It always starts so innocently. For me, the most recent incident involved “The Irishman.”
While half-watching the movie on Netflix, half-wondering why it had to be a million hours long, I thought,”Hmmm, I haven’t seen Joe Pesci in a while.” So I Googled him. Obviously, the first result was Wikipedia.
And like anyone who is on the internet all day every day, I knew to jump right to the good stuff. It delivered:
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Pesci has been married and divorced three times. His first marriage was in 1964. His third was from 1988 to 1992, to Claudia Haro, a model and actress. Haro was later convicted of attempted murder-for-hire against her ex-husband and Hollywood stunt-man, Garrett Warren. He has a daughter named Tiffany. In 2007, Pesci was engaged to Angie Everhart, but the couple broke up in 2008.
While filming scenes in two of Martin Scorsese’s films (Raging Bull and Casino), Pesci broke the same rib, 15 years apart.
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Excuse me? The same rib, 15 years apart? Oh also, murder-for-hire?! There I was, off and running, on a journey that distracted me from the task at hand (catching up on an Oscars front-runner) and into the murky depths of the internet where I learned much more about Pesci’s ex-wife’s legal troubles.
Welcome to the often fascinating, occasionally frustrating, sometimes cursed rabbit hole known as the Wikipedia “personal life” entry. Actually, I don’t need to welcome you, because I’m sure you’ve been here. Many times.
In an era where it seems like we can all agree on very little, eagerly reading the “personal life” of a celebrity’s Wikipedia page is a universal experience. “Early life?” I’ll read it later. “Career?” I’ll get to that. “Awards and nominations?” NO THANKS. “Controversy?” OK, that admittedly sounds promising.
But first, take me to personal life, where I can learn that Don Johnson got engaged to Melanie Griffith on her 18th birthday. (Eeek!) That Meryl Streep’s goddaughter is Billie Lourd, daughter of Carrie Fisher. That Paul Bettany’s love for Jennifer Connelly was a secret until the tragedy of Sept. 11 prompted him to share his true feelings. That Kate McKinnon dated New York Times columnist Bari Weiss and has a cat that she calls her “son.” That Michael B. Jordan loves the “Dragon Ball” franchise. That Kenny G introduced Michael Bolton and Nicollette Sheridan. That Jonathan Taylor Thomas is a vegetarian.
Social media is filled with obsessives of these entries:
“i’ve spent so much time in the ‘personal life’ section of wikipedia pages i could claim squatters’ rights.”
“I love love love weirdly specific Wikipedia personal life sections. Give me ridiculous details nobody asked for.”
“Whenever I have relationship troubles, I stare at the ‘Personal Life’ section of Newt Gingrich’s Wikipedia page.”
Even celebrities aren’t immune. “I hardly drink, don’t do drugs. My major vice is reading the ‘personal life’ section of Wikipedia entries til’ I’m doused in despair,” Lena Dunham tweeted, later adding, “My main hobby is checking out the personal life section of an old guy’s Wikipedia to see if it’s safe to admire him or not.”
“Look up warren beatty’s Wikipedia and then go to his personal life,” Chance the Rapper once advised his millions of Twitter followers. “Crazy.”
Maybe some people read “personal life” as a way to feel connected to their favorite celebrity. Maybe others just like the ease with which you can learn the most random fact about a person you just found out existed.
A good “personal life” section makes you say “huh.” Like, Snoop Dogg “is a first cousin of R&B singers Brandy and Ray J, and WWE professional wrestler Sasha Banks” – huh.
A great “personal life” makes you say “WHAT?!” As in, “(Olivia) Wilde married Prince Tao Ruspoli, an Italian filmmaker and musician, and member of the aristocratic Ruspoli family that owns a famed palazzo in Italy. They were married in Washington, Virginia on a school bus with only a pair of witnesses. She later said the marriage occurred in an abandoned school bus because it was the only place where they could be completely alone, as the marriage was a secret at the time.”
All together now – WHAT?!
Author Hannah Moskowitz was browsing Wikipedia last summer when she fired off a tweet: “me, yelling at the ‘personal life’ section of Wikipedia: JUST TELL ME IF THEY’RE GAY.”
It racked up nearly 6,000 retweets and 36,000 likes. Moskowitz still isn’t sure why that particular tweet struck such a nerve – but it’s a long-running joke in the LGBT community that if you want to find out if a famous person is gay, you go right to Wiki’s “personal life.”
“I think it’s very universal, but maybe one of those things that some people don’t realize that other people also do,” Moskowitz said.
There are many social media variations on Moskowitz’s first tweet: “The personal life section of Wikipedia has done more for the gay community than nearly anything else.”
“the ‘personal life’ section of wikipedia’s primary function is to see if someone is queer or not.”
Lee Chu Yem, a just-graduated college student in Australia, saw a similar post on Tumblr, and was so delighted that she created a browser plug-in that changes “personal life” to “gay?” on Wikipedia pages.
“People just want to see that they’re being represented,” Yem said. “Like, ‘Hey … that’s cool, that’s kind of like me.’ “
Lucas Patridge of Las Vegas was thinking about this in mid-December, when pop star Harry Styles made headlines after he was asked about his sexuality in an interview. Patridge tweeted that he understood why Styles didn’t want to answer those questions.
“BUT… As far as why people are so interested, for LGBT folks of a certain age there will always be a desire for more popular representation. See: jumping straight to ‘Personal Life’ on Wikipedia,” Partridge wrote. “Something we were denied for so long, we get irrationally excited when it happens, even though it’s more and more normalized.”
In a phone interview, Partridge said he empathizes with public figures who would rather people focus on their work. But sometimes, fans just truly want to connect with their favorite artists. “I don’t want there to be that perception that it’s all about being nosy,” he said. “For some people … there’s a deeper meaning behind that.”
The desire for connection is strong. Moskowitz’s follow-up tweet to the above, while not as viral, still got several thousand likes:
“me, yelling at the ‘early life’ section: JUST TELL ME IF THEY’RE JEWISH.”
In 2015, illustrator Landis Blair was briefly mentioned in a New Yorker profile of his then-girlfriend, Caitlin Doughty: “Blair owns a unicycle that is usually propped up in a corner of the living room.”
Little did he know that sentence would become a part of his legacy. His Wikipedia personal life section simply reads, “Landis rides a unicycle.”
When contacted for this story to ask how he feels about this, the good-humored Blair proclaimed it “one of the most bizarre emails I’ve received.” Then again, he admitted, his one-line entry does make him stand out – people at comic conventions have mentioned it.
“I’d much rather it was that than something really personal that I wouldn’t want out there,” Blair laughed. “And I feel like it does give you a good understanding of who I am, in some sense.”
Some personal life entries really do sum up people in an way that an actual description could not. Hugh Grant has multiple paragraphs about his rocky relationships with co-stars. “I will forever adore Hugh Grant, despite (or because of) his possession of the messiest largely non-criminal ‘Personal Life’ section on Wikipedia,” one person tweeted.
Clint Eastwood, at age 89, requires an entire page devoted to his “numerous casual and long-term relationships of varying length and intensity.” The regal Miranda Richardson’s two-sentence entry reveals an interest in falconry.
In one of the saddest facts out there, Stephen Baldwin’s section reminds everyone that he got a “Hannah Montana” tattoo so Miley Cyrus would give him a cameo in her sitcom – and she never did.
Baldwin, Wikipedia added, “has since said that he regrets getting the tattoo.”
While people used to obsess over what will be in their obituary, now, you wonder what Wikipedia might say.
“The only reason I would ever want to be famous is so I could see what a mess my Wikipedia ‘Personal life’ section would be,” Lindsay Dauphinee of Haliax, Nova Scotia, wrote on Twitter.
Dauphinee said she was daydreaming about what her exes would potentially write about her, given that anyone can alter Wikipedia. “They could even get in a little editing war – different ex-girlfriends could get in there editing different things,” she joked. “It would just be funny to see the details for anybody to see.”
Wikipedia volunteer editors take such activity very seriously, of course. They maintain all content and are strict about making sure information is neutral and based on reliable sources. It’s up to the editors which facts to include, but there’s an extra level of scrutiny when the person is still alive – and they are careful to respect the subject’s privacy.
That explains why many facts are left out. Earlier this year, a piece by Allie Jones in the Outline argued that “The ‘Personal Life’ sections on many men’s pages are severely lacking” and pointed out some “abhorrent” men skate by with brief entries while women’s are filled with – sometimes scandalous – details.
Even in noncontroversial examples: Jason Mantzoukis (“Parks and Recreation,” “The Good Place”) dated Connie Britton, yet that’s nowhere to be found. “It just says he is allergic to eggs,” Jones wrote. “I hate it.”
Editors also try to write as conservatively as possible, which is why you see almost comically blunt entries, such as Nobel Prize winner Godfrey Hounsfield, which one writer deemed “the most depressing personal life section on Wikipedia”: “He never married, and died at Kingston-upon-Thames in 2004.”
“It’s an encyclopedia, so you have to use concise, descriptive language without stealing from the source,” explained Christine Meyers, a Wikipedia volunteer editor since 2007.
Meyers has extensively edited personal life sections for figures including Maya Angelou and Fred Rogers. The latter was recently updated, knowing that there would be a spike in interest when “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” hit theaters. It includes his love of swimming and that he was red-green colorblind.
“If someone reads a biography on Wikipedia, they want to know about these personal details,” Meyers said. “The personal life section invites you in to get to know them as a person.”
It’s true. We’re all just trying to figure out life. And what better way than to scour for clues about how people we admire lived their lives, through information that anyone can gather?
“I think that’s the beauty of Wikipedia as opposed to another encyclopedia or reference material – it’s indicative of the time we’re living in. Anyone can add to it, modify it or correct it,” said Blair, the illustrator/unicyclist. “It’s the gossip that you wouldn’t have had 50 years ago, or 100 years ago … and people love to gossip, isn’t that an evolutionary thing? Gossip itself is how the species survives.”