Inside the celebrity circle of SECRET HELL

Tabloids have a special place reserved for famous women in bad marriages to troubled men.

Inside the celebrity circle of SECRET HELL

Tabloids have a special place reserved for famous women in bad marriages to troubled men.

There are nine circles of hell in Dante Alighieri's “Inferno,” the first book in his three-part 14th-century epic poem, The Divine Comedy. The first circle houses virtuous pagans. The second circle is home to those who’d committed the sin of lust. (In that circle, occupants are blown about by a storm, which signifies their sexy, stormy lust.) After that it goes: gluttons, greedies, wrathful people, heretics, and violent people. The eighth circle is for frauds, like James Frey, and the ninth circle is for traitors, also like James Frey (a traitor to Oprah). Lesser-known than those circles, and oddly absent from “Inferno,” is the 10th circle of hell. Located in supermarket checkout aisles and populated exclusively by distraught celebrities, this circle is known as SECRET HELL.

You maybe don’t know about it because it is a secret.

There is a good chance that, at some point in your life, you’ve seen the phrase “SECRET HELL” splashed in bright block letters across the front page of a magazine. Of course, tabloids peddle “secrets” the way home and gardening magazines peddle gardening and home. Secret lovers, secret pasts, sexy secret getaways, secret weddings, secret lupus battles, plastic surgery secrets, secret affairs: These and other clear-cut celebrity secrets are laid bare weekly, ready for consuming. But as a sensationalist tabloid category, “SECRET HELL” feels both distinct and somewhat perplexing. What is a “secret hell,” exactly? What is it like in secret hell? Which a- or b-list celebrities might dwell there? And what earthly misdeeds damn them there for eternity, or at least until there is something else to say about them that might sell a magazine?

Revelation 21:8 - But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.

Jennifer Garner is perhaps secret hell’s most recent celebrity initiate. She and Ben Affleck announced the end of their marriage via People magazine on June 30, 2015, following years of rumors of his cheating, substance abuse, and bad tattoos. The split spawned countless dramatic covers, with Us Weekly’s on July 13, 2015, proclaiming: “JEN’S SECRET HELL: How Ben’s bad behavior destroyed his marriage and what made Garner finally say ‘Enough!’” The details are laid out in the accompanying Us Weekly story:

“In this case, actions speak louder than the words in a carefully ­scripted statement. Despite promising continued ‘love and friendship’ in their official divorce announcement – released one day after their 10th wedding anniversary – insiders say the actors’ split is anything but amicable. Multiple sources confirm to Us the union was torpedoed by Affleck’s partying, gambling, and, yes, inappropriate behavior with other women.”

Jennifer Garner is perhaps secret hell’s most recent celebrity initiate.

The gossip ran counter to the friendly exclusive People nabbed, and, today, it serves as a wonderful jumping-off point for our search into the details of SECRET HELL. Upon revealing her secret hell dwelling, we knew that Jennifer Garner was a: 1. woman 2. in an unhappy marriage 3. with a troubled man and 4. the marriage had come to its conclusion. So we can say conclusively that secret hell houses, at least, women in unhappy, failing marriages with troubled men.


Garner’s secret hell is probably the most prominent in our collective cultural consciousness at present day, and its success could be the reason why the phrase “SECRET HELL” hasn’t been used on a major American tabloid cover since. In that sense, Melania Trump, who covered Us Weekly twice in the past month, may have Garner to thank for keeping her off of the hellish guestlist. “MELANIA’S STRUGGLE: A Life She Never Wanted: Feeling isolated and unprepared, the reluctant first lady is secretly miserable,” shouted the February 27 issue. “Melania & Donald SEPARATE LIVES: Inside the mysterious world of the first lady — and why she may never move into the White House,” announced the February 13 issue, intriguingly.

Hmm, a 1. woman 2. in an unhappy marriage 3. with a troubled man? Sounds like a SECRET HELL to me. Or perhaps “Melania’s Struggle” was meant to allude to Mein Kampf, I don’t know.

Matthew 10:28 - And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.

The first time a mention of a covert underworld made it to the cover of Us Weekly was on the August 4, 1981, issue. This mention, however, was made under SECRET HELL’s other name: PRIVATE HELL. (Tabloids tend to favor “private,” but personally I prefer “secret.” Private hell sounds almost desirable. A private hell, just for you. Do whatever you want, take your time; this is your own private hell, after all.) This early mention of private hell was, I’ll warn you, different from the secret and private hells to which we’ve become accustomed. In cap-appropriate lettering and tucked onto the cover’s sidebar, it read:

“Women Viet vets: Their private hell goes on and on.”

Ah. You know, I don’t doubt it. So, at this point we can expand the list of qualifications that make you eligible to reside in SECRET HELL. You must be : a 1. woman who is 2. in an unhappy marriage 3. with a troubled man and 4. the marriage has now come to its conclusion, or who is a 5. Vietnam veteran.


Psalms 145:20 - The LORD preserveth all them that love him: but all the wicked will he destroy.

In its early days, Us Weekly was a bit less inclined to openly serve up Hollywood misery. There were a few instances, sure — “HOLLYWOOD DIVORCE WARS” in December 1983 and “WHY DID CLORIS LEACHMAN’S SON DIE?: A heartbreaking letter to his baby daughter” in June 1986, for example — but mostly, until the late ’90s, the magazine’s cover stuck to advertising celebrity interviews and trend pieces about young men dating older women. But not to worry. The PRIVATE HELL slack was picked up elsewhere so that we might continue our investigation with a steady throughline.

In 1987, a National Examiner cover story screamed “TAMMY FAYE’S PRIVATE HELL,” adding, “‘She is so homesick for the parsonage’ -Jim Bakker.” Of course, we all remember the ’80s when Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker lost the parsonage and the PTL television ministry because Jim Bakker fucked around with Jessica Hahn and paid her off and went to jail for fraud and then Tammy Faye divorced him while he was in jail. But at this point, Tammy was just a 1. woman 2. in an unhappy marriage 3. with a troubled man. I am seeing a pattern.


Let’s move along. An October 1988 cover story about Robin Givens and Mike Tyson in the National Examiner had some awful new disclosures to share. “AWFUL NEW DISCLOSURES,” it said, “Secret hell of the champ’s wife.” A 1. woman who is 2. in an unhappy marriage. Interesting.

Are you ready for something a little different? This one is a little different. A November 1989 National Enquirer cover story about Kitty Dukakis said: “Kitty Dukakis’ Private Hell — The REAL reason she drank rubbing alcohol.” Ah. The REAL reason she drank rubbing alcohol was alcoholism and mental illness, so at this point we can say conclusively that secret hell houses, at least, 1. women who are 2. in unhappy marriages 3. with troubled men and 4. their marriage has now come to its conclusion, and/or who are 5. Vietnam veterans, and/or who are suffering from 6. alcoholism and/or 7. mental illness.

A 2001 Globe story shared a horrific private hell on its cover in July 2001: “DALE EARNHARDT’S WIDOW’S PRIVATE HELL: Autopsy photos tearing her apart.” Not to be callous, but that is certainly a 1. woman whose 4. marriage has now come to its conclusion.

Secret hell houses, at least, 1. women who are 2. in unhappy marriages 3. with troubled men.

A July 2009 In Touch Weekly story about Kate Gosselin, whose private hell we all watched on television, boasted “KATE’S PRIVATE HELL: Kate promised her 8 children she’d never divorce Jon. Now her controlling ways have left her with heartbroken kids and a husband who no longer loves her.” Fuck, that is a tough break for a 1. woman who is 2. in an unhappy marriage that 4. has now come to its conclusion.

A March 2010 Star story packed three private hells into one, if you can even imagine. (We can now make a mental note that private hell is quite spacious.) “KARDASHIAN SISTERS: Tears behind the smiles. TOXIC LOVE!; INSIDE THEIR PRIVATE HELL: The cheating! The fights! The threats!” Ahh! It’s so sad when you are 1. women who are 2. in unhappy marriages with 3. troubled men, but I imagine it’s at least nice to have your sisters with you in your shared private hell.

Ugh, god, there are so many of these. Okay, next is HEIDI’S PRIVATE HELL on a February, 2012 cover of, oh, Us Weekly! No, not Heidi Montag, she’s happy; this is Heidi Klum. “Vicious fights, jealousy, four kids caught in the middle. Heidi & Seal’s perfect marriage was just a facade.” Oh, Heidi. Kiss from a rose on the 1. woman who is 2. in an unhappy marriage, which 4. has now come to its conclusion.

A March 2012 Star cover veered a little from our main narrative: “CHRISTINA AGUILERA’S PRIVATE HELL: SHE’S A WRECK! Sleeps all day, boozes all night; Hated by The Voice costars & crew; Bullied over 65-lb weight gain; PLUS: THE LIES THAT DESTROYED HER LOVE LIVE” AHHHHHHHHHHHH! Christina Aguilera is a 1. woman whose 4. marriage has come to its conclusion, and who is also allegedly suffering from 6. alcoholism. Interesting, and also insulting, that Star used her full name. That probably adds to Christina’s secret hell, but we’ll call this instance a one-off.

“KELLY’S PRIVATE HELL.” Hey, speaking of names, that’s my name! From a May 2012 Star cover about Kelly Preston and John Travolta: “She collapses as a sex scandal rocks family; What she knew about John and when; Kelly’s mom talks exclusively to Star.” Kelly, I love your name, but I hate to tell you that you are a 1. woman who is 2. in an unhappy marriage with a 3. troubled man.

From a November 2012 sidebar column on the cover of Us Weekly: “ARIEL WINTER: A CHILD STAR’S SECRET HELL.” I don’t know what that one is about, honestly, but we can say for sure that she is at least a 1. woman.

From a September 2013 cover of Star: “CATHERINE’S PRIVATE HELL: Divorce gets nasty; Her endless struggle with mental illness; Drinking, raging, fights, and cheating accusations; Tells friends: ‘Michael abandoned me!’; Michael vows to play dirty to keep the kids.” A very honest thing for Michael (Douglas) to vow. Unfortunately his honesty does not save Catherine Zeta-Jones from being a 1. woman who is 2. in an unhappy marriage that 4. has now come to its conclusion, and also a woman who allegedly suffers from 6. alcoholism and 7. mental illness.

During the very same week in September 2013, Khloe Kardashian showed up to keep Catherine Zeta-Jones company. An Us Weekly cover announced her arrival: “KHLOE’S PRIVATE HELL: A heartbroken Khloe cuts off Lamar’s credit cards, moves out of their house, and tells her family it’s over for good.” 1. Woman 2. in an unhappy marriage 3. with a troubled man and 4. the marriage had come to its conclusion.

“MATT LAUER $120 MILLION DIVORCE! Humiliated wife Annette’s secret hell exposed: Mental abuse & extreme rages, constant fear of physical violence.” October 2014. National Enquirer. 1. Woman 2. in an unhappy marriage 3. with a troubled man and 4. the marriage had come to its conclusion, and now we’ve gotten all of them, and we’re done with this part, thank god.

Revelation 14:11 - And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name.

To enhance our understanding of “secret hell,” I reached out to various theologians employed at Ivy League universities across the United States and none of them responded, quite rudely. Is a tabloid’s version of secret hell mirrored anywhere throughout Christianity? It isn’t my fault that we’ll never know. However, I was able to speak with another “secret” and “private hell” expert: Us Weekly’s executive editor, Justin Ravitz.

“Conceptually, what a private hell would be, to me, is when we are reporting on trouble in a marriage,” he told me. His story checks out, as we’ve seen. I asked him what, in his opinion, makes a story like that a “secret hell.” “The example I keep thinking of is when Khloe Kardashian was really struggling to divorce Lamar Odom because he was dealing with substance abuse, and partying, and sleeping with other women,” he said. “At the same time, she loved him, and she wanted to save him. And this is before they actually shared all of these struggles with the world, on their reality show and through other channels. So, conceptually that would be a story where we would say ‘private hell’ or ‘secret hell,’ meaning, she’s suffering and she doesn’t know what to do yet. She can’t get out or doesn’t want to get out.”

“She can’t get out or doesn’t want to get out.”

He specified that someone like Britney Spears, “when she was at the nadir of her issues,” would not necessarily be a “secret hell” because there wasn’t a lot of mystery with what was going on with her. Again, his story checks out. Us Weekly’s March 2007 Britney-Spears-shaved-head cover screamed not PRIVATE HELL but instead “HELP ME: Insiders and ex-staffers reveal Britt’s loneliness, self-hatred, & drug use, as her parents desperately pray. ‘No one can get through to her.’” Secret hell, Ravitz said, at least for Us Weekly, is “private turmoil that’s either waiting to come to the surface or that has been divulged via official channels.”

Revelation 20:10 - And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet [are], and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.

You may have noticed that every soul damned to secret hell is female. I noticed this, too. It’s not as if men don’t suffer in states of mental anguish like private hells. In fact, tit-for-tat with Kate Gosselin’s PRIVATE HELL from July 2009 is Jon Gosselin’s PRISON from a June 2009 cover of Us Weekly. “INSIDE JON’S PRISON,” it says. “$5 per day allowance from Kate; Banned from seeing brothers after dad’s funeral; Her taunts over hair loss & weight; How they both chose fame & money over family.”

(This is, of course, not to be confused with the category PRISON HELL, which is reserved only for people actually in prison. For example, Teen Mom Amber in a June 2012 issue of OK! (“INSIDE HER PRISON HELL”) and Paris Hilton in a May 2007 issue of Star (“INSIDE PARIS’ PRISON HELL: Lesbian gangs; Group showers; Strip searches; Filthy bedding.”) Totally different.)

Brad Pitt had MISERY, Charlie Sheen had a BREAKDOWN, Heath Ledger had SECRET STRUGGLES, and, on an Us Weekly cover in 2001, long before Jennifer Garner had her SECRET HELL, Ben Affleck had a “SECRET BATTLE: Drinking and gambling send Affleck into rehab; Friends stage intervention.”

You may have noticed that every soul damned to secret hell is female.

I asked Ravitz why he thought it might be the case that only women get pushed into hell, left to gnash their teeth and toil in the demonic trash mines without the help of even a single beam of heavenly light. “I think that in general in the celebrity space, the majority of our readers are going to be women,” he said. This is true. According to MRI data from 2016, 77 percent of Us Weekly’s readers are women. Ravitz continued, “So, of course we’ll follow marriages, and we’ll talk about the man in the marriage, too, but the vantage point that our readers will identify with the most is going to be a woman’s. I don’t know if it’s gendered, and I don’t think there’s inherent misogyny. I think it’s just because the person our readers are going to relate to the most is almost always going to be the woman protagonist.”

I think there is absolutely truth to Ravitz’s theory. I also think there is perhaps truth to my theory that I am going to say right now: Famous men in marriages just generally do worse shit than famous women in marriages. (It’s probably also true that women are more likely to suffer in SECRET and PRIVATE silence because we live in a patriarchy that profits from female oppression.) To return to BRAD’S MISERY for a moment, the June 2012 Us Weekly cover told tale of the misery Angelina was inflicting upon him. “Screaming fights, name-calling, time apart, meetings with lawyers; She tells him he can’t do anything right; What happened with Jen at the Telethon.” Like Gosselin, Angelina seems to have gotten the antagonist cover treatment mostly for making her husband feel small. Not very hellish, contrasted with emotional abuse, drinking, gambling, and cheating.

So, I guess that settles it, then. Women are in SECRET HELL because men are KNOWN DEVILS.


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