Elaine Lui has had her back to me for about 20 minutes, typing away on her Surface tablet. We’re tucked into her broom closet of an office in Toronto’s Bell Media complex, where Lui sits amid an immense but well-organized pile of stuff. A heap of designer shoes is stashed in a cubby; the walls are decorated in the style of collage-obsessed 19-year-old — there’s a Slytherin banner on her front door, right next to a photo of a shirtless Idris Elba. But none of this clutter can distract Lui, who at the moment is transfixed by an Instagram photo of Drake. Her hairstylist, Jordy (whom Lui affectionately calls "Fucker"), has to navigate around the tablet screen while trying to do Lui’s hair. Lui has less than an hour before she’ll be called to set, and she has blog posts to finish.
"I’m writing about Drake and Rihanna today, and he’s getting all feelsy," Lui — better known as Lainey of Lainey Gossip — announces. She summons me over to check the aforementioned emo-gram, a black-and-white photo of Drake, gazing intensely from the back of a car. The caption reads, "Too mix up in drama to free my mind but I’m praying for you even in your darkest times."
I ask Lui if Aubrih is (was?) a real relationship, and not just some mutually-agreed-upon career boost. "Well!" she exclaims, and you can see the adrenaline rush take hold. Lui begins tracing their union back to the "Work" video: "All the people who were there for the filming of the video say they went to Fring’s after. Right?" She looks up at Jordy, who may or may not have been at the Toronto hot spot that night, it’s unclear. "And everybody who was at Fring’s — I know people who were there — says they were all over each other, even then."
It’s not conclusive, but the intel is convincing; Lui knows more than I do, at any rate.
Lui grabs a black, rectangular e-cigarette — her constant companion — and takes a puff. She then grabs her Celine Dion mug and takes a swig. (It’s hot water — an exact 208 degrees.) She ticks "Drake" off the list, props her feet up on a recycling bin underneath her desk, and moves to the next item.
"So I just finished a post about Kristen Stewart and St. Vincent," she tells me. "But now I’m going to write another follow-up post because Cara Delevingne" — St. Vincent’s ex-girlfriend — "was out with Taylor [Swift] last night. She’s been staying at Taylor’s apartment, so does that mean that Cara and Taylor are being like emo single together?" She pulls on her e-cig while Jordy finishes curling her hair. "But here’s the thing about the Cara Delevingne–Taylor Swift friendship," she says as Jordy starts teasing her hair with a rat comb. "It doesn’t hurt Taylor at all. But from what I know of Caaaara — and I’ve met her a few times — she’s not really one of those people who plays that kind of game. So for her to be willingly participating in Taymerica and for her to be, like, staying at Taylor’s? What’s there?"
Two more starlets and an hour and a half later, the post, titled "Taylor, Cara, Lorde, Dakota," goes up on Lui’s site. If you’re a fan of Lainey Gossip — or just of good celebrity gossip blogging in general — then this update was the platonic ideal: a little bit of snark, a little bit of speculation based on some prior knowledge, and, of course, a lot of Lainey’s particular insight.
Since 2004, Lui has gleefully covered the fluffy stuff — who’s dating whom, who is no longer dating whom, who wore what or bought what — with a certain bite and savvy that sets her apart from the E Newses and TMZs of the world. It helps that Lui has sources, as well as an obsessive knowledge of what famous people were doing a decade ago. But her particular talent is an advanced understanding of how the celebrity-industrial complex operates. While most other websites are just posting rumors, Lui is explaining and psychoanalyzing the rumors. She knows which tabloid favors which celebrity, and which sensational report is most likely to be true. She can predict who will talk, and when. She sees the whole board, if the board is Vanity Fair covers and Snapchat updates and a well-placed, totally fake publicist denial.
For example: The aforementioned wire photo set of Taylor Swift galavanting with friends is not just an excuse for a Squad Goals update — it is the springboard for an analysis of Taylor’s agenda and a sociological exploration of why recently single people flock to one another. It also happens to be a fun read, couched in a co-conspirator sort of voice with wide-ranging pop culture references (in this case, Arya Stark’s kill list).
Lui’s good. Reading her will make you sound funnier and more entertaining at dinner parties. That’s why her site still has 1.5 million unique visitors a month more than 10 years after its launch, and it’s why, when news of Brangelina’s split broke, Lainey Gossip was the first stop for any gossip lover with a hint of self-respect. Even as people opine about the death of tabloid culture, or mourn the rise of the social media celebrity, or scold the consumers of a morally complicated and extremely lucrative industry, Elaine Lui, a 43-year-old woman who lives in Toronto, is still a reigning queen of gossip blogging. It’s impressive — and if you care about these things, it might be more necessary than ever.
Lui knows a thing or two about the evolution of gossip blogging, since she basically worked her way through it. She even remembers a time before the celebrity internet.
"The way that we used to consume celebrity gossip was really the magazines and the entertainment shows," she explains. "Back in the day, you would just wait for your weekly People or watch the show at seven o’clock every night." Suddenly, in 2004 and 2005, a wave of blogs popped up: Perez Hilton, Dlisted, Just Jared, PopSugar, and Lainey Gossip. They were personality-driven and irreverent and sometimes even skeptical, which sounds quaint now but was revolutionary 10 years ago. Gossip became more than a story dictated by a publicist at face value; blogs like Lui’s began to analyze it.
Lui came to blogging sort of haphazardly after she moved back to Toronto in 2002 to care for her sick mom. Back home, Lui started sending friends an email digest of celebrity news as a way to keep in touch. She’d scour message boards, read the weeklies, and offer her own opinions about what exactly was going on. Her friends started forwarding it around, and those friends sent it to other friends, and before Lui knew it, her email went viral. But that success — and a constantly crashing email server — was enough to convince her to turn the email into an actual blog. She launched Lainey Gossip in 2004, and by 2006, she quit her job at Vancouver’s Covenant House to blog full time.
It was perfect timing. Perez Hilton had launched in 2004 and Michael K started Dlisted in 2005, but the blogging landscape in 2006 was still open enough that Lainey could develop a following. Around the same time, a producer at Etalk offered her a chance to do freelance gossip coverage, which quickly turned into a gig covering red carpet events like Cannes and the Emmys. Suddenly, Lui was able to support herself entirely by talking about celeb culture.
"In the beginning, it was totally like, Tom Cruise broke up with Nicole Kidman who now is dating Penélope Cruz, and oh my god, what a weird couple," Lui says of the early years. "But I would like to think that we all start somewhere and then at a certain point after two or three years of doing that, it became storytelling."
The mid-2000s were a Golden Age in celebrity content: "There was a point where everybody was falling out of clubs, everybody was in and out of jail or rehab," recalls the anonymous teen behind the beloved media Tumblr Pop Culture Died in 2009. "Paris was being hauled off to jail in tears as paparazzi followed her, you know. It was just such a crazy time." News outlets were slow to catch up, so Lui and her cohorts had free rein. Some were kinder than others — recall Perez Hilton’s constant dick illustrations — but Lui, though opinionated, would turn reports about bad behavior into opportunities for larger reflection. "I used gossip to talk about my own culture, and then talking about my culture in a wider way led me to being able to talk about culture in general. So it kind of evolved from there, it became fun and interesting."
It was in that era that Lui got her first, career-defining scoop: a report that Angelina Jolie was going to deliver her biological child Shiloh somewhere in Africa. It catapulted Lui to the next level. "This was 2006. Early, right? Some people were reading me, but not that many people," Lui says. "I had that on my blog a long time before the legitimate celebrity gossip outlets." (She was right.)
Lui’s profile continued to grow, even as the definition of celebrity shifted from "movie star," Lui’s preferred subset, to include "reality stars" and "people you’ve seen on Vine." Lui’s particular form of blogging — informed, incisive, and uninterested in your favorite Housewife’s last trip to Starbucks — is possibly less zeitgeist-y than it once was, but it’s taken on new relevance in a world where everything a celebrity does is news. "In 2000, a story would be a pregnancy or an engagement," says Jo Piazza, the author of Celebrity, Inc.: How Famous People Make Money. "Now a headline can be X went to the grocery store or Y has a zit. Gossip writers are forced to cover the minutiae of famous humans just to keep up their traffic."
"Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook — that changed the game, too, because then the celebrities were reaching out directly to the consumer," says Lui. Celebrities can snap instead of do magazine covers; they can deny rumors directly, instead of issue bland statements through mealymouthed publicists. Most gossip blogs repost at best, and invent weird celebrity-related smoothie recipes at worst. Even Lainey is forced to cover celeb-social-media antics — she just siphons them off into a section called "Smutty Social Media."
But in the new, celebrity-forward era, Lainey Gossip is still a lucrative business, funded by advertising and brand partnerships with companies like with Vitaminwater. (Lui’s husband of 15 years, Jacek Szenowicz, handles the business side.) Lui still writes a majority of the 10 to 12 posts a day, and still focuses on her bread and butter: real-life movie stars who walk the red carpet and announce their divorces through third parties.
In a gossip landscape that is almost entirely reality-driven, Lui’s insistence on the old-school makes her something of an anomaly. (Or just antiquated, if you’re looking at it in terms of market share.) "Most of the gossip sites now, honestly, they just focus on the Kardashians," sighs Pop Culture Death. "On the one hand, I think it’s because like they’re all in Kris Jenner’s pocket and on the other hand, I think it’s just because they’re too lazy to really do any sort of investigating. I think most gossip sites have really let TMZ take over."
Lui refuses to blog about Kim or any of the Kardashians. (She did blog about The Snapchat Incident, but with an emphasis on Taylor Swift. Note how Lui goes out of her way to avoid typing the words "Kim" and "Kardashian" in the headline. It’s incredible.) "At the beginning it was because I just didn’t think that, like, she was a real celebrity," Lui explains. "Now I agree she is a legitimate celebrity, but I don’t cover her because I don’t think there is anything anyone can add. I want to believe that creativity is a big part in Lainey Gossip, and I don’t think I can be creative writing about them. I think that’s where they won. Nobody can be as creative about the Kardashians as the Kardashians. The Kardashian narrative is self-driven. There’s no art to it."
Back in her office, Lainey is trying to write about Gwen Stefani and Blake Shelton, but her numerous other day jobs keep getting in the way. Not only is Lui the Lainey in Lainey Gossip, but she’s also Lainey Lui, senior correspondent on Etalk (Canada’s version of Entertainment Tonight), and Lainey Lui, one of four hosts of The Social, the Canadian version of The View. A producer from The Social drops by to pitch some stories before the 10 a.m. meeting; while Lui is deliberating, another producer walks in to hand her questions for an Etalk interview. At some point there’s another makeup touch-up to be done, and someone comes by to deliver some Chinese butternut squash soup made by Lui’s mom.
In a way, the three jobs that comprise Lui’s smutty empire represent the full spectrum of modern celebrity gossip. Etalk requires Lui to slip into a smooth, robotic, early-’90s newscaster voice; "Nicole Kidman wardrobe malfunction," she’ll over-pronounce, so the folks in the back really understand there’s about to be some accidental nudity. The Social is where she can debate, emote, infuse commentary with personality. Lainey Gossip, though, is where she can get elbow-deep in some celebrity commentary, and it’s where she is at her best.
I ask Lui about her sources, since it’s not every day that a Toronto-based civilian becomes a well-informed celebrity expert. Lui was basically just aggregating when she started Lainey Gossip. But eventually, she says, people started contacting her. Her! This random blogger in Canada who wasn’t even covering the red carpet yet. Her sources now are people who work in the industry or run in celebrity circles. She doesn’t pay them, but she does curry favor by not using every single tip she’s given. She cites a source who contacted her this morning about an unnamed male celebrity misbehaving at a bar. "That’s not worth a ‘Lainey Gossip exclusive,’" she says. "But when something does come up, I can use the background information I do have to assess the reports that are coming from Us or People or whatever."
"She seems to know the most. It’s rare that you read a post of hers that doesn’t provide a wealth of context," explains Bobby Finger, a Jezebel staff writer and cohost of the podcast Who? Weekly. "It makes her seem more reliable. And that she’s not just aggregating in the same way a lot of blogs are just aggregating from TMZ or the Post. She’s actually providing more insight than most gossip blogs. She feels trustworthy."
Looking back at the photos of Gwen and Blake on a family trip to Disneyland, Lui decides these two are probably going to get married soon. "I don’t have any insiders on Gwen and Blake that are going to tell me that the wedding is next month," she says. "The only thing they’re telling me on background is yes, they are very happy. No, they are not in a fake relationship. But I’m going to look at these photos and speculate, like anybody would do, with a colleague or something."
She says the photos remind her of a weekend she had right before getting married.
"That’s the whole point of gossip. You attach your own experiences to these stories."
It’s probably time to talk about her coverage of Brangelina’s breakup — though first, Lui says, "It’s time to eat." It’s 4 p.m., the end of a day that began at 4:30 a.m. Lui has changed back into her street clothes — a pink Looney Tunes blouse, black jeans, and silver Prada brogues, minus one hot-pink sock that she lost somewhere along the way — and she wants to go to the Shangri-La hotel for dim sum and Prosecco.
As we walk up to the hotel, Lui points out a beautiful brick structure next to the hotel. "That’s Toronto’s Soho House." I ask her if she’s a member. "No way," she replies.
Lui is fresh off of a hot streak thanks to her Brangelina coverage. "It goes way back, even before this," she explains, referencing that fortuitous 2006 Shiloh post. "I’ve been able to maintain contact with certain people," she says of her Brangelina sources. "Throughout their relationship, it was on background — so then when In Touch was like, oh they’re getting a divorce, or she’s a lesbian and cheated on him, I could ignore it."
But in June, when Us Weekly had a story about "tension" in the marriage, something about it felt different to Lui. "It was, basically, about very mundane shit. She doesn’t want to live in France anymore, and like really regular-couple shit." She pulls out her e-cig again. Lui went back to her sources. They didn’t tell her much, but they did tell her not to dismiss the story, which is exactly what she wrote to her Lainey Lurvs. "That was June, which I’m not above bragging about," she says, laughing at herself.
"I was prepared, in a sense," she says of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s divorce. "But the sources told me that if it were to happen, a split, they thought it’d be a year. They thought there was tension, that it was bad, that there were problems, but they were definitely trying to work it out."
When the news broke — "Tuesday, 10:30, September 20th, a day that will live in infamy," Lui jokes — it was TMZ, with its courthouse contacts and presumable direct private line to celebrity divorce queen Laura Wasser, that broke it. It took Lui a few hours to call everyone and consolidate the information and post a long, thoughtful analysis. But in a way, it took her 10 years to write a story with that much depth.
She continued throughout the week, as the gossip turned darker, including allegations of child abuse. (Lui, for the record, believes "some shit went down. Something traumatic that sped up the divorce. You don’t get the FBI on a plane for something small.") As the rumors piled up, Lainey continued to dissect the media coverage and the various parties’ incentives fairly and with thought. She took time to predict Pitt’s strategies; she analyzed why Angelina’s began to fall apart. She also managed to sideswipe people like Chelsea Handler, who used the opportunity to make racist jokes about Brangelina’s kids. "People accused me of beating the race drum on that one, but how could I not address that?"
In the case of Brad and Angelina’s divorce, I found I had to stop paying attention — some sort of morality limit, even for an avid gossip consumer, set in. These are people’s lives, I scolded myself. This is traumatic and private and it goes beyond a good bit of gossip. I suggest this to Lui, who brings up the photos leaked after Chris Brown was arrested for violently assaulting Rihanna. "As conflicted as I feel about the Rihanna photo, without that picture out there, would we have believed what happened?" she asks. "As we’ve seen with Donald Trump and Bill Cosby, and with Amber Heard — which is really depressing, and I hope I’m expressing myself properly to you, because I’m not condoning the publication of that photo. I feel very conflicted about that."
"Did you use the photos when you reported it?" I asked.
"I can’t remember. I don’t think I can pretend to be so honorable as to say I didn’t post the pictures," she admits. (If she did, the photos have since been unindexed or removed.) "But I did try to write about how it was eye-opening, the conversation around abuse and victimhood."
I ask how she decides how to cover racism or sexism or physical abuse. "Celebrity gossip is a conversation about who we are," she explains. "Not who they are but who we are, culturally and socially. It reflects back to what our values are, what our standards and boundaries are." In the case of Brangelina, it was an opportunity to talk about attitudes about fidelity, marriage, and family.
"She spent all this time crafting his image as a devoted father. What’s interesting to observe now is how many people want to side with him first," Lui explains. "And it’s also ironic because she made that image. She drew it. She built it, and now it’s being used against her. We want to cling to this idea that this man, who’s beautiful, is the All-American dad."
It’s not a flattering picture of gossip readers, but People’s pro-Pitt coverage suggests that Lui is right. "People wanted to believe she was manipulating a situation to get custody of the kids, because she’s so good at publicity and she’s created this aura of invincibility around her. People can’t accept that you can have both — you can be an excellent media strategist and you can have serious issues in your marriage that you need to take care of. And that any asshole can be redeemed by having a child."
Lui signs off her posts with "Yours in gossip," a phrase that elicits near religious reverence for the form. It’s a little Gossip Girl–y, but it also demonstrates Lui’s deep belief in her work, beyond the photo roundups and breathless dating updates and seemingly superficial tidbits. It explains why she’ll give a TED talk about the sociology of celebrity gossip, or why a random celebrity update can spark a larger conversation about race or sexism in Hollywood. "I always say, and this is my crusade, that gossip is so much more than talking shit," Lui says. "We’re extracting messages from it. We’re extracting conversations that help us understand each other."
Lui’s favorite saying — and she says it a lot — is, "Gossip is immortal." She cites Truman Capote and Dorothy Parker as cohorts in her scholarly pursuit of gossip. Maybe I’m looking to justify the excessive amount of time I spend on sites like Lainey Gossip, or the joy I feel when someone tells me that yes, Aubrih was probably real. But our fixation is both more permanent and deeper than we often give it credit for. The way in which we approach celebrity fodder exposes a worldview and an attitude. It’s a Rorschach test; how we talk about what we talk about is who we are — was it Plato who said that? I think it was just Lainey Gossip.