Occasionally I’ll catch my parents trying to brag to one of their friends about me. My Dad will roll up to some friend of his at the firehouse, me in tow, purring, “This my daughter, The Fame Fatale. In from California. She’s a reporter there. Interviews celebrities.”
The friend always responds with a socially-appropriate boy-howdy, as if my job comes with unlimited access to Liz Taylor‘s jewelry collection, or special powers usually reserved for the warlocks over at the House of the Undying. I am powerful. I am glamorous.
Except, I am neither. In fact, if Hollywood were a totem pole, with, say, the head of Sony or Disney at the top, and maybe Johnny Depp somewhere right under that, you’d have scroll down almost all the way to the bottom to find us reporters.
Seriously. Take a look at the totem pole. See Selena Gomez? Somewhere in the bottom eighth of that hellish structure? Now look below her. That’s where the reporters are. We are wedged right under her Guiseppe Zanotti sandal, waving. Say hi.
Think I exaggerate about how little power we scribes have? Consider this: Before a recent interview with the tween-fashionista-slash-singer-slash-ex-Justin-Bieber-dater, a reporter was slapped with so many restrictions that the rules-not the talent-became the story.
“The rules of engagement are as follows,” Viney Menon dished this week in the Toronto Star. ” 1: I have 10 minutes to ask my questions. 2: These questions must dodge the superficial ephemera that often propel the 20-year-old into the gossip cycle: her looks, her friends, her clothes and, most frequently, her on-off-on-really-off relationship with Justin Bieber.”
(Bear in mind: One of Gomez’s new songs is about Justin Bieber. It features a voice mail from Justin Bieber.)
Menon says he was also stripped of his cell phone and other recording devices before being allowed to sample Gomez’s latest album. Menon wasn’t even allowed to take written notes while listening.
“For the next 30 minutes or so, I slump at the desk like a prisoner of war during an interrogation in an Auto-Tuned language I don’t understand,” Menon writes. “Around the ninth track, I was tempted to risk a lifetime ban from Universal Music and grab my pen-not to take notes, but to repeatedly stab myself in the cochlea.”
Eventually Menon got his stuff back, just in time to sit down with Gomez for what had to be one of the most tightly controlled interviews of his career.
I wish I could say that this level of publicist interference is unheard-of in my business. But it isn’t. Back in 2007, when Angelina Jolie was promoting her flick “A Mighty Heart” publicists for the actress demanded that reporters sign an agreement crafted by an attorney. Per Fox News, the document banned reporters from asking Jolie “any questions regarding her personal relationships.”
Also, “the interview may only be used to promote the Picture. In no event may Interviewer or Media Outlet be entitled to run all or any portion of the interview in connection with any other story. … The interview will not be used in a manner that is disparaging, demeaning, or derogatory to Ms. Jolie.”
Also, if any reporter dared disobey, “the tape of the interview will not be released to Interviewer.” Such a violation, the signatory thus had to agree, would “cause Jolie irreparable harm” and allow her to sue the interviewer and seek a restraining order.
Jolie later issued an apology. And by the way, “A Mighty Heart” is about freedom of speech.
Full disclosure: I’ve never been browbeaten this badly in the course of my work. But the meddling or bullying by Hollywood publicists is always there in some form or another.
A publicist once called me “scum” for taking a shortcut into a building and, in the process, walking within several feet of P. Diddy. (My feet hurt, OK?)
I once had an article about hair dye — hair dye — pulled off of a Web site because the publicist for a cosmetics company found it offensive. (Not inaccurate. Just offensive.)
Another publicist once managed to pull off a similar feat with a different story I wrote, simply because I mentioned her name.
And then there was the time that I tried to ascertain Jessica Chastain‘s age for a basic magazine profile I was doing of the then-rising actress. The mag’s fact-checker and editors insisted that I ask; an age is pretty fundamental stuff, even in Hollywood write-ups.
So I asked.
The publicist response: “We aren’t sure of her age and we aren’t going to ask. Prefer that it not be included.”
My editors caved. For the record, Chastain is 36. At least, officially.