The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Gossip explains our culture. And nobody explains it like Lainey Gossip.

“My job is to dissect the celebrity ecosystem,” says Elaine Lui, the force behind popular website Left: Lui poses on the set of “Etalk.” Right: She records radio hits after taping “The Social” and “Etalk.” (Sarah Palmer/For The Washington Post)

As Elaine Lui Ubers across downtown Toronto one Thursday night in March, the phone of the Internet’s most trusted gossip glows with a tip: Some grimy website has obtained naked pictures of Meghan Markle, Prince Harry’s bride-to-be.

Lui isn’t 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 “a line between smut and sad.” How does she classify nude pictures of a soon-to-be member of the royal family?

“None of the British tabloids will run with it,” 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 — making out and splashing around on private beach property — that never saw the light of the Sun.

Lui’s royal source, who’s been slipping intel her way for five years, was quite familiar with the beach photos in question.

“They did cause a rather large panic over here,” 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’s site.

“You know what it is? I think Lainey actually has a moral compass,” the person said. “And that is so important when dealing with journalists. . . . Because in entertainment news, you can really make the wrong decision by aligning yourself with someone that will eventually screw you over.”

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’s part investigative reporter, part breaking-news ethicist, part social anthropologist.

“My job,” she says, “is to dissect the celebrity ecosystem.”

Lui doesn’t just cover celebrities. She covers celebrity, which she understands is not some incidental byproduct of an entertainment career but a profession unto itself.

“The conversation about celebrity gossip is a conversation about ourselves, not about the subject,” Lui says. “It’s an illumination about who we are and what we believe in.”

“She fills in what celebrities themselves and what publicists are always trying to erase or elide,” said Anne Helen Petersen, a culture and celebrity reporter at BuzzFeed.

When it comes to these Markle photos, the pressing question to Lui is: “Why are women’s bodies used this way? What is it about a woman’s naked body that can be weaponized against her?” Yes, it’s a violation of privacy. But this is not just about privacy. It’s about the misogyny that runs just below society’s surface like a sewer system, a toxic current that’s never not lurking beneath our feet.

“What I like about Lainey is that she does look at celebrity news and gossip as a way to understand society,” said Bonnie Fuller, the Us Weekly veteran and current editor of who is often credited with creating the modern celebrity tabloid.

“What Elaine and I agree about is that gossip has been around since the dawn of humanity,” Fuller said. “The 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.”

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 “the exchange of valuable information.”

There’s 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’s 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.

“No question, I think that the gossip has become fact,” Lui said of the Weinstein fallout. “Once that whisper network gossip was legitimized — and I hate to even associate those two words together because it suggests gossip isn’t legitimate, and I don’t want to ever suggest that gossip isn’t legitimate. I want to say that a lot of the exclusive s--- that I’ve reported is legitimate. It’s authentic. It ends up being real, later on.”

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: “Ashley Judd Reveals Sexual Harassment by Studio Mogul.”

“That’s what you call classic gossip,” Lui said. “Because you know who covered that story? Gossip blogs. Nobody was talking about it on CNN. Probably ‘Entertainment Tonight’ didn’t cover it. Probably ‘Access Hollywood’ didn’t cover it. But the blogs did. I did.”

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’s Entertainment District.

She’s a co-host of CTV’s “The Social,” which tapes live daily; she’s a senior correspondent for the show “Etalk”; she co-hosts the “Show Your Work” 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 — blogging — 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’s hair in curls while Lui types. “If you’re looking for a word to describe Lainey, ‘efficient’ would be it,” she says.

After a morning meeting for “The Social,” Lui digs into what will become her biggest story of the day. Jennifer Lopez is on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar, and in the profile, Lopez describes her own #MeToo moment: A director told her “to take off my shirt and show my boobs,” 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. “What I don’t like doing is making women responsible for men’s actions,” she says. “Jennifer Lopez didn’t sexually harass anybody.”

“I’d like the focus to still be on Benny Medina here,” as opposed to on Lopez for employing him, Lui says. “Unfortunately, the only way to him is through her.”

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’s alleged violence? As his most high-profile client, why shouldn’t she?

Is it constructive — is it fair — for Lui to force the conversation? She doesn’t know. With her hair still pinned in cooling curls atop her head, she hustles to “The Social” 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’s reply: “What’s a blog?” It was 2003.

She wrote her blog from 6 to 10 p.m., after getting home from her day job. “I had no sources. It was not a career,” she says.

Only a few months after went live, “I started getting contacted by people who were working in the industry who were like, ‘I really like your take on this situation. You’re not far off,’ ” Lui says. By 2006, it was her career, as she took Lainey Gossip full time.

Though she didn’t 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 — a fleet of voice-y, irreverent, online-only upstarts that were about to disrupt the entire celebrity gossip industry.

“No one — People magazine, Entertainment Weekly, E! — none of them saw these gossip bloggers coming,” BuzzFeed’s Petersen said. “In the mid-2000s, they really significantly and permanently changed the rules about how this stuff works.”

The established players respected formal guidelines set by publicists and traded soft-focus, sycophantic “stories” 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 “the ultimate case study of humanity.”

Her stories explored not just that day’s scuttlebutt but also the psychological underpinnings of the public’s fixations. Take Lui’s 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?

“I’ll talk about it from the perspective of: Why is everyone so keen on her having a baby? What does that say about us?” Lui said. “That projection is a lens that we can dissect about society’s views on how women contribute to our community and what being the ‘ideal woman’ is.”

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. “I feel like that’s what the Internet has given us an opportunity to do: lift up these voices.”

The site has gone from being ahead of its time to almost retro in its aesthetic, tone and style. “She doesn’t write thinkpieces in the way we think of them,” said Petersen, referring the type of articles that have come to dominate online discourse. “They don’t have incredible kickers. They’re plotless. They’re so bloggy.”

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’ off-screen lives, some of whom she’s been working with for more than 10 years. “Hollywood people gossip about each other,” she says. “And if you think about a film set, it’s not just the actors and the director.” They’re surrounded by a team: lighting, editing, wardrobe, hair and makeup, production assistants, craft services. “All those people observe all the things.” (Who gives the best dirt? “Drivers are great.”)

Later on her typically packed Thursday, after taping “The Social” and some quick shots for “Etalk,” Lui is still stuck on the J.Lo story. She does a little research, tunneling through Instagram — first Lopez’s account, then Alex Rodriguez’s (Yankee/boyfriend) — and finds, in her site’s archives, a since-deleted post from Rodriguez’s page of Lopez with Medina from last September. Since the allegations broke, Lui says, “I haven’t seen him show up on her social.”

Lui finally has her game plan: to frame the Medina question not as a moral issue but as a professional one. “From a business and brand point of view, should she keep him as her manager?” she asks. “I’m positioning it as a work decision. A business decision. I’m relating this back to: Show your work.”

The post, titled “JLo’s affirmations,” goes live at 3:04 p.m.

“I don’t 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’s platform, what she’s 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?”

As long as we’re 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 “Keeping Up With the Kardashians”; more people who can spot Beyoncé anywhere than can name a single song off “Lemonade”; more people who follow Angelina Jolie’s 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’s the show with the characters everyone knows, the feuds we’re all fighting over, the plot twists we’re all following.

Over old-fashioneds at the Shangri-La Hotel, workweek in the rearview, Lui describes which celebrities are “essential to gossip” like she’s evaluating characters on a prestige drama.

Take Taylor Swift. “You know in scripted movies and TV, over the last couple of years, we’ve been talking about the importance of needing complicated women?” Lui says. “You can’t just have a strong woman. It’s 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’s an arc. One day she’s amazing, just like Don! He can deliver the most amazing sales pitch. . . . And then he goes home and he’s a complete d---!”

“If the purpose of gossip is to have a bigger conversation about values, we need a Taylor,” Lui says. “Because not everybody’s going to like her. Not everybody’s 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?

“You might not like her, but she’ll never not be interesting. And in the gossip world, that’s what I want.”

Lui returns to a thread she’s 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.

“How many 24-hour sports channels are there?” Lui asks. She notes that “SportsCenter” and its ilk are simply reporting on gossip.

“Who’s getting traded to who? Who’s signing a deal? What happened in the locker room? . . . That’s 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?” She is exasperated but delighted to be on one of her favorite tears. “It’s the same!”

It’s 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’s 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 “talk” and “action” 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’re undergoing now.

“Talking is action. Conversation is action,” Lui says. “The result of a conversation is that you’ve conversed; you’ve heard each other. That’s an action.”

“Is my goal to make men take gossip seriously? I wouldn’t say that, every day, that is my goal,” Lui says. “I will say that it’s my goal to have women’s conversations be prioritized. And I think we’re getting there.”