In Lurv With Lainey: Elaine Lui’s rise to the top of the gossip pantheon
Elaine Lui became one of the world’s most influential celebrity gossips by exhibiting a bratty disregard for the pieties of showbiz. What happens now that she’s nearly as famous as the stars she skewers?
Elaine Lui is 40 but has the bearing of a 16-year-old, boundless and brash, her body language filled with aggressive eye rolls, giggles and wild gesticulation. Sitting in a green room at the CTV studios on Queen West, writing a post for her blog, LaineyGossip, she takes a long drag from her e-cigarette, a bejewelled bauble that looks like a tube of lip gloss and emits a trail of vanilla-scented vapour. Then she resumes clacking away at her keyboard. It’s a busy day for Lui. The Golden Globe nominations have just been announced, and she’s struggling to keep up with the Sisyphean celebrity news cycle. In an hour, she’s scheduled to shoot an episode of her daytime talk show, The Social, and tape interviews to be banked for eTalk and CP24. She takes another hit from the e-cig as her stylist douses her with hairspray, engulfing Lui in a toxic cloud of chemicals.
That e-cigarette goes everywhere she does, doubling as a calling card and neurotic crutch. She sucks it surreptitiously at restaurants, blowing vapour out the side of her mouth. When she gets excited, she waves it around like a Canada Day sparkler. At parties, it dangles between her fingers while she stands back and monitors the room. She started smoking it in 2012, giving up regular cigarettes soon after. In one slender, shimmery package, it crystallizes Lui’s paradoxical persona: she’s at once a bubbly, bitchy, perma-teen gossip queen and a shrewd social anthropologist with an arch Dorothy Parker wit. She polarizes readers with her candor and celebrity partisanship.
People love Lainey, but they love to hate her even more.
When you Google “gossip blog,” hers is usually the second hit, preceded only by Perez Hilton. It’s as loud and brassy as she is, a digital Candyland of Smurf blue and Barbie pink, with a pair of smiling fuchsia lips sipping a martini in the corner of the screen. At the top of each page is her daily editorial, called “Dear Gossips,” a free-form monologue about whatever’s on her mind—the Oscar nominees, Chinese New Year rituals, Mariah Carey’s latest Instagram photos. She posts, on average, 10 or 12 times a day, roughly 3,000 words total, sassing the celebs she hates and fluffing the ones she loves, supplementing the posts with candid snaps or red carpet photos she obtains from paparazzi agencies. On a recent Wednesday, she speculated on a possible affair between the actors Ewan McGregor (who’s married) and Mélanie Laurent (who’s not his wife), assessed the rising star of actor Nicholas Hoult and worked digs about Rob Ford’s Steak Queen video into a post about Rachel McAdams walking her dog. It was a typical day in Lainey land: a frenetic pastiche of pop culture and politics, catty malice and fawning praise, in-depth reporting and shallow musing. Her prose reads like James Joyce as interpreted by Mindy Kaling—a sharp, girly stream of consciousness for the Internet age.
More than any other source—tabloids, glossies, even the most formidable publicists—the blogosphere controls the 2014 star system. Last year, weekly celebrity magazines suffered a steep decline in newsstand sales: People dropped by 14 per cent, Us Weekly by 12.9 per cent and Life and Style by 17.7 per cent. Bloggers like Lui report the same news, only faster and in greater quantities. Unlike the traditional outlets, the blogosphere runs in real time, operating on an infinite feedback loop of star sightings, insider tips and reader demand.
In the taxonomy of gossip blogs, Perez Hilton is the shit-disturber, sneering at his subjects and tagging their photos with lewd graffiti. Jared Eng of Just Jared is the suck-up, cooing at cute new couples and celebrity babies. And Lainey Lui is the philosopher queen. She deconstructs the artifice of celebrity, reveals the backroom deals and institutional hierarchies, and positions those pixie-dusted demigods as symbols of our values, prejudices and obsessions. Of the thousands of bloggers prowling the Internet, she’s risen to the top echelon by delivering a mix of gossip, barefaced opinion and trademark mischief that readers find irresistible. Yet her posts are so effortless, so breezily conversational, you can practically hear Lui speaking them over cocktails, stretching her vowels and crackling with Valley Girl vocal fry. “My goal is to have a direct discussion with readers,” she says. “I mean, I’m like they are. I just want to talk shit about these people.”
Lui has leveraged her brand into an expansive media footprint: since 2006, she’s served as eTalk’s red carpet reporter, a gig that sends her to Cannes, Sundance, the Super Bowl and the Oscars. Her first book, Listen to the Squawking Chicken, is out this month. Last year, she moved back to Toronto after 13 years in Vancouver to join The Social, a daytime talk show. Now, whenever you walk along Queen West, her face smirks down at you from a 20-foot billboard.
Elaine Lui started honing her gossip receptors as a kid, when she spent hours by the mah-jong table at the family home in Toronto. Her parents, Judy and Bernard, immigrated here from Hong Kong in 1970, taking whatever odd jobs they could find—they stapled papers, washed dishes, cleaned hotel rooms. Eventually, her dad found stable work as an accountant. When Elaine was six, her parents divorced and her mother returned to Hong Kong. Her parents reunited when Elaine was 16, but in the intervening years she lived with her dad and would visit her mother on holidays. “My mother and her friends would talk about Mr. Hong’s won ton stand and the Chinese actresses on TV,” Lui says. “That was how my mother was communicating with her friends, how they exchanged ideas and expectations.”
Bernard was determined to give his daughter a quality education. After hearing that the Toronto French School was the best in the city, he worked night shifts and weekends to save enough money for tuition. Lui credits him with fostering her consuming work ethic.
During her tenure at TFS, she was one of only a handful of Asian kids. She saw white people wherever she looked: at school, on TV, in magazines. “I wanted to be white,” she says. “I wanted to not have weird lunches.” These days, Lui uses her blog to analyze the intricacies of feng shui and the Chinese zodiac, the mainlanders’ obsessions with French luxury goods and Hollywood’s exclusion of Chinese actors from the star system. Her mother is also a major character on LaineyGossip. Lui calls Judy the Chinese Squawking Chicken—it’s a literal English translation of her childhood nickname, Tsiahng Gai, which she earned because of her shrill voice.
Lui majored in French and history at Western and, after graduation, took a job with Rogers, training employees to install Internet connections. In January 2000, she ran a seminar in Vancouver, where she met Jacek Szenowicz, a handsome, sleepy-eyed Rogers manager who was enrolled in one of her sessions. He initially pursued a relationship with Lui over email. After five months of long-distance dating, and 14 real-life days spent together, Lui moved to Vancouver and in with Szenowicz. In November 2001, they were married.
Lui and Szenowicz decided not to have children—partly so they could focus on their careers, mostly because they didn’t want them. “I don’t [want to be a parent] for all the ‘superficial’ reasons,” she writes in her book. “The time, the sacrifice, my career, the desire to travel without having to worry about dependents, the freedom to sleep in, to spend money on myself.” She’s rankled by the notion that her life will somehow be incomplete without kids—a subject that comes up often on LaineyGossip, where she criticizes celebrities like Jessica Simpson, who sold her baby photos to People. “I hear it all the time. ‘You won’t understand, Lainey, until you have a kid.’ It’s as if I can never be actualized as a person, as a woman,” she tells me. “If I had to have that fight, I could say I love my blog just as much as you love your child.”
If her blog is her baby, then her newsletter was the zygote. In 2002, Lui temporarily moved back to Toronto to care for her mother, who needed a kidney transplant. Lui and her coworkers shared a celebrity fixation, and when she left, she promised to send them daily updates over email. In that pre-blog Pleistocene, she got all her scoops from message boards and forums, populated by industry insiders and paparazzi. Lui’s daily emails started going viral before anyone knew what viral was, and soon the distribution list was hundreds of people long, then thousands. She returned to Vancouver and took a position as a development officer at Covenant House. By day, she helped the homeless; by night, she dished on Britney and Bennifer. “When I first started out, my snarky tone was a reaction to the entertainment news shows and the People magazines, which were always so safe and boring. I knew people wanted to peel back the veneer of bullshit,” Lui says. She switched to the blog system in December 2004, after her subscriber list had mushroomed to over 3,000 names. Her email server was crashing every day.
As her blog gained momentum, Lui started to take sides and play favourites. The deeper she immersed herself in the celebrity world, the more obsessed she became with the industry’s hypocrisies and artifice. She cultivated a gimmick, branding herself as an opinionated loudmouth. Lui slammed the film industry for ghettoizing Asian and black actors. She berated female stars like Jennifer Garner for sacrificing their careers to support their husbands’ fame. She sneered at reality TV stars for walking the same red carpets as A-listers. She simultaneously stoked controversy, riled up her readers, and slyly inserted herself, her friends, her mother and her ballsy opinions into every post. Soon, readers weren’t coming for the gossip—they were coming for Lainey.
In 2006, she left her job at Covenant House to commit herself full-time to her blog. Lui’s first major scoop came that year, when she reported that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie would have Shiloh, their first biological baby, in Africa. “I knew someone close to the situation and, as I do with any tip, I confirmed it with another source,” she says. At first, the tabloids dismissed Lui’s gossip as fiction. But three weeks after her post, Star magazine picked up the story, and two months later, People confirmed the details. For Lui, it was a triumph. “After the Brangelina scoop, people understood that I only write what I know to be true and that my info is reliable. That story helped establish the legitimacy of the site,” she says.
Soon after, Jordan Schwartz, an executive producer at CTV, heard about Lui’s blog from his chiropractor. He was impressed by the devotion of Lui’s fan base and hired her as a freelance gossip correspondent for eTalk. “For the first six months, I’d arrive at the studio, barf in the bathroom, and go on the air,” Lui recalls. She was eventually taken on staff and promoted to the red carpet, where she’d interview the same A-listers she wrote about on her blog.
To find her scoops, she’s amassed a web of Hollywood sources. “Everyone thinks that being a gossip means you can’t keep secrets, but it’s actually the opposite,” she says. “I often earn their trust by not reporting the things they tell me. It’s a matter of sitting on something and waiting for something bigger.” Sasha Tong, a close friend and eTalk producer who writes fashion and advice posts for LaineyGossip, is constantly begging Lui to reveal her contacts. “I wish I knew her secrets! She’s incredibly protective,” she says. Most of Lui’s contacts have first-hand intel on celebrities; they’re staffers, drivers, stylists, paparazzi. She meets them through her work on the site and TV show, at press junkets and red carpet events. “In these situations, I’ll often meet a total stranger and we’ll bond over our mutual boredom,” she explains. “Then we’ll keep running into each other at various events and maybe start to gossip a bit about celebrities we’ve encountered. It just grows from there.” Sometimes they’ll send tips in the hope that she’ll one day return the favour by passing on a scoop of her own. She says she has never paid for a tip.
When I ask her about the business end of her operation, she feigns cluelessness and insists that all she cares about is the gossip. In reality, her rise to the top is the result of a carefully calculated strategy. “She created a brand that wasn’t hitched to a traditional media outlet,” says the former National Post gossip columnist Shinan Govani. “People like Lainey, Perez Hilton and Andrew Sullivan will be remembered as the godfathers of the Internet age.”
As the site grew, Lui partnered with Uptrend Media, a Canadian agency devoted to online advertising. “They were like me—young, boutique, hungry. I was really optimistic,” she says. Uptrend gathered market research on Lainey’s readers, and found they were mostly urban women with household incomes of more than $100,000 per year. They used that intel to lure early advertisers like Procter and Gamble, and Johnson and Johnson, and split the revenue with Lui.
Szenowicz quit his job at Rogers to work on Lui’s site. He says the site’s traffic rises steadily throughout the morning and peaks between noon and 2 p.m. “At that point, we catch Torontonians reading during their lunch breaks while west coasters are starting their day with a coffee at their desks.” Lui writes about 85 per cent of the content on her website, but hires her friends to cover things she’s not an expert in—she has four or five regular writers who post on fashion trends, fitness tips, advice and TV recaps.
Lui and Szenowicz worked out a deal to create custom content for the website—integrated ad rollouts that marry product sales with Lui’s brand. “The site was profitable almost immediately,” says Szenowicz. “By the time we started selling advertising, we already had a significant audience we could monetize.” Their first integrated campaign was for SoftLips, in which Lui held a guess-the-celebrity-lips contest, sponsored by the makeup company. They partnered with Procter and Gamble to create a magazine-style celebrity look book. Other custom content advertisers include American Express, which pays Lui to write sponsored posts in her own cheeky idiom, and VitaminWater, which has sponsored Faculty of Celebrity Studies, a series of Lui lectures on celebrity culture that played in sold-out stops across Canada.
Lui’s readers—she calls them “the gossip collective”—are sprinkled among you, hidden in plain sight like sleeper agents. They’re your friends, your doctors, your dog-walkers, the people at work who guiltily minimize their browser windows when you catch them checking her site. The ones I know drop Lui’s name casually into conversation, as if talking about a mutual friend. The most ardent fans belong to a Facebook group called “Lainey Lurv!,” whose 5,000 members hail from across North America. They speak the language of Lainey, an argot strewn with neologisms Lui uses on her site: “Granny Freeze,” a nickname for the Botox-ravaged Nicole Kidman; “Ebola Hilton,” otherwise known as Paris; “maybe gaybe,” referring to suspected Hollywood closet cases.
Readers who love Lui send fan mail and links to viral videos. The ones who hate her tend to go for the jugular. “Yeah, I receive a lot of hate mail,” she says dismissively. “Some of it is thoughtful. Some of it is downright comical.” In the late 2000s, during the height of the Twilight craze, Lui received thousands of malevolent messages after she mocked the books’ dialogue and speculated that Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart, the series’ stars, were involved with other people. Fans ascribed her meanness to her Chinese background, suggested her bitterness stemmed from an unhappy marriage and even accused her of colluding with the movie studio to cover up Pattinson and Stewart’s on-set romance. Years later, the Twihards are still trolling her. She pulls out her iPhone and shows me an email from the previous week that reads, “Stop hating on Kristen Stewart you ugly chink bitch.” She snorts. “That was fun.”
Google her name and you’ll find countless commenters slamming her work and undercutting her authority: “Disregard everything in this post because Lainey don’t know shit.” Some of her critics berate her for playing favourites with celebrities, others for her informal, juvenile tone, still others for perpetuating the lowbrow muck of celebrity gossip. Fair enough. Lui, who’s certainly written her share of attack posts, shrugs off the hate. “It’s part of living on the Internet,” she says. If she’s striking that many nerves, she figures, she must be doing something right.
Last year was Lui’s most prolific yet: she blogged during the day, wrote Listen to the Squawking Chicken at night and appeared on TV every weekday. She’s hopped from the Internet to television and finally, circuitously, to print. The book, structured as 10 lessons from her mother, is characteristically intimate yet expansive, using their troubled, tender relationship as an access point into larger discussions about the immigrant experience, generational warfare, family and feminism.
In 2011, Lui’s mother was diagnosed with a rare medical condition called POEMS, a syndrome that damages the nerves, glands and organs, and often causes myeloma. She was temporarily paralyzed from the neck down, and Lui cared for her. “It was my honour to look after my mother. I fed her. I washed her. I held her,” she says. “It’s been a horrible experience, but to have been able to say through my actions, through wiping her ass, how much I love her—that is my honour and my privilege.”
The book is part of Lui’s ongoing campaign to diversify her expertise beyond celebrities, a mission that also includes The Social. That project came about last year when CTV decided to produce a daily talk show modelled on The View. After a protracted audition process, packed with screen tryouts and chemistry tests with potential fellow hosts, Lui was cast alongside CP24 anchor Melissa Grelo, eTalk reporter Traci Melchor and relationship expert Cynthia Loyst for a live panel show that mixes celebrity and expert interviews, lifestyle segments and girlfriend gab time. When Lui landed the job, she and Szenowicz bought a house—their first—in the Beach, a snug semi with a little yard for their beagles, Marcus and Barney. When I asked her why she picked the Beach, she didn’t hesitate. “The dogs. We needed somewhere with a lot of green space, near water, where the people were dog friendly. Plus, there are lots of schools, which means they can run around the fields on weekends.” Even people without kids want a good catchment area.
Every day at 1 p.m., the four women of The Social spend an hour gabbing about topics like circumcision, parenting, sex and relationships—classic View territory. Lui tends to play the brat: on a holiday episode last year, while her co-hosts scrambled to arrange glittery sweets tables, Lui stood idly by, munching Christmas cookies and directing the action. She regularly whines that she’d rather be wearing pajamas than the motorcycle jackets and jeans they select for her wardrobe. Yet despite her petulance, it’s clear that Lui is the smartest person in the room. She talks circles around her co-hosts, out-arguing, out-thinking and out-shouting them.
The Lainey we see on eTalk has a different persona from the hissing Hedda Hopper we read online. Her voice is slicker, almost musical, echoing the rhythms and cadences of Mary Hart. Her reporting is just a touch too sweet. Lui admits that she has to conform to eTalk’s softer approach to entertainment news, but insists she’s still being true to herself and her brand. “The producers know that if they sent me to interview Paris Hilton, for example, I’d be doing it my way.”
Most of the time, though, she avoids direct contact with celebrities. A friend of mine who works the TIFF circuit and had seen Lui in action noticed that while most reporters approach stars directly at parties, gingerly sidling up to them and fawning, Lui stands back and observes. She remembers a Soho House party in 2011, where the guest list included George Clooney, Keira Knightley, Bono and Jon Hamm. “Lainey had no desire to befriend them, but she noticed everything.” The resulting post was a meticulous character study about how much Clooney seemed to like Ewan McGregor, and how C-lister Emile Hirsch monopolized Clooney for 15 minutes, clinging to his side and smarmily sucking up. Lui reported similar machinations at last year’s Weinstein Oscar party. “The elite occupied the inner chamber,” she explained, “but TV stars, people like Emmy Rossum, had to wait outside.” Lui is as much a part of the ecosystem as the celebrities she writes about—she works with publicists and studios, shares air with Angelina and Gwyneth, then uses her intel to sociologize the Hollywood idiom online.
In early January, I met Lui for dinner at an Italian restaurant in Parkdale. We shared octopus tentacles and agnolotti while Lui dragged on her e-cigarette, flitting her eyes around nervously, as if afraid she’d get caught. “Am I even allowed to do this in here?” She side-eyed a table down the banquette, occupied by a 20-something couple and the girl’s boomer parents. “How long have they been together, do you think?” she asked in a low voice. We agreed that they were around the six-month mark, and spent the next 10 minutes play-by-playing the action.
Around the time the bill arrived, her phone vibrated on the table. She picked it up, tapped the screen and raised her eyebrows. “Hmm,” she said. “I got a tip.” I promised to embargo the details until she posted it on her blog. “Weeeeeeeelllllll,” she teased, and finally relented, leaning in to whisper that Taylor Swift was rumoured to be dating the 23-year-old billionaire SnapChat founder Evan Spiegel. Her eyes flickered excitedly. “This is big. Taylor Swift!” By the end of the week, the news was up on LaineyGossip, but for a few days, it was our little secret.