NEW YORK — When gossip columnist Jeannette Walls starts talking, she doesn't stop.
Even her rare pauses are punctuated by raucous, delighted bursts of laughter. To be fair, the topic is her favorite.
Walls, who ferrets out celebrity scoops for MSNBC, has just written a saucy, sassy new book on the subject: "Dish: The Inside Story on the World of Gossip" (HarperCollins, $25). It's a history of how gossip became the news, and the news became just another show. She traces the evolution of Hollywood tattler magazines into People and the National Enquirer, how "60 Minutes" begat tabloid TV, how in an ever-fragmenting age there's always a real-life soap opera that everyone knows by first name. O.J. Monica. Diana. Jon-Benet. Darva.
Of course, any book called "Dish" better provide some. And Walls does. By Page 5, for example, she outs fellow gossip Matt Drudge for past homosexual dalliances. Drudge, who got the scoop of the decade when his Drudge Report introduced the world to Monica Lewinsky, couldn't believe anyone would gossip about him.
That set off a highly comical sniping war between Walls and Drudge, who has described his youth as a "blur" but refused to get into the specifics of his sex life. "Jeannette dear," Drudge wrote on his site, "slow down and come up for some air. You are becoming a laughingstock. Even by MSNBC standards."
That just makes Walls' gleeful roar that much louder. "Matt, honey, it's a little ironic," Walls said. "Two words: Sidney Blumenthal. Hello! Let's talk about Clinton's love child for a while!" (Drudge was sued by Blumenthal, a Clinton advisor, when he wrote that Blumenthal beat his wife. And a Drudge account of a Clinton love child with an Arkansas prostitute was also famously disproved.)
"If he wants to debate this, I'm more than happy," Walls said. "This guy has made his entire career exposing other people's private lives. Now he's telling friends he's outraged, he can't believe anybody would write this, that this is an invasion of his privacy. Hello! It's unbelievable. Anybody who makes a living writing about other people's private lives ought to be prepared for that to happen."
Mostly, though, the Drudge tempest seems a little manipulated to stir interest in "Dish," in a way that illustrates the point of Walls' book--to strip aside the layers of spin and counter-spin and show the mutually manipulative dance among the various kinds of media that cover celebrities, their publicity machines and the stars themselves.
"There's always an ulterior motive," Walls said. "If you want to get all deconstructive and existential, yes, what is truth and what is not truth is all very bizarre. This is all about trying to control the truth and control image. These are multibillion images. They're worth a lot of money, not just for themselves but for those of us who tear them down or build them up. We're all playing."
To Walls, gossip is trying to find the truth, the story-behind-the-story, which is so often buried. What questions did a magazine agree not to ask in order to get the high-profile movie star for its cover? Gossip seeks answers to questions that celebrities don't want to talk about and their publicists won't let journalists ask. What's the deal with Madonna's British accent? How real is the Tom Cruise/Nicole Kidman marriage?
Walls then throws open the doors of movie junkets, where the stars promote their latest films with scripted sound bites. She shows how even the glossiest magazines make deals with publicists to choose which writers and photographers are on a story, and how writers who depart from the script can find themselves blacklisted.
"It used to be that there were celebrity magazines, and there were all other magazines. Now everything is a celebrity magazine," she said. "Now serious news organizations have to write about celebrities. That creates a dilemma. You can either cover them like the tabloids do or like the fanzines. One is going after the dirt, the other is regurgitating the spin. Neither one of them gets the actual story.
"So much news is scripted, or from press releases. To me, gossip is the unofficial news about how things really work. That's what fascinates me. If the news, for example, is Jodie Foster on '60 Minutes II,' the gossip is she billed them $12,000 for her makeup.
"That's the real story," she said. "If you can get that. But it's more and more controlled. If you don't go along with the game, you get cut off. It's a very insidious world."
One of the behind-the-scenes kingmakers Wa
lls profiles here is Pat Kingsley, publicist to the stars, including Cruise and Kidman, who has done more than any other Hollywood kingmaker to control access to her clients.
"When I started out, I thought Pat Kingsley was evil. She denies access to the people I want to write the truth about! Well, that's her job," Walls said. "The funny thing is, nobody is a villain in this story. Everybody's just doing what's in their interest."
Does that make celebrity journalism an oxymoron?