Hell in Cannes

A gossip smorgasbord turns into a near-starvation diet.

Reuters file photo, 2002, by Eric Gaillard

When you idle through a newspaper and pause on a mote of gossip, ever wonder how the poor scribbler found the story? If you have, I'd guess your civilian imagination falls way short.

As a paid-up British gossip columnist, I spent three years in full high-heeled regalia, chin deep in celebrity slops, fighting to fill my page of the Daily Mail. We gossip hacks might be reporting frivolity but, believe me, night after night, we go through hell.

In fact, we are all surrounded by gossip journalism these days; it leers even from the most rarefied publications. Here is a peek behind the page, the story of one gossip item painfully uncovered from the star-studded Cannes Film Festival.

-- -- --

Cannes 2004. A gossip smorgasbord. Or so I thought when I begged to go.

My boss was remarkably reasonable. On the condition that I cost him no more than a budget air fare, he agreed to send me. As luck would have it, a wealthy friend offered to share her hotel suite with me -- and she was booked into the Hotel du Cap, a favorite haunt of the stars since the days of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

With high hopes and higher heels, I boarded a plane. Two hours later, I descended the steps into unseasonal rain, and a message pinged on my cell phone. My friend had had a "riding accident" (her code for an overdose), and was not coming. In one blow I was homeless and robbed of my best, my only, entree to the festival.

I wasn't downhearted. Not yet.

I found a bargain room for $80, a mere 20-minute trudge down the freeway. I navigated the two-hour queue for press passes only to discover the showbiz team from my newspaper had already snagged our allotted invitations and interview slots. Less Golden Palm than golden palm-off, so I was on my own.

At Cannes there is talent, but boy, there's a lot of press. One old hand I met estimated that there were 5,000 of us camped out around the town, each harried by expectant editors and desperate to deliver.

While one frazzled press officer was distracted, I reached over her desk and, in the style to which my desperation drove me, appropriated a ticket to the opening night party.

In a daringly low-cut dress -- which cost less than one veneer in the smile of the actress beside me -- I walked along La Croisette, the red-carpeted road that runs round the bay. The sky was clear, the stars twinkled, glamour and possibility hung in the night.

Knowing no one else with a ticket, I boarded the launch to the opening party. The thousand-odd guests were ferried out to a "secret island" rich with Champagne, fireworks and a specially created beach. Celebrities, however, turned out to be remarkably thin on the ground. I combed the crowd, my shoes sinking in the sand, and eventually tracked down British actress Tilda Swinton. She had just been cast as the White Witch in "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."

"I'm going to prepare for the part by sitting in a fridge," she said.

That was the only quote I got for my evening in the sand. My boss, reverting to form, refused to pay for more hotel rooms, so I moved onto the sofa of a fellow gossip columnist I met in the street. Together, we despaired over lack of interview access. Had we missed anything? Where should we be? Which would be the best beat that night? If gossip had been our way into journalism, how could we find a way out and make a living feature-writing?

We decided to be bold, break away from the herd, and head along the coast to the Hotel du Cap.

It was an expensive gamble for someone who could not afford a hotel room: a $50 taxi ride each way, and just to book one of those tilted sun-loungers by the hotel pool was an additional $75. But there we struck what looked, at first, like gossip gold. Big Names everywhere. With sideways glances through my (cunningly outsized) sunglasses I spotted Jennifer Aniston, Justin Timberlake, Cameron Diaz, Jack Black, and Uma Thurman.

Heart fluttering, I pulled up a sun lounger next to Aniston.

I waited. And waited. I craned every inch of my body in her direction, listening with my entire being. Not even a slightly interesting word was exchanged. I even swam some lengths in the infinity pool, alongside Antonio Banderas (despite heavy celebrity fatigue, I confess it was a thrilling moment; the man is preternaturally beautiful).

Cameron rubbed sun cream onto Justin's back.

What if I spilt my drink on Jennifer? Or prodded her with a sun umbrella? After all, the one thing I knew from two years working this beat was that I couldn't introduce myself as a journalist -- not in this place; not now. I'd be thrown out in a flash -- and none of these stars were hardly going to unburden themselves to the sudden questions of a random "tourist."

Was my behavior so far despicable? Probably. When I first joined the gossip world I refused to publish anything I'd heard if I hadn't first identified myself as press. When, for instance, singer Pink kissed "Terminator 3" actress Kristanna Lokken in front of me at a private party after the Monte Carlo Music Awards, I told no one. I felt I'd be "crossing a line." But you watch, you learn and in time your heart hardens.

Still, at Cannes, none of this was at the top of my mental agenda. Perhaps I felt that stars living off the press and enjoying a multi-million dollar promotional junket for career enhancement were fair game. The problem, as I saw it at that moment, wasn't the ethics of my situation, but the fact that this fair game was proving to be no game at all.

The photographers snapping away while perched on rocks half a football field away were having more success than I was. My cell phone was signaling that my boss had repeatedly been calling, and eventually I snuck off into the bushes to answer. He was livid. "What the hell are you doing out there?" he barked. "This is simply not good enough, Rebecca." If I didn't come up with the goods, he assured me, he'd count the trip as vacation.

I watched the Big Names eat lunch I couldn't afford, and sat there in parched frustration until they packed their designer accessories into designer totes, and left.

Plan B: back to the parties. Loitering at the pool bar, I befriended a promoter who gave me tickets to the "Kill Bill Vol. 2" premiere. It was the third I had covered, and already I'd asked Quentin Tarantino every provocative question I could think of. But, what else could I do?

On the way in I met some other gossip hacks as bored, desperate and tired as I was -- two women in their late 20s had spent the afternoon in tears; one of the showbiz team from my paper had enough and decided to quit when she got home.

We crossed a Japanese-style wooden bridge into an arena adorned with silk canopies, floating flowers and waitresses bearing sushi; undoubtedly fun if you were there with, perhaps, a boyfriend, and it wasn't your 200th such night in a row. We made our way to the edge of the VIP area, in case anyone interesting arrived. It was dark and gently drizzling. I sat down on a rock. I was there five hours. Nothing.

Fortunately, my promoter acquaintance came through for me a second time, and slipped me a ticket to the "Vanity Fair" party, the event of the week. It was harder to get into than Fort Knox, and the house photographer, a jaded chap, gave me a silently impressed thumbs up. But if you're a nobody drinking cocktails alongside a major celebrity with something to sell, the directors that might employ them, and the money-men that might fund their movies, you have a snowball's chance in hell of landing a cozy chat.

By the end of the trip, I'd spent five days and sleepless nights pounding the red rugs and carefully laid-down sands of Cannes. I'd listened to the woes of countless strangers, each weaving fictions of their own; I'd lived mostly off bar snacks, spent a week's wages, and held the hand of a tearful Swedish model who'd been abandoned by a hip hop singer; I'd been groped and insulted in the name of my page.

And for all this, what was the crowning story, the end product the reader back in England would see? My best scoop from Cannes, this glorious, immortal year?

"It's so difficult knowing what to wear for these things," Cameron Diaz confided at a festival bash. "Do you go with the skirt and the belt, the jacket and the belt, or just the belt by itself? It's so hard to know."

Original article published in San Francisco Chronicle, in April, 2006

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