Thursday, August 5, 2010

"This Interview Is Over" or, how sausage is sometimes made.

After writing about some of the stories that got away, I remembered a harrowing experience that is probably more revealing about the job of celebrity journalism, though it's not much fun to relive it.

After stints as writer/editor at Rolling Stone and editor/writer at Vogue, I became a full-time freelancer -- and a father of two small children. One big difference about a staff job versus freelancing: freelancers get paid by the word.

Which means, you get paid the same for a two-hour sit-down with Alicia Silverstone and a couple of phone calls to people she worked with, as you do tracking down dozens of subjects for a long piece about, say, Mississippi flood victims (which I did for Vogue with photographer Mary Ellen Mark). You do the math.

So as much as I liked
doing the piece for New York about peers from my hometown who'd moved back there to raise their own kids, or the piece for the New York Times Magazine about Ben Stiller, Janeane Garofalo and their comedy clique (which I did so early that one of the people who didn't make the cut into the article was Jack Black), those were incredibly labor-intensive.

Which meant I had to balance them with the somewhat less taxing celebrity profiles promoting new products.

So I was happy in 1998 when Cosmopolitan magazine called to have me interview Elizabeth Hurley in New York for a cover. She was easy on the eyes, I liked her from Austin Powers, and she seemed savvier than the usual model-turned-actress. She was running her boyfriend Hugh Grant's production company, which was going to release its second movie, Mickey Blue Eyes. 

Then the week that our interview was scheduled, People magazine came out with this cover [right]: Hurley and Grant had been paired with Frank & Kathie Lee Gifford and Bill & Hillary Clinton for a story called "Surviving Infidelity: How They Cope, Why They Stay."

My editors decided that since the subject was out in the ether -- screaming from every newsstand -- that at some point in my interview,  I should use the cover to broach the subject. (To recap: Grant's famous infidelity with a prostitute that led to his appearance on Jay Leno, which ended up pushing Jay ahead of Dave for good, was in 1995.)

I went to Hurley's hotel lobby and called up to her room: Grant answered. He told me to come up. So I shook his hand (ah, those little moments of faux casualness!) before he left us to our interview in the hotel's restaurant.

I no longer have the transcript (too many computers ago) but I can pretty much recap what happened. We had a charming, personable conversation, and so after an hour, I felt okay about bringing up the article. She said she hadn't seen it. So, apologizing, and blaming my editors (a standard ruse, but in this case, true), I took out the magazine.

The garage doors slammed shut. "Why are you showing me this?" Hurley asked. I believe she likened it to taking out a gun, though I could be misremembering. I mumbled something about the perils of being in the public eye, feeling empathy for the others. She said, "This interview is over." She stood up and left.

In a state of shock -- this had never happened to me in 15 years of doing this -- I paid the check and ran outside to call my editors.

I remember that it was a Friday, nearly 5 p.m., so I was lucky to catch anyone still in the office. The biggest problem was this: THE PHOTO HADN'T BEEN TAKEN YET. If Elizabeth was bailing, we had nothing, and the magazine would have to scramble for a replacement. What's worse, Elizabeth was the face of Estee Lauder, one of the magazine's big advertisers, so the loss of that could be more harmful than the typical celebrity falling through.

I decided the quickest fix was to buy her flowers. I ran a few blocks to Takashimaya [left] and got there just as it was closing, and had them assemble an arrangement and wrote my most shit-eating, humbling, jangly handwritten note, leaving my phone number.

She called me a few hours later and said she was touched but she'd have to think it over.

Well, I thought, if this all goes through, I have a great scene for my piece, right?

Here's what ended up happening.

As you can see above, the cover shoot did take place. I believe the folks at Estee Lauder talked Elizabeth into posing for the cover as part of her deal with them. I was able to use our interview, and did a few awkward follow-up questions by phone.

I wanted to use the confrontation about the People cover as the lede of my piece. My editors, grateful to not have lost her, nixed any mention of it whatsoever. So it wound up one of the blander pieces I ever wrote.

Elizabeth and I had both done our jobs, but I think we both were a little sullied by the experience.


Robert said...

If you hadn't asked her about the infidelity, it would've been tantamount to asking Mrs. Lincoln her thoughts on the play. Your editors did the right thing. You did the right thing. Even Liz Hurley did the right thing. I guess it's just one of those things.

David said...

what of note did Liz Hurley have to say in the hour before you brought up the People piece?