Interview: Elaine “Lainey Gossip” Lui on turning a passion into a job

“I'm not against following dreams. But you have to figure out the right dream to follow”

Elaine Lui, founder of Lainey Gossip

“Dream big, with an asterisk.” Elaine Lui turned her love of gossip into a full-time gig. (CTV; photo illustration by Gerrit de Jonge)

For CTV entertainment host and blogger Elaine Lui—A.K.A. Lainey Gossip—the Oscars are the Super Bowl of scuttlebutt. Here’s how she turned her personal love of backchannel chatter into a booming business.

So many of us dream of turning our hobbies into full-time jobs. Any advice from someone who actually pulled it off?

The advice I always give to people is to be prepared to work hard at something for a long time without the promise of making any money. When I started laineygossip.com, I was working full time and then coming home and putting in another eight hours on the blog. Nobody was paying me, and I didn’t have any expectations. We hear these stories about someone working on an app for three months and then selling it to Facebook for millions, and we wind up with a skewed version of the timeline to success.

So hard work and realistic expectations are better than some flighty notion of following a dream?

It’s not that I’m against following dreams; it’s more that you have to figure out the right dream to follow. I have always dreamed of being a professional backup dancer—ever since I was little and even to this day. But the thing is, it was never going to happen. I don’t have that kind of talent. Maybe the secret is to dream big, but dream with an asterisk.

Lainey Gossip has grown into an empire, with TV shows (CTV’s The Social and eTalk), a book, a column in Flare and sponsorship deals. How do you know which opportunities to accept?

It’s not too complicated. The website has a certain feel and personality to it, and in terms of partnerships, we try to work with brands that have a similarity. Vitaminwater, for example, is a startup that’s popular with a certain demographic; it’s a fun brand that lots of celebrities enjoy—it’s a good fit. It’s not like I’m an artist who is worried about “selling out.” I don’t make any pretenses about the fact that I’m running a business. At the same time, I don’t want my readers to come to my site and see a brand that is totally out of sync and have that affect my credibility. I’m never going to align myself with Paris Hilton or the Church of Scientology.

Your site draws something like a million readers a month, and the repeat traffic numbers are ridiculous. What have you learned about engendering audience loyalty?

This is not a very sexy answer, but I think what audiences appreciate, whether they realize it or not, is consistency. Readers of Lainey Gossip know they can expect new content several times a day, five days a week. Since I started the blog 10 years ago, there have been only a handful of days where I haven’t been able to keep up my end of the bargain—because I was having surgery or something like that. I work on vacations. My husband and I were recently in the Dominican for a week celebrating our wedding anniversary, and the laptop came with me. I think of the blog as being no different from a coffee shop. If a customer shows up one day and you’re closed, that has a negative effect.

Do you think your readers notice that consistency outright?

I don’t know that it’s something a reader would really think about, but it’s part of a larger relationship. Earlier this year we had huge traffic for the Golden Globes—it was crazy. Seeing those numbers is great and the kind of success you remember, but it’s the consistency on the days that aren’t such a big deal that builds your audience to the level that they crash your site after an awards show.

Speaking of awards season, you’re working the Oscars red carpet again this year for eTalk. What is the hot gossip story you’ll be watching for?

Well, Jennifer Aniston is presenting, and many thought she was going to get a nomination, but she was snubbed. The fact she’s being so gracious suggests she’s trying to build goodwill with the academy for a future nomination.

Almost like a politician losing the primaries but planning to come back in the next election.

Right. Some people admire that, and some people say, Would you just give it up already?

In 2013, you gave a TED Talk in Vancouver on the social value of gossip and also the attached stigma. Why do people want to hate on your stock-in-trade?

There are so many reasons. The old expression, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say it,” is really ingrained in our culture. Why is that true? There has been academic research that speaks to the value of gossip in our society. Harvard Business School has a course that studies Beyoncé’s career. I’m not delusional, but I do believe there is a lot we can learn about the society we live in by looking at what we gossip about.

Can you think of an example of gossip having a positive impact?

The Sony leaks scandal is a great example. There was so much that came out as a result of those leaks, but the thing people really focused on was the gossip. Everyone talked about how Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence weren’t paid as much as their male co-stars [in the movie American Hustle] and also how Angelina Jolie was called a “minimally talented spoiled brat” by producer Scott Rudin. Why did he call her that? Because she wanted to make the movie she wanted to make, and she was using whatever resources she had to make it happen. I’m pretty sure there isn’t a woman in the business world who can’t relate to that double standard.

Speaking of Angelina, you did a one-on-one sit-down with her last year. What adjective would you use to describe that experience?

This is super corny, but I’m going to say it anyway: It was heavenly. In my work I always try to maintain my distance, but this is a woman who makes you feel totally transported. She makes you feel like you have all of her attention, which means you’re special. I made her laugh twice during that interview, and I feel like that was the greatest achievement of my professional career. I wrote a book last year, but that was the highlight.

Elaine Lui joins the cast of CTV’s eTalk on the red carpet for their annual Oscar night broadcast on February 22. To read her new monthly column in Flare, download the magazine on iTunes or subscribe in NextIssue.

Watch Elaine Lui’s TEDx Talk: