When Jamie Hovey got a text message about the death of actor Heath Ledger, he quickly went to the Internet. Moments later, the 29-year-old Columbia resident was distraught.
It wasn't because the entertainment world had suffered the loss of a rising star. Hovey was dismayed because he discovered someone else had claimed Ledger in his celebrity fantasy league.
Hovey is part of the growing number of entertainment world fans who take part in the leagues, which operate like the more established fantasy sports leagues. Players pick up points each time a celebrity on their roster is mentioned or photographed in entertainment magazines and blogs.
Depending on who's in their lineup, fantasy league players accrue points each time Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie or Britney Spears has another drunken mishap. Or when Angelina and Brad add another child to their family. Or when a sex videotape starring socialite Kim Kardashian is leaked.
The growth of the leagues comes as the demand for celebrity news is surging. Magazines such as OK!, US Weekly, and People have reported circulation jumps in the past couple of years while most print media products have suffered through steep readership declines.
Celebrity blogger Perez Hilton has become well known for his scoops and snippy commentary. TMZ.com has branched out into a syndicated TV show. Even the venerable Associated Press has responded to the hunger for celebrity news, announcing plans to hire 21 employees to bolster celebrity and entertainment coverage in New York, Los Angeles and London.
"There is this fascination with celebrities that is at an all-time high," said Marc Mitchell, a 31-year-old New Yorker who operates Celebrifantasy.com. "That's really why we are doing well."
Mitchell and two partners launched the site in April. In the first six weeks, more than 50,000 visitors checked it out.
"Our timing is really great," Mitchell said. "There is an appetite."
Celebrity fantasy leagues mirror fantasy sports in that participants build their roster by drafting famous personalities. Drafts can be conducted electronically of through a "commissioner." Players also have the option to add, dump or trade roster celebrities as the league progresses.
In the relatively short time that celebrity leagues have been in existence, advertisers have flocked to the sites in hopes of snagging the thousands of players maintaining their rosters on a regular basis.
Lisa Conmy, CEO and co-creator of Girls in the Know Inc., launched her celebrity league Web site in September 2006, after watching her husband participate in fantasy sports leagues.
"A light bulb went off in my head," said Conmy, a Chicago-based attorney who is an avid reader of US Weekly and People. "I went to work that day and registered the Web site."
Since then, more than 10,000 people have joined various leagues through Girls in the Know.
Girls in the Know features a few twists. There is a $10 fee to play for 10 weeks and rules include penalties for negative events. For example, players lose points if one of their actors is arrested or appears in a movie that is panned by critics.
"We don't have them rooting for negative points," Conmy said. "It provides a nice spin on it."
Celebrity fantasy leagues are a natural extension of age-old interest in the lives of the rich and famous, said Robert J. Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University.
"It institutionalizes following celebrities," he said. "The idea of weekly betting on celebrity's future could be a fascinating game. It's an opportunity to use a credible body of information."
Thompson asserts that celebrity leagues require more skill than fantasy sports leagues.
"This is more sophisticated than fantasy sports leagues, because there are so many more variables," Thompson said. "There are so many more links to others. Anyone who is connected to them with less than two degrees of separation, their stock goes up, too."
Hovey has participated in about 50 different leagues since being introduced by a friend last fall.
"It's a good release," said Hovey, a sales associate for a technology company in Beltsville. "The popularity of celebrities appeals to everybody."
A celebrity gossip aficionado, he has polished his skill at predicting top point earners by playing in a league at Fafarazzi.com.
For example, Hovey said he would likely choose Jennifer Aniston and John Mayer to be on his roster because of their suspected budding romance. Mariah Carey's recent marriage also would get her consideration. (Hovey predicts that a divorce is not far away.) And Ledger also would be a strong contender with the looming release of the highly anticipated film The Dark Knight. (Yes, dead celebrities can earn points, too.)
"You can kind of live vicariously through them," he said. "They don't have jobs, they're always at clubs and parties, they are always with beautiful women."
Kelly Collinson, 43, participated in her first celebrity league a year ago when a co-worker cajoled her into joining. Since then she's competed in 10 leagues. She is now playing in three.
"It's getting worse," she said with a laugh.
Never a huge fan of celebrity gossip, Collinson became hooked when she joined Fafarazzi.com.
"It's the glitz and glamour," she said. "People are voyeurs. They like the drama."
Collinson, a meeting planner from Lothian, scours gossip blogs to "see who is doing what," or whether celebrities have had brushes with the law, checked into rehab, or engaged in any behavior that is "not so good."
She admits to occasional pangs of guilt from benefiting from a celebrity's hardships. But the feeling passes quickly.
"It's not heavy guilt, but I think about it," she said. "I don't dwell on it."
Some players said they felt conflicted over adding Ledger to their roster after his death, said Chris Keller, president of Fafarazzi.com.
"There were definitely people who felt it was morbid," said Keller, a Fairfax, Va., native who now lives in Boston. "A couple of people said they felt bad, but they still added him to their roster anyway."
But many Fafarazzi users didn't think twice about adding Ledger, who was acclaimed for his roles in the films Brokeback Mountain and 10 Things I Hate About You. The site was overwhelmed the day Ledger died because of the number of users attempting to add the actor to their roster. Some couldn't access the site.
"That was an eye-opener to how many people played the game and to what manner," Keller said. After that malfunction, the infrastructure at Fafarazzi.com was upgraded.
"That won't happen again," Keller promised.
Already the leagues have evolved to include separate versions for reality TV shows that track the happenings of contestants on programs such as Big Brother, America's Next Top Model and Top Chef.
Each week players typically pick three contestants on the shows, who get points for how they fare, but also for crying, brawling with other contestants and getting drunk.
"I never imagined this would happen," Keller said of the advent of reality TV leagues.
Constellations of stars
The lowdown on celebrity fantasy league Web sites:
Basics: This 10-week league is free.
Sources monitored: US Weekly, People, Star and InTouch magazines.
Features: Uses a weighted point system to award points to celebrities. A celebrity gets 10 points for appearing on the cover of a magazine, one point for a small photograph inside, and negative-three points for being mentioned for wearing a bad outfit.
Launched: April 2008.
Traffic: More than 50,000 visitors visited the site in the six weeks following the launch.
Girls In The Know Inc.
Basics: This girl-centric, 10-week league costs $10.
Features: Players act as a talent agent. Each celebrity is placed in a talent portfolio broken down by movies, TV and music. Players have the option to compete against random people in public leagues or with friends in private leagues. Negative events that befall a celebrity can result in a players losing points.
Launched: September 2006
Traffic: More than 10,000 have played in the site's various leagues
Basics: The monthlong league is free.
Features: Users craft the parameters for their league. Some celebrities can be blocked to even the playing field. Participants also chose from 50 celebrity blogs and sites that aggregate the scores used for the game. Points are awarded for good and bad occurrences. There is a limit on points a celebrity can earn each day.
Launched: August 2006.
Traffic: 500,000 visitors.