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His Fifteen Minutes

FAME: AIN'T IT A BITCH Confessions of a Reformed Gossip Columnist By A.J. Benza; Talk Miramax Books: 304 pp., $22.95

July 22, 2001|ANN O'NEILL | Ann O'Neill writes the City of Angles column for The Times

A.J. Benza's catchy signature line as narrator of E! Entertainment Television's "Mysteries & Scandals" doubles as the title of his memoir, "Fame: Ain't It a Bitch." The truth is that fame has been anything but a B-word to Benza. It's his unexpected reward for a decade of skirt chasing, club crawling, Percocet popping and general bad-boy behavior in the sleazy world of celebrity dish.

The Italian street kid from Long Island who once yearned to crash the velvet ropes holding him back from Manhattan's glitterati is now famous himself. Which just proves that anyone, even an ex-bookie like Benza, can find fame by rubbing elbows with A-listers and by going on television.

Benza's quite a character, and he's been on an amazing ride. He's happy to take you along for a mere $22.95, even if you don't approve of him. Looking for a highbrow sociological treatise on the cult of celebrity? A critique of the shallow values of the late 20th century? You won't find them here. Nor will you find much new celebrity dirt, because Benza dishes primarily about himself.

It may not be a great book, or even a good one, but it's a fun read--although Benza's tales of sexual exploits with the beautiful people might fall under the category of TMI, too much information. The book purports to be the "Confessions of a Reformed Gossip Columnist," but it reads more like braggadocio. It's Benza's version of the Willie Nelson song, "To All the Girls I Loved Before."

"I'm a kiss-and-teller. Shoot me," he writes.

Still, Benza's macho boasting is refreshing, coming on the clacking heels of Liz Smith's unnaturally bland "Natural Blonde." In high school, he read the New York tabloid gossips avidly at the kitchen table with his mother, who sucked her teeth and drank bad coffee while he shoveled Cap'n Crunch into his mouth. No one ever brought a New York Times into Casa Benza.

In the world according to A.J., gossip should be a man's game. "I had never read a gossip column fueled by a woman's voice that didn't have an odor of posturing, self-promoting, or formaldehyde," he writes. "Every female gossiper was, well, old and devoid of sex appeal. God's sake, Liz Smith hasn't [excited] anyone in a couple of decades. It took years for Cindy Adams and her surgeon to achieve a particular level of beauty. Rona Barrett's speech impediment would douse the fire in any man's trousers. And USA Today's Jeannie Williams--though a good, old broad--writes with all the sexual style of a gas pump."

And, make no mistake, Benza's no journalist: "I've always hated the word reporter. I never wanted to be a reporter. Jimmy Olsen was a reporter. I was a writer with strong convictions and wide opinions. Still am." He thinks colleagues who carry note pads on gossip patrol are "wimps."

Benza started out as a sports stringer at Newsday, where the corporate culture made him miserable. "Newsday could have doubled as a goddam insurance office," he gripes. At the Long Island daily, he tried his hand at fiction, making up police blotter items for the suburban sections. (He never was caught.) And he made his mark in the newsroom with his politically incorrect behavior. When he beefed about minority writers getting hired ahead of him, he was suspended for a week without pay. When he bragged in the office about his sexual conquests and goofed on Mike Tyson's rape trial, he was written up for sexual harassment:

"I remember I practically gave all of them a coma when I got my hands on the transcript from Mike Tyson's rape trial, stood on a desk, turned down the sound on the office TV and began to read aloud in Tyson's falsetto voice.

'And then, your wonor, Desiwee told me that she was on her pewiod."'

He was rescued from sports by Newsday's acerbic gossip queen, Linda Stasi, and followed her to the New York Daily News, where he contributed to the daily Hot Copy column. On the side, he wrote the weekly Downtown column chronicling his night-crawling adventures with actor-pugilist Mickey Rourke and a bevy of supermodels.

Among some of Benza's more startling "confessions":

Knocked out by the "lavender" scent of Cindy Crawford's breath, he didn't have the nerve to ask her whether her marriage to Richard Gere was breaking up; he chose to smoke a joint with Jack Nicholson rather than call the desk and break the story about John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette's wedding plans; he let a car dealer give him a huge discount on a Mercedes-Benz convertible and accepted huge discounts on Prada and Gucci duds from Barneys; at one point, he was fueling himself on 30 Percocets a day and sometimes wrote his column still drunk from the night before.

Pete Hamill fired Benza in 1997 during his short stint as editor of the Daily News. Less blessed mortals might have wound up in jail, or at least in rehab. Benza, already a noirish figure on E!, got his own talk show, "A.J. After Dark," which debuted on E! in May and is struggling. It's the first sign that not everything comes easily to this bada-bing character who, until now, has been rewarded at every turn for bending or breaking the rules. That's how the gossip game is played.

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