Gossip's intrepid balloonists

Hint magazine's dish artists are loudmouths on tap with bitchy wits, but who's listening?

By Roman Milisic

Published September 5, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

The glee in watching people who live by the sword is the sense that they're about to die by it. For gossip columnists, that means some grand humiliation. As we chat, I can't help hoping that comeuppance will choose today to visit itself on Australians Horacio Silva and Ben Widdicombe, whose weekly gossip column, "Chic Happens," appears in Hint Fashion Magazine. Certainly, the two are being far from discreet:

"Liz Smith wouldn't recognize good writing if it was dressed like Erin Brockovich!" snips Widdicombe, 30.

"Cindy Adams! I can actually hear Cindy dictating her copy over the phone," snorts Silva, 35. "She's got that old school tone: 'The governor's wife brought her dog and it was playing with my dogs.'"

Liz Smith and Cindy Adams have gossip columns in the New York Post. Smith may be the country's highest-paid print journalist. They are both long-established figures in the trade. The "Chic Happens" column had its third birthday last month. Still, bitchy wit and a regular supply of toilet-wall gossip have given Silva and Widdicombe some notoriety in New York's fashion media.

"There's a willingness to undermine each other in fashion which is unique to that industry," says Widdicombe, notwithstanding the slating he just gave Liz and Cindy. I throw out some more names.

Model Sophie Dahl? "Plus-size hangover."

Gossip columnist Ted Casablancas? "Fashion fossil."

Calvin Klein? "On his knees." (He's a regular target. "If there's an opening in men's underwear, then Calvin Klein will find it" runs one line from a recent "Chic Happens" column.)

Tina Brown? "Talk needs some help. Tina, if you're listening," Silva says, leaning into the tape recorder for dramatic effect, "the thing with Talk is, there's nothing you want to talk about. When you go to bed with Disney, you put on Mickey Mouse ears."

The Mickey Mouse line is one they've worked before. It's not the only time they trawl up an old joke in the course of our conversation. Ack. When you talk in sound bites, you're cursed to recall your slights verbatim.

We are lunching outside at the Park in fashionable Chelsea. Widdicombe and Silva's oft-repeated opinions on fashion (Widdicombe hates it; Silva loves it) are clear from their outfits: Widdicombe is fitting all wrongly into his WK designer shirt; Silva's washed-out sleeveless tee looks lovingly chosen. Meanwhile, the two Australians are telling me what they were struck with when they first arrived in the United States. "We were very struck with the sycophancy of Americans in journalism," says Widdicombe. "There's a willingness not to take people at face value in Australia, which there wasn't here. We brought that, and it was really well received. I'm not saying that we did it, but in the three years since we started the column, we've noticed a real change in mainstream reporting of ridiculous celebrity coverage."

"Look at [Vanity Fair editor] Graydon Carter!" says Silva. "He was the shredder at Spy, and now he's just a shrouder."

Remember that scene in "Crocodile Dundee" when the Aussie bushman pulls his foot-long bowie on a penknife-wielding New York mugger and says: "This is a knife?" That's Silva and Widdicombe. At least, in their eyes.

They'll crap anywhere, but the guys particularly relish dumping on the staff at the Condi Nast group (of which Vanity Fair is a part). They claim to have broken the story of Vogue editor Anna Wintour's divorce, and they've certainly fed off it for months. Fashion media on fashion media. Is it cannibalism? No, according to them, it's satire.

Have they ever worked for Condi Nast? No. And do they find that knives sticking out of backs makes a good career ladder?

"I don't expect anyone to do me any favors," says Widdicombe, signaling for another bottle of wine. "I'm not doing this for the goodie bags."

Two waiters deliver the wine. Earlier in the week, "Chic Happens" ran a report on the shoddy service at the Park restaurant, and today, the maitre d' is ready to fawn. Our pair of waiters is joined by a third, with extra napkins.

For two people who are trying not to build a career in fashion journalism, Widdicombe and Silva are building one remarkably well. Their column runs in Gotham magazine, and the Australian. Silva filled in during August as an editor at Fashions of the Times, the New York Times Sunday fashion supplement. (A kissy interview with the Times' fashion editor Amy Spindler in the "Lunchvox" section of Hint led to a "Chic Happens" page in the Fashions of the Times spring issue.) Silva is a contributing editor at Jalouse magazine (a downtown competitor to Vogue). Widdicombe also works for Jalouse. Silva occasionally freelances for the New York Post's Page Six. Widdicombe, ever two short footsteps behind him, has also done a spot of work for Page Six. Silva also writes for Time magazine. Widdicombe also writes for Citysearch. Now, do you know that these two men used to be lovers?

Silva's family moved to Australia from Uruguay when he was 6. His mother was a machinist turned upholsterer, his father a builder's laborer. He has a poor-boy-made-good shtick. By 28, Silva had founded Media Baby, a fashion photo archive, and was working for Sydney magazines such as Studio and Supermodel. In 1996, Silva took up Microsoft's first editorial post in Australia: executive producer at Sidewalk.

Widdicombe had the more privileged childhood: boarding school in England, college at UCLA and the University of California at Irvine. He returned to Australia to pursue fiction writing, and after a stint on a local newspaper, he was hired by Silva as a restaurant reviewer at Sidewalk. They became an item. Silva was in a 14-year relationship; Widdicombe was "the homewrecker."

With Silva's Microsoft savings, they moved to New York in January 1998, taking the odd freelance writing assignment and partying in Silva's fashion milieu every night. At the launch party of the fashion Web site, Silva met Hint founder Lee Carter, who offered him a gossip column.

That was three years ago. Hint still has just one full-timer: Lee Carter, publisher, art director and designer. It still operates on a shoestring (a "labor of love"). But, says Carter, "We're doing very, very well. We get well over a million page views per month."

That, Carter claims, translates to some 250,000 readers. In July, Hint won a Webby award, and the site was nominated for general excellence online at the ASME magazine awards in May (the only site of the five ASME nominations that doesn't actually lose money). Given the demise of other content-driven Web sites such as Suck and Feed, the folks at Hint must be doing something right. What?

"The key to building a sustainable content company is to control costs," says Jason Calacanis, editor at the Silicon Alley Reporter. "The boutique magazine, with a dozen or so staff, has proved to have the staying power."

Certainly, Hint has done that. But is there any more to it? The "Chic Happens" team think so. For starters, says Silva, "We have no sacred cows. We go for advertisers. That's a basic point of principle."

"We scare people," says Widdicombe. "If we were hit by a bus tomorrow, people would be dancing on our graves."

So, in an industry where sponsors clearly have an impact on editorial content, "Chic Happens" gives advertisers no special treatment. That there is not one negative item directed at advertisers Diesel, Vivienne Westwood, Luxlook or Ford Motors in the archives must be simply coincidence.

Widdicombe's point: They have enemies. Well, such is the gossip columnist's lot. But how hated, or even known, are they?

"No one misses [the column]," says Amy Spindler, New York Times fashion editor.

"Everyone here [at Condi Nast] knows about Hint," says Lucky magazine fashion editor Andrea Linett.

Yet, when Graydon Carter was contacted for this story, he'd never heard of Widdicombe and Silva. Liz Smith was also in the dark about the dish artists. "I don't know who they are," laughed Smith, delighting at the Erin Brockovich line, "but they're entitled to their opinion." She added: "I've never said that I'm a great writer. Generally, gossip writers aren't."

Even Richard Johnson at Page Six allowed that he didn't really know the guys. "It was [substitute editor] Jared [Paul Stern]'s idea to hire Horacio."

On the other hand, there are some suspicious silences. Anna Wintour, via a Condi Nast publicist, issued a "no comment" when I contacted her office for this story. Rob Haskell, who writes "The Eye" for Women's Wear Daily, and who has previously called "Chic Happens" "dangerous" and "not very credible," also chose, under advice, to give "no comment."

"Chic Happens" might indeed bring a modicum of fear to the lower echelons of fashion magazines (Condi Nast, Hearst and Fairchild represent the top three servers that log on to Hint), but the fashion press is a small pond, and one that Widdicombe and Silva haven't yet crawled out of. Silva offers another reason for Hint's, and their own, success. That they've "raised the bar" on fashion writers' commitment to journalism.

Cut to a Tuesday night in June. Silva and Widdicombe are on duty. I'm here to see this "commitment" at work. We're at the Globe Restaurant on Park Avenue South where IMG models are throwing a party. The guys recline on a long leather sofa by the window, buttressed behind a table of champagne flutes and a clutch of other gossip columnists from the New York Post and the New York Observer. But no one's much interested in gossip. The dancing 18-year-old models might as well be projected on a screen for all the interaction these people want.

"We're basically out all the time, one of us is," shouts Widdicombe, above the '80s disco.

"You can't manufacture the gossip side of it," yells Silva. "We usually write our column in about half an hour. But we obviously search a lot."

How? They have a hoary line about hanging around the toilets at Condi Nast, or going through Calvin Klein's trash. The vision is very hands-on: I imagine them working parties, cozying up to P.R. people and keeping a network of snitches (stylists, assistants, shoeshines) in their pockets. Not a bit, they admit. They go out, stand at a bar and hope it comes to them. Luckily, gossip has its own momentum. You don't need to give it a push to find it rolling toward you. Even allegations without a leg to stand on find ways to propel themselves.

"It's not getting the gossip, it's getting people to bloody well shut up, that's the problem," says Widdicombe. "People want to talk."

In a timely illustration of the point, a frizzy-haired young lady tumbles into the group. For a moment it's all mwa-mwas and "Darling, how have you beens?" This is Pia. Silva and Widdicombe met her once before, at a party during fashion week. They have stayed in touch by e-mail.

"Did you use the story I sent you?" she squeals.

They did.

The boys get a lot of e-mails. Often from mysterious Hotmail accounts. It's a convenient way for a tattletale to hide his or her identity, but it also makes it hard to know that a story is bona fide. Anonymity can often mean ulterior motives. (One self-described "deep throat," had boasted the previous week, "I manipulate [Widdicombe and Silva]. It's totally strategic."

"I do normally try to tread quite carefully," says Silva. "For example, there's something that Ben won't let me run, because it's unsubstantiated: A superannuated supermodel allegedly selling her butt for $100K a night."

Widdicombe cuts in: "First, there's no way to check. That's one reason. Second, it just doesn't ring true. My spider sense tells me it's not true. [The model] was recently part of a charity auction in Cannes, offering to do some public act that would amuse the crowd. To me, knowing how people think, and how gossip works, I can just see that fact morphing into this item."

Well, they must have found the proof, for this blind item ran the following week: "Which celebrity supermodel is rumored to have worked through her fortune and is discreetly letting it be known in the circles of Europe's super rich that she can be, ahem, accompanied for $100,000 an evening?"

And what of times when such investigative journalism runs dry?

"We have no problem summarizing what the Daily Mirror has run," notes Widdicombe, whose role it is to scour news sources on the Internet and abroad. But, "We always add our own joke. We never just run what they run."

Raising the bar? Well, it's not Watergate. It's not even Fashiongate. Even Amy Spindler admits, "The column is as much about angles and spin as news. They can take the same item everyone has, and just give it that Lampoon line that makes it snide enough to call a scoop."

Consider Silva and Widdicombe as intrepid balloonists. Their M.O.: Stitch a life-size silk replica of any ego in the fashion world and get bitchy hairdressers to talk into it for an hour. Presto! It's an air balloon carrying our duo skyward. (Look! They're waving at us!) Exactly how high do the guys hope to soar?

Says Silva: "It's no secret that we've auditioned for E! and Style and that we're interested in expanding the brand" to accommodate areas like Hollywood, movie culture, sports. "I guess we could have fun with pretty much any industry."

During New York fashion week in February they had a slot on "Full Frontal Fashion," delivering snarky comments about unsuspecting victims. It was not a happy experience. ("We had no fucking idea whether to look at the camera," admits Widdicombe). No one at the Metro channel wished to comment. They weren't invited back. Still, in June, Silva appeared on a new cable TV show "Big Spenders," discussing another type of celebrity: Lil' Kim, Courtney Love and Madonna. And the day after the IMG party, the two of them are filming a slot for a BBC retrospective on the fashion spoof comedy "Absolutely Fabulous."

"We're becoming known as loudmouths on tap. TV wants a little 20-second grab, and we can deliver that," says Silva.

But whether they can continue to deliver their brand of anti-industry dish on television as they have on the Net remains to be seen. There'll be a small army of executives and lawyers climbing into their hot-air balloon. If they are expecting the same sort of hegemony that they have enjoyed at Hint, Silva isn't saying: "It will be interesting to see if we do fall prey to the same Graydon Carter syndrome. Going from biting the hand that feeds, to kissing the ring finger."

It's getting late. Silva drains a final complimentary champagne and looks around. The Globe Restaurant is almost totally empty. The models have left, the gossip columnists have left, even Widdicombe has slipped off with a friend. Silva doesn't want to go home. Luckily, he knows of a birthday party for the model May Andersen at Suite 16. It's a short cab ride. Of course, he can go right in, but oddly, Silva spends some time outside the 8th Avenue nightclub, using his sway to get less connected strangers through the door. Maybe the laborer's son still knows what it's like to stand on the wrong side of the velvet rope. Maybe he just has a lot of karma to burn off.

Roman Milisic

Roman Milisic, an artist and freelance writer, has written for Brill's Content and the New York Observer. He is the author of "The Beatles in Germany."

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