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"Dish' author feared payback

Sometimes, author Jeannette Walls wonders if she has committed career suicide by writing Dish: The Inside Story on the World of Gossip (Avon, $25).

"When I was writing it, I thought, "Oh, I'm burning all my bridges,' " she says. "But a lot of people (in the media) have been positive, including Liz Smith, to whom I was sympathetic, yes, but flattering, no. People come up to me at parties and say, "I love what you wrote about (publicist) Pat Kingsley,' although they don't want to be caught telling me that in public. I've spilled the beans a little bit on the industry."

Walls has reported on celebrities for New York magazine and E! channel and is currently on MSNBC three mornings a week. Her book is a lively, insightful history of gossip, from gossip-column pioneer Walter Winchell to notorious Internet hound Matt Drudge. Publishers Weekly called Dish "provocative and invariably entertaining."

She loves her work but worries about where celebrity coverage is headed.

"I think it's badly flawed," she says. "It's an industry, a product that has to be bought and sold. And what sells it are celebrities. How do you get access? You gotta make deals with them. So many (publications) have made this deal with the devil. It's easy to say they shouldn't do that. But if you don't put celebrities on the cover, the magazines don't sell."

Celebrities, she says, are our modern-day Greek gods.

"It's not that we think they're perfect, but they become our morality tales, our moral touchstones," she says. "People are much less interested in politics and religion, but if you talk about O.J. Simpson, people know what you're talking about. There are a lot of lessons learned from these shared experiences we have from celebrities."

She wanted her book to explain how gossip evolved _ and maybe defend her line of work, too.

"I think gossip is vilified," she says. As an example, she cites Whitney Houston, who has been the object of scrutiny ever since she allegedly was in possession of marijuana in January, followed by a no-show on the Academy Awards. In April, People magazine did a cover story called "Whitney's Troubled Times."

It's not that we wish her ill _ "people are really concerned about this woman who is so talented, so beautiful _ just go get your act together. We're also fascinated by the psychology, the behind the scenes. Is she the Miss Perfect she wanted us to believe?"

Walls does not mince her words about people who claim they don't like gossip.

"They're either lying or a bore or in denial," she says. "It often deals with personalities instead of issues _ but it's all about personalities in this world."

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