Earlier this week, the editor of The Onion’s latest satirical website published a mission statement of sorts at the bottom of (what else?) a fake news story.
Titled “Rich, Famous People Terrified By Launch Of Celebrity Gossip Site,” the article concludes by announcing the arrival of StarWipe, a site that promises to take aim at “the beautiful, idolized rich” for an audience of readers who will “smirk and feel slightly superior for a few, fleeting seconds.”
“But even then, the site might just make some shit up to fill a slideshow,” an “insider source” adds, playing to the familiar trope of blind gossip items in tabloid news.
The man behind those words – and his own dubious source — is Sean O’Neal, who conceived StarWipe during a stint at the AV Club, an entertainment site owned by The Onion’s parent company.
“Inevitably, once or twice a day, I’d come across a story about — for example — Justin Bieber doing something stupid,” O’Neal said. “And I’d feel a bit guilty for writing about it because it is so inane and stupid, but then I’d also have a really good joke for it.”
This combination of celebrity news, guilty pleasure and humor inspired him to pitch a site devoted to outrageous faux-gossip items that mock several facets of the celebrity reporting industry: Reporters who write trivial stories, audiences that read them and the stars they’re about.
A look at the early batch of stories published by StarWipe reveals that the site differs in many ways from its sister publications, The Onion (devoted to completely fictitious articles) and Clickhole (which skewers viral news and listicles). Unlike those sites, most stories on StarWipe have bylines, an addition that credits the site’s writers for putting a humorous spin on real events involving actual public figures, O’Neal said.
Another difference between StarWipe and its sister sites is that staffers generally write about things that actually happened rather than inventing situations and scenarios from whole cloth. A recent item, “Cara Delevingne Wants To Pour Hot Cheese On Celebrity Reporters, Which Sounds Great, Thanks,” used the actress’ tweets as fodder for an article that mused about the possibility of a scalding close encounter with Delevingne. The site occasionally takes a detour into Clickhole-esque inanity (one item offers bizarre celebrity news for 9/11 conspiracy theorists), but every story is attached in some way to celebrity news.
“It’s mostly based on taking real news stories and finding a humorous way to contextualize them,” O’Neal said. “There’s plenty to play with in terms of tropes practiced by your People’s and your US Weekly’s and your OK Magazines. I think you’ll find, if you keep reading the site, that there’s always plenty of garbage to scavenge through there.”
Mike McAvoy, the CEO of Onion Inc., says StarWipe will likely bring more women to the company’s readership, which generally skews toward men. Males comprise roughly 60 percent of the audience of Onion Inc.’s other sites, whereas the readership for StarWipe is projected to be about 60 percent female to 40 percent male. Having a fourth brand under Onion Inc. will round out the company’s portfolio, he says, and allow its sales staff to reach a broader advertising base.
“It’s really about reaching a new audience and being able to target a certain demographic with content,” McAvoy said. “We have countless advertisers who are looking for some flavor of celebrity culture, so this is a great way to address those needs head-on.”
The site’s debut has been greeted with mixed reviews since its launch earlier this week. Comparing the site to Clickhole, Slate’s L.V. Anderson argued that StarWipe is finding its voice while it grapples with the task of being a source of the news it intends to ridicule. Writing for The Chicago Tribune,
Robert Channick observed that it “may be hard to tell the difference between reality and parody.” Fishbowl NY heralded StarWipe’s launch with delight, and the site’s Twitter mentions are cluttered with laughs.
On Monday, O’Neal said he was trying not to get caught up in the online chatter surrounding the launch. When asked whether any high-status celebrities have gotten in touch to complain about the site’s coverage, he laughed.
“No,” he said. “And I don’t expect them to.”