The Death of Celebrity Gossip: Who Is to Blame?

BY MICHAEL MUSTO | As someone who gets regularly called upon to discuss celebrity gossip on TV, I can tell you that the demand for that sort of thing started waning around 2016. The reason? Trump’s rise to political prominence became much more salaciously fascinating to certain channels than anything involving movie stars. After all, Donald Trump is basically a Reality TV star more than he is a leader, and he’s conducted his campaigns and his administration in the same vein—with confrontations, lies, bragging, distractions, and lots of bullying. Everything he says and does is gossip, and certainly gets better ratings than any mild item about how Justin Timberlake seemed to be touching a female costar or Jada Pinkett Smith claims she and Will were separated when she had a side relationship.

Warhol warned us: The Reality TV star whose world stage shenanigans trumped the worst every Real Housewife combined could offer. | Image by Tibor Janosi Mozes from Pixabay

What’s more, celebrity and political gossip have intertwined to make old-fashioned bold face items virtually extinct. With everyone from Bette Midler to Rob Reiner to Debra Messing weighing in on how they loathe the President, it all brings it right back to him. When the media does cover a gossip story, it’s generally snooze-worthy (like the Timberlake to-do) or desperate (Remember last year, when everyone was trying to make it seem as if Lady Gaga was romancing Bradley Cooper just because they pretended to be in love for a televised duet from a movie in which they also pretended to be in love? There were so many reasons why I knew they weren’t dating, but the press ignored that, trying in vain to stir up something non-Trumpian.) The breakups of stars like Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus are mind-numbingly predictable, though I must say Johnny Depp did briefly wake me out of my orange stupor when he told the world in July that he knew his marriage to Amber Heard had crashed when Heard allegedly did a number two in their bed. But while this was the best celebrity gossip story in some time, it wasn’t really one you could share with your parents or replay over dinner.

Naturally, in the era of COVID-19, the role of celebrities has been diminished as they’ve been forced to collect unemployment while wearing a designer-made mantel of irrelevance. Sadly, they can’t do what they do—perform—except for relatively homemade online benefits, so their allure has gone down along with their production values. (An exception to this trajectory, the MTV VMAs were a well produced step forward into semi-normalcy, albeit within most of the new rules.)

Far from the center of our entertainment lives, celebs have suddenly become fellow out-of-work Americans nattering from the sidelines. People would rather read about the pandemic, the lockdowns, the White House law-breaking, or Black Lives Matter actions than sightings of how movie stars were spotted drinking Vitamin Water and wearing Gucci. For their—and our—own safety, you want them to just stay home.

Of course, the mass interest in celeb gossip started tanking way before that. In the social network age, celebrities serve their own tea, which can make for fun reading—though their endless apologies and spins are dullsville, especially when Lea Michele determines that her old behavior may have been badly “perceived.”

Michael Musto talking culture on cable last year, in one of the rare times they weren’t covering Trump. | Image courtesy of the author

Behind the non-apologies is the mass urge to call out celebs for past behavior, which is cleansing, though even that has hit an occasional roadblock. All the Me Too accusations and racism claims have been rivetingly important, but when everyone wants to crucify a celebrity because when they were nine years old, they dressed like a Native American for Halloween, the gossip becomes a bit hard to swallow.

And then you have Trump, an inept ruler who only knows one thing—how to stir stuff up and keep himself in the headlines, even if it’s as the person you most love to hate. Celebrity feuds are nothing compared to Trump vs. Biden, Trump vs. Pelosi, or Trump vs. teenage ecological activist Greta Thunberg, as he projects his own flaws on them, calling them sleepy, dumb, corrupt, and any other smear his P.T. Barnum-by-way-of-Roy-Cohn mind can think of.  What he does is generally contemptible—there is no low blow he won’t embrace—but hey, it’s “colorful” and attention-grabbing, so the media makes sure to cover it, falling into his trap every time. When he spews out dozens of tweets a day, generally there are at least five stories in there that the press can pounce on, while discussing how awful he is. Never mind that they helped him get elected by doing so—nothing has been learned and all that matters to them is seizing the traffic, so we can all tsk-tsk over this ogre that we all managed to make famous against our will.

And if you’re tired of hearing about Jada Pinkett Smith, you can always return to a Trump scandal—like his Stormy Daniels escapades or the other credible claims that keep popping up, as he blithely shrugs them off. Yes, even #MeToo is about him. At the same time, his cronies do twisted things that are way more attention-getting than anything some actor might be up to. The parade of Trumpies colliding with karma (Bannon getting arrested for embezzling border wall funds; Kellyanne having to take a back seat because her daughter called her out; etc.) has made for unmissable hot copy. Ever since the highly dignified Obamas vacated the White House, current events have way eclipsed celebrity gossip, and your everyday American is much more fascinated by Mitch McConnell’s doings (and undoings) than Katy Perry’s new baby.

How did celebrity status swoop so low? Well, when Reality TV took off in the early aughts, it became clear that Andy Warhol was right, and everyone on the planet was going to get their 15 minutes of fame. Virtually anyone could be a star, as long as they were willing to debase themselves, and others, for a mass audience. TV viewers loved seeing more privileged people get into low situations, so they tuned in for stuff the networks also adored because it was way cheaper to produce than their regular programming. But it immediately became impossible to know, or care, about all these stars, as they kept coming and going while aiming for our attention spans with their scripted ad-libs. We used to obsess about Madonna and Cher, but now we were supposed to give a hoot about someone on the seventh season of a Real Housewives franchise or a disposable singer who came in third on a reality competition show, never to be heard from again.

The greatest classic gossip stories were Liz/Eddie/Debbie and Angelina/Brad/Jennifer, lurid love triangles that captivated the public’s imagination, with each celebrity player enacting their assigned role of temptress/sleaze/victim with gusto. But today’s gossip revelations are either boringly rote or shockingly accusatory, or they’re horror stories about long gone celebrities—Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston—and their tortured lives. It’s all so deeply dispiriting that people keep going back to Trump and his shameless publicity attempts, at the expense of anyone with integrity. If the networks would simply return to talking about real stars, not reality stars (and Presidents), I’m there.

Follow Michael Musto on Twitter, via @mikeymusto.


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