Paparazzi used to line the streets of Lower Manhattan, waiting for a glimpse of stars like Lindsay Lohan, P. Diddy, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Beyoncé, Viviana Olen reminded a group of millennials. On this night, a comfortable but muggy August evening, there was no sign of any onlookers nor celebrities at the former site of Butter, a restaurant-nightclub home to many a social appearance.
“Anything can happen at Butter,” Matt James, the celebrity culture wunderkind behind the blog popculturediedin2009, told the crowd.
“And it did,” Olen said, a nod to the club’s storied past. Mary J. Blige had her 33rd birthday party there in 2004, attended by A-listers Jay-Z, Kim Cattrall, and P. Diddy; just a few years later, in 2006, Diddy had Lindsay Lohan escorted out over a table territory battle. Both Ashlee Simpson and Ashley Olsen dated Butter co-owner Scott Sartiano, who was later sued for embezzlement in 2006.
For the last 90 minutes Matt Harkins, Olen, and James had led the small party to some half-dozen Lower East Side locations, and their adjacent street corners, that were once ground zero to various socialite scandals. It was part of the inaugural Tabloid Walking Tour, organized by popculturediedin2009 and Harkins’ and Olen’s THNK1994 Museum, a creative project that began when Harkins and Olen transformed their apartment into a museum of Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan memorabilia in 2015. After curating a number of exhibitions inspired by tabloid moments, Harkins and Olen teamed up with James for last year’s “Nicole Richie’s 2007 Memorial Day BBQ,” a six-week display of early aughts celeb-focused art. This time, the trio wanted to focus on a more interactive experience, a not-so-removed history lesson on the annals of celebrity fascination.
From Happy Ending, the now-shuttered club where Jenna Bush left her UT-Austin student ID with a coke dealer, to Little Cupcake Bakeshop, the bakery where Amanda Bynes was supposedly “doing her makeup” while locked in the bathroom for a half hour, the jaunt provided context to the messes of yesteryear. (“They do not offer the bathroom,” Olen said of Little Cupcake. “Amanda Bynes closed them.”) It also served as time capsule into socialites’ past, a simpler time when tabloids reigned supreme, before social media broke the barrier between celebrity and fan and thus democratized prestige with the birth of the influencer.
The convergence of art, celebrity, and experience showed how multifaceted tabloid culture of the early 2000s truly was. The places mattered just as much as the players in these scandals, and the chasm between the haves and the have-nots provided intrigue rather than condemnation of overlooked influencer privilege, and superfluousness. “For me, I’ve always been focused on recreating the experience of a particular scandal for my followers,” James said. “It’s one thing to write about something that happened in 2007, but to show the tabloid articles from that time, or a paparazzi video, or the location where it actually happened, just adds another layer to it and helps someone understand the story and our fascination with it in a way that a simple write-up can’t.”
When James began commuting from Long Island to Manhattan for college in 2016, tabloid landmarks became his GPS. Turn left at the street where Tatum O’Neal tried to buy crack; it’s only a few blocks away from Courtney Love’s old apartment. Eventually, James could effectively navigate through Manhattan, though it was a different Manhattan than exists today. The allure of celebrity news — the places, fashion, the drama — has been sanitized by the rise of social media, he noted. Paparazzi, tabloid writers, and bloggers no longer shape the celebrity narrative, piecing together the events from Lindsay Lohan and Kate Moss’s bathroom-graffiti-filled night on the town — a site that was also featured on the tour.
“[Celebrities] had more of a secretiveness to them,” said Kelsey Lawrence, a 28-year-old freelance writer. This was her first-ever walking tour of any kind. “Growing up as a kid in a small town in South Texas, you had to read certain magazines or certain blogs to hear about these things. Now, stuff feels more accessible in a way that’s not as interesting.”
“The only way you can approach [covering Trump] is to approach it like he’s the male Paris Hilton.”
In 2004, Alex Harris Goldberg, who now works in television, got all his news from Star Magazine and PerezHilton.com. In the brief post-9/11, pre-recession era, you could focus on the Uggs, the drugs, and the mini-skirts guilt-free, he said. “Now, I don’t really have time to follow celebrity news because our democracy is falling apart. It created [Trump] in some ways, our celebrity obsession. The Apprentice was on during this era and we were creating a monster, unfortunately, with our consumption.”
The inherent politicization of D-list culture wasn’t lost on James, either. The Trumps are mentioned frequently throughout the tour: We visited the bar where Ivanka was turned away by a bouncer, which then led James to connect Aubrey O’Day — who, in the mid-2000s was enjoying success with R&B group Danity Kane — with the family, due to her recent supposed affair with Trump Jr. Many of the names dropped in James’ soliloquies — Kim Kardashian, Lindsay Lohan, Kimberly Stewart — have links to Donald Trump. He was among the social elite during this time, which is what makes early aughts celebrity culture all the more relevant. “The only way you can approach [covering Trump] is to approach it like he’s the male Paris Hilton,” James said.
By dusk, the tour reached the Mercer Hotel. It was there in 2005 when a telephone-wielding Russell Crowe threw a temper tantrum — and the phone — after he was unable to ring his wife in Australia, resulting in his arrest. “He spit on Azealia Banks,” Harkins said. “No one talks about that.”
Olen stopped the tour to take pictures of Harkins bopping each attendee on the head with an inflatable phone. To pay homage to the spectacle of mid-2000s tabloid fanaticism with slapstick humor is apt. Stars are too well-behaved now, too transparent in their everyday-ness. There isn’t enough mess to appreciate.
“I think in the past, it was easier to consider a celebrity’s life art,” James said. “There was so much we didn’t know about them, and so many blanks waiting to be filled, that it was easier for us to create this romanticized idea about them and create iconography from it. That’s pretty much impossible today.”