‘The trashy stuff connects to the bigger picture’: the gossip-ification of America

Gossip, a four-part docuseries, traces the culture-shaping influence of the New York Post, Cindy Adams, and Rupert Murdoch’s transformation of American media

The docuseries Gossip opens with a needle drop on the media timeline: “In the early 90s, gossip became very hot.”

Gossip, of course, predates the early 90s by the entirety of human history, industrial celebrity gossip by decades; stars of Hollywood’s so-called golden era were promoted, hemmed and hawed by the likes of Hedda Hopper, Louella Parsons and Walter Winchell. Showtime’s Gossip, a four-part series directed by Jenny Carchman, is concerned with a particular tentpole of American gossip: the brash, throaty New York tabloids at the intersection of wealth, politics and Hollywood, when all-caps, exclamation pointed headlines about Tonya Harding, Lorena Bobbitt, the Menendez brothers, Bill Clinton’s relationship with a White House intern, and Princess Diana’s every move shaped the national conversation.

Gossip, the series, is less concerned with retrospectives of these stories (each reconsidered and reweighed in several recent films and TV series) than with the columnists themselves – in particular, the New York Post, the Murdoch-owned publisher of Page Six, and more specifically, its resident maven of dish, Cindy Adams.

Adams has been called the “Queen of Gossip,” gossip’s “GOAT”, and a “tabloid icon”. Indeed, Adams has reigned atop her column at the Post for more than 40 years, and even at 91 years old, takes tips by phone as she crafts her dispatches – five hours a day, six days a week – on whatever or whomever she deems noteworthy. She’s the last holdout of a bygone era, before celebrity Instagrams and the anonymous, anodyne crowdsourced sightings of DeuxMoi – that of the powerful gossip purveyor, one who could make or break reputations with their (in Adams’ case, caustic) attention.

Showtime’s Gossip finds the lifelong Manhattanite in her Park Avenue apartment, adorned with her 500 or so New York Post covers featuring such figures as Princess Di, Rudy Giuliani and her close friend, Donald Trump. Blunt and sharp-tongued as ever, Adams makes no apologies for her closeness to the former president, whose reputation as a public persona in New York she was instrumental in building.

“She’s absolutely clear and very unapologetic about how transactional she is when it comes to her stories and her relationships,” Carchman told the Guardian. Through numerous interviews over the past year and a half, Adams’ “X-ray vision” for vulnerabilities and insecurities was evident, she said. “She could just pinpoint right away what’s at the core of that person’s being.”

Gossip, the series, proceeds on two intertwined chronological tracks: the first, Murdoch’s steering of the Post, which he purchased in 1976, into a biting bully pulpit with a conservative bent and a knack for courting readership through sensationalism and fault lines of race, class and political belief. Murdoch pioneered a slicker, seemlier gossip page by committee in the Post – Page Six, which launched in January 1977. Circulation shot upwards. Lurid scandal, sex, crime, shame – as numerous tabloid authors such as Michael Musto, AJ Benza, former Page Six editor Paula Froelich, the New York Daily News’s George Rush and former New York Post editor-in-chief and Murdoch confidante Col Allan testify, Murdoch knew that gossip sold.

The second is Adams’ journey from pageant queen and commercial model to commenter on the rich, powerful and influential. Her beloved mother, Jessica Sugar Heller, “made sure that I was to be improved”, she says – she secured an illegal nose job for Adams at 15. At 17, she married Joey Adams, a vaudeville comic (“a No 2 with a No 1 lifestyle”, she jokes) who hobnobbed with the political ruling class of the city. While on tour with Joey overseas, Adams befriended Indonesia’s autocratic president Sukarno, for whom she published an autobiography in 1965.

Throughout the 60s and 70s, Adams built a career as a news anchor-cum-performer representing New York’s who’s-who, but it was her connections to disgraced rulers that tumbled her into tabloid stardom. In 1979, she skipped a dinner with Post editor-in-chief Roger Wood to visit her friend the shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, on his deathbed; Wood splashed her write-up of the meeting, a coveted exclusive, on the cover.

She became a regular columnist in 1981, where she continued relaying the sides of disreputable figures: Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega; Philippines first lady Imelda Marcos, convicted of stealing billions before she and her husband Ferdinand Marcos were deposed in 1986; New York hotelier and convicted tax evader Leona Helmsley.

And, of course, Donald Trump, whom she met through mutual friend Roy Cohn (“the single worst person I’ve ever met in my life,” says New Yorker journalist Ken Auletta in the series) in the late 1970s.

Imelda Marcos and Cindy Adams
Imelda Marcos, the former Philippines first lady and Cindy Adams. Photograph: Courtesy of SHOWTIME

Throughout the series, Adams defends her relationships with figures who have inflicted an incalculable toll on other lives as both a matter of fiercely cherished, reciprocal personal loyalty and the potential for an exclusive. If everyone hates someone, she says in a later episode, then their side is the one story not being told. “There’s a line that most people might have – ‘This person is a scary dictator and has murdered people in their own country,’” said Carchman. “That might be my line where I say, ‘Oh, I’m not going to pursue this relationship.’ Cindy doesn’t feel that way. It’s all personal with her.”

There’s no better example than her staunch support of Trump, whose self-promotion into a New York celebrity in the 80s and 90s forms a sizable portion of the series’ middle episodes. Trump “became a known figure in New York City because of his relationship to gossip columnists,” said Carchman. “He knew how to manipulate the press in a way that very few people know how to do.”

Or, perhaps, have the shamelessness to do. Numerous tabloid veterans recall Trump’s barely disguised hankering for press coverage – posing as “sources” close to himself, leaving voicemails for Post reporters and supplying spotlight-courting faux “scoops” to Adams (such as the false “speculation” in the 90s that Princess Diana was considering an apartment in Trump Tower).

The fourth episode focuses on the rise of tabloid blogs in the aughts – TMZ, Perez Hilton (who appears in the series), Page Six’s fixation with a young, fame-chasing Paris Hilton. The relentless hounding of beleaguered female stars such as Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and, most egregiously, Britney Spears, have recently come in for reconsideration as toxic and misogynist.

“It’s very clear to me how sexist that coverage was, and also how damaging it was, and still is,” said Carchman. The series hews closely to the authors of tabloid gossip, who offer varying levels of regret, rather than the toll on its subjects. “It felt like if we don’t reach out to all of them and speak to all of them, it would be odd to have one person speaking for everybody,” Carchman said.

Does the gossip press hold some responsibility for Trump’s myth-making? Carchman says yes – “although I don’t think it was intentional”. Only Adams seems to have taken his political aspirations seriously. For everyone else, arguably even Trump himself, the circus of spectacle and appearances was just a game.

“The cautionary tale is let’s look and see, who are we paying attention to?” said Carchman, pointing in particular to such tabloid puppeteers as Trump and Harvey Weinstein. “Who are we giving so much time, so much print, so much television coverage, so much internet coverage to?”

Ben Widdicombe, a former columnist for the New York Daily News, perhaps puts it best: “Gossip is frequently disparaged,” he says in the first episode.

“And I understand the reasons why. But the trashy stuff connects to the bigger picture, and we ignore it at our peril.”

  • Gossip airs on Showtime in the US on Sundays with a UK date to be announced

Contributor

Adrian Horton

The GuardianTramp

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