Did Harry Styles really spit on Chris Pine? Why did Selena unfollow the Jenner sisters? Did Katy Perry actually steal Taylor Swift’s backup dancers? Who knows.
Tabloid media and TikTok sleuths be damned, most celebrity beefs end without a satisfying denouement. After all, the court of public opinion lacks subpoena power. And what celebrity is petty enough to spend millions of dollars — and years of their lives — airing their own dirty laundry?
WAGs, that’s who.
Short for Wives And Girlfriends, WAGs are the better halves of the ultra-famous British Association Football (aka “soccer”) players. And when two go to war, an impeccably styled irresistible force meets a glamorously immovable object. While their husbands settle their differences on the field, WAGs take it to the courts.
It all started in fall 2019 when Coleen Rooney, wife of legendary (now-retired) Manchester United footballer Wayne Rooney, noticed her private Instagram posts were becoming fodder for the tabloids; specifically, The Sun. Acting on a hunch, Rooney blocked all but one of her followers: Rebekah Vardy, wife of Leicester City striker Jamie Vardy. She posted a series of false flags as bait, and when they resulted in headlines like “Coleen Rooney travelled to Mexico to look into £8k ‘gender selection’ treatment in desperate bid to have baby girl,” the fink was flushed out. Rooney took to Twitter to j’accuse Vardy as a traitor and leaker.
The first-class detective work landed Rooney the nickname “Wagatha Christie.”
At which point Vardy did the reasonable thing and
apologized sued. Rooney refused to back down. A high-stakes game of chicken ensued in the courts.
Vardy caught an early break in the case when the Honorable Mrs. Justice Steyn ruled that Rooney must not only prove the leaks originated from Vardy, but that Vardy knew and intended for the information to be passed on to The Sun. This despite Rooney’s tweet merely stating that the information came from Vardy’s account.
After three years of legal posturing and a multi-week trial, Rooney ultimately prevailed earlier this summer. Based on damning text messages and Vardy’s co-conspirator, former agent Caroline Watt, flaking on testifying, Justice Steyn concluded that Watt gave the tips to The Sun at Vardy’s behest. Now, Vardy is on the hook not only for her lawyers’ fees but Rooney’s as well.
What could have possibly possessed Vardy to pursue a bullshit claim? I spoke to an American
werewolf solicitor in London to find out. Adelaide Scardino Lopez is a Senior Associate at Wiggin, a leading media law firm.
Is life in the UK libel courts always this exciting?
Lopez: This was a once-in-a-decade case. Often complaints will involve some kind of tree surgeon who is suing a trade publication over an article about how he cuts down trees.
What would possess Vardy to file a lawsuit when she knows her agent was the source of the leaks?
I don’t think it was immediately evident what a loser it was until the trial because, until that point, only Vardy knew the truth. Even Rooney was just going off circumstantial evidence. It seems like Vardy either genuinely convinced herself that she wasn’t a source because she did not directly leak to The Sun or she was simply using the legal system to bully Rooney into backing down. Or she didn’t understand that her agent “losing” her phone in the North Sea wouldn’t remove their incriminating WhatsApp messages from the cloud.
It’s not as though Rooney accused Vardy of anything particularly heinous.
Exactly. For lawsuits like this, any damages will be outstripped entirely be the legal fees so it’s almost purely an intellectual exercise for everyone. Only the lawyers come out ahead. It was the world’s most expensive twitter spat. The public loved it — and the women are each developing competing television projects based on the whole thing.
Was Rooney unusual in her steadfastness?
She was, because she had the financial resources to see this through and a willingness to spend millions rather than lose face.
Is the risk calculus different for UK publishers?
It is. “Wagatha Christie” was a one off. Rooney isn’t facing expensive lawsuits on a regular basis. Publishers, on the other hand, often apologize and settle — even when fully justified — because it’s cost-prohibitive to fight. There’s no thumb on the scale in favor of freedom of speech in the UK. If anything, given that the burden of proof is on the publisher, the opposite could be said.
Yet, in the past year we’ve seen three high-profile defamation claimants fall flat in the UK: Johnny Depp failed in his lawsuit against The Sun (only to later win a trial against Amber Heard in the US), multimillionaire Brexit backer Arron Banks lost his lawsuit against author Carole Cadwalladr, and now Vardy just flopped against Rooney. Is there reason to believe UK libel law isn’t as awful as imagined?
We’ve observed a 50 percent decline in defamation cases filed in the past year. So that could reflect some adjustment in strategy, but unfortunately for our media clients, the UK is still hands down the most claimant-friendly jurisdiction in the world. Claimants continue to gamble that if you threaten or bring a proceeding it will settle. Even in this case, despite Vardy bringing a truly meritless claim, Justice Steyn really bent over backwards to present her in a fairly sympathetic light.
How would you sum the whole thing up?
In the words of one of my colleagues, Vardy certainly scored an own goal with this one.
Daniel Novack is a publishing industry attorney, chair of the New York State Bar Association Committee on Media Law, and co-host of First Amendment podcast Slandertown. This article reflects his personal views only.