School Ties

2.7.2008

By

On the set of Out's cover shoot with Gossip Girl stars Penn Badgley, Chace Crawford, and Ed Westwick, we're all doing our best to give the stars their space. The three have spent their first strike-imposed week off appearing on MTV's TRL and making office visits to several magazines whose editors, usually blas' about ascendant stars, have been tripping over themselves to get face time with the princes of prime time. At our shoot, though, random stylists, editors, and makeup artists in adjoining studios simply 'happen' to pop in.

Badgley mentions how strange he finds the whole thing: 'I'm kind of stunned by how seriously people in the media are taking our high-camp TV show.'

What he fails to realize is that like anorexia, abbreviating words, and American Idol, Gossip Girl is a cultural phenomenon whose early adopters weren't actually teenage girls but rather gay men trapped in arrested development or seeking to vicariously prolong their youth -- depending on how you choose to stereotype. Since the show premiered last September on the CW, it has quickly become an unparalleled hit with its unexpected audience and was the first network show to be picked up for a full order this season.

The thought of returning to high school is a harrowing one for most gay men, but being able to look at adolescence through a lens that idealizes everyone as insanely wealthy, impossibly gorgeous, and improbably well-spoken is like porn. And don't worry -- they're all legal. Barely.

For the uninitiated, Gossip Girl, which is shot entirely on location, follows the exploits of a sophisticated group of high school juniors at a private school on New York's Upper East Side. These kids eat at the newest restaurants, party at the hottest clubs, and rip the chicest clothes off one another week after week. Writers even name-check all real-life locations and designers for viewers keeping score at home. It's like Sex and the City without all the hand-wringing over infertility, breast cancer, and other trappings of female aging.

In fact, Gossip Girl owes far more to Sex and the City and even Dynasty than teen dramas like Beverly Hills, 90210 and The O.C., which was created by GG executive producer Josh Schwartz. It knows it's camp -- in fact, it revels in it. And though it's not quite Charles Busch territory, there are moments when its actors nearly wink at their audience during the show's most ridiculous exchanges at catered Arabian Nights pajama parties, on blustery midtown helipads, and during $10,000 bribery negotiations.

At 20, Ed Westwick is the youngest of the trio, and as resident bad boy Chuck Bass, he channels James Spader circa Pretty in Pink to delicious results. And this isn't 90210-style bad boy either. Seven episodes into the show, he's bedded both leading ladies (Blake Lively as It Girl Serena Van der Woodsen and Leighton Meester as Queen Bee Blair Waldorf) -- even having taken the virginity of the show's good girl in the back of his limousine. Gone are the days of waiting 209 episodes to see Donna Martin lose hers.

At the photo shoot, not unlike his character, it's Westwick who gets the other guys going, goading Badgley and Crawford into some of their goofier poses. Though he's been told unfairly that he resembles Babyshambles lead singer Pete Doherty, Westwick does front his own London-based band, the Filthy Youth, whose songs have been featured on the show.

The guys are clearly comfortable clowning around with one another, though Crawford, 22, whose relationship with American Idol sweetheart Carrie Underwood is breathlessly covered by tabloids, is the most modest. It's a sharp contrast to his character, Nate Archibald, who's had the steamiest scenes on the show and has shown more skin than all the other actors combined.

Twenty-one-year-old Badgley turned down the role of Dan Humphrey twice, though out of the three, the former child actor seems most comfortable with the level of celebrity the show has given the cast, but he can also take it or leave it.

He's equally nonchalant about the possibility of his character going gay, as he does in the book series on which the show is based. In a recent interview he theorized, 'I don't think network TV really has the balls to make one of their [teenage] series' regulars gay. Let's say the show builds up to become a big hit, then I think they'd maybe explore it in year three or four. It would be an interesting thing to do. It could bring in a whole different demographic.'

Heads up, Penn, you already have that demographic sewn up.

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