COVID-19 and paparazzi culture: With no leads and celebrities in lockdown, gossip sites are running dry
Coronavirus lockdown may prompt rethink of Page 3 culture, but celebrity gossip mill will always find takers.
In his 1996 book Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language, noted anthropologist Robin Dunbar proposed that language evolved as a way for humans to share information about the world around us, and about ourselves. For our ancestors, gossip was the glue that held together the fabric of society. Centuries later, my girlfriends and I attempt to ‘crack blinds’ (gossip items that don’t mention any names) on a whatsapp group aptly named ‘Nosey Aunties’ on a regular basis. But considering that the country has been in lockdown for over 50 days, it’s not surprising that the steady stream of celebrity secrets has significantly dried up.
Traditionally celebrity fodder was confined to those who graced the silver screen but in the early oughts, Page 3 culture embraced everyone from socialites to erstwhile royals and politicians. Over the years, an entire ecosystem has come to exist around gathering dirt on starlets and tycoons, and journalists who have their fingers on every pulse are an integral part of this. These veterans of the gossip game have spent years uncovering what’s going on behind the scenes but have interestingly preferred to stay anonymous while talking about how the lockdown has upended the gossip industry. And, anyone who knows gossip will tell you that the juiciest ones are ‘blind’.
So, how do you gossip when everyone’s stuck inside?
It’s no secret that the best ‘leaks’ come from those around the celebrity. Towards the end of April, TMZ, one of America’s biggest celebrity outlets, reported that supermodel Gigi Hadid and former One Direction-er Zayn Malik, are having a baby. The outlet had all the correct information down to when the baby is due. Three days later, Gigi in an interview to late-night host Jimmy Fallon confirmed the news saying, ‘this wasn’t how she and Zayn wanted it to get out’. This clearly indicated that someone around the couple, who have been on-and-off together since 2015, fed the baby news to TMZ.
Closer home, most journalists weren’t as well prepared for social distancing as their western counterparts. “Gossip usually stems from people around the celebrity. Normally, our sources are limited to people who work on sets, are a part of an actor’s entourage or are guests at parties, screenings or restaurants that they visit. But if a star is quarantined alone at home or only with their families, there is no way to get information. In the west, where paparazzi and gossip culture is a lot more pervasive, journalists have contacts among celebrities’ chefs and nannies. We’ve never felt the need to do this here in the past. Except right now those are the only people around celebrities,” says the editor of one of Bollywood’s favourite gossip websites. His weekly output, says the editor, is down to half compared to pre-pandemic days. “Even ‘my’ sources have no stories,” he laments.
There has been a lot of talk about the relevance of celebrity content around the world. And, there have been instances of a swift public backlash when artists of every kind posted something that reeked of privilege and narcissism. After a few weeks of frantic home work-outs, washing bartans and baking banana bread, most A-listers have gone quiet on social media. “There’s only that much bread that can be baked and everyone is scared of Farah Khan so there are no workout videos either,” says a film journalist, adding, “a lot of stars have realised that we are going through a humanitarian crisis and maybe it’s better to fly under the radar. We’ve actually had some who have asked us to not write about them right now.”
This doesn’t mean that the public’s appetite for scandal has waned, though. On 29 April, Mumbai Mirror carried a front-page story about Sanjay Jindal, a well-known industrialist who sent a legal notice to entrepreneur and former actress Pinky Harwani for spilling a glass of red wine on an expensive sofa during his housewarming party and not informing him about it. He also sent her a Rs 2.13 lakh sofa upholstery invoice. Namrata Zakaria, the author of the article and a columnist with the newspaper says, “This was carried on Page 1 because it was such an unusual situation. I was told this was the most read story during the lockdown. I don’t think interest in people-news is going to fade away”.
Celebrity reporters aren’t used to sitting at home. Their lives revolve around cocktail parties, film events and gossip sessions over coffee. “I am an old-timer who still believes in the power of a face-to-face meeting. Over the years, a lot of my work was done on the phone but I still preferred to meet my sources. All of that has obviously stopped and I now completely rely on the phone,” says a senior columnist with a National daily. She is quick to clarify though that ‘this hasn’t affected her ability to gather information. “A lot of my sources go back years and they are loyal.”
The heaviest causality from this network has been the growing tribe of paparazzi in Mumbai. They are the ones who keep track of Taimur Ali Khan’s playdates and catalogue Malaika Arora Khan’s gym wear. It’s an open secret in the industry that celebrities’ publicists inform the handful of agencies in the business about their whereabouts. “Earlier we’d get 20-30 calls per day from actors' teams but now it’s down to two or three a week and even then it’s not the big names,” says a photographer. One of the last ‘airport looks’ to be photographed was Anupam Kher who arrived from New York City in end March. Within the city, work has reduced considerably for these freelance photographers who pound the streets looking for a famous face — there are stray sightings of Rakul Preet Singh out running errands or Athiya Shetty and her mother Mana walking their dog.
No matter how long this lockdown lasts, the juiciest stories have a habit of finding their way out whether it’s Ranbir and Alia quarantining together, or Prateik Babbar and wife Sanya Sagar separating. For better or for worse, celebrities will be giving us the gossip we need and crave for a long time to come.
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