Elaine Lui dissects the Celebrity Industrial Complex

Raising an eyebrow to celebrity image-making

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Elaine Lui

Elaine Lui on the set of her talk show "The Social." (Todd Fraser, CTV the Canadian TV network / April 17, 2014)

Two weeks ago when Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin announced they were divorcing, many focused on the labored "conscious uncoupling" argot used in their announcement, which was posted on Paltrow's lifestyle website goop.com.

Elaine Lui, the entertainment reporter and force behind Lainey Gossip (one of the leading celebrity websites, now going into its 10th year) took a different tack and analyzed the ever-shifting boundary between public and private among the rich and famous.

"She just told us the length of time they spent trying to fix their relationship," wrote Lui. "That is the very definition of private. And yet, I can't look at pictures of you walking down a public street with your children? How am I supposed to know which way the wind is blowing for you to consider something 'private' and 'private enough to share on a blog that gets millions of visitors and has now crashed from your sharing of your privacy?'"

More than just reporting on the latest scandal or pregnancy, Lui's website is a must-read for its refusal to take celebrity news at face value. Lui frequently exposes the machinations behind image management; the Celebrity Industrial Complex, she points out, is often at work when paparazzi photos appear of actors and actresses looking like perfect parents, whether these actors are attempting to burnish a reputation or help nudge an Oscar nomination into sure-thing territory.

Last year Lui gave a TED talk centered on the idea that celebrity gossip is about more than gawking or snickering at Hollywood stars — that the conversations gossip sparks usually say more about us than the celebrities themselves.

Witty and blunt, Lui will occasionally refer to her Hong Kong-born mother on Lainey Gossip when making a point about behavior her ma (as Lui refers to her) would find "low classy" or just plain stupid. Nicknamed "Squawking Chicken" as a child, Lui's ma is a caustic, brashly charismatic, take-no-prisoners, larger-than-life figure. Their complicated (but also deeply connected) relationship forms the basis of Lui's new memoir "Listen to the Squawking Chicken," and it is a lovely read about a woman whose force of personality refuses to be ignored: "Ma walks like an elephant and squawks like a chicken, and she has always taught me to do the same. It annoys her to see girls encouraged to behave otherwise."

Her ma is "on the short side of average, small-boned, but obnoxiously dressed," she writes in the book. "Think rhinestones everywhere, and if not rhinestones then sequins, and if not sequins then feathers. Sometimes all of it at the same time." This primed Lui well on the nature of big, brash personalities.

A correspondent for etalk (a Canadian version of "Entertainment Tonight") and the Toronto-based daytime talk show "The Social," Lui comes to Chicago next week to talk about the book as well as the broader role of celebrity gossip in society.

Q: Before we talk about the world of celebrity, I wanted to ask about your mother's reaction to the book, since you reveal private traumas she experienced as a child and young woman, including some terrible treatment from her parents.

A: Listen, she says herself that if you can tell the story of the worst thing that ever happened to you, then you own the story. So there were never any qualms about sharing her personal information. She was really excited for herself. Remember, it's always about her.

Q: You're frank about her strengths but also her flaws.

A: She's OK with it. She has to be because she's the master of giving criticism. My father said to me after reading the book, "You know your mother better than she knows herself." I feel like if I was going to write a book about her, it had to be raw because that's her style.

Q: What's her take on what you do for a living?

A: It's gossip in general that she totally understands. She would take credit for teaching me how to gossip because I learned how to gossip at the mah-jong table.

Q: Talk to me about why you're interested in dissecting celebrity gossip.

A: Gossip is not just about Hollywood. It's a reflection of our culture as a whole. If I were the Dean of Faculty of Celebrity Studies, this is how we would be further analyzing these stories.

Gossip is basically about group behavior management. And, wouldn't you know, a Stanford University study that just came out in January advocated for gossip as healthy for communities and healthy societies, especially as it relates to group standards.

(The study found that "gossip and ostracism can have very positive effects. They are tools by which groups reform bullies, thwart exploitation of 'nice people' and encourage cooperation.")

Q: But look at Lindsay Lohan. She seems to be rewarded for terrible behavior.

A: I'm not sure that Lindsay Lohan has been rewarded. Her career is pretty much shot.

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