Notes from Lainey Lui’s master class on celebrity culture
Acouple of years ago, CTV flew me from Victoria to Vancouver to shoot an interview for an eTalk special on the Scotiabank Giller Prize. A producer emailed me a week before the taping: “Lainey (laineygossip.com/an eTalk reporter) will be hosting the special.” Curious, I followed the link to a page whose white-on-pink banner featured a stylized graphic of a woman holding a martini, her lips parted sardonically. The tag line read, “Calling all Smuthounds.” I had to review the producer’s email to make sure there hadn’t been a mistake. But sure enough, Lainey and I were to discuss my nominated book, This Cake Is for the Party, and then decorate a cake together on-camera. I was asked to arrive “camera ready.”
On the morning I showed up outside the Butter Baked Goods café, in a borrowed BCBG dress and tinted lip gloss, Elaine Lui greeted me warmly. Her smile has an endearing lopsidedness, and she speaks slightly out of the side of her mouth, curling her words like Drew Barrymore. She introduced herself as Lainey, and then put on neon pink lipstick. She applied it expertly, without even looking in a mirror. I couldn’t stop staring at it. Who wears neon pink lipstick?1 The crew asked me to stand in front of the camera while they fiddled with the lenses.
“Um, should I brush my hair? ” I asked.
“You look great,” one of the guys said.
“Oh, yeah,” said Lainey, smiling. “That’s a great dress.”
We walked down the sidewalk and into the bakery six or seven times, so the crew could get a good entrance shot. She moved with the coiled energy of a small wildcat (I tried to engage my core). As we paced, she asked thoughtful questions about my work. Eventually, I realized she wasn’t asking me these questions as part of the interview prep; we weren’t wired with microphones yet. She just wanted to talk about writing.
Inside the vanilla-scented bakery, though, she armed herself with a set of cue cards. “How is cake, or food, and the milestones it can represent—how does it have a place in your book? ” she asked.
The answer was embedded in her question: food represents milestones in our lives. What else could I add? What would she ask me next? Would I know the answer? I felt that clay-in-the-stomach sensation that I haven’t had since I mispronounced “Marquis de Sade” in my honours class in cultural studies with Professor Baross.
By the time we were attempting to edge our cake with pink icing, I was fully crushing on Ms. Lui. She was audacious and smart, but humble, too. “Look how perfectly even her squiggles are,” she exclaimed on-camera. “Do you have good penmanship? ” Then, pointing to her side of the cake, “This is the haphazard blogger, and this”—indicating my side of the cake—“is the very precise short story writer.”
When the camera crew packed up and left, she offered me a ride back to my friend’s house. She refreshed her pink lipstick when we stopped at a traffic light (again, no mirror). I held our cake box in my lap. I felt so comfortable in her company now, I was ready to risk asking her a personal question, something that had been nagging at me all day.
Me: Lainey, are you a writer?
Lainey: I write a blog.
Elaine Lui, I have since found out, is one of the world’s top celebrity bloggers.2 More than a million people read her blog daily, and she writes 2,500 to 4,000 words a day. On a heavy day, like during awards season, she’ll write 5,000 or 6,000 words. For comparison? This article is about 2,800 words. I had two months to write it.
She has become such a hot commodity (there’s the eTalk gig, and at the time of this interview she was also preparing a TEDx talk and working on assignments for VitaminWater, her corporate partner) that she has had to hire regular columnists, experts in television and film. She pays them by the word, which is rare in online journalism. “Writers have to live,” she said over the phone when I spoke to her last fall, two years after our bakery interview. “I want to tell you that I respect what writers do.”
To prepare for this profile, I subscribed to LaineyGossip. Initially, I was overwhelmed by the lengthy daily instalments. Each email contains about ten stories: not just celebrity fashion, hair, and lifestyle critique, but award show post-mortems and breaking news from Hollywood. It’s not all Brad and Angelina either. I mean, I didn’t know who Channing Tatum was, let alone what it meant that his star was rising as Bradley Cooper’s faded. Who is Bradley Cooper? Is he the one with the weird blue eyes?
I’m not totally clueless. These days, celebrity manifests in almost every form of cultural expression, from fashion to film to music to art. But I discovered that I am an amateur when I told a few of my friends that I’d be talking to Lui for this article.
Karen (author): I have a diploma from her Faculty of Celebrity Studies!3
Nat (TV producer): My love for Lainey is pure and true!
Lisa (teacher): Fucking WOW!
So there was a learning curve. But with knowledge comes power, and I began to study the form in earnest: for the better part of a month, I read Lui’s online archives, following links through her labyrinth of blog posts for context. To gain more perspective, I read the secondary resources (Vanity Fair, People, Hello!). Under her virtual tutelage, and with the support of my more educated friends, I eventually graduated to intermediate, then advanced, gossip. Lui writes:
We talk all the time about social messaging and specifically the insidious ones meant for women—pink and princess-ing, body image, the trappings of romance, the list gets longer and longer and longer. And the internal argument we have with ourselves—or at least the one I have with myself—is how to separate what we/I actually feel or think or perceive with what we’ve/I’ve been conditioned to feel or think or perceive.4
Reading LaineyGossip is like being in a media criticism class—except your cool, funny, chic, sarcastic, smart best friend is teaching. You show up for class early because you can’t wait to start thinking about stuff. Lui articulates ideas you haven’t even been able to put into words yet: why the Anthropologie catalogue makes you angry, or why that Mad Men episode felt insulting. She invites you to look at pop culture critically, and she wants you to develop your own insights.
“I’m interested more in the technique of gossip rather than the actual gossip,” she explains. “To me, what is much more interesting about these stories is the decision making behind how these stories come out. A good example of that lately would be Katie Holmes.”
I know this will be old news by the time you read this. That’s one thing online journalism understands: the value of immediacy. Lui was shocked when I told her how long it would be before this story came out in print. So much could happen between now and then! But stay with me. She has a point about Holmes and Tom Cruise:
When you break it down, it’s a divorce. Two famous people who share a child got divorced. What makes it more interesting is that she clearly used the media to facilitate her exit from this marriage. So she turned a very private situation into a public discussion and then recruited the public to be on her side, making it very difficult for him to assert his will the way that he had asserted it in the past. My interest is in that play, in that gamesmanship. Because that’s human behaviour.
When she speaks, her voice is controlled and authoritative. Even though I’m recording our call so I can refer to it later, I feel a primal need to take notes as she lectures. I scramble for a pen and paper. She continues: “When done right—and I’m actively trying to do it right—gossip is actually much more insightful and much more of a discussion about who we are as a culture right now than many other, more respectable distractions.”
But still, it feels funny, doesn’t it? Reading an online gossip column instead of the newspaper in the morning—isn’t it like eating a bag of salt and pepper Kettle Chips for breakfast? An editor of this magazine described how, on her evening commute, she pretzels her Us magazine (or, God forbid, In Touch) into a form that is ideally both readable and unrecognizable.
When I tell Lainey this, she laughs knowingly and defends the editor. “I would say that the study of gossip, the reading of gossip, the knowing of celebrity gossip, contributes more to understanding ourselves and the people around us than sports does,” she says. “And nobody has to be ashamed of watching the football game.” (So true. The last time I mentioned football at a literary event, I was trying to impress people.5) Where does the shame come from?
Perhaps it comes down to the fact that gossip is essentially about story. We consume stories because we want to relate to the characters; we are looking for a standard against which to measure ourselves. Ultimately, then, when we judge celebrity behaviour we are revealing a great deal about our own beliefs and morals.
“Gossip cannot be consumed without bias,” Lui explains. “It’s not one of those objective subjects. Everyone understands a gossip story throughout the prism of their own experience.” We might be embarrassed to admit that we care about a celebrity breakup because our concern, even if it’s disguised as gossip, is too revealing. Think about it: nobody has to reveal anything about how they want to be treated in a relationship when they discuss a football game.
“I do think there is some sexism involved,” Lainey adds. “It’s primarily categorized as a female preoccupation—that women who talk about gossip are being ‘catty,’ while men talk about politics. As we have evolved, I wonder if some women feel the need to assert themselves and distance themselves from that activity.”
As a counterpoint, she acts as a crusader for gossip,6 actively promoting the idea that paying attention to celebrity stories and, more important, being aware of our reactions to celebrity stories, is a feminist practice. Consider her take on Taylor Swift:
Love and cupcakes, castles and fairy tales—is that all she is? Other than hand hearts, what do young fans, female fans, take away from Taylor Swift? I worry that love is all they do take away. Love as the only goal for girls. That that’s all we do. That that’s all we want.
Love is important—of course it is. But is love… the only thing? Specifically, romantic love? In a society that is still predominantly patriarchal, what is the consequence of love as a girl’s primary occupation?7
If we acknowledge that we are compelled by particular stories because we’re looking for reflections of ourselves and that we want to find meaning and reinforcement in those reflections, then what Lainey writes next is particularly telling (not just about Swift, but about Elaine Lui, too):
Taylor Swift had her own publishing deal at 14. She wrote over 250 songs but would not let the labels hand them off to other singers because she wanted to hold on to her own material. By the time she was 20, she set the record for youngest artist ever to top the year’s best selling album list…. I could list all her awards and even more accomplishments but you already know my point—that Taylor Swift is an extremely accomplished young woman and that, yes, even though we write what we know and she knows a lot about her (limited kind of) love(s), Taylor Swift knows a lot more than just love. But for some reason, what we get about Taylor Swift, from Taylor Swift, is only love. And I’m not sure where the circle starts here—whether or not it’s an image she insists on pushing or whether or not it’s an assumption we insist on pushing on her. I do know that I’m ready for a different one though.8
Elaine Lui grew up in Toronto, graduated from the University of Western Ontario, in London, then moved to Vancouver in 2000, when she was twenty-six.9 While on leave from fundraising for the University of British Columbia, to care for her ailing mother, she got into the habit of sending a small group of friends emails with her observations on Hollywood culture. They forwarded them to other friends, and within a few years her distribution list became so unwieldy—over 3,000 people—that she created a blog to handle the demand.10
By 2006, the blog needed her full-time attention, so she decided to take a risk and quit her second fundraising job, with the non-profit Covenant House.11 It turned out to be a profitable leap: her husband and partner, Jacek, left his job at Rogers Communications a year later, and both now work full time on the website. Lui, who turned thirty-nine in September, has grown and changed along with LaineyGossip. It’s not just a blog anymore; it’s a brand. She has developed a conviction about the cultural value of her work, and this belief fuels her mission.
Even so, she puts herself into a different category than that of “literary” writers. She has more readers than any author I know, but she’s shy about her skills. “Whenever I think of writing something outside of my blog, I feel sick,” she tells me. “I have a hard time believing that I could be considered in the same profession as people who are writing what I think is so brilliant. I’m even too afraid to join a class.”
Last summer, she wrote the following about James Franco:
It’s an eye-rolly and pretentious thing to say but true nonetheless that writing is only good, really good, when the writer is at his most vulnerable, especially when that vulnerability means exposing the parts of himself that make him uncomfortable….
This is what’s missing from Franco’s writing. This is what would elevate his words:
Some actual doubt.
Not that all writers have to be plagued by it but without it there would be no drive….
Insecurity is the weakness of the actor. Insecurity is the lifeblood of the writer.12
There is nothing more stifling to a writer’s creative output than telling her that she should write a book and that it will be really good or, even worse, that it will sell. I know this. Still, I have to ask: will she write a book?
“Um, I’m going to—” she starts, and then stops. Her voice goes quiet. “I am maybe a little bit further along in coming to a place where I might want to write something other than my blog,” she says. Her voice rises uncharacteristically, turning the statement into a question.13
1 Of course, Lainey’s mouth looked totally perfect onscreen, just-bitten pink (the producer sent me a DVD). Mine looked vaguely unappetizing, like chicken giblets.
2 Along with Perez Hilton, Go Fug Yourself, and TMZ.
3 Last summer, Lainey acted as dean of the Faculty of Celebrity Studies, presenting lectures in three Canadian cities.
4 Elaine Lui. “Keira Knightley and Jack Ryan.” LaineyGossip. September 18, 2012.
5 Full disclosure: my insight about the quarterback’s role was based on Matt Saracen from Friday Night Lights.
6 Those are her words: “I will be a crusader for gossip!” she told me.
7 Elaine Lui. “I’ve Had Enough of Your Love.” LaineyGossip. October 1, 2012.
9 When I asked Lainey what brought her to Vancouver, she said, “I moved for love! I was twenty-six at the time, and totally in love.”
10 This was in 2004, before bloggers were ubiquitous (remember when we were still using Friendster?).
11 She still volunteers for Covenant House in Vancouver. Last November, she spent a night sleeping on the street to help raise awareness and money for the youth shelter.
12 Elaine Lui. “James Franco on the Art Form.” LaineyGossip. August 28, 2012.
13 I call her two months later to follow up on a few things and get an exclusive! Random House has accepted a proposal from her. The book is about her mother (known to her blog readers already as the Squawking Chicken). When she talks about the project, she sounds proud and happy, but nervous, too, and I recognize the tremor in her voice. It’s the lifeblood of the writer.
This appeared in the March 2013 issue.