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.