Taken from the spring 2021 issue of Dazed. You can pre-order a copy of our latest issue here
Spotted on the steps of The Met: a stylish new posse, taking over the spot where a beloved and notorious crew once stood – remember Lonely Boy, Queens B, S, N, and the Motherchucker? Of course you do – their names still turn heads (and tales) at Constance Billard School for Girls and St Jude’s School for Boys. But New York City never looks back for long, and a new private-school generation is snatching the wheel – and our curiosity.
So who are these fabulous four? We hear they’re playing it close to the vest for now – smart! In these parts, word gets out fast. Lucky for us, we have a very close source. Rumour has it they’re Zoya Lott, Audrey Hope, Julien Calloway and Akeno ‘Aki’ Menzies. Aside from challenging the school dress code (hello, pink buzzcuts and white croc knee-high boots), we hear they aren’t really into following norms, period.
Things around here are about to get interesting again – VERY interesting. Stay tuned, this could be a (new) classic.
And who am I? That’s one secret I’ll never tell. XOXO.
For those of a certain age and inclination, that iconic phrase – sing-songed by the equally quintessential Kristen Bell – represents a weekly escapist retreat into the fictional lives of the young, rich and scandalous of Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Based on the Cecily von Ziegesar novel series, Gossip Girl debuted in September 2007, just before the economy collapsed and Barack Obama won the presidential election – respectively, the ruinous and uplifting milestones that kicked off a rollercoaster of a decade for millennials. In its six seasons, the infamous teen drama thrilled and frustrated a generation. It was aspirational in style and taste: characters like Serena van der Woodsen and Blair Waldorf became style icons who helped move serious units of alice bands for New York-based designers and beyond. Gossip Girl’s voyeuristic premise – a titular blog that closely tracked the misadventures of Manhattan’s private-school elite – was a fun, scary and prescient glimpse of many social media realities to come. But the show’s characters were confined to a narrow demographic scope (namely: white, cisgender, hetero) and, like many teen dramas, many of its machinations grew stale.
Now Gossip Girl is getting a second lease on life, and its showrunner, Joshua Safran, is promising much more than a reboot when it premieres on HBO Max later this year. Perhaps a future kindred spirit to the network’s own Euphoria, it features a racially diverse new cast and pledges queer inclusivity – a proper culture reset, without baggage. Same neighbourhood, same schools, only anchored in the broader realities that Gen Z is living through and helping redefine. That goes for the tech, too – gone is the blogosphere Gossip Girl once ruled (though, in an auspicious casting move, OG teen fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson will be joining the series as a character named Kate Keller). When Instagram accounts like @Deuxmoi now spill the most scalding tea, where will Gossip Girl most efficiently insert herself? The show hints at the “most modern, relevant form” a voice of social surveillance could take in 2021. Instagram? TikTok? Discord? Its very own app? Who knows – thankfully, whatever it is, Bell will return to narrate the show.
Some will ask: why Gossip Girl, and why now? We say: why not? Sure, the world is broken, but it wasn’t in great shape when the first series was at its peak, either, and that didn’t stop our basic human need to engage in shamelessly fun, glamorous escapism. (It still hasn’t: after all, Instagram still thrives, even mid-pandemic.) Watching beautiful people in beautiful clothes do shocking things will NEVER get old, no matter how grim reality offscreen looks. All we can say is, our notifications are on.
Over a transcontinental Zoom session in January, the show’s lead cast members gathered to dish the gossip on the new GG era: Whitney Peak, 18, who plays Zoya Lott; Emily Alyn Lind, 18 (Audrey Hope); Evan Mock, 22 (Akeno ‘Aki’ Menzies); and Jordan Alexander, 28 (Julien Calloway). We know you’ll love them.
How did you all initially get involved with the show?
Emily Alyn Lind: I heard it was being cast by Cassandra (Kulukundis), who cast all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films – my favourite director. She’s such a badass and I wanted to pick her brain. I kind of fell in love with her and the way that she spoke about the project – then, I was able to meet with Josh (Safran), our show creator. He explained how they wanted to take Gossip Girl and talk about new issues and topics that they (hadn’t touched on) before.
Whitney Peak: I did a tape for it, then I went to Uganda and completely forgot about it – my sister was getting married. I got back in February and they told me that I’d booked it, then I went to LA to find some (new) dads and sisters. Short and sweet.
Evan Mock: Dads and sisters? (everyone laughs) Anyway, I just got a call from Josh one day, and he said, ‘We’ve pretty much made a character and I’ve been looking at your face for the last two months, so it would be great if you’d try out for this and film a tape for it.’ And so I did. Then it was, like, a year of waiting to see if I got it. And now we’re here, I guess.
Jordan Alexander: I actually heard about it when I was at a premiere with Emily and she mentioned she was doing Gossip Girl. And I was like, ‘Woah, Gossip Girl!’ I did an audition in February, forgot about it, and then in August they were like, ‘Oh, we want to do a screen test.’ And I was like, ‘For what?’ (laughs)
EM: It was a very interesting way of recruiting.
EAL: It was. They called me in and said, ‘We’d love for you to come in and read with Aki.’ Then I actually met Evan and I was like, ‘Who the fuck is this?’ (laughs)
EM: You’re probably thinking, ‘Who the fuck this is? I’ve never seen you in any TV shows before.’
EAL: No, I was like, ‘He has pink hair, how weird. But it’s cool!’
EM: ‘He’s not even an actor, they’re making me read with this fucking guy?’
EAL: Wow... by the way, nice neck tat. (Call pauses as everyone collectively admires Evan’s new neck tattoo)
Were you fans of the original show?
WP: Definitely, yeah.
EM: I’d heard about it, I hadn’t watched it. I’m watching it now.
EAL: I watched the first season years ago and got into it and then kind of went away from it. I’m really bad at watching television – I watch a lot of movies. But when we started this new one, I didn’t want to take anything from the original, personally. I wanted to start fresh – it’s a new take on it, a different time. It’s not a reboot, it’s a continuation, so we have an entirely new story and I think that’s really important.
What were your first impressions of your characters?
WP: I thought Zoya was really cool.
EAL: There’s not a lot we can say about our characters but what I can say is that when I first met Audrey, I thought it was going to be a really exciting experience just because she’s a really well thought-out character.
JA: I thought Julien was powerful and deep – she was more than that typical high-school popular girl. She has an interesting, powerful undercurrent.
“I think that Instagram is the biggest dating app in the world!” – Evan Mock
One thing Josh has hinted at is that the series will be very queer. I would love to know more about that.
EAL: I think that what we can say is this – we’re making a series in 2020 and 2021. It’s really important for us to not just talk about these things but also express them as normal things that kids deal with. It shouldn’t be this new, exciting thing to talk about, it just exists. It’s about normalising things that used to be different or taboo.
JA: This is good! Like Emily is saying, people are allowed to just be there and be whatever they are – whether it’s queer or not. Just in the sense that, like, we’re all just humans existing. People do what people do.
WP: There’s a lot of representation, which I can’t say we saw a lot of in the first one. It’s dope being able to see people who look like you and who are interested in the same things, and who happen to be in entertainment, because it’s so influential and obviously reflective of the times.
Gender dynamics and relationships played out in dramatic, sometimes toxic ways in the first series. How is the new series challenging that?
EAL: Gender roles will be talked about and dissected. A lot of the women in our show are very powerful, but I think they were in the original as well. We’ll be exploring what it means to be a woman in this generation, and in general, exploring ideas that we didn’t before.
WP: It’s also just humans being humans, doing what they wanna do instead of being fit into, ‘This is a man, this is what a man is supposed to do.’ I think it’s a pretty raw take on the kind of lives that we’re trying to portray on screen.
Gossip Girl was part of the Sidekick (phone) era but also ahead of its time in documenting how technology, rumours and voyeurism impacted on its characters’ social (and dating) lives. What are your thoughts on how Gen Z is navigating these realms?
EAL: I think it’s really hard for young people to connect. We live in a very fast time – we’re always seeing what everyone else is doing.
WP: We’re all too involved in each other’s lives.
EAL: There’s not a lot of mystery or privacy. It’s really important to be able to reflect on yourself, to be singular, to have respect for yourself. I feel like people get over each other fast because the next thing is one click away.
WP: There’s no missing each other, there’s nothing.
EAL: It’s a human Postmates, you know what I mean? It’s so easy to just look at people and swipe. It’s not really about human connection any more. I sound like an 80-year-old talking about how it used to be, but I do think it definitely takes a toll on young people. On social media, you’re never seeing who people really are. You’re really just looking at what they’re trying to portray. That’s something we will definitely be touching on in the show. I don’t think we’re saying, ‘This is bad,’ it’s more an honest portrayal of how it affects them. What do you think about dating in this generation, Evan?
EM: I think it’s dope. I think that Instagram is the biggest dating app in the world. (Everyone gasps and agrees)
EAL: I mean, I’m currently dating someone but I’ve never really had dating apps because, you know, sliding into people’s DMs exists. It’s like a virtual bar.
EM: Yeah, it’s definitely changed with Instagram. It’s weird what the rules are now, like if you slide into the DMs, it makes it seem that you ‘like’ this person or someone must be into you if they DM you.
WP: I think there’s a line, though. You’re sliding into the DMs because you are interested in a person, or because you’re interested in something they’re interested in – you just think they’re cool. I think it’s pretty easy to tell the difference.
EAL: I got a DM the other day that was a couch. When I replied, he said, ‘I’m not sliding into your DMs, I’m moving in.’ (Everyone cracks up)
“People are bored (right now). We’re on our phones all the time and we’ve nothing to do but judge what we see” – Whitney Peak
With features like Close Friends on Instagram, you can share to a curated crowd. But in 2020, people found new ways to watch and judge, whether it was wearing masks or meeting people during lockdown. Do people just enjoy gossip no matter what?
WP: I got a friend to change my social media password because I just can’t be on it right now. But I think people are just bored. We’re on our phones all the time and we have nothing to do but judge what we’re looking at.
JA: It’s not necessarily cruel or malicious. Sometimes people need something to obsess over or hate or root for, and social media fills that gap.
EM: Everyone wants to feel something.
EAL: Social media has been a helpful tool in a lot of ways but it’s also kind of terrifying that we are able to adapt to this generation of non-physical connec- tion so easily. It’s been scary to see how adaptable I was during Covid. But I also know a lot of girls who are like, ‘I gained so much weight during quarantine and I hate myself.’ There’s still this (idea) that, even though we’re stuck indoors, we have to keep this image up.
WP: There’s this pressure of having to be productive...
EAL: ...or checking in on your friends and always being there for other people, even though you’re probably going through your own shit and that’s totally OK. For me, it was mostly trying to stay off social media as much as I could during quarantine. But I loved that so many people were able to come together (online) during the election. A lot of the reason why Biden got elected was because of people coming together. And of course, (there was) the thing on TikTok where people banded together to ‘sell out’ Trump. That’s amazing, those things would not be available to us if social media did not exist.
JA: It’s not inherently an evil thing, I think it just amplifies issues in our society that already exist.
How did you adapt to working together during such a weird era of filming?
EAL: It’s definitely hard during Covid – we get tested twice a day – so we just stayed in our bubbles and only hung out with each other. But it actually helped so much. These friendships on the show are meant to be ones where we’ve known each other forever.
WP: I was being super-neurotic about it – I was like, ‘I need to get everybody together, we all need to have a night, we all need to meet each other and shatter this glass,’ that probably wasn’t even there to begin with.
JA: It’s really important to create that sense of bonding between all of us, because that’s the point of the show. The interconnectedness of this group – who we are around this or that person and what elements of the character are brought out when they’re allowed to be that version of themselves with that character.
EM: I was most worried about memorisation and how to even do this whole thing, because I had no other (reference). It was just interesting going to set every day like, ‘Oh, sick, I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing today! But I’m gonna try my best and make sure I’m filling the role for everyone else.’
WP: You’re killing it – swimming with the sharks and doing a great job.
EAL: It’s such a nerve-racking thing for your first project to be something as extreme as Gossip Girl, it’s not like you’re starting with some indie project. It’s like when you throw a baby into a pool to teach it how to swim. Honestly, you would never know, though, because Evan is an artist and for whatever reason, you adapt to everything you do and make it your own.
WP: He’s also just naturally good at everything.
EM: Not true.
EAL: Sometimes Evan will say something like, ‘What does that mean?’ And we’ll be like, ‘What do you mean? Haven’t you done this for 15 years?’
EM: Well, thanks guys, appreciate it.
“We’re making a series in 2021. It’s really important for us to not just talk about (queer culture) but also express (it) as normal... It shouldn’t be this new, exciting thing to talk about, it just exists. It’s about normalising things that used to be different or taboo” – Emily Alyn Lind
Fashion is a huge part of the Gossip Girl universe. What do you think ‘dressing up’ means now? Does it matter to this generation?
EM: More than ever.
WP: One hundred per cent. I caught myself at times being like, ‘I’m not really going to see anybody or anything but I want to wear something that makes me feel cool.’ I don’t think it’s ‘dress to impress’, it’s more ‘dress how you feel’. You feel better if you feel confident and I feel like dressing however you want makes you feel more confident.
EAL: You go into your fittings and you just feel like you’re six years old, playing dress-up every day. I wear a lot of vintage and small brands in real life, and on the show there are so many things I would never wear or think would work. But then Eric Daman – who also worked on Sex and the City – works his magic and it’s such a trip. One time, I found out what I was wearing cost $25,000. I tripped over and was like, ‘Dude, can you let me know next time?’ But I guess this is what these kids are used to...
WP: The kids of the Upper East Side are. (laughs) Most kids are not used to that. But there are actual people who live like this. It’s just weird being able to play that.
JA: There’s a trademark style for everyone... It’s not just cool fashion, it’s something that reflects who the characters are.
EM: The girls are really stepping up and wearing the craziest things – me, not so much. I’ll be more subtle. It’s not as crazy as I would dress in real life but it’s pretty unique, I guess. I’m about to say something I’m not supposed to again... (laughs)
Speaking of fashion, Tavi Gevinson is on the show – before Rookie, Tavi was a popular fashion blogger when Gossip Girl 1.0 was first on air. How was it working with her?
JA: I’ve been following Tavi for maybe four or five years now. I’m just very interested in her fashion and art. I really loved Rookie, I had every edition of (the books). It was great to be around someone with that creative energy.
EAL: She represents what the show is about – she was so involved in talking about subjects that were kind of taboo for her age and she was open about it. This is a world she knows – blogging, the world of fashion, New York and all the types of people that live there. I go to Tavi a lot for advice.
WP: The amount of knowledge and experience that she has... And yet she is such a humble person, you would never know. She carries herself with such grace.
Aside from fashion, the original show was well known for its eclectic soundtrack as well. Is music still a big presence?
WP: I would say so – the few times I’ve heard the music, it’s been very fitting.
JA: I feel like with everything in the show they’re so specific and meticulous about creating something really impactful, and the music direction (is the same).
Jordan and Emily, you’re also both musicians – will that come into play with your characters at all?
JA: I don’t know if we can share this but I do think that it could definitely be an important factor in the show, in creating the reality of it. I feel like it’s definitely gonna be involved, whether your character is a musician or whether you personally are.
What is your personal music taste?
WP: Mine is a mess, I’m all over the place. I don’t even know, I just listen to whatever I feel is good. Right now, as an homage to my character, I’ve been listening to a lot of Nina Simone.
JA: Anything that has meaning and passion.
WP: When you’re in the mood for a song, you just listen to it, there’s no ‘this is my favourite genre’ for me, at least.
EAL: When I’m making my own tunes, I try to keep it pretty blank-canvas. But my favourite musicians would be, like, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. I love The Velvet Underground and I’m really into Nico, I’m all over the place. I like the mid-60s.
You’ll be heading back into filming the first season soon. Are you feeling pressure coming into these roles, given the popularity and the legacy of the first series?
EAL: We realised we could take these roles and make them our own – they have their own qualities that are special and differentiate (them) from the original. I think people will relate to them on different levels.
JA: I think Emily really hit the nail on the head. We’re just keeping an open mind, staying true to the essence of Gossip Girl but with a completely different take on it.
EAL: These are new characters, new storylines. It’s a new generation.
Hair Dylan Chavles at The Wall Group using Bumble and bumble., make-up Seong Hee Park at Julian Watson Agency using NARS, photographic assistants Jordan Strong, Ari Sadok, styling assistants Mirko Pedone, Marcus Cuffie, Katie Dulieu, Amanda Burkett, Jade Boulton, hair assistant Megan Motter, make-up assistant Tanya Marques, digital operator Jonathan Nesteruk, videographer Nolan Zangas, production Peter Murray at Hen’s Tooth Productions, executive talent consultant Greg Krelenstein