counterparts were handled quite differently, from their attire — the ’NSync guys wore a lot of turtlenecks — to their behavior. If young male stars talked about having sex it was a cause for celebration.
An issue of Details magazine with a freshly liberated from ’NSync Justin Timberlake on the cover makes a prominent appearance in “Framing Britney,” with the accompanying text forgiving him “for all that sissy music” because “at least he got into Britney’s pants.” (Across the top of that same cover: “Forget feminism: Why your wife should take your name.”)
“It was a horrible time for young women in popular culture,” Binelli said. Though he’s sure his Lohan story received zero pushback from his editors or his readers and “seemed funny and edgy to me at the time,” he no longer finds it so. “Reading the story today makes me cringe and I deeply regret writing it and any other ways in which I participated in the rampant misogyny of the media landscape at the time.”
“However much I’d told myself I was making some kind of meta-commentary on the sexist culture of the day,” he said. “I was very clearly also perpetuating it.”
What exactly was going on in the early 2000s?
From one vantage point, it was an encouraging period for young women, a real you-go-girl time in entertainment. All-female acts like TLC and Destiny’s Child climbed the charts with anthems about kicking scrubs and cheating exes to the curb. Smart, plucky heroines led box office hits like “Erin Brockovich,” “Bend it Like Beckham” and “Legally Blonde,” while “Buffy,” “Dark Angel” and “Alias” duked it out on TV. It seemed like a pretty good time to be a girl, considering the alternative (all of human history up to that point).
But it was also the era of “Girls Gone Wild” and MTV Spring Break live-streaming wet T-shirt contests from Daytona Beach. Terms like “slut-shaming” and “victim-blaming” had yet to enter the lexicon and “revenge porn” was neither a concept nor a criminal offense, though sex tapes released without the consent of their participants (like Paris Hilton’s) were treated as major news and entertainment events.
“There was a lot of talk about the word ‘raunch,’ ” said Vanessa Grigoriadis, who, as a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, spent the 2000s profiling celebrities, including Simpson and Spears. “What is raunch culture and why is it taking over America? Why are people interested in Jenny McCarthy and Jessica Simpson and Jenna Jameson and Anna Nicole Smith? . . . I think everybody thought this was a real moment in American pop culture history where we had reached the bottom.”
Peter Castro, who edited celebrity coverage at People magazine from the late 1980s until 2014, remembers spending much of the early 2000s making appearances on major news networks. “I was on CNN constantly, talking about celebrities,” he said. “Looking back at that time now, I am fascinated by how many hundreds of millions of people in this country cared about the lives of 22-year-old pop stars.”
This period was the final stretch of print media’s monopoly on celebrity content acquisition and distribution; blogs and social media were coming to strip them of much of their influence and audience. And it was the last moment when the celebrities needed magazines even more than magazines needed celebrities, which meant the power dynamic was tilted away from the (mostly young, often female) fame-seekers toward the men atop the mastheads.
Into this trashy-star-obsessed America came a kind of second British invasion: The lad mag. Though Ed Needham actually detests this term — he calls it “a snooty and condescending dismissal of the success of these magazines” — he is arguably one of the men responsible for its rise and import into the United States. Needham took the top job at FHM (For Him Monthly) in the United Kingdom in 1997 and came to New York with the magazine two years later.
Men’s magazines usually relied on male cover stars, with only an occasional female celebrity or model in the mix. In a deviation from the norm, Needham’s FHM put women on the cover. (The only other U.S. men’s magazine that had already cracked and caved to this formula was Maxim.) Covers with women far outsold covers of men, and famous women sold more than anonymous models.
“That was the message that the universe was shouting at us loud and clear. And it would’ve taken an imbecile to ignore that market message,” Needham said.
Soon after arriving in the United States, Needham was hired by Jann Wenner to spice up Rolling Stone. An early cover under Needham, for the Nov. 14, 2002 issue, featured Aguilera naked save for a strategically placed guitar. (The cover line: “Inside the Dirty Mind of a Pop Princess.”) After a couple of years, Needham left and became editor in chief of Maxim. By then, the influence of these salacious magazines had oozed everywhere.
“Suddenly the buzz was with the newcomers, who were having fun with all these amazing girls,” Needham said. “Well, GQ and Esquire were still laboring under the illusion that what young men really wanted was more Jay McInerney. It just didn’t have the same glamorous appeal at all.” (Needham is currently the editor of Strong Words, a magazine about books.)
Dan Peres, who became editor in chief of Details in 2000, noted this shift in his 2019 memoir: “Edginess and cool had given way to T&A and bosomy midriff-baring cover models,” he wrote. “Fighting to compete, most traditional men’s magazines, including Details, followed suit, and their covers became virtually indistinguishable from the Playboys I used to try to peek at as a kid.”
Even the more literary-minded men’s magazines got in on it. In 2003, Britney was pantsless on Esquire; three years later, Aguilera was topless on GQ. The articles pretty much matched the pictures. “The male writer would go and basically flirt with a female celebrity to see if the female celebrity would take the bait,” said Grigoriadis, her eye roll nearly audible through the phone. “That was a trope that was used constantly.”
Though the intention behind these creative decisions was theoretically agnostic — nothing personal, just business — its obvious consequence was that any young woman who wanted to make it in entertainment was practically required to appear nearly naked on at least one, and probably several, magazine covers.
“In order to be considered hot [and] famous, you had to pose basically in lingerie,” Grigoriadis said. “You had to be a Victoria’s Secret model. It was abominable. They had to take off all their clothes. What else do you want to know?”
Did they have to, or did they want to?
Reckoning with this media brings that question to the fore, as two efforts collide: a push to respect the vision and autonomy of the young women who, by some accounts, steered their own careers even over the objections of male handlers, contrasted with a post-#MeToo understanding of how complicated and sometimes impossible it is for a young woman to consent in a situation in which she has limited power or control.
“It’s a very slippery slope when you start to criticize,” said Leslie Bennetts, who profiled celebrities for Vanity Fair through 2010. “With Britney, she was a teenager. Do you blame her for having had sexuality be a big part of her brand? Or was the commodification of her sexuality back when she was a virgin the responsibility of the adults who were guiding her career and benefiting from it? At what point do you assign agency?”
Some of Spears’s peers have since spoken out about feeling coerced into hypersexualized outfits and performances they hated at the time. But Spears is not among them; she hasn’t given a real interview in years.
“I think we know that Britney was this incredibly complicated stew of wanting to control her image and having other people say that she couldn’t,” said Grigoriadis.
There’s an interview clip in “Framing Britney” from the “Oops! . . . I Did It Again” era. A male journalist asks Spears, “How do you get control over your own life?” She looks bewildered by the question. “That’s why I am where I am today, is because I do have control, you know?” she says, sitting up a little straighter. “You just control what you do. You have to.”
Bennetts thinks a young Spears’s independent desires were inextricable from her desire to please other people.
“If you’re brought up to think: this is what you have to do as a female star — and it is an empowering thing to discover your own sexuality,” Bennetts said. “So you can see how if a girl is pretty and sexy and a fabulous performer, well sure, you’d be enjoying it! It’s fun to get up in front of an audience and have everybody love you. Do we blame her for being a product of her culture? I don’t think so, when you’ve been performing since you were 5.”
As the 20-year nostalgia cycle revs up, Grigoriadis expects modern judgment to be “very harsh” on this period. “And it should be,” she says. “But I also don’t think we should strip all the agency away from women who were also having a good time in a lot of ways. Some of them were being abused; I don’t want to say that they weren’t. But there were also some people who were having a lot of fun.”
It’s clear that the attitudes of artists and readers have evolved. Tolerance for leering magazine stories is at an all-time low. More recent entrants into the category — a New York magazine review of “Wonder Woman” that described Gal Gadot as a “superbabe-in-the-woods”; a 2016 Vanity Fair cover story on Margot Robbie that drooled over how “she can be sexy and composed even while naked but only in character” — have been roundly criticized by readers and disowned by their subjects. (Outrage prompted the New York magazine reviewer to write an essay-length explanation-slash-apology; Robbie called her article “really weird.”)
Nobody is asking today’s young pop stars, point-blank, about their virginity.
“I don’t think you could get away with asking any of these questions anymore,” said Grigoriadis. “And I don’t think anybody wants to.”