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Fork on the Left, Knife in the Back

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In my 26-plus years at the Village Voice, I've written over 1300 columns spanning the dizzying highs and desperate lows of pop culture, always aiming to blow the whistle on celebrity absurdity while relishing the aspects of it that make it so gleefully entertaining.

My new book, Fork on the Left, Knife in the Back (Vantage Point Books; September 1), is your one-stop shopping guide to my decades of eyebrow raising and eyeball rolling, all done with an underlying sense of appreciation for the electric charge celebrities have brought to my otherwise mundane existence.

The book compiles my zippiest columns, with some original essays tossed in about the allure of blind items, networking, the glass closet, and the bloggorhea generation.

What follows is the introduction, which describes how my addiction for gossip and the comp lifestyle unexpectedly started with a free viewing of The Sound of Music.

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There are those who love to gossip and there are complete liars. I've always been quite open about being the former type. I can't drive, swim, or rearrange the furniture, but throw me a celebrity name and I can flap my gums for hours about their love lives and weird surgery. And what's the harm? Gossip, I long ago rationalized, is a communal form of expression, bringing us together to revel in those who do everything -- including screw up -- in an excitingly larger way. We dish these celebs to give us the illusion that we know them, rejoice in their stumbles because they've comfortingly enough sunk to our level, then cheer their inevitable rising out of the ashes, knowing nothing's more thrilling than a comeback, staged with all the radiant wisdom that can only come from hard knocks.

I'll always be grateful to gossip for helping get me through a deeply lonely childhood and adolescence in the bottom part of Brooklyn. The only Italian-American only child in history, I didn't even have imaginary friends, but sitting on the front stoop, I'd come alive as I'd blab with the next-door neighbors about all the other neighbors and their various marital and sartorial triumphs and faux pas. Bingo -- I'd found my calling.

Kitsch culture was my other pal, especially at the local one-dollar theater that showed misbegotten epics starring lusty Liz and Dick, with an occasional drop-in by bug-eyed waif Mia Farrow. These movies seemed like pure heaven, with faraway settings, jazzy costumes, and enjoyably hammy acting. What did I know? I'd never been suffocated with good taste. I'd never been suffocated with any taste. At home, everything was covered in plastic, including my father, and my mother was a wiz at keeping it all overcrowded yet spotless. So, for lack of a subscription to the Atlantic Monthly, bad movies became my escape, filling two hours with cathartic tales of adultery, mayhem, and drop earrings.

When my aunt took me to see a good movie, The Sound of Music (oh hush, it's superb), my head reeled from the melodic gorgeousness of it all. I hadn't realized a film didn't have to be rewarding despite itself. I instantly fell for its sweeping romance and chirpy Nazi baiting. Best of all, the cashier had cleverly noticed that auntie was a nun and promptly ushered us in for free! We were VIPs, swept in to see the best movie of the year! I've always looked back on that incident as the one that cemented my addiction to the comp lifestyle (if not to Christianity).

I vowed that once I had control, my life would be filled with such moments and I'd be lavished with nonstop entertainment and glittery names. I swore I'd never have to face extended boredom or lost opportunities ever again -- not when I could be escorted into Julie Andrews movies. I vowed, with swelling pride, to be a big, old motormouthed gossip columnist!

Jump ahead past my frantic days at Columbia College, where I studied Homer with one hand and Cher with the other, in between keeping index cards on everyone on campus, and we breathlessly arrive at my adult life, which was destined to become a relentless parade of guest-list action with no down time whatsoever. The folks were pushing me to go into accounting or pharmacy, but as wildly glamorous as those professions surely are, I dove into entertainment journalism, craving the mad whirl of event hopping and the chance to write whatever I pleased about it all.

Fortuitously, in 1984, after some penitent years spent freelancing, I landed the ultimate Michael Musto job -- writing a weekly trashtastic gossip and nightlife column in the Village Voice. As the author of "La Dolce Musto," I could have my finger in every imaginable scene, racing from Broadway opening nights to movie premieres to after-hours clubs, while sticking my face -- and point of view -- into every single syllable. If I was running away from something while chasing this dream, at least I was always running towards something amazing. And I never had to be alone with the lingering dark thoughts from my desperate early years. I had turned my yapping on the stoop into a livelihood -- and best of all, I was never bored.

It helped that I could get away with absolute murder. Not only could I be openly gay, but I could graciously escort others out too (as long as they were famous and I had evidence -- like the gay answer to Monica's Gap dress)! I could party for a living, while celebrating oddball types with a creative edge. I could chastise mainstream luminaries on those wonderful occasions when they disappointed us, serve pesky items without names to drive the readers extra crazy, and even occasionally make myself the story, from my erratic sex life to my own botched career ops.

Most enjoyably, I could ask zany, irreverent questions and clear up an urban legend or two in the process. I got to ask Carrie Fisher if it's true that she once walked in on mama Debbie Reynolds doing it with Agnes Moorehead. ("More head!" Debbie must have screamed, poetically. )Wickedly witty Carrie deadpanned, "I hardly even walked in on her with men!" I also got to grill Psycho star Janet Leigh on the rumors about her daughter Jamie Lee Curtis, and the result was both my Watergate and my Waterloo. After flinching, Janet politely answered that she'd named Jamie Lee in advance and made sure to give her a name that would work with either gender, and maybe that's why the talk started. I was half thrilled to have gone somewhere taboo with this queer query, yet half shaken to have ruffled a legend after having gained her trust with so much ass kissing. But hell, I'm a gossip columnist living my childhood dream, right?

Anyway, Fork on the Left, Knife in the Back covers my highs, lows, and dizzying bouts of "Oh no, he didn't." My first collection, La Dolce Musto ( January 2007; Carroll & Graf ), spanned my entire tenure at the Voice, but this assortment puts a bit more emphasis on the '90s and '00s, as my minxy mix of celebration and cynicism hits red carpets in search of validation from the most luminescent people on the planet. As you take it all in, picture me reciting it, with arm gestures, on the front stoop. If that's not vivid enough, just go there and I'll do it for you.

Read Michael Musto's blog here.