Jessica Simpson, the onetime pop star, had her first and last Top 10 hit more than a decade ago, with “I Wanna Love You Forever.” But that didn’t stop Elle magazine from putting her on its April cover (naked and pregnant, in an echo of the often-imitated 1991 Vanity Fair cover photo of Demi Moore) nor People magazine from splashing pictures of her baby shower over several pages in its April 2 issue.
Tori Spelling, Donna from “Beverly Hills, 90210,” (the original one, as well as its successor), had a short career in made-for-TV movies and an even shorter one in feature films, before finding a home on reality TV, with shows that featured her marriage and quickly growing brood: “Tori & Dean: Inn Love,” “Tori & Dean: Home Sweet Hollywood” and soon “Craft Wars.”
Bethenny Frankel was a former contestant on “The Apprentice: Martha Stewart,” and a polarizing character on “The Real Housewives of New York City,” before getting two subsequent Bravo shows of her own (“Bethenny Getting Married?” and “Bethenny Ever After”) and becoming one of the biggest stars on that cable network.
What do they all have in common? They have found, to be blunt, that motherhood pays. In the last few years, salaries for movie stars have plummeted, record sales have tanked and roles in scripted dramas are going the way of the I.B.M. computer. Yet for a growing number of underemployed actresses, singers and would-be entrepreneurs, parenthood has become a viable Plan B.
“Being a celebrity mom has more business opportunities than ever before,” said Peter Grossman, the photo editor of Us Weekly, where he has negotiated six-figure cover deals with many celebrities and their cuddly offspring. “Now, it’s not just about selling your baby pics. It’s starting a clothing line or endorsing a stroller. The value of a celebrity mom has never been higher.”
Nor does having a tabloid reputation preclude getting in on the action. Four years ago, Kendra Wilkinson was a star on “The Girls Next Door,” an E! reality series about Hugh Hefner’s harem. Then she became engaged to a pro-football player, announced her pregnancy and got a spinoff series in which her impending motherhood was a central story line. Its ratings were among E!’s highest.
A book contract with an imprint of Simon & Schuster followed, as did a reported mid-six-figure deal to sell her baby pictures and her weight-loss plan to OK! magazine. She endorsed a line of supplements (Ab Cuts, designed to “shed the baby weight”), and the book spent over two months on the New York Times best-seller list. She also has a new show on WE later this year.
“If I would have stayed that party girl, I don’t think I would have had the success I had,” said Ms. Wilkinson, one of the few celebrities who seemed willing to discuss this new career path. (Representatives for Ms. Frankel, Ms. Spelling and Ms. Simpson all declined several interview requests or failed to respond.) “I think it all had to do with me taking the craziest turn any party girl could have taken. And that’s having a family. It was much more valuable than being at the Playboy Mansion. Like 100 times more valuable.”
Nicole Richie’s transformation was similar. She went from being Paris Hilton’s quirky sidekick, once arrested after driving the wrong way on a freeway in Burbank, Calif., to an earth mother, jewelry designer and author. She designed a maternity-wear collection for the popular brand Pea in the Pod. And she is a judge on a new NBC reality show, “Fashion Star,” along with Ms. Simpson. Jo Piazza, the author of the recent book “Celebrity, Inc.: How Famous People Make Money,” said, “That would not have happened had she not had babies.”
Even Nicole Polizzi, better known to TV viewers as Snooki of “Jersey Shore,” is leveraging her pregnancy with a spinoff series on MTV, “Snooki and Jwoww vs. the World,” and a line of children’s shoes. “I definitely want to do like diaper bags and stuff like that,” Ms. Polizzi said in a telephone interview last week, adding that she wanted to design products for her child “and then sell it for everybody else.”
“I would not suggest her to a Fortune 100 company that’s going after families,” said Ryan Schinman, the chief executive of Platinum Rye Entertainment, which, according to Forbes, is the world’s largest broker of celebrity talent for ad campaigns and publicity events. “But if you’re a new or unknown brand looking to make a splash or you’re of the ilk that all press is good press, why not?”
Enter Pat Yates, the owner of Buyhappyfeet.com, which handled the deal with Ms. Polizzi. Mr. Yates said he can understand why people are skeptical about Ms. Polizzi’s future as a “mompreneur,” but thinks she is going to do just fine. “It’s going to broaden what she’s able to go out and pitch,” he said. “It makes her more versatile.”
Indeed, Ms. Polizzi said that she is ready to show people a different side of herself, one that is seemingly at odds with her “Jersey Shore” persona as the hard-drinking, club-going wild child. “I know I am going to be a good mom,” she said. “Everyone thinks I’m a party girl just because they’ve seen me on ‘Jersey Shore’ for one month enjoying my life. Like, that’s not me 24-7.”
WHEN did the spawn of Hollywood become a cultural obsession? After all, for a very long time, pregnancy was considered a private matter, and as recently as 2000, a magazine’s decision to run a paparazzi shot of someone like Madonna in the late stages of pregnancy was considered bad form.
That changed in 2002, when Bonnie Fuller took over at Us Weekly, an event that is to celebrity babies what the big bang was to the rest of humanity. Within weeks, Ms. Fuller redesigned the magazine from top to bottom, centering it around candid shots of newly engaged stars with circles around their baby bumps underneath the heading of “Stars, They’re Just Like Us.”
The stratospheric prices paid to secure candid shots of big-name celebrities made it clear this wasn’t quite true, but readers didn’t seem to mind. At the top of the tabloid food chain were Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. For the first shot of them together, back when Mr. Pitt had just split from Jennifer Aniston, Us Weekly paid the photo agency selling the picture $500,000, according to the company’s former general manager, Kent Brownridge. It was one of their best-selling issues ever.
When Mr. Pitt and Ms. Jolie had their first child, editors at various weeklies were called into the Getty offices in downtown Manhattan, where they signed confidentiality agreements and walked into a room where images of the happy couple and their daughter, Shiloh, were projected on a movie screen, as if in a premiere. “The only thing missing was popcorn,” one of the players recalled.
Bidding took an entire weekend, with at least one offer exceeding $2 million, according to two people involved, who asked not to be identified because of those confidentiality agreements. People magazine eventually won, at a price that was never disclosed, and which the couple reportedly donated to charity. (Calls to People’s managing editor, Larry Hackett, were not returned.)
This payday was not lost on a growing list of reality stars and B-list celebrities, who realized that while they might not be able to garner numbers like that, they could at least get something. “It became a trend,” said Richard Spencer, the founding editor of In Touch Weekly, and now the editor in chief of OK! magazine. “People knew that having kids landed them on celebrity titles. They found ways to court the press and get as much out of it as they could.”
Even fathers got into the act. Matthew McConaughey received what two sources then working at OK! (who also asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to disclose confidential information) said was from $500,000 to $1 million to pose with his baby, only to have things go awry when he refused to go shirtless, and without the child’s mother, Camila Alves. “I wanted it to be like an Athena poster,” Sarah Ivens Moffett, the founding editor of the magazine, said in a telephone interview. “He didn’t.” (The couple eventually appeared on the magazine’s cover, along with their 2-week-old son, Levi, with Mr. McConaughey fully clothed.)
Over the last two years, the prices paid for exclusive baby pictures dropped considerably, a result of declining newsstand sales among all the celebrity titles and what may have been a certain amount of baby fatigue. But even so, B- and C-list players found all sorts of ways to get into the game.
“It’s popular reality stars who benefit the most now, because they are putting parenthood front and center,” said Ms. Fuller, who today is the editor in chief of Hollywoodlife.com, a gossip Web site that also has a separate landing page devoted to celebrity baby news. “They’re not saying this is private. They’re sharing it all, and that pays off for them.”
At Bravo, for example, “The Rachel Zoe Project,” a show about the Hollywood stylist Rachel Zoe, received its highest ratings last season for the episode in which Ms. Zoe gave birth, according to Shari Levine, senior vice president of production for Bravo. The station is working on a new show with Kim Zolciak, a “Real Housewives of Atlanta” cast member, who recently married and is pregnant for the second time with her new husband. And it is bringing back for a second season a show with Rosie Pope, a high-end maternity designer who is due to have another child later this year.
“Pregnant women are physically in a slightly awkward physical state and they are emotionally very charged,” Ms. Levine said. “It’s always very funny. We’ve been there, or we have friends and family that have been there. It makes us smile.”
For the demi-celebrities in front of the camera, the shows also are global billboards that lead to paid gigs, like lucrative appearances at introductions for baby products and for tweeting on behalf of companies that are focusing on women with children, sometimes for $5,000 or more a tweet for the bigger reality stars.
Deals to tweet and show up at product introductions are orchestrated by agencies like Flying Television, which is headed by Lori Levine, a former talent booker for Conan O’Brien (and no relation to Ms. Levine at Bravo); and Cogent Media. Ms. Levine and Courtney Routt, of Cogent, are cagey about who gets paid to do what, but tweets that look suspiciously like advertisements are ubiquitous.
Take, for example, Kourtney Kardashian, who regularly tweets about her son, Mason, and the brands he’s decked out in. “Running around New York City!” she tweeted on April 24. “Captain Mason is ready for the rain.” Embedded there was a link to a photo beneath which all his fashion credits were listed. “Tom and Drew Shirt, Tom and Drew hat, Levi Jeans, Gap belt and Freshly Picked moccasins.” And another, courtesy of Ms. Frankel: “My new adorable diaper bag. I don’t believe in the expensive brand name ones. You?” she said, referring to a bag from Kipling, which promptly tweeted back at her: “Couldn’t agree more! We adore @Bethenny. The bag is named ‘New Baby.’ ” A link directed followers to the Kipling Web site, where they could buy the bag.
“Look,” Ms. Levine said, “the bottom line is that if it’s a reality star pushing a product, chances are they’re making money from it.”