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The golden age of Wags

The Coleen Rooney and Rebekah Vardy spat saw the social media age collide with a bygone era of tabloid celebrity.

In a shock similar in size and scale to the one experienced by the stock market in 2008, two eras collided on 9 October. Coleen Rooney, wife of former Manchester United and England striker Wayne, accused Rebekah Vardy, the wife of another Premier League and ex-England footballer, Jamie, of selling stories about her to the Sun. In a statement posted to social media, Rooney explained that over the course of several months this year, she had conducted a complex sting operation via her supposedly private, friends-only Instagram account – posting fake stories about her personal life to find out which member of her inner circle had been disclosing information about her to the tabloids. “For various reasons, I had a suspicion,” Rooney explained. “To try and prove this, I came up with an idea. I blocked everyone from viewing my stories except ONE account.”

The fabricated stories continued to appear in the Sun. Rooney’s final sentence, which has already been printed on T-shirts (RRP: £17.99; commemorative value: priceless), unveiled the culprit, complete with a playful drum-roll of ellipses. It was a climactic flourish that had all the triumph of Bronte’s “Reader, I married him”, stating simply: “It’s……… Rebekah Vardy’s account.”

The combination of an instantly memorable turn of phrase and sheer spectacle meant that the story set the internet aflame. Memes darted around Twitter (if forced to pick a favourite I’d go for the Godfather spoof: “I knew it was you, Vardy”) and Rooney was renamed “Wagatha Christie”. Inevitably, Vardy responded to the allegations – via an iPhone Notes app screenshot, the medium of choice for many a controversy-embroiled celeb – denying any knowledge or involvement. “Over the years various people have had access to my insta…” she wrote. “… I liked you a lot Coleen & I’m so upset that you’ve chosen to do this, especially when I’m heavily pregnant.”

With the crucial details involving social media announcements, privacy settings, and PAs with access to celebrity Instagram accounts, this scandal is undoubtedly, innately contemporary. But the sheer, giddy popularity with which it has been consumed is also marked by nostalgia for a bygone age of tabloid celebrity. Indeed, as someone who grew up clamouring for glimpses of my mum’s copies of Closer and Heat, I can personally attest to the heady novelty of seeing Coleen Rooney back at the top of the day’s news agenda. (Regarding reports that I “shrieked aloud at work” upon reading her statement: no comment.)

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In the early-to-mid 2000s, the wives and girlfriends – or “Wags”, as they’re best and most notoriously known – of England’s football luminaries ruled the celebrity gossip headlines with handbags of iron. The every move of women such as Rooney, Victoria Beckham, Abbey Clancy, and Girls Aloud singer Cheryl Cole, then the wife of England fullback Ashley Cole, was pain-stakingly documented by newspapers and glossy magazines. Wags were even parodied in the cult ITV drama Footballers’ Wives, which aired at the height of their powers, between 2002 and 2006. (Storylines included TV Hall of Fame gold-digger Tanya Turner, played by Zöe Lucker, attempting to give her older, rich husband Frank a heart attack during sex.)

The Wags showcased their style – long hair extensions, baker boy hats, tiny miniskirts, Ugg boots, face-swamping sunglasses – in the stadiums, and it was beloved, completely unironically, across the country by those who replicated it in their thousands. For many, particularly working-class English girls and women who hailed from similar backgrounds to most of the Wags (myself included), there was no sight more glamorous than a magazine splash featuring former nail technician Alex Gerrard (the wife of Liverpool and England star Steven; her perfume “Alex” was a 2007 bestseller). When being “papped” while stomping around Liverpool in full velour regalia, she looked like a competitor in World’s Strongest Woman, if the contestants had to lift shopping bags from the designer boutique Cricket instead of weights.

And when four high-profile footballing couples – the Gerrards, John Terry and Toni Poole, Michael Carrick and Lisa Roughead, and Gary Neville and Emma Hadfield – got married over one weekend in June 2007, the Rooneys’ decision to fly between some of the ceremonies by helicopter confirmed the then 21-year-old Coleen as celebrity royalty. (The battle over wedding guests was dubbed, in a headline that has experienced a sudden resurgence in popularity in recent days, the “War of the Wags”.)

The Wags’ cultural dominance reached its zenith at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. England’s players, who lost out to Portugal in the quarter-finals, were far from the main attraction. The Wags’ antics in the spa resort of Baden-Baden, where the team and their guests stayed (so good they named it was twice!), remain the stuff of modern legend. There were rumours of entire bottles of Champagne being drunk via straws at local nightclub Garibaldi’s; an hour-long Wags shopping trip where the girls ran up purchases worth £57,000 (Rooney, who has always had a way with words, said at the time: “I’ve come back with a few bits and pieces”); and, of course, the invasion of the town by British journalists and photographers.

As both they and the accompanying press circus – which was by turns celebratory and judgemental – proved too distracting for the Brave England Boys, Wags were effectively banned from the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. The England manager for that tournament, Fabio Capello, dismayed by events in Baden-Baden allowed by his predecessor Sven-Göran Eriksson (who had his own celebrity girlfriends), permitted wives and girlfriends to visit the team’s camp only once a week. In doing so, he unwittingly signalled the end of a celebrity era. Though the wives and girlfriends of footballers still exist, of course, there’s a reason why when someone uses the term “Wag” your mind’s eye goes straight to Victoria Beckham in a red vest top with “ENGLAND ROCKS” foiled on to it. The veto on the Wags for the 2010 tournament meant that in some ways, 2006 represented a sort of Golden Age of the Wags, crystallising them there in the British popular cultural memory.

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These days, it is no longer enough for a self-respecting female celebrity to be a wife and/or girlfriend of a top player. Perhaps we hear less of the Wags for this reason, the Wag label itself – which designates a woman by her relationship to a man – is deemed outdated in an era influenced by feminism’s collision with capitalism. Now, every woman must be her own multi-hyphenate businesswoman, empowering as well as empowered (this is a positive development, certainly, if exhausting sometimes).

But the Wags have not vanished entirely. The UK still has a thriving celebrity landscape, which has changed to accommodate the internet. Wags sit alongside high-profile social media influencers and reality TV stars, and their stories feature as clickable web-page links rather than printed headlines. (Though it should be noted that “Vardygate” graced the front pages of all the red-tops: this was a story both created and covered by the tabloids, in a reminder of the hold they continue to have on celebrities, especially women.)

Perhaps Rooney and Vardy’s story is the first line in a new chapter of Wag supremacy. If so, it will have a long way to go to match the Golden Age. It was a simpler, more innocent-seeming time, when, adored by their public if not always by the press, a group of mostly working-class women became the most aspirational people in the country, and when the most sought-after accessories were half a head of highlights, a spray tan, and a pair of tracksuit bottoms with “JUICY” printed across the backside. 

This article appears in the 16 October 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s forever war