As Elaine Lui Ubers across downtown Toronto one Thursday night in March, the phone of the Internetâs most trusted gossip glows with a tip: Some grimy website has obtained naked pictures of Meghan Markle, Prince Harryâs bride-to-be.
Lui isnât 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 âa line between smut and sad.â How does she classify nude pictures of a soon-to-be member of the royal family?
âNone of the British tabloids will run with it,â 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 â making out and splashing around on private beach property â that never saw the light of the Sun.
Luiâs royal source, whoâs been slipping intel her way for five years, was quite familiar with the beach photos in question.
âThey did cause a rather large panic over here,â said this person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk freely. But there was never a concern the photos would appear on Luiâs site.
âYou know what it is? I think Lainey actually has a moral compass,â the person said. âAnd that is so important when dealing with journalists. .â.â. Because in entertainment news, you can really make the wrong decision by aligning yourself with someone that will eventually screw you over.â
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. Sheâs part investigative reporter, part breaking-news ethicist, part social anthropologist.
âMy job,â she says, âis to dissect the celebrity ecosystem.â
Lui doesnât just cover celebrities. She covers celebrity, which she understands is not some incidental byproduct of an entertainment career but a profession unto itself.
âThe conversation about celebrity gossip is a conversation about ourselves, not about the subject,â Lui says. âItâs an illumination about who we are and what we believe in.â
âShe fills in what celebrities themselves and what publicists are always trying to erase or elide,â said Anne Helen Petersen, a culture and celebrity reporter at BuzzFeed.
When it comes to these Markle photos, the pressing question to Lui is: âWhy are womenâs bodies used this way? What is it about a womanâs naked body that can be weaponized against her?â Yes, itâs a violation of privacy. But this is not just about privacy. Itâs about the misogyny that runs just below societyâs surface like a sewer system, a toxic current thatâs never not lurking beneath our feet.
âWhat I like about Lainey is that she does look at celebrity news and gossip as a way to understand society,â said Bonnie Fuller, the Us Weekly veteran and current editor of HollywoodLife.com who is often credited with creating the modern celebrity tabloid.
âWhat Elaine and I agree about is that gossip has been around since the dawn of humanity,â Fuller said. âThe 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.â
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 âthe exchange of valuable information.â
Thereâs 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 Weinsteinâs 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.
âNo question, I think that the gossip has become fact,â Lui said of the Weinstein fallout. âOnce that whisper network gossip was legitimized â and I hate to even associate those two words together because it suggests gossip isnât legitimate, and I donât want to ever suggest that gossip isnât legitimate. I want to say that a lot of the exclusive s— that Iâve reported is legitimate. Itâs authentic. It ends up being real, later on.â
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: âAshley Judd Reveals Sexual Harassment by Studio Mogul.â
âThatâs what you call classic gossip,â Lui said. âBecause you know who covered that story? Gossip blogs. Nobody was talking about it on CNN. Probably âEntertainment Tonightâ didnât cover it. Probably âAccess Hollywoodâ didnât cover it. But the blogs did. I did.â
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 Torontoâs Entertainment District.
Sheâs a co-host of CTVâs âThe Social,â which tapes live daily; sheâs a senior correspondent for the show âEtalkâ; she co-hosts the âShow Your Workâ 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 â blogging â 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 Luiâs hair in curls while Lui types. âIf youâre looking for a word to describe Lainey, âefficientâ would be it,â she says.
After a morning meeting for âThe Social,â Lui digs into what will become her biggest story of the day. Jennifer Lopez is on the cover of Harperâs Bazaar, and in the profile, Lopez describes her own #MeToo moment: A director told her âto take off my shirt and show my boobs,â 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. âWhat I donât like doing is making women responsible for menâs actions,â she says. âJennifer Lopez didnât sexually harass anybody.â
âIâd like the focus to still be on Benny Medina here,â as opposed to on Lopez for employing him, Lui says. âUnfortunately, the only way to him is through her.â
She goes back and forth. What does accountability look like? What does it mean to be complicit? Why should Lopez have to answer for Medinaâs alleged violence? As his most high-profile client, why shouldnât she?
Is it constructive â is it fair â for Lui to force the conversation? She doesnât know. With her hair still pinned in cooling curls atop her head, she hustles to âThe Socialâ 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. Luiâs reply: âWhatâs a blog?â It was 2003.
She wrote her blog from 6 to 10 p.m., after getting home from her day job. âI had no sources. It was not a career,â she says.
Only a few months after LaineyGossip.com went live, âI started getting contacted by people who were working in the industry who were like, âI really like your take on this situation. Youâre not far off,âââ Lui says. By 2006, it was her career, as she took Lainey Gossip full time.
Though she didnât 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 â a fleet of voice-y, irreverent, online-only upstarts that were about to disrupt the entire celebrity gossip industry.
âNo one â People magazine, Entertainment Weekly, E! â none of them saw these gossip bloggers coming,â BuzzFeedâs Petersen said. âIn the mid-2000s, they really significantly and permanently changed the rules about how this stuff works.â
The established players respected formal guidelines set by publicists and traded soft-focus, sycophantic âstoriesâ 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 âthe ultimate case study of humanity.â
Her stories explored not just that dayâs scuttlebutt but also the psychological underpinnings of the publicâs fixations. Take Luiâs 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?
âIâll talk about it from the perspective of: Why is everyone so keen on her having a baby? What does that say about us?â Lui said. âThat projection is a lens that we can dissect about societyâs views on how women contribute to our community and what being the âideal womanâ is.â
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. âI feel like thatâs what the Internet has given us an opportunity to do: lift up these voices.â
The site has gone from being ahead of its time to almost retro in its aesthetic, tone and style. âShe doesnât write thinkpieces in the way we think of them,â said Petersen, referring the type of articles that have come to dominate online discourse. âThey donât have incredible kickers. Theyâre plotless. Theyâre so bloggy.â
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 celebritiesâ off-screen lives, some of whom sheâs been working with for more than 10 years. âHollywood people gossip about each other,â she says. âAnd if you think about a film set, itâs not just the actors and the director.â Theyâre surrounded by a team: lighting, editing, wardrobe, hair and makeup, production assistants, craft services. âAll those people observe all the things.â (Who gives the best dirt? âDrivers are great.â)
Later on her typically packed Thursday, after taping âThe Socialâ and some quick shots for âEtalk,â Lui is still stuck on the J.Lo story. She does a little research, tunneling through Instagram â first Lopezâs account, then Alex Rodriguezâs (Yankee/boyfriend) â and finds, in her siteâs archives, a since-deleted post from Rodriguezâs page of Lopez with Medina from last September. Since the allegations broke, Lui says, âI havenât seen him show up on her social.â
Lui finally has her game plan: to frame the Medina question not as a moral issue but as a professional one. âFrom a business and brand point of view, should she keep him as her manager?â she asks. âIâm positioning it as a work decision. A business decision. Iâm relating this back to: Show your work.â
The post, titled âJLoâs affirmations,â goes live at 3:04 p.m.
âI donât 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 JLOâs platform, what sheâs 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?â
As long as weâre 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 âKeeping Up With the Kardashiansâ; more people who can spot BeyoncĂ© anywhere than can name a single song off âLemonadeâ; more people who follow Angelina Jolieâs 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. Itâs the show with the characters everyone knows, the feuds weâre all fighting over, the plot twists weâre all following.
Over old-fashioneds at the Shangri-La Hotel, workweek in the rearview, Lui describes which celebrities are âessential to gossipâ like sheâs evaluating characters on a prestige drama.
Take Taylor Swift. âYou know in scripted movies and TV, over the last couple of years, weâve been talking about the importance of needing complicated women?â Lui says. âYou canât just have a strong woman. Itâs 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. Thereâs an arc. One day sheâs amazing, just like Don! He can deliver the most amazing sales pitch. .â.â. And then he goes home and heâs a complete d—!â
âIf the purpose of gossip is to have a bigger conversation about values, we need a Taylor,â Lui says. âBecause not everybodyâs going to like her. Not everybodyâs 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?
âYou might not like her, but sheâll never not be interesting. And in the gossip world, thatâs what I want.â
Lui returns to a thread sheâs 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.
âHow many 24-hour sports channels are there?â Lui asks. She notes that âSportsCenterâ and its ilk are simply reporting on gossip.
âWhoâs getting traded to who? Whoâs signing a deal? What happened in the locker room? .â.â. Thatâs 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?â She is exasperated but delighted to be on one of her favorite tears. âItâs the same!â
Itâs not just sports. So much political coverage over the past 18 months has been about feuds, affairs, sex, betrayals, breakups and elaborate takedown plots. Itâs 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 âtalkâ and âactionâ 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 weâre undergoing now.
âTalking is action. Conversation is action,â Lui says. âThe result of a conversation is that youâve conversed; youâve heard each other. Thatâs an action.â
âIs my goal to make men take gossip seriously? I wouldnât say that, every day, that is my goal,â Lui says. âI will say that itâs my goal to have womenâs conversations be prioritized. And I think weâre getting there.â