When the celebrity weeklies come out tomorrow, nearly all of them will have some version of the story of Angelina Jolie's adoption of three-year-old Pax Thien Jolie last week. But only one magazine will certainly have it as a photo-heavy cover. Only one gets the exclusive access to Jolie and her adoptees that the other tabs can only dream about.
That magazine is People. Competitors in the industry have long been steamed at what they perceive as People's seemingly unfettered access to Jolie, her children, and Brad Pitt, and the magazine's role in turning Jolie into some sort of vainglorious, self-righteous and yet extremely hot version of Mother Theresa. And it turns out that People's campaign to earn the trust of Jolie and Pitt has deep roots that are now so firmly planted that the couple doesn't think twice about to whom they grant interviews and where they allow their photographs to run—even though the photographs are ostensibly put on the open market by Getty. It's People, People, People.
In March 2005, Jolie told an audience at the National Press Club that she and Maddox had recently visited Ethiopia, and "he has been asking for an African brother or sister," People reported. In May 2005, People magazine ran a heartwarming story about children orphaned by AIDS in Ethiopia. In addition to the children, the piece also highlighted the work of Worldwide Orphans Foundation, a New York-based organization founded by Dr. Jane Aronson.
The magazine hadn't mentioned Dr. Aronson for four years when it did the piece in 2005. Then, in June 2005, a previously unknown (to the pages of People, at least) name began appearing in the magazine—that of Jeffrey Sachs, the Columbia economist and UN adviser who's known for his work in reducing poverty and fighting AIDS.
It's no coincidence that both Aronson and Sachs are close to Jolie. Aronson is Jolie's daughter Zahara's pediatrician, and after Jolie adopted "Z" from an Ethiopian orphanage, Aronson is the doctor Jolie credits with saving Z's life. Jolie has been working with Sachs since at least 2005, when their work together in Kenya was documented in a film shown on MTV in September of that year.
According to a source close to the magazine, People embarked on a deliberate campaign to ingratiate themselves with Sachs and Aronson to get on Jolie's good side. "It was all very organic-seeming," says the source, because of People's natural mix of celebrity reporting and human-interest stories. "It was really pretty brilliant—People did lovely separate pieces on them both and their work, and when an Angelina piece would come up, Aronson and Sachs could also be used as sources. Of course, there were a few charity dinners thrown in, like things benefiting [Aronson's] Worldwide Orphans organization. It was subtle and gradual, and most important, fit in with the human interest pieces that People is known for anyway."
Another industry source noted that Jolie establishes stringent requirements for her photos to be published—requirements that People is uniquely positioned to meet. "A three-page memo went out with Cambodia pictures—you can run these pictures but you have to positively talk about Cambodia. Sure enough the pictures ran, and there was this great spread about Cambodia. You will pay me and do stories about what I want to do stories about. Leading up to the baby, all of a sudden—their baby, born in Africa, all of a sudden you saw articles in People about Africa."
Jolie outperforms for People. According to Variety, the Shiloh pictures brought their website 26.5 million page views in a day.
And according to TMZ.com head Harvey Levin, it just comes down to People being a "safer venue for someone like Angelina. There's so little control left in the lives of big celebrities. When they have what they consider to be a safe haven, some of them still use it," he said.
So when it came time for the June 2006 auction for the photos of Pitt and Jolie's daughter Shiloh, the photos eventually went to People for a reported $4 million for North American rights; People reportedly won because it partnered with Hello! in the U.K. to offer one bid. But according to an industry insider, few sets of pics since then have gone on the open market—or if they have, their eventual provenance is a foregone conclusion.
"The way it used to work is that everyone would see the pictures and bid on them as a set. It carried the caveat that Angelina had publication approval. So the weeklies played the game, and bid. But it became clear to us that the only pub that would be approved was People. Basically they've cut out the bullshit, and they just sell the stories to People. So they use Getty as a broker. They're laundering it through Getty," this source said. "There was a set of them in New Orleans—which never was published, because they only approved People. People wasn't interested, so rather than take money—Angelina does say this is all for charity—and appear in another mag, they chose to not take the money, because they'll only deal with People." (Another source said, "People don't realize—New Orleans is the Namibia of the Gulf States. Their government can be persuaded to abide by a different set of rules. [Jolie and Pitt's] lives are exponentially easier in New Orleans than in LA. The cops were super tough on a lot of the photographers down there, to the point that at least one agency just threw up their hands and said forget about it.")
The most recent pics of Angelina and her brood were taken in Vietnam, when she went to pick up her latest adopted child, Pax. "She flew Zahara out for the shoot—no Shiloh," said the source. (Maddox was already there.) "There was lots of bidding, and it went to People, as everyone knew it would."
People has long prided itself on not paying sources or for stories, but some in the industry argue that People is doing just that with its arrangements with Jolie. With the eternal caveat: even if the profits go to charity.
"They're the employer, they're paying her, they pay for them. For example, these pictures, they're marked for only approved publication, but there's only one approved publication," said the industry source. "You can bang your head against the wall but the fact is she's working for them, and they pay her. Every time a life event happens, or she goes on vacation, she sets up a picture and they pay for it."
When called for comment, a People spokesperson responded via email: "Our next issue hasn't closed yet and we don't comment in advance." A Getty spokesperson did not return a call for comment.
TMZ's Levin is skeptical that the Brangelina juggernaut can last much longer. "How many shots of another kid she's adopting can you get before it all starts to feel the same?" In any case, Levin is content to let the weeklies duke it out among themselves. "If that's the war among the weeklies, it makes me happy."