How to Sell a Gay Sex Story to the National Enquirer

Eight new gay groping claims, two scrotum assaults, and one anus attack later, John Travolta's masseur-gate is in full swing—not that you'd know if you only got your news from The New York Times, which has yet to file a report on the megawatt star accused of manhandling nearly enough service industry employees to field a baseball team.

Noticing the gap between the tabloid press' wall-to-wall Travolta coverage and the mainstream media's Travolta eclipse, lawyer Marty Singer has progressed from attacking his client's accusers to criticizing The National Enquirer and its ilk:

When it comes to claims about my client in supermarket tabloids, consider the source. This spate of recklessly published tabloid stories is just part of a malicious tabloid agenda to boost lagging sales by running outrageous, defamatory stories about my client sourced by people seeking notoriety or a payday.

How easy is it to get an A-list gay sex story into the Enquirer, anyway? We spoke to two men who have attempted it (with varying levels of success) as well as current and former employees of the Enquirer and parent company American Media, Inc. to find out. The short answer is, not as easy as you'd think—but if you succeed, the payday can be pretty sweet.

Robert's Story

Robert Randolph, an L.A. interior decorator, was working on a memoir about L.A.'s gay spa sex scene and thought a tabloid story about John Travolta's bathhouse sex life would help publicize the book. (He later published an excerpt in Gawker.) He sent nearly identical emails to the Enquirer and TMZ:

Hello, my name is Robert Randolph after years and years of witnessing John Travolta along with many other stars behaving badly at public spa's I have written a book about it called "You'll Never Spa In This Town Again" If you are interested please call me at [redacted].

How to Sell a Gay Sex Story to the National Enquirer

TMZ never responded, but Enquirer reporter Rick Egusquiza replied in minutes.

Egusquiza says the Enquirer's four full-time L.A. reporters take turns manning the publication's 24-hour phone and email tip lines. He estimates they receive one call per hour and as many emails; on a tip-heavy week, he estimates 30 percent of the Enquirer's stories come from the tip lines. Egusquiza's biggest story was John Edwards' cheating scandal; the tip that put the Enquirer on the candidate's trail landed when Egusquiza was on tip duty.

Randolph showed us Egusquiza's response:

Subject: hey there...

Hi Robert, I have worked on similar John Travolta stories in the past. Please call me so we can discuss your book and possibly doing a story. Obviously we would promote your book.

Thanks.

Rick Egusquiza,
Senior Entertainment Editor
National Enquirer

Randolph says the Enquirer did not compensate him. (Egusquiza is unable to comment on payments.) Randolph and Egusquiza both say the spa-goer underwent several interviews, submitted to a series of fact and background checks, signed a contract, and passed at least three polygraphs before his story appeared in the Enquirer. You can read the resulting story here.

How to Sell a Gay Sex Story to the National Enquirer

"It was tough," Randolph told me last week. "Everyone thinks you just say, 'I've got this story about John Travolta,' and the Enquirer right away pays you. But it wasn't like that at all. It was a rude awakening, but still a good experience. They checked everything I said and did a full background check—had I ever been arrested, medical records, everything."

Asked about circumstances in which he walks away from a story, Egusquiza groans. "I could write a book on all the stories we've killed," he told me by phone. "There's one story that's huge right now—you could probably guess it—we knew it a year ago, but were never able to back it up. A lot of the time we'll report a story, do the polygraph, they'll pass, and we'll still sit on it. We have attorneys on every story, wrangling."

I tried to guess which story Egusquiza knew a year ago (Kanye falling for Kim?) but failed.

Mr. Clean's Story

A tabloid tipster we will call Mr. Clean approached the Enquirer, Us Weekly, The Sun, TMZ, and In Touch with a story about sleeping with a powerful A-list man who is rumored to be gay, despite several high-profile relationships with celebrity women.

Mr. Clean, a bodybuilding Californian who was trying to "break in" to Hollywood, approached all five publications with virtually the same email early last year:

Subject: I had an affair with a well known celebrity

My name is [redacted] and I have a story to be told. I had an affair with [redacted] a couple years ago. I am interested in telling you my experience. I have photographs and other information to support my story. If interested in speaking with me more in detail I can be reached @ [redacted].

After a Hollywood hairdresser introduced Mr. Clean to the A-lister, the men rendezvoused twice in California hotel rooms, he claimed. He said they showered together, caressed each other, and engaged in oral sex. "Showers are kind of my thing," he explained in an interview with Gawker. "I like to be clean."

Though he approached the Enquirer, Mr. Clean's story ended up at another AMI property, Star. Though AMI's publications are competitive with one another ("If I overhear something in the office [from a Star reporter], I'll look into it," Egusquiza says), editors at the Florida-based company occasionally pass stories to each other, usually based on subject matter. For instance, whereas Star follows the stars of Teen Mom, the Enquirer tends to focus on older show business characters.

After interviewing with a senior reporter at Star, Mr. Clean passed a polygraph and signed a $40,000 contract for his story. He would get $5000 up front, and the rest when the story published. See the full contract below.

$40K is on the higher end of Star's purchasing spectrum, according to editor James Heidenry, who was not on staff during Mr. Clean's negotiation and says he knows nothing about it. A more typical payment would be between $500 and $10,000. Receiving some money up front, "as a gesture of good will," is standard.

Before Mr. Clean's final payday, he'd have to take another polygraph. The second time around, Mr. Clean says AMI sent him to a former FBI polygrapher who had been featured on Dr. Phil and Oprah. We're guessing the polygrapher in question is Jack Trimarco; though he told us by phone that he can't discuss specific media clients, Trimarco did confirm that he is the only ex-FBI polygrapher in Los Angeles and that he regularly works for the Enquirer and AMI—as well as Dr. Phil and Oprah. Trimarco is quick to note that he has worked both with and against the Enquirer; actor Don Johnson once underwent a Trimarco polygraph to debunk an Enquirer sex scandal.

Mr. Clean went to the second polygrapher's office and underwent questioning. Shortly thereafter, AMI nullified its contract with him.

How to Sell a Gay Sex Story to the National Enquirer

A second AMI contract outlined the dissolution of the first. He would return $3000 of his $5000 cash advance and AMI would destroy all videotapes from his interviews. His story would not run. In the end, Mr. Clean made $2000 on a story that would never see the light of day—in an AMI publication, at least.

"The polygraph is an insurance policy that our lawyers like," Star editor James Heidenry explained to me. Star's third editor-in-chief in just over a year, Heidenry was not on staff during Mr. Clean's negotiation, but spoke broadly about the magazine's tactics. "We like to get them too, to be confident with the story and reach a comfort level with it, and to protect ourselves against legal action." If a story failed the polygraph test, "we would ditch it," he concluded.

The AMI employees I spoke to vacillated on the value of polygraphs. One Star employee characterized the notoriously unreliable lie-detection method as "theater," "a prop that, in terms of journalism, means nothing." He echoed Heidenry's emphasis on legal protection: Polygraphs help reporters prove they demonstrated due diligence.

Egusquiza differed. "There are people who have lied on a polygraph, and we know it. But most of the time we don't get to that [polygraphing] stage unless we think there's something there. The liars don't walk in."

Trimarco points out that polygraphs are used only to bolster existing cases: "A polygraph should never complicate things. If there's conflicting evidence, then you go with whatever is best."

After his AMI contract fell apart Mr. Clean continued trying to tell his story (I met him when he offered it to Gawker) but has yet to find a forum for it.

The Inside Story

For me, the most surprising revelation about tabloid media is how small each publication is, compared to how large its cultural impact. Every grocery shopper in America sees headlines written by a handful of editors who manage news staffs that could be counted on one or two hands. Egusquiza, the man who took down a major presidential candidate, was a bartender with a part-time gig reviewing porn when he first swapped gossip with an Enquirer editor at a party, then worked his way up. Nationally, the Enquirer employs perhaps ten reporters.

I spoke to several current and former AMI employees, most of whom acknowledged some factual leniency in their publications. Distinguishing fact from fiction is part of the tabloid reader's game, said one editorial staffer. "You have to know how to read the magazine, you know? Some people don't get it."

A former Star editor told us that, when it came to truth-seeking, "there was a disconnect between what went on in the edit meetings and what went in the magazine." He winced describing the magazine's tradition of hanging blown-up cover images on the walls, forcing the staff to stare down its biggest flops (incorrect baby genders, wrongful wedding guesses) on a daily basis.

The falsehoods, that Star staffer said, were the result of desperation: "With the industry in a downward spiral, there's always more pressure to get those stories [that sell]." Star editor Candace Trunzo, who helmed the magazine during Mr. Clean's negotiation, lamented in 2007, "Each week, people decide on what they are or aren't going to buy based on the cover, and if you don't draw them in with it, you lose that undecided portion of your audience."

Amid lagging sales and in the wake of AMI's bankruptcy scare, Trunzo lost her job at Star mere weeks after Mr. Clean's contract fell through.

Not a single AMI employee I spoke to had qualms about buying stories. Heidenry argued that, whereas People and Us Weekly trade in the economy of PR favors, Star uses cash to incentivize sources.

"Now obviously when something's heavy duty we do a comment call, and based on what they say, that plays into our decisions," Heidenry explained. "But what People and Us Weekly do is trade-offs with publicists. They do soft stuff. That's not what we do."

Ironically, the one thing Heidenry says he will never do is out a closeted celebrity. His rationale is mostly pragmatic: "People sue over being called gay, not over impregnating someone or sleeping with someone straight. That's why Jennifer Aniston is pregnant all the time."