March 07, 1994 12:00 PM

Fasten your seat belts. We are going into rapid rewind—back 20 years, to March 4, 1974, the date printed on the first issue of a new magazine called PEOPLE. Richard Nixon is in the White House, Elvis is alive and strewing scarves in Las Vegas, and the best-selling nonfiction book of the year is The Total Woman by Marabel Morgan. Not a single baby boomer is even 30 years old. Now fast-forward through the years since—two decades, one score—and names and faces pop like flashbulbs: Patty Hearst, Cher, John Lennon, Lady Diana Spencer, JFK Jr., Christa McAuliffe, Nelson Mandela, Ryan White, Oprah Winfrey, Mikhail Gorbachev, Hillary Rodham Clinton…. The Bible says that it takes 30 years to make a single generation, but today people are grouping themselves in far less time. Just as when you run a movie in reverse and pieces of broken china magically fly off the floor and reassemble themselves into a platter, so too do we see the patterns in our lives most clearly in hindsight. In our time, PEOPLE has played both mirror and microscope to popular culture: While we focused on examining fascinating individuals, we found that we were also reflecting the culture that produced them. What patterns emerge? There is one that dominates: This is the Age of Celebrity.

All of us enter history at an arbitrary point, including magazines. PEOPLE arrived in 1974 in a world wearied of war in Vietnam, the worst recession since the Depression, and journalism that brooded over interest rates at the expense of human interest. While newspapers and some magazines covered the doings of TV and movie stars, the most compelling and timeless aspects of human behavior often lay unexamined by careful journalists. So when the upstart new magazine began bringing breezy writing and high-standard reporting to the personal lives of famous people, the very idea of celebrating celebrity had a freshness all its own. The sales of our covers—the sizzle on our steak—would soon become a running referendum on what interested Americans, and in the 1970s to be famous was interesting enough. PEOPLE joyfully and eclectically featured everyone who was making an impact in pop culture, from Charlie’s Angels to Gloria Steinem to the Rushmores of Rock (Dylan, Mick, Elton and Bruce).

In the 1980s, though, the happy national consensus on stardom began to splinter along with the mass audience of the television networks. MTV spawned a whole new generation of music superstars—Cyndi Lauper, Boy George, Madonna and Sting. Images of women became more complex: The fantasy figurines of Charlie’s Angels and Police Woman grew up in the ’80s as the real women of Cagney & Lacey and further matured into the genteel Angela Lansbury of Murder, She Wrote. And if women seemed overshadowed by famous men in the Pleistocene Era of Celebrity, Jane Fonda’s escorts later constituted a kind of social commentary on the times—from Vadim to Hayden to Turner. By the day of Madonna and Anita Hill, it was amply clear that plenty of PEOPLE’S cover women were happy to be standing by themselves.

Meanwhile, the boundaries between private and public life became a no-per-son’s-land. What seemed racy in the 1970s—Cybill Shepherd and Peter Bogdanovich discussing their live-in relationship—turned no-hum by the time of Marla and The Donald. To be sure, early in PEOPLE’S life Martha Mitchell dished about her divorce, Tony Orlando confessed his drug habit, and Betty Ford bravely revealed her battle with alcoholism. By the 1990s more and more celebrities were talking movingly about subjects ranging from childhood AIDS (Elizabeth Glaser), sexual abuse (Roseanne Arnold) and multiple sclerosis (Annette Funicello) to anorexia (Sandra Dee, Tracey Gold), plastic surgery (Jenny Jones, Soleil Moon Frye) and even rape (Maureen O’Boyle). For us, the quest for fairness and accuracy—and good taste—became more urgent. In the post-Bobbitt era, it seems quaint that in the early 1980s the editors of PEOPLE earnestly debated whether the word “pregnant” was suitable to be used on our cover. (The answer was yes.)

Celebrities have always made interesting news; as PEOPLE grew up, we found that news increasingly made interesting celebrities. American hearts reached out especially to kids in trouble. We covered Baby Jessica, trapped in a well, and Ryan White, the Indiana schoolboy trapped by disease and prejudice. But with his shy smile, Ryan gave America a lesson in courage. (In 20 years, PEOPLE has written about some 40,000 personalities and received more than 422,000 letters; no one person inspired more mail than Ryan White.)

In the Newsy ’90s we would like to celebrate more heroes like Ryan. We would also like to feature Bill Cosby on our cover someday. (The Cos is the exception who proves the rule You’re Not Famous Until You’ve Been on the Cover of PEOPLE.) And, ah, Diana. Our quintessential story subject, whose own life embodies so many themes of the decades: as princess-in-waiting in the fanciful and fancy-free 70s; as wife and mother in the ’80s, along with millions of other postwar children; then the busy working mom (albeit christening battleships); the survivor of marital problems in the 1990s; and her latest evolution as independent woman. Someone once said that the only things we care about are “Di, dying and diet.” Not so. But when the princess starts dating again, we concede, that’s a story to Di for.

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