Britney Spears wanted to slip into something more comfortable.
For much of 2007, the pop diva had been on a jag of increasingly erratic behavior: shaving her head, attacking paparazzi with an umbrella, a stint in rehab. And at a party at the exclusive West Hollywood nightspot Winston’s, Spears was acting out again. She downed some vodka, befriended a barmaid and convinced the woman to switch clothing with her in the club’s restroom — all the way down to her undergarments.
Celebrity obsessives know these details thanks to a reporter who said she witnessed Spears’ wardrobe swap and supplied her account to a British tabloid, creating a worldwide gossip sensation. “I was in the bathroom when they exchanged clothes,” the reporter recalled. “I was by the bar and heard everything the bartender said about it: ‘She loved my bra and wanted to switch with me.’ I was like, ‘This is brilliant!’ ”
A statuesque former model who now works for a major American celebrity magazine, the woman spoke on condition she not to be identified for fear of blowing her cover as a so-called “club girl,” a glamorous breed of covert reporters who infiltrate Hollywood’s VIP sanctums to write celebrity exposés for the tabloids.
A well-established yet seldom-discussed fixture of A-list Angeleno nightlife, they have good looks and air-kissy access beyond the velvet rope that enable them to eavesdrop on celebrities, send surreptitious text messages and snap iPhone photos in pursuit of gossip gold.
“I always say, it’s living like a call girl without the sex,” former club girl Suzy McCoppin said.
Well, not exactly.
A onetime Playboy pinup who worked as a nightclub reporter for Star magazine for three years before getting “banned from every club in the city,” McCoppin said she once sold a story describing a weekend tryst with British pop star Robbie Williams to the London tabloid News of the World for $40,000. She embodies the kind of club girl who goes beyond reporting the story to becoming the story.
“A lot of club girls want to be famous,” said Evan Matthew, a former senior reporter for Star magazine who also recruited nightclub reporters for four years. “The hope is, being a club girl will get them closer to the celebrities. And they’ll become an actress. Or they’ll start dating a celebrity.”
Moreover, they help service three distinct economies: Hollywood nightclubs, whose bottom line can be goosed by mention in a celebrity magazine; certain B- and C-list celebrities who knowingly partner with club girls, feeding them “exclusives” about their better-known pals in exchange for positive press; and the tabloids such as Life & Style, Us Weekly, OK! and Star engaged in a minute-to-minute website race for the latest gossip and a weekly struggle for the most sensational cover stories.
According to several former nightclub reporters and one retired tabloid editor, the publications typically employ one or two club girls at a time who generally earn around $300 a night. But that pay range can stretch into tens of thousands of dollars for “inside inside” exclusives. “You went to a certain club on a certain night,” said one, who worked as a nightclub reporter in 2008. “Wednesday was for Les Deux. Thursday was Goa or Opera. Monday was celebrity karaoke night at Guy’s. So you’d basically take notes and then send the file in at 5 a.m.”
She added: “I love celebrities and I could not believe there was a job that involved going out and doing celebrity reporting like this. I would have done it for $20.”
McCoppin, who said she parlayed her club girl days into a series of affairs with athletes and actors, a column in Playboy magazine and an as-yet-unpublished memoir, makes no apologies for her less-than-conventional reporting techniques. She recalled that her first reaction when her editor suggested she could turn her relationship with Williams into a tabloid payday was “absolutely not. This is tacky.”
When she discovered the amount of money involved, however, she produced a detailed account of her affair that included explicit descriptions of “total rock star sex.” “Tacky aside, I will look tacky for $40,000!” she said.
To hear it from Ken Baker, E! Entertainment Network’s chief news correspondent who worked as Us Weekly’s West Coast executive editor for five years, club girls emerged around 2003, “the heyday of the L.A. club scene,” when professional partiers like Paris Hilton, Spears and Nicole Richie were objects of intense public fascination. Freelance reporters already out and about on the scene began to be enlisted by the tabs with fairly low expectations. “We’d say, ‘Report what you see,’ ” Baker recalled.
While certain core journalism skills — like observational reporting and writing talent — were prized, the ability to be accepted into celebrity venues quickly became crucial.
“They need to get access,” Baker said. “In this case, it’s not having a [press] credential. It’s having the look.”
Another former club girl, an attractive brunette who insisted on anonymity because she continues to work as a celebrity journalist and did not want to alienate her sources, detailed the money and effort she put into looking the part.
“I always had my hair nice, always had nice makeup on,” she said. “I always wore dresses. Heels. I had to buy a lot of clothes, so I would go to Forever 21 and H&M. I always made sure I looked really pretty. Not slutty or anything.”
The more competitive tabloids deploy different types of club girls depending on the location and reporting job. “They’ll have a redhead, an African American, an Asian, a lesbian,” Matthew said. “There are a lot of gay bars. And usually, those will get you exclusives.”
But operating as a socialite-mole-agent provocateur is not for the faint of heart and most burn out after a couple of years in the field, according to veterans of the scene. Several present and past club girls said drinking to excess comes with the territory. Most tabloid magazines do not have an explicit policy forbidding alcohol consumption and almost all that hire club girls will allow them to buy expense drinks for themselves and friends. As well, illicit drugs are an ever-present temptation — as is the potential for a sexual hookup with a boldfaced name.
“In that world, there are definitely people who are getting wasted,” one club girl said. “There are people who get drunk and do drugs. Or go home with a celebrity.”
McCoppin has published stories about her alleged encounters with international soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo (in London’s The Sun) and the star of HBO’s “Entourage” Adrian Grenier (in Playboy) — with whom she also appeared nude in a sex scene on the show. A former party columnist for Playboy magazine, her proposed book (co-authored with another former nightclub reporter, Allison Swann) chronicles the club girl M.O. of intermingling sexual conquests with celebrity reportage.
McCoppin explained how she weighed the ethics of writing a tell-all expose.
“We always ask ourselves before we do a story, ‘Is this going to hurt their marriage?’ or ‘Is this going to hurt their career?’ ” McCoppin said. “And if the answer is yes, we try to avoid it or soften it.”
Some club reporters keep hundreds of dollars in cash on hand to pay for the rights to photos of celebrities that other nightclub patrons might have snapped with their camera phones. Club girls have also been known to tenaciously follow their story subjects from nightclub to after-party and, if an invitation is extended, beyond — on, say, a spur-of-the-moment trip to Vegas, or a jaunt on a private jet or aboard a yacht.
But after a few years on the club circuit, the hard-partying lifestyle can take a steep toll. Matthew recalled a reporter who started out “bright eyed and bushy tailed” but eventually let certain temptations overtake her life.
“She started off doing a good job but got in so deep after five years, she hung around with all these major celebrities and didn’t know who anybody was because she was on drugs,” he said. “She started missing stories and she’d come home with nothing. She became a full-time prostitute and had a couple of different celebrity clients. For those club girls, there’s no return.”
An unspoken part of the job is providing a windfall of free publicity for the nightclubs in which the reporters ply their trade. The women cultivate cozy relationships with promoters, doormen and other velvet rope guardians who ensure the reporters are whisked into the VIP area ASAP.
“Club girls are keeping these clubs in business,” Matthew said. “Clubs are a fickle business. The paparazzi photos outside? They don’t mention the name of the club. But when you have a story happen inside? That’s huge.”
Bolthouse Productions’ founder-president, Brent Bolthouse, who has launched such exclusive nightspots as Hollywood’s Hyde Lounge and West Hollywood’s club du jour Trousdale, says his policy is to kick out anyone identified as a nightclub reporter. But he acknowledges that other club owners in town sanction and even encourage the coverage.
McCoppin noted that club girls, with their covert status, often get access when mainstream reporters are banned.
“The best way to ingratiate yourself to a celebrity as a club promoter, a restaurant owner, whatever, is to look like you’re protecting them from the press,” she said. “Meanwhile, while you’re shielding them, you’re waving us in. With a wink.”
Despite the unrelenting newsstand competition among gossip magazines and the pressure to deliver scoops, club girls just want to have fun and a sisterly camaraderie abides. And to hear it from one woman who has freelanced for OK!, Star and Life & Style, nightclub reporters never let their professional allegiances stand in the way of having a good time.
“I go out with other reporters all the time,” she said. “We’ll all be on assignment and we’ll all go out together. I have a friend who works for Us Weekly. She’ll be like, ‘I have to cover blah blah blah. Do you think you can get that?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah!’ And then we’re on the same mission. It’s fun!”