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This was published 4 months ago
Ben Widdicombe, the gay Australian journalist who over the past two decades has carved out a niche as one of New York’s most famous gossip columnists, is quick to pass on the Big Apple’s assessment of our most famous media export.
“It’s the impression that Rupert Murdoch picks the prime minister, and that would-be prime ministers need to genuflect to him, which is absolutely terrifying,” says Widdicombe.
Australian born New York columnist, Ben Widdicombe, says gossip culture informs popular culture
No doubt former prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull, who are busily campaigning for an inquiry into Murdoch’s News Corp, would be in furious agreement. But they’d be sure to clash with Widdicombe’s view about the importance of celebrity gossip in the 21st century.
“Gossip culture informs popular culture,” he says. “Popular culture informs mainstream culture, and in a democracy mainstream culture decides political outcomes.”
Given gossip columns lit the touchpaper that eventually helped to propel Donald Trump to the US presidency, he has a point. “The evil power that a politician like Donald Trump has is that he harnesses people’s absolute worst impulses. And I wish that I could say that Australians are immune to that. But I think unfortunately the wrong guy at the right time can harness that.”
After working for the New York Post, Daily News, TMZ and The New York Times, Widdicombe has been thinking about the impact of celebrity culture on all of us.
“Donald was particularly good at harnessing the power of media and celebrity to get much further than anyone ever imagined he could, but certainly there are proto fascists all over the world … cribbing notes about how it’s done.”
To expound on his ideas, Widdicombe has written a book Gatecrasher: How I Helped the Rich Become Famous and Ruin the World and is reflecting on his career at Silver Pride, a global LGBT+ festival which starts online this Friday (July 30).
Widdicombe sports a preppy look and is intellectually curious, and speaks in an accent you can’t quite place, a legacy of his Australian upbringing. Born in Melbourne in 1970, he grew up a closeted gay in conservative Queensland, where homosexuality was illegal until 1990. “I think being gay was complete gift. I think it helps you understand how to read a room, and to pick up on cues and makes you much more observational.”
A picture of Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian in The Herald gave Widdicombe a news break.Credit:Adam McLean
The journalist puts his hand up to playing a direct role in the rise of the Kardashian family to billionaire status, thanks to a silly season article in The Sydney Morning Herald.
During the 2006 Christmas week Widdicombe was working on the Gatecrasher column on the Daily News and spotted a photograph on the Herald website about Hilton frolicking on Bondi Beach, along with her then-unknown assistant and best friend Kim Kardashian.
“There’s no media, there’s only public interest, and we’re servicing that. It was the audience demanding it.”
Widdicombe made a note to keep an eye on Kardashian. Months later he was offered a story about a sex tape of R&B singer Ray J frolicking with Kardashian. Remembering the Herald article and sensing her star quality, he published. “I was the first newspaper columnist to really write about Kim Kardashian.”
The fallout marked an important change. Kardashian profited from the sex tape by refusing to be shamed by it, just like her friend and mentor Paris Hilton when confronted by a similar scandal a few years earlier.
“And that was the paradigm shift,” says Widdicombe. He says Hilton’s reshaping of the celebrity economy via such media management and then reality television influenced Kardashian and made Hilton the most culturally significant figure of the 21st century. “I do think that Paris is the first modern mogul of the attention economy.”
The future US president also learnt from Hilton.
“She has an interesting symbiotic relationship with Donald Trump. I think they honestly built on each other. Their families are friends, they have known each other Paris’s entire life. The two of them synthesise the kind of ridiculous attention grabbing techniques that people turn up their nose up at, but you know what, they’re really effective.”
Widdicombe arrived in New York in 1998 and started the fashion and gossip blog Chic Happens which rode the early blogging wave. Nowadays Chic Happens would be on TikTok or Instagram. “Young people are very adaptive and much closer to the newness of the culture. So, I think kids will always work out how to do it.”
After some “complete luck and maybe some hard work” Chic Happens became his entry to the New York Post Page Six column, and rival Daily News, TMZ and eventually The New York Times.
Last year he gave up gossip one month before COVID shut down the nightlife and became editor in chief of Avenue magazine, a Upper East Side society glossy for billionaires, which he is already nudging towards the zeitgeist, commissioning features on trans socialites and Black Lives Matter.
But he is clear in his defence of the media’s obsession with celebrity. “There’s no media, there’s only public interest, and we’re servicing that. It was the audience demanding it.”
Gatecrasher by Ben Widdicombe is out now. For free tickets to Silver Pride (July 30 – August 1), go to silverprideuk.com
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