Back in 2000 when the first series of Big Brother beamed into TV sets around the UK, the French press were quick to deride the reality TV show as horribly uncultured. ‘This would never happen in France,’ they sniffed.

How wrong they were. The very next year the Gallic version of Big Brother, called Loft Story, aired in France. Created by Endemol, the program-makers behind BB, not only was it much raunchier than the UK version with couples having sex on camera but the prize, a house, was won by male and female joint winners who had to live in the property for six months before finally claiming their prize. Despite moans about the grubbiness of it all and protests outside the studio where Loft Story was being filmed the show was a huge hit, attracting seven million viewers.

Loft Story, though, was just the beginning. Today French television programming is awash with reality TV shows starring both members of the public and celebrities including Je suis une célébrité, sortez-moi de là! (‘I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!’) and La Ferme Célébrités (Celebrity Farm). Mon Incroyable Fiancé (‘My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance), in which an overweight and deliberately obscene comedian pretended to be the much-loved fiancé of a beautiful girl to shock her unknowing parents was hugely popular. French Star Academy is consistently a sure-fire ratings winner with the victors going to become local celebrities.

‘There is often a great difference between how the French like to see themselves and the reality,’ says Kim Willsher, a Paris-based British journalist who works for both The Guardian and Sunday Telegraph newspapers. ‘They like to think that they are not interested in celebrities and showbiz, that they are above all that, but the opposite is true. There is a real appetite for celebrity gossip here.’

In fact, France is the home of one of the oldest ‘celebrity’ magazines in the world – Paris Match has covered the lives of the rich and famous for the past 57 years. However, alongside interviews with the Monaco’s royal family and Hollywood and French stars are serious stories such as interviews with President Mitterand and photo-strong reportage pieces from war zones. A similar formula applies to many popular TV variety shows in France such as Toute le monde en parle (All the world is talking about it) where intellectual heavyweight interviews with people such as philosopher Bernard-Henry Levy are mixed with stars of reality TV. ‘For a lot of people this mixing of celebrity with high-brow is the acceptable way of doing celebrity,’ says Willsher.

This established way of doing things, though, is being challenged by the extraordinary popularity of not just reality TV but also by a new brand of celebrity magazine. Brasher and sassier than the likes of ‘Paris Match’ are newcomers such as ‘Closer’, ‘Public’, ‘Voici’ and ‘VSD’ who unashamedly indulge in the love of celebrity lifestyle and gossip.

Over the past five years these magazines, dubbed la presse people, have doubled in circulation, together selling more close to 1.5 million copies a week, with sales still rising fast. This is at a time when readers of the establishment papers such as ‘Le Monde’ and ‘La Figaro’ are falling rapidly. ‘French people, like the British and the Americans, seem to have developed a rabid appetite for the secrets of their contemporaries,’ said the leader writer of one newspaper. ‘There is a tidal wave of confessions, stolen photos, tell-all whispers … and the French just lap it up.’

Critics of this new celebrity culture blame the malign influence of globalisation, in particular the creeping influence of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ attitudes – something that must always be resisted. Those who champion this new wave, however, believe the French have always been interested in people and that they are simply delivering to a need. Others say celebrity magazines herald the beginning of a new kind of press freedom. ‘The presse people constitutes the only zone of genuine press liberty,’ says Philippe Kartzenty, president of Media Ratings, a Paris-based consultancy. ‘The rest is obedient.’

France has a strict privacy law that makes it a criminal offence to publish information on a person’s private life – from relationships to family circumstances, leisure activities and health – without the express permission of the person concerned. This has resulted in a press that often practices self-censorship such as in the case of President François Mitterrand and his mistress and illegitimate child. The political establishment and press knew for many years of their existence, and despite the public purse paying for their Paris apartment and round-the-clock security, the people of France only found out about them after 20 years.

Celebrity magazines, however, are increasingly pushing the boundaries in what is considered private. Last summer ‘Closer’ magazine published very flattering pictures of presidential hopeful Ségolène Royal in a bikini on a public beach in the south of France and while Madame Royal huffed a little, she ultimately did nothing.

Closer was less lucky with Jenifer Bartoli, a pop singer who became famous after appearing on Star Academy. She took the magazine to court and won after it ran a story called Jenifer, mais a quoi elle joue? (Jenifer, what is she playing at?). As part of its punishment, half of Closer’s front cover was blanked white, with the facts of the judgement printed in black. A similar fate befell Voici when it ran a story – Claire Chazal, she surprises us always – about the popular newsreader and her partner actor, Philippe Torreton.

Many celebrity magazines budget for libel payouts but to minimise the risk, the majority of their coverage is focused on US celebrities. According to Closer’s feisty editor, Laurence Pieau, each month on three out of every four covers the main star will be from the US. ‘It is very hard here in France,’ says Laurence. ‘The privacy law is very restrictive but our readers are interested in what people are doing, how they dress, how they do their make-up. They do not want to automatically trash them, but they like to know how they are living their lives. And that is what we like to show.’

French Celebrity Roll-call

Who are the equivalents of some of the more famous British stars?

Posh n’ Becks: Christian and Adriana Karembeu

He was a member of the French World Cup winning squad of 2000; she is the long-legged Slovak model famous for modelling Wonderbra and Peroni beer. They married in 1998 in a lavish wedding; often seen at red carpet and charity events.

Mick Jagger: Johnny Hallyday

Both old rockers (Hallyday is 63 years old) still going strong. Hallyday has done 400 tours, had 18 platinum albums and performed in front of 15 million people. Married four times, with a fifth relationship producing a child, he has had a tumultous love life. Two years ago, he and his fourth wife Laetitia Boudou adopted a baby girl from Vietnam.

Sean Connery/Michael Caine: Gérard Depardieu

Like Connery Depardieu is the country’s highest-paid actor; like Caine, Depardieu is much-respected and loved.

Kate Winslet: Audrey Tatou

Like Winslet, Tatou is an award-winning young actress whose fame has spread beyond her native country to Hollywood. Best known for Amelie and most recently, The Da Vinci Code.

Judi Dench: Catherine Deneuve

Although more obviously glamorous than Dench, Deneuve is one of France’s most respected actresses and a doyenne of the industry.

Elizabeth Hurley: Laetitia Casta

Casta is a very successful model – the official face of L’Oreal – and the most recent model for Marianne, the symbol of France. She has started a film career in France but has caused controversy for moving to London.

The Redgraves: The Gainsbourgs

The iconic status of the Redgrave dynasty is matched by the Gainsbourgs. Serge is one of France’s most celebrated songwriters, his funeral attended by the then president François Mitterrand. His daughter Charlotte, whose mother is Jane Birkin (with whom Serge sang Je t’aime), is now a famous singer and actress.

Alan Rickman: Jean Reno

More cutting-edge than Depardieu, the highly-regarded Reno is called upon by Hollywood when a typical Frenchman is needed. Unlike Rickman, however, it is not always to play the baddie.

Trevor McDonald: Patrick Poivre d’Avor

Nicknamed PPDA, d’Avor is the main newsreader on channel TF1, where he has been anchor for almost 20 years. He does, however, have a far more eventful life than McDonald including a conviction for misappropriation of public funds and the accusation that he faked an interview with Fidel Castro. His private life has been equally turbulent. One of this daughters commmitted suicide after suffering from anorexia for many years. Long-standing rumours of an affair with fellow TF1 newsreader, Claire Chazal (see below), were confirmed when in his book, Confessions, he wrote that he was the father of Chazal’s son, Francois.

Fiona Bruce: Claire Chazal

Weekend newsreader on TF1, Chazal is considered to be one of France’s most sexy and stylish women. Often seen at premieres and charity events as well as the cannes Film Festival. Currently dating French actor Philippe Torreton.

Jordan: Loana

The first winner of Loft Story, the former go-go dancer is now a regular star of celebrity magazines and events.

Arthur: Noel Edmonds

Arthur is the host of A prendre ou à laisser, the inspiration for the UK show, ‘Deal or No Deal’. He also hosts variety TV.

Richard and Judy: Thomas Hugues and Laurence Ferrari

Much more good-looking, and significantly younger, but also a popular television couple who live and work together.

Tim Henman/Robbie Williams: Yannick Noah

Mix Britain’s former number one tennis player with the platinum album pop singer and you get an idea of how Noah, formerly a champion tennis player now singer, is regarded in France.

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