In the past 36 hours, Elaine Lui has hosted a gossip party in Calgary, flown the red-eye to Toronto, written 11 posts for her blog, appeared at CTV’s fall preview presentation, attended a preview dinner at the Keg and an after-party at Soho House, gone to bed at 11:30 p.m. and gotten up at 4 a.m. to write five more blog posts. It’s now 9:30, and she’s sitting in a video booth at CTV’s downtown Toronto studios, dressed in an M0851 dark grey leather moto, a light grey sweatshirt with elks on it, Rag & Bone boyfriend jeans and scuffed white Converse, doing a live segment on Paris Jackson’s suicide attempt for CP24 Breakfast. Afterwards, she’ll head down the hall for eTalk’s daily pitch meeting. Her Vancouver-based assistant will roll out the day’s first few Lainey Gossip posts as Lui, 39, sits among eTalk’s writers and producers, taking drags from her electronic cigarette, a haze of water vapour hanging over her head.
Lainey Gossip, which Lui launched in 2005, draws more than 1,000,000 monthly readers. They devour smart, analytical posts that run the gamut from dissecting Sarah Jessica Parker’s marriage to discussing celebrity crowdfunding. Her first informants were readers who worked in the industry; at the time she was amazed her fledgling blog had an audience in Hollywood. Since then she’s built up a stable of sources that regularly help her scoop gossip big guns People and Us Weekly. She landed her gig at eTalk in 2006 after a producer heard about her blog from his physiotherapist, and secured a book deal after being approached by an editor who was a long-time reader. It’s slated for release by Random House Canada in 2014 and in the U.S. by the eponymous imprint of Amy Einhorn, the editor who acquired The Help. Lui may be the hardest-working, mostloved woman in showbiz who, other than her eTalk appearances, hasn’t actually made it in showbiz. That could change come fall.
Later this month, Lui and her husband, Jacek Szenowicz—who quit his job in 2007 to manage the business end of the site—are moving from Vancouver to Toronto so that she can work on the daily talk show she was promoting at yesterday’s preview. Come September 2 at 1:00 p.m. EST, you’ll find Lui and her co-hosts—Melissa Grelo, Cynthia Loyst and Traci Melchor—bantering about celebrity gossip, among other topics, on The Social. (The show will also be a platform for Lui’s other interests: politics, feminism, sports.)
“I consider myself a blogger—gossip first. It’s just that the idea of The Social was so good,” says Lui, who is an unusual hybrid of unapologetic fangirl (Gwyneth Paltrow, Henry Cavill) and hyper cynic (Jessica Alba, Biel and Simpson).
“Lainey has a vast knowledge of many subjects,” says Michelle Crespi, The Social’s executive producer. “I’ve played Trivial Pursuit with her, and she beat everyone.” Morley Nirenberg, the executive producer for eTalk, also cites Lui’s smarts. “When you talk to her, you realize how intelligent this woman is; she’s not an idiot.”
Lui would be the first to point out these assurances wouldn’t be necessary if her stock in trade was anything other than gossip. She often finds herself having to justify her work in a way that she didn’t in her previous life, as a development officer at Covenant House. “Even though gossip is my business, it doesn’t mean I don’t take my business seriously,” she says. “Someone once said to me, ‘Oh, ha ha ha, you give [your assistant] performance reviews,’ and I was like, of course,” says Lui. “If we were an online seller of socks, no one would be surprised that we do performance reviews.”
Even though she freely refers to her work as “talking shit,” Lui insists we can learn about ourselves and our culture while we feast on this delicious but time-sucking diversion. In doing so, she’s changing the way we think about talking shit.
Back at the eTalk meeting, pitches range from Snooki’s weight loss to Michael Cera’s 25th birthday and back again to Jackson, this week’s big story. eTalk—Canada’s most-watched entertainment show—is gossip lite. And then there’s the advanced-level analysis that is Lainey. “This is not first-year gossip,” says Lui with a laugh.
She has all but branded the word “smut,” writing Smutty Shout-outs (daily dedications) and Smutty Tingles (links to gossipy items from other sites), speaking to live audiences at Smut Soirées and referring to her readers as smuthounds. Adopting the slightly anachronistic word for pornography implies that gossip is like porn for women, but, in Lainey’s hands, porn that doesn’t leave us feeling quite so dirty-pawed post-binge. Reclaiming the word “smut,” she says, “was my way of arguing that it actually has more value and significance.” Noticeably absent: anything related to reality TV—despite the fact it’s a surefire traffic booster—and anything that could be classified as “sad smut”: stories involving death, suicide attempts or drug overdoses. (There’s a greater chance of a Brangelina-J’anthrax double wedding than there is of Lui blogging about Paris Jackson’s suicide attempt.) “I have ownership of my site,” she says in explanation. “eTalk is not LaineyTalk.” If The Social works, it’ll be because it has successfully brought LaineyTalk to TV.
Although she majored in French and history at Western, Lui spent much of her undergrad partying and partaking in 36-hour mahjong jags. But Lainey Gossip, often described as “the thinking woman’s gossip site,” is getting attention from celebrity scholars, whose area of research is gaining acceptance within the wider umbrella of media studies. “It’s still a largely feminized field,” notes Anne Helen Petersen, a Washington-based professor who holds a PhD in media studies and is an avid Lainey reader. “But there has been a move to think about [celebrity] in a meaningful way.”
Aside from the Smut Soirées, Lui has also begun hosting an annual series of Faculty of Celebrity Studies events devoted to a more highbrow examination of star antics. (That title raised the ire of some celebrity studies academics, because Lui is sans PhD.) “We may start talking about Katie Holmes, but what we end up talking about is… the ongoing legal headache over privacy and the civilian.” Privacy is, understandably, a pet topic of Lui’s; she recently spoke about it to a UBC media law class. She maintains that celebrities “are out there because they want to be, so it’s game on”—though she does hold back on sharing details that cross the sad-smut divide.
The idea that gossip can give insight to humanity was the basis of Lui’s TedX talk; in her somewhat Valley-speak intonation, she likened her work to that of a marine biologist: “I study the celebrity ecosystem to understand social culture, to understand social behavior… to understand our selves.” But I wonder what, really, can be learned from Paris Jackson?
“I’d like to commission a study on the occurrence rate of fuck-up-edness in child stars,” Lui says later, in explanation. “Let’s say it’s… 80 percent. If you told anybody else [that] 80 percent of people who drink water out of certain bottles will have a high rate of fuck-upedness, nobody would be drinking out of those bottles.”
Once said, it seems self-evident, but few are saying it, or at least saying it so succinctly and wittily.
“I spend my time putting together, hopefully, a proper-ish sentence and there’s insight,” says Lui. “I wish, you know, some days that we just threw up photos.”
Each day’s blog, approximately 3,500 words, begins, “Dear Gossips”—an intro that Lui says is often the “most important thing I’ll write all day.” (A recent one used the Wendi Deng–Rupert Murdoch divorce as a segue to discuss Chinese legends.) It’s followed by Smutty Shout-outs. “There are so many people who’ve written to me who are going through something really hard,” Lui says. “It can get very personal.”
Lui also gets personal with her readers—writing about her and Szenowicz’s decision not to have kids (“There are people who write to me and say, ‘You sound so defensive about it,’ which to me… says more about them, right?”) and her mother’s poor health.
In fact, spend any amount of time with Lui, online or in person, and the conversation will turn to her “ma,” whom she refers to on Lainey as the Chinese Squawking Chicken. When she was seven, Lui expressed interest in beauty pageants. She has blogged: “My mother told me: ‘Don’t disgrace me! Study hard. Be a doctor,’” continuing on to praise her because “she didn’t want me to spend my life on my back with my legs spread… chasing a pipe dream.” In a different post, she notes that Amy Chua—author of The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, who was lambasted for being too strict with her children—“was a lightweight” compared to the Squawking Chicken.
Beyond the anecdotes—the Squawking Chicken always steals Lui’s swag bags; she only texts in all caps—lies a bigger story, I suspect. Lui is a candid interview subject, but her capacity (or her willingness) for analysis hits a dead halt around the subject of her mom and dad.
Her parents moved to Toronto from Hong Kong in 1971, a year and-a-half before she was born.
When she was six, they divorced and her mom returned to Hong Kong. For the next 10 years, before her parents reconciled and her mom came back to Canada, Lui went to school in Toronto but spent summers and holidays with her mom. “It was hard for a couple of days to go from Canada to Hong Kong and [have] to speak Cantonese all the time,” she says. “But then it was really the same.” She soon became equally fluent in Chinese pop culture: In Toronto, she memorized every line of Truth or Dare ; in Hong Kong, she joined pop singer Leslie Chung’s fan club. Was the absence of a six-year-old Lui’s mother—the woman she now texts and talks to multiple times a day—a formative trauma? If so, Lui isn’t talking.
While Lui’s present-day workhorse tendencies seem instilled by a strict upbringing, she didn’t always toe the line. “I fucked around a lot in high school,” she says—cutting classes and panhandling for movie fare. After she graduated from Western, she temped and then worked as a corporate trainer for Rogers Cable. There, she met Szenowicz—he was a manager, she trained him—and moved to Vancouver in 2000 so they could be together. Eventually, Lui quit a fundraising job at UBC to return to Toronto and look after her mother, who was undergoing a kidney transplant.
During this time, Lui watched The View religiously and began emailing a few friends the daily gossip updates that eventually became her blog. She later returned to Vancouver and found a job at Covenant House. “If there were 40 hours in the day, I’d still work there,” she says of quitting in 2006 to become a full-time blogger. (She remains an active volunteer.)
Seven years later, through both the site and her work for eTalk— which frequently sends her to L.A. to cover red carpets and movie junkets—Lui’s network of sources is ever expanding; her fan base, ever fervent. The Lainey Lurv Facebook group has nearly 5,000 members, who travel from Seattle and Spain to attend her annual Smut Soirées and listen raptly as Lui confirms, in a roundabout way, the “blind riddles” she posts on her site.
Lui has also become a lifestyle influencer. Her blog has expanded to encompass fashion, health, books and beauty. If she likes a novel, readers buy it—past picks have included Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and Emma Forrest’s Your Voice in My Head. If she recommends a beauty treatment, readers try it. (On Lainey Lurv, I discover that a handful of members have booked microdermabrasion–cold light treatments, Lui’s skin intervention of choice, in advance of Toronto’s Smut Soirée.)
“All of the recommendations genuinely come from things I like,” says Lui. She has, in the past few years, opened up the blog to other voices: largely friends of hers, who can help feed it when she’s working on eTalk, or, as will be the case this fall, eTalk and The Social. But the site—most of the content for which she writes herself, usually in her home office, usually wearing J.Crew monogrammed pyjama sets, usually at the crack of dawn—will remain her raison d’être.
After eTalk’s daily lineup is determined—Lui calls dibs on a Game of Thrones item—she visits her new desk at The Social and immediately considers its feng shui. Then we circle back so Lainey can record a CP24 bit, hit the salad bar and shoot a walk-on scene for eTalk.
From here, we grab a cab to the photo shoot for this feature. After, despite being up since 4 a.m., Lui suggests cocktails. Over gin and tonics, we talk more about her move. “There’s a nice reciprocity to it,” she says of the fact that she relocated to Vancouver for Szenowicz and now he’s moving to Toronto for her. They’ll miss Vancouver’s trail system—they hike daily with their two beagles—and they hope that the Beach, their new ’hood, will provide the same sense of community they had in Kitsilano.
Then we discuss the book. Lui completes a chapter every Sunday, which she calls “my worst, darkest days.” This angst surprises me, since Lui writes—and writes well—all week long. Then again, the book is a guide to life, of sorts, from the Squawking Chicken’s perspective. Who wouldn’t be conflicted writing about their mother?
Finally, the conversation turns to Life After Life, in which the main character dies many deaths; no matter her decisions, there’s often not a happy ending. I found this to be entirely depressing, but the idea appeals to Lui. “These days, the message so often pushed on us is that everything is going to be OK; everything happens for a reason,” she says. “But the unpredictability of life is the only constant.” And, for a gossiper, rich content.