“You instill a lot of mixed emotions in people,” says Michael Musto, New York’s downtown gossip virtuoso. “Sometimes, when I walk into a room, I can smell the fear in people’s eyes and it feels kind of wonderful. But then you also get the manic displays of public ass-kissing, which are delightful as well. I don’t have to say a word—I just stand there and watch people try to decide whether to run away or run toward.”
The life of a muckraking gossip columnist is buckets of fun. So much fun that Musto, the silver-tongued author of the Village Voice’s version of a society column, “La Dolce Musto,” has been doing it for 25 years and counting. His new book, Fork on the Left, Knife in the Back, reflects on a quarter century of dishing on everyone from Hollywood’s A-listers to the Lower East Side celebrity hipsterati. It’s an anecdote treasure trove. Musto delves into his brushes with porn tycoons, actors, singers, and hangers-on in a high-speed mashup of high and low culture. He’s celebrating his 25th year at a private party on March 2, hosted by Joan Rivers.
“I’m actually hoping Palin does get elected president. She’ll step down after two weeks when she gets a better paying offer.”
In person, Musto is an unassuming, slightly nerdy figure. Endowed with a gentle demeanour, he is almost always clutching a small notebook, which he scribbles on intermittently. When you attend an event with him, you know he’s on to something when he stares intently at a scene unfolding, raises a knowing eyebrow, then scrawls another line on his pad. It’s a pretty clear indication that moment will be generated into something scathing in his column or blog.
Musto says the best part about being a gossip columnist comes with the strange conundrum he represents to celebrities: Will he bring good publicity or stir up bad sentiment? “You get to live an enchanted lifestyle full of cultural events, over-the-top people and wild bashes, then go home and write whatever you want about it. I can’t recommend it highly enough!”
But there are tough days, too, hard slogs where epic scandals translate into something resembling manual labor for a hardworking rumor-monger. “My busiest day happened in that very dark part of 2007 when Britney Spears broke down and shaved her head. Somehow the mass media deemed this the biggest news event since World War II, and for the sake of the huge exposure, I went right along with it, saying yes to every possible chance to stick my face—and hair—in front of a camera. My entire day was spent being breathlessly interviewed on every imaginable news program, making me a sort of one-man Woodward & Bernstein of this explosive, hair-related scandal. Nothing since has come close—not even Paris Hilton losing her Chihuahua. Once Britney’s hair grew back, I felt like my career was pretty much over.”
Musto’s favorite scandal is one that, despite its age, just seems to keep on giving. “The formation of Brangelina at the expense of poor little Jennifer Aniston keeps on rolling. It was five years ago, and the tabloids are still making hay out of this, as if it just happened yesterday. ‘Jennifer’s upset… Brad’s leaving… Angelina’s mad… Jennifer’s happy.’ And so on, until Liz-Eddie-Debbie becomes an even more obscure footnote in Carrie Fisher’s one-woman show. People are so reliant on these three for drama that a recent rumor in a British rag that Brangelina was breaking up set the entire planet upside down. We need this couple! Once I got over the initial loss of Angelina as a wild child with vials of blood and accepted her as the sexpot version of Mother Teresa, Brangelina totally delivered the gossip goods for me.”
As Musto notes in the book, our celebrity-drenched media and insta-response online universe has made Andy Warhol’s “15 minutes of fame” theory sound almost quaint. Today, it’s more like 15 nanoseconds of fame. “I would be hard-pressed to name the most salacious scandal of the past year. It was Rihanna… no, Letterman… no, Tiger Woods… no, Charlie Sheen. It was all of them and none of them. The glory of gossip these days is that there are so many celebrities and such quick-access media that the scandal stories blow up huge and all-encompassing, then are replaced by the next one three days later. I just feel for Ashton Kutcher who had to spend the whole year tweeting, ‘We lost a little ray of sunshine’ over and over again.”
Musto pauses. “But if I really had to choose the biggest scandal of last year, it was Carrie Prejean holding up the Bible with one hand and fingering herself with the other. Her blatant hypocrisy helped the gay cause more than any politician ever could. Thanks, Carrie! I’ll invite you to my wedding.”
He’s so quick with the barbs, I’m starting to get dizzy. Thankfully, we’re sitting down, so I decide to play a game with him. I yell out the name of a celebrity, and he says whatever comes to his mind, on the spot. Now I am thunderstruck by Musto’s instincts. Whenever I blurt out a name, I feel like a doctor who’s just tapped a patient on the knee with a small metal hammer. Witness this improv performance:
Tiger Woods “I’m clearly the only person on earth he hasn’t had a hole in one with, but I’m OK with that. It makes me special! And I have to say a word in his defense: While the man’s clearly the most raving sex addict since Clinton, I didn’t realize that’s against the law. It’s only gross because he humiliated his wife so publicly and also built up an image that was clearly constructed of smoke and mirrors.”
Sarah Palin “I’m actually hoping she does get elected president. She’ll step down after two weeks when she gets a better paying offer.”
O.J. Simpson “He is a really charming, personable man who just happened to have cut two people’s heads off. I am so sick of this culture of blame where we have to pick apart everyone instead of just accepting them and their occasional foibles.”
Bill Clinton “I blew him under the table, but like an idiot I didn’t keep the dress!”
Cher “She finally got what she wanted: Her lesbian daughter is now her straight son.”
John Edwards “A hypocritical politician who’s led by his penis—even a Democrat—isn’t all that shocking a sight anymore. What is surprising about the whole story is the realization that a cancer-suffering wife, who’s been flagrantly cheated on by her slimy, love child-creating husband, can still come off more c-word than victim!”
It’s an exhausting game, but Musto seems more invigorated than ever. One final question, as our conversation comes to a close—one that seems to almost offend Musto. Have there ever been any stories that were so extremely nasty that he backed away from them?
“Are you crazy? Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to? Though come to think of it, when Paris Hilton started sleeping with her pet pig, I did let them work that out in private.”
Matthew Hays is a Montreal-based journalist and the author of The View From Here: Conversations with Gay and Lesbian Filmmakers (Arsenal Pulp Press). He teaches courses in film studies and journalism at Concordia University.