It's bigger than both of them

Times Staff Writer

During HER 10 years as a famous person, Lindsay Lohan has worn a dizzying number of public masks.

She began as a beloved Disney tween queen and a much-praised box-office lure. That unraveled soon enough, as she became another wounded, doomed celebrity girl careening through the tabloid world: Lohan the despondent daughter of reckless parents, the on-the-set monster destroying her career and holding up expensive productions, the luckless dater whose boyfriends and hookups trash-talked her and did her no good, the cocaine-and-alcohol-fueled road menace who seemed rehab resistant.

But lately, there's been another twist in the Lohan saga that the mainstream gossip media -- her unofficial biographers -- have been feeding to their readers in regular doses. US Weekly, OK!, Star, the New York Post's Page Six, Life & Style and all of the other cogs in the celebrity news machine have been regularly publishing reports about her relationship with DJ .

Which from all happy and seemingly sober appearances -- they kiss, they hug, they hold hands, they shop for groceries -- is a romantic one.

Neither Lohan nor Ronson has spoken to the media about their relationship, and not surprisingly, Lohan's publicist would not comment for this story nor make Lohan herself available, writing in an e-mail that Lohan "wants to keep her private life private." (Ronson likewise did not respond to a request for comment made through her website.)

Yet the celebrity magazines have kept the stories coming. Mainstream editors used to be squeamish to the point of erasure when it came to unconfirmed same-sex relationships. Unless a star was willing to say, "Yep, I'm gay," as so famously did on the cover of Time in 1997 -- and as a trickle of others have too in years since -- print publications (including this one) have generally employed their own form of don't ask/don't tell when covering gay or bisexual celebrities who have not come out via press release or some other explicit declaration.

While many celebrities themselves have stopped hiding their same-sex relationships, the media have not until Lohan followed suit. , an openly gay columnist for the , who himself has never engaged in that kind of self-censorship, has noticed a change. As Musto sees it, we've reached a moment in which the Lohan-Ronson pairing can simply be reported as a fact because people have, you know, eyes.

"Traditionally, the media has been as interested in closeting celebrities as the celebrities themselves have been," Musto said. "I've read things in gossip columns that would never go there in the past and realized, 'Wow, they're going there now.' They don't consider gay a dirty thing anymore. And it's very cool."

Jared Shapiro, the editor of Life & Style, said that the Lohan-Ronson story has indeed presented a unique set of issues for celebrity magazines. "Why is this couple different than every other couple?" Shapiro asked rhetorically recently on the telephone. "We know they're not friends -- we know they're in love, we know they're dating.

"Major movie star! Gay, question mark? Bisexual, question mark? Um." For Shapiro, those questions are just the first stop, and his magazine devoted its cover this week to them, asking, "Is Lindsay Gay?"

Before that, Shapiro said, the magazine had chosen to "follow their step-by-step," which is fairly easy because the couple are out so often. In a sense stories about the doings of "LoRo," as they've been called, are just standard celeb-gossip fare. And yet, Shapiro said, there is undeniably a larger issue looming over each story.

He returned to the rhetorical to ponder the question: "At what point do we editorialize and say why we think this is important?"

None of the other weekly magazines or gossip columns seems to have reached that point of what-does-it-all-mean analysis, either. Each has used the same template for this relationship as they do week after week for, say, "Eva and Tony" or "Nicole and Keith": "Lindsay Lohan Turns 22 With Samantha Ronson at Her Side" read the headline of a from this month. On the cover of its July 14 issue, "Lindsay & Samantha: Inside Their Hot Romance" to its readers; and on its Love Notes page on June 30, US asserted that "those close to the pair call it love" under the headline "Lindsay & Samantha: This Is for Real."

Nothing is official

Still, THE facts can't be pushed aside: There has been no official acknowledgment from Team Lohan -- or Team Ronson, for that matter -- that the relationship is Sapphic. So to discuss it looks a lot like outing, which is, to paraphrase , "publicizing homosexual behavior without the person's (or people's) consent."

No less an authority than Bonnie Fuller, the former editor of US and Star and numerous other publications, who is both credited and blasted for creating the current gossip world we live in, said in a telephone interview, "I don't think we've ever been in the business of outing celebrities at celebrity news weeklies."

Hmm. Perhaps, then, it's more complicated than calling the Lohan-Ronson coverage an evolved form of outing. Maybe, with fame culture and its now-rote privacy invasions having brought us to a state of flux about what secrets a celebrity is entitled to, long-held anti-outing stances are crumbling.

There are other, more subtle factors at work in the case of Lohan, of course. This is, in tabloid terms, an over-covered (former, one hopes) disaster who has entered into a same-sex relationship. After all the dirt they've dished on her, why would the gossip mill back off now? There's also the reality that the mainstream celebrity media must compete furiously to survive, and Lohan and Ronson are dating in a public way, with much photographic evidence. It would be surprising if they did not scuttle the old rules to be able to document this latest Lohan chapter.

And there's yet another open question: Do editors assume that their readers are, at this point in history, largely accepting of -- and possibly even interested in -- gay relationships? (At least when it's two women?)

It would be nice to ask some of the romance's other leading storytellers these questions, but the editors of US, People and Page Six all declined to comment for this article through PR representatives.

Perez Hilton, whose website perezhilton.com regularly exposes perceived inconsistencies and hypocrisies in famous people and institutions, has also found himself wondering about this subject. "I've been fascinated by the reluctance of anyone in the mainstream media to talk on the record about the issue," Hilton said in an interview. "Most of these big media organizations -- still to this day -- have an unwritten policy against, quote, 'outing' people.

"What's especially interesting to me is that the publication that first jumped on the Lindsay-and-Samantha relationship bandwagon . . . is People magazine! And People magazine, of all the celebrity weeklies, is the tamest, the most celebrity-friendly and the most by-the-book. I'm fascinated by why they're doing it. I'm not saying it's a bad thing, it's just surprising to me."

So why won't People -- or US or Page Six -- say why Lohan and Ronson's relationship is different than other same-sex celebrity relationships that they ignore? "Maybe because they have no good explanation for it," Hilton said.

Both Hilton and Musto have a far easier time keeping track of their editorial standards because they both do believe in outing. Musto, who was the first person to report -- in tandem with Page Six -- that DeGeneres and Anne Heche were dating, has been writing about closeted gay celebrities for many years. "It might seem shocking, but there were days when Ellen and Rosie [O'Donnell] and Boy George and George Michael were not out, and I was running pieces about them being gay," he said.

It wasn't always easy. "I did get vilified in the old days," Musto said, sounding wistful. "Like I was considered a lunatic."

The day after her birthday party at Teddy's at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, Lohan called radio show and said she'd like to spend the next year "being with the person that I care about," among other gender-neutral phrasings that Seacrest -- uncharacteristically -- didn't ask her to elaborate on. Is Lohan getting closer to more specific nouns and pronouns, particularly if one of the celebrity magazines will pay her a big check to do so, as has been rumored?

'A breath of fresh air'

Life & Style's Shapiro said that whatever happens going forward, covering Lohan-Ronson has been a relief. "This relationship, I will be honest with you, is a breath of fresh air for Lindsay Lohan coverage," he said. "None of us want to be writing about the train wreck that Lindsay Lohan was. We don't want to see her back in rehab, that doesn't do anyone any good. We love that she's with Sam Ronson and that she's happy -- Lindsay looks better than ever."

And perhaps that perceived happiness -- on Lohan's part, perhaps, but more important among the celebrity editors and reporters who cover her -- offers another clue about why this story has unfolded as openly as it has. "People want to get emotionally involved in this stuff, that's why they buy the magazines and read this stuff -- they want to be taken away," Shapiro said. "When it's Lindsay and Sam, it's like, 'Oh, they found each other.' "

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kate.aurthur@latimes.com

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