BEFORE she got fat, Britney Spears proudly pranced around wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words, Page Six Six Six.
John Lehmann, the Australian
Little did the pop tart understand that her supposed denouncement was greeted with devilish delight by Richard Johnson, the long-serving editor of the New York Post’s gossip column, Page Six.
Johnson, a tall, sandy-haired man with an easy smile, has been using his wit to lampoon Hollywood celebrities and New York’s moneyed set for 20 years. This is the man that dubbed philandering President Bill Clinton the "Horndog-in-chief"; delighted in discovering "heir-head" Paris Hilton long before the sex tapes; and provoked Hollywood big-time agent Ed Limato into throwing a double vodka on the rocks over him at a pre-Oscar party.
"We have a lot of space to fill, so having a nemesis that we can bash regularly just makes our job easier — and quite a bit more fun," Johnson said recently.
But now, the tables have turned on Johnson and his gang of Page Six scribblers, thanks to the behaviour of one of their colleagues, part-time reporter Jared Paul Stern.
As newspapers, television networks and internet sites across the US have reported en masse since last Friday, Stern, 35, was captured on a videotape allegedly demanding $US220,000 ($300,000) to ensure Californian supermarket billionaire Ron Burkle would not continue to be embarrassed by items on Page Six.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation is examining whether Stern’s behaviour amounted to extortion, opening up Page Six’s modus operandi to unprecedented scrutiny.
"The investigation has not yet reached a conclusion, but it will continue until it does," a federal law enforcement source told Media.
Even the normally sobered-toned paper of record, The New York Times, has been enthralled by the so-called Page Fix scandal, already publishing 10,000 words, including a front-page story. On the count of one newspaper editorialist, the Times only devoted 4000 words to the recent Israeli election.
As way of explanation, Times executive editor Bill Keller said the scandal was "a window into the wild, lucrative, logrolling world of gossip journalism, which, in New York at least, is as much about power and money as it is about celebrities".
Since its birth in 1977, under the hand of the late New Zealand-born journalist Neal Travis, Page Six’s willingness to use fear and favours to uncover the juiciest gossip has given it unrivalled power when it comes to creating and breaking celebrities and promoting or destroying entertainment-related ventures.
Page Six, as Arena magazine once observed, "can launch a bestseller, break a contract, fill a restaurant – even end a marriage".
Vanity Fair described it as "America’s most feared gossip column" and "the premier brand name for postmodern gossip".
Its recent scoops have included Donatella Versace’s rehab stint, Spears’s engagement to Kevin Federline and the pregnancy of Donald Trump’s wife Melania.
In the after-dark world in which Page Six reporters thrive, there are FOPS (Friends of Page Six) and enemies. FOPS, those appreciated by Page Six operatives for their style and/or information, are often rewarded with favourable items.
Those deemed to be enemies open themselves to attacks as cutting as machine-gun fire.
"We have this kind of attitude – and also, more importantly, reputation – where if you screw with us, we can make things bad for you," former reporter Ian Spiegelman once said. "The different people who write the page have different people they deal with and have to, like, protect, and also their different wars that they have to prosecute. It’s a lot like being a Mafia family."
Take this as an example of a Page Six assassination from last year: "This is the face of snarkiness incarnate," the item began, next to a photo of a glum-looking woman with lanky blonde hair.
"Unknown outside the dork-infested waters of the blogosphere, her name is Jessica Coen, and she’s the co-editor of Gawker.com, where she regurgitates newspaper and magazine stories and slathers them in supposedly witty sarcasm.
"She smiles and showers us [Page Six reporters] with sycophantic praise [in person], but her every mention of Page Six on her Web site is snide and snarky.
"Next time you see us at a party, keep walking – or slithering. You can’t be a bootlicker and a back stabber at the same time."
The Coens of the world and media rivals of The Post are now taking their shot at revenge, attempting to show that Page Six staffers have received personal favours for favourable coverage.
The Daily News – the rival tabloid newspaper which has been pressured in recent years by The Post’s rapid circulation gains under Australian editor Col Allan – has tried in recent days to paint a sordid picture of Johnson.
He has been accused of routinely accepting lavish gifts, including all-expenses-paid trips to the Academy Awards, and receiving a $50,000 bachelor party on Mexico’s Pacific coast from "Girls Gone Wild" video porn king Joe Francis.
It has been pointed out that Dave Zinczenko, the editor of Men’s Health, which hosted Johnson’s 50th-birthday bash at the Marquee nightclub in 2003, has been treated to favourable items.
Another Page Six reporter, Chris Wilson, has been accused of receiving free lap dances at Scores strip club, regularly celebrated as a "mammary mecca" in the column.
Unfortunately for Johnson, the scandal erupted only days before his wedding in Florida.
Instead of enjoying his honeymoon at Miami’s Delano hotel – last mentioned in Page Six on April 2 – the hard-charging gossip maven has been, according to Gawker.com, more engrossed in his laptop and mobile phone than his bride.