As the The Sun’s showbiz column Bizarre turns 40, Press Gazette spoke to editors past and present to get the inside scoop on Fleet Street’s biggest gossip column.
Among other things we found out: why so many Bizarre reporters went out to become editors, how the column got its name and how reporting the world of celebrity has adapted to deal with privacy concerns, litigation and Leveson.
- April 9, 2018
- December 5, 2017
- May 4, 2017
The birth of Bizarre
Bizarre’s name was reputedly born of a conversation between 1980s Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie and the man who would become the column’s first editor, John Blake.
The exchange was documented in Peter Chippindale and Chris Horrie’s 1990 book ‘Stick It Up Your Punter!’:
“‘Pop’s weird these days, John’, MacKenzie kept repeating. ‘I can’t understand it. It’s all so bizarre.’ Blake agreed. Bizarre was exactly the right word. It would make a good name for a band, he suggested… It would also make a great name for The Sun’s new pop column, Mackenzie pointed out.”
Press Gazette asked Blake how Bizarre had changed since his time.
“Well, it changed a lot,” he said. “Because obviously when I started there was no internet. And four and a half million people bought the paper every day. And you had real influence and power.
“It was a different world. In those days, someone like Elton John or Rod Stewart or Sting would telephone you and say, ‘Oh, I’ve got a little story for you,’ and you’d have a chat. It was very, very, very different.”
Blake says he still reads the column. “I think some of the best journalists ever in popular journalism in this country have worked on it… there’s not one bad columnist. I’m dazzled. I’m honoured that it still survives.”
Interview: current Bizarre editor Simon Boyle
Fast forward to the modern day, and Bizarre’s current editor Simon Boyle.
So then, Press Gazette asks him, what’s the biggest celebrity story in the world right now? Boyle names two – both of which involve The Sun.
The first: “This ludicrous legal wrangling between the two WAGs, Becky Vardy and Coleen Rooney.”
That wrangling was sparked by Rooney’s public allegation that someone with access to Vardy’s Instagram account had leaked stories about her to The Sun.
The Sun doesn’t often openly acknowledge its proximity to the Rooney-Vardy saga. How did it feel to be part of the story?
“I feel quite strongly that we have been dragged into it on occasion. We were actually in court over this last week, trying to defend our right to protect our sources, which we won.
“They were both trying to put us on the witness stand and get us to cop, or confirm, who has provided the information to us in the first place.
“But we’re very open about who we are, what we do. You know, my face is in the newspaper six days a week with a little thing next to it that says: ‘Have you got a story? Contact me!’ This is not a secret.”
The other big story? “Obviously, the Johnny Depp thing has been a huge saga and once again, one that we were heavily involved in when it was here in the UK.”
Actors and ex-spouses Amber Heard and Johnny Depp are locked in a bitter US defamation suit – which itself follows a failed attempt by Depp to sue The Sun (and former Bizarre editor Dan Wootton) in London over the charge that Depp was a “wife beater”.
‘If you don’t know what a Kardashian is you’re a stupid person’
Celebrity journalism is one of the most challenging and competitive sectors on Fleet Street. But Boyle is aware that his speciality can sometimes be seen as less prestigious than others.
“There’s a notion among some people, an elitism,” he says. “People like to sanctimoniously go: ‘Oh, what is a Kardashian?’
“Now they know damn well what a Kardashian is. If you don’t know what a Kardashian is you’ve been living under a rock, you’re a stupid person, because this is something that has been presented very broadly on every medium for the last ten years or more.
“It is simply not possible that any articulate, engaged, interested person who is interested in the world around them doesn’t know what a Kardashian is.”
A Guardian review from 2007 said: “It turns out Smart’s Bizarre will involve celebrity sleaze and Z-listers wearing very little. A radical departure from the past, then.”
Nowadays, a typical Bizarre spread is more likely to feature a Tom Cruise interview conducted from the Top Gun set, or Dua Lipa talking about quitting smoking, than it is a Made in Chelsea cast member tumbling out of a cab.
Boyle attributes that change both to deliberate efforts on his part and to tectonic shifts in the media.
“I think what happened was there was a window, perhaps 10 or 15 years ago, a real boom of reality television where these people – [from] The Only Way Is Essex and the various similar types of shows – really exploded.
“And I think that’s passed in public consciousness. A few years ago, there was more of that [in Bizarre], and I’ve really tried to take it away from that.
“I would sooner write, if I’m honest, a mediocre story, a lesser revelation about a big star, than something extraordinarily tawdry and insightful about somebody I just couldn’t give a monkey’s about. And I think the public see that as well.
“I think a lot of these people who are on reality TV shows are so accessible to people anyway through social media – they’re constantly in people’s faces. I think what we should be is a line into where you can’t ordinarily get.”
‘Appetites for really hounding somebody have changed’
Boyle’s rejection of tawdriness is a reversal of what “Stick It Up Your Punter!” called the paper’s “‘setting ‘em up and knocking ‘em down’ process of creating and destroying popular figures like Boy George”.
Under John Blake, Bizarre hyped up Boy George so much that The Sun reportedly got a dedication on Culture Club’s third album in 1984. But by the tenure of Nick Ferrari two years later the paper was splashing stories under headlines like “JUNKIE GEORGE HAS 8 WEEKS TO LIVE”.
Does Bizarre really not partake in that kind of destruction anymore?
“There’s a really difficult balance to strike, that’s absolutely true”, Boyle says.
“I think we’re very good at, broadly speaking, striking that balance. You’re absolutely [right] to say that gossip columns – as Bizarre is a pop column – can be scathing at times. And it can have attitude, and I think that’s important – I think it needs to have a voice, it needs to have a sense of identity.
“And it needs to be clear that there are people we’re very supportive of, and other people who perhaps we’re a bit more dismissive of.
“But I think appetites for really hounding somebody have changed. I don’t think the tabloid landscape is like that at all anymore…
“This is about trying to be a conduit between an ordinary reader and the very rich and famous. And I hope we strike that balance quite well.
“And to be honest with you, it doesn’t take very long in what is a relatively small pool of big names for a reputation as a hatchet man to spread, and I don’t want that.”
The Sun vs. Mail Online, according to Ed Sheeran
Press Gazette spoke with Boyle the same day press regulator IPSO ruled in favour of actress Lily James over a multi–article harassment complaint against Mail Online.
IPSO decided the Mail had breached the Editors’ Code by commissioning freelances to linger near James’ home after she had already asked the paper to desist.
That seemed to run counter to Boyle’s claim that tabloids had moved away from making celebrities squirm. Does he feel The Sun operates differently from the Mail?
“100%. I’m quite passionate about pushing this point, because we are chalk and cheese.
“I had a really interesting conversation with Ed Sheeran after an interview we did for his last album, which was in November. And he very kindly gave me an hour of his time – we had a bit of brunch in some restaurant in West London. And once the interview had finished, it’s ‘phone goes off’.
“We just chatted for five, ten minutes. And I thanked him for speaking to us. I said: ‘I really appreciate you working with us, as you’ve done on countless occasions.’ And he said: ‘No, no, you guys have been very good to me, and I appreciate that as well, the relationship works, thanks a lot.’
“And then he said – it was fascinating – he said: ‘But obviously, you know, you guys have still got that reach, and really it’s only you and the Mail, particularly Mail Online, who have got the kind of reach that is worth me doing.
“‘But I can’t work with them. I can’t deal with them. I don’t know how to work with them. They don’t have this same direct approach.’”
Boyle described much of Mail Online’s showbiz journalism as “reactive”.
“You’ll find a story breaks and then there’ll be 37 different variants of that story 15 minutes later.
“And I am perplexed and confused – it could be a showbiz story that The Sun has broken, that Mail Online have ripped off a version of it five minutes later. And before you know it, they’ve got all these spin-off versions with all their sources, and their insiders – hang on a minute, ten minutes ago you didn’t know a thing about this, now you’ve got chapter and verse on it?
“I cannot understand why an organisation of that size, with that resource – and it’s obviously got a great deal of reach, it’s very impressive in its own way – has never attempted to operate more in the way that we do in showbiz.”
What does it mean to operate in the way Bizarre does?
“Bizarre will frequently – and I make no secret of it, I’m not ashamed of it – will frequently carry lightweight, positive, upbeat news about stars.
“And that’s part of the payoff. That’s part of the long-term relationship strategy, which is that: Coldplay have got a new record coming out – of course I should write about it! And of course it’s broadly positive stuff. New single coming out, new tour coming out, they’ve got tickets to sell, they’ve got a record to promote.
“And that helps me when they arrive in the UK for the first night of their tour to go along. And here I am with Chris Martin – ‘Nice to see you Chris, thanks for having us.’
“That’s the quid pro quo, that’s the relationship. That’s how it works. And it works very, very well. And why something with Mail Online’s resources hasn’t attempted that, I do not know.”
‘It’s faded from people’s minds now. I think. I hope’
Boyle became editor of Bizarre in April 2018 – more than a decade after tabloid wrongdoing which led to the closure of the News of the World.
Does he feel that the shadow of the hacking scandal still hangs over him?
“Not enormously, if I’m totally honest with you, no.”
Boyle emphasised he was too young to have been involved in hacking before explaining his answer. “I think we’ve been able to continue to cultivate meaningful relationships, both with established, long-standing stars and with newer ones. And I think it’s faded from people’s minds now. I think. I hope so.
“Because it’s so far removed from what we do, and our journalism on Bizarre. The Bizarre that I know and have worked on, it’s about being there. It never has been about any other methods, it’s about being there, meeting people, having that direct relationship, being at the party, being at a gig, being at the award show – and faithfully representing and replicating that to our readership…
“I think that far, far outweighs any other questions about our methods.”
‘All of life is in The Sun’
What next for Boyle and Bizarre? One ambition, he says, is to enhance the column’s coverage of Hollywood.
But, he adds, “there’s a real kind of wariness about print press across the board – not just tabloids, but many big Hollywood film stars simply won’t talk to any print publication. And I’m trying really hard to break down those barriers in the way we’ve done with music, but with relatively limited success at this point.”
And what about Boyle’s own future? There are a lot of red-top editors among his predecessors. Does he hope to join them one day?
“Absolutely. Absolutely. It’s my dream job, it’s what I’ve always wanted to do.
“And I’m not saying that I’ll get there, but I’ll have a good crack at it. And certainly, Bizarre has been a good route. Showbiz has been a good route for journalists in popular newspapers to climb, absolutely…
“All of life is in The Sun. And popular culture is at the heart of what it is to be British, to our society. And I think if you’ve got a pretty good grasp on that, that’ll stand you in pretty good stead to run the newspaper.”
Between John Blake in 1982 and Simon Boyle in 2022, the Bizarre column has been a temporary home to some of Britain’s best known and most successful journalists.
Alumni include Talk TV’s Piers Morgan (right), Nick Ferrari of LBC, New York Daily News editor Martin Dunn, Sun columnist Jane Moore, GB News presenter Dan Wootton, News of the World editor and Downing Street comms director Andy Coulson, former Sun editor Dominic Mohan, former Scottish Sun editor Gordon Smart, and current Sun editor Victoria Newton.
Blake says that when he started out, most newsroom leaders started as sub-editors. But Bizarre “became a nursery for future editors and a chance to show what you could do.” He himself went on to edit the Sunday People.
Kelvin MacKenzie told Press Gazette: “They have to know what a great story is, know what a great photo is, plus know how to protect their sources. All basic requirements to run a national paper.”
Dan Wootton said: “Bizarre is one of those pretty unique jobs in British newspapers where you’re balancing reporting, editing and management, all while dealing with the world’s most egotistical and difficult celebrities, agents and PRs. If you can balance all of that – while usually going to bed at 3am a few times a week – then it sets you up well for your next job.”
Piers Morgan told Press Gazette: “It had to be a mix of newsy, entertaining, shocking, funny and revealing. All of which applies to a whole paper. So it was no surprise to see so many Bizarre editors go on to become full newspaper editors. It was the perfect training.”
Nick Ferrari said that, “particularly when I was doing it, and Martin Dunn and John Blake, pop and rock was brutally competitive, and it would sell newspapers.
“So if you’ve got a good story about Duran Duran or Wham, you would have a lift in sales. So the editor’s on you to get great stories. It was what was called an overnight page – so the editors would have more time to look at it because it wasn’t live, it wouldn’t go that night. He or she could sit there and pick it to pieces.”
Current Sun editor Victoria Newton said: “As well as finding stories to fill it, you are also responsible for sourcing pictures, helping with the design of the spread, the headlines, the ideas and of course the overall tone of the column.”
And Newton suggested it wasn’t about to stop incubating editors any time soon. “Bizarre isn’t just about what you put in the print edition, you are also responsible for the digital brand, opening up a whole new skill set for ambitious journalists.”
Featured image: Rowan Atkinson – alias Mr. Bean – at The Sun in Wapping for a takeover of the paper, alongside Sean Hoare, Dominic Mohan and Andy Coulson, 6/8/1997. All pictures courtesy of The Sun.