Celebrities have always had an irresistible charm over the masses. We can’t put a finger on it, but somehow, and in some enigmatic way – we find ourselves incredibly drawn to their lives. Some may argue, that it is the glitz and glamour that lures us in. I agree. There’s hardly anything more reflective of human tendencies and capitalistic values than our affinity for covetousness. Yet, this only scratches the surface of the entire narrative.

Grapevine Has It…

How do you like your tea, piping hot, or iced? Would you rather it be bland or with a hint of masala for that extra kick? Whichever way you prefer it served, the grapevine has it. With a rich assortment of savory gossip, the grapevine has managed to interweave itself into the fabric of our daily contexts and conversations. From political circles to social ones; from the workplace to family gatherings; the grapevine carries whispers of secrets, scandals, and speculation highly likely to pull a crowd. The vigor of gossip goes beyond its knack to infiltrate multiple human dynamics. It also lies in its ability to spread fast. Whether you choose to sip on the latest tea or not, the omnipresence of gossip in our culture is incontestable, carving our perceptions and interactions in ways that may subtly elude our consciousness. It is this pervasive presence that accentuates the position heftily enjoyed by online gossip enterprises in Africa’s entertainment industry.

The Social Media Boom

Flourishing in the lively and varied digital expanse of Africa, where storytelling is an age-old tradition, gossip enterprises are having a field day. The closest we could get to celebrities’ lives in the pre-internet tabloid era was on the pages of tabloid magazines, columns in newspapers, and various radio and television programs. The roster of widely-read gossip magazines featured The Insyder, alongside newspapers and their columns, such as The Nairobian and The Nation Newspaper’s Saturday magazine Buzz. During this period, the dissemination of celebrity news experienced limitations in frequency, speed, and reach. The advent of social media and online platforms has caused the continent’s gossip industry to sufficiently evolve and cater to our insatiable appetite for entertainment news. In an era where social media holds increasing sway, human behavior has undergone notable revisions. One of the most fascinating elements of this shift is how it has heightened our proclivity for gossip and the desire to delve into the affairs of others. The digital platforms revamped grapevine, turning it into a digital, instantaneous, and extensively influential entity in the entertainment industry.

If you can’t beat them, join them

The rise of Africa’s online gossip enterprise is a testament to the changing landscape where traditional media is being outpaced by digital platforms that offer real-time engagement with content that is often raw, unfiltered, and scandalously personal. Traditional media houses are seemingly being given a run for their money by these previously underestimated online gossip entities. If social media metrics are anything to go by, it is unmistakably evident that the public has developed a fondness for the latter. The Nairobi Gossip Club, a digital tabloid phenomenon in Kenya, enjoys the most extensive Instagram following in the country’s media industry with 2.1 million followers, outshining competitors from both the pre- and post-digital era. Whereas constructing my entire argument on the foundation of social media followers would be somewhat misleading, the primary intent was to underscore the unassuming influence carried by these up-and-coming online media enterprises. So potent is the quiet power wielded by these emerging digital platforms, that the otherwise “old-school” media houses have had to bend to the wind, open social media accounts, and play catch up. In their efforts to keep pace with digital media entities, conventional media houses have resorted to borrowing a page from the former’s playbook in order to maintain relevance and enhance engagement among their online audiences. Some of the methods applied have attracted public backlash as they are deemed “unseemly” for institutions of their prestige. These include sensationalized headlines, clickbait articles, and an increased focus on celebrity gossip

Vlogs and Reality Shows

The ascent of Africa’s online tabloid enterprise has intensified our fascination with celebrities. So much so, that other celebrity entertainment avenues symbiotically thrive on this wave. Reality TV is one such avenue that has capitalized on the public’s insatiable appetite for celebrity gossip, blurring the lines between reality and scripted entertainment. Just as it is with tabloid media, reality shows including The Young, Famous & African, The Mommy Club and The Real House Wives of Lagos, Nairobi, Durban and Johannesburg have all, in some way, shape or form, capitalized on this obsession with celebrity culture.  YouTube channels have, in equal measure, provided avenues for fans to connect with their favorite celebrities on a more personal level, creating a sense of intimacy and accessibility that further fuels the public’s fascination with celebrity culture. Vlogs, webcasts, beauty tutorials, and lifestyle content are especially popular. YouTube has become a platform where anyone can gain fame and fortune by sharing their lives with the world.

With the sustained interest in behind-the-scenes glimpses, reality TV-type entertainment broadcasting is poised to stay at the forefront of entertainment choices. Its relationship with gossip entities is reciprocal in that both are feeding off each other and fueling the public’s celebrity fixation. This establishes a self-reinforcing cycle of demand for more content—a give-and-take relationship that has caused a surge in reality TV series that explore the intimate details and drama surrounding celebrities on the continent.

Quick Fame

Digital tabloids have garnered the capacity to launch new talent or tarnish reputations overnight in the entertainment business. They feature new releases in film, music, theatre and literature to look out for. They also cover cultural events, art exhibitions and everything in between. Online gossip outlets offer a fast track for new talent to become known and connect with extensive online communities. This phenomenon highlights a shift in societal values towards instant gratification and superficiality, where traction, image and scandal often take precedence over talent and hard work. This rapid rise and fall of celebrities in the digital age reshaped the entertainment landscape, altering the way fame is constructed and consumed. As a result, many aspiring artists and performers are now more focused on cultivating a strong online presence rather than honing their craft. This shift has led to a culture where viral moments and controversy often overshadow genuine talent and artistic merit.

The digital franchise in Africa has capitalized on humans’ tendency to gossip, creating a lucrative market for celebrity news and updates. Now more than ever, the gossip fraternity has grown to play significant roles in shaping public perceptions of celebrities, generating buzz and influencing trends within the entertainment industry. As a result, many artists feel pressured to constantly create sensational content in a bid to get featured in digital tabloids, hence staying relevant and maintaining their following. This can sometimes detract from the authenticity and quality of their work, ultimately hindering their artistic growth and development.

Writer’s Note

While doing my research for this piece, it dawned on me that the dialogue around online tabloids is intertwined with a wider discourse on the influence of social media within the entertainment industry. Social media has created a new kind of celebrity culture where visibility and engagement are prioritized over artistic integrity, leading to a cycle of content creation solely to stay in the spotlight. This shift has raised questions about the true value of art in a digital age where popularity often trumps creativity. Online tabloids thrive on sensationalized stories and clickbait headlines, they perpetuate this culture of prioritizing visibility over substance. Still, I’d like to play the devil’s advocate. Gossip enterprises are but a reflection of the entertainment industry and society in its entirety, ugly though it can be. Thence, they spark conversations otherwise deemed taboo or controversial, allowing for a deeper exploration of societal norms and values. Ultimately, while celebrity gossip may have its drawbacks, it also serves as a platform for important discussions and reflections on the cultural landscape.