BLACK LIPS

We re­mem­ber Felic­ity Fer­ret, Brid­get Saun­ders and Rachel Glu­cina and ask: where did our thriv­ing gos­sip in­dus­try go?

Sunday Star-Times - Sunday Magazine - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from New Zealand

© PressReader. All rights reserved.