'Gossip Girl': Dirty Pretty Things

Why the beautiful cast of TV's most sexily subversive show may be the last people in America living the fabulous life

Blake Lively, left, and Leighton Meester of 'Gossip Girl' filming in New York City on March 18th, 2008. Credit: Arnaldo Magnani/Getty

Honestly, every inter­view, someone asks me, 'Are you really friends with Blake?' " Leighton Meester says. It's a frigid afternoon in New York, and the 22-year-old Meester, who plays Gossip Girl's headband-loving mean girl, Blair Wal­dorf, is sitting in a booth at La Bottega, an Italian res­taurant near Manhattan's Meatpacking District. She's dressed in a gray sweater and jeans and is wearing a pair of chunky black librarian glasses that would surely be mocked by the uptown snob she portrays on the show.

"No, of course you're not friends with Blake," says Blake Lively, who is snuggled up to Meester's left. An en­ergetic whirl of blond hair dressed in a soft blue sweater, the 22-year-old Lively plays Serena van der Woodsen, Blair Waldorf's best friend and the bad girl gone good(ish) who serves as Gossip Girl's wobbly moral compass.

"We're very close. We're friends," Meester says, rolling her eyes. "I can't even remember a reason why people would say we're not."

But come on, this is America. Everyone knows that when a female-heavy televi­sion show becomes a success, the rum­blings that the stars hate each other's guts must start. Grey's Anatomy? Those women chase one another around the op­erating table with chest saws. Desperate Housewives? Poison one another's Botox. Sex and the City? Regularly clubbed one another with Hitachi Magic Wands.

Isn't it just old-fashioned sexism? Gos­sip Girl's high-cheekboned trio of male actors – Penn Badgley, 22, Chace Craw­ford, 23, and Ed Westwick, 21 – have be­come heartthrobby sensations themselves but have largely sidestepped the gossip at­tacks. (Except for the predictable rumors that they're all gay.)

"Of course," Lively says. "You never hear that Ed and Penn are jealous of each other, even though they are complete frenemists." She laughs at her freshly coined word. "Actors can be just as competitive as girls." "

Their hair," Meester says. "The guys are all about their hair."

"Eyebrows, too," says Lively, waving a fork. "And they pout their lips."

"Ugh, I hate it," says Meester. "I can't watch when a guy does it."

Still, it's good to be a Gossip Girl. Out­side La Bottega, New York is imploding, gutted by a financial catastrophe of its own doing. Day traders are now delivering piz­zas, and real-life Upper East Side social­ites are brown-bagging it out of Hermès, too embarrassed to be seen luxury shop­ping. But like insects preserved in amber, Gossip Girls occupy a fantasy world where young people don't blanch at $18 cocktails or $700 Christian Louboutin pumps. It's the spring of 2007, running on repeat – New York remains a boundless, optimis­tic place, in which the Dow is topping 13,000, Bernie Madoffs collecting cli­ents and the velvet-rope VIP party never stopped. Right now, you'd rather be Blake Lively or Leighton Meester than the head of Goldman Sachs.

Not that they haven't felt an occasional pinch. "I was in Barneys for a shoe sale," Lively says. "And there was this pair of boots I'd wanted for a long time that were really cheap, and there was another pair in a different color, and this woman says, 'You shouldn't dare buy a second pair of boots in an economy like this. You should be ashamed.' Meanwhile, her face looks like she's just gone through a crazy wind tunnel, she's got on big rings and a Her­mès scarf. She looked like she'd just rolled around in diamonds and gold. I was like, 'I can't believe you're saying this to me.'"

For those avoiding the human race completely: Gossip Girl, based on a sharply written teen-book series of the same name by Cecily von Ziegesar, is a one-hour television drama on the CW Network executive-produced and created by Josh Schwartz and Steph­anie Savage, who previously collaborated on another teen soap, The OC. While The OC followed sun-kissed rich kids brood­ing in the California sand, Gossip Girl is set in a more volatile hornet's nest: pri­vate school on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Its characters, most from Park Av­enue privilege, attend a pair of fictitious single-sex schools, Constance Billard (for girls) and St. Jude's (for boys), separated by a leafy courtyard. Lively's Serena is a former queen bee who mysteriously dis­appeared from campus, only to return and find her spiteful ex-best friend, Blair (Meester), in charge. There are crested-blazer-wearing nice boys (Badgley's Dan Humphrey), pretty boys (Crawford's Nate Archibald) and charismatic snakes (Westwick's Chuck Bass), precocious kid siblings (Jenny Humphrey, played by Tay­lor Momsen, and Eric van der Woodsen, played by Connor Paolo), lusty parents, a put-upon Polish maid (Zuzanna Szadkowski), a mysterious unseen narrator (a.k.a. "Gossip Girl") and...truthfully, it doesn't really matter. Gossip Girl may lay on the complex, Wire-thick plotlines, but fans love it for its unapologetic deca­dence: beautiful kids spending lavishly, dressing fabulously, stabbing each other in the back, romping in limousines, snort­ing coke and boozing like teenage Peter O'Tooles. Gossip Girl is conspicuous and practically subversive in its lack of mor­alizing; there are few purely bad or good characters ("No heroes, no villains" is one of Schwartz and Savage's mottoes), no prissy sermons from parents (the folks tend to be more screwed up than the kids), no After School Special-style tidy resolu­tions. And then, because it's 2009, every­one goes home and trashes each other on the Internet.

For all the hype about fashion, drugs and sex, it's technology that truly de­fines Gossip Girl. There have been plenty of shows about the idle rich, and almost as many stylized dramas about adoles­cent angst: Beverly Hills, 90210, My So-Called Life and The OC, to name a few. But while Gossip Girl's characters suffer through the same teenage rituals – heart­break, petty feuds, college-acceptance panic – they do it with a thumb pressed to a keypad. On the show, "Gossip Girl" is the name of an anonymously written web­site that dishes on the daily scandals at Constance Billard and St. Jude's. Its authorship is a great mystery. Ev­eryone leaks to Gossip Girl via text message – who's stepping out on Serena, who might share a half brother, who smoked hash in the courtyard. Gossip Girl adheres to the observer's paradox of modern teenage life: If it isn't blogged or texted about, it didn't happen.

But technology also partly explains why Gossip Girl is not a conventional televi­sion hit. An average episode attracts about 3 million Nielsen viewers, roughly a quar­ter of the audience that watches Jennifer Love Hewitt connect with the beyond in Ghost Whisperer – no one's idea of a sexy-show. CW executives blame Gossip Girl's ratings anemia on an antiquated system that doesn't account for the millions watching it in groups, online or downloading epi­sodes from iTunes, where it routinely sits at Number One. "We'd wake up in the morn­ing and look at the ratings and say, 'Wow, that's pretty low,'" says Schwartz, a Provi­dence, Rhode Island, native who launched The OC when he was just '26 and oversees Gossip Girl with Savage long-distance from Los Angeles. "But then you'd hear people talk about the show and you'd think, 'This is weird.' The reaction to the show feels much larger than the audience."

The truth is you're either in or you're out with Gossip Girl. If you're out, you're out: These beautiful kids might as well be speaking Mandarin. But if you're in, you're crazy in – wearing out your exclamation key live-blogging episodes, creat­ing syrupy song tributes on YouTube, and wasting hours ruminating on Chuck and Blair, and what if total psychobitch Georgina Sparks returns at the end of this sea­son and terrorizes Serena. . . . The drama goes on and on. The mania for Gossip Girl isn't measurable by ratings – it's more like a hypoxic obsession.

No one appreciates this more than its stars, most of whom moved to New York en masse in the summer of 2007, and, accord­ing to Lively, "live within a five-block radi­us of one another" in downtown Manhat­tan. They have become part of a meta social experiment: beautiful young people living in New York, playing beautiful young people living in New York on TV. "Where the show ends and reality begins can be very blurry," admits Schwartz.

"I remember going to the set one day, and this really big guy, about six feet five, comes up to me, and I thought, 'I don't remember a character like that in the script,'" says Jessica Szohr, 24, a former department-store model from Wisconsin who plays Nate's on-off hipster girlfriend, Vanessa Abrams, on the show. "And he says, 'I'm your security guard.' I'm like, 'What?' And we turned the corner, and there were hun­dreds of little girls."

"I was so shocked by it," says Lively. "These 12-year-old girls hitting on our cast members. I remember one walked up to Penn and was like, 'Hey, you wanna come over to my house later?' That was before they were in any of these teen magazines. The guys were like, 'What. Is. Happening?' It was really instant, a whirlwind."

Those real-life, breathless New York gossip girls crash the set every day Gos­sip Girl films outdoors. They travel in giggly packs, pok­ing their heads out from behind cameras like meerkats, desperate for a glimpse of Blair or Serena and the ultimate valida­tion: their own teenage lives, glamorized for TV.

Not that they consider Gossip Girl a lit­eral rendering. "Parents think, 'Oh, my God, this is what my daughter's life is like?'" one young private-schooler, Anna, says at a location shoot off Madison Avenue one morning. "But no one goes out partying like that." One of Anna's friends puts it better: "No one's that tall."

Just a few yards away, Meester stands on 73rd Street, in a maroon hat, checkered jacket, red Isabella Adams handbag and a snappy pair of Pour La Victoire wingtip heels. The girls whiplash around to look.

"That's not her."

"That's the body double."

"No, that's her." A gasp fills the cold air. The Queen B herself. Seen in her curls and styl­ish couture, Meester looks born to play an Upper East Side socialite-to-be. But her ascension from unknown to Gossip Girl reads like an edgy, improbable fairytale.

"It's a pretty cool story," Meester says during an interview at lunch. In per­son, she is casual and unpretentious, far more downtown and droll than the high-strung Blair ("Leighton's a guy's girl," says Crawford. "She can really hang out"). The only trace of her privileged character is a heart-shaped ring she wears that belongs to Blair; she keeps it on, she says, because she's terrified of losing it.

As a child, Meester had suspected there was something unusual about her birth. She'd heard stray whispers of conversa­tion from relatives over the years, but no one had ever said anything explicitly until one day at Meester's elementary school in the Gulf Coast resort town of Marco Is­land, Florida.

"We were all talking, and this girl is like, 'I know something about you,'" Meester re­calls. "So she takes me into the bathroom, and she says it: 'You were born in jail.'"

"I looked at the girl, and I literally was like, 'Fuck you!' " Meester says, laughing. "I didn't even know what it meant. 'Fuck you!' The next time I saw my mom, I was like, 'Was I born in jail?'"

Technically, she was not. Meester's mother, as well as her aunt and grandfa­ther, were arrested as part of a marijuana-smuggling ring in the early 1980s. Fed­eral prosecutors charged that the group conspired to smuggle 1,200-pound ship­ments of marijuana into the country from Jamaica. Meester's father also served time for possession. Her mother, Connie, was sentenced to 10 years at a federal prison in Texas – at the time, she was pregnant with Leighton.

"She did serve part of her sentence while pregnant with me," Meester says. But when Connie was ready to give birth, she was moved to a halfway house and delivered Leighton at a hospital in April 1986. After three months, Connie returned to prison, and Leighton went to live with her grand­mother. Connie would later be released after serving a total of 16 months.

"It's exciting stuff that should be in a movie," Meester says. "And she was, like, my age when she was doing it." Meester and her mother remain close. "She's a very strong woman. She was able to be there for me, and she shaped me into the person I am. She's been honest with me about everything.

"It makes me not judge people, especially not for their past," Meester continues. "Or their parents' pasts. A lot of people assume that their parents don't have pasts, but I know a great deal about mine."

Meester's parents, who went into real estate after their incarcerations, divorced when she was six. She shuttled between living with her mom and her dad, and began acting at a local playhouse in Marco Island. A break came when Meester was 10, when her mother arranged a visit with a talent agent scouting for modeling and acting productions in New York. "It's so weird. If I see a 10-year-old now, I'm like, 'Baby!'" Meester says. "But I guess I was ready in a weird way." Soon after, she and her mother and two brothers moved to New York.

"We moved to a place called Park Ter­race," Meester says. "We imagined it was going to be fancy – a park, and a terrace, you know? But it was really scary. There were dead mice. You'd open a closet and you'd be afraid there was a body in there."

The Meesters would move to a string of New York apartments, ranging from the Upper West Side to downtown Manhat­tan to a one-room studio they all shared in the West Village. ("We didn't know how long we were going to stay, or what we were going to do," says Meester.) Connie, by then trying her hand at writing screen­plays, made money waitressing. Even then, Meester was acutely aware of class differ­ences. "I remember having my friends from school over to our little apartment, and my mom made it all nice, and got all this nice food," Meester says. One of the girls who came invited Meester to her family's house in Connecticut. "I go there, and I'm like, 'Oh, my God.' It was, like, a 40-bedroom estate."

After a brief attempt at parochial ed­ucation ("Me and Catholic school did not mix. I had to wear a bra and loafers – I just hated it"), Meester enrolled in the Profes­sional Children's School, which specializes in teaching show-business kids, and won parts in commercials and made a brief appearance as a murder victim's friend on Law & Order.

When Meester was ready for high school, the clan packed up again – this time to L.A., where Leighton attended Hollywood High, and later, Beverly Hills High (When asked where she lived, Meester says, "You know, the slums"). By now, parts were coming – TV shows like 7th Heaven and 24. Later, she'd make a horror-movie spoof, Drive Thru, with her future co-star Badgley. "We played stoner friends," Meester says.

When Meester auditioned for the part of Blair on Gossip Girl in early 2006, the cast­ing directors were unconvinced. "They said I was too kind and sweet to play this char­acter," she says. There was another prob­lem: Meester was blond. They were like, 'Be bitchy and nice, ugly and pretty, young and old, stupid and smart, innocent and slutty, blond and brunette. Can you be all those things?'" she recalls. When the pro­ducers asked her to read for the part of Ser­ena, she refused.

"Leighton said, 'I am Blair – I know this girl,'" says Savage.

"Sometimes, no matter how much energy you put in to get a part, you're not going to get it," says Meester. "But this was mine. It felt like mine. So much of me was ready to get this part and move to New York. I'd passed through any bullshit that had hap­pened in my life."

Meester won the role, and while Lively's Serena grabbed much of the early hype, Blair Waldorf has emerged as the show's sharp-edged soul. Huffing around in her curls and pumps, Blair is a flurry of privi­leged energy, but Meester has infused her with a vulnerability that elevates her be­yond the usual TV shrew. Blair takes plea­sure in hazing underclassmen wanna-be's (her scenes on the school steps with her skirt-wearing acolytes are some of Gossip Girl's best), but behind that steel is a fragile young woman who covets the things most girls want: attentive parents, a good college and a boyfriend who returns her texts. (Meester's own boyfriend, actor Se­bastian Stan, has a recurring role on Gos­sip Girl as a troublemaker named Carter Baizen, and pals around with Crawford and Westwick.)

Meester appreciates the irony of her playing an Upper East Side princess – it's a transformation so Capra-esque, Frank Capra might have turned it down.

"It's shaped me," Meester says of her back story. "I don't want to do drugs. I don't want to have to start over a million times. I want to have an abundance of good things in my life, and I want it to spread out evenly – I don't want it to just come and go.

"It could come off as very corny, but I just feel every day is a blessing," she continues. "I could have turned out to be a completely different person. Miracles happen all the time. It might not be your destiny right in front of you, but it could be your children's destiny, and that's how my mom feels."

Unlike Meester, Blake Lively comes from a Burbank, California, family with deep roots in show business. Her father, Ernie, is a work­ing actor with the face of a cop, who's been in everything from the Dukes of Hazzard TV show to Turner & Hooch; her mother, Elaine, manages and teaches child ac­tors – and her four siblings all act. Still, Blake resisted the trade. "It would have been so obvious," she says. Her life was hardly glitzy. "Burbank is a small town in a big city," she says. "I was never friends with young celebrities or celebrities' kids or anything like that." A highlight of her early adolescence, she says, was sneaking into a birthday party for Aaron Carter, the kid brother of Backstreet Boy Nick Carter. "There was a point when she be­came Baby Spice," recalls Lively's brother Eric, 27. "She'd only take off the Baby Spice outfit to wash it."

Growing up, Lively dreamed of attend­ing Stanford University. She describes a rigorous academic life that resembles that of Tracy Flick, the Type-A student Reese Witherspoon played in Election: student government, AP classes, choir, cheerleading. (She'd later turn down a role in Mean Girls because of a commitment to cheerleading camp, Eric says.) When Lively was 15, Eric absconded with his sister for a monthlong European vacation. "We went to London, Paris, Rome, Florence, Co­logne, Brussels," she says. Every day, Eric would nudge Blake about her future. "He'd say to me, 'What do you want to do for a living?'" Lively says. "I would dread lunch every day because I knew he was going to ask me that."

Within a year, Lively was out on audi­tions, and not long after, she landed the part of the soccer-playing, soccer-coach-tempting Bridget in the tween hit The Sis­terhood of the Traveling Pants (Ernie Live­ly played Bridget's father). In addition to a Pants sequel, Lively has recently starred in smaller films like Elvis & Anabelle (with Mary Steenburgen) and the upcoming Private Lives of Pippa Lee (with Alan Arkin), in which she plays a young woman on a path to a nervous breakdown.

At first, Lively didn't want to be a Gos­sip Girl. "I was skeptical," Lively says of Schwartz and Savage's initial pitch. "I thought, 'I don't want to do a TV show, be­cause you have to commit six years of your life to one character.'"

But the Pants sisterhood had been pushing Lively for the job. Schwartz and Savage noticed on Web message boards that teenage girls thought Lively would be perfect for Serena. The producers did the hard sell, assuring her that Gossip Girl wouldn't devolve into a ridiculous soap opera. "Then Stephanie told her what her wardrobe would be," Schwartz says, "and she was in."

Lively knows that Serena is her defining character. "Serena's a lot like me," she ad­mits. In the books, Serena is an uptown It girl, but Lively's granted her a mellower, California vibe (Schwartz admits one of his early concerns was whether Lively "could get her New York on"). In her relent­less showdowns with Blair, her on-off re­lationship with Dan Humphrey and even at the end of the first season, when she re­vealed that she'd left a young man dying after a drug-fueled romp ("Really tolling," Lively recalls of shooting the scene), Sere­na's relatable, or as relatable as you can be with a billionaire stepbrother and winter breaks dancing in Argentina. Says Lively, "I make Serena a little more goofy, just be­cause that's how I am." ("She also wears more Chanel," says Meester.)

"I used to try to get Blake to drink with me – when I was 22 and she was 16, I was like, 'If you ever want to drink, you should do it with me,'" says Eric Lively. "But she's always been a good girl. I keep waiting for her to get a big ego or not call back, and it hasn't happened yet."

The rise of Gossip Girl has made Lively a shiny target for the supermarket tabloids, the wavering veracity of which she doesn't yet seem to mind. "I'd much rather have them make up lies than tell them the truth, because that's the one thing I have," she says, though the truth about Lively is that she's been seeing co-star Badgley for more than a year. Meanwhile, Gossip Girl has el­evated Lively to a style-icon status unseen since Sarah Jessica Parker strapped on her Manolo Blahniks for Sex and the City. "I'm shocked when I get a handwritten note from Giorgio Armani," she says, before adding that her recent Vogue cover "feels fake." "When I look at it, it's like, 'That's not a real Vogue.'"

Lively flashes her Southern California smile. "I feel like I'm fooling everyone."

Can I get another monkey, please?" It's creeping past 10 p.m. on a Monday, and the Gos­sip Girl testosterone pack – Penn Badgley, Chace Crawford and Ed Westwick – is huddled amid the ruins of three turkey burgers at the Half King, a cozy literary-crowd pub in New York's Chelsea neighborhood. ("We could have met at Rawhide," Badgley cracks, referring to the fabled gay dive bar down the street.) The drink of choice is Golden Monkey, a grassy Belgian-style beer with a not unnoticeable alcohol volume.

"Don't disrespect the Golden Monkey," Crawford says.

"Nine point five percent, man," Westwick says, holding the beer aloft.

A male customer at the bar begins to walk around the Gossip Guys' table silently, as if circling prey. He hovers for half a min­ute before speaking up.

"Sorry to interrupt, but I actually watch your guys' show a lot," he says. "My girl­friend turned me on to the show. I just wanted to say congrats on everything. You guys do a great job."

Crawford stands up to shake the guy's hand. A round of "Thank yous" follows. When the dude leaves, the Gossip Guys say this sort of encounter is typical.

"Yeah, I don't think he was talking about his girlfriend," Westwick says.

"That's the way most guys are," says Badgley." 'Oh, yeah, my girlfriend...'"

"It's a big cover," says Crawford.

Tonight, there's some nostalgia for the early days of Gossip Girl, before anyone cared who they were dating or Perez Hil­ton mocked them for "gayface." It's been almost two years since the cast arrived in New York, moving into the Gramercy Park Hotel ("It was kind of a summer camp," says Savage) with little hint of the phenom­enon to come.

"I feel a deep love for each of these peo­ple," Westwick announces. "Almost as if we were orphans who ended up at an orphan­age. There's something Dickensian about it. If I'm drunk and I'm about to fall asleep in the street, I can knock on Penn's door and he'll let me in."

"Actually," Badgley says, "I'll just spoon him in the gutter."

Westwick howls. "Exactly!" he says. "Throw a rug over me. With a straw for the rainwater!"

The British-born Westwick almost didn't get cast in Gossip Girl. Schwartz and Sav­age loved the relative unknown, who had parts in films like Breaking and Enter­ing and Children of Men – "We'd never seen a guy with that kind of energy," says Schwartz – but as the pilot was about to begin shooting, Westwick couldn't secure a work visa in time. The CW asked the pro­ducers to consider other actors; they held out. Eventually Westwick got his visa, and became Gossip Girl's irresistible antihero – a peacock hedonist who can steal any scene with three whispered words: "I'm Chuck Bass." His Chuck is far more prominent in the TV show than he was in the book series, in which Chuck was a rakish bisex­ual who prowled around with a monkey on his shoulder named Sweetie. "He's almost a caricature in the books," admits Cecily von Ziegesar, the author. "But I love Chuck on the show. I think Ed's a great actor."

Westwick, who has claimed he partly stole Chuck Bass' flat WASP accent from Alfonso Ribeiro's character, Carlton Banks, on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, says it wasn't an easy transition. "When I came to America, I felt like a dimwit," he confesses. "There were so many things I'd never done. I'd never eaten sushi. I didn't know what calamari was."

"You didn't know how to do laundry," interjects Crawford. A gentlemanly Texan with a background that would have made Andy Warhol faint – former model, der­matologist father, sister who was Miss Missouri 2008 – Crawford was Gossip Girl's breakout hunk, with a blue-eyed face built for MySpace pages.

"I didn't know how to do fucking laun­dry!" Westwick says. "Lights and darks, man! You fucking taught me that!"

Westwick and Crawford live together, in a messy apartment not far from the Half King. At least the rumor was it was messy. Crawford claims that the bache­lor pad is currently "very pristine." West­wick, clearly the Oscar Madison of the pair, brags that he recently painted his bedroom and says his photo shrine to Jim Morrison just came down.

As Gossip Girl took off, rumors started going around that Westwick and Craw­ford were more than just roommates. "Fucking ridiculous," Westwick says.

"It's funny because I love this fucking dude dearly," he says, nodding to Craw­ford. "I would die for this fucking dude. He's my brother. But, by God, we are so into our fucking women it's ridiculous.

"But what are you going to do about it?" Westwick continues. "Get pissed off and stay home and cry about it?"

"We went to the pool hall, had a beer and never talked about it again," Craw­ford says.

"Made out with a girl in public," West­wick says. Crawford and Badgley burst into laughter. It's a not-too-veiled refer­ence to a very public tonsil-lashing West­wick enjoyed with Drew Barrymore after a Kings of Leon concert last fall.

"Fuck it, I'll have sex in public," West­wick says. "That one's still on the list. Still haven't ticked that one off. Well, I have, but they haven't seen me. Not George Michael public."

"You need to stop drinking right now," Crawford says.

"Oh, please," Westwick says. He holds up his bottle. "Golden Monkey, don't leave me on my own."

Badgley laughs. Of all the Gossip Guys, he was the hardened veteran, after stints on short-lived series like The Bedford Dia­ries, Do Over and The Mountain. (During Bedford, he says, he roomed in New York with Heroes' Milo Ventimiglia, and used Ventimiglia's ID to get into bars.) Like Lively, Badgley needed some arm-twisting to sign on. "I was very cynical about tele­vision," he says. He was about to turn Gos­sip Girl down on a Friday, before whip­ping around on a Monday and jumping on. "Stephanie and Josh know how to walk the line between creative integrity and com­mercial sensibility."

Badgley's character, Dan Humphrey, is as close to a plebe as Gossip Girl gets – an angsty wanna-be writer from Brooklyn who's alternately repelled and fascinated by his upper-crust classmates. While an­other actor may have played Dan as a blah straight man, Badgley imbued him with an occasionally obnoxious know-it-all-ness. Mocked online as "Lonely Boy" by his classmates, Dan is a shameless striver, pin­ing for literary fame and briefly interning under a boozy author played by novelist Jay McInerney. "Dan was supposed to be the goofy, nerdy guy who felt like he never mea­sured up to other people, but Penn decided to play it a little more arrogant," says Lively. "Like he's smarter than these spoiled little brats." She says Badgley is sometimes ag­gravated by this turn. "He'll be like, 'Why's Dan so pretentious?' And it's like, 'Because you did it to him! It's your fault!'"

Still, after many television misfires, Badgley is awed by the trajectory of Gossip Girl, even among jaded New Yorkers. He tells of going with Lively to the restaurant at the Palace Hotel and noticing that the menu contained an item called the "Gos­sip Girl Grilled Cheese." "And I was like, 'You should just call it the "Gossip Grill,"' and they went and reprinted the menu and gave it back to me. They changed the fuck­ing name right there on the spot. That was a moment when I was like, 'OK.'"

All of the Gossip Guys know this feel­ing. The attention to their private lives can be intense: Crawford dated the country singer Carrie Underwood, and Westwick was caught smooching co-star Szohr at a Knicks game. Teen idolhood has a fixed life, and taking that next step forward as an actor is a complicated maneuver. Only a few people out there can appreciate their position.

"I talked to Jason Priestley once," Craw­ford says of the 90210 icon. "He's, like, the coolest guy ever. You know he used to date Blake's sister? Blake was so young, and she used to come up and try to kiss him."

"I'm gonna kill her," Badgley jokes.

"Jason said, 'You know what? At the end of the day, you're going to look back and re­alize what those years were, and you're al­ways going to have nostalgia for them.'"

"Exactly," Badgley says. "Ideally, we want our careers to continue to the stars. But re­gardless of where they go, we're never going to be in this position again."

"Until next season," Westwick corrects.

There will be a Season Three of Gossip Girl, the CW recently announced with fan­fare (what were they going to do, cancel it and bring back Reba?). In May, Schwartz and Savage will air the first episode of a still-unnamed spinoff, a prequel series based on the Eighties Hollywood adolescence of Ser­ena's mother, Lily van der Woodsen (fea­turing ex-Brat Packer Andrew McCarthy). "The idea is, 'If you thought the kids were bad, wait until you meet the parents,' " says Savage.

Wayward parents, of course, are part of the Gossip Girl formula too – so far, we've seen moms and dads range from coldly dis­sonant and cougars to cokehead swindlers and arsonists. "And they have sex – hello," says Kelly Rutherford, the former Melrose Place actress who plays Lily on Gossip Girl. But the Gossip parents and kids haven't intercaroused much. Says Matthew Set­tle, who plays Rufus Humphrey, Dan and Jenny's rocker dad, and who recently be­came a dad in real life, "I sometimes go hang around with the boys at a pub, but as far as late nights, I wish I could."

With spring arriving, the cast mem­bers are ready for a break. Their sched­ule is a beast – endless location scenes and late nights on the Queens set where they shoot in a studio that previously housed The Sopranos. Filming wraps in April, and vacations are being planned, movie roles are under consideration and a hand­ful of the actors are eager to launch music careers. Meester's near done with an electro-pop record, Westwick (who has a U.K. band called the Filthy Youth) is des­perate to start rocking again and Tay­lor Momsen is finishing an album for Interscope Records. "It's a badass rock & roll record," says Momsen, who sounds 15 going on 25. "It's not what people are going to be expecting."

How long can Gossip Girl last? The Gos­sip Guys say they are effectively bound to seven-year contracts, though there's an opportunity before Season Three to rene­gotiate their deals. Savage doesn't sound wishful for a Bonanza-style run, joking that her motto with Schwartz for TV excel­lence is "Live fast, die young, leave a beau­tiful corpse."

"Seven's a long time," says Badgley.

"Four is a good number," says Craw­ford.

Of course, the gilded real world around Gossip Girl is crumbling. Will Chuck be buying ascots at Target? Will Serena be forced to survive on Gossip Grilled Cheeses? "Well, due to budget cuts, Blair's going to be leaving us," Lively jokes. "She's going to be shooting all her scenes in Ohio."

"She's going to carry the brown bag that the Hermès bag goes in," says Meester.

Schwartz and Savage believe that Gos­sip Girl can hold its place as a modern fantasy. "Romeo and Juliet weren't star-crossed lovers because of a subprime-mortgage crisis," Savage says. But maybe Gos­sip Girl should bow to the New Austerity, just for appearances. What if Serena and Chuck moved into a nice suite at the Holiday Inn Express?

"That would be really good!" Meester says. "Just for one episode."

Lively isn't sure. "I don't think people would watch Gossip Girl," she says, "if we lived in a Holiday Inn Express."