I’m no football obsessive, but I’m a fan of the beautiful games played by the players’ other halves. Tactics involve a keen sense of rivalry, designer strips, the odd foul and soulful appeals to the referee – a role mostly taken by the general public.
These sparky women are collectively and rather patronisingly known as WAGs, or wives and girlfriends; a term first widely used in 2006 when a particularly glitzy entourage accompanied the England football team to Germany for the 2006 World Cup, where they shopped, partied and were subsequently blamed – unfairly, I thought – for being responsible for England’s dismal performance.
If you were to create a 2020 WAG version of a Fantasy Football team, top picks might be Coleen Rooney and Rebekah Vardy. Both have independent celebrity status, a squad of children and now, to top it all, the latter is suing the former for libel.
For those who don’t know the eye-popping background details: Rooney felt someone who followed her personal Instagram account (which was limited to friends and family) was using information found there to sell stories to the tabloids. So she set out to catch the culprit – blocking her followers until there was just one left and posting a fake tale about her house’s basement flooding.
Bingo! It turned up in The Sun. At which point, Rooney did what any one of us might, if we lived in the glare of a soap opera-style lens, and unmasked the villain in public, via Twitter: “Now I know for certain which account/individual it’s come from" – cue Eastenders' duff-duffs – "It's… Rebekah Vardy’s account.”
Outrage, denial and a vast social media storm ensued as people took sides. Many aligned with Rooney, citing their awe at her Miss Marple’ish powers of deduction and dubbing the whole episode Wagatha Christie.
Others felt pity for Vardy, who was pregnant when she was denounced and swiftly pointed out a number of other people had access to her Instagram account. I have to say, even a non-celeb like me allowed colleagues access to social media accounts when I was running a business – and being a top WAG is a full-time enterprise, with lots of assistants involved.
But why do I and millions of otherwise intelligent women invest time and energy, following these shenanigans? The short answer is, it reminds us of our schooldays. It’s a narrative we all recognise, centering around a clique of popular, well-dressed girls and the outsiders trying to break into it; one that’s shaped so many dramas you couldn’t list them all, but Mean Girls leaps to mind.
As with all such storylines, the locus of power can shift. When Rooney joined the Baden Baden throng in 2006 she was girl-next-door Coleen McLoughlin, relegated to the second row of footie stadium seats, behind Queen Bee WAGS Victoria Beckham and Cheryl Tweedy (who married Ashley Cole soon after the World Cup). Two years later, she married her childhood sweetheart in Portofino, even though he’d been revealed as a customer of prostitutes, going on to have a family of four sons with the star and to pull in her own lucrative contracts: magazine columns, TV work, even “authoring” a couple of books.
Rebekah “Becky” Vardy is a different kettle of fish: a plucky chancer from the school of hard knocks who had left home by the time she was 16 and has spoken in recent years of suffering sexual abuse aged 13 at the hands of a family friend. She only met Vardy in 2014 when she was already a mother-of-two, working as a party planner, and was hired to arrange a birthday bash for the star, who immediately asked her out. The couple were married two years later, although his family didn’t make the glittering ceremony.
Where you place your allegiance in this forthcoming libel case will very much depend on which woman you relate to. Coleen has an army of mum fans who love her down-to-earth style. But as a woman with a past (I’ve run two erotic magazines and was once dubbed a “posh smut pedlar”) I have a wee bit more sympathy for Vardy. I know how it feels when the finger of suspicion points at you.
In my 30s a lot of people accused me of being the high-class escort-turned-writer Belle de Jour – before she was unveiled as research scientist Brooke Magnanti. And, small confession, I don’t think someone gossiping about a friend’s Instagram account is a major crime, in any case. My rule of thumb is as follows: if you have a secret, don’t post it on social media.
The great thing about these feuds is that they fizz up and burst like bubbles in Cristal champagne. Long-term WAG followers may remember how Victoria Beckham and Cheryl Cole were besties back in Baden Baden in 2006. Now it’s hard to imagine the pair were ever pals at all.
The whole point about soap operas is that the plot changes quickly and new characters and allegiances come to the fore. So I trust you’ll forgive me for fluffing up my sofa cushions and sitting back as a fascinated bystander. This, after all, is the WAGs 2020 season finale.