Divas of Dish

What do gossip columnists talk about when they’re all alone? New York’s Maer Roshan assembled four of the city’s boldface veterans, plied them with wine and inedible food, and discreetly turned on a tape recorder. In addition to Liz Smith, guests included Jeannette Walls, an online columnist and onscreen gossip for MSNBC, whose book Dish: The Inside Story on the World of Gossip was published to respectful reviews this year. Joanna Molloy writes a column, “Rush & Molloy,” for the Daily News with her husband, George Rush, and hosts a show on eYada.com. Rounding out the posse was Michael Musto, whose weekly column has run in The Village Voice for the past thirteen years. Be afraid, be very afraid!

Liz Smith: What a fancy spread! You should have made us all wear silk underwear.

Michael Musto: You’re not?

Jeannette Walls: I am. You start shimmying a little more when you feel that silk on you.

Smith: You haven’t worn cotton underwear since ‘74, I’m sure.

Walls: I haven’t worn underwear since 1974! Laughter.

Maer Roshan: Geez. The bons mots are flying already. I was going to get us in the mood with some Bill Moyers-type questions. But with this crowd, I don’t stand a chance.

Joanna Molloy: All right. Simmer down, everybody.

M.R.: To start off with, I’m curious whether you see yourselves more as entertainers or as journalists.

Walls: We’re all hard-ass reporters!

“Kevin Spacey is entitled to make any statement he wants about his sex life, and then he has to live with the fallout from people like Nathan Lane who are irritated by that. People have a right to spin their own myth.” – Liz Smith

Molloy: That’s what bugs me about many other reporters; they say, “Sorry, I won’t collaborate with you; I don’t do gossip.” The fact is, we actually go out and dig for things. Plenty of reporters just sit in press conferences and take notes. And we have to deal with hostile forces – publicists who do all they can to prevent things from getting out.

Walls: There are armies of people arrayed to keep us from getting the truth.

M.R.: Do you see yourself as a reporter or an entertainer, Liz?

Smith: I see myself as a star and a sex symbol. Laughs. No, seriously, I think of myself as a reporter. And sometimes as a performer. I don’t take it too seriously.

Musto: Most of the stuff we write about isn’t that important in the larger picture. But we have to approach it as if it is, because our readers care about it more than they do about headline news.

Smith: I think we do as well as reporters do. Better. When you read the New York Times, they always leave out the main thing you want to know. They never ask, “What happened to the children? What happened to the dog?” In many “real” news stories, they don’t get to the crux of anything.

Walls: Gossip columnists are the media’s foot soldiers. We’re out actually breaking news. So if we get stuff wrong, it’s because we’re the ones who are breaking things. The New York Times has the luxury of following you, so they pretend they have this highbrow approach.They love to repeat the stuff the gossip columns have broken, but they always frame it as “Oh, isn’t this disgusting,” and then repeat it all in salacious detail. Next thing you know, Ted Koppel’s doing a special.

Smith: When other papers report it, it’s gossip; when the Times reports it, it’s sociology.

M.R.: How has the business of gossip changed over the years?

Musto: There’s three times as many reporters now, and the same number of celebrities, so we’re all fighting over any crumbs of gossip that we can dig up. As a result, publicists have become immensely powerful. Most people don’t realize that reporters can’t even get an assignment to interview a big star without that celebrity’s publicist approving the writer and even the questions they ask.

M.R.: How do you get around that?

Musto: I just try and avoid publicists. They won’t deal with me anyway, except to invite me to premieres. I don’t know how you daily guys do it, because publicists are so vicious and controlling.

Molloy: They’re also violent. I was standing at a party perhaps too close to Skeet Ulrich not long ago, and his publicist came out like a bat out of hell and screamed, “Stay away from Skeet!”

Walls: Your brush with immortality! Sure, honey!

Molloy: I said, “No, I want to stand here and read Skeet’s lips.” So this publicist bodily shoved me away. It was horrible!

Musto: Usually, they surround me with an armed convoy. Laughs. What do they think I’m going to do?

Smith: I don’t think we can do anything to any of them. People aren’t really hurt by what we do.

M.R.: You don’t think you have the power to hurt careers and reputations?

Smith: I don’t think anybody can hurt a career.

Molloy: That’s not true. Some gossips are irresponsible. Recently one of the columns reported, “Brad Pitt is now living in a yellow townhouse” and gave his address. The item went out over all the radio stations, and suddenly everybody was ringing his doorbell, saying, “Hey, Brad, let’s party!” Sometimes we reveal things about people that are hurtful. I wouldn’t write that somebody is in rehab… .

Smith: Yeah, I agree. I think that you have to be careful writing about people who are sick and need help. I remember I got a story on John Belushi when they were making 1941, which was that they were rumored to have had a million dollars written into the movie budget just for cocaine. Now, that’s a story worth telling: I saw it as a cautionary tale. But to just write that somebody is on drugs, they’d have to be doing something really bad in public where they just were out of control.

Musto: I think it’s much more newsworthy if they’re not on drugs! Laughter. The thing I draw the line on is illness. The only time I’d write about illness is if, for example, Rock Hudson comes out and says, “Oh, I don’t have AIDS.” If it’s some kind of hypocrisy, where they’re trying to act as if their illness is unspeakable.

Smith: You’ve got to remember that Rock Hudson got AIDS so early on, and nobody sort of knew how to act about AIDS. Nobody knew what AIDS was.

Musto: Well, by that point I had lost about 200 friends, so I knew what AIDS was, Liz.

M.R.: Do you think it was worth infringing on Rock Hudson’s privacy to tell that story?

Smith: I think he was so sick by the time I found it out that I couldn’t have concealed it if I’d wanted to. Yeah, that story was too big to sweep under the rug.

M.R.: One of the other taboos that’s breaking down is sexuality. It’s apparent in the coverage of Kevin Spacey, who responded by constantly mentioning a girlfriend of nine years whom no one had ever heard of until six months ago… .

Walls: Is she a drag queen?

Musto: I went out with her. Laughter.

M.R.: Liz, you’ve come out pretty firmly against outing in the past. Have your feelings changed at all?

Smith: I’m not so firmly against it. I mean, I’ve outed several people inadvertently. I wouldn’t do it on purpose, though. I think Kevin Spacey is entitled to make any kind of statement he wants about his sex life, and then he has to live with the fallout from people who are irritated by that, like Nathan Lane, who are going to keep making jokes about it. But people have a right to spin their own myth. There isn’t any law that he has to say what kind of sex he has.

M.R.: I think that’s true. But the question is whether journalists should be writing things they know are lies.

Musto: That’s right. When it comes to gay stuff, we get attacked for reporting the truth. When Esquire outed Kevin Spacey “Kevin Spacey Has a Secret,” October 1997, they were crucified by the media and by the entertainment world for it, and ultimately had to backtrack. But I thought they were totally brave. They addressed the gossip about Kevin Spacey. And they had every right to do so.

Smith: Spacey is fairly public in his behavior, so people think they can say anything they want. He’s not going to sue.

M.R.: I kept trying to figure out what Kevin Spacey’s secret was. Laughter. I know you have very mixed feelings about this whole outing issue, Jeannette.

Walls: I do. I used to be vehemently opposed to it. But my gay friends have taught me that there really is a form of homophobia in avoiding the subject. There’s a double standard. Not long ago, there was a high-ranking political adviser who got fired because he kept hitting on the male interns. Nobody reported it, because it would have meant outing him.

“At one party I was standing too close to Skeet Ulrich, and his publicist came like a bat out of hell and screamed, ‘Stay away from Skeet!’ I said, ‘No, I want to stand here and read Skeet’s lips!’ He bodily shoved me away.” – Joanna Molloy

Smith: Politics is fair game for outing because the results of the hypocrisy are so serious. I don’t know if we need to be jumping on a bunch of actors who want to pretend they’re straight.

M.R.: But we live at a time when the biggest societal influences are cultural rather than political. Tom Cruise has more of a cultural impact than most politicians, don’t you think?

Walls: It’s true. Celebrities have become cultural touchstones. As scary as it is, people really do look to stars as moral leaders.

Musto: Which is why I think it is totally hypocritical of the media to stay away from gay sexuality. Gossip reporters will report almost everything about celebrities, but sexuality is off-limits. It’s saying that homosexuality is unspeakable, so dirty that it shouldn’t even be addressed.

Molloy: I think everyone has a right to privacy when it comes to their sex life.

Musto: Have I been misreading your column? You’re such a liar!

Molloy: You’re talking about our item on Nathan Lane?

Musto: You’re constantly going there and playing around. Nathan Lane is one of many examples. You wrote about Kevin Spacey at some Oscar party with Sam Mendes “enjoying the guys in their Speedos.” Do I have to remind you? You not only outed Spacey – you outed American Beauty director Sam Mendes! Is Mendes even gay?

Molloy: Wait a minute, a man can enjoy a guy in a Speedo and not be gay. Laughs.

Musto: Tell that to the judge, honey.

Smith: I don’t agree with you, Mike. Nobody saw Anne Heche and Ellen DeGeneres in bed.

Musto: They were spotted holding hands at the Cubby Hole, Liz!

Smith: What? Well, lots of women hold … Arab men hold hands all the time.

Musto: Yeah – last I checked, DeGeneres wasn’t an Arab name.

M.R.: Do you all enjoy what you do? Do you ever have trouble sleeping at night?

Walls: Love it! Laughs. Can’t imagine doing anything else.

Smith: I like it. I’ve always loved writing about celebrities. I always wanted to know them, and I always wanted to live, you know, in the throes or on the fringes of show business or the literary world. I try to write about all kinds of things, not just show business, not just actors. I am more interested in writers, really.

M.R.: Is it hard to be friends with the people that you cover, Liz?

Smith: Of course! It’s terrible. You have to figure out whether you’re going to end your friendship with them half the time.

Musto: I’ve managed to keep most of my friends. Though it’s true that Meryl Streep is not calling me to go bowling. I think it’s healthy that I’m not friends with any of these people.

Walls: I don’t think you can be friends with the people you write about. It just complicates things.

M.R.: Do you compete a lot amongst each other? How far would you go to get an item? Much laughter.

Molloy: What would Jeannette do for an item? Can I show you the stiletto prints on my back?

Musto: I think the biggest competitor for all of us is “Page Six.” I mean, even dear, dear friends that I’ve known for twenty years will tell me something about themselves that’s newsworthy, and I’ll say, “Can I write that?” and they’ll say, “No-no-no, I’ll let you know when I’m ready,” and two days later they’ll have phoned it into “Page Six.”

Smith: Don’t you give “Page Six” any credit? Maybe they ran out and got it.

“Excuse me! How about Sharon Stone sending out a release after Columbine saying, ‘I’ve given up my gun.’ She was trying to get publicity out of Columbine! Like anyone gave a shit about her gun, except her husband, who should be afraid.” – Michael Musto

Musto: No! This is a friend of mine who lives in Brooklyn, Liz! Not John Travolta! But you just charm them, Liz. They’re yours.

Smith: Certain celebrities like Barbara Walters see the beauty in what I do. But she’s a friend of mine, and she makes a lot of news.

M.R.: So Liz, do Barbara and Diane Sawyer really hate each other?

Smith: I don’t think they hate each other. They have grudging respect for each other. But they’re in this titanic struggle all the time to see which one is going to … It isn’t money they want. Barbara doesn’t need money. She’s already making $10 million a year. She wants love and affection from the people at ABC. She wants to feel she has as much power as Diane does. But I don’t think they actually hate each other.

Molloy: And I don’t think any of us really hate each other.

Walls: Speak for yourself, bitch. Laughter.

M.R.: Is it dangerous for gossip columnists to get too cozy with their subjects?

Molloy: I think so. For years, I did items without really meeting people except for five minutes at a premiere. I prefer it that way. When you meet someone and look into their eyes, you see that somewhere back there is a person who just wanted to be an actor, somewhere is the creative soul that existed before all of the money and the power got to them, and it becomes harder and harder to trash them.

Smith: That’s true. But here’s the rub. Ultimately this job is all about access. You use your access to get items, and then decide how far you want to go in telling the truth. When I got embroiled in the Donald Trump- Ivana Trump divorce, I hadn’t started out thinking that I was going to have to take sides until circumstances forced me to do so. In the beginning, I was talking to both of them. Then I gave up on Donald. I thought, “Well, I’ll never have access to him again.” Not that I cared particularly… .

Musto: Let me be denied access to Donald Trump. Please.

Smith: But no. A year later he wrote me a letter saying, “I think I’m falling in love with you again.” I framed it.

Walls: I think gossip columnists have to be confrontational, especially when celebrities keep messing up. Someone needs to keep these people in line. It’s like Eminem gets arrested every other day when his mother isn’t suing him. Or Angelina Jolie and Billy Bob Thornton, just watching that car accident speeding down the highway.

Smith: They’re too hot not to cool down. Don’t you think?

Musto: They’re very explicit about how hot they are in bed, which makes me wonder if the whole thing wasn’t orchestrated to divert the public from thinking that she was fucking her brother.

Smith: Say right what you mean! Much laughter.

Molloy: Do you think Angelina and her brother both got collagen implants at the same time so that we believe her lips are naturally that big? Laughter.

Smith: We love to bring celebrities down a notch, all of us. But it comes out of sheer love. We care about these people so much, we feel like they’re our best friends, and when they disappoint us, we have to knock them down a peg.

Walls: It’s also a drama. It’s Shakespearean. I mean, when you care about a neighbor or a friend or a lover, you gossip about them. You want to know what’s going on with them, you follow their lives. It’s a soap opera. Take all these Whitney Houston items. I mean, everybody feels bad for this woman. She’s very talented. Nobody wants to see her crash and burn. They’d like to see her respond to intervention.

M.R.: Do you know that for sure?

Smith: Absolutely. I do know it for sure.

Walls: It seems to me that her friends and family are behind all this negative publicity. They decided the way to push her to do something about her drug problem was public humiliation.

M.R.: Who do you think is the most fun celebrity to gossip about these days?

Musto: My favorite is Britney Spears … Everyone laughs. because she doesn’t even realize what she’s doing. She insists she doesn’t want to be part of somebody’s Lolita complex, but it’s like, hello! On her TV special, they panned the audience and there were these 4-year-old girls putting their hands on their hips and singing “I’m not that innocent.” What is going on with this girl? I love her. Diana Ross embodies the same kind of contradiction. I mean, reach out and touch, but don’t touch too close.

M.R.: Especially if you’re a woman in an airport. Laughter.

Walls: I love Angelina Jolie.

Smith: Yes. I’m always waiting to see what crazy weirdo thing she does next.

Molloy: Yeah, Angelina and Billy Bob are my favorites, too. Because Billy Bob was also one of the few male anorexics, and I’m obsessed with that. At one point, he was eating practically a lettuce leaf a day. Also, I saw Billy Bob do one of the most bodacious things I have ever seen a celebrity do. At the Miramax party at the Oscars several years back, his wife was sitting at the table, and he was holding hands with Laura Dern on the other side.

Walls: Oh! He’s horrible!

Smith: I sort of discovered Billy Bob, you know. Elizabeth Taylor kept raving about him. But his romance with Angelina Jolie will burn out really fast, I think.

Molloy: What do you give it?

“Most actors crave publicity, however much they piss and moan. They’re like heroin addicts. They complain constantly about how fame ruins their lives, but the truth is they can’t live without it. Whenever they go for a while without it, they’ve got to get another little fix.” – Jeannette Walls

Smith: Six months.

Musto: Six months, yeah.

M.R.: Is that your final answer?

Walls: Can I say four?

M.R.: Has the Internet made your jobs harder or easier?

Molloy: Well, the thing that really irks me are the celebrity Websites now, where if you do an item about, like, Barbra Streisand, bam, the next morning she’s like, “This is all lies!” Recently a friend of mine dropped an egg on Streisand while she was filming something, and told me about it. The next day her Website claimed the entire item was fabricated. “Nobody dropped an egg on Barbra.” But I knew it was true!

Walls: Celebs have Websites allegedly devoted to countering the gossip about them, but I think they’re really devoted to feeding the stars’ ego. I mean, Michael Douglas’s Website is hilarious. And you’ve got to pay $39 for it.

M.R.: What do you get? His measurements?

Smith: I don’t pay any attention to any of that. The only thing I read off the Internet is Jeannette.

Walls: Oh, bless your heart!

Smith: I don’t read anything else, because I don’t believe anything else I read. In the beginning I thought I was missing out when I wasn’t reading Matt Drudge. Then I found out that all Drudge did was write a little teeny item a day… .

Walls: He picks up all the rest from us.

M.R.: Then how come he’s stolen so much thunder from the rest of the gossips?

Musto: He’ll throw anything against the wall to see if it sticks. Sometimes it will be a big scoop, and sometimes it will be totally untrue.

Walls: His fifteen minutes are over, I think. Not a minute too soon!

M.R.: Do you examine the motivations of your sources?

Walls: There’s about five or six different reasons people leak items – usually it’s to manipulate you. They want to give out good information about themselves or bad information about their enemies.

Smith: I listen sometimes to the most incredible, horrible things about people, and I’m thinking, “Why is this person telling me these things?” After a while, you get good at discerning motive. You develop a shit detector.

Molloy: I also have a credo, “No story too weird to check out.” Like, one time somebody called me up and said, “Kirstie Alley made her publicist express breast milk for her pet ferret.” I was like, “That is really disgusting.” But I checked it out and the publicist said, “It’s absolutely true, and I’m proud of it!” Laughter.

M.R.: You must have checked out some pretty gross stories, Michael!

Musto: On the new season of Sex and the City, the Sarah Jessica Parker character goes out with a politician who wants her to urinate on him. So naturally I called Candace Bushnell and said, “Is this based on Al D’Amato?” Because she went out with Al D’Amato.

Molloy: A lot of people were wondering about that.

Musto: Everyone was buzzing at the premiere that it was D’Amato. Candace went ballistic on me! She began yelling, “That’s really cheap. I have nothing to do with the writing of the show. How dare you? Al is a really nice guy.” As if water sports means you’re a bad person.

Walls: As if!

Musto: I’m not the one who made the whole world my gynecologist. The show is based on her sex life!

Walls: I was with Candace one time when she used the urinal. She loves to use urinals. Laughter.

Molloy: That’s funny. I saw her use a urinal, too.

Smith: Lovely. Did you print that?

Walls: No, I didn’t. She was like, “Here, do it like this; it’s faster.” Laughter.

Smith: I always use the men’s room. You avoid the lines that way.

Walls: I’m sorry the Senate campaign turned out to be such a dud. It had such gossip potential.

Molloy: Lazio’s wife looks a lot older than he does. That makes me very suspicious.

Musto: Maybe he’s seeing Judith Nathan on the side. Laughter.

M.R.: Have any of you ever been sued?

Musto: No.

Molloy: No.

Walls: Silence.

Smith: Well, I’ve been threatened a lot.

Musto: I was threatened by D. B. Sweeney. How sad is that? And a washed-up former club kid named Julie Jewels.

Molloy: What on earth could you say to malign Julie Jewels?

Musto: I didn’t mention her. Laughter.

Smith: One of the most dangerous things you can do is to write a blind item. My worst blind item was about a talk-show host who was going to come out. I thought that that was okay. And I was really sure this was going to happen. But nothing happened. And then Oprah called a press conference and said, “I’m not gay; I’m not coming out.” I never said she was gay. I never even said it was a woman. But Oprah never spoke to me again.

Musto: Everybody thought it was Oprah.

Smith: But it wasn’t. It was insane of Oprah to react like that! I’ve never written another blind item.

Musto: Who was it, then?

Smith: I’m not going to tell you. They didn’t come out, of course, so they’re entitled to stay in. And I’m entitled to suck a big egg!

M.R.: Have you ever been offered a bribe to write or spike an item?

Smith: No one’s met my price!

Molloy: Some gossip columnists receive fur coats and jewelry and things like that. But people are smoother now. Now they try to kill items by bribing you with other items.

Smith: That’s how the National Enquirer succeeded for so long. They blackmail people with terrible stories, and then a lot of people cooperate by giving them stories on other people or on themselves.

Molloy: Suddenly you’re having a private tour of Burt Reynolds’s house.

Walls: One time, Tommy Mottola offered to help me get a recording contract.

Molloy: Can you sing, Jeannette?

Walls: Not at all. He offered a singing contract to Cindy Adams too. Laughter.

M.R.: Who’s the most hateful celebrity you can think of?

Molloy: Sean Penn calls to yell at you even if you write something positive… . I had a friend that went to a small party at his house, and he was looking for the bathroom, and he opens the door, and there was Sean Penn lying horizontal with a woman who was not Robin Wright Penn. So we ran it.

Walls: He got upset about that?! Laughs.

Molloy: So he calls me up infuriated, and he kept saying, “I am a family man!”

Walls: Why didn’t you think of that when you were shtupping that woman, huh!? Kill the messenger! Laughs.

Molloy: Julia Roberts can be horrible. She’s very difficult, and her publicist is even worse. She plays George and me off each other. If I do a critical story on her, she sends flowers to George. I’m not kidding. And he’s like, “Joanna, she’s not that bad.”

Walls: Who sends flowers? Julia or the publicist?

Molloy: Ostensibly Julia. It’s like those 100-white-tulips numbers with vase. Annoying!

Musto: Hard to pass up a hundred white tulips.

Walls: Especially from Julia Roberts.

Molloy: With a note!

Walls: I hate the celebrities who have the hubris disease, who have to comment on everything, they’re just so egotistical.

Molloy: You know what bugged me? When Fran Drescher came out all weepy after Princess Di got killed, and she said: “I have trouble with paparazzi, too.” Thanks for sharing.

Musto: Or excuse me, how about Sharon Stone sending out a press release saying “I’ve given up my gun” in the wake of Columbine. She was actually trying to get publicity out of Columbine! Like anyone gave a shit about her gun, except her husband, who should be afraid.

Walls: Most actors crave publicity, however much they piss and moan about it. They’re like heroin addicts. They complain constantly about how fame ruins their lives, but the truth is they can’t live without it. Whenever they go for a while without it, they’ve got to get another little fix.

Molloy: Mess up a hotel room.

Musto: Or wear see-through clothes.

M.R.: Who’s the biggest press whore?

Walls, Molloy, Musto: Madonna!

Musto: She’s so disingenuous! You just wonder, if you sent her to New Zealand, would she come back dressed as a Maori Indian with a bone through her nose? She just superficially absorbs whatever’s around her and spits it out. I don’t think she’s that much of a press whore anymore, but she attained legendary Press Whore Hall of Fame status.

Walls: I liked her more when she was a press whore and admitted to it. Now she’s doing the whole Anglophile thing… .

Musto: Ugh! Forget it!

Walls: The whole fake accent … Imitates it. And she was telling me, “Oh, I could really use …”

Musto: “… a pint of lager.”

Walls: “… a pint of lager and a snap of crisps.” Everyone laughs. We all liked it a lot better when you did the street thing, honey!

Divas of Dish