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If you believe what you read at the supermarket checkout aisle, Doris Day’s life is a living hell. “Doris Day Going Broke,” the Globe recently reported, following up headlines like “Doris Day’s Sad Last Days,” “Oscar Bosses Snub Doris Day” and “My Wild Forbidden Affair with Doris Day.” So far this year, the National Examiner has devoted two covers to the famously reclusive 1950s crooner (they did three in 2016). Closer Weekly ran three covers in 2016, although that magazine’s coverage has always been considerably more friendly (“She is beloved by our readers,” notes Closer editorial director David Perel).
Today, April 3, is Day’s 95th birthday. She retired decades ago and has remained mostly secluded in her home in Carmel, California, where she’s focused much of her attention on animal activism. According to those who know her — like author Tom Santopietro, who wrote her 2007 biography, Considering Doris Day — she is not near death, has plenty of money and doesn’t feel like she was snubbed for an Oscar (in fact, she turned down offers for an honorary award on multiple occasions). “I think Doris Day has been happier in retirement than at any other point of her life,” he insists.
And yet, for some reason, Day is still getting as much play in the tabloids as Angelina Jolie, Charlie Sheen and the Kardashians. How come? What is it about this once-famously perky nonagenarian that so fascinates a certain segment of the print media?
Maybe it’s because she’s the star who got away. At the height of her fame in the 1950s and ‘60s her career as a movie actress and recording artist was rivaled only by Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Judy Garland. But in the late 1980s, Day abruptly retired. More than retired, she all but disappeared into her Carmel home with her animals, rarely granting interviews, making the actress all the more tantalizing to the tabloid press. “We’re such a celebrity-focused culture today and it’s hard for people to imagine just walking away from Hollywood the way she did,” says Santopietro. “She knew when she’d had enough. But the more reclusive you are, the greater the fascination. The tabloids tap into genuine public interest about her.”
That interest really ramped up in 1991, when the Globe ran a story suggesting that Day’s animal activism was a sign she’d become a “bag lady.” She sued for $25 million, withdrawing the suit after the paper issued a retraction. It was a rare outbreak of litigiousness for Day; her stance towards the tabloids has been to pretty consistently ignore them. But the lawsuit seemed to stoke tabloid interest more than dampen it, and coverage of Day has only continued to grow over the decades, particularly as her original fan base has grown older.
And that’s another possible reason why Day remains in the headlines: tabloids tend to be read by older people. “Baby boomers are an underserved demographic in publishing,” explains Dylan Howard, chief content officer of American Media Inc, which publishes the Globe and the National Examiner. “These magazines often outperform competitors covering celebrities aimed at a millennial audience. And [tabloid readers] have a great fondness for Doris Day — perhaps more so than any other celebrity of her generation.”
Drew Casper, a film professor at USC and an acquaintance of Day’s, has a very similar take. “People who read tabloids are older,” he notes. “If not elderly then at least middle aged — people who grew up with Doris Day. And those tabloid stories are there to titillate them.” Those aging fans, he says, can’t get enough of the racy headlines because they puncture the squeaky-clean image Day had in her heyday (as Oscar Levant once famously quipped, “I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin.”)
But Day has some younger fans, as well, particularly in the gay community, which may also explain why she’s still a popular tabloid subject. The moment in 1985 that Day invited Rock Hudson, then dying of AIDS, onto her talk show is considered a milestone in humanizing the HIV epidemic. (Tabloid headlines frequently return to her friendship with her old Pillow Talk costar.) Day gave a rare interview to The Advocate in 2011. When the reporter asked her if she knew her song “Secret Love” had become a gay anthem, she replied, “I was not aware of that, but that’s wonderful.”
One last possible explanation: Day is a vanishing breed, one of the few old-style movie stars still alive. “She’s one of our last links to that era of glamour,” says Santopietro. “And that inspires interest even from people who may not know much about her career.” If that interest ends up taking the form of tabloid headlines, what’s a Hollywood icon to do? As Day herself once put it, “Que Sera Sera.”
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