Two weeks ago when Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin announced they were divorcing, many focused on the labored "conscious uncoupling" argot used in their announcement, which was posted on Paltrow's lifestyle website goop.com.
Elaine Lui, the entertainment reporter and force behind Lainey Gossip (one of the leading celebrity websites, now going into its 10th year) took a different tack and analyzed the ever-shifting boundary between public and private among the rich and famous.
"She just told us the length of time they spent trying to fix their relationship," wrote Lui. "That is the very definition of private. And yet, I can't look at pictures of you walking down a public street with your children? How am I supposed to know which way the wind is blowing for you to consider something 'private' and 'private enough to share on a blog that gets millions of visitors and has now crashed from your sharing of your privacy?'"
More than just reporting on the latest scandal or pregnancy, Lui's website is a must-read for its refusal to take celebrity news at face value. Lui frequently exposes the machinations behind image management; the Celebrity Industrial Complex, she points out, is often at work when paparazzi photos appear of actors and actresses looking like perfect parents, whether these actors are attempting to burnish a reputation or help nudge an Oscar nomination into sure-thing territory.
Last year Lui gave a TED talk centered on the idea that celebrity gossip is about more than gawking or snickering at Hollywood stars — that the conversations gossip sparks usually say more about us than the celebrities themselves.
Witty and blunt, Lui will occasionally refer to her Hong Kong-born mother on Lainey Gossip when making a point about behavior her ma (as Lui refers to her) would find "low classy" or just plain stupid. Nicknamed "Squawking Chicken" as a child, Lui's ma is a caustic, brashly charismatic, take-no-prisoners, larger-than-life figure. Their complicated (but also deeply connected) relationship forms the basis of Lui's new memoir "Listen to the Squawking Chicken," and it is a lovely read about a woman whose force of personality refuses to be ignored: "Ma walks like an elephant and squawks like a chicken, and she has always taught me to do the same. It annoys her to see girls encouraged to behave otherwise."
Her ma is "on the short side of average, small-boned, but obnoxiously dressed," she writes in the book. "Think rhinestones everywhere, and if not rhinestones then sequins, and if not sequins then feathers. Sometimes all of it at the same time." This primed Lui well on the nature of big, brash personalities.
A correspondent for etalk (a Canadian version of "Entertainment Tonight") and the Toronto-based daytime talk show "The Social," Lui comes to Chicago next week to talk about the book as well as the broader role of celebrity gossip in society.
Q: Before we talk about the world of celebrity, I wanted to ask about your mother's reaction to the book, since you reveal private traumas she experienced as a child and young woman, including some terrible treatment from her parents.
A: Listen, she says herself that if you can tell the story of the worst thing that ever happened to you, then you own the story. So there were never any qualms about sharing her personal information. She was really excited for herself. Remember, it's always about her.
Q: You're frank about her strengths but also her flaws.
A: She's OK with it. She has to be because she's the master of giving criticism. My father said to me after reading the book, "You know your mother better than she knows herself." I feel like if I was going to write a book about her, it had to be raw because that's her style.
Q: What's her take on what you do for a living?
A: It's gossip in general that she totally understands. She would take credit for teaching me how to gossip because I learned how to gossip at the mah-jong table.
Q: Talk to me about why you're interested in dissecting celebrity gossip.
A: Gossip is not just about Hollywood. It's a reflection of our culture as a whole. If I were the Dean of Faculty of Celebrity Studies, this is how we would be further analyzing these stories.
Gossip is basically about group behavior management. And, wouldn't you know, a Stanford University study that just came out in January advocated for gossip as healthy for communities and healthy societies, especially as it relates to group standards.
(The study found that "gossip and ostracism can have very positive effects. They are tools by which groups reform bullies, thwart exploitation of 'nice people' and encourage cooperation.")
Q: But look at Lindsay Lohan. She seems to be rewarded for terrible behavior.
A: I'm not sure that Lindsay Lohan has been rewarded. Her career is pretty much shot.
What's interesting, though, is if Lindsay Lohan were a man, would our feelings be the same? Zac Efron seems to be doing fine. (The 26-year-old actor, who has been to rehab twice, allegedly broke his jaw several months ago after fighting in a dicey part of LA while scoring drugs.) You can go farther and look at Charlie Sheen or Robert Downey Jr. But it's not OK for a girl to be an addict?
Q: She's a mess and demanding and basically an awful person. You think there's a double standard?
A: Maybe. The discussion of celebrity can bring about these kinds of conversations and illuminate these ideas.
Something like James Franco hitting on a 17-year-old over social media and his arguably predatory behavior — and the fact that there was absolutely no outrage when that became public could be a reflection of our society's attitude towards rape culture.
Q: The website Defamer has theorized that this was actually a hoax — a kind of performance art stunt whereby Franco was attempting to say something provocative about social media.
A: But if that's even the case, so it's acceptable to make performance art out of the fact that young girls are preyed upon online? Is that acceptable? Because it's art?
And he hasn't actually confirmed that this was fake. Instead, he went on "Live with Kelly and Michael" and said, "Well, you just never know who you're going to meet online" — because it's her fault?
Q: What's your take on Dax Shepard and Kristen Bell's campaign to ban paparazzi photos of celebrity children?
A: First of all, let me say that nobody wants children to be pursued aggressively. But I don't think that's what's at issue here. This isn't about privacy period, but the control of privacy.
Think about the stimulus. If you, a celebrity, are putting your child's photo up on social media or selling those photos to magazines, that is something you decided to do. You're cherry-picking that opportunity, and you're profiting from it. But you're stimulating the interest from us, the readers or the audience. And celebrities want that — they're monetizing that interest — but they want to control it at the same time.
Q: If celebrities throw a photo of their kid up on Instagram, how are they monetizing that?
A: Because those photos oftentimes include products. Like, baby products. And now they're also leveraging this new identity as a parent. I mean, I can't remember the last time Jessica Alba made a movie. But I can certainly remember the last time she was telling me about her career as a mother and trying to sell me mother (accouterments). And a lot of that has to do with how often she's been papped as a mother. It's not accidental.
The Hollywood Reporter actually called her a "mocktress" due to the fact that she no longer makes movies. What she does is, she gets money for appearing in certain clothing items and getting photographed in them. These are the people who live on that side of the celebrity ecosystem.
Q: Shepard and Bell never bring up the fact that there are celebrities who actively promote photos of their children.
A: Well, they can't call out their peers. It's so much easier to put the onus on People magazine and Us Weekly.
I call it the Celebrity Civil War because you have 50 percent of them who legitimately don't want their children to be photographed by the paparazzi, and the other 50 percent who are calling the paparazzi and arranging for the supermarket visit or the photo at the pumpkin patch — or just going to the pumpkin patch that everybody else goes to where these photographers always are.
So there seems to be a divide among celebrities themselves. They can't agree within their own community on what they perceive to be standard behavior. They can't agree whether or not they should be pimping out their children. And yet we (the consumers) are supposed to be able to figure out where the line is? I don't think that's fair. Why are you, the celebrity, putting the blame on me before turning inward and talking to your colleagues about how they are affecting this?
And listen, Dax Shepard and Kristen Bell went on social media to announce the name of their child. And then in subsequent interviews they talked about the labor pains and whatever other parental activities they've been up to. So they put that interest out there, and fed it. But when fans suddenly want to see what that crawling child looks like, they pull back?
Q: It's not unlike when celebrities open up their homes for glossy magazine pictorials. That's pretty intimate.
A: You've thrown open your home to me, now I know exactly what your bathroom looks like. Which, as you said, is very private and very intimate. But when I (as an interviewer) ask you about other things — what you consider to be private and intimate — suddenly there's a line.
Q: And that's when you see celebrities become kind of hostile or indignant about personal questions.
A: It's not actually about privacy. It's about control.
Q: I get the feeling that it is possible to live a low-key existence if you're famous — if that's what you want. A trailer for Tom Cruise's next movie "Edge of Tomorrow" was released recently, and it prompted you to write this on your blog: "It's been months since we've seen Tom Cruise. If Tom Cruise wants to, he can certainly disappear."
A: Look, it's not hard to move around undetected. You just don't go to the places where photographers hang out. Photographers might be resourceful, but they're not Nostradamus. They can't predict who's going to show up at some obscure bed-and-breakfast in Utah, the way Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds did (early in their relationship). I can tell you 100 percent that no paparazzo is hanging out in some nowhere town in the middle of Utah — he was there because he was invited to go there.
Q: I think about someone like Meryl Streep, who probably doesn't make for juicy gossip, but she's a big-deal movie star and she lives a very private, quiet, non-celebrity life in Connecticut.
A: You don't even have to go as far as Meryl Streep. A great example is Evan Rachel Wood. She's of that Jessica Alba age and level of intrigue. She's married to another actor (Jamie Bell). She had a baby recently. You know I live, work, breathe all of this — and I don't know the name of her baby.
Q: Why do you think Gwyneth Paltrow announced her divorce on her lifestyle blog rather than through a publicist?
A: Goop.com is Gwyneth Paltrow's business. It's her enterprise. It's the equivalent of going into a restaurant and seeing a sign on the front door that says: "The owners of this restaurant have decided to get a divorce. Welcome!"
They put that on the front door of her business and at the same time said, "Please respect our privacy."
I think she might be leveraging this new angle for more content (to promote and sell on her website). How do you know that in six months we're not going to get a series of "Salads for the newly divorced at 40," or "Here's the workout for single divorced mothers." It's about lifestyle. As soon as you become a purveyor of a lifestyle brand, that is the mixing of personal and professional that you have to engage in. But as soon as you do that, you really can't be going around in the same breath calling for privacy.
Lifestyle is the style of your life — so, how you live your life. You're going to be sharing that with people. As soon as you start doing that, everything becomes murky. Where do I (the average Joe) know where to stop my curiosity?
Q: Celebrity has become this thing unto itself. I'm not sure I even think of Paltrow or Reese Witherspoon (who also plans to launch her own lifestyle brand) as our generation's important actors anymore. And they're both Oscar winners!
A: Let's talk about it like this: I don't want my favorite celebrities on Twitter. Robert Downey Jr. just joined Twitter this past weekend and I have many mixed feelings about this. If they're behaving in a very authentic, unfiltered way, then you're actually getting to see who they are. And a lot of times who they are is not that interesting. Or who they are is really ugly inside.
In the golden age of celebrity in Hollywood, that's what managers and publicists were for. They were there to camouflage and act as a barrier — and they understood that the barrier was important, because you need some mystery. Celebrity is an illusion and the public needs to be able to hold onto that illusion. But when you decrease the gap between celebrity and civilian, what happens is that the reality emerges and oftentimes it is not that great. You realize those celebrities are just as ordinary as you are. And if they are, then why do you care about them?
Elaine Lui, of LaineyGossip.com and author of "Listen to the Squawking Chicken," will be at Anderson's Bookshop in Naperville at 7 p.m. Thursday. Go to andersonsbookshop.com.
Jailed for life
"The following is a look at five individuals who are serving a Natural Life sentence (life without parole) for a crime they committed as juveniles," begins the documentary "Natural Life," which comes to the Siskel Film Center this week. No cameras were allowed inside the Michigan prison where the inmates reside. Instead, the doc is a split-screen mixture of phone interviews and abstract re-enactments at an abandoned prison. It's an inventive strategy from director Tirtza Even and the film is beautifully shot. It screens Friday, Monday and Wednesday. Go to siskelfilmcenter.org/natural_life.
"The Education of Auma Obama" focuses on President Barack Obama's older half-sister and her work in Kenya mentoring social workers and others. The documentary screens at 8 p.m. Saturday at Chicago Filmmakers and 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Columbia College Chicago. Go to chicagofilmmakers.org.
Hoffman as Lester Bangs
One of Philip Seymour Hoffman's notable roles early in his career was that of rock music critic Lester Bangs in 2000's "Almost Famous," which screens at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Music Box Theatre courtesy of "Sound Opinions" co-hosts Greg Kot (Tribune rock critic) and Jim DeRogatis. Go to sndo.ps/almostfamousmovie.
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