The XX Factor

A Celebrity Gossip Expert Explains the Summer of Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift arrives for the Metropolitan Ball on May 2, 2016 in New York. 

Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

Taylor Swift is having quite the summer—from her breakup with Calvin Harris to the birth of Hiddleswift to Kim Kardashian’s receipts-apalooza, plus or minus a Nils Sjoberg, she’s been consistently dominating headlines. But what does it all mean? is where many of the smart women I follow online turn for informed interpretation of the latest celebrity scandal. Lainey often writes about the story behind the story, zeroing in on celebrity hypocrisy and the symbiotic relationship between celebs and media. When Jennifer Aniston wrote an op-ed for the Huffington Post recently to rail against “tabloid culture,” for example, LaineyGossip pointed out that Aniston “does not acknowledge the celebrity’s role in the ecosystem—HER role in the ecosystem. … That’s the goal of most celebrities: to turn the ecosystem into a dictatorship.” About Kardashian’s Snapchats of a taped phone call between her husband Kanye West and Swift, Lainey had this to say: “[I]n this kind of fight, where are Mrs West’s weaknesses? What could possibly be said about Mrs West that hasn’t been said already? Mrs West already has a sex tape. … Which is why, when she’s serving up the smut, she’s actually bulletproof.”

I called up Lainey herself—the site’s founder, Elaine Lui—to get the dish about Taylor straight from the source. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.*

Slate: I love that you’ve been calling the Taylor Swift–Kim Kardashian–Kanye West events of the past couple of weeks “Gossip Christmas.” How do you feel when some good gossip comes in?

Elaine Lui: There are only so few mega, supernova celebrities of Taylor Swift’s level. When Taylor Swift is involved in a gossip story, that is when I come alive. That is the purpose of the existence of my blog. I woke up I think at 5 o’clock that day and I picked up my phone and I saw what had happened while I was sleeping. I immediately, like it was Christmas, jumped out of bed, euphoric, and started thinking about the situation and really examining it from all angles. And my Twitter, my email was blowing up, people were sending me text messages, people were saying “I can’t wait to hear what you’re going to say” … I couldn’t wait to hear what I was going to say because I actually hadn’t thought it through yet! So as a gossip and as a blogger, for me it was exciting to sit down and have this story to write about.

You always have such smart interpretations about this kind of news. How do you decode and analyze a situation like this?

Part of it is experience, and that experience comes from a lifetime of following and studying celebrities. I work on an entertainment show called ETalk—the American equivalent would be Access Hollywood. Maybe the most important part of it is that people underestimate gossip columnists and gossip in general as just meaningless fluff and shit talk. But what gossip really is, is an understanding of human nature and behavior. I’m not a Ph.D. in psychology and sociology, but I’m a very good gossip. I understand the motivations of people, and I especially understand the motivations of celebrities. You can write about gossip in a way that’s much more insightful and much more meaningful than many people want to give it credit for.

The study of the celebrity ecosystem is not just talking about movie stars and pop stars in a vacuum. It’s also a reflection about who we are as a society. And it takes into account what our value system is, what our expectations are, and what our boundaries are.

I think that’s especially true for Taylor, who is just this lighting rod now and plays with so many of our expectations. What’s your take on the run she’s been on lately?

First of all, I am not in the camp of people who believe that Taylor Swift and Tom Hiddleston are fake. I do actually think that these two people are dating. I also think that these two people don’t mind getting some attention for it. I don’t think that those two are mutually exclusive: You can be legitimately dating someone and using it for publicity. And they—Tom and Taylor—are certainly not the first to do that, to be in a real relationship and use it for publicity. Brad and Angelina have done that very, very well.

Taylor Swift is just one of those celebrities who attracts drama, be it self-created or occurring around her. And I think partly it’s because she is held up as this perfect pop star, probably more successful than almost every other pop star with the exception of Beyoncé. She is also one of the people who has shared her life with us on social media. So all of that in combination has made her somebody who just can’t get out of the spotlight.

One thing that I found so interesting about Kim Kardashian’s Snapchats is that one of the first things Taylor said was that she was concerned about overexposure.

She was concerned about overexposure well before that taped phone conversation. Last fall she gave an interview to a magazine, and she said that when the tour was over, that she was going to take a break because people were probably sick of her. So what’s interesting from both statements—the statement she made to Kanye on those recording and the statement she made to that magazine—is that there is a self-awareness. There is an awareness of the level of exposure and how much is too much, and when to pull back, which speaks to the fact that Taylor Swift is always on top of her image and always thinking about how much of herself to give to balance out her level of fame. And that goes contrary to the image that she presents, which is that everything has happened organically for her, that she’s not someone who is calculated and strategic, and that things are really unfolding naturally.

My point is that there’s nothing wrong with being strategic and calculating. It’s something that is part of a larger feminist conversation. Why can’t women be strategic and calculating? Men do it in their jobs all the time. And I personally wish that Taylor would actually show us more of that side of her, because I think it would be a good example to set of how an ambitious woman manages her career. But she’s created this image for herself where she can’t show that side. And I wonder whether or not—now that that side has been inadvertently exposed—we might see more of that from her voluntarily.

As for being overexposed, and why then did she engage in these fights and this very public romance, I do think that sometimes it just goes back to the basic DNA of a celebrity. A celebrity craves fame and craves attention. It is hard to turn off that switch for anybody who’s famous. The people who do it well, like Beyoncé, who are able to go in and out of the spotlight at strategic times and understand the value of taking a break and making people miss you, those are the celebrities who have a lot of self-restraint and who understand the power of hoarding. Beyoncé is the greatest hoarder of fame—there’s a personal photographer and videographer archiving every moment of Beyoncé’s life, and there is an actual archive where all this footage goes. And then she releases it slowly over years, months, decades at certain strategically timed intervals. But Beyoncé had to learn that. It took her some time. And so what Taylor Swift is going through right now is learning the process of fame management and perhaps, out of this situation, she may figure out: I have to temper my desire to be in the spotlight, and measure out those moments better.

Let’s talk more about why you think Taylor and Tom Hiddleston are really together. Why do you think people were so quick to jump and say it’s a conspiracy?

It’s because it does, on paper, seem convenient. They kind of had a social media moment when they were dancing at the Met Gala together. And then a month later, the next thing we know, they went from being the dancing couple at the greatest party of the year to kissing on a beautiful beach in Rhode Island. There was nothing in between there that even suggested that they were talking because they actually were able to keep it secret. But I think that the juxtaposition between the dancing and kissing, so quickly, and the fact that she had a breakup in between, lead people to think, where the fuck did this come from? And then, once they were “caught” on that beach, they didn’t hide. Instead, they flaunted. They went to Selena Gomez’s concert, they went to his parents’ home or went to visit his mother—it was almost like we were invited along every step of the way because the paparazzi documented it all. And the paparazzi aren’t that smart: They don’t just hang out in Rhode Island hoping that she’s gonna show up. So I understand why on paper, people came up with this conspiracy theory—it must be fake, he’s wearing this T-shirt with her initials on it, there’s a photographer taking a picture of her and him and all their friends—I get it.

The reason why I think that they’re legit is because I don’t think that you can contain that kind of conspiracy unless you’re Beyoncé! But even Beyoncé can’t contain everything. I mean there’s an elevator that proved that.

Oh my gosh, the elevator. I feel like the elevator was the last thing as big as this.

So if there was a conspiracy, someone would have cracked already. It’s too large of a net. It would have to involve her entire family, because they went to go visit her parents in Nashville, and it would have to involve his sweet little English family over in England. And it would also have to involve a ton of all of her friends. Some of them, I get why they would want to buy into this because they’re less famous than her. But consider someone like Uzo Aduba! Why would Uzo need to help Taylor Swift maintain a fake relationship? Same with someone like Cara Delevingne who is pretty outspoken, and she can cut when she wants to. You would have to be getting nondisclosure agreements signed by a person like Cara Delevingne. So I think would just involve too many wild cards.

Can you think of a time when you’ve been wrong about something in your take or your interpretation of gossip or celebrity?

I underestimated Jennifer Garner when she first married Ben Affleck, and for the first few years of their relationship. I saw her in the position of perfect mom. Jennifer Garner has children and she gets paparazzied every morning at the farmer’s market, she really takes on the image of poster woman for the “minivan majority.” But I didn’t know how strategic that was until they announced their separation last year. We really saw Jennifer Garner strategically owning Ben Affleck after they announced their divorce. She really spent those months afterward leveraging her influence with the minivan majority and generating support, and all of that culminating in that brilliant Vanity Fair interview where she cut with a smile. And it was really joyful for me to see that in her and to see it all coming together.

That brings up the place of Vanity Fair and its ability to still act as such an outlet. Now that you say it, I’m like, “Taylor is going to have a Vanity Fair moment about this.”

I agree with you. I think it’s in her nature to want to go to a Vanity Fair or got to a Vogue or whatever and eventually address what’s happened. But to go back to Beyoncé, there’s a lot said about how Beyoncé manages her voice. It has been three years since Beyoncé has given an interview, like an actual proper interview. Beyoncé does not speak to the media anymore. She released two albums back to back with absolutely no publicity and no interviews, nothing that is traditional PR strategy. Beyoncé doesn’t write messages on Instagram. Beyoncé doesn’t tweet. Beyoncé doesn’t step out wearing a certain T-shirt with an obvious message on it. Taylor is the opposite of all that. Taylor is the overexplainer.

Which celebrities do you just like?

I love Mariah Carey. The reason I love Mariah Carey and the reason I think she’s so entertaining is because she’s not pretending that she’s down to earth. She’s not giving interviews where she’s like, “I’m really just like everybody else.” No. She’s like, “I need a bath, and I need that bath to be run with champagne water, and the bathtub needs to be lit in a way that is perfect for a photoshoot even though my photo’s not being taken, and it should also have diamonds floating to the surface.” I admire Carey. I don’t have the energy to criticize Mariah Carey’s excess because she never pretended not to be excessive.

I love someone like Sam Rockwell. That’s an example of someone who acts all the time and gets cast in so many movies, but he’s not in the public eye. I love Rihanna because Rihanna never pretended that I needed to like her, and Rihanna never tried to tell me that the most important thing she needed to be was likable or nice. Rihanna’s just Rihanna. I mean, her Instagram handle is Badgalriri, so. You’re not going to find a think piece on how Rihanna lied because she’s showed you already that she’s smoking a blunt.

What celebrities don’t you like?

If I loved everybody it would be hard—you know, my blog is based on snark. Justin Timberlake I have some problems with. It all goes back to the Super Bowl, the way that Janet Jackson was singled out and the way her career almost died, and he went on to the greatest heights of solo pop without sticking out his hand and saying “I’m in solidarity with you”—I mean, he left her out to die. It’s hard to ignore the optics there: white, successful pop star and a black woman. That said, I also feel like Justin Timberlake is essential to the celebrity ecosystem. I don’t want Justin Timberlake to go away. For my business, which is entertainment and gossip reporting, I want them all.

And what I said about Justin Timberlake I 100-percent apply to Taylor Swift. In terms of the celebrity ecosystem, we need her. And I think that in spite of all the criticism she has received—and she’s gotten a lot of it this week—everyone who has written a piece taking down Taylor Swift would agree with me in saying, “That said, please don’t go away, Taylor Swift.”

*Correction, July 7, 2016: This post originally misspelled Elaine Lui’s last name.