the original WAGs had a hard time, but is it any better for them now?
They literally had to hide behind huge sunglasses.
On Tuesday England qualified for the World Cup quarter finals for the first time since 2006. Most of the current conversation revolves around “It’s Coming Home” memes, the virtues of (Sir) Gareth Southgate, and whether Jamie Vardy’s hairline has improved since Euro 2016. But back in 2006, less focus was on the players than on their accompanying WAGs. An acronym for ‘Wives and Girlfriends’, the stereotype was a high-maintenance woman with a ferocious love of shopping, fluffing away their husband’s cash on diamante-mauled heels whilst addressing the press with a proudly strong accent, most likely Estuary or Scouse. The look was frayed denim shorts skimming below spiky hip bones, caramel streaky hair extensions, frosted lip gloss, over-plucked eyebrows, and monstrous Birkin bags that made their teeny-tiny bodies look even more miniscule.
As wife of the captain, Victoria Beckham was The WAG Queen. Cheryl Tweedy, who at that time was dating Ashley Cole, was next in line to the throne, according to HELLO! Then there was Alex Curran (wife of Steven Gerrard), Elen Rivas (then married to Frank Lampard) and Coleen McLoughlin (then fiancé of Wayne Rooney), all of them staying at the £1,000 a night Brenner’s Park Hotel. Theo Walcott’s girlfriend, Melanie Slade, who was in the middle of her GCSE exams, was routinely mocked for staying at a cheaper hotel down the road.
There was grandeur of baroque proportions. Victoria was rumoured to have flown over 30 pairs of jeans from Madrid. Coleen Rooney bought a spray tanning ‘expert’ with her, Elen Rivas missed her flight to Germany after attempting to take five giant cases (hopefully in Gucci print) of hand luggage on the airplane. Not long after their arrival the press began to hound them. Grainy photos were leaked of Rivas singing Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive on a table in Garibaldi’s nightclub. Coleen was rumoured to have spent £57,000 in an hour's worth of shopping -- a haul she dismissed as a few 'bits and pieces' but obviously should have celebrated as a tremendous achievement. Abbey Clancy, Peter Crouch’s then girlfriend was shipped back home after photos emerged of her snorting lines of cocaine. After a game against Sweden, the private jet chartered to take the heroines back to their base was delayed, causing Victoria Beckham to lose her temper with FA officials and remark that "a dog gets better treatment than this".
The tabloids laid into the WAGs. The Daily Mail’s Stephen Glover referred to the hotel where the women stayed as "little Liverpool". And it wasn’t just the British press. Spanish paper ABC deemed Victoria and co ‘hooligans with visas’ and portrayed their shopping trips as ‘daily attacks’ on Baden-Baden’s upmarket designer boutiques.
"It was before the mainstreaming of feminism, so making openly classist judgements about a woman’s ‘chavy’ clothes was still seen as an acceptable media discourse."
The accusations were wild and relentless, but it’s unsurprising when you consider that this was an era where the tabloid press was at its most powerful. The 2006 World Cup came prior to the Milly Dowler phone hacking scandal, which saw much of the tabloids’ aggressive tactics marginally rolled back and public sympathy for such inquisitions dramatically reduced. Now social media allows celebrities to take ownership of how they present themselves to the public, essentially rendering the paparazzi who document their every move entirely pointless. It was before the mainstreaming of feminism, so making openly classist judgements about a woman’s ‘chavy’ clothes was still seen as an acceptable media discourse. It was before the Kardashians revolutionised the way celebrities presented themselves to the public: becoming fully contoured, media trained androids drinking nothing but matcha tea shots or turmeric honey water. 2006’s WAGs drank Vodka Red Bulls and were repeatedly lambasted for a visible bra strap or a pink thong peeping out as they rolled in and out of taxis. Paparazzi were everywhere, leaving women blinking into white walls of flashing lights. Things were so crap for WAGs they had to literally hide their faces with the now iconic oversized blacked out sunglasses.
When England was pushed out of the World Cup after losing to Portugal, the WAGs were blamed for the poor performance. Rio Ferdinand called the frenzy around the WAGs a ‘circus’ which distracted from the actual football. Fabio Capello branded them a ‘virus’ and banned them from the next World Cup in 2010. The matter of Wayne Rooney getting a red card for dancing over a Portuguese player’s groin and subsequently reducing England’s team to 10 men was largely ignored. No, the loss was because Coleen ordered too many bottles of rosé on room service and the rest of the WAGs distracted players by tottering around on those pincer stilettos so sharp they could pop an eye like a grape. It didn’t matter that no WAG was ever actually on the pitch.
Seething through all this World Cup coverage was a lazy, class-infused misogyny. These images continue to proliferate today. You see the same thing in the gleeful photos of women falling over their cork wedges at Aintree or the New Year’s Eve double-page spreads of girls lolling on pavements holding doner kebabs as they speak into iPhones at their boyfriends who are still drinking blue shots in Revolution. Our society has a morbid fascination with images of working class women enjoying themselves.
And the WAGs of the 2006 England squad were often working class women. Nail technicians and childhood sweethearts of players who had come upon vast swathes of wealth. Is it surprising that they wanted to indulge in all LV monogrammed everything? The problem with these women wasn’t that they were spending money, having fun and dressing glamorously. It was that they were doing it in the wrong way. No one would think it worthy to report that Angelina Jolie had spent millions on a Jackson Pollock or a minimalist mahogany coffee table, but they would if Alex Curran bought ten different shades of Juicy Couture velour tracksuits. The problem was with the type of consumption they indulged in, not the consumption itself.
The papers were critical of WAGs mostly because they weren’t the right kind of wives society deems acceptable. They wanted quiet, supportive women, wearing cashmere cardigans and lightly pattering well-moisturised fingertips together when their hubby did a good volley. No, the WAGs weren’t ladylike. They had the audacity to be loud women enjoying themselves independent of their husbands, going on rollercoasters and staggering over cobbled streets, the inside of their arms sore from lugging around cardboard bags of shopping.
WAG culture flowered for a short time after the 2006 World Cup and culminated in an episode of Come Dine with Me filled with Cheshire mansions, jacuzzis, 3D corrugated iron-look wallpaper, huge Bond-film fish tanks and Jessica Lawlor pronouncing Thai chicken “thigh chicken”.
But under continuous scrutiny, WAGs began to change their public image in line with what was expected of them by the mainstream media. The 2010 World Cup saw some visit South Africa’s most economically deprived areas for a BBC3 documentary, while Victoria Beckham carried out charity work for Save the Children.
"Propping up husbands like a well-worn sofa, forced to be on good behaviour: is this a win for feminism, or is it dull as fuck?"
Looking at the coverage from this year’s World Cup, the media appears to treat WAGs better. For starters, most people don’t even call them WAGs anymore, referring to them by their actual names and not as mere appendages to their husbands. The tabloids appear to be more sympathetic to them but it’s unclear whether this is purely because the WAGs of now are more firmly packaged up into the role of glamorous homemaker, dutifully fulfilling their role of near invisible support network. “The England WAGs who WON’T be shaming the nation with wild World Cup antics!” screams one Daily Mail piece, promising details on the “childhood sweethearts and ever-so steady graduate wives and girlfriends who are unlikely to dance on Russian tables”.
As Rebekah Vardy, I’m a Celebrity: Get Me Out Of Here contestant and wife of Leicester United’s Jamie Vardy, recently commented: “The wives and girlfriends have a much lower profile now and that is how it should be. Our job is to be supportive. I would be mortified if I was pictured leaving a bar absolutely pissed knowing that my husband was going to play one of the biggest games of his life the next day.”
Propping up husbands like a well-worn sofa, forced to be on good behaviour: is this a win for feminism, or is it dull as fuck? The women of 2006 may have been slaughtered publicly, but this was as they went out and enjoyed themselves despite the glare of the camera lens. Here’s to hoping Harry Kane’s girlfriend, Holly Goodland, waddles home with 23 suitcases of sequined UGGs.