(Graphic: Nancy Gonzalez/TueNight)
When I was a women’s-magazine staffer, I was the very last person to hear or share office gossip. Quite literally, my cube wasn’t close enough to anyone else’s to exchange whispers; I called my little corner of the floor The Land of Wind and Ghosts. I also took The Devil Wears Prada, which was embedding itself in pop culture just as I entered publishing, way too seriously: If I wanted to avoid becoming a magazine-world grotesque, I figured, I should keep my personal and professional lives separate and my secrets to myself. No nicknaming mutual enemies at Happy Hour or gently toxic GChats for me.
Keeping up with celebrity gossip, on the other hand, was a small but significant part of my professional responsibilities. I was the research chief, queen of the fact checkers, and I had to be dead sure everything we said about the beautiful people was demonstrably true. I once spent a dark afternoon of the soul trying to confirm the spelling of an actor’s dog’s name. I had to scour the Internet for courthouse records of high-profile separations and divorces. I played complicated games of email brinksmanship with wolfish Hollywood PR reps who refused to believe I wasn’t trying to pull a fast one on their clients (which is fair enough; I can’t imagine how paranoid those people must have to be).
Judges have argued since the 19th century that each of us has the right “to be let alone.” That’s a rather heartbreaking phrase, isn’t it?
I learned that reality stars’ reps, on the other hand, were absolute delights: every last one of them answered all of my questions quickly, frankly, and cheerfully. I suppose that when your personal life is your business, you have to be comfortable with it being everyone else’s. As the literary critic Barbara Johnson once noted, “[t]o be observed is to be dispossessed; our lives are precisely what we can never own. Knowledge of them is always already the other’s.”
I developed a sort of old-timey custodial tenderness for the privacy of the stars we featured. Whatever the subject at hand might be, it’s an editorial staff’s job to indulge its readers’ curiosity responsibly and to a purpose. Our business was to cultivate a tone of consensual intimacy — that is, to develop content in celebrity features (this actress is facing first-time motherhood, that one is starting to date again after divorce) that resonated with our audience without violating our subjects. When we did it well, we set a positive example of how to take an interest in public figures’ personal lives.
Does that sound dry and pious? It very well could be: at the other end of the spectrum, I loathe fast and loose celebrity gossip with something like religious fervor. In Touch’s recent cover featuring Bruce Jenner’s face superimposed over Dynasty star Stephanie Beacham’s — and painted with makeup in postproduction (the headline: “Bruce Jenner: My Life As a Woman”), for example, cheapens everyone involved with it, and I would be ashamed to be seen with a copy.
Who do we say we are when we reward a magazine for illustrating their speculations at the expense of a man’s personal dignity? Whether or not the Constitution guarantees a right to privacy has been a flashpoint for political debate, but judges have argued since the 19th century that each of us has the right “to be let alone.” That’s a rather heartbreaking phrase, isn’t it? I genuinely believe we can come to better understandings of ourselves and our relationships by discussing others and others’ — in this era of à la carte news and electronic communities, it sometimes feel like celebrities are the only reference points we have in common — but we do ourselves no favors by behaving like schoolyard bullies.
Could an old-timey custodial tenderness for each other’s privacy be a useful approach for all of us who observe and are observed? Perhaps we should reconsider The Golden Rule for our oddly intimate modern age, and treat one another as we want Bruce Jenner to be treated. I’ve graduated from my lonely magazine researcher’s cubicle to a writing career that has little to do with celebrities, but I think I’ll keep on doing that.