Far from the star-studded neighborhoods of Beverly Hills and New York’s Upper West Side, Lewiston might be the last place you’d expect to produce an expert in celebrity culture and gossip.
And yet, Lewiston native Anne Helen Petersen is nationally recognized as such. Since writing her doctoral dissertation on the gossip industry, Petersen has authored two books on the subject and is read by thousands online as a senior culture writer for BuzzFeed.
Petersen reads from her latest book, “Too Fat, To Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman” today in Moscow and speaks Friday night in Lewiston about film and culture in connection to her own experiences at Lewiston’s historic Liberty Theater.
When it came to pop culture, Petersen was like any other kid growing up in the valley during the 1990s. The only way she encountered celebrities was on the screen at the Liberty Theater or on the pages of magazines like People and Entertainment Weekly.
“I rented the same movies as everyone else from TR Video,” Petersen said in a recent phone interview from a coffee shop in Missoula, Mont., where she now lives.
After graduating from Lewiston High School in 1999, she studied film and media at Whitman College, went to University of Oregon for a master’s degree and got her doctorate at University of Texas.
If celebrity gossip seems to lack academic credibility, Petersen asserts that there’s more to it than browsing magazines or social media for entertainment. How we talk about celebrities, she said, says a lot about a culture. It reveals the qualities a culture values in its individuals and it predicts national trends or shifts in perspective. It also helps people to process personal matters.
“You don’t feel comfortable talking about issues that relate to your personal life, but you’re comfortable talking about, say, Ellen DeGeneres,” Petersen said.
In this way, celebrities serve as surrogates for us to discuss questions and viewpoints safely.
“When you don’t know what to think, you gossip,” Petersen said.
Her recent book, which received critical acclaim from media outlets like NPR, the Atlantic and Elle, focuses on female celebrities who are seen as unruly or “trespassing” into non-traditional territory. These women are punished for their behavior and are called upon to “soften their transgressions to remain in the mainstream,” Petersen said.
It was in February 2014, while Petersen was teaching at Whitman College and doing some online writing, that she wrote a long-form piece for BuzzFeed titled “Jennifer Lawrence and the History of Cool Girls.” The article went viral. BuzzFeed contacted her and said she had written her job description if she wanted it. Petersen accepted the offer, packed her bags and moved to New York City.
Petersen mainly wrote media-related pieces for the popular social and entertainment news venue, but when protests began at Standing Rock last September, she asked to go report on the issue. Most people in New York, she said, have never met an American Indian. Growing up a few miles from the Nez Perce reservation gave Petersen a personal interest and understanding that her peers didn’t have.
Then last May, Petersen asked to report on the special election in Montana held to replace Republican Representative Ryan Zinke, who was appointed as the Secretary of the Interior. She was driving the rural roads of Montana when she noticed how happy she felt.
It wasn’t just that she felt at home back in the mountain west or that she enjoyed the challenge of covering larger political stories. She was contributing to the national political conversation by cultivating understanding between sides.
“These are my people, I know how to talk to them,” Petersen said.
Petersen went back to BuzzFeed and proposed an experimental move to Missoula. Not only did it make sense to live closer to the rural political issues she wanted to cover but even with her Idaho-native credentials, people were skeptical of someone from New York City.
“National reporters get Idaho wrong over and over and over,” Petersen said.
She thinks that’s largely because they have little or no cultural “ins” or understanding. Having lived and seen both sides, she’s hopeful she’s at an advantage in covering issues more accurately.
Since her move, Petersen still writes celebrity-related pieces, but she’s taking on larger political stories as well. A big part of her time, lately, has been invested in a story about the Kootenai County GOP (a name she could pronounce correctly from the start, unlike her NYC peers) where a Californian influx has shifted politics even further to the right, she said. These stories matter nationally because of what they reveal.
“If you study the micro of what’s going on, it illuminates the macro of what’s going on with the GOP,” Petersen said.
Though she freely admits to her own political biases, Petersen reports and writes to build bridges between the two sides for the benefit of all.
“These two people are not speaking to one another. The reason we’re not going forward is there’s not understanding,” Petersen said.
A small town in Idaho may not seem a likely springboard for someone to build understanding between political parties. But then, it didn’t seem like a celebrity gossip mecca either. For Petersen, where she’s from has been an asset.