When I became a professional writer in my early 20s, I thought that penning portraits of celebrities would be a career apex: the height of making it. But once I started receiving those assignments, I realized instead I was just a cog in a thoroughly dishonest publicity machine. And even worse? The interviews didn't get me any closer to my goal at the time, which was to land a celebrity boyfriend.
In some fields, women reporters can find themselves deflecting amorous sources who mistake friendly professionalism for flirtation. But I spent energy trying to turn my job as a freelancer for People magazine into a dating service. I think I hoped that whomever I was interviewing would connect with me so deeply that he would save me from my lowly life of pressing play and record on a tape recorder — and pull me up into his much more glamorous world.
This was a disaster of a plan.
Obviously, I understood that a date was not the same as holding a tape recorder and firing off a bunch of questions at a hot male star. But a part of me — the part a kind person might just call overly optimistic, or possibly delusional, or (definitely?) narcissistic — focused on the similarities. Looking back now, 20 years later, I think I figured that they both involved two people sharing a goal of personal disclosure. Just like a date, an interview could reveal intimate secrets. So who cared that confusing work with romance was blatantly inappropriate (if not grounds for dismissal)?
And while it's true that most sane people probably wouldn't confuse an interview with a date, most sane people generally don't spend their lives profiling celebrities.
My first three years in journalism were spent as an editor at Parenting magazine, and I didn't consciously seek out the job at People because it would put me directly in front of celebrities. But an aspiring actor I'd dated in college had become a major movie star and I reasoned that since I was capable of landing a celebrity once, then I would surely be able to again. (I didn't dwell on the key fact that I'd been with him before he'd gotten famous.)
Despite my personal history combining romance with fame, I don't think I'm the only journalist to have her head turned. A couple of years ago, a spate of lad mag profiles penned by female journalists appeared — and the stories emphasized what it was like to get wasted with that celebrity, and the ensuing mutual flirtation. Some criticized these reporters for making the stories about themselves or for being less-than-responsible, but many heralded them as geniuses who had invented a whole new style of celebrity reportage. On the other hand, when a male reporter recently spent too much time fawning over Megan Fox's appearance in Esquire, he was ripped apart (though to be fair, there was plenty wrong with that story besides the lines about how "genuinely shocking" Fox's facial symmetry is).
It's probably a testament to my own relationship with reality then, or lack thereof, that I wasn't able to turn my interviews with celebrities into anything remotely resembling dates. In my experience, the celebrity was usually married or gay or just not interested in me. So I would end up feeling rejected and I wouldn't have anything revealing to include in the story, since my focus had been on trying to make the man fall for me and not on finding out the answers to questions readers were dying to know.
That's not to say that nothing inappropriate went down during those People years. There was the actor-writer-director who told me that he'd love to show me his Charlie Rose interview so long as I didn't tell his publicist. I said I'd love to see it and so he came over to my apartment a few days later, VHS tape in hand.
I'd sort of assumed that "show you my Charlie Rose interview" had been code for "make a pass at you" but it turns out he really just wanted to sit there in my living room with me and watch me watch him on my TV screen. Years later — once both his career and weight had shot up to mammoth proportions — I ran into him at a party. "Hey, did we ever sleep together?" he asked. "I can't remember." He was now married with children. I clarified that we had not.
Then there was the time I approached Stephen Dorff to interview him at a premiere. This was before his name was a punchline so I'll admit I was actually thrilled when he asked me, "Why should we be interviewer and interviewee when we can be lovers?"
Why shouldn't we, indeed?
We never did become lovers or, really, interviewer and interviewee. And he had a gorgeous model nearly surgically attached to him when he posed the question, so it's safe to say that it was more rhetorical than anything else.
There were far more cringe-worthy incidents than that, like the time I interviewed a gorgeous TV star for People's Most Beautiful People issue. He was quite flirtatious throughout the interview and asked for my phone number. Naively assuming this meant he was interested in me, I gave it to him. And he did call me — to see if I would tell him what I was writing. Somehow this resulted in me confessing that there was a line in the story about how he got facials (something his sister had told me when I interviewed her) and my removing it after much insistence on his part. There were also several bizarre and drunken run-ins with various Baldwin brothers, as well as an unwelcome hand on my ass when I interviewed Lou Rawls once at an event. None of this figured into my celebrity boyfriend fantasies.
Eventually, I was fired from People.
Years later, once I'd matured out of trying to make interviews into dates but hadn't yet matured out of interviewing celebrities for a living, I discovered just how horrible it was when one of these intimate interviews with a superstar did actually turn amorous.
I showed up at the L'Ermitage Hotel in Beverly Hills to interview a musician of great fame and success but questionable talent and looks. He immediately became blatantly flirtatious, despite the presence of his schoolmarm-ish publicist. A part of me was thrilled: Finally my plan was working! Another part of me was appalled, if not downright terrified. Before I left, he told me we could finish the interview at his house the next night. Because I could still be an idiot despite my supposed maturity, I showed up at his rented mansion in the Hills the next evening thinking I'd snag the interview to end all interviews — in short, that I'd be able to use his interest in me to my advantage.
Instead, I was pawed and then expelled once I made it clear I wasn't actually going to sleep with him. When I reached out a few days later with the questions my editors needed answered, I was ignored. A desperate call to his publicist resulted in her yelling at me for going to his house as though I'd shown up there, stalker-like, after discovering his address on a star map and not gone where I'd been invited in order to be harassed. The story on him was killed and my relationship with that magazine dissolved.
After a while, I stopped getting assigned celebrity profiles. I think it's safe to say that this was a good thing. When those assignments started drying up, on a lark — because a girl I knew and was vaguely competitive with had done it — I decided to try writing a novel. Four books later, I can say with absolute conviction that writing a book is far easier than interviewing and penning a celebrity profile. And the end result is a lot more honest — even if it's fiction.