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the mb q&a

the mediabistro Q&A:
Jeannette Walls, MSNBC gossip columnist

Hometown: Welch, West Virginia.
First job: Assistant to Ed Kosner, editor-in-chief of New York magazine.
Career highlights: Gossip columnist for New York and Esquire.
First Sunday Times section she reads: Book Review.

BY ALBERT LEE | "Gorbachev and Kennedy were obsessed with it. So was Jackie. When it's done right, gossip is the way things really work. It's the un-official news." Jeannette Walls, MSNBC's unofficial newswoman, was pondering the significance of scuttlebutt as she leaned back into a leather cigar chair in her Upper West Side apartment — which happens to resemble not the home of a woman who digs up dirt on LeAnn Rimes' sexification for a living, but, say, a history professor's study. (The Oxford English Dictionary lines a nearby bookshelf.) It's here — and at MSNBC's Secaucus, New Jersey, studios and her Long Island getaway house — that Walls gabs on the phone from dusk till dawn, gathering items for her daily column online and on-air stints commenting on celeb scandals du jour.

So, Jeannette, how did you get started?

I've always fancied myself a very serious journalist. I was a nerd. I studied urban studies, concentration in political science, at Barnard. Actually before I went to college, just out of high school, I worked for this gritty paper out in Brooklyn, the Phoenix. I was everything. Art, photographer, food critic... [Laughs.] That's the great thing about working for a small publication. While I was in college, I got a part-time job at New York magazine. Head Pencil-Sharpener, basically. My first real job was assistant to Ed Kosner, the editor-in-chief. Real schleppy stuff. I worked there for a while for the big-deal financial columnist, Dan Dorfman, and I thought of writing about finance for a while. So boring! He went to USA Today and I went with him. Then, back at New York, Ed Kosner needed a new "Intel" ["Intelligencer," New York's gossip column] person. I was a little insulted, to tell you the truth. "I'm not a gossip columnist!" Blah blah blah.

Why do you think he asked you?

I have no idea. I guess he liked the way I sharpened pencils. It was a hard position to fill. Gossip is hard; people don't realize that.

It's endlessly hungry.

It's feeding the beast all the time, it's burning bridges. It's like, you know what I do for a living? I get up every day, and I go make fun of thousands of rich, powerful people who can destroy me. That's what I do! [Laughs.] I don't know. I'm a part sadist and part masochist. They hate me. They hate me! I don't blame them. I can hear it every time I call up PMK. "Oh God, her again."

So, [I went back to New York] in '87. I did ["Intelligencer"] for six years. Then I went with Ed when he went to Esquire in, I think, '93, to write a monthly gossip column, which actually worked better than I'd have thought. My model was Spy magazine. They broke stuff, it was snarky; the only problem was my items would often get picked up by Page Six [in the New York Post] a couple of days before the issue came out, then I'd get all these calls from people saying, "Oh, great item, but sorry, Page Six had it before you did." And it was a lesson: Most people don't see that credit, when Page Six says, "As reported by Esquire's Jeannette Walls."

I left to write the book [Dish: How Gossip Became the News and the News Became Just Another Show] in '96, and it took about two years. I fell in love with the Web while I was working on it, and I heard that MSNBC was looking for an online gossip columnist.

How did you hear about the MSNBC gig?

My former assistant at New York magazine, a fabulous guy named Degen Pener, was friends with someone who was working on the Web design. All my print friends were like, [in a pitying voice] "Oh, I guess you couldn't find any jobs in print," because the Web was just taking off. But I love it. The Web's so geared for gossip—the immediacy. I just love to troll around and see what's out there. I love hearing from my readers.

How can you keep it to yourself when you've got an incredibly juicy bit of gossip, and you can't run it?

That's why I have an assistant! I call her up. "Guess what I've heard!"

What do you do when you go to a party and you see another gossip columnist? Do you say hello, or...

Yeah, I'm big friends with most of them. We're in some sort of mafia. I like Richard Johnson. He's great. He's been doing that column forever ["Page Six"], and he's very good to me: When he picks up items, he credits them. Joanna Molloy ["Rush & Molloy" in the Daily News] — she'll probably kill me for saying this, but she was my first assistant [at New York magazine], so I admire her. Trained her and she escaped. I'm friendly with her and her husband [George Rush], whom I knew before she did.

Did you introduce them?

I might have. I certainly told her about George. I know Roger Friedman [Fox News Channel's "Fox 411"]. If I see them at a party, I'll go say hi. "Anything interesting happening?" As if they're going to tell you! It's why I don't go out that much, maybe one or two days a week. It just doesn't pay off for me.

Have you ever noticed someone visibly cringe when you approach?

Yes. [Laughs.] I didn't get into this business to have celebrities like me. Anyone who's thinking of being a gossip columnist should ask, "Why? What is it about that business that appeals to me?" Is it because you like being around celebrities and having them as your friend? Then honey, go into a different profession! There's the type of gossip columnist that goes, "I am out here with the beautiful people, and it's just so wonderful, and my dear, dear friend Julia Roberts and I are chatting about the movie." I don't do that sort of stuff. I am so obnoxious on the phone.

Take me through the process of finding and reporting an item.

Every day is a minor nightmare. It's a struggle getting the lead item; you want something to anchor the column. First of all, I look at about 20 or 30 websites, which takes about two or three hours, because you don't want to go and report on something that's already out there. Then I get on the phone and call my sources. "What did you hear?" I try not to harass the same ones too often.

What sites do you check out?

Without fail, IMDB.com. They have a fabulous column in two parts [studio news and celebrity news], and change it twice a day. They pick me up all the time but never credit me. DataLounge. Romenesko. I love People News, Gossip Times, Gossip Central, RumorsRumorsRumors. I read other gossip columnists — that's required reading. I completely 'fess up to loving the supermarket tabloids.

Do you call up doormen and chauffeurs?

No, because they want cash. People grumble about the ethics of checkbook journalism, but I actually don't have a problem with it; for me, it's a matter of practicality. I just have to tell them, "I'm sorry, I don't pay for my stories." My sources tend to be extras in movies, the staff, the crew. They're people like myself. I don't know what's wrong with us, but we have some sort of psychological disorder, where we're compulsive, obsessive gossipers. I just live for information. It can be about anything, anybody, any stratum.

So it's not like you're calling the fabulous people.

Exactly. Maybe someone like Liz Smith is, and this is not to bash her, but she's a little bit more sympathetic towards celebrities.

And spends more time talking to publicists.

Yeah, she does. Publicists do not give me stories. The vast, vast majority will lie to you, will not return your calls, and are just obstacles. One publicist, Lisa Kasteler, who represents Britney Spears, said to me, "I will never help you with another story again." She never helped me with a story in the past—what does she mean?! If I get a story on Britney, I'll call her publicist for comment. But she hates me, that's fine.

How many people do you have to call for an item?

Sometimes, it's dozens. Obviously, you call everybody involved. And you might reach someone and it's, "Oh, we're not handling that anymore; you have to go through the manager."

A lot of phone tag.

A lot. It's not that glamorous! You do a lot of calling just to figure out, "Am I being lied to? Am I being used?"

By what time of the day do you say, "If I don't have my lead story, I am in some deep doo-doo"?

Three p.m.

And when is your deadline?

I hand it in at 5 p.m., and by 6, my editor is usually back to me, and has said, "The lawyers have a problem with this." Three o'clock is my self-imposed deadline. If it's 4 p.m. and I don't have anything, I go into panic mode and call up people saying, "You've got to give me something! There must be something going on. Please, please, I'll do anything!" So I do a lot of groveling in my job. People think that I'm threatening people. Threatening with what?! I'm not Walter Winchell. [Laughs.] Walter Winchell would ban people from his column. They want to be banned from my column.

How long does it actually take for you to write the column?

About half an hour. The actual writing, that's not where the effort goes.

What do you do for fun?

I have a country house in East Moriches, Long Island, right near Westhampton, that I got with my boyfriend. It's not very chic. I didn't even want to get it. I grew up in West Virginia. Plenty of trees around. I didn't want to see them anymore! But I fell in love with it. That's it: I go out to the country. I find it very difficult to relax.

That's what I'd imagine if you've got the stamina to fill a daily gossip column.

I work like a farmhand out there. It's two acres, and they don't clear it, so I'm chopping stuff down. I work like a maniac! It's really funny. I'm exhausted by the end of the day.

I went out there one weekend, while I was having this big feud with Matt Drudge. I outed him in my book, and he posted my home phone number on his website. I got literally thousands of calls. Oooh, they were nasty! Death threats, really. I had a couple of sources on the story. I talked to somebody who had dated him. David somebody. I quote him in my book. Nice guy. He was telling me all about Drudge's sexual habits. According to him, some of it was pretty kinky, and some of it involved eggs.

Like sploshing?

Huh?

It's this peculiarly British obsession, where you dump baked beans and spaghetti on yourself and that's a turn-on.

Along those lines. [Shudders.] So Drudge and I had a mutual friend, an on-air person at WABC (I had no idea he knew Drudge), who emailed me, "Is it true you're outing Drudge?" I said, "Yeah, but I left the worst stuff out. I just talked to someone he dated." "What do you mean by 'the worst stuff'?" "Oh, stuff that involved crabs and eggs." So Drudge goes on his website: "MSNBC Reporter: Drudge Had Sex with Eggs!... Call this number and tell her what you think of her."

You had to change your number.

No, I didn't. I answered my calls defiantly. My sister started crying. They were so mean! I don't care, you know? They can call me whatever they want. I don't care. The phone was ringing off the hook, and I had to unplug it. So I go out there, the birds are singing and all that, and I'm like, no one gives a rat's ass about Matt Drudge's sexuality. That's when I realized it's okay to get away from it a little while.

What was your favorite scoop?

I have no idea. You write it, and it's gone. Gossip is like fast food. Once it's not hot anymore, it's not very appealing.

Who's the most fun to report on?

Lately, it's Russell Crowe. Liz Hurley: This whole Steven Bing thing has been a lot of fun. Britney—love her.

Think she's really a virgin?

Oh, please!

Albert Lee is the editor of mediabistro.com.


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