Now more than ever

Amy Reiter contemplates the fate of gossip in the wake of Sept. 11.

By Amy Reiter

Published September 11, 2002 7:04PM (EDT)

One year ago today gossip was the last thing on our minds.

Though just the day before we'd been joyously mocking Angelina, Billy Bob, Gwyneth and the rest, on Sept. 11 our collective obsession with the minutiae of celebrity lives evaporated in an instant, replaced by a deep concern for the lives of people we may never have heard of if not for the terrible events of that morning.

At the time, it seemed easy to believe we would never again take delighted interest in the latest actress to appraise her own anatomy or that randy rock star's sexual escapades. At a time like that, who cared?

Certainly not the gossip columnists, who stopped in their dirt-digging tracks and dedicated themselves to reporting heartwarming tales of celebrities helping the common man. (I myself dropped everything and hurried down to my local New York firehouse to report on these newly minted heroes.) Or the TV programmers, who eschewed their normal celeb-packed fare for 24-hour ground zero coverage. Or -- it appeared -- the public, too shocked and saddened to find humor in the foibles of the famous.

"It's not possible to write about canoodling supermodels or dyspeptic pop divas when terrorists are killing our friends and relatives and scaring our children," New York Post Page Six scribe Richard Johnson told the Los Angeles Times in the days immediately following 9/11.

"Sept. 11," Johnson declared, "is the day gossip died."

As it turned out, gossip wasn't dead; it was just resting.

Within a week, a rumor circulated about Whitney Houston having an eating disorder. Her flack quickly quelled the story, but the mere fact that people had begun to e-mail me (as I'm sure they did other purveyors of celebrity juice), begging for more info indicated that, mourning or no, our appetite for tasty trivialities was returning.

A few days after 9/11, I asked readers to tell me if they thought they'd ever care about gossip again. Nearly 1,000 e-mails flooded my in box. The few readers who thought that dishing about celebrities was finished were far outnumbered by those who insisted that gossip -- and laughter -- had the power to heal.

And heal it has.

For better or worse, gossip has always brought us a sense of community. Long before satellite TV and worldwide blockbuster films brought us global celebrities, two neighbors exchanging news across a fence helped define where a person stood in relation to his or her neighbors, how that person fit into the community.

In some sense, as our worlds have gotten bigger and flabbier, we have come to find community in other ways. Celebrity gossip has picked up where picket-fence chatter left off. We dish about Tom Cruise and Drew Barrymore at the grocery store and we find a common language with neighbors we may barely know. We measure our lives against the lives of these famous folk and find that -- whopping paychecks and staggering fame notwithstanding -- we're really not all that different from them. We're doing OK.

Never did we need the reassurance of gossip -- the normalcy and the community -- more than we did this year. As we read about which stars refused to fly, which worried about their kids, which expressed renewed commitment to their city or our country, we found them echoing our own responses.

And as they moved on and began to babble the inanities we'd come to expect of many of them, we found that we, too, were able to begin to move on, and to heal.

So thanks, Justin and Britney, Pamela, Kid and Tommy. We could have done it without you, but, really, it just wouldn't have been as much fun.

Amy Reiter

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