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I’ve been asked many times what it’s like to work for People magazine, who my favorite interview was, who sucked, who rocked. (1. Glamourous and horrible 2. Jon Bon Jovi, Richard Gere 3. Jack Black, Hugh Jackman).
This mini-book is meant to be a taste of what it’s like to spend nearly a decade and a half covering celebrities, a journey I expand on in a novel I’ve written (working title: A Carpet in Scarlet). The novel is an uncensored and unsanitized story of what it’s like to be a celebrity journalist at one of the top publications in the world (my agent Steven Chudney is now shopping it around to publishers).
I have also included some revelations here you won’t find anywhere else. People also ask me: What secrets do we keep? What do we hold back? What doesn’t make it into print? Any celebrity reporter has secrets, and one of mine involves the late Brittany Murphy. I can reveal the details here for the first time: The sweet, delicate actress, who died too young, had stepchildren. One of them, a daughter, is known to the public. But Brittany’s husband Simon Monjack, who died five months after his wife, also had a son. For the first time, the boy’s mother is speaking out. She is also unveiling the bombshell last letter Simon wrote to the son he never met—sent two weeks before Simon’s shocking death. Read about that, and excerpts from the letter, in Part I.
Most of what follows is my story of covering celebrities and breaking news for the magazine over many years—and mine alone. Ask fifty other current and former staffers, freelancers, interns or editors and you’re likely to get fifty completely different tales and opinions. Some might like Jon Bon Jovi; I had a terrible experience with him. I had a great time with Mary-Louise Parker; other people not so much. I adore talking to Ricky Gervais; he’s kind to me and laughs at my jokes, which is more than I can say for many celebs. A colleague, however, found him arrogant and self-absorbed. Some might say People (the print or digital side) is a wonderful place to work; others might have felt or feel bullied, rejected, overworked, underpaid, and/or heartlessly jettisoned from the fold. This is a recounting of my own journey on a long, uneven, rocky road as I struggled to find my footing in my career.
Along with this mini-memoir, I have a novel on bookshelves right now: It’s a teen mystery with a killer twist called from Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR), and it’s getting great reviews—it’s also an Amazon Best Book of the Month pick. It is the culmination of a life dream, but with its publication another dream dies. I am quitting People magazine after 14 years because of what happened with The Underdogs. It is an unfortunate but necessary ending, and my open letter of resignation is Part II of this book.
Though I am not a fan of the leadership or the culture at the magazine anymore, I am grateful to certain individuals and to the universe for some of the amazing lessons I learned there, for my travels, my sharpened news judgment, for the chance to report on huge news stories in countries where I don’t speak the language, getting to hang for a minute with heroes like Malala Yousafzai, talents like Aretha Franklin and Barbra Streisand and legends like David Beckham, and for the chance to finally speak to Christian Bale, which sadly cured my crush.
My resignation this week, even from a freelance contributor’s temporary perch, is freeing, if not a bit melancholy. Yet as one door closes, another opens, we hope. Enjoy these stories, and stop reading now if you only care about Justin Bieber—he’s not in here. Otherwise, I hope you enjoy the anecdotes, which contain a healthy dose of my own perceptions and personal opinions.
xo Sara Hammel
There I am on the red carpet outside a Beverly Hills party, watching this five-foot-ten actress glide towards me. She’s not the most famous person here, but she’s the reason I came; she’s the story tonight.
I wait behind the velvet rope with my notebook and my tape recorder and I scrutinize her from heels to head, making notes as I go: Square-cut burgundy toenails; basic black trousers; loose-fitting black top plunging to her navel but only hinting at cleavage (shows body confidence?); impossibly shiny blonde hair (note to self: how do I make my raggedy split ends do that?).
The cameras click and flash around us, and the actress holds her head regally, calmly, as photographers shout her name like barking dogs, the sound out of synch and assaulting the eardrums. The experience is exactly what you see on TV—you are not missing out. The actress has a naturally sexy pout, a chiseled nose, razorblade cheekbones and cat-like eyes. She’s got actual hips and a rounded ass, but she can’t be more than a size six on top and maybe—maybe—an eight or ten on the lower half. She was a B-list movie actress once, and is now maybe a C; she still does TV and maintains B-list name recognition. She has always been a bombshell.
I am staring like a stalker nutjob, and we both accept this. If I focused this intensely at someone on the New York subway I’d get punched in the face. But it’s my job on the red carpet, and at parties, to notice every detail on all celebrity humanoids, from spotty skin to pregnant-looking boobs to missing wedding rings to suspiciously bloodshot eyes, and report back to celebrity magazine headquarters about anything out of the ordinary. The celebrity’s job is to stand there and let me.
The scent of flowery perfume wafts into my nostrils. She is in front of me. I scramble to start my recorder without looking at the buttons—I must maintain eye contact with my subject, make her like me before I hit her with the awkward questions, give her due respect from the moment she alights before me. There are a few wispy, flaxen flyaways escaping from her ’do, which is casually slicked back and tied at the nape of her neck.
Her smile is gracious, stretched and knowing. She’s ready for the questions we both know I’m going to ask; she would have prepared for them earlier, probably with a PR team, maybe an agent, maybe even a hairdresser: Do you think I’m fat? Am I fat? How do I defend my fatness—but wait, do I apologize for it? What diet do I say I’m on? Do I embrace my “curves,” or fall on the sword of weakness and gluttony that caused my repulsive weight gain? Can I tell them all to go fuck themselves?
It is time. I ask her the questions the way a reporter must when insulting someone’s appearance—pin it on “certain media outlets:” Do you think criticism in certain media outlets about your body is fair? Do you want to comment on these—surely erroneous— reports you’re on a dangerous crash diet? How much have you gained? I think you look great, but these body bullies…aren’t they awful?
I ask her these questions, and I am, shall we say, not as thin as this “fat” actress. I hauled myself onto that red carpet and asked her the goddamned questions, and her yellow-green eyes flashed. She knows that I know that she knows how absurd this encounter is, like some Kafka-produced reality show where regular women get to turn the tables on loathsome glamazons while rubbing our chubby hands together in vengeful glee. The thing is, this actress is supposed to be a size two, or better yet, a sub-zero. And me? No one—no one—is allowed to ask me about my weight in public, and no one has ever wanted to critique my thighs on the cover of a magazine. I am asking this very tall, maybe-145-pound woman how she dared to get so fat, and my questions are designed to play on her presumed shame, because being “fat” is shameful.
The actress’s answer is disappointing, and practiced, and possibly bullshit, because this is Hollywood and what else is she supposed to say to such invasive questions? She’d been unskinny for a while by that point. I’d chatted with her the summer before at a Malibu house party thrown on a bluff high above the sapphire Pacific, at which time she appeared to give zero flying fucks about her cute little (and I mean little) paunch and actual women’s thighs (rather than matchsticks) as she rocked a striped bikini—sans towel or strategically placed sarong. Not long after, a pap caught her in an awkward position and bam—she was on the cover of magazines looking “fat” and having to answer to assholes like me.
She remains one of my favorite interviews; both times she was disarmingly authentic, funny, confident and just plain nice. She made me want to stay with her at that party and sip margaritas together and shoot the shit up on that hill overlooking the endless ocean stretching out in front of us, and profess our pretend sympathy to all the other poor souls who weren’t at a Malibu pool party that day.
That night in Beverly Hills she confesses her sin to me, admitting to the crime of being over a size 2. Her penance, she tells me, will be giving up wine and burning out her glutes with lots of mountain biking (#CelebrityDietTips). I’ll fix this, she promises our readers. Not to worry. She’d be slipping herself into size zero jeans again before you could say celery sticks dipped in fat-free ranch.
Her vow extends to this particular event: right here, right now. No champagne for me tonight, she tells me, smiling wanly, perfect red lips parting to reveal those Hollywood teeth. I nod wisely, but inside I’m like, What? Everyone who’s on the list is about to migrate into the uber-cool glass-and-steel venue to celebrate the launch of some new pants or something, and hell yes I am going to drink the free booze and eat the free food. Furthermore, I’m not going to feel bad about it afterward.
After finishing my interviews I slip inside, grab a flute of champagne, and watch Zachary Levi (I hadn’t realized he was that good-looking) dance awkwardly with two friends while Twilight’s Ashley Greene chats with Hollywood insiders. I browse some of the pants, hanging on racks and not meant for the likes of me, and after failing to find anything over a size 8 I look up and catch sight of Fat Actress who’s not fat at all sipping a soft drink. I think about what I’d wanted her to say. Was I secretly hoping she’d tell me and my magazine to go fuck ourselves, to scold me for calling her out for allegedly putting on weight because that kind of bullshit—printing that people are overweight who clearly are not—does damage to girls and women and yes, even men and boys, everywhere? That the sagging velvet rope between us doesn’t give me the right to grill her about her body, to question it, to judge it? Did I expect her to rise up and say, I look fucking hot and anyone who doesn’t think so is welcome to go diet themselves into the ninth circle of self-starvation hell?
I mull it over, and grab another glass of champagne off a passing tray. I notice a very tall, very lanky man with Miami-Vice worthy feathered blond hair walking purposefully across the room, head high above the rest of us, eyes—a little too close together, it has to be said—darting about for someone important to talk to. This man has smug resting face. I watch him with fascination and think, I had no idea Michael Bay was that tall. He never even glances my way, of course, even when he brushes right past me, and our elbows touch. I’m no Megan Fox, after all.
These are the kinds of mental gymnastics you go through when you are mildly intelligent and also working for People magazine, a behemoth with tens of millions of readers. The body thing comes up a lot. Over 14 years at that magazine, starting with my first assignment back in 2002 where I was supposed to ask teeny tiny Spice Girl Geri Halliwell about her alleged eating disorder, the publication has proved fairly agnostic in my opinion. They don’t bully, but they don’t shy away from congratulating skinny for skinny’s sake, either. They’ll latch onto a trendy plus-sized model, but will praise and glorify body-after-baby celebs with impossible abs weeks after birth. A headline just recently about an 18-year-old girl reads like a Maxim teaser: “Move Over, Heather Locklear! See Her Bombshell Daughter Ava Sambora in Skimpy Swimsuit Photos.” It creeped me out a bit.
Being on the inside of talks about the subject at the magazine could be teeth-grindingly offensive. There is another celebrity, an extremely talented and famous-but-not-always-likeable singer, who a certain publication wanted to talk to about her weight struggles. Unlike Beverly Hills Fat Actress, this girl did actually appear porky in photos, partly because she’s very short. But no—nope, she wasn’t gonna talk to the publication about it. Why? Her people explained it thusly (I paraphrase): “[The celebrity] doesn’t, um, know she’s fat, so, yeah, that’s not gonna happen…”
A non-fat attendee at the meeting where we were discussing this laughed, protested; She doesn’t know? Riiight. There are some chuckles and some resigned shrugs. Ah, celebrities. They’re not like us at all.
And I’m thinking, yep. She doesn’t know. She puts on those same stretchy dresses as twenty pounds ago and tells herself they fit and that she looks just like all the other skinny celebrities but a bit curvier, that she is hot as ever, and the mirror heartily agrees with her, and so does her inner circle because if they don’t, they are fired.
Then there is the ridiculously sexy movie star married to a now-very overweight woman. We wanted to talk to them for a feature, oh so badly. But as someone in our ranks pointed out, there’s no way to talk them into an interview without being—even by media standards—outrageously uncouth.
We’ve noticed your wife is very very fat. Why do you still love her…do you love her? What’s that? You do? Wanna talk about how you can stand to be seen with someone so huge? Wanna talk about why she’s so fat? We’ll put your quotes right next to that pap photo of her bursting out of her tankini on the beach that time….But WHY is she so fat? Why? Why? Why?
Through these news meetings—during which photos of celebs and their families were projected on a wall in a dark room and we’d pick apart all manner of bodies—I often felt mildly nauseous, vacillating between wanting to crawl under the table and wanting to jump up on top of it and shake my fists at them and their superficial ways.
The body bullying faced by Beverly Hills fat actress and so many others like her, including Jessica Simpson, Alyssa Milano, Kate Upton, Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Lawrence, Mischa Barton (who I love because she hung out with my late Labrador Ollie at a house party once, adored him and held his leash for me while I took a break and grabbed a plate of pasta), Victoria’s Secret model Chrissy Teigen, Christina Aguilera, and too many more, matters to commoners like us. It does actual damage to the average person, i.e. you and me, by legitimizing and perpetuating our society’s utterly messed up definition of “fat.” And look where it’s gotten us.
I am at a fancy Swiss hotel with Roger Federer talking about sex, sexiness and how to be sexy. It is, of course, not a date, but an interview and photo shoot for People’s annual Sexiest Man Alive issue. I’d gotten all excited when I saw the 5-star hotel suite, the likes of which I’d never seen: it was three times the size of my own flat back in London. But I deflated like a balloon hit with birdshot when I saw his then-girlfriend, now-wife, barging in and being all calm and in charge. I would much rather have talked about being sexy alone with Roger. For professional reasons.
The magazine has rented out one entire corner of this towering example of clean, modern Swiss lines. The most unique thing about this interview, compared to maybe 80% of all of my celebrity encounters, was the purity of my subject’s talent. He won’t be judged in history by cellulite on his thighs or who he can charm into buying tickets to see his clunker of an action flick or if he can fake-date the most famous beard in town. Roger is judged on how many people’s asses he’s personally kicked with one shit-hot tennis racket through sheer talent and drive. He is a walking legend. And super sexy in person—very nice, too. I can say it now: The anti-Kardashian!
This hotel suite is bigger than any apartment I’ve ever lived in. It’s all floor-to-ceiling windows and wraps around the corner of the building, overlooking the Swiss capital’s streets. The bathroom is bigger than my bedroom at home, and it’s all marble and sunlight. The tub is one of those stand-alone half-egg-type deals like you see in catalogues for stuff you’ll never afford and, even if you could, you wouldn’t buy because there’s college to pay for and abandoned pets to save and starving children to feed (right?).
Mirka, the girlfriend, immediately waved her hand in the air and drawled that while the spread of coffee and pastries and soft drinks I ordered for the interview and photo shoot were great, I’m sorry, but I neeeed my cappucciiino. I don’t blame her on the cappuccino in general, just the fact she can’t deal for an hour with what we’re providing. At least she gets she needs to apologize for her caffeine diva-ness, but what can I say. It niggles.
She’s a slow talker, distracted, and cool with old Rog yammering on to me in a sultry, low-lidded interview all about sex and romance. I start to get used to her hanging around listening, but let me say that it’s a little weird and unusual for a star of any stripe to have his girlfriend sit with you and chime in with an interview. Yet it turns out to be somewhat helpful, because I can interview her, too, about what makes him sexy, blah blah blah. They talk about their first kiss at the Sydney Olympics, and I can just picture two awkward tennis kids (read The Underdogs—I played tennis at a relatively high level, too!) trying out a hormonal smooch at a tennis competition.
Here’s the thing. I want to like Mirka, I really do. This is before she had all her various twins, and she’s a curvy, normal woman with a butt and no apparent desire to starve herself to please other people, which is always awesome for women girls to see in magazines and on TV. She carries herself in a way that says she knows Roger ain’t goin,’ anywhere and she is who she is. But….Mirka and her man are BFF’s with ab-tastic Gwen Stefani and Gavin Rossdale (I wonder who got the Federers in the divorce?), and Mirka goes ahead and torpedoes one of my top questions to Roger. Roger was about to chatter away about very benign, probably unusable thoughts about the foursome’s friendship which is par for the course in this business, but then the chilled-out Mirka got irritated with him and shut him up, thus shutting me out. I hate when marginal celebrities do that. These are our freinnnnddss, she chided. They’re not people to talk about. In the end, Mirka was both annoying and refreshing.
Speaking of body bullshit, I met Victoria and David Beckham at a party I managed to get into in Portugal around this same time. Only a couple of journos got in, and I was the only one that spoke to them. It wasn’t long after David’s various cheating scandals (Rebecca Loos ring a bell?). This couple is being hunted, and I discovered them in their natural habitat. Maybe that’s why he won’t even look at me. Who knows with these extraordinary specimens.
Victoria Beckham is tiny. Miniscule. I absorb the house music thumping around us, and I cringe at David’s annoyance (anger?) that I am there. There are strong hint he’s not amused: His chiseled jaw is set so hard it’s twitching at the joint, and he is focusing on a pulsing strobe light behind his wife’s head rather than looking anywhere in my general direction: not to say hello, not to nod, not to make eye contact. Not even to tell me to go away.
Victoria is gyrating against the taut body of her husband, literally dancing on him, running her arms up and down his sides while he stands still and looks bored. There’s no way around it: it’s awkward to watch. There is a photo of them from that night that conveys that same feel of her need and his distance: She is looking up at him adoringly, tilting her head so her chestnut hair flows down her shoulder, focusing everything she has on him while he is gazing out at nothing, as if unconnected to what’s happening around him, including the touch of his wife.
That is what he’s doing right now, too, but without cameras or handlers.
You have to understand—this never happens. I cover Oscar parties and Golden Globe events and New York rooftop parties and obscure European shows and never, ever is a big name standing alone for long if at all, and there is never a power couple left out to sway in the wind, easy pickings for writers like me. I have spotted the celebrity world equivalent of the elusive white Bengal tiger—but not just one. A pair of them. Alone. No entourage. No agent chattering away and giving the evil eye to anyone who might approach. No scowling bodyguard. Like interviewing fish in a barrel.
Only three months ago Victoria gave birth to their third son, Cruz Beckham, whom the British press shamelessly posited might just be a “Band-Aid baby” meant to patch up their ailing marriage. Her pregnancy was announced amid the cheating claims. She is tiny, shorter than I ever imagined and smaller and even thinner than you’d think. She is compact, like so many celebrities are. It’s not just that they’re fat free; they are built smaller than commoners. Victoria is protected tonight by those flowing extensions and swallowed up by a flowing, lime-green, flamenco-style dress with a slit up the side and a plunging neckline.
I toss back the rest of my vodka and pineapple, which is warm now because Europeans do not have the ice fetish that Americans have, set it on the bar, and go in for the kill. As I approach, David—with his strong chin held high, dashing in black tie and slicked-back hair—does not even look at me. If he sees me in peripheral vision, he does not let on. He continues to stare straight over his wife’s head.
Victoria sees me and lets go of her husband, puts on a welcoming face. House music is blaring so I have to lean in, and so does she. There is no mean pout like you see in every single photo of her. Her nose is adorable: sculpted, upturned and very tanned tonight. Her frosted chestnut hair extensions tumble down past her shoulders and tickle her bosom, but ridges of collarbone still manage to poke through, stubborn and sharp like they want to burst out of her brown skin. She knows People, that we’re huge but non-threatening, we love her but aren’t obsessed by this power couple (yet—their plan to conquer the U.S. was still in the works then), and that we’re bound to be safe, if not kind.
Okay, she says. Okay.
Tell me about your closet, I say. She thinks about the question and appears to have some fun with it. I jot down every word, though I can’t see what I’m writing in this dim venue. David continues staring off into the distance.
Gwen Stefani’s style is a favorite. Always showing those abs, Victoria marvels.
What about you? I ask. Let’s get you showing your abs! You look incredible, I say, because being thin is always incredible. That is the way that we start all body conversations. You look great. You look incredible. How do you do it?
She tells me no, no no. She shakes her head, genuinely horrified. Are you kidding? I’ve had three kids. She tells me her tummy is like crepe paper. It’s awful, crepey, and so far from a six pack. She will never be Gwen Stefani. I never show my stomach, she tells me. She is making that face; ick.
To Victoria I say, No way. I don’t believe you. I raise my eyebrows, tilt my head, look down at my own tummy. What must she think?
She’s got a bubbly voice and a tone that makes you want to be her friend. She’s said it many times, everyone who meets her says it about her, but her image—her posing and frowning and hurrying—makes it so hard to believe, even now, that she’s nice. She has a sense of humor. She has self-awareness.
This hasn’t recovered, she tells me of her body. I’ve had three kids.
She lets me know that of course I’m ok the way I am, shaking her head. No, no no! It’s really bad. I’m serious. She pats her non-existent tummy.
David finally looks at me. He does not smile. He is a gorgeous looking man. I think I prefer him when he doesn’t open his mouth.
This is what the world does to us. Like so many of us, Victoria is kinder and more forgiving to other women than she is to herself. I would not necessarily fault her for glamorizing skinny. She is not writing diet books telling teenage girls to live on sugar-snap peas and prawns as one former employee claimed she did; she is not holding her diet quirks up as the ideal, though many of us commoners certainly can read that into it. She is a product of the same machine we’re all kicked around by. Celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow, on the other hand, with all their public encouragement of fasting and a skinny obsession and selling “detox” shit on their web sites, are dangerous in my opinion.
I have interviewed Jennifer Garner, who gets accused of being pregnant when she dares go out in public without a perfect six pack, twice: once a few weeks after Seraphina’s birth, then again several months after that. The first time she was still nursing and looked uncomfortable in her pantsuit—who can’t relate?—and didn’t want to go there about body-after-baby. The second time, she’d lost a lot of weight and seemed almost annoyed about it; she admitted she feels pressure to be thin and to drop her baby weight almost immediately.
“But,” she said, “I can’t make it come off faster than it does. I can’t seem to be pregnant without gaining 45 lbs. There’s not a lot I can do about it. I wish that I could, because I do feel the pressure and I do see the cameras and it’s the one time where having people follow you and take pictures of you is just excruciating.”
She swore to me that breastfeeding helped her lose the weight—not any sort of extreme diet. “I’m not going to starve myself, because I have a baby to take care of and I have a baby to nurse. That is much more important than whatever my brain thinks I need to do to please a magazine editor. But it happened, eventually.”
Working for People isn’t all champagne and Channing Tatum, and I’ve had my complaints over the years. But I stayed for nearly a decade and a half because we had some great times together. I’ve been reminded by friends and family that I wanted to work there from the beginning, after I quit my newspaper job and went in search of more worldly employment (at which point I landed at a white man’s conservative weekly, the now arguably moribund U.S. News & World Report magazine, where glamour goes do die). Then a stint as an investment writer at a major global money managing firm, where I was accidentally promoted to Vice President and given a killer office with a balcony overlooking a London park (math? What’s that? P/E ratios? Um… Don’t even talk to me about bonds).
A friend set up a dinner meeting in London between me and the then-bureau chief of the London office, and he started throwing me freelance work. The Iraq war came, and I was needed in the office virtually full time (but not on staff. No. In journalism, they’ll routinely set you up with permalancing wantonly and without mercy to avoid paying you benefits). I worked out of London starting in 2002, then migrated to Los Angeles for a few years, then back to the New York area where I worked for the magazine while living in Connecticut.
Through my career, I won awards for writing about women’s issues, contributed to the U.K.’s respected Sunday Times Magazine, was commissioned to write about health for Shape and women’s strength for Glamour, and yet People turned out to be my longest gig, my most enduring. Like the entire media landscape, the place I loved has changed, continues to evolve, and in my opinion not for the better.
London, back in those days, was as good as it got. Then, in 2008, they shut the bureau down. In the end they managed to keep on some killer talent, who still work there and are still my friends. And to all my brilliant and wonderful friends at People, past and present: I hope you always have a positive experience, a fun time, learn a lot, and leave—if ever—on the happiest terms.
One in the group raises his bottle of Peroni. “To life, and to new friends.”
“What about me?” whines his wife.
“To you, too,” Marc Anthony says off-hand to Jennifer Lopez.
Everyone at the table cheers with him, including King of Queens firecracker Leah Remini, whose tart New York accent is no less thick in person; her husband, Angelo, who I recognize from his recurring role as “hunky Latino” on the show; towering beauty Brooke Shields who, in person, is impossibly gorgeous and refreshingly womanly and unafraid to be so; and her underdressed, wry, writer husband Chris Henchy who admits with a cool shrug, “I know I married up.”
It is one in the morning. I finish my espresso laced with a dollop of foamed milk (A.K.A. a real Italian macchiato) and prepare to take a time-killing drink break before ordering a prosecco. It’ll be only water and air now; I must rotate my beverages. There are maybe three other occupied tables—civilian nobodies and some of our competition—in the entire lounge.
I am chilling in the lobby bar of the antique-filled, five star Hotel Hassler high atop the Spanish Steps in Rome. We are here for, of course, the wedding of the century. A wedding so epic it will bring together superstars from far and wide and, in turn, attract hordes of press from around the globe to the Eternal City. And I was invited.
Well, not invited invited. But I was assigned to hang out for a few days and scramble around gathering whatever reporting I put my grubby little hands on. And here I am, doing my damndest to pretend I’m not listening to the chatter just inches away from me. At one-thirty, after I’ve ordered a glass of the cheapest prosecco I could find which was probably like eighteen euros but I can’t remember exactly now, down comes Tom Cruise and his fiancé Katie Holmes, both in casual black jeans, greeting their friends like it’s just any old get-together. She orders a cappuccino, he sticks to water with lemon. They sit close, and he puts an arm around her shoulder. She is smiley and gracious and relaxed. He appears wildly uncomfortable with social small-talk, is very intense, and doesn’t laugh much, save for one outburst that includes a fist-pounding and one loud guffaw.
The celebs start swapping stories about their first dates. Marc first wooed Jenny from the Block (cough), they explain, at a sold-out show at Madison Square Garden. J. Lo says one of the reasons she ended up going out with him was because of all the “fun” they were continually having. Marc does not appear to be the most jovial fellow, nor the most sweet, in his wife’s presence. Then again, she’s no picnic from what I’ve read and observed. Anyway, I think maybe this is an uncomfortable topic for the Cruises, the germination of whose romance has never been convincingly explained in a verifiable timeline, and we hear nothing from them on this issue.
I cannot tell you how normal this entire group is. Normal in the dull, everyday, uninteresting sense. I reflect on the banality of evil; I believe I am witnessing the banality of celebrity, albeit in a stunning location. It’s like watching any awkward wedding guests who don’t want to offend each other, and sometimes get caught up in one-upmanship. It feels a little like a high school cafeteria. They are not exceptionally intelligent, interesting or charismatic. They speak not of their travels and museums and books, but of first dates and kinds of beer and their kids. None of that matters, though, because so closely viewing the celluloid heroes of our time as their real selves is enough. I can be whiney and cynical just like anyone in any job, but if you’re so jaded and cool that you can’t be shivery and adrenalized over this—because at least, at least as a journalist you are watching news unfold—then get out. Just. Get. Out.
As lesser celebrities chatter away, one of the world’s top action stars listens intently, but is never the leading force of the table. He does not show himself to be a natural raconteur. He’s not as short as blogs say, even if he does wear lifts (I cannot confirm this either way). He is less charismatic than his onscreen characters, and equally good-looking. There are no surprises in my close-up view of Tom Cruise. Katie is the same, but more under-made than even the pap shots portray. Her face has thin skin and an uneven tone, and her hair is casually not styled and messy in a going-out-to-get-the-mail kind of way. She looks bride-tired. At one point a staff member—who appears to be heavily involved in the event organizing—asks her a question and thanks Katie profusely for her response. Katie is Midwest horrified to be thanked for being catered to. “No, no—thank yooo,” she says. “You” is all downhome Ohio lilt: Yoo.
At some point during a few of these lobby sit-ins, Will and Jada Smith will wander by, as will the Beckhams, and David will play with Suri, cradle her head, show a warmth and some biceps that make you want to jump him despite the jail sentence that will surely follow.
All I want to do is get home. Something is wrong with me, and I have to do something about it—but while I’m here, for this job, I don’t know what I can do. There is no one to tell. There is nowhere I can go.
Yesterday I’d decided to do an odd thing. I’d had unique twinges of pain in my abdomen, something I’d never felt before, and apart from indigestion or appendicitis, I figured there was one other very distant possibility to eliminate. Even though I knew it couldn’t be true, I asked the doorman for directions, and off I walked onto the streets of Rome, getting lost of course, so I walk and walk, almost jogging, and finally I see it: Farmacia.
Call it boredom, call it curiosity, call it desperation or fruitless hope. But there, in a luxury hotel bathroom, I try to figure out the Italian instructions about where and how long to pee on the stick.
I don’t know if I did it right, but it slowly, lightly came up pink. Then two pink lines. I don’t know if I’m insane. I squint. Nah. It can’t be. Two years of trying and nada, and now suddenly I get the pink lines? I’m no spring chicken so this would be a huge deal—the hugest. I don’t believe it. I feel weird, though. I still order prosecco but only sip the top off of it. It’s something to do with superstition; if I abruptly stopped based on the idea I was suddenly fertile, it would mean it wasn’t true. I stick mostly to water, though I still sip some coffee; let’s not go nuts here. It’s probably a false positive.
I put it in the back of my mind and now, at two in the morning, I’m exhausted and stuck inside my own head. To my annoyance now as I look back over the days I was skittering around Italy, I was oblivious to the Scientology angle. I never saw the repeated inquiries Leah Remini now says she made about church leader and Cruise’s best man David Miscavige’s wife: Where’s Shelly? Anyone know where she is? Remini says now she got in a lot of trouble with Scientologists for her “behavior” at the Tomkat wedding.
I didn’t see anything around Tomkat or the hotel relating to the religion, nor did I catch sight of Miscavige. It wasn’t like they were walking around recruiting, auditing and chanting Xenu, Xenu, Xenu. Remini also says they wouldn’t let her sit with J. Lo at the wedding and that prompted some protests from Remini. I saw them together a lot, though.
I was too obsessed with deciding whether Tomkat was a real couple or simply contracted, as some internet chatter claimed. But Tom and Katie? They looked close. They are actors, but even actors can’t fake familiar chemistry for long. A face has to fall at some point. The body language has to give it away in a millisecond of a guard going down. The camera—or I—will catch them in the moment their mask falls. If not Tom’s, then definitely Katie’s. But they don’t; they stay close and relaxed and happy in public. Are they in love? It does not seem probable. Can they be a happily united team? Early signs point to yes. We know now it didn’t work out, but then, there was all the hope in the world; they even rubbed noses (though no kissing) at the table in the Hassler bar.
I also was fascinated by the children. Connor Cruise, who makes a living as DJ C-Squared in the year twenty sixteen, is just a kid at that wedding. He bops around the Hassler’s golden, hard lobby like he lives there. He plays with a soccer ball; he’s greeted by Hollywood power players, lawyers, reps, stars like he is an Oscar winner or Harvey Weinstein. Bella hangs about the staid, marble-ridden hotel too, awkward and shy, and I remember every grownup affair I was dragged to as a kid and they act exactly like my brother and I did. Except their parents’ friends are David Beckham and J.J. Abrams and Jerry Bruckheimer and J. Lo. Suri, the third child, I see up close only on the night of the wedding, though I watch her colorful, soft playpens and mobiles carted to the elevators on the bellhop’s wagon.
That day, before we saw Tom and Katie act relaxed and chatty on the eve of their nuptials, I ran out and bought three more tests. That night, with so much time to think and worry and get bored by their yimmer yammer, I zipped out to take the other tests, one after the other. The line is a dark pink. I’d taken a break from paying attention to my cycle or worrying about “trying” all the time, so I am not aware how far along I am, if at all. It can ruin everything, too much trying-by-calendar, so you must take time off from it. All three sticks turn a dark, hard pink in the Hassler bathroom. I start to believe it. I get excited; I will tell the husband in person. This is kind of amazing, can it be true, is it my turn? It appears that it is.
Finally, it is the big day. We watch the celebs line up to face the crowds waiting outside for them, the paparazzi, and zip out to go to the ceremony and after party. It’s another long day of observing and running around. It is on a trip to the bathroom late in the day that the twinges get worse. They’re twinge-tastic by that point; the same pains that caused me to buy the tests make me think now something is wrong.
And so I find blood.
As Tomkat say their vows at an Italian castle witnessed by best man and confirmed shrimp David Miscavige, I am at the Hassler, waiting for their return, avoiding facing what I think is probably true. Trying to pretend it’s not. I dread every trip I have to take to the bathroom. I try not to look, but I can’t not. There is blood, a little more each time.
Our inside-the-Hassler team of three is dressed up to blend at the fancy hotel and show our respect, and even our London boss is there, looking dashing in a tailored tux. Three of us wait while other reporters cover the castle, spending a few hours preparing for our post-wedding hotel coverage that will go into the wee-est of hours. I smile at my boss when he replies to someone with, Of course we can order an overpriced bottle of champagne, just this once. We all deserve it after the week we’ve had.
I want to say, send me home. I’m losing my baby. Please.
To add to my inner turmoil, I get to meet Jennifer “From the Block” Lopez-Anthony, which pretty much tops off the whole day. When the beautiful people start filtering in after one a.m. in a trickle of satin and foofiness and Prada, I am stationed—posing in an unthreatening and smiley manner—by a marble column where I can gently inquire about how the night went. My colleagues are similarly stationed within the long lobby. First up, around two, Victoria Beckham and her sister Louise stroll in and bestow a polite “It was great” before making a clean getaway upstairs. Minutes later the gruesome foursome parades in: J. Lo, Leah, Marc and Angelo. I ask J. Lo: “How was the wedding?”
Ms. Lo speeds up, and as she passes in front of me she almost I-think-she-kind-of-did spit with a fierce Pss-fff-tsshh in my direction. I am taken aback. As she swans away, her famous butt, which I never realized was so untoned, is undulating under her silken baby pink gown. For me, now, she is ugly inside and out. Other responses, mannerly and humane things, would’ve sufficed. Examples being: I’m sorry, no; not tonight; a silent smile of thanks for asking but no; or absolutely no reaction at all. Every one of those would’ve passed without note. This, however, shows who she is. Not Jenny from the Block. Jenny with a mansion and an attitude. In the same way I’ll never forget that moment, I’m certain she’d never remember. It is effortless and reflexive. That I approach her politely, with respect for her space, doesn’t matter. I am down in the dirt, to be spat at, disregarded. We are beneath her. She and Marc (Dlisted likes to call him “Skeletor,” though when I interviewed him about his charity Maestro Cares years later, he had me thinking he really does care, and gives back) are the only ones I saw this weekend with hovering body guards, notable considering all the mega-stars here.
My boss acknowledges her diss by shooting an expression my way of Youch, and then a shrug of, Okay, now we shake it off.
Behind her, Leah does me the courtesy of swiveling her head my way and saying in an ultra-strong New York accent: Sorry, honey, can’t.
After acting as a virtual spittoon for her highness J. of the Lo VI, while my colleagues are keeping watch, I mosey on over to watch a spectacular, rare show that one will not see every day. After Tom—who’s carrying little Suri—and his brand-new bride glide in around one a.m., there is a ten-minute moment captured by the wedding photographers and my own brain. As Katie, dressed in a long strapless silver dress, looks on, Tom lets Suri explore a bronze sculpture of a girl on a swing she’s become entranced with. Tom holds the infant and gazes at her with absolute wonder painted on his face as he lifts her, lets her get closer to the sculpture, lets her reach out to touch it. She can’t yet talk or walk, so her attachment to the sculpture is conveyed with her smile and her wide brown eyes. Dad is smiling proudly, eyes sparkling, and doesn’t take them off Suri. Whether it is actorly wonder for the audience or real dad-pride, only he would know. There are only a few hotel and/or wedding guests in the little enclave of the lobby, and otherwise it is just their photographer, Tomkat, Suri and me. I am so close I could touch them.
When it’s over, Tom deposits Suri with David Beckham, who cradles her head and chats with the star. Soon after, Leah and J. Lo and their men slipped into a back part of the bar, ordered pizzas, and scoffed them down just like regular people. The Hassler after party went til something like 5 a.m., and the poor hotel staff were beat. As were we all, and to be honest, I welcomed the distraction.
Should I have left Rome? I don’t know. The next morning I was on duty at Katie’s family’s hotel. I sat in the lobby restaurant and watched Catherine Bell pick at a fruit salad. I ordered a weird, I’m-in-a-haze brunch: an omelette and a mojito. Don’t ask, because I don’t know what I was thinking. I wrapped my hands around the fat, cold mojito glass, feeling the cold condensation, and of course never sipped it, and looked out for Katie’s family and any random celebrities I could report back about. I am thinking, I need someone to talk to. I need to get to a doctor. Am I being silly?
My direct boss at the time was utterly human and would’ve sent me home the day before. Forced me, not allowed me. He’ll be annoyed now I stuck around and never said anything. But that’s not the vibe I was feeling from the magazine as a whole; I couldn’t bear to have people side-eying me me when I was clearly, officially, by all appearances quite well. How do you share something so personal? We’d already had some snarky comments swirling around from editors on site who’d traveled in from the States and were quite unsympathetic to our running around Rome and its outskirts at all hours (it wasn’t all sitting around sipping cappuccino. We had a big team here, including two Europe-based ultra-senior reporters on the ground who didn’t get much sitting-around duty—they worked their asses off. Someone had to spy, though). There was tons of running and stressing and standing on the street waiting for Tomkat to leave their latest dinner, etc. Plus, if I am following Tom and Katie, the couple of the moment, the only important thing happening on earth right now, nothing is happening to me. Making it harder is I have just moved to Switzerland from England, and I don’t speak the language or have a doctor of any description.
Thank goodness for the amazing expat community in my new hometown of Lucerne, because when I got home I was connected to an American woman who referred me to an English-speaking Swiss OB/GYN. Finally I see the doctor after I take more positive tests and cry over more blood, and she tells me the news. My numbers are low now and she says, it is over. Bleed it out. You’re done.
I got three days in my life to feel what that’s like.
After that, it didn’t work out for me at all, not ever.
But just like all of us human beings rattling around the planet, when life doesn’t work out how you wanted or planned or hoped or assumed, you are okay in the end. I was okay; we are okay now.
(P.S.: Years later I would interview Tom, and of course would not let on I’d spied on him at his own wedding. That wouldn’t do, not at all. That experience is explored and fictionalized in my novel A Carpet in Scarlet.)
There are endless secrets and lies running through Hollywood and the industries that feed it; there are reams of personal information about celebrities that don’t get published. Then again, a lot of it is out there, but reps deny it and it remains just idle gossip, languishing in blog posts and comment sections. We all know that mega-star is gay (just check the National Enquirer), despite his happy straight-family image; we know Sandra Bullock has a favorite side of her face and if you try to photograph her “bad” side, you’ll hear about it; we know it’s not Angie who wears the pants when it comes to the difficult task of wrangling stories and photo exclusives with Brangelina and the brood, but Brad. We knew which A-lister miscarried and eventually divorced partly because of the pressure to conceive, and about the actress who aborted her actor boyfriend’s child after he cheated on her. What stops us is decency (believe it or not), deals struck, promises made, a lack of true newsworthiness, and sometimes fear of legal reprisals. This is what keeps so many stories in the fold.
Every celebrity reporter has an arsenal of stories, anecdotes, humblebrags and special moments just waiting to come out. Too many of them are yawn-worthy and meh, and I include myself in the stale-story ranks. I have a ton of those. I think most of us have a Tom Cruise moment. Michael Douglas is pretty friendly too, and if you’re based in New York you’ll run into Mariksa Hargitay a lot. Get a bunch of these reporters, especially the veterans, in the same room or on the same social media post and you’ll witness one-upmanship of epic proportions. We can’t help it. The one thing I don’t engage in is the quietly fierce competition among certain reporters—a handful in my experience—to show how many celebrities are their pals, or paid attention to them once, or invite them places or give them their cell numbers, when we should all know by now it’s just an illusion and it’s possible we never witness authentic moments with these stars, despite our strong belief we are special.
Some of us are sure celebrities—the cool kids of our adult lives—want to be our friend. Whatever you do, don’t argue that with certain entrenched Hollywood journalists; you’re liable to get an epic eye roll and maybe your head bitten off. I know him! I’ve been to her house! You don’t get it. We are friends! Our kids go to the same school! I interviewed him for two hours and I can tell he’s cool (and of course he wasn’t putting on his best behavior for you, the person who holds his reputation in your hands, right?). And on, and on.
Plus, we’ll all deny it, every last one of us, but it is a fact that many—if not all—journalists who get into celebrity reporting secretly harbor dreams of that one savvy celeb becoming uncontrollably mesmerized by us and whisking us away from their banal, mediocre lives. That fades, of course, as you realize that’s not going to happen, and the grizzled vets on the red carpet now are all cynical and whiney and tired and all, Don’t you hate interviewing so-and-so? He’s mean. She has bad breath. He’s a close talker. He’s a dick. God, my feet hurt. Will Ryan Reynolds hurry up already? Why is Jennifer Lawrence ignoring me? How am I going to get a quote now?
But in the beginning, all reporters—old ones, fat ones, ugly ones, pretty ones, married ones—all have that little fantasy spinning in the back of our minds when we’re chattering away with the Tom Hiddlestons and the Chris Hemsworths and Taylor Swifts. That they will like us. That they will take us away from it all.
I’ve interviewed hundreds, I believe (some multiple times), and I’m convinced only a small number let you see who they really are. I can sit here and regale you with my experiences and encounters and opinions, like how Elizabeth Olsen is so ethereally delicate that reps skitter about to shield and protect her like an orchid, draping a jacket over her fragile shoulders, and how she is picky who she talks to on the red carpet. She makes sure to sound smart, and she does, more so than a lot of the celebs I speak to. Or how everyone loves James McAvoy (unless it comes out he was cheating on his estranged wife, in which case that will change, not that I am asserting any such thing), and that his boyish, twinkling grin is reserved only for us when we catch him on the red carpet.
Or how interviewing Angelina Jolie is like preparing for an audience with the queen, an entire street is roped off, there is every reporter that ever worked in this business lined up, there is a hush that comes over the crowd and she walks down the with handlers and her chin tilted up just the slightest bit. How when you meet her she appears unhealthily skinny, not just I-have-to-look-good-onscreen-so-give-me-a-break thin, with jagged shoulder blades and protruding clavicles, and has strangely pale makeup covering up what look like scattered scabs. And that she has a slow way of talking, looks you in the eyes only briefly and not truly connecting at all (many stars try really hard to seem like they’re connecting; she does not, at least not with me). How Angelina has mastered speaking while telling you nothing at all. I ask her how she feels about President Obama’s ascension to the White House. “I was pleased to see how excited so many people were,” she said after thinking for half a minute, telling me precisely nothing and taking no stand whatsoever. She’s nice. She’s professional. To me her eyes look vacant, and the way her face falls in the seconds between interviews betrays her boredom. I get a couple quotes out of her, thank God.
After all, I am at her mercy. She’s a walking image machine, a sashaying caricature of a modern-day goddess who will bestow her time to me, her wisdom—but only if the mood catches her. She can stop, absorb my questions and throw me a well-thought-out crumb; or she can pass me by at the last second like I am dust. I live or die (professionally) at her whim. I am so ready for that not to be the case anymore. I only want to talk to real people from now on.
Or I can say how Bella Thorne does connect, is friendly, makes eye contact, laughs, talks to you like an old friend. How I worry she’s going to get herself hurt. She’s one of the least programmed teens I’ve spoken to, and I want to hug her and tell her not to grow up so fast. I am way too late.
Every reporter has favorites and nemeses. One example: I was warned by a red carpet contemporary that Bryan Cranston is difficult (what?! No way). I had a blast with him. We had a laugh riot and he ended up making an off-color joke I won’t put him in hot water for because he (and all the honorees at the event) had been to cocktail hour and he didn’t mean it. Val Kilmer—his reputation says he’s “difficult” and he knows it—is great to talk to, so thoughtful, so interesting, so nice. The first time we met, at a nightclub in London a few years ago, he was trailed by a bevy of model types with Pantene-worthy hair. He broke away from them and made them wait so he could talk to me. They had to stand there playing with their locks while he and I had a chat about various things I then filed back to headquarters. My memory of that night is, I’m talking to Ice Man from Top Gun in a London nightclub and he didn’t rip my head off. In fact, he kinda likes me. The second time, years later in New York, he was looking worse for the wear and so was I; we talked about aging and he said he feels as young as ever, and so did I, and he shook his head and said he didn’t understand why people thought he was getting older. We just aren’t, we agreed. A lot of us on the wrong side of forty can relate to that.
Over time, I learned the saying is true: we should never meet our heroes (Thus why, after hundreds of celebrity interviews and four of her live shows, I intend to never meet Alanis Morissette). Some will break your heart with disappointment, others will bore you with precisely met expectations, others will charm you with surprising wit. No, you cannot judge a person’s character or wrap a life story around one meeting on a red carpet, a party, a junket. But when you meet them over and over, you learn how they interact with the world, and with the little people, and you see how they are dealing with fame—or not dealing, as the case may be.
Who is kind when they don’t have to be? (Emily Deschanel, Rosario Dawson, David Arquette, Colin Farrell, Michael Douglas). Who is funny when they don’t need to impress you? (Kevin Kline, Bryan Cranston, Ricky Gervais). Who is snappish or just plain rude when they should know what’s coming because they’re talking to a celebrity magazine? (Richard Gere, Alan Cumming, Jon Bon Jovi, Lupita Nyong’o ). Who is earnest? (Michael Stipe, who was just learning what a meme is when we talked a few years ago, BJ Novak, who likes to talk about books). Who, most of all, treats you as an equal even for a moment, even if it has to be forced, even if they are not in the mood? (Jack Black, Chrissy Teigen, Hugh Jackman, Joshua Jackson, Jason Bateman, Jenna Fischer, Mischa Barton, Emma Thompson, Tea Leoni, Misty Copeland), who takes themselves very seriously (Ryan Reynolds, Matthew McConaughey, Ashton Kutcher, Elizabeth Olsen), who wants nothing to do with you before they even meet you (Scarlett Johansson, Ryan Reynolds, Jennifer Lopez), who deigns to throw you a quote but makes it clear they’re doing you the grandest favor a higher being can bestow (Jennifer Lawrence, Angelina Jolie, Katie Holmes, Eva Longoria).
I am a reporter stuck on one side of the rope, which means I only know my own experience on the line. So what do the celebrities think of us? These are actors and performers, so we can only guess. Chris Evans, Captain America himself, gave us a clue when he told Rolling Stone recently that doing interviews on a red carpet is like “30 minutes of walking on hot coals.” Some people do that for kicks, but I am guessing for him that is a bad thing.
For stars in general, I tend to believe when you’re acting like an asshole to those who have come out to promote your project, to hang on your every word, you’re probably kind of a douche in life. Even allowing for bad days, you can often tell. Luckily, jerks don’t get in your face very often. Mostly if they want to be uncooperative they’ll just smile and throw out one-line answers until their claw-fisted publicist grabs you by the elbow like the Wicked Witch of the West, leaving you with no story. There are also things you hear around town to confirm or contradict your own view of a star. I remember Ryan Reynolds did an interview with the person to my left at a major premiere. Then he did a pointed, snub-tastic about-face and seemed to take a smug satisfaction (this is my perception, I cannot confirm that Ryan was indeed smugly satisfied or not) in pointedly passing me by, ignoring me, then managing to settle again two inches to my right, where he proceeded to put on the charm for the beyond-adorable kid reporter. For every celebrity (well, every celebrity publicist) who sees People as a soft place to fall, others waffle between using the magazine and thinking its too cheesy or fluffy, or sometimes they’re mad because their last demand wasn’t met (contrary to what some blogs like to say—one in particular calls People “knee pads”—they don’t give in to publicists’ every request).
The beautiful thing for me is, I no longer have to care if they or their publicists like me. It’s heavenly. Bowing to celebrity publicists and trembling in the face of their wrath is not a natural state of being. They often present as profoundly miserable people, and I often wonder why they’ve chosen to rise in the career they’re in. Ina Treciokas, who I’m assured is a Hollywood “power” publicist to the stars (she got sacked by Katie Holmes and still has Justin Theroux, aka Mr. Aniston, as a client), calls me out of the blue one day a couple years ago (we’re not pals or anything). She has quite the loud and snippy tone, as if confronting her enemy. She tries to intimidate me. I play dumb, and so does she. It makes for quite a who’s on first type of conversation. She finally admits she learned I was “calling around about Justin” and “I heard you want to know about Justin and I want to know what you want.” So I told her what I wanted and she didn’t answer any of the questions.
We have people at People whose job it is to talk to certain publicists. If this Ina person was so interested in learning what I wanted, why not just call her senior People contact (who happens to be super-awesome)? I finally deduced that after I had called this one New York restaurant, they must’ve passed on my name and personal cell number to Ina (that chilled me, btw, that a local dining establishment is so fearful of a Hollywood rep that when I call to ask if Justin had the Reuben and fries when he was there—the most basic celebrity reporting tactic there is—they hang up and call his people. A RESTAURANT has a publicist’s contact information? That’s, like, unheard of).
Ina and her ilk aside, I admit I had a little of what I have dubbed Celebrity Stockholm Syndrome. Another publicist, powerhouse Jennifer Aniston apologist Stephen Huvane, who is so high-profile that even civilians in all sorts of random internet comment sections know who he is, will very often get back to you, which can be very helpful when an editor is breathing down your neck: Get that answer! Find out of Jen is indeed adopting a Mexican orphan (this was a real rumor)! If the rep doesn’t reply, you are left having to figure out other means of proving if Jennifer Aniston is or isn’t adopting an unknown orphan. Stephen will get back to you so many times. I don’t care if it’s been reported he pulled his clients from places like the Today show and People over the years, or that US Weekly called him out for alleged lies including telling media Jen wasn’t engaged to Brad Pitt even as she flashed a diamond engagement ring, then continued to deny any engagement until the couple’s 2000 wedding. So many reps are so hard to deal with that one the big ones toss you crumbs now and then, you lap them up with disproportionate levels of gratitude.
Stephen’s never gotten personal with me, never put me or my publication down (to my face). And did I mention he writes back? He’s a denial machine and I love him for it, even though I shouldn’t. Ina’s unpleasant and lacks basic manners in most of her dealings with me. But none of it matters anymore—yay! (Also, neither of them will know who I am, which is about what I would expect).
(P.S. some crazier stories, plus bigger stars like Jennifer Aniston, Julia Roberts, various Kardashians, and J Law can be found in my novel.)
Prince William and Duchess Kate love to take vacations. It’s one of their favorite pastimes, in fact, and they’re really good at it. When I was living in Switzerland before they were married, they came to town for a skiing jaunt with some chums. Off I went to find them.
When I arrive in Klosters, it is bitter, cloudy, and there is a calm before the gray, pregnant sky is due to release tons of fluffy, visibility-drowning flakes. Kate herself is a special snowflake, it has to be said. How fitting I am here to find her and her reluctant future groom. Job one, the Holy Grail, is to find the couple and observe their actions, demeanor, movements. We’re on engagement watch all the time now, and a first-person view of their relationship can offer hints to what gem-related event is coming—and how soon. Problem is, there are some eighty-five ski runs in Davos and Klosters. Plus, the couple could’ve come off the mountain at any time today—even before my train pulled into the station, for all I know. So, it could be a long day. Going back to the bosses with nothing is not an option.
I arrive just in time to dump my bags in my chalet-style hotel and race to post-skiing happy hour, which has a fancy name. I don’t ski—I’m terrified of heights, and I’m not trusting some thin wire to dangle me over a two-hundred-foot precipice—but it turns out Après ski is what I was made for. I trudge along, trying to figure out where the hell to find them, and bump into an establishment at the bottom of a slope where I can only hope I’ll discover the crown jewels. It is a packed. Why do I decide to set up camp here? Where else? My choices were a) stand alone freezing at the bottom of some random slope, or b) go to the one with a bar where I can watch, sit, and have a cocktail. I chose the drinking spot. Also, the boss and I had some hints on where they’d been photographed in the past and which areas they’d favored over the years.
I order some sort of weird Swiss rum and soda situation and as I wait for the drink to materialize, I chat with a British reporter who’s also the case. Something tells me I’m getting warm. I sit there with a view of the lift, waiting for Prince William and his hard-working girlfriend. God knows how Waity (or her married name, Duchess Dolittle) found the time to exert herself on a ski slope in between all her waiting and shopping and hair appointments, and plus, by the looks of things, in between now and her wedding she will also have to squeeze in major cosmetic dental work, hair extensions, a nose job, and a starvation diet. Waiting for a prince to propose is hard work.
(It used to be you couldn’t say boo about
Princess Catherine Waity without being accused of “jealousy.” Oh dear God. Jealous of what? But now, blogs and even the mainstream British press are throwing around terms like “work shy” and “lazy” about both of them. I can’t disagree. Still, it’s fun to see them in person).
Anyway, back to après ski. Suddenly, it’s happening—they’re here! I have a close-up view of everything. The privileged couple alights from the lift. I sip casually from my plastic cup outside the bar, pretending to not be a stalkerish fangirl or worse, member of the press. They swish towards us, so fast, like they are training for the royal ski Olympics. William is joking and laughing, then lets his face settle into a normal look of concentration as he waddles over to lay his skis in the rack between the lift and the bar, just a few feet from me; Kate keeps grinning incessantly at nothing. William—who is fairytale tall and lean but plagued with royal horseteeth that, in person, burst out in all their light-mustard glory—says something to a friend. Kate’s just smiling, flashing those dimples and refusing to let her face fall. I am watching live, right in front of me, the specific Duchess Doolitle phenomenon that a royal insider—one of the real British uppercrust who’s actually on the inside, a royal-connected British woman with a record of getting things right—shared with me flatly as I stood outside Windsor castle on the day Prince Charles married his shameless mistress Camilla Parker-Bowles in 2005.
“You can see it in pictures,” the royal insider told me. “Even in her twenties, Kate’s face is already falling. She has to smile to keep it up.” She is not kidding. “Do you see how it falls when she lets the smile go? Do you see how her mouth turns down; gets lost where face is collapsing?”
That, my Kate Middleton watchers, is why you will see her grinning maniacally at all times in photographs and videos, even when you get the strong sense it doesn’t really fit the occasion, even when you can’t see quite what’s so funny, even when those around her don’t seem remotely festive. Even when she’s staring into space, walking up some stairs. Even at somber events when it’s not right to smile, when she can’t lest she appear soulless, she tucks the corners ever-so-slightly upward.
I am seeing this now in Klosters. I don’t know how she keeps her face up like that. I smile in solidarity, just to see what it feels like to grin from ear-to-ear for no reason. It feels awkward, painful and false. Ow, my face. To be fair, in her case right now there is a reason—the photographers. Her chestnut hair, weighing less pound-for-pound than it does now without the extensions and wiglets it certainly looks to me she’s attached in later years, tumbles over her shoulder, is held back fetchingly by the ski goggles perched on her head.
She looks great in slim white ski gear that contrasts with that hair. She heads to the waiting van, and I take note that William ducks in first, not helping her, not chivalrously letting her slip in before him so he can protect her. She follows, and is still smiling so the photographers catch that dimple and not drooping corners of her mouth. I see up close that she has an underbite; the slightest tinge of Neanderthal.
What strikes me then is how comfortable she looks in this role. She is the royal girlfriend, she has a special niche even though he won’t put a ring on it, and appears perfectly entitled to be there—no need to develop her own career or identity. As for William, he appears a lot more worried about himself than her.
Later that night, we will catch them out at a little Klosters nightclub, where she finally stops her demented grinning for short periods of time. She keeps an eye on Wills; she watches that boy like a hawk. When she smiles in this social situation, it is more relaxed, and at times she is sparklingly pretty, though not beautiful. She does not yet have the coal-black (tattooed on?) eyeliner, nor the orange tan you see in so many post-wedding photos. She is not elegant. But she can handle herself and she is properly subdued for a royal girlfriend and thoroughly pleased with herself. He is the leader of their pack of chums; she is glued to his side, and is not going anywhere. They don’t show any affection that I see, no PDA.
Later, we are caught. A few of us reporters are approached by royal handlers and told that if we don’t leave, the royals will. Dutifully, we hop off our stools and take off into the night. After that, I don’t see them again, though I have seen William alone before, so tall and goofy and always, always watched by protection officers, as are people like me who inch too close in a crowd.
A blocked call comes through on my personal cellphone as I’m working in my office on the 18th floor of a high rise in L.A. For reporters, blocked calls can be a source, a tip, a celebrity; it could also be someone I really don’t want to talk to. This person had called me something like seven times in the past day but left no voicemail.
I answer this one, finally, out of curiosity.
“Hello,” a man breathes heavily down the phone like his mouth is too close to the speaker. “I hear you’re talking to people about me? I’m here. You can ask me.”
He has an English accent. I know who it is even though we’ve never spoken, and my adrenaline whips up. It’s Feb. 4, about six weeks after Brittany Murphy died too young at 32. I’d been reporting on her death since day one, and almost immediately there’d been chatter about and side eyeing of her odd husband, Simon Monjack: what did she seen in him? Was he controlling her? He was in the house when she died. Could he….did he…what the hell happened to her? I worked over Christmas. I tracked down and called strangers who knew the actress to ask “how they feel” about the sudden death of a beautiful young talent, and I’m exhausted but better acquainted with the case than almost anyone. It remains one of the most bizarre stories I’ve ever worked on. To this day, the cause of death makes the gut tingle: Pneumonia, with anemia and prescription drugs as contributing factors—that kills a 32-year-old who presumably had access to the best medical care?
“Who is this?” I ask, knowing that will bother him. It does.
There is a pause and he grudgingly drawls, “It’s Simon Monnnjaaaackk. Are you writing nasty things or nice things about me?” He speaks languidly, almost slurring.
I reply, “I’m a journalist, so I write about what people are saying; I’m just writing about what’s news. How is Brittany’s mom doing?”
“Not so good. Who are you talking to about me? Do any of these people even know me?”
It’s extremely rare for the hunted to turn the tables on us, the information hunters. I call around about high-profile and/or newsmaking subjects all the time, and in twenty years of reporting it’s happened to me twice. The second time, a couple years after Simon, it was that Ina Treciokas who tried to intimidate me.
Simon wants information from me that I’m not giving him; I ask him about Brittney’s health and about the non-foundation foundation collecting money in her name, and he, in turn, gives me very little back.
No matter. He doesn’t know that I know his biggest secrets, some of which I learned as I kept up with sources on this case long after People stopped paying me to work on it. The whopper: Simon has two secret children, which of course means Brittany had two stepchildren. The public knows about one of them, Jazmyn Newman, who’s around 21 and says she last saw her father when she was 7. She told the Daily Mail in 2013, “My dad wasn’t the healthiest guy in the world because he was quite overweight, but I didn’t expect him to die that soon.”
(Indeed. He tried to improve his fitness at one point, hiring a personal-trainer-to-the-stars and then not paying him. The trainer, still angry at the time, told me he tried endless tactics to get his money from Simon, who would placate him with “the check’s in the mail”—and even went so far as to send an empty Fedex envelope to the trainer as a stalling tactic).
Now, finally, I can exclusively reveal there is a second child, a boy who would have been the stepson of Brittany Murphy. “Bobby” (not his real name) is a boy who just passed his 17th birthday. He’s a strapping, football-playing, basketball-loving young man who, if I bumped into him on the street, I would know instantly was Simon Monjack’s son. He is the spitting image of his father, and in photos he dwarfs the adorable southern mom who raised him after Simon took off.
The boy’s mother—I’ll call her “Belle”—and Simon were together less than a year and living in Europe when she got pregnant. Simon pushed for her to keep the child, and Belle later came to believe her man’s interest was in American citizenship rather than fatherhood. The latter certainly wasn’t on his agenda. Before Bobby was born, Simon bolted, never to lay eyes on his own son before dying May 23, 2010, five months after Brittany.
One of Simon’s last meaningful acts was to write a letter to Bobby. It was sent so close to his death, in fact, that it feels eerily like Simon knew his time was short, almost predicted his own demise. While the letter is not the plea for forgiveness I’d want if it were my deadbeat dad, nor does it show much interest in getting to know his son, Belle says, “I am so happy he sent it. That letter meant a lot. It will always mean a lot.”
It is, perhaps, everything, the only remaining voice Bobby will ever hear from a father who couldn’t be bothered to meet him. In lieu of Simon giving his son a proper explanation—the letter is all vague attempts at poetic metaphors, similes and excuses—Belle has tried her best to help Bobby process his abandonment.
“I tell [my son] that Simon was not at all prepared to be a father, that he is sick, was sick, and that it has nothing do with him that his father didn’t want to see him,” Belle, whose therapist suggested Simon was a sociopath, says. “It was his sickness. And [Bobby] was created in love. I explain Simon never met him, so it couldn’t be about him. Now he’s older, he wants to know more.”
The writing in the 1,100-word letter is florid and tries too hard; the prose screams how important it is for Simon to sound intelligent. He crams in as many literary, Parisian and art references as he can, yet can’t get apostrophe’s or basic Capitalization right. When talking about his love of Paris, he writes, “…To go to the market at the Porte De Clignacourt (sic) early on a Sunday morning hoping to find the undiscovered treasure that the uncouth American’s have missed…”
There are notable signs of narcissistic tendencies. Nowhere in the letter does he use the word “sorry,” for example, and there is the excessive use of “I,” a pronoun that appears six times in the first seven lines alone. He uses the first line to “apologise,” but not for abandoning his baby—rather for the letter being “late.” He goes on to minimize and justify his leaving the boy fatherless.
“Firstly, I would like to apologise that this letter is ten years too late. But there are as many ways to love as there are moments in time; in other words just because we have not had a physical relationship; I have loved you from a distance,” Simon wrote.
Perhaps Bobby can also find something valuable, a lick of peace, in this passage as well: “You are so talented and that is exceptional so please enjoy it,” Simon writes. “Listen to your mother she knows. If you ever want reading suggestions or any advice I am only a phone call or e-mail [away].”
Sadly, apart from offering to take his son’s calls or emails, Simon, who was living the high life in a West Hollywood mansion with a famous actress while his son remained fatherless in Europe, does not open a dialogue with Bobby, inquire about his interests and seek out what I would think would be obvious joy in trying to match your distant flesh and blood’s traits to your own. You like anchovies? I LOVE anchovies! You hate heights? Me, too!
He simply lists the alleged events and interests that comprised the “wonderful life I have lived.”
Simon closes the letter by explaining he equates the act of loving someone with a cigar, and also that he owns a Ferrari:
“Where the memory of your mother and I is woven into this story of an elaborate and beautiful City where the most dangerous words in the English language are spoken for the first time: I love you. My son, those words are sacred and only equalled by a very, very fine cigar! I hope we meet soon or you can come here and drive my Ferrari as I have no idea how to work it!
Listen to your mother and go easy on yourself.
With great affection,
Your Loving Father.”
There is only a passing reference to his wife Brittany, about how she was “too good for this world.”
Simon lied to a lot of people, and Belle was no exception. One substantial thing she did believe is about Brittany. “He loved her very, very, very much,” she says.
What she doesn’t believe is that Simon ever told Brittany about his children, an assumption that was confirmed to me by sources close to the actress around the time of her passing.
Says Belle, “He told me that he had told her all about me and that he would take care of us, and Brittany wanted to meet us, and that he was very open with her about it.”
When he was with Brittany, Simon began wiring little dribs and drabs of child support money. “He would send like $800, or $500, and he did that a few times and that was the end of it,” says Belle. “He didn’t even give me $5,000 during that time with Brittney. And that was just to keep me quiet. He didn’t need Brittany to know about me.”
I ask her what in the world Brittany would’ve seen in Simon, and she posits, “Just with the age difference…her self esteem must have been really low to want to be with him. I don’t know. He is the most charming. If he walks into a restaurant, everybody turns around and wants to know who is that. It’s not because he’s the most handsome or because he’s the most well dressed, it’s because he carried this charisma; you just want to know who he is. I’m sure the tabloids couldn’t believe gorgeous Brittany was with somebody like that, if we’re talking about physical stuff.”
For her part, Belle fell for his charm over a group dinner where they first met. “I thought, I like him. he knew how to work people. He was a real player.”
Belle has wanted to let the world know about her son from the beginning; she is proud of him. When everyone was focused on Brittany and Simon after the actress died, Belle and Bobby were living in Europe watching with an uneasy feeling of incompleteness: We’re here! We needed you! We exist. We count. This is our story, too.
Belle, an American who hails from the deep south, also had an early gut check when the actress died so unexpectedly. “My first reaction was, oh my goodness, did Simon have something to do with Brittany’s death? Because he had deceived me in so many ways, I thought, surely he did not have anything to do with this poor girl dying so young.”
Belle, sadly, suffered in her relationship with Simon. Despite his own heft, he would hammer his girlfriend about her weight. “Simon never mentioned Brittany’s anorexia to me,” she says. “He was, however, obsessed with my weight and wanting me to be thin.
“I heard that she was anorexic, and he was very much into saying things to me about losing weight and all that stuff, but I wonder if he had contributed to Brittany’s issues in that way. I was just so blindsided by his deception with me that I wondered if he was capable of something like that. I wondered if it could be.”
She adds, “I didn’t feel unsafe in the house with him, it was an emotional kind of abuse. It wasn’t physical. Simon was scary intelligent. Really scary intelligent. He was walking by me once— I have crazy passwords on my email accounts—and he said, ‘I can get into your email account.’ I said, ‘no you can’t!’ I logged out and he went right on to my account.”
As for that bombshell letter, Belle will perhaps reveal the full text in her own time. She wants a safe, elegant outlet to tell her and her son’s story. So why now? Why are she and Bobby finally ready to reveal themselves? Belle has wrestled with sharing her family history, feeling almost a compulsion to bring it out into the open. She has written a memoir about her time in Europe with Simon, of meeting him, of what she says was his emotional abuse, of a bizarre cancer scam Simon is said to have run, of raising a wonderful son in Bobby. She would like to have it published one day.
But for Belle, who has balanced a need for much-deserved child support from her son’s father with the desire to never appear as a gold-digger, it is finally time to speak up. I understand the need to let it all out, after listening to so many sources over time. People were coming out of the woodwork—some possessing hard evidence—to talk about the charming conman. Simon Monjack was like shrapnel; he obliterated lives, affected people for years, left an infinite wake, and seemingly made Brittany believe whatever he wanted her to.
Belle’s life was completely redirected by Simon, changed forever, and she was left with the fallout of his decisions. Yet it’s not all bad for her and Bobby now; the man who helped raise him, the only father he ever knew, is nearing the end of the process to officially adopt Bobby. Though Belle is no longer with her son’s soon-to-be-legal dad, they have her full blessing to make it official.
What Simon missed out on is a well-rounded kid with a mom who’s done her best to raise a good man. “He’s a giant, but at church he’s amazing with all the little kids,” Belle says. “You’ll see him holding a baby or little kids running up to him. He’s super sensitive, he is super intelligent, his IQ is above average…he loves having political conversations. I see a lot of his dad in him, and I’m trying to steer that in a positive way.”
Bobby, she says, is going to meet more of the British side of the family this summer. “I look at how people go out and search and spend money searching for their family tree, even for their ancestors they’ll never meet…they want to know,” Belle explains. “Although we have continued with our lives, [Bobby] just wants to know what his biological father was about, and who his family is, and all of it.
“You want to have a meeting with the father, but he’s dead, so now what do we do? We look at the family and his life.”
June 27, 2016
Dear People Magazine,
It’s not me, it’s you. It’s been a wildly dysfunctional 14 years, and you’re an entirely different magazine than when we first got together. I swear half the current staff doesn’t know my name, despite my contribution to something like fifteen hundred stories in your celebrity annals, so here’s a refresher: I worked inside your London, Los Angeles and New York bureaus, covered breaking news in nine countries, and dealt with too many celebrities to remember (I know this because I was cruising through your archives recently and found my name on files I had no recollection of writing, and interviews with people I have no memory of meeting, like Ellen and Portia together, plus both leads in Nip/Tuck and that guy from Burn Notice). My first celebrity assignment for you was Spice Girl Geri Halliwell in 2002. My last was Robert De Niro in April 2016.
In between, there were memorable encounters galore, including making the gorgeous and empathic Mariska Hargitay ugly-cry (turns out she cries at like every charity-related event, phew), enduring an Oscar winner’s public bullying over an intimate dinner, facing a personal crisis at Tom Cruise’s wedding in Rome, getting basically, kind of spat on by a snotty J. Lo (okay, it was like a very wet pffttt in my general direction, really obnoxious), having fun with endless lower-key celebs like Rosario Dawson and Kyle MacLachlan and Michael Douglas, observing just how stiff and awkward George Clooney is around kids, insulting Sheryl Crow’s baby, and getting groped/harrassed by an A-list multi-hyphenate performer in New York and Paris (that’s not to be flip—it was violating as hell. I’m still pissed I didn’t jab him in the balls with my pen).
This is just what the entitled stars and their batshit crazy publicists put me and many other talented, hard-working reporters through. You people, as it turns out, are worse. Stupidly, we expect loyalty and support from you after years of service. We are naïve. Despite your nicey nice, glossy and chirpy veneer, some of us think of you more as the Leo DiCaprio of magazines, using up every beautiful model that crosses your path (“beautiful model”= “award-winning journalist” in this scenario), discarding them, and pretending you leave no wake behind you.
I’m oddly surprised my tenure here is ending not with explosive hatred stoked by a cold dismissal from an insensate behemoth (i.e. you)—a fate I watched ashen-faced friends and colleagues endure before my eyes during the Los Angeles bureau’s 2008 culling—but with a slow fade-out and a final venting of my gossip-weary spleen. Then again, that’s why I’m happy being freelance. I’ve survived something like eight rounds of layoffs where talented colleagues were bitch-slapped into oblivion and, I hope, will never give their nights, weekends, relationships and sanity again to keep up with an email chain about whether Jennifer Aniston is pregnant at 47 because of those tummy photos and what kind of mom will she be, when really she just had an extra burrito at lunch; but oh, wait, the rep says it’s just a rumor so there’s no story this week after all.
Like any rocky relationship, it was the good times that kept me coming back. The pay was decent (for journalism) much of the time if you could rack up enough hours on a story: $45-$55 an hour plus expenses. There were trips around Europe, champagne flowing like wine, big stars in my face, special access, parties, the Oscars. With the world in the hot mess it is, anyone with a job and a livable wage should count herself damn fortunate—and when you’re on a Swiss flight drinking wine on your way to talk about sex with Roger Federer in a fancy hotel, you think you’ve hit the jackpot, and you’re right. Which is great, but at this point (I’m guessing I’m not alone here), my income would qualify me for food stamps.
Plus, those thrilling moments only punctuate the unending daily stream of crap celebrity reporters muck through, like when editors tell you to find out what Harrison Ford did on-set after his wedding to Calista Flockhart (he had cake). You stare down a list of two-hundred cast and crew on his latest film, find their phone numbers and emails, and cold-call them from your home in deep Connecticut. It’s cringey and makes you wonder why you’re not out saving refugees instead of begging strangers for celebrity dirt.
Our relationship has become mostly about low-paying, last-minute, unpleasant assignments for which I’m lucky if I get a byline crammed in with seven other reporters’ names. These days when a music legend like Prince dies, I’m not sent to the scene—it’s not even a question. The underpaid, overworked kids on your staff are (hey, some of them are great; it’s not their fault they’re unseasoned). So a week into it I get a call that can I trawl through a hundred pages of warmed-over stories to find “new” sources that do not exist, because interns at CNN and InTouch have already found them. It’s a four-hour gig that doesn’t even net a day rate. Fine, don’t throw me any more important, meaty assignments—just don’t insult me with the pointless ones.
Some readers might be thinking, why not quit before now? No sense complaining—it is what it is. Just say Sayonara, People! I’ll tell you why not. It took a long time for the bad to firmly, fully outweigh the good, and it’s hard to let go after so long. The access is seductive, the fear of getting stuck blogging for pennies fierce. Also, something major happened.
Don’t pretend you don’t know what pushed me over the edge, People. My debut novel, a teen mystery with a killer twist called The Underdogs, was just released and is an Amazon Best Book of the Month pick (yay!). When I inked the modest little deal, I was extra psyched because I knew you’d hook me up, put me in the magazine or on People.com like you’ve done for every contributors’ book I’ve heard of since I’ve been with you. There always seemed to be a spot in your From our Contributors book section, or at least on People.com as a consolation prize. I am well aware you dole out favors, special treatment, make-goods—whatever you want to call it—when it suits you, whether to staff, companies, fashion houses or authors (don’t make me bring out the emails). You embrace literature like the Taco Bell dog’s life story (whose talented author was always nice and professional with me), some really bad chick lit, books that are not by or about celebrities, and one as-yet-unreleased tome by a non-celebrity businesswoman.
But for some reason, you drew the line at my book. You ignored The Underdogs with the force of a thousand suns. Despite my flagging it a year before publication, then months, then mere weeks, you waffled, weaseled, and finally backed away and wouldn’t give me any answer at all. It started when I emailed People’s longtime books editor, who knows more than anyone how it’s harder to find a Leprechaun spanking a Unicorn than land in the magazine, who has publicists begging her to mention their books. The books editor, who informed me flatly a year ago there was suddenly no more From our Contributors section and added, “I’ll be happy to take a look for general inclusion.”
She never did, as far as I know. She didn’t reply when I asked if she received the advance press copy, or when I asked her if it might make it into the magazine. I shared how my road to publication was paved with five rejected novels and eighteen arduous years of abject failure, during which I thought about giving up at least once a week; this isn’t any old book to me. But the books editor, who’s happily shot emails back and forth when I was churning out interviews on Sunday mornings about sick ex-presidents when she was on weekend news duty, didn’t even reply when I asked her if she could just tell me “no,” if it was indeed a no, so I could plan and move on, maybe creatively protest. So, with times a changin’ and the death of print coming faster than a Santa Monica tsunami, I kept my counsel and made it easy for you to let people know about The Underdogs.
By now, maybe some readers are thinking, your sad tale of People magazine failing to promote your newly published book does not move me. Let me put it in perspective for you. On the advice of an assigning editor, I handed in a sweet, People-perfect, exclusive story about Chris Evans’s tight connection to his hometown—The Underdogs setting is inspired by the town of Sudbury, Mass. where we both grew up— that included source quotes about his bringing famous chicks back to the leafy suburb: Jessica Biel was at his health club doing tricep dips! Minka Kelly went out to karaoke with the family!
The film editor, my former favorite at the magazine, wrote back that my story “sounds too much like a press release for the book” and could I remove all “references to the new book in the body of the text.” See what I mean by a dysfunctional relationship? That the only way you’d consider promoting my book was with a story I wrote and sourced that could NOT MENTION MY BOOK is, um…wow. That somehow you think that will be just fine and dandy with me is depressing. Fuming but also laughing (because, really?), I took out any mention of my novel and put a note at the top (at your suggestion) about how Sara Hammel has a new book out blah blah blah. No one ever replied to my stripped-down rewrite.
Not even the crickets came out for me after that. You guys left me hanging. Meantime, that same week, People.com ran a gushing story about an upcoming book’s cover reveal. Was the author Liam from 1D? Maybe President Obama? How about Julia Roberts? No, this was Lisa Sugar’s book. Raise your hand if you don’t work in media and you do know who Lisa Sugar is. Anyone? Bueller? Didn’t think so. Here’s a small excerpt from the sugary, sycophantic
press release story: “How do you turn your blog into a global lifestyle and media brand with 500 employees and 85 million readers? Just ask Lisa Sugar, the founder and president of POPSUGAR and the author of the new book, Power Your Happy: Work Hard, Play Nice and Build Your Dream Life.”
And my story was like a press release? Here’s my favorite line: “And now, PEOPLE can exclusively reveal the cover for Sugar’s new book!” This woman is touted so enthusiastically on People.com, a place that’s supposed to be about famous people, that it makes you think, doesn’t it? (I have to wonder who does her PR). It was so blatant it should’ve been tagged as sponsored content. Oh, the humanity. This is you all over, People. Picking and choosing, championing and dismissing, using your influence to swap favors when it suits you. Sigh. If they’ll do it with you, they’ll do it to you. I should’ve known.
I accepted it was over between us then, but I wanted to say I’d gone as high as I could before saying farewell. I added top-brass man JD Heyman, who I’d worked with in the L.A. office for nearly two years, to my final email explaining the publication date had passed and I’m in a now-or-never-type situation. You guessed it: more ignoring by more editors. That was the end of it. You drew a line at featuring my book with a spineless refusal to engage. You wouldn’t even give me a People.com post that costs you less than nothing.
I thought my dangerous work, my running out at 4 a.m. to cover a story in the middle of Switzerland and being told it wasn’t early enough, working over Christmas (I wasn’t given a choice), my upsetting work, my drop-everything stick-to-itiveness for nearly a decade and a half would yield some sort of loyalty and respect in return. I was wrong.
I crept down dark Perugian alleys when one of Meredith Kercher’s killers was still on the loose; I was faced with staring at Prince Petulant and Duchess Doolittle horse-laugh and suck down God knows what kind of drinks on another Swiss skiing jaunt well past my bedtime; I found Mel Gibson’s then-mysterious “Oksana” by curb-crawling and knocking on doors shamelessly in Studio City for days; I was first on the ground in Newtown and never got over it. (That horrific event was the beginning of the end for you and me. It was an unthinkable tragedy during which a reporter’s grief, rightfully so, had no place. Yet it was there, pummeling me from every angle, and I batted it away best I could as I absorbed the pain of the victims’ families. You had me call them at home right after, then weeks after, then months after. I cried on the phone with them, cried alone afterward. To this day not one editor who actually put the packages together and edited the copy and decided which stories we’d do has called, emailed or acknowledged me for the ongoing work I did on that story. Others did get calls and/or personal emails. Months later, I got a twenty-dollar salad and a cosmo. It cost me eighty bucks and six nearly six hours of travel to attend that lunch).
My star, if there ever was one, has faded from a heyday of interviewing Sting for Sexiest Man Alive and blushing when he got frisky over the phone, from catching Bono in a hallway in London, from Elton John’s Oscar party where I was publicly shamed by a gross has-been reality TV guy (hint: rhymes with Mordon Pansy) as his wife sniggered beside him. I’m not bringing out the violins because I don’t get the good stuff anymore, but because of the book thing—it’s most uncool. It’s your random use of your power and influence that sucks.
Some still in your ranks might call sour grapes on me, say I’m nobody, that I was never officially on staff, that I am not a part of you. I am an underdog, to be sure. To that I would say, check my hundreds upon hundreds of bylines. Check your internal systems. Check your old emails, your archives. My name, my imprint, my miniscule 401k and pension are there, and my impact can never be taken away, even if it’s forgotten now, denied or minimized.
I have prepared for this. While it’s a relief, it’s still painful, though I know I’m not alone. Over the years I’ve gotten reports about former colleagues’ trauma after being ejected from your staff, of taking a long time to recover, of feeling a cold, calculating and careless (if not metaphorical) hand pushing them out the door with weak, tone-deaf thanks. Wrote one of your laid-off staffers (a 26-year vet) in a personal essay about his final day, “As I left my boss’s office that afternoon, he stopped me when I got to the door, grinned, and said, ‘Oh, by the way, thank you for your service.’ Like a clown, all I could think of was to say, ‘You’re welcome.’ That was it. I was done. I was humiliated. I was shamed. I had failed in life.’”
He didn’t fail. He was one of a long line of staffers—hell, you have some incredible reporters and writers in your stable still, several I call friends—who thought they were in a special place, because you always let us know we were lucky to be allowed through your doors. Yet you always made sure we never felt entitled—to anything. Yet we are; I am. I am entitled to the professional respect I’ve shown you—an answer. A reply. Why not a little post that costs you nothing about a book that took most of my adult life to get on shelves? I will never know.
As I was crafting this letter, a Tweet came through from your executive editor, Kate Coyne, crowing about her full-page People feature promoting her brand-new book, accompanied by a colorful screenshot. “Don't ask how, but I got in touch with someone at @people—now I’m in the new issue. So grateful!”
You should be, Kate. Enjoy it while it lasts.
In this mini-memoir, journalist and author Sara Hammel lifts the lid on what itâ€™s really like to cover celebrities and breaking news for one of the biggest magazines in the world. Spilling secrets of some of her most intense and exciting assignments over 14 years and nine countries, she reveals behind-the-scenes details on life working for People magazine. Red Carpet Regret also marks her resignation from the magazine and includes her open letter to the publication explaining her departure.