In seventh grade I told my one friend Laura the following lies:
1. That a girl I knew in California was friends with teen actor River Phoenix.
2. That she wanted to fix me up with River on ‘a phone date.’
3. That River Phoenix, teen actor, would call my house at midnight on New Year’s Eve.
‘No way!’ Laura said. ‘That’s totally awesome!’ Because that’s the way people spoke in 1986. ‘So are you gonna, like, record the conversation so I can listen to it later?’
‘Of course,’ I told her. Shit.
With an unplugged phone in my hand, that New Year’s Eve—at midnight—I sat in the middle of my room, next to a jambox. Years later, nothing will make me cringe like this heartbreaking attention to detail.
‘Hi, River?’ I spoke into the jambox. ‘This is Sarah. Hey. No, it’s good to finally meet YOU. Uh-huh? That’s awesome.’
We talked for hours. I mean: I talked for hours. About movies I liked and hobbies he enjoyed, about my measurements, because I had this idea that boys talked about measurements, even though these were not actually my measurements but something I had read in a Whitney Houston article.
On Monday I played the tape for Laura.
Her face fell. I believe it was the first time she doubted me. ‘I can’t hear him,’ she complained.
I stopped the tape. ‘Are you sure?’
She put her ear to the jambox and scrunched her nose. ‘Maybe.’
‘Well, do you want me to just tell you what he said?’
The luster returned to her eyes. ‘Tell me everything.’
So I did.
* * *
Four years ago I began covering entertainment for an alternative newsweekly in Austin, Texas. I write reviews and trend pieces, profile local artists, and sometimes, I interview celebrities. I don’t do it often, and I don’t do it well, but for a time, nothing made me happier.
at a cocktail party:
‘So do you ever interview anyone, you know, famous?’
‘Sure.’ Rule #1 about interviewing celebrities: Be casual.
‘Who’s your favorite celebrity that you’ve interviewed?’
‘Do you know David Sedaris?’
‘Do you know Cameron Crowe?’
‘Do you know Vince Vaughn?’
‘Oh my God, I love that guy!’
Even in seventh grade, I knew that if you couldn’t be important, it helped to know important people. Interviewing celebrities can make you a kind of celebrity too. The person receiving the information often brags about it, proudly, like an Ivy League education.
‘Honey, she interviewed Vince Vaughn!’
‘No way! Wait, who’s that?’
Like a lot of shy people, I have plenty to say, but I’m afraid of not being heard. Talking about celebrities gave me authority, and a topic everyone wanted to listen to. It was the best thing to happen to my party banter since alcohol.
* * *
The first celebrity I interviewed was the lead singer for a band whose first single had just hit number one. That summer, you couldn’t go to the bathroom without being assaulted by it: ‘Doot-doot-doot, doot-duh-DOOT-doo.’ I ran the entertainment office of a college newspaper staffed by scraggly, brokenhearted boys who fell to their knees if anyone mentioned Pavement and treated Top 40 music as if it had open sores.
‘You can’t be serious,’ one of them said when I asked him to interview Third Eye Blind. ‘What’s next? Matchbox 20?’
Obviously, the task fell to me.
Phone interviews are generally arranged through a promoter or publicist, who calls the paper. ‘Do you want a phoner with Stephan Jenkins?’ (A ‘phoner,’ they call it). Sometimes the celebrity calls you; sometimes you call them. The important stars tend to do all their phoners in one brutal day, so the interviewer is kept to a strict time limit, usually 15 to 20 minutes. Bands on tour, however, call from hotel rooms and cities whose names they can’t remember, on a day they couldn’t guess.
‘So what paper is this for?’ Stephan Jenkins was creaky-voiced and charming. ‘Austin? I’ve never been to Austin.’
‘Oh, it’s a great town.’ People from Austin are unusually invested in promoting their city, like they’re trying to apologize for the rest of the state. ‘You’ll love it.’
‘All right, then. Take me out.’
Take you what?
‘Take me on a date.’
(I’ve done a lot of interviews since then and this, by the way, has never happened again.)
In person, Stephan Jenkins looked the way movie stars should but rarely do—tall, handsome, smashingly unkempt.
‘Oh yeah,’ he said when he saw me, as if recovering a drunken memory, ‘You’re from the paper.’
Let me be clear: I had no interest in sleeping with him. Okay, let me be honest: almost no interest. Instead, my intentions were pathetically earnest—to be his friend, to make myself known to him, get a humble shout-out from the stage or, you know, in the liner notes to the next album. I spent ages anticipating this, how to act and what jokes to make, but when I finally got there, I discovered I had little to say.
‘Do you want to see our equipment up close?’ he asked.
I did not. ‘Uh, okay.’
We walked to a downtown bar, where he leaned back on a leather couch and stared at the ceiling. ‘This fame thing is weird,’ he said, ‘I feel like nobody tells me the truth anymore.’ He ran his hands over the fabric. ‘Like what do people think of my band? Do they think we’re like, I don’t know, Matchbox 20?’ He cringed when he said the name.
‘No,’ I lied.
He breathed a sigh of relief. ‘Thank God.’
The rest of the conversation was shatteringly ordinary. What bands influenced him, what songs I liked on his album. No, the fun part of the interview came months later. Because Third Eye Blind’s next three singles went into the top ten, and Stephan Jenkins appeared in all the glossies with his new girlfriend, the stunning Charlize Theron, and People magazine chose him for their ‘50 Most Beautiful People’ issue, wet and windwhipped on a barren SoCal beach. And when the conversation at a party ran dry, or when that song spilled into the room (and it always did)—‘Doot-doot-doot, doot-duh-DOOT-doo’—I could say, off-handedly, ‘Did I tell you I went on a date with the guy from Third Eye Blind?’
‘You did what?’
Ha. Worked every time.
* * *
The disillusionment began a few years later at a movie junket. A junket is one of those industry standards in which a film company flies journalists to one city (usually Los Angeles), puts them up in a luxury hotel (usually the Beverly Hills Four Seasons), and gives them a generous per-diem (usually spent on booze). The journalists see the film and interview the stars—and all the film company asks is that you go back to Dubuque, or Boise, or Austin, and write a story about it. And hey, if that story happens to be favorable, and your opinion of the film happens to be utterly skewed by starry eyes and red-carpet treatment, well, we’ll see you next time. Most newspapers of record consider junkets unethical, an elaborate attempt to buy opinion, but channels like E! and shows like Entertainment Tonight thrive on them. You know when you see a celebrity interviewed in front of a poster for his own movie? That’s a junket.
The first junket I attended was for the Sandra Bullock movie 28 Days, a comedy about a party girl who bellyflops into rehab. Like most Sandra Bullock movies, it’s frustratingly mediocre, and like most addiction movies, it’s frustratingly facile. After the screening at a theater in Hollywood, I returned to my luxury suite, where I jumped on the bed and tossed back $75 in bourbon and peanut M&Ms. ‘Whoo-hoo! The Four Seasons, muthafucka!’
The next morning the print journalists gathered for interviews. They are conducted round-robin-style, so that each star spends 15 minutes in each room, which contains six or so journalists. I entered the first room on my right, straight into the shark tank.
‘Is anyone sitting here?’ I asked. They ignored me like a bad odor.
‘What did you guys think of Sandy’s movie?’ one guy seemed to be asking everyone but me. ‘I loved it. LOVED IT!’
Here were the junket whores, famous around these parts, journalists who leapfrogged from one movie to the next, from The Beach in Hawaii to Anastasia in Paris, traveling in packs, like wolves. Their endless arsenal of celebrity gossip—what Leo looked like, how Julia smelled, what Russell drank—surely made them the smash of every cocktail party.
‘Okay, how can we get Sandy to tell us who she’s dating?’ They all called her Sandy.
‘Sandra Bullock’s dating a musician in Austin,’ I told them.
All heads swiveled to me.
‘Really?’ The woman took notes. ‘So, has this musician ever been in rehab?’
‘Yeah. He had a drug problem.’ I know this because my paper wrote a story mentioning it, after which the musician chewed out the reporter, saying it was private. I felt no loyalty to the musician, didn’t know him or even like him, but I instantly regretted telling these leeches.
‘A-ha!’ The woman rubbed her hands together greedily. ‘That’s our angle.’
‘And get Sandy to talk about kids, for Christ’s sake,’ said another guy. ‘She’s not getting any younger.’
A man with spiky hair and a thousand cell phones entered. ‘People, I have to boot one of you to another room. There’s too many in here.’
For the second time, everyone looked at me.
* * *
What had I expected? That Hollywood would be an earnest enterprise? But it wasn’t the celebrities who depressed me, it was the journalists. Needling into people’s private lives, rooting around in their misery. It was the work that mattered, not the dirty secrets. So when I got the chance to spend several evenings with one of my favorite authors in order to write a story about him—the author I discovered in college, the author who exploded my ideas about the possibility of fiction—and the author who, engaged to be married, put his hands all over the bare legs of his female students, and challenged me and another girl to a wet T-shirt contest. I just laughed. Because the author had also bought me a string of tequila shots, and flattered me with his company and his ideas about Joyce Carol Oates, and even though his hand, wandering and hungry, stayed in my periphery all night, I learned to ignore it. And when his friend pulled me aside, concerned and kind of drunk, and said, ‘You’re not gonna burn him, are you? Because he’s been burned by journalists before.’ I shook my head. No, no. Not me.
In the end, I compromised, writing about the epic drinking but not the fondling. Was I right? Had I caved? I didn’t even know. I only knew that heartbreak and pain were what made the author’s fiction so real to me, and if he was flawed and wounded and lost, like the characters he wrote about, well, he wouldn’t have been the first. I felt somehow loyal to him. And with that, I had broken Rule #2 of interviewing celebrities: These people are not your friends. Which just sucks.
* * *
The film Almost Famous is a good illustration of the fan-turned-journalist dilemma. After a young reporter named William travels with a rock band for a summer, his eyes and notebook bulging with the musicians’ bad behavior, he agonizes over how to write the story—to tell the truth is to betray the bands’ trust, to lie is to betray the experience. His mentor, Lester Bangs (played by the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman), urges him to be honest and unmerciful. ‘You made friends with them,’ Bangs groans when William calls him after the tour. ‘Friendship is the booze that they feed you, because they want you to feel as though you belong.’
‘It was fun,’ William says.
‘Because they make you feel cool. And hey, I met you—you are not cool.’
Of course, this is autobiographical, so we know that the young reporter is actually Cameron Crowe, who will grow up to marry a guitar goddess and direct Oscar-winning films, and the rock group is the Allman Brothers, or Led Zeppelin, or Lynyrd Skynyrd, all of whom Crowe traveled with in his teen years, the lucky bastard. But we also know that the magazine, Rolling Stone, frittered away its precious credibility with the same mythological rock-star bullshit that the film rallies against. Christina Aguilera on the cover. Stories sent to publicists for approval. Profiles thinner than Lara Flynn Boyle.
Today there are so many celebrities, and so many celebrity reporters to interview them, and so many celebrity magazines to run the stories that the only people who spend three months with a rock band are documentarians, often hired by the musicians themselves (which is a whole other story). Most celebrity interviews, however, are an assembly line—15 minutes on the phone, ask the same questions, receive the same answers. Television journalists who have achieved their own fame—Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer, Jules Asner (gag)—have the luxury of time, but their interviews are little more than staged press releases. The only exception I know is Terry Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air, a woman of devastating intellect and curiosity, who rarely fails to draw out the best in her guests. Unless that guest happens to be Gene Simmons. For me, every Terry Gross interview is instructive, but none more so than last year’s debacle with the lascivious KISS bassist, who insulted NPR, taunted the unflappable Gross about her bookishness, and made persistent and tasteless come-ons.
Simmons: If you’re going to welcome me with open arms, you’ll have to welcome me with open legs.
Gross: That’s really an obnoxious thing to say.
I listened to it with heart thudding, because I had never heard an interview veer so dangerously off-track. Well, any interview besides my own. My own dirty secret, the thing I never mentioned at cocktail parties, was how shitty my own interviews went. I was too nervous, too eager to please, a hack. Terry Gross knows Rule #3 very well: A good interviewer is a good listener. But how could I possibly hear anything when I had the volume cranked on my own self-doubt? Interviews were like a quarter-hour spent asking someone on a date.
The key seemed to be accepting celebrities as human beings, but that acceptance was a direct violation of the strongly held fiction that got me here in the first place, what prompted me to lie to my friend Laura in seventh grade and perform a bizarre comedy of a cover-up, what drew me to this blasted career. Celebrities are better than us. Celebrities are special. To touch them is to make your dull life sparkle, if only for a moment. And when a celebrity interview goes well, I feel unstoppable. Crowe, Sedaris—they’re extraordinary artists and human beings. But I would rather take a staple gun to my forehead than suffer Gene Simmons.
Lately I’ve been thinking I don’t have the stomach for this. I’m tired of getting my hopes in a tangle over another interview that failed to live up to my expectations. I’ve been thinking that I should leave celebrities where they belong—in my imagination—where they can stay vague and perfect. I never have to be threatened by the reality of them, by the reality of me. I never have to admit that any of us is human.
But what can I say? I’m weak. The newspaper called me. ‘Want a phoner with John Cusack?’
Oh, man. Wait till I tell everyone about this. John Cusack! We’re gonna be best friends.