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Marcia Cross: Desperate rumors

Marcia Cross: Desperate rumors


It's the little rumor that could: "Marcia Cross is coming out in The Advocate!" Here's how mainstream media gossips took an anonymous Internet posting and had many people believing it--until the Desperate Housewives star herself was forced to deny it

In case you were confused by the cover of this magazine, let's be completely clear: Neither Marcia Cross nor anyone who works with her has ever been in contact with The Advocate about coming out in these pages. Reports to the contrary are completely false. And yet in the course of one frantic week in February that rumor spread like wildfire, from the spark of one anonymous Internet posting on a gay gossip site to a worldwide deluge of mainstream media reports--the force of which led, inevitably, to Cross's public denial on The View. Speculations about who's secretly gay are not new. Gossip about Hollywood and political players regularly screams out from the supermarket tabloids, and entire Web sites are devoted to outing allegedly closeted celebrities and elected officials. The Advocate has weathered countless invented tales of celebrities coming out on its cover, from Debbie Reynolds to Jonathan Taylor Thomas. But until now such innuendos have always been under the radar, blips considered major only by hard-core media junkies. What's remarkable about this particular rumor is that it crossed over into the mainstream media with lightning speed but without an ounce of verification. By the time Desperate Housewives star Cross, who plays buttoned-up Bree Van De Kamp with such captivating aplomb, found herself explaining that she wasn't a lesbian on The View on February 8 (the show aired the next day), she was at the center of a perfect storm of rumor-turned-"fact." In its own way, the path of this hurricane is a fascinating microcosm of our celebrity-crazed culture, our rabid passion for sex-drenched secrets, and the tension between the forbidden and the fascinating that's fanned by a White House obsessed with "the gays." It all started on Tuesday, February 1, at 1:34 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. It was at that moment that someone going by the name Your Friendly Spy at ABC posted an item on, a gay-themed message board infamous for its no-holds-barred gossip forums. During sweeps, wrote the self-styled spy, a cast member of ABC's Desperate Housewives was planning on coming out in The Advocate. "It's the talk of the set," Friendly Spy wrote, "thanks to the fact said cast member wants to give The Advocate the exclusive--the editor is a close friend of the star--before announcing it to the rest of the media." Within 30 minutes DataLoungers were certain this cast member was Marcia Cross, a notion the Friendly Spy all but confirmed in several teasing follow-up posts designed to goad on the guesswork to keep the thread alive. Ordinarily, the rumor would have been confined to cyberspace speculations. This time, not so. "The Internet and the blogosphere are parallel universes to the mainstream media," observes Orville Schell, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at University of California, Berkeley. "They're actually very much in a state of contention, envy--often arguing and sometimes demeaning each other. But there's no formal process for vetting truth from fact, and so rumors do get a kind of credibility simply by circulating. And this is a problem." It's happened before--a Web fabrication getting tossed into the mainstream by an unwitting reporter or public figure, like the time Hillary Rodham Clinton denounced a proposed e-mail tax, a long-standing Internet hoax. Such a rumor "gains a whole new kind of credibility once it appears in one mainstream media outlet, and then it is like a computer virus on a hard disk," Schell says. "You'd think [the mainstream press] would be very careful about such things, but maybe they think that a thing like this is soft and doesn't matter." In this case, a mainstream press frenzy began within 72 hours of the posting. Media outlets as varied as Entertainment Tonight,People magazine, the Boston Herald, and ABC News were calling The Advocate to ask, "Is Marcia Cross coming out? When is the story running?" The story made it to print when Your Friendly Spy's post was mentioned in the gossip pages of two major-city newspapers: On Sunday, February 6, the New York Daily News reported that "a cast member" was coming out, called the story a "rumor," and quoted an Advocate rep's denial that any story was in the works. Two days later London's Sun tabloid treated the coming-out as hard fact and named Cross explicitly. All this from an unidentified source on an Internet message board. Yet, amazingly, the first phone call DataLounge says it received to confirm the posting and ask who was behind it was from The Advocate, for this story. "Frankly, I'm shocked that [any media outlet] would quote us as a source on this," says Carl Pritzkat, president of Mediapolis, which operates DataLounge. The site was conceived as an anonymous forum for gay bar gossip, Pritzkat explains--a place where those both in the know and decidedly out of it could tease each other with "insider" Hollywood dish (sometimes true, more often not) without worrying that anything they were posting would mean much outside the site. Pritzkat estimates that 30,000 to 40,000 regular users frequent the forums every month, most of them anonymous and most of them game for the game. And there's no easy way to know just who among those tens of thousands was the Friendly Spy, much less whether he or she ever worked at ABC. In fact, part of what makes the Cross brouhaha so incredible is that gossip about celebrities' sexuality on DataLounge is about as common as, well, breathing. "There's always a low level of that [kind of speculation] here," explains Pritzkat, "and most of the time it's a lot of the usual suspects, and it becomes almost a running joke." Even when it's an unusual name, there's no way to sort the patent fictions--like the Cross coming-out posting--from the surprising facts. As Pritzkat recalls, "Somebody had posted on the site a couple years ago about [Jim] McGreevey being gay, and typical of the DataLounge churn, it sort of came and went" long before the former New Jersey governor so famously declared himself "a gay American." Now, that would have been some scoop. But no one was paying attention. The Cross thread, however, gained serious traction, and by Monday, February 7, the rumor had snowballed into a juggernaut. Both CNN and Los Angeles's Fox TV affiliate reported the speculation that morning, mentioning Cross by name as the soon-to-be-out cast member. Perhaps that's what led the Canadian Broadcasting Company to call The Advocate with a polite request for an advance copy of the interview. It would be a good news peg, said the CBC producer, for a story the network had in the works about what it's like to be gay in the United States in 2005. There's the rub. In many ways, the explosion of the Cross rumor in the media echoed coverage of the presidential election, which mainstream pundits had decided was won on issues of homosexuality and "moral values." Because the fact is, Desperate Housewives--with story lines dealing in S/M, underage sex, pill popping, and accidental arson--is the antithesis of supposed "red state" prudery. Yet Americans of all stripes are unified in their adoration of the racy ABC prime-time soap--masterminded, as it happens, by gay Republican Marc Cherry. Not since the peak seasons of Friends has a network TV show captured the zeitgeist so thoroughly. (Oprah filmed her own imaginary episode for her talk show, for goodness' sake.) The Cross coming-out rumor was fueled by the star's personal history. She is, in her own words, "single and 42." She's a gay icon in her own right from her years as crazy Dr. Kimberly on Melrose Place. And as Bree Van De Kamp, Cross plays, arguably, Desperate Housewives' most complex character: an anal-retentive uber-mom with a membership in the National Rifle Association who doesn't flinch at covering up her teenage son's hit-and-run accident. While Rosie and Melissa settle nicely into what our culture assumes to be the typical gay woman, the notion that beautiful, feminine, Stepford-worthy Bree might be embodied by a closeted actress was, it seems, just too steamy to ignore. Or maybe it just had to do with Cross's flaming-red hair: Cynthia Nixon--another redhead from a sexually adventurous watercooler show--revealed a real-life same-sex relationship just months earlier. Whatever the particulars, to be famous and gay remains the culture's last titillating taboo, making it the juiciest way to jump-start ratings and newsstand sales. To wit: The same day Cross's denials were covered by USA Today and the Associated Press--guaranteeing the story truly national exposure--sweetly messed-up teen character Marissa was kissing another girl on Fox's prime-time soap The O.C., a sweeps month ploy so common that The New York Times traced it back to a 1991 episode of L.A. Law. How conflicted is our culture? Audiences will tune in, in droves, to watch two ladies kiss on TV; all eyes make a beeline for those tabloids that announce they know who's gay 2005. But when those rumors make it on CNN...whoa, hold up! Actual flesh-and-blood celebrities don't want to walk around with homosexuality hanging around their necks, lest their public image permanently shift from, say, the Queen of Nice to that angry lesbian with the weird haircut, all of it a creation of the media. Little wonder that coming out is such a rare thing. "Save for grand jury testimony or in a court of law, I don't think any person has to talk about their sex life to anybody but their sex partner," says Howard Bragman, a longtime Los Angeles publicist who has advised actors, music stars, military service members, and professional athletes on how to handle the big reveal. "That's the way I've always treated my clients' sex lives. Gay, straight, mixed, liquid." Some handlers--publicists, agents, managers--deliberately keep themselves in the dark about their closeted clients' private lives, engaging in a Hollywood variation on "don't ask, don't tell." So when they tell the press their clients aren't gay, they may be telling the truth as they know it. "I don't think it's an issue that most publicists care to discuss," Bragman says. "It's only about what the client wants." Bragman was impressed with the gracious way Cross handled herself on The View, where she appeared more incredulous that anyone would care about her sexuality at all than that anyone would think she's gay. Well before the coming-out rumor, Cross was no stranger to gays and lesbians, having appeared alone or with the other Housewives at galas and fund-raisers to support AIDS and gay causes. Nor is she unfamiliar with the world of gossip. When she accompanied Marc Cherry to the Out 100 party in November, Cross ran into Out contributor and legendary Village Voice gossip columnist Michael Musto. "I forget how the conversation started," Musto recalls, "but I said, 'What's your gay connection?' And she said, 'Well, I have a gay uncle.' I said, 'Well, don't we all,' and she said, 'No, I really do.' And [then] she said, 'I went to Juilliard, where everybody's gay.' " After Cross joked that she's even considered "turning gay" herself, the ever-quick Musto replied, "Well, have another cocktail." She laughed, Musto reports, and then said, "No, kidding." He adds, "It was kind of a flirty conversation, all in fun." You might think Musto would lament that such a brazen fabrication by an anonymous poster on DataLounge made it into the mainstream, or at least that he was scooped, but Musto truly feels the whole hullabaloo is a good sign for gay America. "The fact that the media is pursuing gay rumors just like straight rumors means that they're not discriminating anymore," he argues. "Nobody thinks it's a horrible smear to investigate whether a celebrity is gay or not. In the past people wouldn't have gone within 20 miles of this story. It just would've died in the water, because people were terrified of implying that somebody's gay even if they are. "With straight sexuality issues with celebrities, if the media heard about, oh, maybe Angelina broke up Brad and Jen, you call the parties involved. Angelina denied it. Brad and Jen denied it. And the media went with it anyway, with the denial. I think it's only fair that the gay rumors be treated the same way." He chuckles. "You know what I'm saying?" Perhaps the most illuminating details of Your Friendly Spy's original posting about Cross are the other dollops of dish that accompanied it. Along with her apparent coming-out cover story, the Spy asserted that Cross was set to "announce a relationship with the lead of another TV series." Whoever that woman was supposed to be the DataLounge roundelay never settled on, and when Your Friendly Spy returned to hint that said star's series was on the WB, it effectively killed any chance that such a detail would get picked up by the press: The WB's shows simply aren't in the ratings league of a hit like Housewives. As it turns out, there was truth to be found in the first half of the DataLounge post. A long-anticipated gay character on Desperate Housewives, it read, "is actually going to be Bree's son"--a connection between Cross and something gay that would be revealed on a late February episode, a publicist for the show confirmed at press time. Did the truth of one part of the DataLounge posting add veracity to the rest of Friendly Spy's gossip? It's easy to assume that many of the press outlets telephoning The Advocate had--like this magazine--heard the buzz about Bree's son in advance of the reveal, therefore giving the posting more credibility than other DataLounge gossip. The rumor that a fictional character was coming out at the same time as a real-life cast member may also have sparked media memories of the biggest coming-out ever: The simultaneous revelation in April 1997 that both Ellen DeGeneres and her alter ego on her ABC sitcom, Ellen, were gay. That story was so huge, and the parallels to the Housewives rumor so striking, perhaps the pattern was enough to hook in some reporters eager to make gay ink on an even bigger show. The timing of the Spy's post is interesting on two fronts. For one, buzz that a character on the show was coming out had been building for months, so the Spy was confirming what many media watchers thought they knew was all but certain. So it's rather easy to conclude that the truth of that tidbit bolstered the dubious revelation that Cross herself was coming out. Second, the fact that Spy's post debuted right before the crucial February sweeps period, when a show's ratings directly affect its network's future revenues, could lead cynics to conclude that someone at the show or the network had cooked up the whole story and let it grow out of control. Not only could the flap guarantee better ratings, it might soften the blow of a gay reveal for Housewives fans who might view that plot thread--a pot-smoking, amoral gay teenager--as transgressing a bit too far. But if the plot was hatched at Disney-owned ABC, either not everyone was on board or it was a massive conspiracy with some really convincing role-playing: A high-ranking openly gay executive at the network telephoned The Advocate--twice--to be reassured that no Cross coming-out story was planned, as did frantic handlers who work closely with Cross herself. So who is responsible? DataLounge's Pritzkat suggests that occasionally "somebody decides that this is where they should grind their ax against a notable within the gay community," like Housewives creator Cherry. But since Your Friendly Spy at ABC didn't bother to go through DataLounge's identity authentication process, anyone--or several people--could have authored the subsequent goading posts under that name after the original bomb was dropped. Really, this whole to-do might well have been just another volley in the site's regular stream of tattle, only it spun way out of control. Cross's career is golden in any case, says Bragman. "If Marcia Cross were gay and were to have come out, it wouldn't have been a career breaker," he says with a chortle. "Marc Cherry and everybody at the Happiest Place on Earth are not going to kick her out for being gay in the middle of a hit show." Still, the coming-out rumor may finally prove more powerful for some Desperate fans than Cross's crystal-clear denials. Like Tom Cruise and Richard Gere before her, she will always be thought of by many as someone who felt compelled to deny being gay. Which is, ultimately, the catch-22 that sticks in the craw. To be openly gay is to embrace the whole truth of oneself in spite of a sometimes hostile culture. But when a person in the public eye honors their own truth by denying that they're gay, no one is satisfied: not the scoop-driven media, not a country obsessed with who's gay and who's not, and not the gay kid who just wants someone to look up to. When a gay rumor takes over, people believe what they'll believe, and the truth becomes so elusive, it's irrelevant.

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