Gossip Girl: The life of a gossip columnist

By Jane Phare

Former Spy Editor Rachel Glucina. Photo / Janna Dixon
Former Spy Editor Rachel Glucina. Photo / Janna Dixon

At the top of the stairs in Rachel Glucina's inner-city Auckland apartment is a small room stuffed with cocktail dress frou-frou. They are the combat fatigues of a gossip columnist, a uniform of feathers, lace, silk and sequins that helps her blend with the A-listers, the rich and powerful, the desperates and the has-beens.

Glucina doesn't want her cocktail cabinet photographed because, she says, it'll make her look like a tosser. A touchy response for someone who professes to have a skin "as thick as a rhino", armour necessary to deflect the incoming aimed at the Herald on Sunday's former gossip columnist and Spy editor.

She's moved on but not far - next door to the daily Herald as editor of the The Diary. Twice a week she'll report on what, and who, is happening around the city, but in a tamer tone than in her Spy days.

Glucina's byline photograph shows her dressed in a business jacket, as if to reassure Herald readers that this woman won't be gate-crashing parties, sneaking up fire escapes to get to Bono in a bar, or infiltrating Jagger's inner circle to get the once-in-a-lifetime story on Mick.

Her new boss, Herald editor Shayne Currie, rates the level of bitchiness in the new column - on a scale of zero to 10 - as a 2. And deliberately so.

It's not meant to be a salacious gossip column he says. Best to leave that to the Sundays. Currie should know. He hired Glucina in December 2005 when, after eight months as editor of the Herald on Sunday, he decided it was time to "ramp it up" on the social pages.

Up against that other reigning gossip queen, Bridget Saunders, who had a three-year head start writing for the Sunday Star-Times, Glucina put on her Comme des Garcons and went to work.

It was hard, she says. Saunders had the celeb market cornered. Glucina kept getting kicked out of events because, she suspects, of pressure from the opposition. If there was bad feeling at the time, Glucina says she "can't really blame Bridget. I mean she owned that patch and she did it really, really well".

The years have damped down any ill feeling and Saunders is similarly polite. She never considered Glucina was eroding her patch, she says. "I did what I did and Rachel did what she did, and we did it in very different ways."

She shrugs off her own departure from the gossip scene as a Star-Times cost-cutting measure. For her part, Glucina says she worked "really, really hard" turning up every night to events, listening, observing, writing notes.

Spy was never meant to be bitchy, she says. "But I guess by the nature of the content it probably came across a bit like that."

The three'C's of that glam world -champagne, cocktails and canapes- fuelled long hours. The job might have looked glamorous to outsiders, Glucina says, but those people "don't see me doped up on migraine medication", an ailment that has plagued her for years. Or coughing through a winter 'flu but still having to turn up to parties.

As the Spy pages gathered force and Glucina's pen grew more pointed, the flak started flying back. Bloggers and tweeters got stuck in. A Rachel Glucina "tribute" Facebook page was launched, unflattering photos with "pork chop" jokes binding it all together in a clumsy and unkind attempt at parody.

Saunders, who these days buys and sells property and divides her time between Auckland and the United States, says she was appalled by that tribute page.

"It was a pretty hideous thing to do to anybody. Rachel went hard but she's still got a beating heart, there's still a woman in there with feelings."

Saunders doesn't think Glucina knew what she was getting herself into. But if there was vitriol, venom and vapours flying, Glucina wasn't ducking. With a degree in politics and a masters in art history, she's not stupid. She knew that, in part, she'd brought it on her self. The Facebook page has been taken down and Glucina doesn't want to talk about it now. "I never looked at those websites. There are a lot of jealous bloggers who would love to have a high-profile newspaper column."

She knows the anti-Rachel lobby poke fun at her weight and she doesn't blame them in a way. The gradual weight gain was a side effect of a job - constant partying, eating and drinking. Glucina says she never targeted people over their weight - either being too fat or too thin. But not much else was sacrosanct.

Here's Glucina in Spy on the other Rachel, the one once married to Rod (after spotting a photo of Hunter at an LA flea market): "We've got the sheer cami, no mammary support, visible nipple, bedraggled hair and a shapeless mohair cardy in the lifeless shade of stone."

Currie accepts some blame for the vitriolic backlash directed at Glucina. In hindsight, he says, he let his gossip columnist go too far at times.

"A gossip column does have to push the boundaries and unfortunately sometimes we did cross the line. I kick myself over some of the things I didn't edit in or out of her column. It was my responsibility in terms of the tone, not Rachel's."

Spy's tone became "slightly too aggressive" as time went on. "Possibly in some cases it could have been brought back a notch or two."

Currie says it was the most heavily legalled part of the paper. "It got to the point where the contents were run past lawyers as a matter of course, just to be careful."

But the payoff came on Sunday morning when, out and about in cafes, Currie saw brunchers from young women to middle-aged men, pick up the paper and turn first to the Spy pages.

"She was a huge asset for us, definitely responsible for lots of sales and good stories, many that didn't come under her byline but were provided by her."

Those stories came, and still do, from an iPhone bursting with contacts, numbers that are fiercely guarded.

Glucina won't talk about her relationship with John Key, instead smiling coyly. Neither will the PM talk. His press secretary instead saying "we decline to be involved in this" in response to questions including whether Key regularly texts asking for the names in the scandalous Guess Who, Don't Sue column.

Eventually Glucina says she does talk to Key -"I talk to lots of people" - and that he is an"avid" reader of Spy. She's fascinated by politics: "Possibly the power behind it, the scandal, the stories, there's something sexy about politics."

While happy to report on other people's private lives, Glucina says she is extremely private. She doesn't want me to ring her mother, Drew Glucina, who sued Saunders for defamation over "remarks made to a mutual friend". Saunders fought the action for six years, she says, and eventually settled the matter out of court.

Glucinca grew up in West Auckland, "our family had orchards", in a close Croatian family. Her maternal granny made her own pasta and cheese, her grandfather hung hams in his cellar and made prosciutto. This was the 1970s when other kids at Oratia Primary had luncheon sausage in their sandwiches.

"I remember going to school and my friends would have Chesdale slices, and I was so embarrassed because we had prosciutto sandwiches with mozzarella. It was so uncool in those days."

Aged 38, she's a twin to Henry, a sommelier at Mollies boutique hotel in Auckland, and has a younger sister, Stephanie, who lives in London and has just got engaged.

But mention marriage and babies and she bats it away with a "you sound like my mother".

"I'm not very conventional and . . . fiercely independent. Work is really important and always has been. I'm not one of those women who puts men first."

And then there's the problem of attracting the right men. She gets asked out "all the time" by men who want to be written about, she says, wealthy men with expensive cars. "They think that's what attracts me but it's quite the opposite."

She finds brains more attractive. "Only brains . . . I like people with stories to tell."

When she's not working and partying, she'll read and throw impromptu dinner parties for friends. Glucina's loyal to her friends but she admits that because many of them are in the media, it's a juggling act to protect boundaries.

"It's about friendship at the end of the day because this is a just a job and I'm not going to do this forever. And I don't want to lose my friends."

She celebrated her last birthday by inviting 20 of her "closest" media friends to lunch at Mollies. Around the table were names like Paul Holmes, TV3 political editor Duncan Garner, magazine publisher Sarah Sandley, TV3's Mark Jennings, TVNZ's Anthony Flannery, producer Rachel Gardner, journalist Carolyne Meng-Yee, Currie, and NZ Woman's Weekly editor Sarah Stuart.

But the point at which they become friend or foe is a moving target. Ali Mau is someone who Glucina considers a friend. It wasn't always that way. Glucina broke the story of Mau's relationship with dance teacher Karleen Edmonds after splitting with husband Simon Dallow and, spurred on by intense interest from readers, was relentless in her coverage.

Mau, joined by Edmonds, called a breakfast meeting with Glucina. After that, Glucina fell on her pen and ran an open confession in her column.

"It's fair to say I've been quite tough. I made crude sexual innuendoes about her new lifestyle . . . and for that I apologise."

She used to find Mau too prim, too "princessey; too bloody perfect", she wrote. Now, she said, she found Mau "endearingly frank, warm and engaging. I liked her immensely".

Glucina admits that it's mostly all a game and that people like Mau may be adept at playing it-and the columnist.

"That's a fair point," she says. "But I've always admired the smart celebs who aren't afraid to confront their critics face to face. They're the ones who aren't insecure and don't take themselves too seriously . . . it's gossip, not rocket science."

Television personality Charlotte Dawson argues Auckland is too small a "village" to support a so-called celebrity and gossip culture. In the absence of proper celebrities, they are "created" by the media and then bullied and humiliated until "they break or leave".

"That's what's happening to Sally Ridge right now. It certainly happened me. I couldn't wait to get out of the place, it was horrible," she says.

Dawson, who lives in Sydney and is currently filming Celebrity Apprentice, tweets regularly with Ridge and other Kiwis, often with derogatory references to Glucina.

Dawson says Glucina targets people like Ridge "because they're pretty and they're thin, they're everything probably poor old Rachel would have loved to have been in her life".

Ridge says much of what Glucina wrote about her and her family is "incredibly hurtful". "That side of it has really got me down - she knows nothing about my parenting skills. Some of what she writes is completely inappropriate."

Ridge thinks gossip has got too personal and bitchy, but accepts those in the public eye will find themselves the targets of gossip columns.

TV3 news anchor Mike McRoberts let rip about Glucina in his autobiography Beyond the Front Line. In a chapter called "The brown Jesus" (a term Glucina used to describe McRoberts' actions in Haiti when he helped a young orphan get to hospital) he accuses Glucina of a "nasty", "vile and vindictive" campaign against him and his TV journalist wife Paula Penfold.

Herald on Sunday editor Bryce Johns says Glucina was "incredibly brave" to take on so many people over such a long period of time. What she achieved, and the number of contacts she has built up, is exceptional. However, continuing Spy's aggressive style could eventually limit the number of people willing to confide, he says.

Glucina's move to the Herald allowed her to launch a new column and for Spy to evolve. The Sunday model needs to be strong on gossip and celebrity, Johns says. That won't change but the tone will. He points to Spy's coverage of the Sally, Jaime Ridge and Sonny BillWilliams story last week as an example.

"That wasn't her [guest columnist Ruwani Perera] poking the borax. That was her reporting what thousands of people are saying in social media. It's the perception of a great swathe of the population."

With that subtle difference, he thinks the "bitchy" perception will change over time. Johns plans to announce within the next month who will take over Spy.

Glucina has regrets about some of her stories - like tracking down Nicky Watson in Pukekohe, working in a beauty parlour and writing about it after Watson, calling herself Nicola Robinson, begged to be left alone, saying she had turned her back on the celebrity world.

But (and here Glucina can't help herself) Watson was soon back "posing on the cover of a tabloid woman's magazine in a bikini with Sally Ridge, she couldn't give up the limelight".

And she hits back at celebrities who, she says, complain that they don't want to be in a gossip column and want their privacy. But then they'll go on Twitter and "bang on" about their kids' private lives. Or they'll give photos and a story to a women's magazine, she says, in return for cash and copy control.

To the celebrities with wounded feelings, Glucina says she wants to tell them to lighten up. "I mean these people just read an auto cue for a living. They're not an Oscar winning actor."

And then we try a couple of personal questions for size. Does she like sex? Yes (lots of laughter).

And her love life? "I don't talk about my private life, it's a no-go zone," she retorts.

That's rich coming from Glucina.

- Herald on Sunday

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