As Elaine Lui Ubers across downtown Toronto one Thursday night in March, the phone of the Internet‚Äôs most trusted gossip glows with a tip: Some grimy website has obtained naked pictures of Meghan Markle, Prince Harry‚Äôs bride-to-be.
Lui isn‚Äôt tempted to run them on Lainey Gossip, the website she runs that bears her name and has become something of a mecca for anyone looking for the best, most insightful coverage of celebrities. But should she report on the existence of the photos?
Lui draws ‚Äúa line between smut and sad.‚ÄĚ How does she classify nude pictures of a soon-to-be member of the royal family?
‚ÄúNone of the British tabloids will run with it,‚ÄĚ Lui predicts and is later to be proven correct. To this point, she scrolls through her phone and pulls up racy photos of Meghan and Harry ‚ÄĒ making out and splashing around on private beach property ‚ÄĒ that never saw the light of the Sun.
Lui‚Äôs royal source, who‚Äôs been slipping intel her way for five years, was quite familiar with the beach photos in question.
‚ÄúThey did cause a rather large panic over here,‚ÄĚ said this person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk freely. But there was never a concern the photos would appear on Lui‚Äôs site.
‚ÄúYou know what it is? I think Lainey actually has a moral compass,‚ÄĚ the person said. ‚ÄúAnd that is so important when dealing with journalists. .‚ÄČ.‚ÄČ. Because in entertainment news, you can really make the wrong decision by aligning yourself with someone that will eventually screw you over.‚ÄĚ
Lui, 44, is a gossip evangelist. She believes in its value and its power: As a communication tool, a collective finger on the pulse of our culture, a means of sussing out our morals, our insecurities, our aspirations, our fears. She‚Äôs part investigative reporter, part breaking-news ethicist, part social anthropologist.
‚ÄúMy job,‚ÄĚ she says, ‚Äúis to dissect the celebrity ecosystem.‚ÄĚ
Lui doesn‚Äôt just cover celebrities. She covers celebrity, which she understands is not some incidental byproduct of an entertainment career but a profession unto itself.
‚ÄúThe conversation about celebrity gossip is a conversation about ourselves, not about the subject,‚ÄĚ Lui says. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs an illumination about who we are and what we believe in.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúShe fills in what celebrities themselves and what publicists are always trying to erase or elide,‚ÄĚ said Anne Helen Petersen, a culture and celebrity reporter at BuzzFeed.
When it comes to these Markle photos, the pressing question to Lui is: ‚ÄúWhy are women‚Äôs bodies used this way? What is it about a woman‚Äôs naked body that can be weaponized against her?‚ÄĚ Yes, it‚Äôs a violation of privacy. But this is not just about privacy. It‚Äôs about the misogyny that runs just below society‚Äôs surface like a sewer system, a toxic current that‚Äôs never not lurking beneath our feet.
‚ÄúWhat I like about Lainey is that she does look at celebrity news and gossip as a way to understand society,‚ÄĚ said Bonnie Fuller, the Us Weekly veteran and current editor of HollywoodLife.com who is often credited with creating the modern celebrity tabloid.
‚ÄúWhat Elaine and I agree about is that gossip has been around since the dawn of humanity,‚ÄĚ Fuller said. ‚ÄúThe instinct to gossip has been with us ever since there were more human beings than Adam and Eve. Once you went beyond the first two, there was gossip.‚ÄĚ
Lui knows gossip is typically dismissed as a shallow pastime, described using synonyms for garbage: trash, junk, a waste of time and energy. But gossip, Lui says, is nothing more or less than ‚Äúthe exchange of valuable information.‚ÄĚ
There‚Äôs little prestige in it. But consider the most explosive story of the past year, and the seismic movement it sparked: Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo. Were they not, at their core, stories about gossip?
Rumors of Weinstein‚Äôs sexual deviance oozed through Hollywood for decades. Amid the multitude of reasons it took so long for the alleged violence to come to light is the fact that people who heard the rumors tossed them aside as just that: rumors, unworthy of close inspection.
‚ÄúNo question, I think that the gossip has become fact,‚ÄĚ Lui said of the Weinstein fallout. ‚ÄúOnce that whisper network gossip was legitimized ‚ÄĒ and I hate to even associate those two words together because it suggests gossip isn‚Äôt legitimate, and I don‚Äôt want to ever suggest that gossip isn‚Äôt legitimate. I want to say that a lot of the exclusive s— that I‚Äôve reported is legitimate. It‚Äôs authentic. It ends up being real, later on.‚ÄĚ
Though most readers probably date the breaking of the Weinstein story to October, when the New York Times ran its first piece, Lui points to a Variety article that came out exactly two years earlier: ‚ÄúAshley Judd Reveals Sexual Harassment by Studio Mogul.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúThat‚Äôs what you call classic gossip,‚ÄĚ Lui said. ‚ÄúBecause you know who covered that story? Gossip blogs. Nobody was talking about it on CNN. Probably ‚ÄėEntertainment Tonight‚Äô didn‚Äôt cover it. Probably ‚ÄėAccess Hollywood‚Äô didn‚Äôt cover it. But the blogs did. I did.‚ÄĚ
Two and a half hours before sunrise, Lui wakes up. She spends 10 minutes applying a perfect swoop of black eyeliner and commutes through the piercing pre-dawn cold to her desk in a hot, windowless office at Bell Media Studios in Toronto‚Äôs Entertainment District.
She‚Äôs a co-host of CTV‚Äôs ‚ÄúThe Social,‚ÄĚ which tapes live daily; she‚Äôs a senior correspondent for the show ‚ÄúEtalk‚ÄĚ; she co-hosts the ‚ÄúShow Your Work‚ÄĚ podcast; she spends much of her day sprinting around the Bell Media building to do TV and radio hits. The thing she became famous for ‚ÄĒ blogging ‚ÄĒ is something she squeezes into seven-minute increments between those jobs, while constantly puffing on a black vape pen.
At some point during this frenzy, hairstylist Jordy Maxwell arrives to set reams of Lui‚Äôs hair in curls while Lui types. ‚ÄúIf you‚Äôre looking for a word to describe Lainey, ‚Äėefficient‚Äô would be it,‚ÄĚ she says.
After a morning meeting for ‚ÄúThe Social,‚ÄĚ Lui digs into what will become her biggest story of the day. Jennifer Lopez is on the cover of Harper‚Äôs Bazaar, and in the profile, Lopez describes her own #MeToo moment: A director told her ‚Äúto take off my shirt and show my boobs,‚ÄĚ which she refused to do. What Lopez does not discuss is her manager, Benny Medina, who has been accused of attempted rape. Medina denies the allegations.
Lui weighs whether to raise this omission in her post. ‚ÄúWhat I don‚Äôt like doing is making women responsible for men‚Äôs actions,‚ÄĚ she says. ‚ÄúJennifer Lopez didn‚Äôt sexually harass anybody.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúI‚Äôd like the focus to still be on Benny Medina here,‚ÄĚ as opposed to on Lopez for employing him, Lui says. ‚ÄúUnfortunately, the only way to him is through her.‚ÄĚ
She goes back and forth. What does accountability look like? What does it mean to be complicit? Why should Lopez have to answer for Medina‚Äôs alleged violence? As his most high-profile client, why shouldn‚Äôt she?
Is it constructive ‚ÄĒ is it fair ‚ÄĒ for Lui to force the conversation? She doesn‚Äôt know. With her hair still pinned in cooling curls atop her head, she hustles to ‚ÄúThe Social‚ÄĚ studio for rehearsal.
Lui was 30 years old when she left her job in social work at the University of British Columbia to move home to Toronto to care for her mother. Staving off loneliness, Lui would send a daily email of her musings on celebrity to two of her former colleagues. They started sending it to two friends of theirs, and so on, until Lui had a newsletter with thousands of readers. When her email list grew so big it crashed the server, a friend suggested Lui start a blog. Lui‚Äôs reply: ‚ÄúWhat‚Äôs a blog?‚ÄĚ It was 2003.
She wrote her blog from 6 to 10 p.m., after getting home from her day job. ‚ÄúI had no sources. It was not a career,‚ÄĚ she says.
Only a few months after LaineyGossip.com went live, ‚ÄúI started getting contacted by people who were working in the industry who were like, ‚ÄėI really like your take on this situation. You‚Äôre not far off,‚Äô‚ÄČ‚ÄĚ Lui says. By 2006, it was her career, as she took Lainey Gossip full time.
Though she didn‚Äôt realize it then, Lui was part of an Internet gossip wave, launching her site around the same time as Perez Hilton, dlisted, Just Jared and PopSugar ‚ÄĒ a fleet of voice-y, irreverent, online-only upstarts that were about to disrupt the entire celebrity gossip industry.
‚ÄúNo one ‚ÄĒ People magazine, Entertainment Weekly, E! ‚ÄĒ none of them saw these gossip bloggers coming,‚ÄĚ BuzzFeed‚Äôs Petersen said. ‚ÄúIn the mid-2000s, they really significantly and permanently changed the rules about how this stuff works.‚ÄĚ
The established players respected formal guidelines set by publicists and traded soft-focus, sycophantic ‚Äústories‚ÄĚ for, say, the exclusive rights to wedding photos. Lui and her cohort had no access to protect and, therefore, no incentive to say anything other than what they thought. And where Perez had snark and Just Jared brought almost pathological positivity, Lui saw in gossip ‚Äúthe ultimate case study of humanity.‚ÄĚ
Her stories explored not just that day‚Äôs scuttlebutt but also the psychological underpinnings of the public‚Äôs fixations. Take Lui‚Äôs explanation of that perennial question of gossips: Is Jennifer Aniston Pregnant, or Did She Just Eat Tacos For Lunch to Fill the Crushing Emptiness Inside Her That Only a Baby Can Fill?
‚ÄúI‚Äôll talk about it from the perspective of: Why is everyone so keen on her having a baby? What does that say about us?‚ÄĚ Lui said. ‚ÄúThat projection is a lens that we can dissect about society‚Äôs views on how women contribute to our community and what being the ‚Äėideal woman‚Äô is.‚ÄĚ
Lainey Gossip receives 1.3 million monthly visits and has a deep roster of writers. Lui, who is Chinese Canadian, has made a point to hire mostly women, many of whom are women of color. ‚ÄúI feel like that‚Äôs what the Internet has given us an opportunity to do: lift up these voices.‚ÄĚ
The site has gone from being ahead of its time to almost retro in its aesthetic, tone and style. ‚ÄúShe doesn‚Äôt write thinkpieces in the way we think of them,‚ÄĚ said Petersen, referring the type of articles that have come to dominate online discourse. ‚ÄúThey don‚Äôt have incredible kickers. They‚Äôre plotless. They‚Äôre so bloggy.‚ÄĚ
Lui, who says she has never paid for a story, gets her scoops the old-fashioned way: from people who work behind the scenes and have access to celebrities‚Äô off-screen lives, some of whom she‚Äôs been working with for more than 10 years. ‚ÄúHollywood people gossip about each other,‚ÄĚ she says. ‚ÄúAnd if you think about a film set, it‚Äôs not just the actors and the director.‚ÄĚ They‚Äôre surrounded by a team: lighting, editing, wardrobe, hair and makeup, production assistants, craft services. ‚ÄúAll those people observe all the things.‚ÄĚ (Who gives the best dirt? ‚ÄúDrivers are great.‚ÄĚ)
Later on her typically packed Thursday, after taping ‚ÄúThe Social‚ÄĚ and some quick shots for ‚ÄúEtalk,‚ÄĚ Lui is still stuck on the J.Lo story. She does a little research, tunneling through Instagram ‚ÄĒ first Lopez‚Äôs account, then Alex Rodriguez‚Äôs (Yankee/boyfriend) ‚ÄĒ and finds, in her site‚Äôs archives, a since-deleted post from Rodriguez‚Äôs page of Lopez with Medina from last September. Since the allegations broke, Lui says, ‚ÄúI haven‚Äôt seen him show up on her social.‚ÄĚ
Lui finally has her game plan: to frame the Medina question not as a moral issue but as a professional one. ‚ÄúFrom a business and brand point of view, should she keep him as her manager?‚ÄĚ she asks. ‚ÄúI‚Äôm positioning it as a work decision. A business decision. I‚Äôm relating this back to: Show your work.‚ÄĚ
The post, titled ‚ÄúJLo‚Äôs affirmations,‚ÄĚ goes live at 3:04 p.m.
‚ÄúI don‚Äôt want to undermine her accomplishments and somehow make it seem like she should be to blame, or is partly to blame and this is the frustration and the complication and the difficulty of these conversations. Is it fair to be dragging him into the conversation when it would reduce her shine?
Or is this a better question?
Given JLO‚Äôs platform, what she‚Äôs achieved, what she has planned, from a business perspective, from a brand perspective, should she continue to be managed by him? Does she need to be managed by him? Or is that an unfair question to ask too?‚ÄĚ
As long as we‚Äôre elevating the form here, a theory: Is gossip the new monoculture?
Consider that there are far more people who can pluck Kim Kardashian West from a lineup than have ever deigned to watch ‚ÄúKeeping Up With the Kardashians‚ÄĚ; more people who can spot Beyonc√© anywhere than can name a single song off ‚ÄúLemonade‚ÄĚ; more people who follow Angelina Jolie‚Äôs personal travails and triumphs than have seen any of her past five films.
Maybe nobody watches the same TV shows or listens to the same music anymore. But we all watch the same gossip. It‚Äôs the show with the characters everyone knows, the feuds we‚Äôre all fighting over, the plot twists we‚Äôre all following.
Over old-fashioneds at the Shangri-La Hotel, workweek in the rearview, Lui describes which celebrities are ‚Äúessential to gossip‚ÄĚ like she‚Äôs evaluating characters on a prestige drama.
Take Taylor Swift. ‚ÄúYou know in scripted movies and TV, over the last couple of years, we‚Äôve been talking about the importance of needing complicated woman?‚ÄĚ Lui says. ‚ÄúYou can‚Äôt just have a strong woman. It‚Äôs only true equality when we can have women portrayed like Don Draper and Walter White. In gossip, your characters have to be that, too. Taylor is a Walter White/Don Draper celebrity. There‚Äôs an arc. One day she‚Äôs amazing, just like Don! He can deliver the most amazing sales pitch. .‚ÄČ.‚ÄČ. And then he goes home and he‚Äôs a complete d—!‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúIf the purpose of gossip is to have a bigger conversation about values, we need a Taylor,‚ÄĚ Lui says. ‚ÄúBecause not everybody‚Äôs going to like her. Not everybody‚Äôs going to hate her. In the nexus of that is going to be a discussion about: What bothers us about her? Is she too ambitious? Is she not ambitious enough?
‚ÄúYou might not like her, but she‚Äôll never not be interesting. And in the gossip world, that‚Äôs what I want.‚ÄĚ
Lui returns to a thread she‚Äôs been tugging on these past few days: that the real reason gossip is met with such contempt is because it is a feminized space. Where athletics are perceived as hypermasculine and are, in turn, afforded almost comical reverence, celebrity gossip is a girly, guilty pleasure.
‚ÄúHow many 24-hour sports channels are there?‚ÄĚ Lui asks. She notes that ‚ÄúSportsCenter‚ÄĚ and its ilk are simply reporting on gossip.
‚ÄúWho‚Äôs getting traded to who? Who‚Äôs signing a deal? What happened in the locker room? .‚ÄČ.‚ÄČ. That‚Äôs basically what we do on a gossip blog: Who is going to sign on to this movie? Are they going to get along with this person?‚ÄĚ She is exasperated but delighted to be on one of her favorite tears. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs the same!‚ÄĚ
It‚Äôs not just sports. So much political coverage over the past 18 months has been about feuds, affairs, sex, betrayals, breakups and elaborate takedown plots. It‚Äôs basically gossip, but the characters are mostly powerful men, so their mood swings and, say, trysts with porn stars become push alerts that clog up your phone.
So taking gossip seriously is fundamentally about taking women seriously. It is about recognizing that ‚Äútalk‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúaction‚ÄĚ are not just binaries, the former inferior to the latter, but that conversation is powerful in and of itself. After all, it took women believing in the power of their voices to ignite the awakening we‚Äôre undergoing now.
‚ÄúTalking is action. Conversation is action,‚ÄĚ Lui says. ‚ÄúThe result of a conversation is that you‚Äôve conversed; you‚Äôve heard each other. That‚Äôs an action.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúIs my goal to make men take gossip seriously? I wouldn‚Äôt say that, every day, that is my goal,‚ÄĚ Lui says. ‚ÄúI will say that it‚Äôs my goal to have women‚Äôs conversations be prioritized. And I think we‚Äôre getting there.‚ÄĚ