Todd Galloway, an IT manager from Berea, clicked on his e-mail with an audible groan. Awaiting him was yet another mass e-mail from a friend, bemoaning the cruel fate befallen his fantasy-football team. To the 26-year-old computer geek, who secretly preferred soccer to football, it often seemed as if that "was the only things [my friends] wanted to talk about."
But the women in his life weren't much better. If his male friends were obsessed with playing pretend owners of fictitious teams, his female friends were equally devoted to following the lives — real or imagined — of name-brand Hollywood. On that day last year, Galloway's 23-year-old sister was busy searching gossip sites for the juicy story behind Lindsay Lohan's secret morning rendezvous with rock star Bryan Adams. Wasn't the guy, like, 50? And was it really a "broken teacup" that caused the gash in her leg, as publicists dubiously claimed?
And that's when the epiphany arrived. What if Galloway melded both obsessions into one über-compulsion? The celebrity fantasy league was born.
At first, Galloway envisioned a weighted scale: Players would get big points for big embarrassments, like arrests or catfights. Smaller points would be awarded for the less licentious events, like making a worst-dressed list.
Yet there was a small problem with his scoring system. In Hollywood, where information is an exotic blend of gossip, calculated PR, and rank speculation, "It was so hard to tell whether the news was true or not," Galloway says. "One site would say that someone was engaged, and then three days later they'd come back and say they weren't."
So he simplified the scoring to reflect the true meaning of celebrity: One point for every mention, regardless of whether it was true or not.
He launched a free site called Fafarazzi.com. Players could either start their own leagues or go head-to-head with strangers. They would choose teams of 10 in a draft, and underperformers could be jettisoned during the season in favor of more promising free agents.
The leagues began in the fall of 2006. Suddenly, thousands of girls who never understood their boyfriends' obsessions with Randy Moss were spending hours bemoaning the fact that Tom Cruise hadn't gone weird on any talk shows lately.
But if fantasy football rewards the triumphs of sport, celebrity leagues were a bit more perverse. In the upside-down world of stardom, you don't get a lot of press for respectably playing the T&A love interest in the latest Bruce Willis movie. But you can light up the scoreboard if you use your drunk-driving arrest as an opportunity to rant about the evil of Jews.
The scoring, in a sense, was a misery index. The more the rich and beautiful suffered, the better for you.
That's how Bethany Billi sees it. The HR executive from West Park enjoys celebrity downfalls more than ice cream sundaes. "During Britney's [Video Music Awards] performance, I was like, 'Please bomb, please bomb,'" Billi says, smiling wickedly. "She totally exceeded my expectations."
Like fantasy football, this is a game of both skill and luck. There are the dominant players who can only be secured through the good fortune of a high draft pick. "If you don't get Brit, Lindsay, or Paris, you have no hope," Billi laments.
So she sought to hedge her bets with superior scouting, scouring the web for stars who'd recently been engaged or expecting children, incidents that tend to produce geysers of news in the starosphere.
But there are also surprises, like the role player who suddenly blows up with an all-pro season. That would be Ellen DeGeneres, who last month spent 20 minutes crying on-air over the fate of an adopted dog she'd given away. Then she crossed the Writers Guild picket line to tape her show.
"That whole dog scandal was just great," Billi says gleefully. "And when she crossed the picket line, I was so excited. It got me so many points."
Then there are the seemingly normal stars, like Jake Gyllenhaal, who suddenly find themselves on the cover of People out of no weirdness of their own. "Before [he started dating] Reese [Witherspoon], he wasn't doing anything," says Billi, sounding like a SportsCenter analyst.
She now owns teams in six different leagues and each week spends the equivalent of a workday updating and strategizing. But in Fafarazzi, as in life, there's no accounting for the unexpected, no matter how much you plan.
That's something Westlake native Amanda McGuire Rzicznek learned all too well. The 30-year-old gossip addict was making a run in her league when Anna Nicole Smith died, bringing her title hopes to an end.
"I remember being angry and all jealous of the person who had her," the English-comp instructor says. "My husband was like, 'That's sick.' But I think the girl ended up scoring like 1,100 points. There was no touching her."
Members often find themselves on discussion boards, offering up not-so-godly prayers for their celebrities to implode. "I root for my players to do embarrassing and stupid things," admits Crystal Beck, a sales rep from Parma. But her wishes are tepid compared to players who "really wish Britney would just go ahead and kill herself." On some bulletin boards, there's even pools on when the suicide will take place.
Beck, who spends four hours a week on Fafarazzi, has a daily routine that she follows studiously. In the morning, she swaps out her weakest players from the night before. They can bring your whole team down, she explains. Then she scans headlines and movie openings to see who might make a good sub. She was super-excited when her latest free agent, Matt Damon, was unexpectedly named People's Sexiest Man Alive. "I got a ton of points for that."
But the competition isn't always friendly. "There are some downright nasty, vicious players," Rzicznek says. "Someone on the site called another girl a cunt . . . Then I found out later that the girls actually knew each other in person. It gets insane."
The problem with Fafarazzi is that it often bleeds into real life. Members, who now number more than 10,000, often find discussions about friends' weddings segueing into dissections of Eva Longoria's nuptials. "It's hard to turn it off," Billi admits.
But Galloway, who quit his job last summer to run the site full-time, found an unexpected plus to this blending of worlds: It's easier to talk to girls. "I find I'm able to chime in a lot more in these conversations," he admits. And to his surprise, he's found he's "really kind of into" the celebrity world now. "I totally know the top five stories every week."
He's tried to get his football friends addicted too, but that hasn't worked out. They weren't so interested in the celebrity storylines, he laughs. And besides, "I'm not really sure when they'd have time to do actual work."