Cover photo from “Turn the other chic? No way”

Turn the other chic? No way


Some linguists believe that language evolved as a result of our desire to share, or exchange information about people we mutually know. In short, so that we could gossip.

Some observers of the fashion industry might, in turn, wonder if the whole thing only arose to fuel the gossip mill. As we know from watching the antics of industry luminaries such as Naomi Campbell, catwalks and catfights go hand in hand. Behind its glossy facade, the fashion industry seethes with the sort of duplicity and intrigue that was once the forte of the French royal court.

Where our more civilised times differ from the era of the kings Louis, though, is that we tend not to resort to duels at sun up to settle our differences. Who needs to terminate an enemy when you can simply assassinate their character instead?

Salacious gossip is a powerful tool, as Horacio Silva and Ben Widdicombe — a pair of expatriate Aussie lads from Sydney and Brisbane — will happily tell you.

From their respective apartments in Chelsea and Greenwich Village in New York, the lads peddle in the juicy tittle-tattle of the industry. They compose an online gossip column the posting of which is anticipated as feverishly as the next hit of a heroin-chic’d model. It’s called Chic Happens, and it delights in exposing the fashion industry’s haughtiest and naughtiest with their pants down. Often literally.

With up to one million hits per month, Chic Happens appears on the website over which the pair preside as executive editors, They never run short of items.

“Fashion seems to attract the same personalities as politics,” observes Silva.

“Plus you have huge amounts of money to support it all,” adds Widdicombe. “And when you combine budget with ego, sparks are bound to fly.”

Chic happens: Salacious gossip is a powerful tool, say expat Aussies Ben Widdecombe and Horacio Silva.
Chic happens: Salacious gossip is a powerful tool, say expat Aussies Ben Widdecombe and Horacio Silva.

Once romantic partners and now just business associates, Silva and Widdicombe bounce off and finish each other’s sentences in a way that only exes can. They write the column together, sourcing many of their items from the chatter at the stream of decadent Manhattan parties they attend.

They describe their style as “a very Australian take on gossip.” After all, they were raised on a diet of Woman’s Day and New Idea — “when it was good,” snipes Silva. In true ratbag tradition, their humour is tongue-in-cheek, and sometimes downright disrespectful.

They join the ranks of some of the world’s best-known “gossip gatekeepers” in the city where it all happens. They frequently trade items with gossip notables such as Liz Smith, Cindy Adams and gossip kingpin Richard Johnson from The New York Post.

“People think the rumour mills are run by a spiteful sorority,” says Silva. “But a lot of it is quite anodyne and PR-driven — there is a lot of co-operation between columnists.”

Chic’s favourite targets are people like Naomi Campbell, Anna Nicole-Smith, and the “bland bombshell” Claudia Schiffer, whom they also like to call “Schiffer brains.”

However, Chic Happens is different. A self-styled “pie in the face of decency”, it strips its subjects bare, leaving them to pick up the pieces. In the process, Widdicombe and Silva have raised (or perhaps lowered) the bar on what is acceptable gossip and what is not. A major factor in their success is that the pair publish Chic from an independent website, and their gossip remains free from the influence of advertisers.

“When we came into the fashion world, there was no criticism of the major players,” says Widdicombe. “There’s this ever-present threat that they could withdraw ad dollars in the face of adverse publicity.”

“Journalists love us, because we write what they can’t, and say what everyone wants to, but can’t,” adds Silva.

Explaining their inspiration for the column, the answer is simple: “The fact is, the behaviour of the fashion pack is abysmal, and hilarious most of the time.”

Earlier this year, Chic revealed (and revelled in) the now-infamous story of top US designer Calvin Klein’s untoward performance at an A-list benefit dinner. Dubbed the “The Vagina Monologue,” the story tells of how Klein, bearing an old grudge, hurled some shocking invective at Joan Rivers and her daughter, Melissa.

“You’re nothing but an old c—t, you c—t,” snarled Klein, in front of a stunned table of industry bigwigs.” And your daughter’s an even uglier c—t.” To illustrate his point, Klein got up from the table to leave, but hooked an ankle in his chair and fell over sideways in front of the dining room.

Chic’s favourite targets are people like Naomi Campbell, Anna Nicole-Smith, and the “bland bombshell” Claudia Schiffer, whom they also like to call “Schiffer brains.” And, of course, there’s no getting past the perennial favourite of late-show hosts and rumour-mongers alike, Monica Lewinsky. After reading a column in which she was referred to as “200 pounds of quivering maquillage,” an angry Lewinsky took to the pair with her handbag at a party.

Speaking of parties, the best one they ever attended, says Widdicombe, was held at the department store Saks 5th Avenue. There, the pair “drank our weight in alcohol” with Madonna and Rupert Everett, among other high-profile guests. As if to flaunt their antipodean upbringing, they say that the sign of a great party is still one’s inability to remember it.

“Journalists love us, because we write what they can’t, and say what everyone wants to, but can’t.”

But even better than getting invited to these glamorous events, is “getting invited and not attending,” says Silva. They each happily admit that there are times when they would rather have a few drinks with friends at the corner pub.

“It’s nice to know that you’ve achieved a certain level,” says Widdicombe. “And there is a lot of respect out there for what we do.”

“But the danger,” says Silva, “is that we could become the very people we take the piss out of.”

In addition to the parties they attend, Widdicombe and Silva also get prize information for the column from various insider sources. They’re usually minions who bare the brunt of their megalomaniac bosses. They are the most valuable to Chic, because to exact revenge they often send Chic “all the unflattering details from anonymous Hotmail addresses.”

The pair also speak with glee about a new phenomenon sweeping the mag-trade: Daddy’s little girl.

“They’re skinny, gorgeous girls whose dads have a lot of money,” says Silva.

“They’re so loaded they can buy designer off the peg — and sometimes Dad even owns the label,” says Widdicombe.

“So the fathers get their daughters these great jobs in the fashion magazines. But while they might have great cheek bones and a rich daddy, they just can’t do the work.”

“They come in twice a week for two hours, have a cappuccino and say, ‘Hmmm, pink’, and then leave. And these poor women who work under them have to put it all together into a magazine that makes sense.”

Many such magazines are perched in lofty offices high atop New York’s best addresses. It is from one of these that Widdicombe and Silva learned about “gift hamper etiquette” at a certain high-profile magazine. Gift hampers are a stock-in-trade in the fashion industry, used to thank people after events, or simply to butter up magazine staffers in the hope of getting editorial coverage.

“If you’re an assistant, you have to go collect the hamper from reception yourself,” says Widdicombe. “But if you’re an editor or someone more important, you get it delivered to your desk.”

“Once you’ve climbed a few rungs in this industry, you really are taken care of,” says Silva. “The top editors and designers have limousines carrying them everywhere, and they are so insulated from reality.”

“But that’s no excuse to let your ego take over,” says Widdicombe, who also points out the element of hubris in a column like Chic Happens. “What goes around…,” he says wistfully of the tyrannical bosses.

The pair have had numerous offers for book and syndication deals, but when push comes to shove, interested parties nearly always back down due to the controversial nature of their work.

“We’ve had that many editors take us out for lunch, and we start by asking only one thing: that they back us if it hits the fan,” says Silva. “Invariably, they won’t take the risk.”

But as the public’s appetite grows for ever-more salacious details of celebrity lives, so too have opportunities for Chic Happens. In their best offer yet, the pair have just been flown to London for a meeting with Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Television, where they negotiated a massive deal for 80 one-hour Chic Happens TV spots.

Widdicombe has also been approached to fill the seat left by the recently departed advice column doyenne Ann Landers. Entitled Gay Best Friend, editors were looking for a “modern, bitchy take” on the genre. They may just have found their man.

This article originally appeared in The Age.