The Museum of the City of New York is an imposing, almost ostentatious building on Fifth Avenue between 103rd and 104th stress on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. This morning, the usually soporific courtyard is bustling with activity: It’s only the second day back at work (which was postponed due to the writer’s strike) for the cast and crew of Gossip Girl and the there’s a lot of ground to cover.
Grips run back and forth, pushing clanging carts laden with equipment and shouting impatiently at anyone and everyone in their way; a small group of important-looking people sit in high, canvas-backed chairs before large monitors; 100 extras— 50 boys and 50 girls— in school uniform stand in position, surreptitiously rubbing their hands together, trying to keep warm; a brash assistant director wanders amongst them shouting orders at the top of his voice— “If your birthday is between May and October take out your cell phones and text!,” “If you were born in April go to another group!,” If you were born between June and August take a book out of your backpack!” When the assembled group of teenagers fails to live up to his expectations, he gets mad: “Come on! What’s wrong with you! You just got back from spring break! You’re excited!”
There are cameras everywhere, including a few poking out of the building’s uppermost windows; makeup artists brandishing brushes move nimbly amongst the crowd; and perching on the wall above the steps is a heavyset man wearing a hooded Raiders sweatshirt holding a bottle of what looks like mayonnaise who, every now and again, yells “Splat!” at the top of his voice as he methodically squeezes a blob of it onto the marble steps below.
“You’ve picked a great day to come!” Leighton Meester says, sarcastically, as an assistant wraps a black, floor-length down coat around her tiny shoulders. In the scene they are currently filming, her character, Blair Waldorf, is returning to Constance Billard School for Girls after spring break with her very own scarlet letter; a result of sleeping with the malevolent Chuck, played by
Ed Westwick, in the first season of the show. Emboldened, the other girls in her clique— usually subservient to Blair, whom they used to call “Queen B”— have decided to throw yogurt at her. “Splat! On my hear!” says Meester, with a look of mock-outrage. “It’s only 8 o’clock in the morning!” Above her, the big man with the mayonnaise lines up his bottle.
Meester smiles a mystified smile and goes back to her mark, and the cameras get into position, ready to start filming. Close by, the AD bellows to the extras: “Remember, this is hilarious! Blair is getting yogurt thrown at her! You couldn’t be happier!”
A few minutes later, the big man on the wall gets him moment,squeezing his bottle with perfect precision over Meester’s head as she and Blake Lively, who plays Serena van der Woodsen, pass underneath, unleashing uproarious merriment among the other “students” who laugh and point with apparently satisfactory conviction. “That’s a wrap!” shouts someone with a walkie-talkie. “Great work, everyone.”
Yes, Gossip Girl, the CW show about a group of privileged teenagers who live, for the most part, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and attend St. Jude’s School for Boys and the aforementioned Constance Billard School for Girls— the plastic signs, made to look like brass, are stuck to the walls of the museum— is back. It’s a welcome return.
Perhaps it’s the luminescence of Meester, Lively, and the rest of the supporting cast; maybe it’s the string of on-point pop culture references (yes, that’s Pierces playing the cotillion after party, and there is an entire episode where the music of the Virgins is the soundtrack); maybe it’s the fact that the fashion (Vena Cava, Alexander Wang, Lorick) is actually labels we care about; maybe it’s because, far from being just another teen show, Gossip Girl, somehow, seems to capture a zeitgeist.
There are elements of Copote (when they get around to making a movie of Summer Crossing and need a Grady McNeil, they need look no further than Lively), and Wharton is the acute satire of New York’s pomp and circumstance, but also something darker; Gossip Girl is Les Liaisons Dangereuses for the 21st century (Cruel Intentions being the last successful onscreen interpretation of the famous epistolary novel, and that film came out 10 years ago)— instead of letter and opium, it’s texts and Grey Goose (the ridiculously elaborate lingerie remains).
Of course, it’s easy to ascribe influences and references-points to a TV show (there are less appealing ones: Vanessa climbing in through the window is so Dawson’s Creek you almost have to turn away; it’s hard to watch Blair and Serena shopping in NoLita without thinking of Carrie and Samantha) but Gossip Girl is far more than the sum of its many parts, and plays off our desire for instant gratification brilliantly. “We had to create a fabric within the show of people constantly communication with each other about events sometimes literally as they unfold,” says Stephanie Savage who conceived and developed Gossip Girl with Josh Schwartz, the man responsible for The O.C. (Savage was an executive producer and writer on that show, too). “It’s the sense of reporting something that’s happening right before your eyes and reading your blast about it 10 seconds later.” Edits are quick, and MTV-like, disbelief is suspended with flashbacks and flash-forwards; everyone’s beautiful; and it’s sly, catty, and funny.
“Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette was also a visual reference for us,” says Schwartz. “We loved how that took a period story but made it feel contemporary, but we kind of wanted to do the opposite and take these extremely contemporary characters, living in this utterly up-to-the-minute world, and have the backdrop feel timeless, with that Gatsby-esque quality.” Oh yes, Fitzgerald. Him too.
If all the literary comparisons and references haven’t translated into large audience figures, that’s because the ratings systems are outdated. More than any other recent show Gossip Girl has highlighted a simple truth: We don’t watch TV the same way anymore.
“The show is a new beast,” says Schwartz. “It shows that the old system of measuring audiences isn’t relevant when it comes to a show like this, which is for this kind of audience.” That would be the Nielsen ratings system, which doesn’t take into account Internet streaming (the show makes up more than 50% of the streaming on the CW website), iTunes downloads (of which Gossip Girl has the most every week it’s on) or even TiVo/DVR viewings, if they occur more than 48 hours after the original airing. “It’s affecting Gossip Girl radically right now,” says Schwartz, “but in the next two years it’s going to have a radical effect on all of television; it’s incumbent on all the networks to figure out how to measure that. Otherwise, it’s just going to look like they’re losing viewers when, actually, they’re not.”
“The median age of our viewers is 22,” says Savage. “And as those people get older the model for our show is going to become the model for all shows.”
“When I was a teenager I went over to my friend’s house after school and we watched Gilligan’s Island and did our homework— that doesn’t happen anymore!” she continues. “And you can’t write a show about teens and use those old paradigms; kids won’t relate to them because they don’t know what you’re talking about: this show is about the world we’re living in.”
Cecily von Ziegsar , who has written eight of the 11 Gossip Girl books in the series that the TV show is adapted from, knows the world well: Constance Billard is closely based on Nightengale-Bamford, the all-girls private school, also on the Upper East Side, she attended.
“There were 36 girls in my graduating class and we all knew everything about each other and talked about each other behind each other’s backs,” she says, with a laugh. The books are directly based on these experiences, and von Ziegesar’s Gossip Girl is unequivocal about the company her reader’s expect in her first “posting,” which opens book one. “We all live in huge apartments with our own bedrooms and bathrooms and phone lines,” she writes. “We have unlimited access to money and booze and whatever else we want, and our parents are rarely home, so we have tons of privacy. We’re smart, we’ve inherited classic good looks, we wear fantastic clothes, and we know how to party.”
By plain, deliciously, off the traits of her audience, satirizing the way that they speak, von Ziegesar soon attracted those on the periphery of her target demographic of teenagers; mothers, sisters, even brothers and boyfriends began reading the books, too. In her description of contemporary, affluent youth von Ziegesar was throwing open the expensive shutters of some of the most exclusive addresses on earth, while reminding her readers, at every possible opportunity, that this was a world into which they could never fully cross. “The way von Ziegesar implicates us un her empathic examination of youth’s callousness is the Waughish achievement of these strange, complicated books,” wrote Janet Malcolm in The New Yorker in March.
“I loved the idea that these were kids who were self-made celebrities in their own world and had chosen to exacerbate that by living under the tyrannical thumb of Gossip Girl.,” says Schwartz, who sent the books to Savage, asking her to come aboard raw project. “The Upper East Side and New York City weren’t on TV at the time,” she says. “And that really appealed to me. If you wanted to see New York on TV, you had to look past the bead bodies in the foreground of the frame on this procedural on some cop show because there weren’t any shows that had that kind of romantic, Woody Allen version of New York, and we’d never seen it from the point of view of teenagers, at all.”
“Getting to live here and get paid for it is a dream come true,” says Blake Lively. “I remember sitting down with Max Minghella [her co-star in the indie film Elvis and Annabelle] and he was like ’You have to move to New York, you would love it more than anything in the world. It’s such a good fit for you— just get up and move.”
“I never wanted to do a TV show— you commit six years of your life to one character, one city. And it’s hard to find roles for females that are strong, complex, and layered; most of the time they are just objectified and a prize for male heroes. But, after sitting down with Josh and Stephanie, I just knew that if I ever were to do a show, this would be it.”
To hear Schwartz tell it, Lively already had the part in the bag. “Everyone, on every message board about the Gossip Girl books always said ‘You know who should play Serena? Blake Lively,’” he says. “And, when we met her, she just had that Serena presence. She walks into a room, heads turn.”
The heads of the few assorted miscreants gathered in a fluorescent-lit dinner in Chelsea did indeed turn when the actress swept in a few minutes ago, throwing herself into a booth opposite me, putting her Chanel bag down next to her and placing her palms flat on the table with a look that said “‘I’m sorry,’ ‘I’m ready,” and ‘I need some water,’” all at once. She had picked up my glass and already taken a gulp before she realized her mistake. When she leaves, a little over an hour later, three people come up to me to confirm their suspicions that my dinner companion had indeed been “the blonde from Gossip Girl.”
“I told you!” one guy in his mid-thirties says triumphantly to his girlfriend, pumping his fist. “I knew it!”
Savage describes Lively as a “giant golden retriever who’s just so sunny and warm,” and she’s right: the actress is ebullient. She talks quickly, earnestly, and emotively about her experiences, seemingly still in awe of them herself. It’s the kind of enthusiasm that can make it seem like there’s no one else in the room.
Lively is well attuned to the many-layered appeal of the show she has helped to make a hit. “Our scripts are great but they feel like bones compared to all of the other aspects of the show,” she says. “Wardrobe has such a heavy influence, and the hair and makeup; the way we look.”
Just as Leighton can be quite Blair-like in some ways, Blake comes across as very Serena-like, too. She’s beautiful, but in an effortless, Sienna Miller kind of way, and captivating for reasons that aren’t easy to pinpoint. “It’s not really my thing to be like Serena is; It’s important to me to dins a twinkle, a sparkle, to always make her likable and redeemable,” she says. “I was raised in Georgia in a Southern Baptist family. I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs, I don’t sleep around.” She pauses, a rare event. “ When I go home at night I play Guitar Hero or listen to Billie Holiday. I’m amazing at Guitar Hero! I had it written into the show. I go to tournaments in Brooklyn, and put fake tattoos all over my body so I look like a rock star. No, ’cause I am a rockstar. I made it tot he semi-finals once, but they didn’t have style points.” (It’s a testament to the producers of the show that they listen to their cast who are, after all, of exactly the demographic it targets— Ed Westick’s band, the Filthy Youth, were featured in one episode.) And aside from the whole Guitar Hero thing, Lively, who says “fashion has definitely become a bigger part of my life,” recently took advantage of this again: after she fell in love with a few Elizabeth & James pieces on the cover shoot for this magazine she requested some be sent to the show.
“[Our wardrobe department] tell so much of the story within the clothes,” says Lively, who says her character’s style is based on that of Kate Moss. “There are so many characters and because there’s only so much time to tell everyone’s story, a lot of it is told in our wardrobe, which I think is a terrific element.” Her interest in fashion may soon extend beyond that of wearer. “I had never really started about starting a clothing line, but just an hour ago I was talking about it with some people,” she says. “I’m toying with the idea of something like the Kate Moss for Topshop line. So maybe something like that will happen soon. I would love to do that.”
Leighton Meester was as obvious a choice to play Blair as Lively was for Serena. “The minute she came in, I just saw something mischievous about her— in her eyes,” says Schwartz. “There is more going on there than you can put your finger on. She’s also really, really funny and has made Blair so, even at her most tragic moments. Blair’s got this stiff-upper-lip-even-when-it’s-trembling kind of humor to her and Leighton never, ever misses a moment. Every moment we write for her, she nails.”
“I’m the only one who really understood her and loved her and knew her,” says Meester as she runs her spoon along her dish, tilting it to make sure she doesn’t miss any mango sorbet, which, along with some cheese blintzes, eggs Benedict, smoked salmon, and salad, comprises the breakfast she ordered from a thoroughly bemused waiter a little earlier at that bastion of midtown staunchness, the Russian Tea Room. “And maybe I’ve known her somehow or I know her in myself and she needs somebody to portray her in a way that isn’t completely harsh because she could be hated. It’s hard, day-to-day, playing someone who is totally hated.” She pauses. “For the longest time I was like ‘Ugh! I cannot stand desert!’” she says, through a mouthful of blintz. “Now though, I’m eating it all the time!”
It’s only 11 a.m., but Meester seems like one of those girls who falls out of bed beautiful; she’s wearing jeans and a black polo-shirt in a place where the recommended dress is business casual but you get the feeling that, were she to get up and start dancing on the gilt-edged table, she could get away with it. Her skin is preposterously perfect; her lips pout prettily; her dark eyes dart furtively around the room.
“If you look deeply into somebody, anybody, you can see their parents and their upbringing and their environment,” she says of Blair. fixing a stare on me from across our red-letter booth. “Did their mom sit with them and hold their hand and read to them before they went to bed? Or did they have no time for them and were they left wight he nanny every other day?”
“She has this real intelligence, and could be a little bit of a Lolita,” says Savage of Meester. “But she was always smart and classy when she did it. Leighton embodying Blair has just made everybody want to write more for her.”
Meester, who is a natural blonde, is certainly charming; she’s irreverent without being immature and funny without seeming to try too hard. (When I go to the bathroom, and leave the recorder on, she says, in a Darth Vader voice, “Luke, I am your father,” into it; it’s not original, but it is cute.) She’s from Marco Island, Florida, but says. “If you gave me $100 million and were like ‘Move back to your hometown,’ I wouldn’t.” Right now, she’s happy in New York. “It’s like going away to camp,” she says of moving to the city for the show, “except you have these built-in friends you know? Here are six other people who are all my age and all live in New York and are all going through the same exact thing I am. We all have each other.”
“We’ve grown up in this generation where we’re able to send an e-jail or text at the speed of light,” she continues. “Everything is in this instant.”