For those in the know, Thursday afternoon, between the hours of four and five, is the bitching hour. That’s the time when a sound, a vibration, a salutary haptic, signals the arrival of Popbitch in one’s inbox.
Every week, for exactly 20 years last month, the email newsletter has been sating, or stoking, the nation’s appetite for celebrity gossip. As more august titles have risen and fallen—and still others have been forced to seriously change their ways—Popbitch has retained the same schedule, the same tone of voice and the same plain-text HTML format (so that people can read it at work “without being clocked by their managers.”) Not bad for a publication with a circulation greater than the Daily Telegraph.
It’s also retained the same staff. Well, sort of. Camilla Wright, who founded Popbitch in January 2000, is still at the helm. Since moving to Hong Kong last year, though, editorship has been passed to Chris Lochery, who began his career as an intern there eight years ago. His job has been to master Popbitch’s tone of voice (an arch drawl described as a mix between “an Old Soho media insider” and the 1950s Hollywood gossip magazine Confidential) and manage its cadre of sources.
Twenty years ago newspapers, then making their first tentative forays onto the web, were still the gatekeepers of our worldly information, and their denizens were numerous. Wright, a freelance journalist, would meet up with colleagues in entertainment, politics and sports reportage and swap scandalous stories that “you weren’t allowed to put in the papers.” When she began sending a round-robin email containing the most scurrilous titbits, Popbitch was born.
For a story to be ‘pop’ or ‘bitch’ enough for inclusion, Wright says, it must be funny. “There’s lots of things we don’t print, stories about ill health, family, children. You think, there’s something there but there’s no humour in it.” This seems a bit worthy from a publication which coined the acronym IDNSHC, but Wright and Lochery are adamant Popbitch maintain an affectionate tone; while an editorial ‘sounding board’ of media insiders (rumoured to include filmmaker Adam Curtis and Private Eye’s Adam McQueen) try to help it avoid the scorn heaped on other scandal-merchants.
Popbitch’s foundation year, back in 2000, heralded not only the dawn of online mass media but also a new kind of popular culture. The previous year, Britney Spear’s Hit Me Baby One More Time sold over 10 million copies and became the lodestar for a music industry reaping the financial rewards of seemingly limitless control over manufacture and distribution. Britain’s new music industrialists, somehow all called Simon, were constructing hit-making factories at the rate of Chinese hospitals.
It was the Britneys, Christinas and Myleenes that inspired Wright: “after all the serious 90s musicians, it seemed bubblegum pop was coming back.” Not only that, but the internet gave superfans the world over a network. “HMBOMT was huge—the video, the dance moves, the song itself. It was unifying to so many people.” Spears’s success demonstrated the vitality of the industry. And, as a leading exporter of popular music since circa 1962, Britain was at its centre, with Soho’s private members’ clubs its inner sanctums.
Money begets excess begets gossip, and, before camera phones, London’s media nodes had exclusive access to the bacchanal on Dean Street. Some, like Julie Burchill and Toby Young, sought to intellectualise it, without really succeeding in wiping the sneers off their faces. But Wright claims she only wanted to make a “Smash Hits for adults,” celebrating the scene’s protagonists as well as dishing the dirt. When a famous person dies, Popbitch might be filled with their misdemeanours but could also include more positive, humanising, items: a recent issue carried a story about Nicholas Parsons walking into a glass door at a party.
That said, the salacious scoops are what it’s known for. Like its neighbour, Private Eye, the early years of the newsletter were marked by cease and desists. At one point, Wright says, lawyers monitored Popbitch’s messageboard 24/7. (She won’t say whose.) Pete Burns once posted Wright’s phone number on his website and she received a deluge of death threats. Elton John and David Furnish are said to be huge fans and are rumoured to have emailed with corrections to stories. But it’s the Beckhams (dubbed “Thick and Thin”) that really made Wright’s name.
After the messageboard carried rumours of David’s alleged infidelities, the full legal force of his brand came down hard and Popbitch found its way onto the evening news. Was that the first time she realised how big this thing had become? She pauses, “well there was that… and Megaman.”
Megaman—as I’m sure you remember—was a member of the So Solid Crew. In 2006, Popbitch began running stories about him, and, Wright says, “he’d got in touch with serious legal letters.” The next week, he was arrested and charged with murder but was subsequently acquitted. Back then, internet privacy law was non-existent and Popbitch avoided libel actions mostly by getting things right—a couple of high-profile mistakes involving Jeremy Clarkson and Max Beesley notwithstanding.
In 2012, Wright was called before the Leveson Inquiry to advise on how to regulate the web. “I felt vindicated by the whole thing because we’d been going on about phone-hacking since 2003. They hauled me up there and kept throwing hypotheticals at me, like, ‘say JK Rowling bought a fridge, would you publish that?’” The irony is, that’s exactly the kind of thing Popbitch would run. Attempting to describe the apotheosis of a good scoop, Lochery refers to a story about Timmy Mallett shouting ‘oh, fuck the law!’, within earshot of officers sent to shut down a party. “There’s something in that that’s just delightful,” he beams.
Phone-hacking wasn’t the only scandal on which it was ahead of the curve. Early on, Popbitch was calling out celebrities later exposed by Yew Tree and Me Too. As the latter movement gained momentum, accusations were being made on Twitter every other day. The lightning-quick proliferation afforded by the platform surely makes a weekly newsletter redundant? “That’s why we don’t really go near anything on there. We only get our stories from sources we know and trust, either online or in-person.”
Backlashes against abuse have engendered a fear of promoting excess. This, combined with a waning of their financial clout due to the internet, would, you’d imagine, mean less gossip for the newsletter. Journalist Decca Aitkenhead once said that reading Popbitch was like “going to the Groucho but not having to pay for drinks”—but now that Soho’s members’ clubs are about as exclusive as a Pizza Express voucher, why is Popbitch still here?
Lochery assures me that “there’s a new Groucho set… people like Nick Grimshaw, Rita Ora and Cara Delevingne.” While those names probably won’t quicken many pulses, the difference between them and the stars of the late 90s and early 00s is they can manage their own image and publicity through social media. This removes the need for so many agents and publicists (try not to shed a tear), but also democratises the celebrity-making industry. “Being a celebrity nowadays isn’t as fun as it used to be. But there are enough people out there willing to humiliate themselves and make that their jobs,” says Wright.
So, with brain-dead Love Islanders now top billing, has Britain finally got the celebrities it deserves? “No, because we’ve still got all the old ones. The internet has meant that artists’ work will always remain popular—look at Mariah Carey.” One thing we seemingly have got is the politicians we deserve: celebrities. As the A-listers have moved out, the rumour mill has rolled from Soho down to Westminster, where the commentariat still rubs shoulders with its subjects: “there’s loads of MPs and political journalists on our mailing list that weren’t there 10 years ago.” Indeed, the convergence of the worlds of gossip, media and politics has occurred to such an extent that a former hack (and Popbitch regular) is in No.10, and the President of the United States is an ex-reality TV star.
Trump’s election led to an explosion of conspiracy theorising that has seen Popbitch delve into the world of serious investigative journalism. Among its long-running series is a look into the relationship between American Media Inc., owner of the National Enquirer and Radar, and people such as Trump, Epstein and Weinstein. This exists behind a paywall surmountable with a few pence. That, along with advertising on the newsletter, allows Popbitch to turn a small profit: in the world of online journalism, nothing short of a miracle. So, does this investigative work signal a move away from the serious business of celebrity tittle-tattle? Not at all, insists Wright, “we don’t want to bombard subscribers with emails, we only want to take up ten minutes of their week. But we want those ten minutes to be great fun.”
As other readerships get older, Popbitch’s largest growth has been in the early-20s demographic: “people leave university and start working in offices and someone tells them ‘you’ve got to read this on a Thursday afternoon.’” Since readers can submit stories, this means they influence the content, allowing it to move with the times. Does Wright think it’ll survive another 20 years? “Well, we seem to have weathered the onslaught of fast news and social media and actually there now seems to be a backlash against both.” And, as tabloids, and broadsheets, become more enthraled to their celebrity cover stars, it’s good to have a news source you can trust to tell you the full story. Even if that story is what Kenneth Branagh’s parents used to rent from Blockbuster.