Jagged Little Thrill


mary-j-blige-upscaleI’ve always been fascinated by what I call the celebrity-bubble.

Famous folks walk the streets, eat dinner, record music, slap the paparazzi, have babies, fall in love and buy stuff, just like us. (Except maybe the slap-the-paparazzi stuff). And they do it all in a bubble of sorts. They are surrounded by layers of security. Not just bodyguards. But publicists and other record label executives, personal assistants, managers and various hangers-on.

When I’m assigned a story on a celebrity, the journey from my living room sofa to the celebrity’s orbit is always strange and spooky.

A random person can’t wake up one morning and say “I think I’ll go see what Mary J. Blige is up to.” Even if you know she’s in New York, shooting a television show or performing, it’s close to impossible to end the day sitting next to her.

But occasionally, I do have these days. Where a normal morning becomes something else.

So, on the first Tuesday in March, I woke up in my apartment in Jersey. It was pouring down rain. I drove to Newark Penn Station, parked my car, hopped on the PATH train and jostled for space with all my fellow commuters.

My destination: The Palace Hotel. 50th Street between Madison and Park Avenue. My assignment: to meet Mary J. Blige, courtesy of her publicist, Tresa Sanders, and interview her for the cover of UPSCALE magazine.

Sidebar: Writers often pretend like it’s not a big deal that they interview celebrities. This is a lie. It is a big deal. And it’s always a jagged little thrill, no matter how long you’ve been in the game. If it’s someone new, maybe not so much. Unless you are head over heels insanely excited about them, the way I felt about Bilal when his publicist brought him up to The Source and played his demo on a casette tape in my office. (A casette tape!!).

Anyway. I’ve never been a super Mary fan. Of course, What’s The 411 changed my life. How could it not? I watched her from afar, intrigued, when she was stomping around in combat boots and laughing too hard and screaming too loud while performing. Then there was that time she went up the steps to pick up a Soul Train award wearing skin tight yellow leggings and Timbs. There were panty lines involved.

From then on, I bopped my head to her hits. And shielded my eyes with one hand when she came on television, afraid of what stunt she might pull. I read that Q&A with her and Veronica Webb. I still google it from time to time, marveling at how raw she was. I’ve been interviewing celebs for over ten years. And I’ve definitely got some stories to tell. But nothing like that interview. Nothing at all. When you have a moment, dear readers, I urge you to to read this joint. It’s long. But worth it.

Okay. So that’s NOT the Mary I met in the large hotel suite in Manhattan. Simone, Mary’s rep, met me in the lobby and took me up to her suite. Mary stood up when I walked into the room.

“Mary, this is Aliya from Upscale.”

“Nice to meet you,” she said, shaking my hand with a firm grip. “Would you like some fruit? A bottled water?” She was all business.

I sat down and Mary sat. My first thought? Damn, she has some beautiful skin! She did not have on one drop of makeup. Let me say this again. Not. one. drop. And her skin was crystal-clear. The fabled scar, a jagged rip from her lower eye-lid down her cheek was there. And that was the only thing marring her skin. I felt like taking a look in a mirror real quick to see what my skin looked like. I fought the urge and scrambled to get my recorder set-up.

Sidebar: This is the WORST part of the celebrity interview. You do the awkward greetings. And then you have to get yourself together. Set up a notepad and pen. Take out your recorder, turn it on. Make sure the red light comes on. Double check. Triple check. Quadruple check. Drink in all the scenery you can. (Is that Kendu in the bathroom? Is Simone gonna stay here during the interview? Damn. What kind of view is this from the hotel room? What is Mary wearing? Can I see her shoes from here? I gotta talk about the shoes. How would I describe this hotel room? Bland. Palatial?)

All of this while I’m getting my questions out of my bag and making small talk with Mary before starting the official interview. I always feel awkward and weird during this part. No matter how many times I’ve done it, it never gets any easier.

I managed to scribble some notes on what Mary was wearing, (a sweater, jeans, HUGE diamond), while talking to her about the weather. And then got ready for the interview.

“Are you cold?” she asked me.

“No, I’m fine,” I lied. It was freezing. But you don’t let on if you’re uncomfortable in any way. You just buckle down and get to work. Can’t have no celeb trying to find you a sweater or something…

“Well, it’s cold in here,” Mary said. “Don’t talk bad about me but I’m putting on my robe.” She went into the bathroom, (whew. got a chance to check out her shoes and scribble down the details about her big furry boots), and then she came in all wrapped up and looking cozy.

“Okay,” she said. “Let’s go.”

The first thing I asked her was the same thing I ask any celebrity whose been in the game for a minute.

“Aren’t you tired of doing interviews?”

“Seriously? Hell yeah, I’m tired of this!” she said, which made me laugh.

We talked. Nothing earth shattering. Pretty basic stuff. The juiciest tidbit was that she hadn’t met the mother of her husband’s two children. She’s been married for a minute. And her two stepchildren spend quite a bit of time with her. As a stepmother, I couldn’t fathom how she could co-raise the children without ever having met the mother.

“It just hasn’t happened yet,” she said. “But I know she’s a good woman because I can tell she’s doing a great job with her children.”

Still, that struck me as odd. I didn’t go hard on that line of questioning. I’m not sure why. Maybe because Simone was sitting right there, ready to remind me to “just talk about the music.” (The publicist’s favorite line.)

I’m not afraid to ask the tough questions. Ask Al Greene about me. But this didn’t seem like the time or place. So I let it go.

After thirty minutes, I saw Simone out of the corner of my eye, getting fidgety. Which meant the celebrity bubble was about to burst. I wrapped up my interview. Mary and I hugged, (the celeb good-bye is equally awkward. Are we hugging? Shaking hands? Nothing? Something?) and then Simone walked me to the elevator bank.

And just like that. It was over. I took the elevator back down to the lobby. Walked back out into the rain. Tried unsuccefully to hail a cab. Got back on the PATH. Got my car. Drove back home. With every step, I was farther and farther away from Mary’s orbit. And couldn’t get back in if I wanted to.

I am often asked about how it feels to work in proximity to celebs. The truth is, I don’t. It’s a controlled experiment for a finite amount of time. And when it’s over, it’s over. Really over.

It’s kind of freaky actually. While you’re doing your job, you have to be chummy with this person, hopefully make them laugh, have them open up to you, share some secrets. And then, you both evaporate into thin air and it’s like it never happened. Trust me, Mary would not know me right now if I threw at a shoe at her.

Dear readers, would this weird you out? To spend time thisclose to a celeb knowing that they would most likely forget you existed before you got back home?

17 Responses to “Jagged Little Thrill”

  1. Tremaya Says:

    Yes, it is weird. I had the recent experience of doing my very first celebrity interview and it was with reggae singer Jah Cure. I was like, it’s my first major interview and I’m doing it with one of the biggest and most controversial names in reggae! I was NERVOUS, EXCITED, and GREEN! I didn’t even know how to record a phone interview, but I prevailed fortunately.:) After spending 30 minutes on a long distance call to Jamaica and asking a slew of questions,while at the same time pushing down subliminal reminders that this man was convicted of rape and continuously wondering, “How do I feel about that?”, “Should I feel anything at all as an interviewer?”,” Should I even touch on that topic at all?? I ended that interview knowing that although it was an experience I would never forget, it was one he would never remember. It is definitely a weird feeling, akin to voyeurism. It’s almost as though I possess a moment of his life that he’ll never even miss, so I can totally relate to what you are saying.

    P.S. I’m loving your blog.

  2. Aliya S. King Says:

    @Tremaya: yes, that’s exactly it. you possess a moment of their life. But they don’t possess a moment of yours.
    I must ask. Why didn’t you delve into the rape conviction with Jah Cure?

  3. spillboogie Says:

    well, truth be told it would weird me out even if it wasn’t a celebrity. making any close connection with a person and ultimately knowing that they will probably forget you is a bit saddening.
    but in all, i guess it also makes your job all the more important because you need to push further to translate a connection with celebrities to your readers and hopefully more of who they are.

  4. Aliya S. King Says:

    @spillboogie: i see your point. but in what other situation would that happen? Where you have to get cool with someone and make them feel comfortable and connect with them, knowing it’s temporary… a waiter? a shoe salesman? a prostitute? Okay. Now I’m re-thinking my entire career…

  5. Tremaya Says:

    Hey Aliya,
    In response to your question as to why I didn’t delve into the rape conviction, I had a few reasons:

    1. I didn’t feel he was going to say anything contrary to what he’s always said regarding it, which is, he didn’t do it.

    2. The incident happened back in ’99, so I felt it’s been rehashed to death in the media (specifically the Jamaican media). I wanted to focus more on his growth since his release from prison (which I did touch on) and his upcoming new album.

    3. And lastly, to be perfectly honest I didn’t want to jeopardize the interview and have him end the interview or clam up. He was already a little edgy about having the conversation recorded to begin with, so I didn’t want to press my luck. Wimpy on my part? Maybe, but as I said before it was my first big/real interview.:)

    Are any of these reasons “objective”…probably not? However,
    I think I made the right choice though, because I did ask him about a recent rumor regarding him being involved with a woman that is reportedly pregnant with his child and being harassed in her community because of it, and and he shut me down lightning fast! LOL! It was actually quite funny to me because, he was quoted on a reggae site just a few weeks before my interview going into great detail about it. I guess it just goes to show that you never know what to expect when interviewing celebrities (or anyone for that matter). One day chicken, next day feathers!

    P.S. Now I must ask. What would you have done in my situation as a seasoned celebrity interviewer?:)

    P.S.S. Thanks for the link to that article, I’d heard SO much about it back in the day but had never read it myself. I had two primary thoughts while reading it: I’m afraid for Veronica (lol) and Mary has truly transformed her life.

  6. Aliya S. King Says:

    @Tremaya: hmmm. What would I have done. Knowing that it had happened so long ago and he had remarked on it publicly many times, I probably would have skipped it too.
    Then again, if I EVER have to interview for R.Kelly for ANYTHING, I don’t care if it’s twenty five years from now and I’m using a walker to get to the studio. The first thing out of my mouth will be, “That was you on that tape Robert Kelly. And you know it! Now admit it!”
    That being said, I think you did all the right things. Particularly because of what you listed at number three. Your main job is to keep the artist talking. On a phone interview, its particularly important since you can’t see the person. And they can just hang up and keep it moving, like Russell Simmons has done to me one million times. But that’s another post for another day…

  7. Chris Wilder Says:

    Well, Aliya, if you write a story that means something to the subject whether it’s something that they really liked and thought no one has ever really figured that out about me before or no on has ever been able to relay these thoughts I’ve been having to the public until now, then that celebrity will absolutely remember you. If you write something that pisses them off, not only will they remember you, they’ll go so far as to find you and say something.

    I’ve been on both ends of this in the music world. The sports world is much more tame. I’ve had athletes that I thought wouldn’t even remember me, run up on me like we were old college buddies. Even people I’d never interviewed. Like teammates of guys that were interviewed.

    So, I said all that to say, if you write something worthwhile, that famous person will definitely — how’d you say it? — possess a moment of your life.

  8. Aliya S. King Says:

    @Chris: so you’re saying, essentially, that I suck as a writer and that’s why I always feel empty and hollow after my pathetically pedestrian interviews? Thanks.

    Kidding. I feel you. And of course, I have many of those stories. Particularly artists I interviewed early in their careers. (Or very late in their careers) Or after a traumatic event. But I’m not talking about those interviews. I’m talking about the soulless interviews. The ones that are back-to-back press days with ten people in front of you and ten more behind you. The ones with the PR rep sitting right there on her Blackberry. The kind that take place in record label conference rooms and hotel rooms. Not the kind where you hang out and see a real part of the person’s life. It’s those stories that make feel this way. Haven’t you-a real live A-teamer–ever walked away from an interview feeling like I did with Mary?

  9. Tremaya Says:

    At Aliya,
    LOLOLOLOL! Please post first thing if you ever get that R. Kelly interview, I can’t wait to read about his reaction to your comments! LOL! I can’t even begin to imagine speaking with Russell Simmons, he’s brutal.

  10. spillboogie Says:

    @ Aliya. LOL.
    well i suppose in your case you walk into it knowing it is temporary.
    whereas, I was thinking in general. for example, when making a first impression with an acquaintance.
    but i suppose in situations like that, the redeeming factor for most ppl is it doesn’t matter anyway because you don’t really know them and they don’t really know you.

  11. Kwame Says:

    Nope. Tis the nature of the game.

    GReat blog, Aliya.

  12. Aliya S. King Says:

    @Kwame: THANK YOU!

  13. Chris Wilder Says:

    @Aliya: On those press day interviews where the artist is doing back-to-back-to-back interviews, I usually don’t remember them either.

  14. Aliya S. King Says:

    @Chris: so if you interviewed Michael Jordan on a back-to-back press day you wouldn’t remember it?

  15. Margaret Says:

    Ok I know this is an old Blog post but I am a Mary Fan to a degree. I have always liked the majority of Mary’s music but I wouldn’t pay to see her concert only because I felt sometimes she could be a bit extra( I don’t like the dragging of notes way past the end) But recently close to the end of 2008 my DH took me to see her close to home not to large and I have to admit she has matured a lot with her singing and her style of dress (THANK GOD). I have to be honest as a writer I don’t know how you do it. I worked for a catering service for a while and I met some very well known people and at the time it was great they conversate with you but you can’t help but feel like it do you matter. Will they remember you as you remember them. it always bother’s me because I am not the can I get a picture or autograph type.

    And I don’t care what anybody says I feel that not meeting the mother of his childern her Stepchildern is just weird. I can’t think of a reason as to why it just can’t happen. Everytime I hear that I’m like what…

  16. Aliya S. King Says:

    @margaret: I don’t do autographs or photos either. So I feel you on that. And you’re right. The not meeting the stepparents thing is bizaare.

  17. southernlady Says:

    I love this post. I haven’t done celeb interviews face-to-face, but plenty of phoners and it is awkward in the beginning. Greeting them, telling them thanks for the interview (I’d be happy to get some tips on how to do a successful phone inteview, btw.), etc. After the interview, it’s a wrap. The publicist telling me it’s time to wrap is always aggravating, so I’ve learned to cut to the chase with my questions, so I’ll have some good stuff to work with.

    I think it’s great how you mentioned you were soaking up all of the details about the room and her physical appearance. The best interview I’ve ever read was the cover story of Jodeci in Vibe in ’95. The writer described everything in their hotel room. I felt like I was there.

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