Celebrity gossip is a tricky pleasure. Get the recipe right and you’ve consumed something delicious and not too bad for your mental health. Overindulge, or pick the wrong informational bonbon, and you’re left feeling poisoned and ashamed. But these latest spectacles offer proof that our indulgences can be as revealing as our national catastrophes.
Talley’s new memoir, “The Chiffon Trenches,” is a perfect education in gossip’s dual function as diversion and illumination. As a purveyor of pure dish, Talley has the advantage of having been intimate with people who were both famous and enigmatic: pop artist Andy Warhol, who had a bad habit of groping Talley; the late designer Karl Lagerfeld, who nurtured, then exiled, Talley; and Vogue editor Anna Wintour, who relied on Talley’s keen eye even as she reined in his ambitions.
Talley’s cutting judgments include this eight-word condemnation of Wintour: “Simple human kindness. No, she is not capable.” He proffers stories about who slept with whom and who served cocaine with baked potatoes. But reading “The Chiffon Trenches” is also an exercise in recognizing when frothy gossip caries a deeper meaning. A Diana Ross shopping spree in Paris can demonstrate different racial attitudes in France and America. Lagerfeld and Wintour’s cruelty toward Talley and others in their orbit, contrasted with their fawning deference to a select few, help delineate class distinctions often invisible to us mere mortals.
With Talley’s example in mind, many of the silly stories that divert us from the grim headlines give up their deeper meanings. That Tesla CEO Musk and his partner, the single-named musician Grimes, seem to have been entirely serious in their decision to name their baby X Æ A-12 is irrelevant to everyone except the poor child. Yet if someone this absurd can move the financial markets with an expression of his moods, maybe it’s worth regarding the markets with a gimlet eye rather than a supplicant’s desperation.
The same is true of celebrity food writer Roman’s decision to insert her foot in mouth, not the results of her viral chickpea stew. In an interview, Roman took aim at fellow cookbook author Chrissy Teigen and the high priestess of minimalism, Marie Kondo. On one level, this is an Icarus story where the pleasure comes from watching someone who built a brand on doing everything just right finally get it wrong. But the kerfuffle has also prompted some terrific writing about the uneasy role white chefs like Roman play in elevating non-Western cuisines and ingredients among American diners and home cooks, and the profits that accrue to them instead of the people who originated those culinary traditions.
And then there is the spectacle of Affleck and de Armas publicly displaying their affection for each other all over Los Angeles in the middle of a lockdown, which admittedly provides less in the way of edification, except to demonstrate that it is possible to kiss while wearing his-and-hers face masks. But at least the celebrity couple’s commitment to exercising their dogs has provided a subsidy to the city’s hard-working paparazzi, left bereft by the social distancing practices that are keeping so many famous people indoors. And while emergencies tend to bring out the best and worst in us, it’s also comforting to know that some things remain unchanged even under extraordinary pressure. Even after this catastrophe has ebbed and left behind a world transformed, there will still be stars image-conscious enough to crave public approval for their relationships and corny enough to seek it out by wearing seventh-grade-style matching heart necklaces out and about during a pandemic.
At one point in “The Chiffon Trenches,” Talley laments, “Like an extinct dodo bird, my brain, rich and replete with knowledge, has been relegated to the history books.” It’s not as terrible a fate as he imagines. To grasp the true strangeness of this moment requires both the grim tallies that measure our institutional failures and the fluffy anecdotes that reveal the human need for diversion, perhaps now more than ever.