December 19, 2002: Despite his insider status, even gossip columnist Shinan Govani can get shut out. At Toronto’s trendy King Street lounge, Mint et Menthe, the National Post‘s “Scene” columnist was turned back from the Next modeling agency’s private Christmas party. “This is a Nelly Furtado moment!” declared Govani’s gal-pal, journalist and art afficionado Si Si Penaloza, referring to Govani’s report last year that Furtado was barred entry from her own label’s post-Juno party. Despite Govani’s fight for his right to party, the doorman sent the columnist and company trudging through the rain. Looking slick as the sidewalk in a crisp black blazer and jeans, he sure wasn’t shut out for a lack of fancy footwork. Govani was sporting a pair of recently acquired Gucci shoes. A bargain at $300?and that was the sale price.

Shinan Govani can balance a cocktail, an hors d’oeuvre and a notepad all at once. He has to on the gossip beat, where he flutters between events, party-crashing and air-kissing, chatting up the social bigwigs he’ll later roast for dinner. His column is dishy, clever and certainly widely read. For his fellow journalists, the paper’s news pages are essential and nutritious but not necessarily delicious. What Govani serves up is like the syrup in your morning latte?indulgent, unnecessary and impossible to cut from your diet. Here’s why: in Toronto, the gossip columns’ headlines might scream “Nelly Furtado!” but the body carries news you can use ? scoops on the city’s media cliques. And maybe a mention of where you were last night.

In a gossip column, the equivalent to a hard-news power lead is a big name, and we’re not talking picas. Boldface, the practice of bolding the name of a celebrity to lure the readers’ eye, is what sells gossip. While Trumps, Baldwins and Spices are showstoppers internationally, most Canadian names lack the same glitz the celeb watchers are seeking. So, attempting to lug their gossip to the watercooler, some Canadian columnists are mixing business with business. In Toronto, film stars and wealthy tycoons can remain virtual unknowns next to a roster of household names that are published daily across Canada. Journalists like Wendy Mesley and William Thorsell, their profiles boosted by Toronto’s strong media industry, can end up with reputations more familiar than those of Canada’s entertainment personalities. For those covering Canadian celebs, the buzz in their industry can sometimes double as the content for their industry. For those inside the media circle, it can be both thrilling and horrifying to read stories about their peers. But here is the question: while journalist references are popular in gossip columns, do readers really care about the news behind the newsroom?

Govani, a 30-year-old graduate of the political science program at the University of Toronto, thinks so. In his twice-weekly column (it runs Tuesdays and Fridays in the National Post), Govani intentionally plucks big names from a variety of industries. He’ll mention megawatt Hollywood celebs, like Catherine Zeta-Jones and Al Pacino, alongside select Canadians with national reps, like Paul Gross or Elvis Stojko, and members of Toronto society like Heather Reisman. But in nearly every column there is a journalist. In 28 columns from September 6 through December 6, 2002, Govani boldfaced the names of 25 Canadian journalists. This is deliberate?he believes the stature of Toronto’s media equals that of conventional celebrity roles, such as the screen stars, TV personalities and singers that the American star system thrives on. “We don’t have an awareness of who makes our movies,” Govani says, sipping complimentary champagne at one of three parties he wants to hit this evening. “But there is a heightened awareness of who our media personalities are.”

Sarah Murdoch, the editor of the Post‘s Toronto section, agrees with her columnist’s choices. “We don’t have movie stars here,” Murdoch says. “They are in town shooting a movie. But you can get them in Peoplemagazine or Variety.” Or the Post’s Arts and Life section. Tara Ariano’s “Showbiz” column is a roundup of heavy-on-the-Hollywood international buzz, a similar beat to Govani’s first Post column, “The Daily Dish.” But, in contrast, Govani’s “The Scene” is dedicated exclusively to covering Toronto. Murdoch thinks the city’s celebrity is a unique creature. “I would contend that celebrity, particularly in Toronto, is journalism,” she says. “Our local people tend to be the Bay Street titans and media folk.”

October 16, 2002 ? is Toronto Life gossip columnist Nathalie Atkinson homophobic, sexist or even heterosexist? That’s what actor/playwright Diane Flacks accused her of in a Toronto Life letter, a response to Atkinson’s hint-onations that TV chef David Gale (Loving Spoonfuls) was the missing ingredient in Flacks’s same-sex pregnancy. “The place that she was coming from was, ‘Isn’t this freaky? These lesbians and this gay man are having a baby! Freak me out!'” says Flacks. “I don’t think people need to read stuff like that.” Apparently, Shinan Govani would disagree. Though he and Atkinson are close (they’ll hook up to flip throughUS Weekly together), the Post-er boy told Flacks he wanted to scoop Atkinson! The tattle on Flacks’s insemination ran August 16 ? five days before Atkinson’s. Govani observed, “You might catch a case of the snickers the next time you stumble upon the show Loving Spoonfuls….”

Nathalie Atkinson’s byline has appeared on Toronto Life‘s formerly anonymous “Telling Tales” column since September 2001. Like Govani, Atkinson reports gossip on journalists. In her four columns from September 2002 to December 2002, she boldfaced eight journalists’ names, including former Maclean’s columnist Allan Fotheringham, ROBtv reporter Amanda Lang and Globe and Mail columnist Leah McLaren. Atkinson’s gossip has even included other gossip columnists, as Shinan Govani made a boldface appearance in the January 2002 edition of “Tales.” Atkinson is a newcomer to journalism, having studied medieval studies at the University of Toronto and classics at the University of King’s College in Halifax, where she also worked on the student paper with Toronto Life co-worker Sarah Fulford. Her debut with “Telling Tales,” a Toronto Life staple since its 1993 incarnation as “Jungle Drums,” is high profile. Atkinson says people often tell her it’s the first item in the magazine they read.

According to a recent marketing survey conducted by Toronto Life, 58 per cent of readers felt the gossip in the magazine was somewhat, very or extremely important to them and 77 per cent indicated Toronto Lifecovered that scene at least somewhat well. Since Toronto Life is featuring the media elite prominently and repeatedly, its readers seem to be waving Atkinson ahead with her choice of coverage. Despite the attention, Atkinson demurs at becoming a gossip item herself. “If I did something unbecoming, I don’t think anyone would write about it,” she insists. “No one cares. ‘Who’s Nathalie Atkinson?'”

Oh, people know Nathalie Atkinson. On the phone from London, England, Leah McLaren says her media friends have been rotating features in Atkinson’s column for the last several years. “They are soooo cunty, that page!” McLaren says. She describes one item printed about her as “unnecessarily bitchy.” It read: “Canadians have wondered if it was because of our shallow talent pool or because of our lack of good judgement that the 20-something blond diarist was awarded a weekly column.” Whether Rebecca Eckler is roasted for comparing the size of her derriere to Doubleday Canada publisher Maya Mavjee’s or Andrew Pyper is reported urinating off a patio at a party, this specific Toronto clique is hounded by the magazine. “They pick on people who are easy to pick on,” McLaren says. “They generally stick to one set: publishing and media.”

Russell Smith is one member of this group who’s challenged Toronto’s gossiping press. Smith, a Toronto writer and Globe and Mail columnist, has a reputation as a man-about-town in Toronto’s scene. So when Govani reported in a July 11, 2001, column that a scantily clad Smith was spotted at the launch for fetish magazine Whiplash, Govani thought the bit advanced the myth of Smith. Govani wrote: “Dressed in wallpapered-on leather pants ? offering ample evidence he’s making good use of his gym membership ? the writer led ‘friend’ Krista around by a long, dangling leash.” But on July 14, Smith sent Govani a furious e-mail, writing, “I understand that it’s your job to mock people and to report on sexual details they might want to keep secret, but I thought (naively, I guess) that people in your circle of friends might at least be afforded a choice.” Govani’s response? “I am scum. Didn’t you get the memo?”

Smith now refuses to speak to Govani, but the gossiper sees the bad blood between them as an excellent career move. “It demonstrated, in print, that I was serious about what I was doing, that I was willing to put myself out there,” he says. Toronto scenesters still mention it to Govani every week, though more than a year and a half has passed. Govani thinks the story’s endurance comes partially from Toronto’s lack of real rivalries ? symptomatic of the same society that lends Smith the status to appear in Govani’s column at all. “We don’t have Princess Di or a powerful New York society set,” Smith says. “So we attack people who are pretty much normal, like anybody else. If we had a Posh Spice, I wouldn’t be in the gossip columns.”

When the private e-mail exchange between Govani and Smith was eventually published in the August 8, 2001, edition of Frank magazine, much of the audience was already in the know ? the e-mails had been forwarded throughout a number of Toronto circles. It’s typical for gossip about media personalities to make the rounds by word of mouth, but it has also traditionally thrived underground in Frank magazine’s “Remedial Media” section. Despite the fear of being “Franked,” the mag’s audience consists mostly of the nervous or gleeful reader scanning for a familiar name. The magazine’s bite hurts, especially given the levels of crueltyFrank can sustain. But its poor reputation and limited, insider audience mean its teeth don’t cut too deeply. However, to be teased in a national newspaper is an embarrassment with mainstream appeal, the difference between falling on your face at the office and falling on your face at the Gillers.

October 17, 2002 ? five-time party queen Alexandra Gill is bidding good night to the Toronto International Film Festival (a.k.a. TIFF). Without specific plans to return to Toronto, the fest isn’t the only TIFF The Globe and Mail journo is done with. Though Gill says her rival entertainment columnist, the Toronto Star‘s Rita Zekas, was a tough broad to share a beat with, she did find a use for the Star’s Lady Chatterley ? as a barometer to measure her own column’s success. When Gill gabbed in 1997 that TIFF poster model Bradley Yip and his Playboy model date Lisa Heughan were almost washing dishes over an unpaid bill at Bradley’s, Zekas approached Deirdre Kelly, Gill’s Globe co-worker, and advised that her paper apologize (it didn’t). “I just thought it was so interesting that she has become such a mouthpiece for the publicists that if there was something mildly journalistic it offended her sensibilities,” Gill says. “So that was always my challenge ? am I going to piss off Rita?”

Alexandra gill’s stint as the Globe and Mail‘s face of gossip lasted a year and a half, running from July 1998 until September 1999. Developing the column when she was a new graduate of Ryerson’s journalism program, Gill used her lust for investigation to uncover some steamy stories. “I would approach it like a journalist,” Gill recalls of her position. “It didn’t go over well.”

The Globe‘s editor-in-chief at the time, William Thorsell, commissioned the column. He believed the beat was essential in the editorial mix. “You have to create vehicles to get this kind of stuff into the paper,” says Thorsell, who is now CEO of the Royal Ontario Museum. “True, interesting material that’s not malicious but is just interesting by its own sake, I think that’s a really important part of what makes for a great paper.” Gill caused a sensation when she caught photographer Peter Beard “pinned under a shapely brunette” in a public washroom at a party in his honour. While this type of material upset some Globe readers, who found the column too bawdy for their Great Canadian Grey Lady, Gill had the town talking.

Like Govani and Atkinson, Gill dished the dirt about media personalities. Her tenacity soon had Torontonians turning their backs, literally, as she scoured the party beat for more of the eyebrow-raisers that had marked her column’s debut. “People were very cautious about what they’d say to me,” Gill says now. “If people are afraid to talk to you and this is the thing you do five nights a week, it just becomes a little tiring.”

“You notice she was pulled from assignment and she’s now in B.C.?” asks the Toronto Star‘s “Star Gazing” columnist Rita Zekas. “You can be cruel, but you have to be fair, and you don’t do it because you’ve got an axe to grind. And I think Alexandra Gill and people like that have an axe to grind.” In her column, Zekas sticks strictly to the stars ? which, by her definition, does not include journalists. Unlike Toronto Life, the National Post and Alexandra Gill at the Globe, Zekas would rather report the dining locations of Sharon Stone than the sex scandals of Canadian journalists. “I’m not that hungry for boldface,” says Zekas. “They’re just doing the same job I’m doing.”

Zekas, who’s been at the Star since 1979 (“I was a child bride”), is Toronto’s original celebrity gossip columnist. She started tracking celebrities through her “Star Gazing” vehicle in 1988 when Toronto was becoming a destination for big-name celebrities. She’s continued to chase those names, spending days on the phone divining Robert Redford’s itinerary or deducing the location of Robert DeNiro’s bachelor pad. She’s also been known to regularly roll-call the celebs who were seen at various locations, often pricey restaurants like Bistro 990.

Today’s new crop of gossip columnists understands that Zekas has a different kind of column, but they aren’t interested in emulating the list of lunches Zekas provides. “She has a very specific kind of following,” says Nathalie Atkinson. “And,” she stops and laughs, “You know, I love Rita. I have a lot of admiration for her tenacity. But it does become a bit of a list.”

Zekas’s column reads the way it does, in part, because after 23 years at the Star, Zekas knows when to blab and when to keep it shut. “If you look at the gossip columnists who’ve been around for a long time, like Liz Smith, she gets the stuff across,” Zekas says. “Some of the stuff you think, ‘She’s just doing a lot of fluff and she could’ve been harder on somebody.’ But she’s in the business, she gets her sources.”

But despite the awareness people have of Canadian journalists, an international celebrity is a hook with more sparkle. That’s why during the film festival you see the Can-con in the columns reduced to provide more inches for Hollywood superstars. Even when Canadian celebrities do achieve this degree of success (think Celine or Shania), they are swept into an untouchable A-list universe ? which renders them inaccessible to Toronto columnists. Part of the columnists’ job, then, is to construct a Toronto celebrity culture. Though Govani understands his audience might not know who David Macfarlane or Jian Ghomeshi are, he sees educating the reader as part of his job. “One of the reasons we don’t have a star system in Canada is we don’t write about them in the same fun, gossipy, accessible way,” Govani says. “And we don’t write about them because we don’t have a star system. It’s this awful, vicious circle.” But according to Russell Smith, this scrutiny of journalists is a symptom of a misdirected press, which he believes should be in the business of monitoring powerful people, such as CEOs or politicians. “Most people don’t really care about people in the media and what they get up to because on the whole, we’re not that powerful,” he says.

Since readers seem as happy with a Pam Wallin reference as an Anne Murray, then, hey, why not cover the journalist like the journalist covers the world? After all, a personality worth gossiping over signals the presence of a prestige that some journalists strive for. When bathed in the right light, the subjects can find this coverage thrilling. Despite Smith’s current duck-and-cover approach to the likes of Govani, he had a much different reaction the first time he was mentioned in a column. In 1991, when Rose LeVine dropped his name in one of her NOW magazine columns, he was actually pleased. “I showed all my roommates,” he says. “‘This is fabulous, this is wonderful. I’m going to get my name in lights more often.'” The lights may have to wait. But Smith could see himself boldfaced in tomorrow’s paper.

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About the author

Ryan Porter was the Managing Editor, Front/Back of the Book for the Spring 2003 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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