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Along with toilet paper, yeast, and Annie’s white-cheddar mac ’n’ cheese, gossip ranks highly as a rare and valuable commodity right now. If it happens to fall in your lap, you want to savor it — maybe pair it with a cold beverage, or preserve it in your brain for longer than you normally would, fully absorbing its juiciness.
With many people stuck inside right now, gossip largely consists of shit-talking other people’s backyards, speculating about nannies, and questioning the state of romantic relationships. But the thing about quarantine scuttlebutt is that it’s not very satisfying. In the long run, it won’t make anything better.
Personally, what does make me feel better is harmless celebrity fodder. It’s exhilarating to watch Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello walk in slow motion like zombies toward a throng of paparazzi, for example. Or Jake Gyllenhaal do a handstand. Or Ina Garten make an enormous cocktail, and down it at 9:30 a.m. For better or worse, celebrities are still giving us the gossip we need and crave right now.
Why do we miss gossip? And what does that say about us? Elaine Lui, the seasoned entertainment journalist and ever-curious mind behind Lainey Gossip.com, has some thoughts. Since 2006, her website has served as a loving but agnostic source of celebrity news, so we called her up to gab about gossip in a pandemic.
Emilia Petrarca: I’ve been talking with a lot of different people about how much they miss gossip right now. As someone who covers celebrity and celebrity gossip for a living, what were your first thoughts when the coronavirus pandemic started to become a reality? Were you afraid there wouldn’t be anything to cover?
Elaine Lui: To be honest, I did have a moment of worry when California issued the lockdown order. I talked to our writers, and we started brainstorming how we could get creative. But then, I remember the Monday after the order came down, I was like, Wow, there is so much content! There was no need to make up for the gap. From the perspective of just having shit to talk about — who’s doing what, who’s quarantining with whom, how they’re quarantining, how they’re fucking up during quarantine, how they’re putting their foot in their mouth — I mean, that just kicked up. It was an immediate shift.
There was someone named Bridget Phetasy who very brilliantly tweeted, “I never realized exactly how much attention celebrities craved until they were locked up.” I thought that was hilarious, and it’s so true. They’re still logging onto Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, and whatever, and serving us the content that we need.
The first big celebrity social-media gaffe seemed to be the “Imagine” video, coordinated by Gal Gadot. What did you think of that?
There was a flurry of a few of them that happened at the same time. There was Vanessa Hudgens going on Instagram Stories and being like, “What’s the big deal?” Or whatever. Not a good look. And then there was, yes, the “Imagine” singalong. It was so earnest. But even though it was well-intentioned, it was badly executed.
What makes the “Imagine” video so cringe and something like John Krasinski’s “Some Good News” show so endearing?
Not to sound cliché, but I think it’s about lane. I don’t know that I need Gal Gadot, Kristen Wig, and Jamie Dornan singing “Imagine” to me. That’s not their lane, so to speak. But for John Krasinski, it is in his lane to call up Steve Carell. The Office just so happened to turn 15 years old right when the coronavirus hit, so there was an anniversary to celebrate. Your mind doesn’t have to leap ten paces.
Who else do you think is reacting to this moment well and why?
I think Rihanna’s doing really well. She hasn’t been out there too much, but she was one of the first to put up money, and make thoughtful donations to a variety of causes. She helped different communities, and was clearly doing her research. That was great. And then she was also partying on Instagram, dancing with Lil Uzi Vert and going back and forth in the comments with Drake. She’s still doing her celebrity thing. The Instagram Live she hosted was to promote her clothing line. She’s still running a business. But she also made all these donations. No one was mad at her for partying and dancing.
Chris Evans dropping a photo of him and his dog every once in a while is also wholesome, great content.
And then what about the celebrities who just seem to be losing it right now?
Yes, like Madonna.
As a lifelong fan of Madonna, it has not been fun to watch her talk about how the coronavirus is the “great equalizer” from her bathtub. Like, that’s a giant “fuck you” to a lot of people. I’m lucky — I don’t work on the front lines — so I don’t have as much ground to stand on to say “fuck you” to her. I’m not trying to say, “How dare you, Madonna?” because a lot of people could say, “How dare you?” to me. But it doesn’t give me any comfort to laugh at it, or whatever, because it makes me sad that someone who was so on the pulse of how to correctly push the envelope and which institutions to challenge in a former era, doesn’t seem to get it now.
There’s also been a thing where we’re criticizing certain celebrities for violating the [CDC] recommendations because of a different level of privilege, and that was something we were doing before COVID-19. Take Gwyneth Paltrow, for instance. The Cut is one of her favorite publications, isn’t it? [Laughs.] Lots of people called her out for being tone deaf and out of touch well before the virus. It’s not something new, and there have been so many examples of it since. That has taken up a lot of celebrity reporting.
Do you feel like this criticism of celebrity privilege is more heightened now? The class divide in America has just become so much more obvious, and celebrities seem like an easy target for voicing anger about that.
I do think it may be about class, but I also think it may be about access. They’re out there on social media — there’s a quicker way to reach them now.
I don’t know that I support directing all of the anger towards celebrities. Let’s remember that many of them are entertaining us, for better or worse. I’m probably not the person to talk about this, but I actually think the political leadership is so shitty in America, that the anger that should land on leadership is maybe perhaps landing on celebrities. Like, call out whomever if they’re breaking the rules. But I don’t know that the amount of ire against celebrities should be equal to the amount of ire that should be directed to the people who are failing the citizens of America.
I also think it’s really interesting what’s happening, at least online, to Ellen DeGeneres’s reputation. I mean, of all the celebrities … Isn’t her nickname “the Queen of Nice?” It started with that tweet about her being a shitty person to work with, and then everyone seemed to have a story about how shitty Ellen is. And then she also did that video that didn’t land very well.
Oh, when she compared self-isolation to being in jail?
Yes! Something like that. I don’t know if the reaction was too loud in comparison to what the crime was, but it just feels like with the spread of the virus, there’s also been a spread of negativity towards Ellen DeGeneres, and I find that fascinating.
What do you think this moment has revealed about celebrity culture in America?
I think there’s always value to celebrity culture. Not just because it’s my job, but because I think that the conversations that we have about celebrities are always a reflection of our values and who we are at a certain moment. Right now, what I think celebrities are exposing about this time is everyone’s desire to be seen.
What do you mean by that?
Celebrities are using these platforms that we — “we” collectively, the people, non-celebrities — had already been using to feel seen; to feel like we matter; to have ourselves heard. That gene has always been a part of celebrity DNA — this need for attention — and it just so happens that it gets activated with social media for regular folks as well. In many ways, that distance between regular civilians and celebrities keeps getting smaller. And it’s even smaller now that celebrities are “just like us” as home. They’re not going off and making movies or walking red carpets, which are experiences that we, the public, don’t have. Their experiences are limited to, by and large, what they can do at their homes. Same for us. And all of us are putting it out there on these shared platforms, and that gulf is shrinking.
When you mention the need to be seen, my mind immediately goes to Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas, and the staged walks that they seem to be having. What do you think about that?
I get why people are so skeptical. Yes, they could stay inside and not be photographed. But I bet you they would argue that they just want to live their lives, too, and go out for a walk. The paparazzi always happen to be outside of Ben’s house because they know where he lives, and have always known where he lives. I will say that I think the fact that their love story is happening around this time — they’re definitely aware that it’s content for other people. But the fact that they haven’t changed their habits may suggest that they’re too in love to give a shit?
That would be nice!
We’re so cynical about celebrities because celebrities have, by and large, made us cynical. The Kardashians have a big role to play in that because we see what’s on the show and we’re like, how much of this is scripted? They’re so good at manipulating a narrative that it’s permeated how we think about all celebrities. We assume that if [Ben and Ana] are getting photographed every day, that they’re probably fake; that this is a faux-mance. But I don’t think it’s a faux-mance. I think they’re really into each other.
What about Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello? That video of them walking really, really slowly has been one of my favorite things to come out of this moment.
I think the same thing applies to them. They’ve been together a lot longer than Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas, but from the very start of their relationship there was skepticism about it not being legit. My take is, and this is just my perspective, that you better be committed to your faux-mance if you’re going to quarantine with a person. Like okay, even if you’re faking it, could you lock yourselves up indefinitely? Like, we don’t know how long this is going to last. Celebrity or not, that would be hard.
Also, why do they carry mugs with them everywhere? Is that an L.A. thing?
I’ve seen it all the time in L.A., even before lockdown. In some friend groups or social groups, you almost get shamed for having a plastic water bottle. But again, even if it’s a legit romance, they still care about the optics. It’s like, “Hey, let’s bring our mugs so we can also show people we’re environmentally conscientious.” Image still matters in lockdown.
Have there been any other celebrity moments that particularly tickled you, or any bits of juicy gossip you’ve heard that have satiated your hunger?
This is not something I’ve been able to verify yet, but I did hear that there are publicists who have been trying to make very clear to their clients that they need to be careful what they’re doing on Zoom and FaceTime, and whatever they’re putting into the cloud, because if something gets out … It’s related to what they’re sharing: photos, video chats that might get a little racy. You know, they’re communicating with people the way we all communicate with people. And it’s not just the racy stuff. If they’re talking shit on Zoom and someone hits the record button, it’s preserved.
I think one of the top stories that happened to occur during this lockdown has been Meghan and Harry moving to L.A. We were worried we’d have nothing to talk about, and then they go to the Ground Zero of celebrities, like TMZ zone. It’s been amazing! They’re the prince and princess who ran away from the castle, slummed it in Canada for three months (I’m Canadian, so that’s a joke), and then decided to move to Los Angeles in the middle of a pandemic. Now, they’re away from the castle, wearing face masks and gloves, and delivering meals to people. It’s a pretty iconic pop-culture moment.
Do you know if the paparazzi are self-distancing when they take these photos?
If there’s a job that’s suited for physical distancing, it would be paparazzi. A lot of them shoot with long lenses, or from across the street anyway. Sometimes they shoot from their cars — in L.A., at least. I’m not sure if paparazzi is an essential service, though. [Laughs.]
Paparazzi photos of celebrities wearing masks are so surreal. Do you think it just goes to show that it’s not even really about seeing their faces? That we just need a body part of theirs doing something?
Celebrity gossip is essentially just storytelling, and storytelling is more than just a picture. If you see a photo of a celebrity wearing a mask, the mask is not the focus. It’s more: Where were they? Who were they with? Where are they going? You can tell that story without seeing their face. Like, okay, Chris Pine and Annabelle Wallis went to get groceries, that must mean their relationship is that serious — they’re clearly living together. They’re in love! That’s the story.
That helps explain why so many people miss gossip right now — they miss stories.
Gossiping is innately human; we’re never going to stop. It’s human to want to communicate and to tell stories to each other, and share stories with each other. What stories you choose to share and why can say so much. For example, you and I were just gossiping about Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas. To me, our conversation was really about quarantining with someone you weren’t legitimately in love with — about relationships and human connection, and who you want to be spending your time with. Your analysis of Ben and Ana actually tells me something about you: what you’re looking for in a companion, if you even need companionship, and how you want to spend your time. Those are valuable clues for me to understand you as a person better. That, to me, is why gossip will always be around.
Well, this has definitely been one of the most fun conversations I’ve had all day.
See! And we did it over celebrities.