Is David Beckham "the most famous person in the world"? Perhaps the most ubiquitous, with his affairs in the papers, his official lookalike aiming for the charts and his sleeping body in an art installation. Barney Ronay tries to work out what it all means
A spell abroad at a glamorous foreign club, a Gucci-clad celebrity wife, Eastern-themed parties at their palatial home, a bogus kidnap scare, a series of hushed-up extra-marital dalliances – and finally a homosexual affair with Paul Scholes. Actually, this last detail appears to be the only major distinction between the lifestyles of Conrad Gates, blond-highlighted England skipper in the television series Footballer’s Wives, and our own David Beckham. While Conrad happily puts it about in the showers, Becks, we assume, has yet to swing that way. Although nothing, it seems, is to be taken for granted. Over the last month we have been confronted with a new version of David Beckham. Gone is the uxorious cultural icon who once inspired Julie Burchill to exclaim that in the face of his “breathtaking boldness and beauty... the clamour and loutishness of modern celebrity recede”. In his place we have a leering philanderer, a preening fraud and the possessor of a secret “mistress phone” on which he “lays bare his deepest cravings”.
Is this important? The newspapers certainly think so. Beckham’s Secret Affair screamed the News of the World on April 4, breaking the story of “wild romps and txt sex behind Posh’s back” and cutting the ribbon on a festival of gawping inanity that would climax with Beckham “confessing” two weeks later to an affair with his former personal assistant Rebecca Loos.
From the start the saga has been told in a daily dialogue, with Beckham’s girl and Beckham’s handlers putting their story to the press in turn. In its pre-emptive strike the NOTW presented us with Loos the lady with the “cut-glass accent”, an innocent victim of Beckham’s sinister pawing. “Rebecca is a very well bred young woman,” a friend revealed. The initial tone was of a breathy Mills and Boon seduction, Miss Loos in the arms of the evil count Beckula. “He could wait no longer. He turned to Rebecca and kissed her long and gently. Her heart was racing. He was kissing her hair and neck.” He became a txt maniac the paper trumpeted elsewhere, above a heavily censored transcript of intimate dialogue, containing highlights such as “R U coming to the hotel?” and “... your tongue **** *** then softly on my ****”.
Within days the empire had struck back. Becks girl is bisexual, revealed the Sun, complete with a photo of Loos in a butch beach pose. Posh Off, “Victoria slams ‘lying cow’” chortled the front page of the Mirror. By now the tabloids were in full-blown sexual Tourette’s mode. My kinky sex and cocaine with Becks lover blurted out somebody else on page five. “I want to hear U moan and groan,” Loos is reported to have told Beckham. In which case her wish will have come true. By this point he probably was moaning and groaning. In the Daily Express, for example: Utterly ludicrous, the paper shouted, David hits out at affairs claims.
By the end of the week the Beckham offensive was taking root and – more importantly, you sense – filling a lot of empty pages. The Sun had changed its mind about the lady who was once “posher than Posh”. Loos had become the Sleazy Senorita, “the Madrid Temptress”. Stunner’s got a tattoo it sneered, while on the inside pages tennis player Pat Cash “can’t remember” whether he had sex with her. Meanwhile over at the Daily Mail they were taking a stand on that most dangerous of specimens, women who have sex with men. During the 1990s “Miss Loos embarked on a promiscuous party life,” the paper revealed, one which involved “a string of sexual partners”. Yes indeed, a whole string – and we all know how long one of those is. By April 7, while Real Madrid were being eliminated from the Champions League at Monaco, the suspended Beckham was horsing around in the snow with Victoria for the benefit of photographers at a ski resort. The line taken by the Beckham camp was now clear. Avarice and pure fantasy parroted the Daily Express, intoning suspiciously that “someone’s making a lot of cash from David”.
And this, surely, is the whole point. Among those making money from this unremarkable story of infidelity are: the Daily Express and its competitors; a cohort of “advisers” on all sides; and, apparently, Rebecca Loos. Loos’s interview with Sky earned her £125,000, topping up her total income from the affair to around £300,000. No wonder she always looks so pleased with herself. Subsequently, the well bred Loos would tell the Sunday Mirror that “I was his lover, his pimp and his wife”. Wearily you adjust to the idea that the England captain now has a pimp on his payroll. Meanwhile the Beckhams could be found driving quad bikes around their estate on the front page of the Mirror and describing the “allegations” as “absurd”.
By this stage a whole new cast of characters had emerged. Just for the record, the women currently claiming to have had extra-marital affairs with Beckham are: Spanish supermodel Esther Canadas, model Sarah Marbeck, “football groupie” Nuria Bermudez, page three girl Emma Ryan and Swedish models Frida Karlsson and Lenha Stenberg.
This, of course, has nothing to do with football. In one form or another, whether through crowd violence or the behaviour of its players, the game has long provided a canvas for the popular press to parade its anxieties. But somehow at the end of a year where the reported activities of Premiership players have explored new and dismal depths, it is hard to avoid a feeling of tabloid fatigue. Beckham was seen as an example of something positive; the most famous of English footballers, but also one of the least sleazy. Like Posh, like Julie Burchill and like Rebecca Loos’s “broken hearted” (the Daily Mail) mother, we all emerge from this feeling slightly disappointed, whether by Beckham’s private antics or by the sheer flapping inanity of it all.
During the televised interview Sky News anchor Kay Burley asked Loos, in all seriousness, whether the England captain is circumcised. This kind of thing never happened to Emlyn Hughes or Terry Butcher. But then, the Beckham affair has shown us celebrity football beginning to eat itself, the popular circus around the game entering a new stage of cretinisation. During Beckham’s medical before signing for Real Madrid the media was awash with discussion of his toenails, which were reported to be “strong, healthy... and very thick”. Now we’ve gone even further; we’ve looked at the dirt underneath them. Unsurprisingly, it’s not very nice.
From WSC 208 June 2004. What was happening this month