It's been more than two years since pop queen Britney Spears bottomed out with behavior so erratic she had to undergo psychiatric care, temporarily lost custody of her two boys and had to be appointed a conservator.
Now a Spears image-restoration campaign (or is it a real-life resurrection?) has taken flight, and you might think friends and family would be lining up to pronounce the entertainer all better.
But that's not the way Hollywood's glossy image machine works these days, as demonstrated by a three-page spread in a recent issue of People magazine. The story (with half a dozen photos) lets Britney's resurrection team go on and on about her new life, joyful motherhood and reignited career. But not a single one of the Brit-celebrants gives his or her name for the record.
While it's long been understood that dirty dishing in the entertainment industry would be done without attribution, it's increasingly clear that the infotainment press will deliver even glowing testimonials, character endorsements and gushy backslapping from unnamed sources.
In Us Weekly, In Touch, Star and even Time Inc.'s venerable People, anonymity has become the stock in trade. When sources tell the world what a good spouse, parent, humanitarian, romantic, animal lover, soul mate and ab-cruncher a celebrity really is, they almost always do it without giving their name.
Wedged between the showcase photo galleries in these and other magazines is an army of "insiders," "pals," "onlookers," "witnesses" and "sources." Even the smallest and most saccharine news squibs come sourced like the darkest revelations from the Nixon White House.
The tabloid press loves only one thing more than celebrity tear-downs, and that's celebrity resurrections. So why not let stars or their entourages build their reputations with a little quiet persuasion? Isn't the audience, in these trying times, practically begging for stories of redemption?
A recent Us Weekly headline about singer and babe-magnet John Mayer read, "No Girls for Now." Months earlier, Mayer's randy sex confessions overshadowed his musicianship as he talked about his sex organ as a white supremacist and called onetime girlfriend Jessica Simpson "sexual napalm."
The Us item allowed his advocates to fashion a kinder, gentler Mayer. It quoted a source saying he now ignores "booty calls" from women, sees the iPad as his new "late-night love" and enjoys a good go at Sudoku. Voilà, the young heartthrob had been remade into a veritable Garrison Keillor.
The same Us issue had an "onlooker" crediting attentive George Clooney for keeping loving tabs on girlfriend Elisabetta Canalis as they rode a motorcycle. It had a "source" describing Alicia Keys' "summer of love" with her new husband. It had a "pal" saying reality star Kristin Cavallari is ready to move to Chicago to pursue a romance with Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler.
Anonymous celebrity-polishing flourishes over at Star magazine too. We learn from another "insider" that Oscar winner Charlize Theron and actor Eric Thal are hitting it off because "they are both easygoing and love to laugh." The two feel "no pressure," we are assured, and are just "having a great time together." You can bet that neither wants to stifle the other's artistic ambitions. And both, no doubt, practice impeccable hygiene.
In Touch, similarly, invoked an "insider" to put "The Bachelor" star Jake Pavelka together with a new love interest. "It's very casual," the magazine's source told us, "but they're having a great time."
Love is effortless and free when the principals don't have to talk about it and the witnesses go unnamed. It also opens the door for a boatload of endorsement opportunities. The short squib on "The Bachelor" protagonist managed to name a couple of Las Vegas hotels, a restaurant and a nightclub, all in the space of just a few lines. (Surely no one could be paying a source for this kind of brand building, could they?)
I called Bonnie Fuller, the former Us Weekly editor, to ask her if it wasn't kind of silly to employ all these anonymous sources, not just when exposing celebrity missteps but on stories that polished the stars' glossy images.
Fuller, an icon in celebrity journalism who now runs HollywoodLife.com, assured me that the anonymity helps the public to know more.
"We strive to get as many people on the record as we can," Fuller said. "But it's a fairly standard tool for people to speak on background."
David Caplan, a former senior editor at People now working as a consultant for HollywoodLife.com, said readers shouldn't assume that celebrities or their handlers plant all those glowing quotes and testimonials.
Reporters get their information from friends, business associates and an array of other sources, Caplan said. Some of the best sources are scenesters who get a "feeling of power, being on the inside and being involved" when they pass information to celebrity mags. They do it for the buzz, not money, Caplan said.
But even so-called friends passing on "good" news — like the constant updates assuring us that Jennifer Aniston really is happy and thriving without ex-husband Brad Pitt — seem to never tell us where the information is coming from. Why?
"Even if it's something good, some in Hollywood don't like to feel like they are constantly being watched," Caplan said. And seeing their friends quoted in a story, no matter how glowing, just confirms the fear that they have no refuge.
No one should assume something "sketchy" is going on because of the use of unnamed sources, said Fuller. "There are many excellent sources that can't or won't go on the record," she said, saying the magazines go to some lengths to make sure what they print is true.
When I called the magazines "tabloids," Fuller corrected me. "We call them celebrity news weeklies." She declined to pick one as more accurate or successful than the others, saying they all had broken big stories. She pointed to the In Touch piece saying that Jesse James had cheated on wife Sandra Bullock. She cited Star for revealing that John Travolta and wife Kelly Preston would have another child.
"Watergate," she schooled me, "was all off-the-record, unnamed sources. That was an extremely large, history-making story."
Thanks for the civics lesson, I thought. But I didn't say anything. Maybe I felt a little chagrined, spending even one day worrying about the Candyland rule book for celebrity journalism. Doesn't everyone already know this stuff exists in its own parallel universe, where good, bad and even real are judged by different criteria?
A publicist for one celebrity news outlet assured me about the earnest efforts it made to get stories right. But that intent clearly didn't come out of any high regard for the audience.
"You have people in Middle America who live their lives through these celebrities," she said. "These are people who believe everything they read."
I'd tell you the publicist's name and who she worked for. But I must have caught the bug. I had already told her I wouldn't quote her, if only she would tell me what was really going on.