We remember Felicity Ferret, Bridget Saunders and Rachel Glucina and ask: where did our thriving gossip industry go?
Rachel Hunter was out with her posse one night in 1989, standing outside a dive bar on Auckland’s High St; big hair, big ego, and on the brink of a big tantrum.
Risiti Tanoi was working the door of The Siren, and he had bad news for the underaged rager – Hunter was too young to enter.
Simon Grigg, who owned the place, was called down to face Hunter’s fury. “Do you know who I am?” the model actually said, and 29 years later, Grigg still recalls his response: “I said, ‘Yes, and you are not old enough.’”
The outburst was over in no time, but someone else was there that night – a witness. She was a sly social observer, who exposed the city’s sins and scandals with inimitable wit. She wore her bitchiness lightly, while managing to be both anonymous and omnipresent. Each month readers eagerly awaited what she would uncover – unless they happened to be her target. Lurking somewhere nearby was an all-knowing gossip: a ferret named Felicity.
“Rachel Hunter, the comely little clothes horse briefly in the village after gallivanting about the Costa Lot and other exotic locales, was refused admittance to The Siren, the hell-hole in High Street where even the cockroaches wear shades to avoid being recognised,” began an item in Metro magazine’s March 1989 Felicity Ferret column. “Quelle drag. The Pouter was enraged, to put it mildly, and with a toss of her head and a stamp of her spike she loudly informed the door person, ‘The press will hear about this!’ Too true, duck.”
From Metro’s ninth issue in 1982, until her extermination in 2002, Felicity Ferret bit the butts of Auckland’s rich and fatuous. Created by founding editor Roger Warwick, who was inspired by the gossip columns of British and American magazines, the Ferret set out to deflate the pompous and lay their excesses bare. Felicity was a ferret in the figurative sense – “a person who ferrets or searches out, such as a detective or investigator” – she explained in the April 1982 issue. New Zealanders had never read anything like it.
From the early 80s, Kiwi readers thirsty for local gossip were spoilt for choice. Besides Felicity Ferret, many newspapers and magazines had columns dedicated to celebrity scandal. There was “Pssst…”, Toni McRae’s column in the Sunday Star during the early 90s; Bridget Saunders’ “Snap” column in the Sunday Star-Times from 2002 until 2009; And, beginning in 2005, Rachel Glucina’s “Scene” reports in the Herald on Sunday, later followed by “The Diary” in the Granny Herald. Rivalries flared. Wine was tossed in faces. Stars shone bright and burnt out, and it was all there, in smudgy newsprint.
Look overseas: news outlets peddling gossip now dominate the media landscape. In the United States, TMZ’s expansive network of sources means the website breaks celebrity news well before any of the country’s legacy publications. The Daily Mail tabloid is the UK’s most popular newspaper, and its online counterpart, the Mail Online, is the world’s most visited Englishlanguage news website. In 2014, the company extended its operations to Australia, a country with its own gossip industry which, until actor Rebel Wilson’s AU$4.5 million (NZ$5m) defamation win against Bauer media last month, seemed thriving.
Yet in New Zealand, the opposite happened: in the last decade, all of those columns vanished, and new ventures failed. Glucina’s gossip website Scout launched in September 2015, and was dead nine months later. Bauer now owns both Woman’s Day and Women’s Weekly, ending any real competition for exclusives in the gossip magazine market. All that remains is Spy in the Herald on Sunday, whose editors in recent years “made a conscious decision that we didn’t want to be snarky – the ‘mean girl’ in the room, if you like,” says editor Ricardo Simich.
What happened? Did New Zealanders decide gossip is passé? Was the country’s celebrity scene too small to sustain a gossip industry? Does gossip permeate so much of our news now that we don’t need a column for it? Or do the disappearance of those columns signal something graver: is gossip dead in New Zealand?
Fame-hungry hair teaser Brent Lawler, appalling fashion victim and fresh faced poop, was sprung traveling on a bus! Public transport! My God, the shame! Even worse, it was the 655 to Glen Innes! Odd
behaviour for a megastar, innit? Perhaps there is a simple explanation. Perhaps he had to buy bulk hair gel to keep all his limp bits stiff that week…
Metro, March 1989
“Rachel Hunter, the comely little clothes horse briefly in the village after gallivanting about the Costa Lot… was refused admittance.”
Despite its pervasiveness, and roots extending back to the dawn of language, gossip gets a bad rap. It’s perceived as a violation; low-brow, salacious, devoid of integrity. “The definition I really like is, it’s private talk – it’s talk about people’s private lives,” says Jennifer Frost, an associate professor of history at the University of Auckland, and author of the book When Private Talk Goes Public: Gossip in United States History. “That’s what makes it illegitimate – you’re airing private talk in public. You’re crossing a boundary.”
But Frost points to gossip’s many virtues. “All through history there is this idea that gossip has really important social functions, in terms of building community, determining who’s in and who’s out of a community; in terms of acceptable behaviour,” she says. The idea is that when a listener hears gossip, they compare the subject’s behaviour to their own, and in doing so establish what is acceptable and what is not.
Also: “It’s often seen as a weapon of the weak – on the behalf of women, slaves, servants,” says Frost. “It’s a way they can challenge the power structures, the people in control: by gossiping about them.”
That principle – gossip as a means of challenging power – was at the heart of Metro’s Felicity Ferret column. She was born at a watershed moment in the city’s social life. “There was a lot of vulgarity in Auckland at the time, which was something quite new,” says Stephen Stratford, a former deputy editor of Metro, who edited Felicity Ferret (and wrote items from time to time. Despite years of speculation about her true identity, the Ferret was the work of several people.) “After Rogernomics, there were all these cowboys running around. There was a lot of ostentatious display of wealth by people who had gotten very wealthy very quickly. We had a lot of targets.”
While multiple Metro writers contributed, the Ferret was spearheaded by former model and socialite Judith Baragwanath who, with her androgynous style and trademark black lipstick, made frequent appearances in the column herself as “ol’ black lips”. As a waitress at The Melba, Baragwanath had a networkn of sources throughout theth hospitality industry feeding her tales. “There was so much bad behaviour and drunkenness in restaurants,” says Stratford. Baragwanath, who now lives a low-profile life on Waiheke Island, declined to answer questions about her gossip-writing days. “I might sit this one out,” she writes in an email.
In recording those people, events, rumours and conversations, the Ferret captured “the culture of the
Metro’s Felicity Ferret was born at a watershed moment in the city’s social life. “There was a lot of vulgarity in Auckland at the time which was something quite new.”
time. You get a sense of what it was like to be living there and then. You get the flavour,” says Stratford. Not that it wasn’t controversial. While Baragwanath was never vicious, Stratford says Warwick Roger’s Ferret items could be cruel or, worse, defamatory. “Which is why he ended up in court.”
What’s all this crap floating around about that lemon-lipped Adrienne Winkelmann (dressmaker to the hairdressers) buying an Alfa Romeo on the proceeds of her out-of-court settlement with Metro. What tosh! The car “courtesy of Metro” (hohoho) cost a little more than the $300 she got, and the silly cow hasn’t even got her driver’s licence! Metro, 1984
In April 2002, this very newspaper introduced readers to a brand new columnist. Bridget Saunders, the front-page story read, was “our new Auckland social columnist, treading the boards of the A, B, and C-list dos so you get the lowdown on who’s doing what to whom in the City of Sails.” Her inauguration ended: “It’s hard work but somebody has to do it.”
For seven years, Saunders’ smiling face appeared next to news of Auckland parties, restaurant openings, fashion shows, and other soirees. Her reports were filed from the same moral high ground as Felicity Ferret, and conveyed the same sense of intimacy. But whereas the Ferret never took her victims seriously, Saunders did the opposite: her column suggested these people mattered.
Readers were feverish for the column – especially those readers that advertisers wanted to reach, says Greg Roughan, who edited Saunders’ column as part of the paper’s About Town section, from 2005 to 2008. Saunders knew her worth, he says: “She knew that she was highly valued and she was pretty clear about how important she was to the paper.”
Unsurprisingly, then, the Herald on Sunday followed suit, hiring Rachel Glucina in December 2005 to cover the celebrity scene Saunders had cornered. “The aim, from the editor’s point of view, was to sell more papers,” Glucina writes in an email. “I’m sure I stepped on the toes of those covering that turf. At the end of the day, we all just did our best to tell great yarns.”
The rivalry between the writers came to an unusual head in 2006, when Saunders received an anonymous letter, containing a rude photomontage of her. Saunders reportedly told people at social gatherings that she believed Glucina’s mother, Drew, had sent the photos, which led Drew Glucina to sue Saunders for defamation. Drew wanted $100,000. They settled out of court.
Those columns were always divisive. “It was deemed ‘not real journalism’,” says Glucina. “That was the biggest criticism, and the gripe that gossip columnists elevate star-chasing nobodies to fame and column inches.” To which she says: “I believe journalism should attract all readers. Who are we to sneer and judge what people should read, and what is good for them? Joseph Conrad said: ‘Gossip is what no one claims to like – but everyone enjoys.’”
Roughan, however, found the guilt of the job hard to rationalise. “This guy said to me, ‘That magazine sums up everything that’s bad about Auckland. It’s just shallow, awful, and it celebrates everything materialistic and ridiculous.’ I couldn’t disagree with him.
“At times I was like, this is horrible. At times, things got a bit ugly,” says Roughan. “A couple of years later I was editing a sustainability magazine. I felt like I was paying my dues for those About Town years.”
Interestingly, Saunders, who was once so ubiquitous around Auckland, has seemingly vanished, and none of her former colleagues know her whereabouts. There are traces of her thoughts about gossip, though. From a 2006 Dominion Post feature: “I don’t deliberately set out to offend,” she tells the reporter. “I would be devastated if I was to really shaft someone. I write a gossip column. It’s about human foibles, human behaviour. What I am consciously doing is demystifying the whole celebrity thing.” In the photographs Saunders sits in her Grey Lynn yard with her Cairn Terriers, Puppy Girl and Violet. But she has long since moved from that house.
She’s there on a panel on a 2008 episode of Media 7, sitting between Laila Harre and the National Business Review’s Nevil Gibson, discussing the symbiosis between private wealth and the media. “Money speaks very loudly. And, generally speaking, in my small, rather nasty world, sometimes money alone counts,” she says, before her closing zinger: “The Rich List is the ultimate bible for husband-hunters.”
On the companies register, Saunders is listed as the director of the business “Social Observer”, but the number in those documents is disconnected, and a message to the email address fails to deliver. On the
electoral roll, her address is listed in Auckland’s Birkenhead. The phone is answered by a very pleasant builder who has never heard of Bridget Saunders. She barely registers on social media. A source says she moved to San Francisco years back, and a search online reveals her long-neglected website, filled with dead links. The About Me page says she now lives in the city’s North Beach suburb. There is an email address. But she never responds to a message. “I often hear she is back or has been on Waiheke,” says Ricardo Simich. “But safe to say she was happy to walk away from the media.”
Dork of several months back Michael Fitzpatrick was sitting in The Melba slurping up his Dom and gazing meaningfully out the window into the dark night when suddenly around the corner with a roar hurtled a car on two wheels and ploughed straight into Captain Fitzpatrick’s red Porsche 928 (registration number MF928). His eyebrows went straight into orbit – Nasa is still looking for them – and little wonder, the distraught fellow is looking at $9000 to rearrange his toy which looks exactly like a piano accordion. The offending car, of course, was stolen. Metro, 1984
Of all the newspaper’s sections, the gossip column is perhaps the most heavily vetted by lawyers. A column could destroy someone’s reputation, or expose their private life, so articles are thoroughly screened for any hint of defamation. For a statement to be defamatory it has to be false, but with gossip, which is often filled with allusion and vague suggestion, this can prove complicated.
In Metro’s September 1992 issue, Felicity Ferret took aim at Toni McRae, a Sunday Star journalist who had criticised the magazine as “poor” and “anorexic” in her gossip column, “Pssst…”. Warwick Roger wanted to “settle the score”, says Stratford.
“The Sunday Star’s regularly pissed (shurely regular Pssst? – Ed.) gossip columnist Mary (‘Toni’) McRae has had her leg in plaster after she ‘slipped on ice’ outside her door in Mt Eden.”
Roger was convinced that McRae was drunk when she broke her leg, says former Metro senior writer Carroll Du Chateau: “He tried to get me to verify that and I couldn’t, so I wouldn’t.” Roger went ahead with his theory, regardless. “He did use the column to go after people he’d taken against,” says Stratford. “That was the unattractive side of the column.”
An apology appeared in a later issue, but McRae was devastated. After publication, a Justice of the Peace named in court documents as “Mr Gossett” approached her in public and asked if she was “a pisshead”. McRae burst into tears. She took Metro’s publisher, Australian Consolidated Press (ACP), to court.
In his summing up notes, Justice Tomkins laid out each side’s argument for the jury. To McRae, the gossip was a false and hurtful attack on her reputation. ACP, however, argued that Felicity Ferret was not taken seriously by readers, and that no one would take the pun to literally mean that McRae was an alcoholic.
Judge Tomkins told the jury: “Mr Roger may have intended the comment to be funny and not to be taken literally. That is irrelevant. You have to judge the issue by how it would be regarded by the ordinary reasonable reader.”
After a two-week trial, the jury awarded McRae $375,000 – believed to be the largest amount awarded in a New Zealand defamation case at that stage. McRae cried when the amount was declared – she thought the Judge had said $375. (It was later reduced to $100,000 plus costs, according to a 2006 Sunday Star-Times article.) At the time, media commentator Brian Edwards said: “Never were so many scores settled by so many in so short a time.”
Roger’s Parkinson’s disease prevented him from answering questions for this feature, but back then he said: “I’m devastated by the size of the amount, and the future of the column and I imagine my job is under review.” A 2006 Sunday StarTimes story reports that it shook his journalistic confidence and his pride. As for McRae, she died in 2014, aged 67.
Roger’s wife, Robyn Langwell, who also wrote for Metro, declined an interview request, but says by phone: “The wonderful thing Warwick and I had was we had carte blanche to do what we wanted to do with our magazine. We are so happy we had the years that we had.” Before she hangs up, Langwell ll says: “There’s“h ’ no courage in New Zealand journalism any more.”
Could Langwell be correct? Have news outlets here become so risk-averse that gossip is considered too contentious to publish? Some former gossip writers believe that’s the case. “I can see why people don’t want to do gossip columns any more,” says Du Chateau. “It was dangerous stuff.”
Several writers believe the shift away from gossip columns is industry-led, rather than in response to readers’ changing tastes. “It does take quite a unique skill to be a successful gossip columnist and an enormous network of contacts to call on daily to sustain the content needed to deliver day after day,” says Glucina. “As New Zealand media players have made deeper cuts, these skills have been lost. Traditional news outlets are struggling financially and don’t have the money to retain the right people needed.”
Now, social media has replaced the social pages. Event organisers can share albums of photos to audiences far greater than that of any publication. Celebrities use Facebook, Instagram or Twitter to share images and news, and readers can follow their lives through those channels rather than in gossip columns. It’s not that we’re necessarily gossiping less, then, says associate Professor Frost; rather, we’re gossiping differently. “I don’t think we’re missing anything by not having it in our public sphere the way we did,” she says.
Filling the void is a different brand of gossip, where subjects are complicit in the stories, and are sometimes paid, and will sometimes approve the article before it’s published. The celebrities are treated with reverence, because to offend them is to potentially cut off future access. And in New Zealand, where there is not so much a pool of celebrities as a puddle, access to local celebrities is crucial.
Now that readers can find international celebrity gossip o online, local exclusives p provide New Zealand p publications a point of d difference, says Aroha A Awarau, who has written for b both Woman’s Day and W Women’s Weekly. “You could sa say you were the first to get it, th the only one to tell that story. T The weddings, the babies; we p put them on the covers b because it’s something no one el else can get.” But when certain qu questions are off-limits, and th the subject controls the message, h how i is i it any diff different from public relations?
Something, then, is demonstrably lost without gossip columns. Re-reading Felicity Ferret decades after publication, it gives readers more than exceptionally clever writing and entertaining, hilarious stories. That gossip provided a glimpse into an absurd, outrageous world that was otherwise unknowable to them and, for now, remains so.
Before she hangs up, Robyn Langwell says: “There’s no courage in New Zealand journalism any more.”
Below: The Felicity Ferret column ran for 20 years. In 1992, Metro’s faux “gossip mag” cover spoofed trashier publications but reportedly fooled many people into buying that issue.
Former Sunday Star-Times columnist Bridget Saunders has vanished from online trace.
Rachel Glucina, began covering the celebrity scene for the Herald on
Sunday in 2005.
Judith Baragwanath, aka Ol’ Black Lips, circa 1980s.
Stephen Stratford, former deputy editor of Metro, pictured in 2010.
Gossip in print is now limited to celeb-sanctioned stories.