Editor’s Note: The author used to contribute headlines to StarWipe.
StarWipe had one hell of a final week. The swan song of The Onion’s hollywood rag is a flurry of F-bombs and caps locks. Headlines read “FUCK THIS,” “JUST FUCKING STOP,” and “Seriously, What Are We Even Doing?” A few days after StarWipe’s farewell post, “RIP Celebrity,” I sat down with StarWipe’s Editor-in-Chief, Sean O’Neal, at a coffee shop down the street from The Onion’s office.
“This sounds stupid, but I played in a lot of punk bands in my twenties — you want to smash your gear and leave the stage, and that’s kind of what I wanted to do. I wanted to leave the house on fire and never look back. So I thought we’d burn it down on the way out.”
Almost a year before its first post, O’Neal captained The Onion’s bowling team, and began discussing his idea over beers with one of their product developers. “I mentioned that I thought there was a niche for covering celebrity gossip that we could possibly fill. In my mind, there was an audience out there that felt guilty for reading about celebrity gossip, but still had a morbid curiosity about it, that could appreciate it being recontextualized as a satirical, faux-intellectual commentary.”
O’Neal’s academic interest in celebrity culture goes back to Kenneth Anger’s “Hollywood Babylon,” the Thomas Ince murders, and the forgotten scandals of the 1920’s and 30’s. As the long-time newswire editor at The AV Club, he sometimes experimented with trashier gossip stories. “When I would write stories about Justin Bieber or Will Smith, I would get a thousand comments of ‘who cares?’ My response was always ‘Well, I care. I think it’s funny.’ So I wanted to make a whole site of ‘who cares,’” O’Neal laughed, and quickly added, “which I think could probably tell you why the site didn’t work.”
What initially started as a potential vertical for The AV Club eventually became the concept for a new site. “The big difference between us and The Onion, or Clickhole, is that those two sites do world-building — they make up things whole cloth. Everything we wrote about actually happened, and it was just given a satirical, irreverent spin. I don’t know if we did the best job making people aware of that.”
Along with celebrity birthdays and photo captions, StarWipe parodied presumptive gossip column garbage, with headlines like “Orlando Bloom-Shaped Blob Busted Mashing Pixels With Selena Gomez-ish Figure,” and features like “6 Actresses Who Could Easily Play James Bond Or Other, Better Roles.” Maybe its best contributions, though, are the bizarre experimental endeavors like “Which Celebrity Should We Arbitrarily Hate Next?” a week-long, NCAA-esque Tournament-style bracket, and “What Should We Send O.J. Simpson In Prison? (The winning candidate was “Photo of disgraced former Subway spokesman Jared Fogle, autographed by several StarWipe writers).
StarWipe’s style section was a unique vertical among Onion, Inc. publications. Features varied from straight fashions, “So Hot Right Now: Hot Brown Work Water,” which noted the ubiquity of coffee in paparazzi photos, “TrendWatch: Strappy Sandals That Are Strappy, But Not Too Strappy,” and “Chokers Are Back, Because Apparently Women Were Too Comfortable.”
The Style section expanded in the last few months under staff writer Tricia England. England enjoyed the inherent irony of mandatory novelty. She said, “It has this paradoxical dynamic of ordering people to distinguish themselves by adhering to certain manufactured aesthetics. That kind of very richly flawed authority is really fun to satirize. Also, because it has so much to do with individual identity, it supports more character-driven humor, too, like the Neil Gaiman piece we did in our last week.”
Despite over three-quarters of a million unique visitors, StarWipe struggled to find a sponsor. “We need advertiser revenue to stay afloat and to pay people’s salaries,” O’Neal said. “We took a lot of meetings, but something just didn’t click— we’d get really far down the field, then at the last minute they’d said ‘nevermind.’” The Onion has a high bar, and a few weeks before StarWipe’s end, O’Neal was told they would have to make some tough decisions. “Our loyal audience was very loyal— the people who liked us really liked us a lot, but the everyday returning audience just wasn’t as high as it needed to be to sustain a website in this particular media landscape.”
Issues of clarity plagued StarWipe from the beginning. “If I were doing it over again, I would perhaps leave The Onion’s name out of it. When we pitched the site, with our little 15-second video teaser, it was ‘from the people who brought you The Onion,’ which is true, we’re all in the same building, we’re all part of Onion, Inc., but in reality, we’re more of a sister site to the AV Club.”
StarWipe’s nine-month run gained a small, but passionate following, but suffered from low traffic and uninterested advertisers. The Paris and Brussels attacks happened during StarWipe’s tenure, and the Orlando shooting occurred in its last few days. Hollywood gossip felt especially superficial. “So we dropped the comic pretense a little bit, and let the simmering nihilism that had always been there come to the forefront, as this burning rage at the inconsequentiality of what we’re writing about.”
O’Neal has returned to The A.V. Club as a Senior Editor, “I just wanted us to have a memorable final week, so people, perhaps, wouldn’t forget us so quickly.” The social media channels have been repurposed, but the website is still up, with almost a year of content. O’Neal isn’t sure how long StarWipe.com will linger, but it’s still up for now, for those who want to scroll through old articles and quizzes. “Since it ended, I’ve been thinking about its’ legacy a lot, I would like it to be this cult oddity, it had a small but fervent fan base. It was a very weird website, and not for everybody, but there’s been a lot of [things] that fall under that category, but that’s all I can really hope for at this point, that someone out there remembers it with the same sort of feeling that maybe it died too soon, or before its’ time — or perhaps, that it lived exactly as long as it needed to.”
Jake Gunst is a comedy writer and performer living in Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter at @jakegunst