WAGs (wives and girlfriends) crept out of the intersection between sports and celebrity about a decade ago.Spurred by the English fixation with Victoria Beckham following her purple-themed wedding to husband David, and fuelled by the cashing pouring out of the English Premier League, the lives of English footballers’ better halves became a huge industry in the U.K.
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But why did this specific type of celebrity emerge out of the cultural landscape of mid-00s England?
Soccer players have always had wives and girlfriends. But it wasn’t until the fundamentals of fame and celebrity began to change that the WAGs came to prominence.
The Extent of WAG-dom
Since the concept of the WAG doesn’t exactly have an America equivalent, it’s helpful to take a brief look at the scope and nature of English WAG-dom.
WAG culture entered the mainstream during the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
Vanessa Craft and Kelly Davitt, the editors of the personality-driven soccer blog Kickette, say the exploits of English wives and girlfriends in the German town of Baden Baden catalyzed the country’s fixation.
“Those wives and girlfriends were seen partying, shopping and generally just having a good time, something that was eventually believed to be an aspirational lifestyle,” they said. “Knowing the British tabloid’s fascination with exploitation, they latched on to the English WAGs’ antics and inadvertently turned them into household names.”
During the 2006 World Cup, the international media analytics group Carma found that the wives and girlfriends of England players got more media attention than those any other country.
The women themselves, by many accounts, were complicit in this overexposure.
When hotel staff put up a screen to block paparazzi from snapping photos of the women poolside at their hotel in Germany, the WAGs asked that it be taken down.
They essentially invaded the Baden Baden that year, dancing on tables, going on $60,000 shopping sprees, and prompting the Spanish press to call them “hooligans with Visa cards.”
But the Baden Baden spectacle was just part of the larger cultural trend.
Two popular WAG-centric television shows were produced between 2002 and 2007. One, WAGs Boutique, was a reality show about teams of rival WAGs running fashion shops. While the other, Footballers’ Wives, was a soapy, WAG-y drama centered around the fictional team Earl’s Park F.C.
Some women even saw the WAG lifestyle — the fame, the clothes, etc. — as a desirable career path.
Abigail Clancy, girlfriend of Peter Crouch, infamously embodied this image of the career WAG when she said in 2006 that her dream was to “to marry a footballer, get pregnant and then shop and have fun” for the rest of her life.
In a 2007 Globe and Mail column, London-based writer Elizabeth Renzetti argued that this trend had trickled down to the younger factions of English society:
“And yet, all over England, the streets are filled with little WAG clones: girls with orange skin, hair extensions and purses they can’t afford. Young women go on game shows and blithely admit that their goal in life is to ‘bag a footballer.'”
The image of the mindless, self-disrespecting WAG has been vigorously criticised by English commentators and WAGs alike.
These “twin high beams of envy and loathing” (as Renzetti put it) have resulted in a level of popularity so high that even Sky Sports has a “WAGs and Stags” page on its website.
Explaining the fixation
The relatively recent rise of soccer WAGs cannot be attributed to a single factor. Instead, it’s better to think the WAG phenomenon insomuch as it relates to other trends in sports and entertainment.
Two major trends helped lay the foundation for WAG culture to develop: soccer players began making a lot more money, and more importantly celebrity culture fundamentally changed.
Somewhere in the last decade, celebrities no longer needed to have a notable talent or claim to fame to become a celebrity.
As we’ve seen with the likes of Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian, a figure’s celebrity can be perpetuated by its own momentum. There’s a missing link in how these figures get into the public spotlight in the first place. But once they’re there, the evolution of their celebrity is self-sustaining.
“If you ask young girls here what they want, it’s to be famous — and anyone can be famous if you happen to be with the right footballer,” PR agent Max Clifford told the Washington Post in 2007.
Just as reality TV promises instant fame to ordinary people with no talent, being a WAG is an easy path to fame that requires little effort.
In many ways, contemporary WAGs are comparable to reality TV characters. They are largely fame-seeking Brits, and the WAG media machine is the hit show on which they star.
Of course this is not true of all wives and girlfriends. Many are the high-school sweethearts of their soccer-playing husbands, and others are legitimate entertainers.
North American WAG?
The WAG phenomenon has yet to hit American shores.
Yes, Minka Kelly, Kim Kardashian, and Co. are famous. But the phenomenon of nobodies becoming famous by merely dating an American athlete is a foreign (English, to be exact) concept.
You can point to the prominence of tabloid culture in the U.K, or the sports hegemony that soccer exercises in Europe as the reasons for this cultural difference.
But America has a documented ability to become fixated on celebrities that have no business being famous. In addition, we’ve dipped our toe in WAG-dom with VH1’s Basketball Wives and NBC’s ultimately failed attempt to adapt Footballers’ Wives for American TV.
So there isn’t some elemental American value that makes it impervious to a WAG invasion.
What we’re lacking is that mystical element that catapults an ordinary person into a household name for no discernible reason: the same missing link that inexplicibly made Paris Hilton or the Teen mum mums famous in the first place.
We need a transcendent figure (Victoria Beckham), or a transcendent spectacle (Baden Baden) to turn the gaze of American celebri-philes toward our athlete’s WAGs.
It’s an absurd concept, but it may be the only thing standing between us and WAGs Boutique USA.
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