Buzz about celebrity flings and feuds kicked into high gear this year, and the Internet was eager to comment on every twist and turn in A-listers’ lives. There was romantic intrigue: Adam Levine’s flirty direct messages sent to at least one woman who was not his wife; Pete Davidson’s unquenchable charisma propelling him into relationships with first Kim Kardashian and then Emily Ratajkowski; Tom Brady and Gisele Bündchen’s divorce, reportedly because he chose football over family; an alleged affair between Good Morning America co-hosts T.J. Holmes and Amy Robach.
There were celebrity disputes: Cantankerous restaurateur Keith McNally booted James Corden from his famous eatery Balthazar for the way he spoke to the waitstaff. Lea Michele manifested her long-stated wish to star in Funny Girl on Broadway, leading to an early exit by Beanie Feldstein. And, of course, there was the Don’t Worry Darling chaos: A romantic tryst between director Olivia Wilde and pop music icon and the movie’s leading man Harry Styles overshadowed the film itself, and a tension-filled promotional tour shined a light on Wilde’s custody battle with her ex Jason Sudeikis; her rumored feud with star Florence Pugh; Styles’ fans’ discontent with his relationship with Wilde; her claim that she fired Shia LaBeouf from the film, and his denial of her story; and (if only in fans’ imaginations) Styles’ beef with co-star Chris Pine.
We took these tidbits and ran with them. We dug up old tales of Lea Michele allegedly terrorizing the cast of Glee and perpetuated the “Lea can’t read” conspiracy theories, which grew so loud that the actor herself tried to get in on the joke. We latched onto minute yet bizarre details, like the fact that James Cordon’s wife apparently orders an all-egg-yolk omelet. We scrutinized Harry Styles’ alleged globule of spit flying into Chris Pine’s lap, even though it definitely did not exist. (Pine’s reps had to release a denial to quell the Internet frenzy.) It was all largely in jest, though the line between fun, harmless gossip and the malicious kind can be blurry: A celebrity breakup can seem like no big deal until you think of the couple’s children.
Gossip is eternal. The spread of rumors didn’t start in 2022. But this year, after a pandemic lull, we were collectively jonesing for gossip. Being cooped up meant our friends and acquaintances could not stir up the sort of drama that, when disseminated to friends and friends of friends, keeps our social circles connected. In that time, celebrities did not seem quite up to the task of breaking up and breaking down with the same flair we’d come to expect from them. The settings for such drama were missing: Awards ceremonies had gone remote, sets had shut down, parties had gone private. “I’m not surprised that years of social crisis—in a society that barely qualifies as such—have created an audience for low-stakes sensationalism with a human-interest angle,” says Maha Jafri, a professor at Sewanee: The University of the South, who has written about how gossip was deployed in Victorian literature.
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The few resources we did have in recent years for rumormongering shot up in popularity: For instance, Deux Moi, an Instagram account that posts unverified tidbits of celebrity scuttlebutt and pictures of A-listers wandering around New York and Los Angeles, blew up in 2020 after its creator (whose name is still a secret) began working remotely that March and dedicated her ample spare time in quarantine to curating what celebrity gossip did still exist. That many of her posted “tips” stretched credulity or were proved outright false had little impact on the account’s growth. Reddit, meanwhile, has been littered with communities digging up dirt on their favorite YouTube personalities: When the Bon Appetit Test Kitchen imploded in the summer of 2020 after accusations of racism and unequal pay, fans took to the platform to analyze the stars’ posts on social media and theorize about who played what role in the demise of the cast.
Those who study gossip for a living suggest we need it to distract ourselves, to socialize, and even to establish our values as a culture. “This has really been the first full year in the United States where society is back to a more fully face-to-face experience,” says Andrea McDonnell, a professor of communication at Providence College and co-author of the upcoming book A Gossip Politic, about the role of gossip in our political discourse. “And we can use celebrity gossip in particular as a kind of currency where when we talk to friends and family, it gives us a common topic of discussion: ‘Can you believe?’ ‘Did you see?’ ‘Did you know?’”
Scandals of the rich and famous were so abundant this year that it would seem there’d be little need for delving into the lives of normal people. Newsletters from the media company Puck, which launched in September 2021, have quickly cemented themselves as must-reads for Hollywood power players because of both their insider knowledge—they reported Bob Iger’s replacement of Bob Chapek at Disney early—and their conspiratorial tone that blurs the line between news and gossip. And yet non-celebrity scandals have gone viral too, often on TikTok. When several women discovered they had been romanced then ghosted by the same Hinge serial dater, whom they dubbed West Elm Caleb because of his job at the furniture store, they banded together to cancel him. Even the cheating scandal surrounding the YouTube the Try Guys dominated social media for days.
Perhaps the most remarkable example, Normal Gossip—a podcast in which the host Kelsey McKinney shares anonymized gossip about friends of her friends—just launched in January and ranked among the top 1% of podcasts shared globally on Spotify in 2022. Some of the prurient interest in these stories is rooted in their niche and fascinating settings: One story takes place in a knitting group, another in an all-gay men’s choir with a love triangle at its center, a third among coworkers in an escape room. But Jafri argues the show also offers a safe way to indulge in what might otherwise be the hurtful habit of rumormongering. “If you could design a version of gossip that was defensible but still pleasurable, what would it look like? I think it’s this show,” she says.
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McDonnell says these stories aren’t just entertaining—they also have social and moral value for listeners. We identify with the characters and draw conclusions about our own behavior as a result. McKinney invites this level of empathy by pausing at pivotal moments to ask her guests, “What would you do?” You think your boss and coworker are hooking up in a back room: Do you investigate or leave it alone? You discover that the queen bee of your neighborhood knitting group is hiding something: Do you take photographic evidence? We suddenly have to reckon with our own choices and morals. Random TikTok users sharing embarrassing or dramatic stories about themselves, their friends, or their exes forced us to do the same.
Celebrity stories, too, can serve as morality tales. “On the surface, it’s this really fizzy, salacious, some might even say trashy story,” McDonnell says of the Don’t Worry Darling fiasco. “But there’s also issues embedded in that story about gender, about sexuality. Even though we might engage with it in what seems like a fun way, there can be more salient, sometimes political themes that run through the stories we tell.”
The moral of Olivia Wilde’s saga depends on who is telling the tale. One lesson may be, don’t sleep with people who work for you. But, as my colleague Stephanie Zacharek pointed out, there was a misogynist tinge to the way people shamed Wilde for doing what male directors do all the time, as if warning women, specifically, against on-set dalliances. “Gossip can be a way for people without power to deflate or subvert people with power,” says Jafri. “For better or worse.”
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Celebrity gossip is, for the most part, good fun. No matter who Olivia Wilde, Pete Davidson, or the GMA co-hosts date, they will remain, at the end of the day, rich and powerful. “Gossip about people we don’t know, whether they be celebrities or anonymous people, tends to feel pretty game-like and lighthearted. There’s very little chance a celebrity will hear what we said about them or it will impact someone’s mental health directly,” says McDonnell.
But Megan Robbins, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, argues that gossip can be deployed by society as a form of punishment. “If I’m gossiping about someone who cheats a lot, then that in itself is sort of a consequence of cheating, of something that in our culture we consider wrong,” she says. “So not only does gossip teach you what people consider good or bad behavior, but it can also serve itself as a consequence of bad behavior.” And when gossip becomes the prevailing media narrative about a person, that can cause serious damage. “I think of the way we talked about Britney Spears or Amy Winehouse in the 2000s,” says McDonnell, “calling them crazy or making fun of addiction issues. There’s a darker side there.”
The meme-ified videos of Styles’ supposed spit were harmless diversions. But that same treatment applied to Amber Heard’s testimony during a defamation trial this summer spotlighted a disturbing corner of the internet. Heard’s ex-husband Johnny Depp sued her after she called herself “a public figure representing domestic abuse” in a Washington Post op-ed. Depp supporters edited videos and added voiceovers to create false and sexist accounts of Heard taking drugs while on the stand, analyzed her body language to claim she was herself an abuser, and pushed a rumor that Depp was dating his lawyer—conjuring moments that simply were not present. (The jury awarded Depp awarded $15 million in damages in his lawsuit and Heard $2 million in her countersuit.) Again, at Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral, body-language “experts” analyzed the slightest movements of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry to spin narratives about Markle that perpetuate the racist and sexist narratives that have long plagued her. It sometimes seems we’ve learned little from that era of 2000s malicious gossip that McDonnell cites.
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Still, Robbins argues that cruel gossip is the exception, not the rule. For a 2019 study, she and her colleagues listened in on participants over the course of several days and coded their gossip as “positive,” “negative,” or “neutral.” They found that common beliefs around gossip—that it’s deployed primarily by women, backed by ill intent—were inaccurate. Everyone engages in gossip, not just women, and negative gossip is far less common than one might expect. They determined that most gossip was “neutral,” simply an exchange of information about mutual acquaintances’ jobs, preferences, or relationship status. “I think it gets a bad rap because we’ve all been burned by negative gossip before,” she says. “But on the whole, gossip is neutral to beneficial to society. We have to talk about people to function in a social world.”
One could take a look at the increased interest in gossip this past year and point to it as yet another sign of our society’s demise. Robbins would object: “It seems to me that people are just so excited to be back together and have anything to gossip about.”
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