/How the Pandemic Made Gossip Essential Again

How the Pandemic Made Gossip Essential Again

HBO Max’s upcoming reboot of Gossip Girl started shooting on the famed steps of the Met this month. I’m spiraling from the realization that I’m old enough for my teen shows to be rebooted — but it also got me thinking about the original show’s ending.

The OG Gossip Girl closed in 2012 with the revelation that Dan Humphrey (Penn Badgley), a white heterosexual man, was the shit-talking titular anonymous blogger of the Upper East Side. Fans hated this long-awaited unmasking and denounced Humphrey’s legitimacy as Gossip Girl. After six seasons of catty one-liners, how could a straight guy be the sharp-tongued, high-pitched narrator voiced by Kristen Bell?

The Gossip Girl finale was the culmination of the intense tabloid-blog heyday that was the 2000s, and it even made the viewer complicit: While we watched Chuck and Blair make out, our protagonist was stalking his high school classmates using the same vicious fervor Harvey Levin’s TMZ paparazzo deployed to tail Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton in 2006.

But it had a jarringly modern twist: It revealed a pretentious, book-smart man who loved gossiping just as much as, if not more than, the women he judged for reading Page Six. Humphrey’s brand of gossip — the everyday drama of human life, written “with teeth,” per his editor — was also the basis of his successful journalism career, landing him a book deal and published work in Vanity Fair and the New Yorker. What’s more, the finale closes with a voiceover from a new Gossip Girl, suggesting that she (or he) is immortal — that gossip is the true driving force behind every great New York story, a thesis seemingly proven by this extended-universe 2021 reboot and its new cast.

It’s an old canard that women and gay men simply ~love to gossip~. But all my life I’ve seen straight dudes — my dad, my two brothers and the many heteros I work with here at MEL — secretly spill tea and pass it on (though a bit less gracefully than women or queer people). Straight men rarely admit to loving gossip, as Miles Klee wrote in 2018. Instead, they often abruptly end juicy conversations after realizing what they’re doing — or they self-soothe by calling it “talking shop.”

And so, it seems as if we’re ripe for a new definition of gossip. In 2019, researchers at the University of California-Riverside studied the nuances of who gossips and what they gossip about. They also redefined the word. “Gossip, in the academic’s view, is not bad. It’s simply talking about someone who isn’t present. That talk could be positive, neutral or negative,” they say. To gossip, then, is to show you care.

And in quarantine, we found out that a lot of people do care, because this year, a cultural hankering for gossip has come back in a big way.

A decade after the aughts tabloid bubble turned gossip into a pejorative, the pandemic is now bolstering a content climate in which celebrities publish their private lives on Instagram. Paparazzi wait in the cold for stars’ boring quarantine walks while the demand for gasp-worthy, eyebrow-raising info only intensifies.

Who will answer the call?

DeuxMoi Is the New Us Weekly

Sorry, HBO Max: The new Gossip Girl is on Instagram. DeuxMoi is a private account with a mission to democratize celebrity scandal. Its anonymous curators publish user-submitted (and unverified) sightings and rumors, all posted to Instagram stories.  The fact-check-free content includes anonymous “studio execs” claiming Blake Lively can’t get booked in Hollywood, Andy Cohen wandering around the West Village and Nicki Minaj requesting a travel pack of Sutter Home Chardonnay in her rider. It’s TMZ for the social media era, making readers like you the bullish reporters.

DeuxMoi is also the closest mirror we have to Perez Hilton drawing dicks on celebrities’ faces. Except this time, celebrities — or their publicists and fans — get to respond with their own phallic drawings. The anonymous account owner with nearly 400,000 followers told Paper they receive 300 to 500 tips a day, and DeuxMoi happily embraces a gotta-hear-both-sides approach: scathing claims about stars like Emma Watson along with defenses from followers who’ve had positive experiences with the actress.

Because DeuxMoi’s blind items are user-submitted, they feel organic even if some of them are likely lies. Though it launched in 2013, DeuxMoi’s popularity has soared in quarantine as a digital alternative to the happy-hour conversations we miss most. Call it frivolous or unimportant, but reading DeuxMoi is what it feels like to invest in a friendship and a deep investment in the nuances of someone else’s life.

“I feel like I’m the moderator of a live message board,” says the woman behind DeuxMoi, who reached me on a blocked phone number. (For those wondering, Ms. DeuxMoi won’t reveal who she is, but she tells me she doesn’t work in the tabloid industry.) “It’s all about community. That’s why the account grew.”

DeuxMoi is a blind-item blog, the most outlandish version of gossip publishing. But up and down the reporting world, gossip continues to drive the most high-impact — and highbrow — storytelling. Even in the New York Times.

‘Today’s Gossip Is Tomorrow’s News’

Ben Smith, the Times media columnist and former BuzzFeed editor-in-chief, disagrees with my premise: He doesn’t see himself as the media business’ Gossip Girl. All the same, he’s built a beat on divulging the tricky personal lives (and private reputations) of publishing heavyweights, celebrity journalists and cable news CEOs. In just nine months, Smith has become a destination voice, known for “delicious” pieces on writers like Ronan Farrow, Andrew Sullivan and Maggie Haberman, along with even juicier, can’t-believe-they-admitted-it reporting on the upper crust, such as this piece on publishers fleeing to the Hamptons during the pandemic.

Smith sees gossip as a pejorative used to dismiss information that is perceived as not important enough to report. “I have always been a believer in breaking news, which isn’t the same as gossip,” Smith tells me.

Writer Allie Jones, who publishes the celebrity tea newsletter Gossip Time, has a different philosophy: that gossip is a powerful underlying force in political reporting. “Gossip is kind of like taking the temperature,” she tells me. That is, tips (uncorroborated rumors) and scoops (reported pieces with a dramatic hook and, ideally, real-world implications) both exist under the umbrella term of gossip, which also includes tabloids and blind items.

Jones is an alumna of Gawker, the now-defunct news site known for publishing blind items alongside reported investigations. “The ethos was definitely that what people are gossiping about is news and could become a huge story,” she tells me.

This brand of gossip-as-news surely benefits from our gossip-in-chief. Donald Trump is a reality TV president who built a reputation by manipulating New York tabloids. “We have a celebrity president, so the line is pretty blurred in terms of what is politics reporting and what is celebrity reporting,” Jones says. Political reporters covering the Trump administration and the culture around it, such as the goings-on of Fox News and White House reporting post-Trump, will inherently be based on gossip — regardless of whether the pros see it that way.

Smith sees media and politics reporting as more high-stakes. “I don’t mean to cast any aspersions on [gossip] at all — like, it’s interesting to whoever’s interested. I do think that I generally try to break news that has some implication that is interesting to you, even if you don’t personally know the people involved,” he says.

Of course, gossip can have real-world implications, not just entertainment value. In the workforce, gossip is a backdoor for vital information that circulates among low-tier and minority employees for self-protection. The Shitty Media Men list, the now-defunct Conde Elevator Twitter account and statements from media unions about disappointing meetings with leadership are all pieces of gossip that proved crucial in exposing what leaders wanted to keep quiet.

Indeed, for marginalized people, gossip is survival. “Gossip about which men are dangerous, which men you shouldn’t go on to lunch alone with — that sort of information is currency that women use to protect one another,” writer Anne Helen Petersen told NPR in 2017.

Tabloids Are Dead. Long Live Tabloids.

It makes sense that gossip still can’t fully shake its brazenly vulgar connotation. After all, it killed Princess Diana, mocked Britney Spears’ 2007 mental health crisis and ridiculed Amy Winehouse’s addictions.

Even today’s celebrity news sites don’t want to be associated with terms like gossip and tabloid. “Pop Crave is trying to be the opposite of [tabloids],” one of its editors, Drew Howard, says of the popular Twitter account and news site devoted to celebrities and stan culture. “Tabloids are very different. Tabloids are people leaking information about themselves, and it’s very deceitful and spreading lies.”

The decline of tabloids largely came as a blessing to celebrities. We’re in an era where ingénue actresses and celebrity power couples can control their own narratives and interact with fans on Twitter and Instagram. They don’t need million-dollar People pregnancy announcements or paparazzi photos at Saddle Ranch to gain attention. All they need is an Instagram account and a daughter on TikTok. This effect has only grown stronger in the pandemic, with one notable exception: Knives Out actress Ana de Armas, who took the dearth of celebrity outings to ensure herself as a star-hungry paparazzi’s only star.

The dynamic may be shifting, but it doesn’t mean controversial celebrities can successfully masquerade as squeaky-clean. Being gossiped about is integral to the business of being a public persona. “Why would you want to go see a movie with Chris Pratt if you don’t like him as a person?” DeuxMoi tells me. “It’s horrible to say because they’re also human beings, but that’s what the movie business is.”

That’s where DeuxMoi, which monitors celebrities’ lives offline, comes in. It and Pop Crave are the modern-day version of Us Weekly’s “Stars — They’re Just Like Us!” column, telling us how Florence Pugh is fangirling (relatably!) over Harry Styles’ Vogue cover. “It’s a lighter touch now,” Jones says, meaning we’ve grown more understanding of celebrities struggling with mental health, substance abuse and family issues.

We’re Our Own Gossip Girls

Traditional paparazzi have not zipped up their camera bags. Old-school tabloids like Us Weekly, National Enquirer and now even Perez Hilton and TMZ have turned their focus to TikTok stars as the future of celebrity gossip.

These young celebs don’t have Vogue cover shoots and Netflix sitcoms to establish their name beyond social media. What they do have in abundance is no shame in being caught socializing during a pandemic at BOA Steakhouse in West Hollywood. “From the height of tabloids until now, you’ve always had a D-list celebrity who’s overexposed, so they’re just filling that role,” Jones says. Basically, then, Dixie D’Amelio and Noah Beck are today’s Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt.

The newest player in the game is the paparazzi YouTube channel Hollywood Fix, which is eschewing movie stars entirely in favor of TikTok hype houses. “All the popular ones pretty much only hang out with popular ones. If you catch one, you catch two or three or four,” Hollywood Fix founder Fletcher Greene told the New York Times. “It’s not like if you get Ben Affleck you also get Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez and Madonna. They don’t hang out like that.” There are also tea accounts and Instagram shade pages devoted solely to influencer drama.

Dixie D’Amelio (sister of Charli) in Hollywood Fix. Screenshot via Instagram

Even a no-name tweeter or TikToker can be a celebrity for a day. TikTok famously democratizes its For You page, giving anyone (who is hot enough) a decent chance at fleeting stardom. Last week on Twitter, prompts like “the wildest place you’ve done it?” circulated, giving social media the vibe of a freshman creative writing class. These were calls for salacious information, an opportunity to tell on yourself and be the celebrity.

High- or lowbrow, all gossip-based content has a similar effect: It makes us feel like we’re part of a community, especially as our real-life social networks feel more and more distant. Next year, in all likelihood, many of us will be yearning for connection even more, watching Manhattan private-school scandals as ambient TV while scrolling through DeuxMoi on Instagram and reading TMZ headlines on Twitter.

As long as juicy scoops remain a reliable serotonin boost, Gossip Girl lives on.

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