I read an amazing blind item a while back about two notable actors who were in a secret long-term relationship with one another. It wasn’t a particularly salacious piece, nor were the rumoured stars at the heart of it major celebrities of the A-List model. Really, the blind was rather sweet, detailing a very loving and private romance seemingly free of drama. It warmed my heart, and then it made me very sad, opening the floodgates for myriad questions about the couple: Issues on queerness in Hollywood, the stereotypes made about gay actors in heterosexual romantic on-screen roles, the notion of privacy in a hugely public industry, and the ever-present homophobia of a field that supposedly prides itself on its progressiveness. A gander at gossip for a moment of procrastination turned into something much deeper and more radical.
I’m not a shit-talker, but I love gossip. Coming from a reasonably small town where it was the populace’s business to know everything about everyone, you quickly learn to decipher the curious codes of public behaviour and how it’s discussed in private. Your parents may tell you that if you can’t say anything nice then don’t say anything at all, but even they delight in the subversive cattiness of rumour. Growing up around this, I also read a lot of gossip magazines and tabloid newspapers. The latter is a habit I broke quickly as a teenager, although my dad stubbornly still refuses to buy any newspaper that isn’t The Sun, which he claims he reads solely for the sports coverage, yet I kept buying the trashy glossy magazines, always under £1.50 and full of people I had barely heard of.
There was a period where I could recount every minute development in the life and scandals of Katie ‘Jordan’ Price, entirely because she documented it so extensively in those magazines. I’ve watched 15 minutes of one episode of The Only Way Is Essex and found it insufferable yet I know the names of the entire cast. Once my interests moved more towards pop culture and film in particular, I thrived on the balance of knowing every detail of Lars Von Trier’s filmography as well as the latest news on Brad and Angelina. Finding trade publications that treated box office numbers like hot gossip was the ultimate converging of my interests. Now, as a professional writer and film studies student, I get to live the dream by documenting the stars’ lives and deciphering what those stories tell us.
Out of all my varying hobbies and interests, the one that I get the most flack for admitting to enjoying is gossip. It sets off people’s alarms almost instantly and inspires disdain far beyond anything I ever get for reading romance novels, loving true crime or glorying over half-naked pictures of Scandinavian thespians. More than anything else, my fondness for celebrity gossip is what makes people question my intellect and morals, as well as decrying that my work on the subject is an abject waste of time. It’s no surprise. Really, gossip is a thing loved by women, much like romance and true crime, so it carries with it a degree of suspicion to a default male world as something almost deviant. Therein lies a huge degree of its power.
Truly great celebrity gossip is a window to the realities of our world. It’s a tool, one with a long and colourful history throughout the centuries in various forms, that interrogates notions of power and exposes the structures of those theatricalities. If polished profiles are the public face, gossip is the private. To read gossip is to engage with the most pertinent questions of the day. You can’t talk about Angelina Jolie without getting into issues of infidelity, sexuality, motherhood, femininity, healthcare, whiteness, feminism, and much more. It’s all there if you’re willing to look for it but it also requires a degree of media literacy many of us are untrained to deal with.
There are three ways to read celebrity gossip: You read, say, Page Six and immediately dismiss everything you see as fiction; you read it and swallow every word unquestioningly; or you read it and examine the underlying questions. When People post a story about a new celebrity couple, what does it mean? Well, we know that People are one of the most reliable and industry preferred publications for celebrity gossip and they don’t publish speculation lightly, so the chances are their sources are correct on the issue and the central couple are indeed dating. We also know that People is read mostly by women and leaking a story there will get a message across to a specific and very loyal demographic. If the piece has accompanying photographs, what is the quality of them? Are they fuzzy paparazzi shots taken with a telescopic lens 500 yards away where the couple have no idea what’s going on or are they clearer and possibly more practiced? Do they see the camera is there? Are they holding hands or smiling at the camera or playing a public role as lovers? And what of the stars themselves? Are they the kind who want to keep it private or are they not above a little spectacle? You can tell a lot from 4 fluffy paragraphs of text and an accompanying slideshow.
There is the darker side to gossip: The inexcusable lies, the smears, the misogyny that pervades so much of it. When scandal breaks, it’s usually the women who suffer the most, regardless of where the bulk of the blame lies. Gossip can reveal much but it can also inspire immense trauma. I have unnervingly clear memories of Britney Spears’s distressingly public breakdown and the revulsion it elicited from publications who had previously fallen over themselves to adore and sexualise her beyond personhood. It still stings for me to recall the derision that followed Amy Winehouse, an addict clearly struggling with her life, at the hands of a merciless press, all of whom tried to whitewash their own pasts with fawning profiles after she tragically died. A tool that can challenge power so often ends up being appropriated by it.
Mostly, I think of gossip as a feminine code. Men can excel at gossip but it’s women who have perfected the form, and that’s partly arisen out of necessity. There are some issues where we need gossip. Harvey Weinstein has been exposed for the monstrous rapist that he is, but for too many years, we only heard about his crimes through code and whispers. The system would not protect those who wanted to speak out, so gossip was the outlet. Give people the clues and they’ll come to the right conclusion. When major publications kill stories for fear of losing coveted access or being served with crushing lawsuits, now more so than ever in a post-Gawker age, those carefully crafted blinds hold a higher purpose. So many people read the recent articles in the New York Times and New Yorker and talked of hearing the allegations but only as rumours. If only they knew why those had to be ‘just rumours’.