Elaine Lui is best known for her no-claws-barred analysis of celebrity culture. Her blog Lainey Gossip scores a million readers a month–an army of so-called “smut hounds” who devour Lui’s dishy missives on topics like Johnny Depp’s midlife crisis and why Gwyneth is still wearing that wedding ring.
But when the time came to write her first book, she chose a celebrity subject much closer to home. Courtney Shea spoke to her about Listen to the Squawking Chicken: part mother/daughter memoir, part Chinese cultural guidebook and an inadvertent parenting tome – for those who don’t mind comparing their kids to barbequed meat.
Fans of Lainey Gossip probably assumed your first book would be about Brangelina or secretly gay celebs. Why did you decide to write about your mom?
I never wanted to write the ‘gossip girl’ type of book. Gossip plays out in real time, every day. The story keeps changing, which is why a blog is perfect. I’ve been writing about my mom on Lainey Gossip for years. It started when I was talking about young, misbehaving celebrities such as Lindsay Lohan. I would say, ‘If Lindsay were raised by the Squawking Chinese Chicken, there is no way she’d be living at the Chateau Marmont at 16.’ The Squawking Chinese Chicken would have gotten rid of this person, handcuffed herself to the bed – whatever. Over the years she became a recurring character.
She has become a celebrity in her own right, wouldn’t you say?
Definitely. People are always asking and e-mailing about her. At my annual party, the Smut Soirée, everyone wants to have their picture taken with her – she has become a big draw. At the same time, she has always carried herself as the main character in a movie, and my dad and I have just naturally assumed the supporting character roles. She has always been a celebrity in my mind, and certainly in her own.
What did she say when you first told her you wanted to write the story of her life?
She said yes, she laughed and then she said “Waaaaaah.” It’s a Chinese expression that can be interpreted in many ways, but in this particular instance it was like, OMG!
Did she get veto power over what was in the book?
She knew nothing about what was going to be in it until it was done and I read it to her. I did contact her a couple of times to check facts on stories from my childhood – how old was I when you took me to that home-wrecker’s hut? That was the time my mom wanted to teach me about what happens to cheaters, so she brought me with her to confront a woman who had been sleeping with the husband of one of her friends.
You cover some pretty personal stories. In particular, when your mom was raped by a stranger as a teen in Hong Kong.
It’s personal, but it’s not secret. The Squawking Chicken sees herself as a very magnanimous person, so she has taken the stance that her story is helping people.
In the prologue you admit to being totally dependent on your mom. Are you too dependent?
I’m definitely excessively dependent. This morning I was getting dressed: Today’s a big day – the book comes out, the launch party is later tonight, I’m doing interviews. My ma is really big on the right colour. Last night she was on me about not wearing black and not looking like the dark horse because that would be bad luck. She asks a lot about my diet: ‘You don’t want to be eating too much meat because you’re born under the sign of the ox and you don’t want to be eating yourself while you’re trying to plug your book.’ It can be crippling.
What about relationship hindering? Your mom decided the date of your wedding and what you and your husband have for breakfast every day. Does he ever complain?
Sometimes he’s like, ‘Really, another ritual?’ Pretty soon we’re going to be spending the first two hours of the day on these rituals [which the Squawking Chicken prescribes]. But it’s not a lot of sweat off our backs. So we have to drink a mug of hot water first thing in the morning and eat a certain fruit for breakfast. She’s not asking us to climb a mountain in a foreign country. It’s not a big deal and it makes her happy, which makes me happy.
Has the Squawking Chicken added any rituals recently?
Yes. Lately she’s been really big on how we need to keep our sink clean and she won’t elaborate on why or what it means. She just keeps saying, ‘It’s critical right now, it’s critical! Make sure there is nothing gathering at the strainer.’
In your book you write a lot about your childhood, including how your mom would compare you with a piece of barbecued pork.
Any time I messed up or wasn’t careful when I was a child, my mom would turn to me and say, ‘I should have given birth to a piece of barbecued pork.’ The point is that barbequed pork is delicious, it only takes five minutes to eat and it doesn’t cause you any grief. It’s a selfish view, but the Squawking Chicken has never pretended not to be selfish. No parent hopes that their child is going to be a pain in their ass, they just accept it. It’s not a cause for celebration.
Your mom was also big on shaming you in public, which is a big no-no in today’s parenting culture.
I’ve heard that it is definitely frowned upon in the modern parenting guidebook. Listen, I’m not a parent, so I understand my own parameters in terms of discussing what good parenting is. I can only say what worked on me – which was a mother who knew the way to get me into line was to embarrass me a little bit, make me feel a sting. The idea is that, once I had felt that beginner’s shame, I would stop there rather than go on to experience adult shame, which lasts longer and has more significant repercussions. A lot of my mom’s parenting was about preparing me for a time when she wouldn’t be there to protect me.
Doesn’t sound like that time has come yet.
Ha. It’s true.
The Globe’s Marsha Lederman sits down with Elaine Lui to talk about mother-daughter relationships at 5 p.m., Friday, April 11, at the Villa Amato Ballroom in Vancouver. For tickets, go online to globerecognition.com