In the mid-2000s, an acronym was coined that would go on to feed the tabloids for the next decade and become as synonymous with British culture as cups of tea and asking about the weather. It was, of course, WAG – footballer’s wives and girlfriends – three letters best associated with the oversized sunglasses, tiny miniskirts and honey blonde highlights of Victoria Beckham, Coleen Rooney, Cheryl Cole, Louise Owen and Elen Rives in the noughties.
Some say the acronym was invented by an efficient paparazzo sending a stack of photographs back to his editor. Others believe it was a nickname used by the staff of the glitzy Jumeirah Beach Hotel in Dubai. Either way, it all began in 2006, when the then manager of the England football team, Sven-Göran Eriksson, made the fateful decision to let players’ wives and girlfriends travel with them to the 2006 world cup in Germany.
Left to their own devices in the sleepy German neighbourhood of Baden-Baden, the women painted the town red. From spending a reported £57,000 in the local boutiques to nightly “champagne binges” and dancing on tables, the WAGs’ every move led the tabloid headlines for the best part of a month.
From then on the term “WAG” has been firmly planted in the British lexicon – it was even added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2011. And whilst some of the women were already famous (namely, Cheryl and Posh Spice), others such as Coleen Rooney shot suddenly to the height of fame and turned into celebrities overnight.
The tabloids “wanted to create a new wave of celebrities who would fill their pages,” explains popular culture expert Nick Ede. “It was a great way to create rivalries and commentary on everything from their fashion and beauty to their kids and husbands. Nothing was left alone and a new breed of celebrity was created.”
Then, social media came along, influencers were invented and tighter rules were put in place for the partners of footballers after Baden-Baden. Wives and girlfriends were only allowed to see their partners for 24 hours the day after matches to stop them from distracting the players, with a new England manager, Fabio Capello, warning his team, “We are there to play, not for a holiday.”
WAGs no longer dominated the headlines in quite the same way and a dull decade for The Daily Mail’s sidebar of shame set in, with B‑List celebs and ex-Love Island stars doing their best to fill the gap the WAGs left behind. That is, until the 9th October 2019, when Coleen “Wagatha Christie” Rooney posted that legendary Instagram story accusing Rebekah Vardy of leaking stories about her to the press. Just like that, the WAGs were back.
The sudden re-explosion of WAG-related puns in the tabloids since that fateful post has brought with it a strange feeling of nostalgia for the culture of the noughties. During the Euros last summer, social media went crazy for reposted photos of VB and Cheryl pitchside in the 2000s; on Depop, teens created tank tops with England branding and footballers’ faces on, inspired by the ones worn by WAGs 15 years ago. In fact, the demand for Y2K fashion means there has never been a better time for WAG culture to make a comeback. From tiny miniskirts to Juicy Couture tracksuits, sheer shirts and lowrise jeans, the Gen Z fashion you’ll find all over TikTok has a lot more in common with the WAG style of the noughties than the wrap dresses and blazers often worn by today’s new-gen WAGs.
But even though our appetite for WAG content has been reignited, our perception of WAG culture is still firmly rooted in the early 2000s. There are still footballers, with girlfriends and wives, but the phenomenon isn’t the same. The glam and luxury has remained (you’ll still find them working on their tan in “Doobs” all summer and driving their Range Rovers around London in the winter), but there is something quieter about their lives. They shy away from fame, rather than chase it; follow fashion trends, don’t start them. And sadly, the party girl gene seems to have been largely wiped out of the WAG lineage.
Even the acronym WAG is no longer used with the ferocity it once was. It is, after all, pretty misogynistic to band several individual women under the same blanket term, labelling them by their partner’s fame instead of their own achievements. What might have begun as a tongue-in-cheek nickname was entirely warped by the tabloids, who predominantly used it alongside hyper-sexualised photos of the women.
“At the time it felt appropriate,” says Ede, “but many of them had and have great careers, so it hasn’t stood the test of time too much and now can be seen to be derogatory.” No one thought twice about calling a Spice Girl and a member of Girls Aloud a WAG in the 2000s. But in 2022, describing Little Mix’s Perrie Edwards or Leigh-Anne Pinnock as WAGs would sound like a joke. Their fame and reputation far eclipses that of their footballer partners.
The term has also lost some of its sticking power thanks to the distance the women keep between themselves and the public, opting for privacy to avoid the same tabloid frenzy of their predecessors. Whilst the WAGs of 2006 reportedly tore down a screen meant to block off paparazzi to ensure they continued to make the front pages, and some even had their own reality TV show, Wags Boutique, 2022’s WAGs shy away from the press. Not a single WAG responded to interview requests for this article, for instance.
The OG WAGs were “naïve and didn’t have expensive PRs around them so they could be manipulated quite easily,” explains Ede. “Some, if not all, of them loved the fame and loved being of interest, so they would make sure they were dressed up and looking fabulous to get the column inches.”
Today, the wives and girlfriends of England’s football squad still benefit from their boyfriend’s fame: Sasha Attwood (Jack Grealish’s girlfriend) has 138k followers on Instagram, Fern Hawkins (Harry Maguire’s wife) has 88.9k followers and Anouska Santos (Luke Shaw’s girlfriend) has 50.4k followers, for example. But their following isn’t built simply from who they’re married to or dating, they rarely give interviews and post minimal photos of themselves with their partners. Instead, many of them are students, entrepreneurs and models, finding success off their own un-numbered backs.
A key element of the fairytale tabloids painted of the original WAGs was their “rags to riches” backstories. The stories of women such as Coleen Rooney, who went from being a teenage girl from Liverpool to having access to almost unlimited wealth and luxury in a short space of time, were amplified to make the WAGs both more relatable and aspirational. As Ede notes, “girls would dream of being a WAG as an actual profession.”
The WAGs of 2006 were depicted as “OTT, almost cartoonish” characters, Ede explains. Meanwhile, the new generation is “less ostentatious and more independent and so, therefore, less interesting,” he says. “However they are better role models, studying at university or owning businesses they have started themselves.”
The modern WAGs still occasionally make the headlines, but it’s usually in the form of The Daily Mail grasping at straws over their bikini photos or reposting their own Instagram pics with their partners, rather than exposing paparazzi shots. In many ways, social media has meant these women, WAGs new and old, could take back control of their narratives, revealing what they want of their lives and relationships, and keeping the rest private. Why work the paparazzi to get noticed, when they can manage their own Instas from home instead?
But it’s not just the WAGs that have changed since the 2000s – football culture has, too. Players still cheat, crash cars and are caught misbehaving in nightclubs, but nowhere near as much as in the good ol’ days. The training is gruelling, they follow strict health and fitness regimes, and are left with little time to get into trouble.
“Twenty years ago most people could name all the players. Now most can’t. The players are nowhere near as high profile,” says George Bamby, one of Britain’s most successful paparazzi, who has spent years photographing footballers and their WAGs. But the key difference, he says, is also “that they are not allowed on the piss at tournaments anymore”.
Perhaps WAG is a retired term, a phrase that no longer fits the women it was designed to describe, a relic of the hedonism of the noughties. Who knows, the new generation of WAGs could go full Baden-Baden at this year’s World Cup, but Qatar seems an unlikely destination for 2006-style debauchery. As Bamby says, “There will only ever be one set of WAGs: the WAGs of the early 2000s.”