Gossip-Friending

When friends and gossip rub shoulders, strange things happen.

For the worker bees at Us Weekly, when news broke recently that Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston were splitting, they knew their weekends were ruined. And indeed, the breaking up of Hollywood’s golden couple translated into a grueling 48 hours slapping together an issue with 20-plus pages devoted to the demise of the marriage. But many staffers also found themselves caught up in a new and insidious phenomena: gossip-friending.

What is gossip-friending? It begins with an individual’s insatiable need to lay claim to insider information, a need so deep that the individual phones, e-mails or instant messages a casual friend or acquaintance-someone with whom one hasn’t had a full conversation in months, if not years-who has access to such information, and tries to casually milk that person for details. Details which the caller later shares with his or her other, closer, real friends. After all, anyone can turn on Extra! or pick up In Touch or People magazine-but how many people can say they got the real skinny from a reporter working on the story, several days before publication?

And the news need not be as star-studded as the Pitt-Aniston eruption. Masthead changes at magazines, staff shufflings at publicity firms, rumors of smaller bonuses at an investment bank-all can result in getting that out-of-the-blue phone call from a “friend” who just wants to “see how you’re doing,” followed by: “So, what’s going on over there?”

To be “gossip-friended” is an unsettling, skin-crawling experience.

“It happens to me all the time,” said Us Weekly’s senior writer Joey Bartolomeo, who worked on the recent break-up article and is co-author of a quickie Brad-and-Jennifer book being rushed to press. “Especially after this last story-I was getting these totally transparent phone calls from people I hadn’t heard from in ages. I wanted to say, ‘I know what you’re calling about, let’s get to it already.'”

“I’m totally guilty of gossip-friending,” said Ms. Bartolomeo’s friend, freelance writer Abby Gardner, who actually coined the phrase at a recent dinner with Ms. Bartolomeo and Us Weekly news editor Lara Cohen. “They had told me that we could only limit our Brad-and-Jen discussion to 20 minutes-they had both been at the office dealing with it for the last 20 hours, I guess they didn’t want to keep talking about it. The phrase just sort of popped out.”

“It’s really just annoying, when people start calling you under the guise of friendship and try to work it in,” said Ms. Bartolomeo. “There have been times when I will not go out with people, or I’ll ask friends to tell their friends to please not ask me about anything. I mean, this is my job. I focus on this stuff all day and all night. When I go out, I just don’t want to talk about it anymore.”

“It’s the story of my life,” said another tabloid senior staffer who didn’t wish to be named. “All my friends came out of the woodwork last weekend asking about Brad and Jen, after prefacing it with some lame ‘Happy New Year’ remark. Last Thanksgiving, I ran into a high-school classmate at the mall who I had not seen in a decade. When I told her where I worked, the next words out of her mouth were, ‘Are Nick and Jessica really splitting up?'”

(Of course, those who work for gossipy magazines can only complain so much about the sleaziness of gossip-friending. This is an industry, after all, where Kent Brownridge, general manager of Us Weekly parent company Wenner Media, referring to the Brad-Jen break-up, said, “For a celebrity weekly, this is our tsunami.”)

There are signs that gossip-friending is spreading. With the multitudes of magazines and 24-hour cable shows and Web sites, the bloodlust for knowledge increases hourly. And New York, after all, is the information capital of the world. “We’re all pop-culture-obsessed,” Ms. Gardner said. “And being in the media industry, you do know people who might actually know something that others don’t.”

Ms. Gardner found herself on the receiving end during her tenure as beauty editor at YM magazine last year. It was a stormy time for the publication, as whispers spread about the editor in chief’s sudden resignation and the swallowing of the title by Condé Nast.

“During that time period at YM, I was getting plenty of phone calls from a lot of people I hadn’t heard from in some time, all wanting to know what’s the real deal,” said Ms. Gardner. “It was all anyone wanted to talk about for a while. I wasn’t going to spill my inner work turmoil to anyone who randomly calls me, just so they can turn around and repeat it to whomever.”

Some people do have standards when it comes to gossip-friending. “Usually, I’ll only ask a person who at least is someone I go out to drinks with regularly, but we don’t have to be best friends or anything,” said Ms. Gardner. “Unless it’s something seriously juicy. Maybe then I’d start reaching out to more casual friends-but it would have to be pretty juicy.”

Others avoid the practice altogether.

“I would never gossip-friend someone,” said Ms. Bartolomeo. “I would never go after a friend of mine for information. I know how it feels, and it’s not fun being used. I feel bad saying this, but sometimes I want to tell people to just pick up an issue.”

-Sara Vilkomerson

Mauro of Manhattan

“Come on Marsha, it’s been three years, three months and three weeks since 9/11, and not even a single firecracker has been exploded in the U.S. by Al Qaeda: What are you afraid of?”

“I don’t know, but something’s going to happen. Don’t know where, don’t know when, the only thing I’m certain is that they are at us, and sooner or later they’ll hit again.”

“You know how this is called? Paranoia.”

“Call it whatever you want, I am not taking the subway for any reason.”

“So you preferred to get stuck in the New Year’s Eve traffic for one hour with your taxi, just because you are afraid that Osama is going to blow a bomb on the 2 and 3 line?”

“Yep.”

“You don’t know what real terrorism is.”

“What is it, then, tell me …. “

“It’s one bomb every night. It’s one journalist or politician or judge killed every week. It’s railway stations, train wagons, bank offices blown up and planes crashed down with hundreds of dead, as in Milan in 1969 or in Bologna and Ustica in 1980. We had terrorists for more than 10 years in Italy, communist, fascist, but that didn’t stop us from living. What would you have done?”

“Listen, you never had 3,000 killed all at once.”

“So what? Is it better if they are spread out? Is it less frightening?”

“Guess so. I don’t know what to tell you. I am not taking the subway.”

Nine p.m., Dec. 31. I am mad at my girlfriend because she has come back home one hour too late to help me prepare things for our New Year’s Eve party. Forty people are coming (actually 80 will show up, half of them unknown crashers with multiple degrees of separation), and I had to do it all: food, drinks, lighting candles, preparing the kitchen for my friend Giovanni who would cook his midnight raviolis ….

“I tried to call you when I got out of Rizzoli at 6,” I tell her, “the police had already blocked everything, there was no way to cross Sixth Avenue at 57th Street. I had to walk all the way through Central Park to get to the Columbus Circle subway station.”

“See? I’d have been late with the subway as well.”

“No, all trains were perfectly on time. It’s the car traffic which was jammed around Times Square. And you went right in there, with your taxi,” I say while slicing the bread.

“Did you get bresaola [an Italian ham]?”

“They gave me mozzarella instead.”

“What do you mean?”

“The Chinese at the supermarket mistook one for the other. He told me: ‘Well, brsalla, msralla, they all sound the same to me.'”

“Did you get panettone?”

“No way. They make you pay 15 dollars for something in Italy you get for three euros. It’s a rip-off. We’ll eat the two I brought back from Milan.”

“Did you get champagne?”

“No way. Why buy French champagne for 50 a bottle when prosecco, which is as good and sparkling, goes for five times less?”

“Right. Plus I hate the French.”

“Marsha, don’t start. Let’s not be ridiculous. As a matter of fact, I bought plenty of brie.”

“You could have replaced it with the Italian taleggio cheese. It tastes the same.”

“Are you crazy? Do you really believe the boycott instructions you read on the New York Post? Taleggio is too dry. And Iraq is a mess.”

“Now, don’t start your Bush-bashing …. “

“Well, the French were right in not wanting the war. We’re still stuck there, after two years: killing and getting killed …. Remember to get those bottles out of the freezer in half an hour, before they explode.”

Marsha is not political, she gets bored. But she’s one of the few Manhattanites who would have voted for Bush, if she cared enough to. I once asked her why, and she said: “I didn’t like Gore.”

“And now?”

“Bush has been doing a good job.”

“Which job?”

“To keep us safe.”

“Paranoia strikes deep / Into your life it will creep / Starts when you’re always afraid … ,” I sang to her, smiling.

It’s amazing how such an angel-faced, sweet, ethereal girl can have such right-wing ideas. Being a staunch conservative doesn’t fit her physically. We met the first time at a concert against the death penalty, but she soon confessed she had come only because it was free: “Actually I am for.”

“But it’s statistically proven to be ineffective. It doesn’t reduce crime,” I objected.

“You get what you deserve. You kill, you get killed in return,” she sentenced, rather biblically.

Once I was commenting aloud in the kitchen a poll about Abu Ghraib: “It’s incredible, the absolute majority of Americans justify torture if you could get useful information from terrorism suspects.”

“What were the options given?” she asked glacially.

“I agree, partially agree, disagree, strongly disagree.”

“Why there was not a ‘I strongly agree’? I would have gone for that. What goes around comes around …. “

Marco, an Italian insurance inspector friend of mine, came to visit in New York for one week. One night I heard them laughing like crazy in the dining room.

“What’s happening?” I went and asked.

“Tell him, Marco,” replied Marsha.

“Well, once an Arab immigrant came to my office in Udine. After I explained to him why his claim was wrong, he addressed me aggressively: ‘We too have rights in this country, you know.’ I replied: ‘The main right you have is to get your camel and go back where you belong …. ‘”

The bell rings. The first guests are coming. “Happy New Year!”

-Mauro Suttora