Everyone was shocked when, last week, In Touch published a cover story about Jesse James' mistress Michelle "Bombshell" McGee. The surprise wasn't that James was having affairs, but that In Touch had gotten the story—and gotten it right.
In the celeb-magazine pantheon, People has long been at the top in terms of reliability. If it's in People, it's a pretty safe bet that it's true. Under Janice Min, Us Magazine was almost always right too, but lately (at least, until the Sandra Bullock story broke) it's been a boring brochure about The Bachelor. The rest—Star, In Touch, OK!, and Life & Style—run stories of varying, often dubious, degrees of plausibility. (Online celebrity gossip—including TMZ, Perez Hilton, and Bonnie Fuller's HollywoodLife—is a different ballgame.)
The Jesse James story broke last Wednesday, when In Touch came out with its cover story ("The Ultimate Betrayal!", over a photo of Sandra in sadface). But at first, even gossip-industry insiders didn't believe it was true.
"The first day, those first couple hours, I wasn't going to touch it because it wasn't a People magazine exclusive or any of the standbys," said Courtney Hazlett, who writes the Scoop column for MSNBC and has worked for People and OK!. "Even now, if it was the National Enquirer I'd stop and pause a little more. In Touch was a little more of a surprise."
Though official numbers have yet to come in, sources tell us that the cover was likely In Touch's biggest seller ever, at around 1.4 million copies—in contrast to the magazine's average newsstand sales of 800,000. But what of the allegations that the magazine paid McGee $30,000 for her story? "I actually can't comment on that," said In Touch executive editor Michelle Lee.
Other sources peg the figure that the magazine paid McGee at closer to $10,000. "They got it because they have a reporter who is in with the tattoo shops," said a source familiar with the negotiations. "Dumb-dumb Michelle could have gotten a million for those pics. Instead she sold them for $10,000."
But how did In Touch end up with the story to begin with? One gossip outlet editor speculated that McGee "shopped the story to all the outlets, but since Sandra had just won the Oscars, the big ones were reluctant to bite because it felt like inappropriate timing."
Former Page Six writer Paula Froelich said that a magazine like People wouldn't be interested in McGee's story "because they're going to hold out for Sandra's story. When she wants to talk, she'll go to them."
According to Lee, the magazine got a tip that McGee was James' mistress around a week before the first story ran. "We talked to her and her story really seemed to be very detailed," said Lee. "She knew a lot about Jesse. From the get-go it seemed plausible, but we wanted to do our own checking. We checked where Jesse was when she said she was with him. We checked her other friends, their mutual friends. We also started looking around people who we knew around Jesse and Sandra, trying to find more proof that this was something that had definitely happened. As we were digging realized it was definitely something that was true. She had physical proof. She had text messages from his phone number. She had messages from his MySpace [Of course they were both on MySpace—Ed.]. She had dates, places, everything. It was just this huge amount of evidence after awhile."
This week, In Touch ran another Bullock cover ("Jesse Cheated With More Women!"), and Lee implied it's going to be the story that keeps on giving. "I think because InTouch was on the forefront of the story to begin with, we're one step ahead of everyone," she said. "The next step, beyond this week's issue, is now the story becomes Sandra. Everyone is wondering what she's going to do."
Of course, this week's tabloids all had Bullock on the cover, and online outlets like TMZ have been covering it seemingly around the clock. And some insiders are skeptical that this story will do anything for InTouch's reputation in the long run.
"I would just say they lucked out in that someone offered to sell them a great story," said a former tabloid editor. "They ceased having a news operation a long time ago, and that in the age of cutbacks at all titles it's become much more of a transaction business in celebrity news. So in the absence of news gathering and a staff to do it, if you are In Touch, you are relying on making up stuff week after week or just buying it. They had five Kardashian covers that the sisters railed against for being made up right before this story... So I don't think this much changes the landscape for them unless they consistently can start getting a lot of these."