Interview: Decca Aitkenhead meets Camilla Wright

Camilla Wright has spilled hundreds of scandalous secrets on her notorious website: she pioneered the merciless approach to celebrities that's now routine. It's not mischief-making, it's democracy, she says. Decca Aitkenhead goes head-to-head with the queen bee of Popbitch

To go behind the scenes of Popbitch for a week is to enter a world of unnervingly random human intimacies. During one fairly typical morning last month, its editor received a photograph of Pete Burns, shot from behind sans underwear, exposing his scrotum. The next email concerned the size of the Blairs' contribution to Cliff Richard's favourite charity in lieu of payment for two weeks' use of the singer's Caribbean villa. A hotel worker in Bradford disclosed that the singer Natasha Bedingfield, a recent guest, was "really nice and down to earth", and a reader confided that a footballer with whom she'd slept the previous week liked to lick his own ejaculation off her stomach. In between all these claims and confidences came a steady supply of photographs of otters and llamas, and one of an abnormally large rabbit. The submissions were assigned a category: possible story for this week; possible future; probably untrue. Only a video of Colin Farrell filming himself having sex with a Playboy model was rejected outright. "I do try," the editor sighs, "not to do the funny internet weird things."

Popbitch is a website and weekly online magazine produced in London. Every Thursday the magazine goes out by email to 360,000 registered subscribers - a bigger circulation than that of the Independent. A typical issue features some quirky stories from around the world, particularly ones involving animals, such as a report from the Moscow Pig Olympics. Other recurring themes are chart music predictions and recommendations for TV shows and films. This eclectic mix is unified by the distinctive Popbitch editorial voice, sometimes described as a cross between Private Eye and Smash Hits. Its crisply wry register distinguishes it from the usual gossip column repertoire of catty or crude, and is one reason for its success. But what Popbitch is world famous for, above all, is exclusive, funny, often scurrilous, surprisingly accurate stories about the private lives of famous people.

Popbitch published the first allegations of David Beckham's infidelities 18 months before the News Of The World splashed with Rebecca Loos. It revealed the name of Madonna's son Rocco before he was even born, and linked Liam Gallagher to Nicole Appleton months ahead of the tabloids. It scooped the Westminster lobby by publishing the first hints of sex scandals dogging two Lib Dem leadership candidates. Reading Popbitch has been likened to visiting the Groucho Club without having to pay for drinks, or eavesdropping in the Met Bar toilets.

"The whole idea of Popbitch," its editor says, "is democratising gossip. The stories we do are things the industry and chattering class and media people all know, but think should be kept out of the main world. I do a story because I don't care if the guy in an office in Walsall knows this. I don't see why I should stop him knowing it, when me and my friends in London can sit in the pub and go, 'We know this story but we're not telling anyone else.' "

Even if you have never read or even heard of Popbitch, you will have encountered its cultural influence. Popbitch invented the "blind story" - the editorial trick of writing about a celebrity's misdemeanour but omitting the name, inviting readers to guess the identity - which you now find in every tabloid paper. Celebrity coverage across the whole media has shifted from reverent to merciless, following Popbitch's example. Phrases first coined in the magazine have become common currency in some quarters: "Croydon face lift" (long hair scraped into a high ponytail), "Pramface" (teenage council estate mum), "Tanorexic" (orangey fake tan addict); in parts of London, "gak" has been the only acceptable slang for cocaine since Popbitch suggested it. Madonna even dedicated one of her songs to "all you popbitches out there".

Popbitch is now in its sixth year, and what has never been quite clear is its meaning. Is it a protest against our obsession with celebrity, or just one more example of it? The teasingly tongue-in-cheek tone can seem deliberately to discredit the veracity of its own claims. But why would 360,000 people bother to read something they didn't believe? It prints stories no newspaper would dare run - but is that to fight for press freedom, or just because it can get away with it? Sites such as Popbitch have thrown our libel laws into confusion. Ashley Cole, for example, is suing News International on the basis that it falsely linked him to a story about unnamed gay footballers, by printing heavy hints. If the judge decides the editors knew Cole would be named on gossip sites and so laid the groundwork for his defamation, the implications for the press will be enormous.

Until now the people behind Popbitch have always refused to talk about it publicly. For the first year, no one even knew who they were; Julie Burchill used to speculate that perhaps they were the Pet Shop Boys. Critics accused them of hypocrisy for wanting privacy they deny everyone else. Supporters said they simply had nothing to say that couldn't be said in Popbitch. But on the eve of their 300th issue, here they are telling the exclusive story of Popbitch, how it works, and what it means.

Like many of its readers, I'd always vaguely pictured a big Popbitch office somewhere in London. It would be a white warehouse full of artlessly knowing journalists on phones, typing away with ironic urgency. Bicycle couriers would keep delivering more invitations to cool private parties, and somewhere behind a desk would be sitting the lawyer, looking amused and slightly anxious. So there is more than a hint of the Wizard of Oz about the moment we come face to face. Popbitch turns out to be a small, beautiful woman in her 30s, sitting on the floor of her Docklands flat, sifting through emails on her laptop, wondering what to write.

Camilla Wright, 35, is the only full-time member of Popbitch staff; its editor, reporter, sub-editor, secretary and ad manager. She has a demure middle-class poise, and at first glance would look more at home in Claridge's than the showbiz desk of, say, the Daily Mirror's 3am Girls. She has a soft, serious way of speaking, and few would guess she spends her evenings DJing or hosting parties. She is much warmer than one might expect, and more relaxed, but I never once see her looking less than flawless.

In the course of a week she receives between 300 and 400 emails from all over the world, offering celebrity gossip, funny stories, random trivia, entertainment tips; anything that made someone think of Popbitch. She also reads most of the world's big daily newspapers online. By Wednesday this mass of material has been distilled into about 25 stories, links and jokes, and emailed to an inner circle of friends who serve as informal associate editors. They are Adam Curtis, the celebrated BBC documentary-maker who made The Power Of Nightmares, Drew Pearce, head of comedy at Tiger Aspect, plus a writer in Los Angeles and an editor in London. They offer jokes, or re-write a headline, or suggest a story is written differently. By the following morning the final draft is ready to be emailed out to the world.

Around 250 of the people who send in information are regulars - the Popbitch outer circle - whom Wright has come to know and trust. When she's short of material, or just wants to know what people are thinking about, she will email a random dozen for feedback. But the rest of the contributors are total strangers - so how does she work out whether what they tell her is true?

The verification process, she says, has one golden rule: never, ever ask a publicist if a story about their client is true. Instead, Wright asks the source how they got the story. If they made it up, they seldom write back. If a reply arrives, and looks plausible, Wright signs her next email by name. "When people know they are talking to a real person, they become more forthcoming." The more they write, she says, the easier it is to spot invention.

"My policy is always to think something could be true," she says, grinning but serious. "I always used to think if something was true, how come I hadn't already heard about it? But you realise that only a tiny amount of things get in the papers. And then there's everything else, which never does. After a while you just get a sixth sense for it, an intuition. You know when a story's too good to be true, because there are too many details. But if there's something in it that no one could have thought of unless it were true, it has the ring of truth."

But who are all these people emailing Popbitch? A lot work in the music industry, or PR, or TV or film. Some are stylists, PAs, or hairdressers. There are people, such as hotel workers, shop assistants and drivers, who cross paths occasionally with stars. If a paparazzo doesn't like the person he's photographing, he'll often pass on to Popbitch indiscretions he observes. Sometimes a story comes from a tabloid journalist whose own paper wouldn't print it. Some even come from celebrities themselves. Wright is cagey about names, but Jonathan King is one, Nick Beggs, of Kajagoogoo, another. "Eighties pop band people are very good for stories about themselves. I don't know why. Ages ago we asked readers if they'd ever had a wank in a famous person's house, and got an email back from John Deacon from Queen saying yes, he had - only it was usually his own."

Newspaper diaries will pay up to £100 for a story, tabloid showbiz columns 10 times that. Popbitch pays nothing at all. Many of its sources would be sacked if their employers found out they were sending in their secrets, so they can't even let their name appear in the credits. With nothing to gain, and for some a lot to lose, why do all these people email Popbitch?

"In the beginning it just felt like sharing gossip with friends, like a private club," one explains. "You didn't think about it going to a wider audience."

"You just wanted to be part of the enterprise," offers another.

"Oh, I'd never have sold the stories," another shudders. "That just seems a bit immoral, grubby. I mean, tabloids are a bit sleazy and not very nice, but Popbitch is funny and amusing and sweet."

The slightly idealised innocence they describe dates back to the very beginning of Popbitch. In January 2000 Wright was writing freelance features for magazines, but couldn't find a single one she would want to read herself. A PPE Oxford graduate, she had previously worked for NGOs in eastern Europe, training journalists in the new post-Soviet democracies. Her boyfriend, Neil Stevenson, a psychology graduate from Oxford, was an editor on Heat, then a rather solemn, Hello!-style magazine. He hated the way the PRs controlled everything, and wished something truthful could be written about popular culture.

"It was more like a desperate need to get something off your chest than a business plan. We just had this sense that there had to be adults our age who liked Smash Hits and read Private Eye, and didn't want to read Q all the time, and wanted something funny about that whole world," Wright says. "And with the internet and email, you actually had a delivery mechanism for the first time that didn't involve somebody else allowing you to do it."

The first issue was emailed for fun to about 15 friends. By issue 10, there were 80 subscribers, and more than 1,000 by week 20. After a year, their server couldn't cope with the demand, so they appealed to readers for donations to buy a bigger one, and started throwing Popbitch parties to raise money. (They now have an enormous server under lock and key in a bunker amid fields in Kent.) TV companies and publishers approached them with spin-off ideas - Popbitch TV, The Popbitch Guide To Modern Life, etc - but they were all rejected. "Branding just isn't my idea of fun." Wright shrugs. "This has never been about making money."

The word fun crops up again in conversation with Duncan Lamont, a libel specialist at Charles Russell who acts for Popbitch. He has tutored Wright in the art of avoiding law suits, thus far very successfully. Libel laws apply to the internet exactly as everywhere else, but in practice websites are seldom sued because it's assumed they haven't any money. What keeps Popbitch extra safe, Lamont thinks, is its image as a bit of "frivolous, naughty" fun. "No one wants to look like a bad sport who can't take a joke."

Some people haven't got the joke, though. Pete Burns once put Stevenson and Wright's phone numbers on his fans' website; death threats poured in until the lines were disconnected. Legal threats from the Beckhams over sexual allegations on the messageboard made the national news. Ironically, they also made Popbitch a household name, and added 100,000 subscribers in a week. "That was the moment when it stopped being an underground webzine for media types and became a British popular culture thing," says Wright. "Thank you, Mr and Mrs Beckham."

Wright's theory is that because celebrities know Popbitch doesn't buy its stories, or sell them for profit, or take bribes from PRs, most still feel affectionate even when it mocks them or gets something wrong. David Furnish once emailed to say he and Elton John were huge fans, but could they just correct one or two small inaccuracies in a recent story? Paul McKenna was reportedly euphoric when he found himself in Popbitch, and phoned all his friends to boast.

So there are good reasons why Popbitch hasn't capitalised on its commercial potential as a brand. It did introduce advertising on the site after three years and the annual revenue is now roughly £100,000, just about covering the costs of the server, technical support staff, legal fees and Wright's salary. Stevenson became editor of the Face in 2003 and the couple separated a year later. He remains the only other director, but plays little active part and is moving to America next month to work for an ideas consultancy.

On the surface, Popbitch seems the most modern of phenomena, a dotcom success story, like the big American gossip websites and the Drudge Report. But there is something oddly old-fashioned about its lack of commercial ambition and a better comparison might be with Private Eye in the 60s. Both magazines began as a joke between friends and could have got no further without a timely new technology: offset lithography and the internet. Their targets are rather different, but both wanted to expose "the establishment's" secrets and have some fun. Just as satire revolutionised the media in the 60s, irreverence has transformed celebrity coverage today. And both magazines have enjoyed teasing the libel laws.

If Private Eye was emblematic of the 60s spirit, Popbitch also seems to capture truths of its own time, though some are puzzling. The people involved are all clever and educated, and you do wonder why they care so much about gossip. For all the rhetoric of "democratising gossip", they seem to be a fairly rarefied circle and the cruelty of words such as "Pramface" and "Croydon face lift" smacks of snobbery. Yet this unambitious little joke between friends has succeeded where countless more commercial rivals have failed, for which there has to be a reason.

When asked about the point and the ethics of peddling gossip, Wright produces a range of arguments. Celebrities act as a community, she suggests, in our modern, atomised lives. "You need surrogate families. In the past you might have laughed at the woman down the road who's got all these different men. Now we've got Jade Goody. You don't know my family, I don't know your family. But we both know J-Lo." Alternatively, celebrities are the new establishment, so obscenely privileged that they will get away with anything unless Popbitch polices them. "The truth is," she admits, "I don't know how you justify it philosophically. It's impossible to write down a set of rules for choosing stories. People are just interested in the world."

Perhaps the most persuasive case for Popbitch sharing celebrities' secrets comes from Adam Curtis. "It's a wonderful comic warning to us all of what happens when you think you are the centre of the world," he says. "It's like that wonderful 19th-century novel about Mr Pooter, Diary Of A Nobody. Popbitch is the diary of the nobodies of our time."

The thing about Popbitch, says Simon Ward, a music industry PR, is "it isn't malicious. People feel warm towards it because it is quite warm."

It is true that its contributors and associate editors talk about it with the same proud, almost possessive glow of tenderness. To an outsider, this can sound odd. You wonder how something that survives on people betraying confidences for the amusement of strangers could inspire loyalty, yet people I spoke to describe it with words such as "wholesome", "heartwarming" and "inspiring".

Drew Pearce wanted to meet the people behind it the minute he first read it. "It was just the voice, the sense of humour." He emailed, they met ("I've never contacted anyone else like that") and became close friends. "People think Popbitch is all about the celebrity gossip," he says, "but for us it's really about pop music. I don't even give Camilla gossip. People around me know I'm connected to her, so I had to ban myself, to stop always being accused."

Popbitch people gather fairly regularly for parties or film screenings organised by Wright. Her hostess technique is subtle, but watching her slide between tables at a party in Soho, you could begin to see what had drawn all these people in. She makes you feel as if it would be such fabulous fun to be in her gang, and that she'd love you to join. Every time anyone sends her an email, I suspect they're renewing their membership of the club.

Clubs are famously cliquey, but Wright rebuts accusations that Popbitch is snobbish. The term Pramface was invented, she says, for young, bland girl bands who had none of the individuality of female pop stars of the 80s such as Cyndi Lauper, and looked as if they could have been plucked from any estate. It was never, she says, a cheap shot at chavs.

Curtis argues that Popbitch has actually destroyed the idea, promoted by 80s- and 90s-style journalists, that being cool was the preserve of a mysterious, inaccessible elite: "Popbitch said we're all actually as cool as it gets," he says. But there is an inescapable tension between aspiring to inclusivity and retaining your credibility. The downside of "democratising gossip", it turns out, is that people with none to offer all want to join in, and start posting complete lies. Three years ago one of Popbitch's regulars got fed up and created a new website, Holy Moly!, whose main messageboard is by invitation only. He turns the gossip posted on it into a weekly mail-out to 170,000 subscribers, making Holy Moly! the only serious rival to Popbitch. Far ruder and cruder in tone, it deals only with gossip, and is in business to make money. Popbitch regulars call it "vile", "bitter" and "trashy". But the tabloid showbiz columnist I asked for an opinion said it was far more useful than Popbitch, which these days was "just for 17-year-olds trying to be cool".

Mr Holy Moly! says Wright is crazy to water down gossip with something serious about the war in Iraq, say, or a funny picture of an animal. People want neat, unadulterated scandal. All the rest is just pretentious rubbish to try to make Popbitch look posh. But the more esoteric ingredients seem to be the ones of which Wright is proudest.

The surprise about Popbitch is that gossip is in fact only a very small part of the magazine's content. Scoops made it famous, but there aren't very many of them. Most of the stories are quirky little jokes, when you study them carefully. When Popbitch began, the media were so fawning towards stars that it felt genuinely subversive to expose a celebrity secret. Nobody else was doing it. But now that gossip is everywhere, and the media so vicious, Wright seems to worry that she's created a monster. What she really loves, she says, are the funny stories and weird pictures of animals. They are, she adds, what readers love most, too. "I must get 20 otter stories a week. Nobody believes anything any more; everything else is so spun and marketed. People are looking for something real and animals are just there."

It sounds implausible, yet the animals are strangely affecting. After I interview one of the regulars over the phone, an email arrives from him: "Just so you don't feel left out..." above a photo of two smiling llamas. Later Wright emails me some photographs of ridiculously fluffy Angora rabbits which someone had sent her, and for days afterwards just the thought of them makes me happy.

I'm not sure if any of the rationales offered to justify Popbitch really explains why people either want or need it - beyond a wish to be in the know. Inside its sea of gossip, I soon found it hard to keep track of time, let alone an ideological purpose. Later, I noticed that only one Popbitch image stood out in my memory, more vivid and enduring than all the scandalous revelations. I don't know why. It was the photograph of the extraordinarily big rabbit.

The GuardianTramp

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