Is the Twitter flirtation of Liz Hurley and Shane Warne just a social buzz? Or are we witnessing an age of celebrities writing their own PR?
It all seemed so innocent: just two friends united by a mutual love of theme parks, and a total disdain for standard punctuation. “About to go on worlds fastest roller coaster,” tweeted cricketer Shane Warne back in December. “Oooooh,” replied Liz Hurley, “I love scary rides-remember to scream if u want to go faster!” And scream he did: “I screamed so loud,” Warne later reported, “I’m surprised you din not hear me back in the uk !!!” Back in the UK, as Warne correctly deduced, we did not hear him -- and neither did many suspect anything more untoward was up. And why should we have? After all, Warney -- cricketer; commentator; poker player par excellence -- was on holiday in Abu Dhabi. For her part, Hurley -- actress; model; purveyor of fine beachwear -- was snuggling by the fire in her Gloucestershire farm. What, you might wonder, could be more wholesome? Quite a lot, as it turns out. The next day, a Sunday tabloid splashed with the revelation that Liz and Shane were having an affair. Startling news for naive Twitter followers like me. What we had thought to be no more than a mild, rollercoaster-induced flirtation was evidence of a full-blown, consummated courtship. They were at it, if you’ll excuse the pun, while they were @ it.
The shock wasn’t so much that they were having an affair, but that they were having an affair in such a public fashion. We had previously witnessed relationships unfold before our eyes on reality television; but we’d rarely seen it between celebrities in the real world, and arguably not to this degree. Intentionally or not, Warne and Hurley were using Twitter to lay bare the mechanics of their burgeoning relationship -- mechanics, which, outside of reality TV, are usually only revealed involuntarily, at a later stage, and by an invasive paparazzo. This was a public soap opera being performed to us live by the stars themselves, without the mediation of gossip magazines like Heat, or Grazia.
“That’s what was so extraordinary about it -- just how open they were in their tweeting,” says Fiona McIntosh, the founding editor of Grazia and now a columnist for the London-based Sunday Mirror.
It’s even more remarkable, she points out, when you juxtapose Warne and Hurley’s openness with the ongoing phone-tapping scandal. At a time when other celebrities are increasingly vocal about the infringement of their privacy by tabloid tactics, why were Liz and Shane apparently so nonchalant about what private information they themselves made public? “Maybe they were carried away in the first flash of love,” McIntosh suggests. “That’s what I’m not sure about -- if it was a strategy or not.” But if it wasn’t a strategy in December, it had surely turned into one by the end of January. Stung by the fallout of their mid-December tweeting, Warne and Hurley maintained silence for over a month. If they were in contact, they were sticking to old-fashioned SMS. But by 27 January, that had changed. In response to a tweet from Hurley about her new parrot, Ping Pong, Warne wrote: “I’m getting jealous of ping pong ! Think it’s time you left ping pong alone for a while & come visit me in Australia.” The pair’s tweeted displays of affection were back -- and, if anything, they were more direct and revelatory than before. We learnt -- oh so casually -- that Hurley was planning a trip to see Warne, and, once she did arrive in Australia last week, we were effectively invited to play a small role in their romance. “Where is the sexiest place to take Elizabeth for lunch?” Warne asked his 330,000 followers. “And no -- not for spaghetti on toast !!!” This time, then, their tweets clearly weren’t accidental. By now, Warne and Hurley obviously knew what attention their tweeted exchanges would attract, and so what had begun as something quite ambiguous and haphazard was now being formalised as a media strategy. The question now was: why? After all, Hurley has in the past been more protective of her privacy. In the mid-1990s, at the height of the media storm over her then boyfriend Hugh Grant’s encounter with prostitute Divine Brown, Hurley was so withdrawn that the paparazzi stood on ladders outside her garden to catch a glimpse of her. In 2008, meanwhile, she took two picture agencies to court for snapping her, Grant and new husband Arun Nayar while they were on holiday. All of which makes Hurley’s decision to go public about her current relationship with Warne surprising.
But for publicist Max Clifford, the reason is simple. “It’s a way of beating [journalists] at their own game,” he says. “By tweeting, you’re taking power from the journalist. The biggest bugbear to [celebrities] are stories which are damaging and possibly false. But this way, you eliminate that.” If a journalist writes a salacious article about a star, Clifford explains, that star can quickly refute their slurs with a combative tweet.
But Twitter acts as more than just a means for celebrities to correct claims made by, say, Heat. Taken to an extreme, could it be a way of circumventing Heat altogether: not just as a source of information, but as a form of entertainment, too.
Sam Delaney -- Heat’s editor until last year -- agrees, up to a point. When celebrities reveal intimate details on Twitter, a la Warne and Hurley, “you think: ‘This is amazing. We’re getting insights into all the dirty laundry our readers want to know about. Oh, but so are our readers.’” As a result, he says, “you’re left being an amalgam of stuff that is already out there. Rather like The Week magazine, but for celebrity news.” But, all is not lost, he argues. “People will always enjoy seeing a story printed bigger, and delivered with humour and a bit of editorial comment.” And, in general, he feels social media makes newsgathering easier. “Before Twitter,” he says, “the kind of minutiae that Heat readers are interested in -- where they are tonight, who they’re flirting with, where they’re going on holiday: the staples of the celebrity gossip magazine -- wasn’t easy information to come by. But now it’s just there.” In Delaney’s experience, Twitter has as many pitfalls for celebrities as it does for journalists. A star who uses Twitter to criticise a story in a magazine might, for instance, just draw more attention to the original piece. “If they’ve got a million followers, and they’re saying, ‘This story is actually untrue’, then in effect you think, ‘Oh that’s good, because they’re telling their million followers that there’s a big story in Heat this week.’” Clifford, meanwhile, says there are legal risks to tweeting. If a celebrity wanted to slap an injunction on a story about their private life, a judge would look less favourably on their request if they regularly revealed private information on Twitter themselves. “The problem is that once you start to go public [on Twitter],” says Clifford, “then obviously if anybody was to come up with anything really devastating about you, [a court] could say, ‘Well, hang on -- these people are laying their lives bare every day’, and so you wouldn’t get the same protection from the law.” According to Delaney, though, the people in showbiz who really get short-changed by Twitter aren’t the celebrities, but their publicists. “The publicist runs around going crazy, trying to control their clients from giving too much away online. But they can’t, because celebrities all go out and get drunk and come home and tweet something stupid. When I was at Heat, almost as a daily occurrence, the publicist would tell us one thing, and the celebrity themselves would say another.” Liz Hurley’s publicist didn’t respond to a request for comment, but Mark Thomas, who runs TM Media PR concedes Twitter is “a double-edged sword. For publicists, it’s good and bad.” On the downside, he admits, “you get celebrities who have had one too many glasses of wine at night, get angry with their partner, tweeted it -- and regretted it at dawn. Then there’s the issue of fake Twitter accounts. Some people impersonate the celebrity involved, and I find myself being called up by national newspapers saying, ‘Your client has tweeted this about this person.’” More usefully, though, a good Twitter feed can boost his clients’ coffers. “Most sponsors will ask in contracts, ‘Oh, will you tweet about us, please?’” he says. “Companies recognise that when you’ve got that many followers, it’s a powerful tool.” And perhaps it’s Twitter’s economic potential that best explains why people like Liz Hurley and Shane Warne would use it to engage in so public a conversation. It is often said that Twitter enables celebrities to get closer to their fans -- but for Hurley and Warne, Twitter’s appeal is surely more commercial than social. If you look at the artwork behind each of their accounts, you’ll quickly realise they’re both trying to sell something. Hurley’s flogging her bikinis and organic snacks, Warne’s advertising an online poker company: their Twitter presence is about appealing to consumers rather than engaging with fans -- and what better way to expand one’s consumer base than stage a public soap opera? It has certainly worked: Hurley is back in the zeitgeist, her Twitter following has almost doubled -- from 50,000 in December to over 90,000 now — while the new account she set up last week for her pet Ping Pong has already attracted over 3,500 subscribers. Sadly, her relationship with Warne hasn’t been so successful. “Happy Valentine’s Day!” Hurley tweeted at the end of what turned out to be a disastrous trip to Australia. “Remember, love is like a rollercoaster ride - sometimes it’s exhilarating but sometimes u feel sick and want to get off.”