We’re not always willing to admit it, but Texans love to gossip. It’s often disguised as “bless her heart; let’s pray for her” tales passed across the bar or along pews, but writer and podcaster Kelsey McKinney knows well that our cultural affinity for hyperbole can create some of the best gossip.

“Texans, in general, have this ‘big sky, big hat, big voice’ mentality that lends itself to a kind of ‘tall tale’ culture that I think does seep into its gossip,” says McKinney, who grew up in Flower Mound, outside of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. “When I gossip with my friends from Texas, the level of exaggeration of what has happened in these stories is always higher than anyone else. It’s a willingness to say not ‘it was 100 degrees’ but ‘it was 112.’ ”

Instead of sharing with a close friend, McKinney spills her stories to an audience. Her podcast, Normal Gossip, just wrapped its fourth season and is now on the road—including to her native Texas, where she and show cofounder and producer Alex Sujong Laughlin stopped in Austin’s Paramount Theatre in July. 

The podcast’s formula mimics the way gossip spreads in the real world. A “friend of a friend” submits a tale of some average and inconsequential scandal (think roommate drama, not true crime). McKinney and Sujong Laughlin anonymize it and turn it into a five-act story, and McKinney presents it to a guest on the podcast. In one episode, she spins a web of drama set in Southeast Texas and featuring an orchid hobbyist as he battles foes in the homeowner association, incompetent assistants, and a horticultural scammer named Larry.  A third-season episode covers the fallout of an early 2000s pocket-watch web forum, and one of the first episodes recounts the battle over acrylic wool inside a neighborhood knitting circle. It may sound mundane, but that’s the point of the show: even humdrum stories from your hometown can become the dishiest gossip, especially when they’re relayed in hushed but gleeful voices. 

McKinney has long understood the power of gossip, especially growing up evangelical in North Texas, where local “news” still ran rampant despite the frequent admonishments that gossip was a dire sin. “I was under the assumption and belief that any kind of conversation about anyone else was a sin, and I believed that sins were bad and I didn’t want to do them,” McKinney says. “I spent a lot of time feeling really guilty and praying that God would take away my desire to talk about other people. This obviously did not work.” 

But when she entered high school, McKinney began to embrace her identity as a gossip fiend, as she now affectionately refers to her listeners. “It was like a perfect storm of drama. And the way that we [would] gossip at school was totally different than the way that I had been allowed to gossip at home,” she says. “That was really fun, and I loved it. And so I continued to do it.” 

From then on, McKinney embraced and relished the gossip that came her way. So when the pandemic was at its height in 2020, she felt truly starved. With everyone quarantining at home, updates of that distant friend’s cousin were few and far between (and way less entertaining). She tweeted out the idea for a podcast covering just that—average everyday gossip from everyday people. Her coworkers at Defector, the media company McKinney cofounded, told her to go for it, and now three years later, Normal Gossip has earned nods from Vulture, the Atlantic, Time, and more; has reached the Top 100 podcasts on Apple Podcasts; and is now on its first live tour. 

This “hometown show” version of the podcast, as McKinney calls it from the stage in Austin, operates almost exactly like a regular episode, except with the benefit of a live audience that will gasp at just the right moments. (Normal Gossip is telling the same story on each stop of the tour, so we’ll avoid spoilers here, but rest assured the story remains wildly entertaining, even without personally knowing any of the characters.) 

Lindley Clark, an Austin resident who describes herself as “nosy,” has been listening to Normal Gossip since the end of its first season. She went to the live show solo, and despite everyone in the audience hearing and reacting to the same story, she said it felt like gossiping with a friend or a coworker. 

“[McKinney] is such a fantastic storyteller and so engaging that it still felt pretty intimate,” Clark says. “She has a way of making you feel like she’s talking directly to you.”

While McKinney has relocated from Texas to the East Coast, she is still intimately familiar with its regional flair and affinity for gossip, whether it’s in her own circle or at the Paramount, where a crowd predominantly made up of women shrieks at each revelation in the tale. At each stop on the tour, the hosts request secrets from the audience, which they read at the end. (One juicy secret: an audience member trying to get an extra key for the boyfriend secretly living with them in seminary.) And for her gossip fiends dying to share, it’s a dream come true: having their secrets shared by McKinney, then hearing 1,200 people gasp in response.