On Feb. 24, the day the entertainment complex gathers for the lucrative popularity contest known as the Academy Awards, Elaine Lui will wake in her Los Angeles hotel room before 6 a.m. For Lui, who produces Canada’s pre-eminent celebrity gossip website, laineygossip.com, this is a big game day or, as she puts it, “the Super Bowl of gossip.” As an on-air correspondent for CTV’s eTalk, Lui is also part of the spectacle, providing red carpet play-by-play. She’ll then hoof it backstage to the press room to blog to her fellow “smuthounds” and tweet to her 66,615 followers. One year, she shared a tale of how Sean Penn blew cigarette smoke in her face.
Once the broadcast wraps, Lui’s real work begins: she returns to her hotel, where she and TV writer Duana Taha, a laineygossip.com contributor, will spend the next 12 hours posting—“best” and “worst” fashion, big moments, bad behaviour—with the mix of opinionated snark and fan-girl gush for which the site is known. Lui produces between 2,000 and 4,500 words a day, five days a week, on everything from Tilda Swinton’s bad-ass style to Lindsay Lohan’s bad behaviour. On Oscar night, they churn out more than 10,000 words. “We want posts ready for readers in the U.K. when they wake,” says Lui, sitting in a Toronto hotel bar in February. “Readers expect it.”
Such devotion and hard work explains, in part, how the 39-year-old Vancouver resident has carved out a niche in the crowded celebrity-gossip sphere—a gridlock that spans Yahoo’s OMG! with 28.5 million visitors a month to conglomerates such as Disney, which use subsidiaries such as ABC to plug its movies. (Similar synergies have helped Lui: when she broke the Tom Cruise-Katie Holmes split last year, the Globe and Mail, which shares a corporate parent with eTalk, covered the breakup and interviewed her about the scoop.) Over the last three months, laineygossip.com had five million visits and more than 20 million page views, but her influence is even more significant. Google “celebrity gossip” and 64 million results pop up: laineygossip.com is No. 5.
As such, she has become a vital cog in the viral machine reframing entertainment-industry marketing: where once movies were sold via trailers, sites such as Lui’s generate buzz early on by covering casting decisions and posting on-set photos. A recent item about George Clooney dining with Matt Damon in Berlin, for instance, cited Clooney’s upcoming film. Within this Möbius strip of industry promotion, Lui has cleverly leveraged her own rising celebrity by speaking at ideas forum TEDx in Vancouver, signing a book deal, going on a speaking tour and making personal appearances sponsored by big-brand advertisers.
Lui came to the online celebrity gossip boom early. While working in not-for-profit fundraising in 2003, she began emailing celebrity gossip updates to two friends; within a year, her email list exceeded capacity and a friend suggested she try something new: “blogging.” Cultivating sources, she landed the gossip equivalent of Watergate: the exclusive that Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt planned to give birth in Africa. Seeking a gossip component, eTalk signed her in 2006; she quit her job as a development officer at Covenant House, a shelter for homeless youth. In 2007, her husband, Jacek Szenowicz, joined full-time to handle the business side.
Lui’s online persona is that of plugged-in girlfriend who mingles on the fringe of celebrity circles—but will gush about seeing Colin Farrell at the gym. She shares personal details judiciously: her pride at being an Olympic torch bearer, her decision not to have children, tales about her strict mother, a recurring character known as the “Chinese squawking chicken.” She owns her biases and draws the line at “sad smut” (death or suicide) or reality-show stars. Over the years, a celebrity taxonomy has emerged: Tom Cruise is “GMD” (gay midget dwarf), a Botoxed Nicole Kidman is “Granny Freeze,” Twilight superfans are “Twi-hards.” Harsh criticism is balanced by fawning enthusiasm. “I really, really, REALLY love Carey Mulligan SO MUCH,” she wrote this week. Courting controversy is important, Lui says: “I’d rather be hated than beige.”
Lui’s ability to interpret and mould stories allows her to cut through celebrity-gossip clutter,” says Shinan Govani, the National Post’s society columnist. “Lainey is really good at creating narratives. She’s canny in creating good and evil—like a Star Wars approach—and inspiring people to root for someone or take a schadenfreude approach.”
Lui calls modern celebrity an “ecosystem,” a carefully manufactured platform designed for branding—seen in Gwyneth Paltrow’s ascension to lifestyle arbiter via goop.com, or George Clooney recently posting a YouTube video capitalizing on his swinger’s reputation in the tabloids to promote his new tequila.
Online gossip has shifted power to the fan, says Lui. “That forces celebrities to further a narrative they believe fans will accept and translate into support of the project.” Her skill is in pulling the curtain on industry machinations while stoking its engine; she’ll call out celebrities who stage paparazzi shoots or engage in faux relationships to generate publicity, but she still runs the photos. Likewise, she’ll critique pressures leading to an actress’s rapid “thin-ification,” while drawing attention to it, and has harsh words for hypocrisy and actors who make a brazen cash grab, such as Drew Barrymore going against type by creating a makeup line for Wal-Mart.
It’s territory now taught in business schools, says David Soberman, a marketing professor at Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. Social media has reframed celebrity endorsements and celebrity itself in three ways, he says: “One, its ability to mint new celebrities, whether it’s Arianna Huffington or Elaine Lui.” Two, it provides the opportunity to get top spin from traditional spokespeople, as when Patrick Chan tweeted for McDonald’s during the Vancouver Olympics. Third, it gives celebrities the chance to launch products more easily and directly.
It all provides fodder for Lui, whose keen sense of the reach of celebrity branding is reflected in her site’s evolution into a multi-tiered community covering fashion, beauty products, fitness, food, personal advice, as well as book, movie and TV reviews that attracts advertisers such as Proctor & Gamble, Unilever, Telus, Yahoo, GM, Mercedes, Warner Brothers and Universal. Its “advertise with us” link boasts that readers are “media-savvy, well-read and take notice when a hot product hits the shelves (and our ad space).” Those ads, or any partnerships, are clearly marked, Lui says. “You cannot insult readers with a lack of transparency.” Those partnerships are usually interactive. New sponsor VH Steamers, a frozen-food line, for example, funded an Oscar-ballot contest with a prize designed to build reader loyalty: $5,000 and a Prada bag selected by Lui. In a content-generation strategy with Vitaminwater, Lui wrote copy for bottle labels and produced an advice column for the company’s blogging platform, Tumblr. In turn, it financed a “faculty of celebrity studies” that she hosted in three cities (this year it’s six), offering “more academic” discussions of gossip and media. Public appetite for celebrity gossip has made Lui an audience draw. She’s hired to host events such as a media breakfast to introduce a new toothbrush (and dish about celebrity cosmetic dentistry); the annual “smut soirees” she hosts across the country pull in the crowds and the sponsors. (As for income, Lui won’t dish, but she jokes about her expensive shoe habit.)
Lui refuses to see celebrity gossip as merely a voyeuristic guilty pleasure. Rather, it offers a lens into attitudes toward sexuality, race, body image and gender, she says. The Kristen Stewart cheating scandal, for one, reveals a double standard about female infidelity. The focus on celebrity motherhood, she says, is a return to the 1950s. “Pregnancy is a career move in Hollywood,” she says, blaming the “minivan majority,” a female demographic that reads Fifty Shades of Grey and sides with Jennifer Aniston over Angelina Jolie—and wields huge consumer influence. “Mom bloggers are now invited to movie junkets, to premieres,” she says.
But she also knows a lot of her readers are mothers (though not part of the “minivan majority,” she says), and Lui has adjusted her content accordingly. Last year, she introduced a “mom voice” to the mix, along with a column offering baby-name advice for anxious parents-to-be because baby names have become status symbols. “They’re the new Birkin bag.”
Next up, Lui is extending her brand to the literary sphere, with deals in Canada and the U.S. to write a book about her relationship with her mother. No word yet on movie rights but, as anyone who reads her blog knows, it’s a no-brainer.