The Most Ill-Advised Libel Trial Since Oscar Wilde’s

The “Wagatha Christie” case pits two English footballers’ wives—and two forms of celebrity—against each other.

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At its core, the “Wagatha Christie” trial awaiting judgment in London is a clash between different ideas of celebrity. The combatants are two prominent “WAGs”—the wives and girlfriends of English footballers. Coleen Rooney represents the classic approach to fame, in which you must zealously guard your privacy. In contrast, Rebekah Vardy is an avatar of a made-for-Instagram world, in which you are a fool if you do not monetize your personal life. Their dueling public-relations styles were evident in their fashion choices. Rooney came to court every day in ostentatiously affordable outfits, shooting for “woman of the people.” Rebekah Vardy, meanwhile, went with “Mafia widow.”

The dispute dates back to 2019, when Rooney, wife of the former England striker Wayne, took to Twitter to slide a dagger between Vardy’s shoulder blades. For some time, Rooney had suspected that one of the followers of her locked Instagram account was leaking news stories to a tabloid newspaper. So, she said, she had been deliberately posting false information to unmask the culprit. Rooney ended the post: “I have saved and screenshotted all the original stories which clearly show just one person has viewed them. It’s ………. Rebekah Vardy’s account.” This dramatic reveal inspired the nickname “Wagatha Christie,” a portmanteau name-checking Britain’s most famous mystery novelist. It also led to the present court case—Vardy, who insists that she was not the leaker, is suing her fellow WAG for defamation—which has in turn served up a feast of incriminating texts, piquant British phrases, and unexpected sausage references.

The WAG mythology was born at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, where England’s national football team—we refuse to call the sport soccer—lost on penalties to Portugal in the quarterfinals. Fans’ disappointment was alleviated by the tabloid frenzy over the players’ partners, who had accompanied them to Baden-Baden and were photographed hanging out together. The WAG aesthetic was distinctive: shorts (micro), manicures (French), hair extensions (voluminous), breast implants (like two oranges stapled to an ironing board). Inevitably, media coverage of the WAGs then and now has shown an element of snobbery, alongside a bottomless appetite for the most mundane facts about their lives and relationships. And I mean really mundane. Two of the stories Rooney accused Vardy of leaking are almost comically dull: Her basement had supposedly flooded, and she had dented her Honda CR-V in an accident.

Rebekah Vardy and Coleen Rooney.
Rebekah Vardy and Coleen Rooney (Neil Mockford / GC; Dan Kitwood / Getty)

The fact that any outlet deemed these crumbs newsworthy suggests why, to Rooney, the media is the enemy. Ten months before she married Wayne, he was caught paying for sex—in an extraordinary detail, he is said to have signed autographs “while waiting his turn” at a brothel—and since then, Coleen has regarded the press with extreme wariness. Not so with Vardy, who seems to have taken a more modern approach to publicity, allegedly colluding with paparazzi to show off her lifestyle and taking a cut of the money generated by the pictures.

To outsiders, this approach—the Kardashian gambit—can seem sly and cynical. From the inside, though, it’s a pragmatic decision. Why should other people profit from your life, but not you? That calculation has found its ultimate expression with influencers, who are famous only for being famous (and, usually, hot or messy). There are now TikTok and YouTube stars whose fans wish they would talk less about their troubled personal lives. Fans wonder: Can it be healthy to air all your drama on the internet?

Or, indeed, in court. As the trial proceeded, it was hard to remember that Vardy had initiated the proceedings, hoping to clear her name. Yet this now looks like the most ill-advised defamation case since Oscar Wilde filed a libel suit against a man who called him a “posing sodomite.” On the very first day of the trial, the court heard that Vardy had once told an interviewer that a former lover was “hung like a small chipolata.” (That’s less than half the size of a hot dog, to translate into American sausages.) This is not someone, the implication was, with a lively respect for other people’s privacy.

Vardy claims that her agent, Caroline Watt, likely shared information about Rooney without her knowledge. Rooney’s lawyer has likened Watt to a “hitman or woman” and insisted that Vardy is ultimately to blame. Watt has been ruled unfit to testify, having previously lost crucial messages when she dropped her phone into the sea on a fishing trip in Scotland.

Some survived, though, and these have left Vardy’s reputation as dented as Coleen Rooney’s Honda. Admittedly, no one’s message history would benefit from being read aloud by lawyers using sorrowful voices in a hushed courtroom. Vardy’s texts are at least less offensive than those from Johnny Depp—the American actor who, according to recent court records, joked to a friend that he wanted to set his ex-wife, Amber Heard, on fire, then drown her and have sex with her corpse to “make sure she’s dead.” But you can’t say Vardy comes off well.

She was also painted by Rooney’s lawyers as a cheerful hypocrite. In one text exchange, Vardy’s phone contact “Hubby”—her husband, Jamie, who plays for Leicester City F.C.—commiserates with her about the bad press she has received from papers with “nothing better to do coz they got no stories.” (Vardy must have taken that day off from sending juicy tidbits to her agent.) In other texts, Caroline Watt and Vardy laugh together about Rooney’s plaintive tweet that “someone I have accepted to follow me is betraying me” by leaking private information. “It wasn’t someone she trusted,” Watt texts. “It was me.” She follows this with a smiley face. The update on Stringer Bell’s “Is you taking notes on a criminal fucking conspiracy?” is apparently “Are you putting emojis after admitting to privacy invasion?”

To describe the two footballers’ wives as frenemies is an understatement. Yet when Rooney unfollowed Vardy on Instagram, the latter was furious at the implied insult to her integrity. “Stupid cow deserves everything she gets!” Vardy fumed, one of the more polite things she wrote about Rooney.

Here in Britain, Vardy v. Rooney has received the same attention as America’s equivalent courtroom spectacle, Depp v. Heard. In the latter case, Depp is suing his ex-wife for defamation after she published an opinion column in The Washington Post about being a victim of domestic violence. (She is countersuing.) The trial has revealed a truly horrible current in the psyche of female Depp fans, some of whom have persistently attacked Heard on social media as a conniving gold digger—with the implicit undertone that they would accept any level of abuse to be in a movie star’s sacred presence. Heard is not blameless—the relationship between the two seems mutually antagonistic and fundamentally toxic—but there is no online army of young men implicitly boasting that Amber Heard could treat them like dirt.

Just like the Wagatha trial, the American case also shows the extent of the backstage collusion between certain journalists and the people they cover, and how canny celebrities must now turn even their most personal, painful experiences into a narrative for general consumption—or risk losing in the court of public opinion. The trial revealed that Heard had enlisted the ACLU to help write the personal column about being a victim of domestic violence that is at the center of Depp’s libel claim, and had pushed for its release around an upcoming movie project. At the same time, Heard’s countersuit accuses Depp’s team of planting negative stories about her in the press, to undermine and discredit her testimony about their relationship. Vardy’s actions offer an equally disturbing insight into how the chipolata is made—for example, that many paparazzi shots are the result of a secret agreement between star and photographer, rather than the unpleasant intrusions they might seem.

In such trials, there are only losers. Lawsuits like this are draining and degrading, as well as potentially costly. For women, they are particularly risky. Although Heard is a defendant, and Vardy a plaintiff, something about the monstering dished out to both reminds me of the wider injunction on women that they must never be caught trying. Instead, they must adopt a persona that the novelist Gillian Flynn calls “the cool girl,” which she describes as the “hot, brilliant, funny woman” who “jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2.”

Both trials reveal that female celebrities are expected to be cool girls: They should receive good press—without debasing themselves by doing the kind of things that lead to good press, such as building relationships with friendly journalists. The Hollywood newsletter The Ankler claimed this week that other female actors had reached out to Heard to express their support privately, but none dared to go public. “The Johnny Depp machine is insane, and they don’t want the backlash,” an unnamed source was quoted as saying. The asymmetry is predictable: He has a well-oiled PR strategy; she is a conniving little minx.

When Vardy’s texts openly acknowledge that she’s playing a game—that media coverage is not something that is purely done to her—I find it oddly refreshing. Her realist stance is closer to the attitude of ordinary people who have made themselves stars on Instagram and YouTube. Celebrity has always involved terrible bargains: fake relationships, hushed-up scandals, hidden sexualities. Influencer culture, with its cheerful shilling of products (#ad #sponcon) and willingness to show the grunt work behind the glamour, seems oddly more honest.

In the age of social media, very few of us resist the impulse to unburden ourselves to the world. Even privacy hawks such as Coleen Rooney share the minutiae of their lives: One little-noticed aspect of the case is that none of her friends thought it strange that she was sharing details of a damp cellar and fender-benders on Instagram, which makes you wonder what the rest of her feed was like. Regardless, Rooney and Vardy must both realize by now that the key to modern celebrity is control. Having your frenemy’s lawyers scatter your dirty laundry around a courtroom must be disconcerting, whereas violating your own privacy has become an art.