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Star-crossed covers

Warts-and-all 'Fabloids' take gossip mainstream

While GQ slims down Kate Winslet’s legs with an air-brush, a growing number of glossies are celebrating the imperfections and ordinariness of celebrities in a way formerly embraced only by tabloids.

Unlike tabs, though, these magazines — Us Weekly, In Touch Weekly and the soon-to-be-relaunched Star — don’t carry a stigma. If your co-worker sees you buying one, you don’t have to blame your grandmother.

And yet inside these respectable-looking bound mags — which Tina Brown called “fabloids” and then rechristened for Variety as “gabloids” — are the same deliciously empty calories of the National Enquirer: Demi Moore’s “I’m Baaack” PR campaign, J-Lo lugging groceries.

Gone is the garish presentation, however — the blurry photo resolution, the defensive hand covering the eyes. Although no deals are struck between publicists and editors for an official photo shoot, these stars are happy to be seen in their sweatsuits. They are as giddy as if they were on the cover of Vanity Fair.

In return, fabloids treat them a little nicer.

“The (supermarket) tabs are looking for cousin Billy the alcoholic who’s doing 30 years for bank robbery,” says Steve LeGrice, exec editor of In Touch — which launched last October — and a former exec editor of Star. “Our view is that people don’t care about that. For us Trista and Ryan (last season’s “Bachelorette” love match) is a cute romance, and now that it’s off TV, people will come to us for it.”

These mags are capitalizing on more than a cultural moment, however. The economic climate, specifically the slump that has crippled the tabloid industry over the last decade, is also providing more room to grow. For the first six months of 2003, retail sales for American Media’s publications — which includes the National Enquirer, the Globe and Star — dropped 14%.

In contrast, the new breed’s numbers are burgeoning. Wenner Media’s Us grew by 55% to a circulation of 1.1 million over the last 16 months. Bauer Publishing’s In Touch is about to double its rate base to 500,000 from its initial 250,000. Still, neither can touch Time Inc.’s People, which has a devout 3.3 million readers.

Maer Roshan, editor of Radar — which is snarkier and prosier than standard fabloids, but shares their uncut quality — similarly makes the link between television and print. “It’s a reality TV moment in magazines,” he declares. “It goes against this trend in glossy magazines of everything being so perfect. Forget about art directed. That runs so counter to the authenticity that the American public wants. We want things real.”

Apparently, we also want things crass: A “Radar” headline reads, “Uberbuilder Donald Trump’s Latest Erection.”

And banal. Us’s “Stars — They’re Just Like Us!’ section recently ran a half-page pic of a sleepy-looking David Schwimmer preparing to cross the street.

“They Push for the ‘Walk’ Signal,” the tagline exclaimed.

Us, of course, was the genre’s forerunner, or is at least the mag that has most successfully made the case that somewhere between the feel-good quality of People and the trashiness of the Globe, there is a sizable market.

And less than a month ago, Bonnie Fuller, who was Us’ prescient engine, responsible for the mag’s spike at the newsstands, bolted for a richly paid post as editorial director for American Media.

Her sudden segue from the slick New York media world (Fuller also did time at Conde Nast, Hearst and Gruner & Jahr) to the Boca Raton-based tabloid empire further suggests that perhaps the two worlds aren’t so different after all.

Fuller’s first assignment at American Media is to re-do Star, which is moving its headquarters to Gotham, and make it more like (surprise) Us.

The idea for rough-around-the-edges celeb coverage predates Fuller, however, and does not originate on these shores. The Europeans have been doing this for years.

Germany’s Stern and the U.K.’s Hello and, more recently, Heat, all fill their pages with sniper-style photographs of “Posh and Becks,” adorned with cheeky headlines.

Two Euro fabloids are in talks to be brought stateside. Gruner & Jahr’s Paris-based Gala is in the “incubator” stage, preparing for a trans-Atlantic makeover. And American Media is working on doing the same for British title OK!

Even Brown, who is now giving TV a try as host of CNBC’s “Topic A With Tina Brown, admits that while dreaming up her short-lived Talk magazine, she flirted with the idea of adopting the Brit standard.

“I thought about doing an American version of Hello,” she says. “People here have been pretty unchallenged. My interest was to combine the paparazzi with serious features. Glossy magazines are beginning to look very old-fashioned.”

Mitchell Stephens, the author of “The Rise of the Image, the Fall of the Word,” brings the success of tabloid glossies back to TV.

“They do something that TV hasn’t really been able to do that well yet,” he says. “You have the ‘Entertainment Tonights,’ but they’re just a half-hour. We don’t have the gossip channel yet. But we’re close.”

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