“My man, can we get an escort? I got VIPs,” Big Penny tells the cops in the lanenext to us on Broad Street. Seconds later, his white stretch limo is speeding through South Philly directly behind a police cruiser whose red and blue lights are flashing as though it’s chasing a suspect.
It’s just like in the Led Zeppelin movie The Song Remains the Same, where the band is being ushered down the highway toward a concert at Madison Square Garden. Only this isn’t the biggest rock group in the world getting the star treatment. It’s Mary Carey, porn actress turned reality TV star, who’s late for an evening appearance at Chickie’s & Pete’s. She’s coming for the weigh-ins for Wing Bowl.
Riding with her are the owner of the Center City strip joint where Mary’s dancing over Wing Bowl weekend (Mary is nothing if not a multi-tasker), and a few other dancers. And me. When you’re the gossip columnist for the Daily News, you end up doing this stuff—accompanying a porn star to a Wing Bowl event like you’re a White House reporter flying on Air Force One.
Chickie’s & Pete’s is multi-hour mayhem, and I’m tired by the time I say my goodbyes and head out to find a cab; I’ve got to be up at 4 a.m. to get back to the Wells Fargo Center for the actual event. On my way out, I see my friend Rori from high school, who introduces me to her husband. They’re waiting for a table, unsure what all the commotion is. As I explain with utmost authority about the Wing Bowl weigh-in, a realization sweeps over me: My job is ridiculous.
I have always been interested in celebrities. I grew up reading my mom’s People magazines; in high school, a friend and I published a punk fanzine called Scenester! I got my picture taken with singer Brandy at my prom. (She was the date of my classmate, one Kobe Bryant.) In college, I published a magazine called Deal With It and profiled Todd Bridges of Diff’rent Strokes; I tried to interview Anthony Michael Hall of Breakfast Club fame, but he demanded to be paid and we ended up arguing over it. I ran the transcript of him being a dick instead. My first gotcha.
I started working at the Daily News when I was 20 and still studying at Temple. My first job was as an editorial assistant, doing mostly administrative work. A year or so later, I persuaded the features editor to let me write about entertainment and events.
I got my big break working as Stu Bykofsky’s assistant. Stu wrote the gossip column and was a local legend. With his six-foot-three frame, loud Hawaiian shirts and big glasses, Stu’s physical presence could be felt almost as much as his dominance at the paper. Stu’s column was a must-read for everybody who perused the Daily News; it was Philly’s version of the New York Post’s Page Six. With one small difference. Instead of chronicling the foibles of the titans of entertainment, style, politics and business, Stu covered, well, Philly. I worked 10 hours a week helping Stu uncover the comings, goings and secrets of Philly’s movers and shakers.
In early 2003, he asked me if I wanted to take over the column. After 17 years, he was ready to move on to a general-interest column, so he started bringing me out to events and parties and introducing me to influential people around town: attorneys, politicians, restaurant owners. I remember meeting Vince Fumo at an HBO party at Buddakan. Not wanting to play the part of Stu’s puppy, I introduced myself. I’m not sure he even made eye contact; he said something like “Okay,” then walked off. Drunk on red wine, I told Cynthia Nixon she was the hottest one on Sex and the City. Mercifully, she took it well.
My first solo column appeared on February 10, 2004. With a mistake, of course. Somehow, the first line, in an item about Eagles wide receiver Freddie Mitchell’s car getting dented during a fight while he was inside a West Philly bar, got printed twice. It was a sign.
It took no time at all for me to get my first threat from Dick Sprague, a legal legend in Philly for suing media outlets who were going after him or his clients. My first or second week on the job, I reached out to Stephen Starr and his then-wife about a rumor they were divorcing; some 18 hours later, I got a messengered letter from Sprague about the couple’s privacy, children, etc. The item never ran.
Now, you might be thinking: Who cares if Stephen Starr gets divorced? You’re full of shit. Tell me you don’t know who he is, and that you don’t eat at his restaurants or don’t want to. Because you do, you do, and you want to. It is precisely these facts that allowed me to spend years penning a gossip column about people no one farther away than Bucks County had ever heard of.
A year later, Starr’s second wife, January Bartle, hid from me in the back room of her
Old City boutique so I wouldn’t be able to see that she was pregnant. Which was pointless. Because I already knew.
By then, I knew how to do gossip in Philly.
Early on, I broke my mental pledge to cover TV news people less frequently than Stu had.
In a town without real celebrities, we create our own. Nowhere is this truer than when we trump up our local TV news personalities, going all the way back to the days of Jessica Savitch. Just wait for a meteorologist or news anchor to not wear a wedding ring during a newscast (as Fox 29’s Kerri-Lee Halkett once did), or appear to have gotten breast implants, and see how many viewers start emailing you that you simply must uncover the truth.
It didn’t take long for me to make peace with obsessively chronicling these people, because not only was there interest; they provided lots of great material. There were divorces (Halkett, NBC 10’s Glenn “Hurricane” Schwartz), broken engagements (6 ABC’s Monica Malpass), a jilted lover happy to talk trash (NBC 10’s Jamison Uhler’s paramour), the weatherman with the intern (Fox 29’s Rob Guarino). … You name it, I covered it.
Let’s get one thing straight: I don’t have, nor have I ever seen, the famed Alycia Lane bikini pictures. So please stop asking me for them. (I do, however, have a picture on my phone of a naked
Terrell Owens holding his junk, which I must always remember when scrolling through pics to show someone my daughter.) But the truth is that the became one of the stories that defined my nine years writing the Daily News gossip column.
In the spring of 2007, I suspected Mendte had been the New York Post’s source when Page Six broke the explosive story of how the wife of the NFL Network’s Rich Eisen discovered suggestive bikini photos Lane had meant to send to Eisen, but had mistakenly sent to the couple’s shared email address. (Note to couples everywhere: Don’t share an email address.) Eisen’s wife sent a scathing reply to Lane, the Post found out, and all hell broke loose.
Larry and Alycia, the co-anchor darlings of CBS 3’s evening newscasts, always seemed to be getting along one minute, fighting the next. But at the time, Larry never admitted having anything to do with leaking the item.
The situation blew up about six months later, after Lane’s December 2007 arrest for allegedly slapping a female NYPD officer and calling her a “fucking dyke.” The Daily News broke the story of Lane’s arrest, but it wasn’t Mendte who told us; rather, it was a freelancer for the Post.
For the next few months, leading up to Lane’s court appearance on the charge (which was later reduced and ultimately expunged), Mendte and I spoke almost every day. I was surprised by how much he contacted me, how willing he was to share, but it was clear he was to be kept out of the stories. He was a confidential source. Not all of Mendte’s tips made it into print, but each one I looked into was either confirmed elsewhere or at least run by Lane and/or her attorney, the attention-seeking Philadelphia lawyer Paul Rosen, who loved being associated with such a hot story. At Alycia’s criminal trial, she and her criminal attorney were tight-lipped. But Rosen, her civil lawyer, was happy to talk. Alycia Lane filled a lot of space in my column. A few of the stories ended up on the cover of the paper.
What I didn’t know was that Mendte was getting his information by surreptitously reading Lane’s emails, sometimes dozens of times a day.
I remember how I found out. Over Memorial Day weekend, I got a call from A.J. Daulerio, who was then writing for this magazine and would later become editor in chief of the national gossip site Gawker.
“Is this Mendte thing true?” he asked.
“What Mendte thing?” I replied. He told me to check out Philly.com.
When I saw the headline about the feds seizing Mendte’s computers in connection with hacking Lane’s email, I felt a kick in the pit of my stomach. Instantly, I pieced together what had happened.
I was screwed. I anticipated being asked to confirm that Mendte was a source and refusing to do so, but it never came to that. There were dozens of phone calls between Mendte and me; a fact that later came out in court proceedings.
I should point out here that I never discuss sources. It’s the credo of any decent gossip columnist—of any decent journalist. I am only outing Mendte because he’s already outed himself in federal court.
At no point was I contacted by any authorities or accused of any criminal malfeasance. But that didn’t stop Lane and Rosen from lumping me in with a lawsuit she filed against Mendte and CBS 3. I got taken off the story. Lane ended up receiving a confidential settlement from the Daily News; our insurance company felt it would cost less to settle.
Alycia professed to hate stories about her personal life, but like so many of the people I covered, that sentiment didn’t apply when she had happy news to share. A few years earlier, she’d called me during the holidays to tell me she had gotten engaged to the man who would become her second husband. Then she got mad when I reported they’d split.
Now Alycia is a morning anchor for NBC in Los Angeles, a city with real celebrities. In Los Angeles, nobody cares about her romances or where she has dinner. I can’t help but wonder if she misses being a Big Deal—and if that’s why her agent tried to bring her back to work in Philadelphia last year, where out of sheer desperation we made her one.
In an age when everyone not only wants to be famous but feels he or she deserves to be, people were happy to help me dig up the dirt. They tried to get their names into the column. And you have to have go-to folks who have something going on for the days when the most interesting thing happening is Don Tollefson hosting a charity golf event.
Before I took over, Stu introduced me to Harry Jay Katz, a fixture on the nightclub, restaurant and womanizing scene since the ’70s. A former event producer, restaurant owner and newspaper publisher, Katz counts Grace Jones among his conquests. He’s almost always described as a “man about town,” but he’s really just a misunderstood mensch. He’s another one who needs to see his name in print to survive. (Molly Eichel, who took over my gossip column in February, has already run at least two Harry Jay Katz items.) You have to put Harry in the column sometimes just to shut him up. But on the flip side, he knows what makes a good story. You’ve also got to befriend the Geator. Chatty and not exactly lacking for ego, Jerry Blavat knows everybody, from Joe Ligambi to Patti LaBelle.
It takes all kinds to fill column inches.
Nothing fueled me more than trying to scoop Michael Klein, the Inquirer’s version of me. A veteran reporter about 20 years my senior, Klein wrote frequently about restaurants in his “Inqlings” column. He didn’t really do scandal or the salacious. On a good day, I did both. Didn’t really matter how small the item—knowing I got something before he did was a big deal.
The Inquirer had about three times the Daily News’s readership. If I’d been a publicist, I, too, would have wanted to place an item in the Sunday Inquirer rather than Monday’s Daily News. But emotionally, the lost scoops were hard to forgive. I punished sources for giving stories to Klein, for whom I had inherited a dislike and distrust from Stu. During the lawsuit, it came out that Klein obtained a copy of my column in advance of publication and shared it with Alycia Lane, which he later acknowledged doing. After I confronted him, demanding to know how he got my copy (he contended someone at the Daily News leaked it), we essentially stopped speaking.
Balancing relationships with sources was also tricky. As is the stock-in-trade in the world of gossip, the people who would often be the nicest to my face were the ones talking shit behind my back. Still, I always tried to be considerate. A Stu-ism comes to mind: You might have to stick a knife in someone, but you don’t have to twist it. You always hoped a person would realize you could have done worse.
The job just got stranger. In 2006, I learned about a local woman who claimed to have slept with Mel Gibson when the married actor was in town shooting Signs … in 2001. Too old—can’t use that, right? Wrong. There’s always a way to spin an item. Remember Gibson’s anti-Semitic tirade to police after his DUI arrest? I used that as context to report that Gibson once had a very “special relationship” with a local Jewish woman. I couldn’t have predicted what happened next. Another woman called to ask if I was sure about the affair. I said yes. She then launched into a rant about how that lout had told her she was the only one.
“Excuse me?” I said.
“He was sleeping with me, and he said I was the only girl he was seeing here!” she explained.
“Apparently not,” I said.
“I wonder if she took naked pictures of him, too.”
“You have nude photos of Mel Gibson?” I asked.
“Polaroids. He’s standing naked in my kitchen.”
Indeed, she did have Polaroid pics of Mel Gibson holding what I would later refer to in the column as his “not-so-lethal weapon.” Another photo showed him bare-bottomed, reaching into a kitchen cabinet.
We didn’t run them, because the woman wanted money. Then-publisher Brian Tierney later asked me to bring the photos up to his office, where I showed them to him. Tierney, to his credit, seemed upset that the Daily News didn’t buy the photos, apparently realizing, as I did, that the 10 grand the woman asked for was a small investment for the publicity the photos would have garnered. That photo of T.O.? Similar situation, years later. A woman who had been having Skype sex with him sent me a few photos of Owens smiling and holding his johnson. Via email, Owens repeatedly denied knowing what I was talking about. Then he turned silent when I forwarded him the photos. But a reputable newspaper doesn’t pay for scandal photos.
Here’s the best story I never ran, The One That Got Away. This is going to sound too crazy to be true, but over the years, I developed a pretty good instinct for being able to tell when a tipster was genuine.
One day I got an email asking if I would be interested in a video of a local television news personality using cocaine and also holding his own feces while masturbating. I tried to play it cool, as though getting such a video and writing about it wouldn’t be the Biggest Story in the History of Gossip
Reporting in Philly. I replied that I was interested and happy to meet the tipster at his/her choice of venue. It became clear through subsequent exchanges that the source was the ex-girlfriend of the local TV personality. But I never saw the video. My gut tells me she used our email exchange to extort money from the kinky TV guy. I tried contacting her a few times months later, to no avail.
With a profession centered on dick pics, parties, interviewing entertainers and occasionally judging contests at strip clubs, I sometimes found it hard to convince people that my job was actually work. But those are the fun parts. Beating yourself up because you don’t have anything worth reporting the next day is the struggle. As long as the column was good enough that readers came back, though, I was okay.
One of the drawbacks of documenting the lurid behavior of people in such a parochial city is that you inevitably run into those people. I wrote about Cecily Tynan’s divorce, and later interviewed her next husband’s ex-wife, for whom the Action News meteorologist had left a catty voicemail. Anytime I saw Tynan afterward, she looked right through me. Phillies closer Mitch Williams once parked himself as far across a comedy club as possible to avoid being seated at a table with me as we both judged a contest. That was three years after I reported that he had been banned from his daughter’s CYO middle-school basketball league games because he’d cursed out a female referee.
You don’t attempt the polite hello and handshake when you run into Mayor Nutter the first time you see him after writing about him being out drinking with a lithesome young blonde around 1 a.m., or after you report that sources told you Fox 29 has video of the Mayor spanking a woman’s bottom while bowling with her—video that his media staff tried to convince the station not to air. (It didn’t air.)
Then there are the people who pledge lawsuits and trash you behind your back, but never come to you. These include the PR professional/socialite who threatened to ruin me after I wrote about the breakup
of her engagement and her stint in rehab. And the political consultant/pundit who had her lawyer call the paper when I dared to write about her pulling a “Don’t You Know Who I Am?” at Rouge and being subsequently banned from the restaurant.
I found these reactions hilarious.
Sometimes, I would be surprised to find out I was in the middle of a feud.
Sharon Pinkenson, the Rittenhouse butterfly and head of the city film office who’s best known for her shiny leonine hair, called to scream at me when I printed that Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette were staying at the Rittenhouse Hotel while filming In Her Shoes. “If anything happens to them, everyone will blame you!” she hissed. My next few Pinkenson items detailed her shushing other diners while having a Passover seder at the Palm, and similar shushing over Italian in South Philly. Then one day, we just made up. We had a lovely lunch, and she became helpful, even though she still almost never recognizes me.
The biggest turning point came when Michael Klein gave up his gossip column in the Inquirer and they didn’t replace him. (They tried: Inquirer sports columnist John Gonzalez refused to take the assignment and ended up leaving the paper to work at Comcast SportsNet.) The job became less fun. Without the daily impetus to scoop Klein, I relaxed a bit. The column suffered, because I wasn’t working as hard. It was also remarkable to see who my new friends were. Without Klein to leverage, publicists I’d rarely or never heard from were kissing up to me.
Things also started to change when my daughter was born two years ago. I wanted to spend time with her at night, not meander around parties having banal two-minute conversations. I had grown weary of the social-scene aspect of the job. Attending an event and leaving without a good item or meeting someone to cultivate as a source was a waste of time—time I didn’t have anymore.
Most days I loved the job, but sometimes I hated it. I perfected a smirk I used whenever someone would say, “I better not see my name in your column tomorrow!” or “This is off the record!” just minutes after I met them. The smirk was easier than “Dude, I don’t even fucking remember your name from 10 seconds ago, and you’re not interesting enough for my column. And that’s saying a lot.”
When I first started writing the column, there was competition: Jessica Pressler at the Weekly, A.D. Amorosi at the City Paper, Klein at the Inquirer. Then there were blogs like Philebrity, which nobody reads anymore, Phawker, and most notably HughE Dillon’s PhillyChitChat. But none were one-on-one, head-to-head rivals like Klein had been.
Eventually social media became my greatest rival, as Facebook and Twitter really took off. Instead of calling me with celeb spottings, Jane Doe could simply tweet out that she saw Jessica Simpson having dinner in Old City. A restaurant or business or tourist attraction could post its own star sightings and photos. The speed with which tips and information were spreading forced me to operate even more intensely on a 24/7 news cycle. Early on, I would hold something back for the column or a blog post—but then other people started tweeting it. Eventually, Twitter was where I—along with everybody else—ended up breaking stories.
Twitter was both a blessing and a curse. When I left the paper, my account with the Daily News had 13,500 followers, more than anybody outside of sports at either paper. But I wondered how many of those people ever clicked the links I would post to my stories on philly.com. I had a tangible sense that I was reaching fewer people in the paper, or online, every day. The power of curated gossip had been vanquished.
I cried as I told my colleagues that I had decided to take a voluntary separation package offered to employees in January. After my 14 years at the Daily News, figuring out a new direction was the right decision, but that didn’t make it any easier. I know I will never recapture the energy in that newsroom when a big story was breaking, or the humor when colleagues tried to outdo each other in coming up with funny, sick headlines.
In truth, I think my emotions had already been spent back when the papers left our iconic headquarters on Broad Street last summer. Cleaning out our offices in order to move to the new building on Market Street took a lot out of many of us. I had spent my entire adult life walking into the newsroom on the first floor of 400 North Broad Street. Leaving that building for the last time struck me more than leaving 801 Market when I wheeled two postal tubs full of clippings, notebooks, toys and trinkets out on my last day.
Before I left, Klein said he would like to have lunch. I said sure, but didn’t think it would ever really happen. Then he texted me in April, and we met up. I have never lunched with someone whom I had maligned more; I can’t count how many times I called him a profanity-laced name to a source or colleague. But not three months after I left the Daily News, we sat sharing baby stories and photos over a meal. Because who has time for spite and negativity? Namaste.
I remember walking to work on one of my last days at the paper, listening to hardcore punk band Minor Threat. I played the song “Salad Days” on repeat. I wanted to quote the song in my farewell column, but I didn’t. It seemed too bitter:
Wishing for the days when I first wore
Baby has grown older
It’s no longer cute
Too many voices
They’ve made me mute
Baby has grown ugly
It’s no longer cute
But I stay on, I stay on
Where do I get off?
On to greener pastures
The core has gotten soft.