Ellen Burstyn, if you’ve been concerned, has ‘no complaints.’ It’s a vague reassurance directed at everyone but meant for nobody in particular from the headlines of Closer Weekly, one of a spate of print media properties aimed at the still-flush-with-cash Boomer market. I first became a reader of Closer when my parents — whom I’m certain went to their graves not knowing they were part of something called the Silent Generation — were doing hard time in various nursing homes and care facilities. Closer was always around, usually set alongside its spiritual cousins, the cynical Prevention or the dowdy Reminisce (less magazine than a kind of magazine-shaped object made out of an old Norman Rockwell calendar).
The kind of facilities they’d get shuttled back and forth to, the ones Medicaid said were legally good enough, all seem to be designed to induce maximum existential torpor in whoever walked or got wheeled through the doors. The copies of Closer never bore address labels so clearly some good-hearted person brought them in — a welcome conversation starter for when you needed to fill the silence between you and your parents without the danger of actually saying anything. Love and obligation were the tethers that pulled me to my parents for those weekly visits but it was resentment that fueled my hate-reading relationship with Closer.
You could (and out of necessity, I often did) sit there for hours thumbing through Alan Alda or Mary Tyler Moore profiles while their old shows played on the TV in the still air of the dayroom, everything suspended in the aspic of 1974. Who wants to live this way? is what I thought many of those long, quiet days. Still, reading it occupied my time and to someone outside its target audience, its value proposition seemed compelling: read this and be reassured that you are still relevant, still the main character in the stories you tell yourself.
Before I understood that Closer’s title was promising access to celebrity, I’d always assumed that because of the faded stars it profiled, the name was a coy nod at being closer to death — maybe because my parents lay nearby, their bodies quietly doing the business of shutting down. I wanted to be, more than anything, not there. I wanted to be slingshotted five years into the future. The idea of nostalgia was funny to me then.
I could never find any editorial proof in the magazine itself that Closer was for older people. The association was sometimes implied so subtly you could think you were reading any glossy weekly until you realize this is a lot of coverage, actually, about Micky Dolenz. In fact, it seemed to serve as a kind of printed aggregator of entertainment news for people who are Extremely Not Online — the kind who might not immediately grok, for instance, that a candid swimsuit photo Naomi Watts “shared” for World Ocean Day beginning with the quote “Oh, how I love the ocean” is from her Instagram a couple of weeks ago.
Like the good word on Burstyn, its headlines tend to be punctuated with curiously short phrases meant to convey a very narrow meaning without letting on the sometimes creative sourcing. As Ruth Graham pointed out in a 2016 Slate piece, Closer has often pulled these micro-quotes from pieces published in other outlets. The effect on the reader can be jarring since the quotes in the headlines often read like polite lies or veiled jabs. To be told that Candace Cameron Bure Is ‘Happy’ raises some questions, but to see Judi Dench’s 45-year-old daughter described as her ‘Mini-Me,’ begs belief. The overall vibe the headlines give off is of a judgmental aunt calling your dress “interesting.”
But to read this as mean-girl clickbait is to misunderstand what Closer says it’s trying to do. The magazine’s roots are in England, where it was founded in 2005, still publishes, and, if the headlines to be read online are any indication, leans heavily on the British tabloid formula of body-shaming new celebrity moms. In contrast, the American edition strikes a much friendlier tone. It’s now owned by an outlet called A360Media, whose website features both a “market position statement” that assures us we’re in for “100% positive editorial” and a mission statement that promises to merge “the feel-good nature of celebrity with the practicality of service.” For the sake of argument, let’s assume that we know what any of that means. Does Closer deliver? Yes and no.
A large part of Closer’s appeal is dependent on who, in your mind, constitutes a celebrity. In the age of the content creator, Closer seems to heat-check celebrity using a kind of tangible Trumpian metric: Did this person matter when I was 22? It’s an upside-down world where clout is ephemeral but ratings are forever. It is the number-one and possibly only news source for updates on Kim Fields.
Counterintuitive as its niche might seem, Closer might be onto something. According to A360Media, the magazine has an audience of 1,000,000. Granted, that’s self-reported, and just as with the equivalency math on packs of toilet paper, it’s nearly impossible to answer the basic question is that a lot. Compared to, say, People’s 3.5 million, it’s actually pretty respectable. But that doesn’t mean only a million people read it. Closer’s genius may lay in a different metric. Its readers per copy — 10 — is even better (a typical magazine average is between 1-20 so Closer sits comfortably in the middle).
By publishing inoffensive content that can’t go out of date (Frank Sinatra’s ‘Greatest Accomplishment’ Was ‘Helping as Many People as He Could,’ Friend Says) because it was never current, to begin with, Closer is an ideal choice for the doctor’s waiting room, the oil change place, and, yep, the nursing home.
To serve that audience, its coverage focuses almost exclusively on the palatable and the recognizable, or as its corporate website puts it “the stars our readers loved in their youth.” Every once in a while, a current star threads that needle by proxy of syndication or CBS adjacency but they are the exceptions. People want to hear the old stuff.
I saw a copy for the first time in years a few weeks ago and I wanted to see what it was up to now, how badly it had aged — basic ex stuff. Turns out not much had changed. James Coburn and Patty Duke were still there; Donny Osmond was releasing a 65th (!) album, and Brooke Shields was practicing self-care on her Instagram. I didn’t hate it anymore. I didn’t feel much of anything toward it.
My parents have been gone a few years and time has sped up so much it feels dangerous to even acknowledge it, much less pause to think about it. Better to keep moving. Like plenty of other people over quarantine, I gave in to curiosity and the reluctance-inertia of new-app adaptation and downloaded TikTok. It does not make me feel good. Still, I can scroll for minutes at a time without having a single conscious thought, which is its particular value proposition, its own practicality of service.
My internet history from that time in quarantine reflects a new interest in dermal fillers, as well as a query I probably typed while on an edible: “what is there a word for nostalgia but for the future?” Not only did Google manage to make sense of that enough to give me pages of results, but it also auto-populated, meaning I’m not alone in wondering. There was my query, right below “is there a word for nostalgia for something that never happened?” There weren’t any satisfying answers.
Once, after my mom had died but before my dad got too far gone to pay attention to TV, we were in his room at the long-term care facility. A commercial came on for something pretty benign — maybe a special cell phone for seniors or a multivitamin, I can’t remember — but the throughline was a bunch of active seniors living life to the fullest. As a silver-haired couple walked hand in hand on the beach, my dad said “Look at these people. Must be fucking nice.”
Samantha J. Sanders is a freelance writer.