They’re Just Like Us

How did gossip become like Yelp reviews for celebrities?

Full-text audio version of this essay.

Is Bradley Cooper nice? According to one woman who DMed the Instagram gossip account Deuxmoi, the 46-year-old actor is, thrillingly, “super nice.” The woman ran into Cooper and his realtor in the elevator of her Tribeca building over the holidays (“I was wearing an ugly holiday sweater and fucking reindeer ears like an idiot,” she injects). She informed him that there were too many 22-to-25-year-olds living there for him to like it. He thanked her for the advice and, upon exiting the elevator, generously let her take a selfie. The DM was one of many screenshotted and shared to Deuxmoi’s Instagram Stories in early March, available to its then-almost 800,000 followers. Another report, submitted later via Deuxmoi’s online form, corroborated the character assessment: “Can confirm Bradley Cooper is a gem.”

Deuxmoi — or “the Internet’s Best Gossip,” according to Elle — is a private Instagram account that traffics in first and secondhand celebrity stories, crowdsourced from its audience. According to the account’s admin, an anonymous New York City resident, each day Deuxmoi receives roughly 300 to 500 tips; after winnowing out submissions from bots or obviously fake accounts, she then reposts them, with the informant redacted, on her story. Most of Deuxmoi’s intel is fairly prosaic: its admin claims to favor “stupid stuff: a celebrity’s coffee order” over more profane, headline-grabbing revelations. Unlike the gossip commentators of yore, she doesn’t seem to spend time fraternizing around the powerful and famous; nor does she send ravenous paparazzi to the lawns of celebrity mansions. Instead, she spectates from her couch, consuming and resharing hearsay. “What goes on with the account is super fucking interesting, but I’m not,” she told Elle. “I’m just managing it.”

Each age brings a new format for speculating about celebrities. In recent years, the brand of aughts-era nastiness has seemed positively retrograde

In a 1998 speech to the National Press Club, the “citizen journalist” and avid gossip Matt Drudge — who’d effectively broke the Clinton-Lewinsky affair on his website, the Drudge Report, before any legacy outlet — proclaimed that because of the internet, the world had entered an era “vibrating with the din of small voices.” Deuxmoi is part of a social media-driven ecosystem of celebrity monitoring that loosely includes YouTube drama commentators, Instagram “shade rooms,” and Pop Crave-style Twitter accounts. Most of these are run by amateurs, ordinary people who’ve expanded their pop cultural obsessions into serious enterprises. By spotlighting stories from dozens of submitters daily, Deuxmoi seems to most directly embody Drudge’s prophecy that we might reach a future with “300,000 million reporters.” But the account presents itself less seriously than that: its administrator sees herself as forum moderator, not a journalist, one who oversees the casual dissemination of “RUMORS & CONJECTURE, NOT FACTS.”

As several have noted, the account fulfills a basic desire for entertainment, drawing its audience out of their boring pandemic existence. At the same time, it avoids the viciousness that has often plagued mainstream gossip — the fat-shaming and stalking, the ruthless pursuit of anything that will yield clicks. The exploitation of celebrity suffering has become an especially grave concern following the release of the Hulu documentary Framing Britney Spears, which exposed how the pop star’s mental health crisis was exacerbated by a ruthless, punishing press. To keep things lighthearted, Deuxmoi’s admin will make omissions: “If something’s too sad to read about that person, I won’t post at all,” she says, citing family conflict or substance abuse as examples. The account maintains the chatty informality of a group chat, one interested in subjects as harmless as Bruce Springsteen’s soft hands. It seems to embody a more progressive, sensitive means of treating celebrities, and, to quote Vox’s Rebecca Jennings, raises an interesting question: “Can gossip be good”?

Each age brings a new format for speculating about celebrity affairs. In the early 20th century — the dawn of Hollywood’s Golden Age — movie-goers became curious about the faces they saw reappearing in black-and-white films. Studios had kept their actors anonymous, worried that talent could leverage their fame to demand higher salaries. But fans still wrote to inquire about the elusive identity of stars like the “Biograph Girl,” aka Florence Lawrence, the “first movie star” and leading lady of dozens of Biograph Company films. Fan magazines like Photoplay and Motion Picture Story fed this early fascination, printing glamorous studio photos of stars as well as more intimate, “off-duty” snapshots. Their profiles and biographies clued readers in to stars’ personal lives, but kept the narratives clean: as the media critic and celebrity scholar Anne Helen Petersen summarized, “What their filmic appearances, studios, and magazine stories said they were, they were: moral, American, hardworking.”

In the 1950s, on a mission to “[tell] the facts and [name] the names,” the scandal magazine Confidential pioneered a racier, more antagonistic style of celebrity reportage. Unleashing a “reign of terror,” its publisher, Robert Harrison, paid a network of informants — prostitutes, struggling actors, private detectives — for tantalizing stories about stars’ drug abuse, extramarital affairs, and nude parties. Whereas prior fan magazines and gossip columns conspired with the studio machine, maintaining the illusion of virtue, Confidential opted to ridicule and expose Hollywood for its debauchery. Frank Sinatra threatened to sue after Confidential ran a report that said an “unbelieving babe could plainly hear the crunch, crunch, crunch” of him eating Wheaties cereal to sustain his virility during sex. More troublingly, the tabloid also outed stars for interracial relationships and homosexuality. The heads of six major studios assembled to discuss how to put Confidential out of business. Ultimately, put on trial by California’s attorney general under obscenity and libel charges, the tabloid was forced to announce that it would “eliminate exposé stories on the private lives of celebrities.” Nonetheless, Confidential spawned dozens of imitators and forever changed the celebrity-press dynamic.

Over the decades, gossip has found new ways to justify its own existence, to present itself as more dignified and legitimate than it has been perceived. In the 1970s, it shed some of its shameful reputation by rebranding itself as “personality journalism,” catering to those fatigued by serious political news — student protests, the Vietnam War, Watergate — and focusing on “people, not issues.” To appear classier, People Magazine used posed close-ups of notable personalities instead of paparazzi shots for its cover; its content was airy and digestible, but as a Time, Inc. property, it employed a robust fact-checking team. The National Enquirer, a tabloid that once peddled in gruesome crime stories, phased out gore for stirring celebrity and human-interest narratives. It was put in the running for a Pulitzer for its coverage of the John Edwards affair in 2007 and 2008, one of many instances in which a tabloid has broken a national sex scandal.

When Deuxmoi issues judgements, the emphasis is less on a celebrity’s clothing or appearance than their treatment of others, with community reviews testifying

With the advent of the internet and other new media forms, scandal has become less of a prerequisite for coverage; round-the-clock surveillance, enabled by smartphones and social media prioritizes quantity and speed of publishing. A paparazzi gold rush arrived in the early 2000s, after Us Weekly introduced a front-of-book feature called “Stars: They’re Just Like Us,” rocketing demand for unauthorized photos of celebrities pumping gas and doing other mundane things. By 2005, Us was receiving 45,000 to 50,000 images every week. Britney Spears was one of the paparazzi’s most lucrative targets: The houndlike agency X17 estimated that it had made $3 million, or 25 percent of its gross revenues, from the sale of Britney Spears-related images in 2007, the year of her public breakdown.

Outlets like TMZ fed the demand for banal updates, posting footage of celebrities backing up cars or walking out of buildings. The New York media blog Gawker extended the “fascinated ill-will” of tabloids to almost anyone with even a modicum of fame. One gossip personality who’s been called to apologize for his behavior in the aughts is blogger Perez Hilton, who was famous for catty, middle school bully-style commentary. He took paparazzi photos scribbled over them with his own snarky thoughts; he outed celebrities and tweeted upskirt photos of a minor. After the death of actor Heath Ledger in 2008, he sold T-shirts with the message, “Why couldn’t it have been Britney?”

In recent years, this brand of nastiness has seemed positively retrograde: Last December, Hilton was banned from TikTok, where he had sought to engage a younger audience. Fans of a then-15-year-old Charli D’Amelio had mass-reported his account after he criticized her for dancing in a bikini; a Change.org petition lobbying for his ban accumulated over 200,000 signees. “Perez is a middle-aged man and earns a living by attacking young kids for just having fun,” it read. To his young critics, Hilton is unnecessarily and pathetically negative, not to mention creepy. For those repelled by his brand of gossip, Deuxmoi seems like a more socially conscious alternative. It rejects the mean-spiritedness and reactionary moral code characteristic of so many outlets in the past. “We cannot repost emails or DMs that are a barrage of unflattering remarks,” its admin reminded her followers in February.

When Deuxmoi issues — or, more often, implies — judgements, the emphasis is less on a celebrity’s clothing or appearance than their treatment of others: restaurant workers, set assistants, former sexual partners. Populist in spirit, the account functions sometimes like Yelp for celebrities, with community reviews testifying, for example, that James Cordon is a monstrous boss. At times, it feels like a less caustic descendent of “Your Fave is Problematic,” a highly influential Tumblr that logged celebrity offenses ranging from cultural appropriation to gay stereotyping in the 2010s. The blog’s brand of social justice politics has reverberated to gossip channels writ large: drama commentators might preach “accountability,” calling celebrities out for prior racism or partying during the pandemic; TikTok Room will poll its followers on which influencer is the most “unproblematic.” Deuxmoi may reveal whether a celebrity is a bad tipper or anti-masker. In between regular celebrity fluff, it boosts social causes, like a fundraiser to help trans youth secure housing or dog rescue campaigns.

Fundamentally though, these choices do not alter how we gossip but makes existing forms of gossip more palatable. The account, as Hunter Harris wrote recently in Vice, is essentially another version of Gawker Stalker, a report of celebrity sightings submitted to Gawker by its readers, which were then uploaded onto a map starting in 2006. In a famous interview segment, Jimmy Kimmel condemned  it on Larry King Live, arguing that it endangered celebrities and spread false information. As cautionary measures, Deuxmoi delays sharing location photos, and of course, encourages its readers to consume information at their own risk. (Notably, Gawker editor Emily Gould offered a similar defense of the map on Larry King.)  The account is constantly pulled between those who want more hard-hitting revelations and ones who are cautious of celebrity boundaries. In February, one Deuxmoi reader complained about being “bored of nice gossip,” challenging the idea that celebrities who let you take selfies are inherently “sweet.” In reply, another Deuxmoi reader issued a reminder that celebrities are “humans undergoing constant violation and their responses to that violation will not be indicative of their moral standings as individuals.”

In 2008, the Wall Street Journal reported that agencies were snapping up celebrity photos from ordinary fans; X17 even hired homeless people as paparazzi. Deuxmoi’s admin estimates that a majority of her audience believes approaching stars for photos is an invasion of their privacy—and yet, thanks to the development of the smartphone, she technically has thousands of untrained photographers at her  disposal, ready to sight J.Lo at brunch. To mollify critics, she’s devised a half-hearted compromise: If a source sneakily snaps a photo while Rooney Mara is at dinner, for example, she may offer a “trigger warning.” The objections of Deuxmoi’s followers are not always heeded fully, but they are given an airing, creating the feeling of transparency. The caveats and disclaimers may make readers feel better, but at the end of the day, gossip is still gossip — it’s never entirely guilt-free.

Cat Zhang is a writer based in Brooklyn. She is on staff at Pitchfork, where she writes a column dissecting the musical trends of TikTok.