'Off the Record:' Author Offers Scoop on Black Celebs
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
And now, switching gears quite a bit. It's Oscar week, and we know you want to know the inside scoop, and who better to tell it than Allison Samuels. If you know what Angela said about Halle or what Kobe's teammates really thought about him, then you know Allison Samuels' work.
She's an entertainment and sports reporter for Newsweek magazine and she has a new book, "Off the Record: A Reporter Unveils the Celebrity Worlds of Hollywood, Hip-hop, and Sports."
Allison came by the NPR West studios this week. I asked her, why so obsessed with celebrities?
Ms. ALLISON SAMUELS (Reporter, Newsweek; Author, "Off the Record: A Reporter Unveils the Celebrity Worlds of Hollywood, Hip-hop, and Sports"): Particularly in the last five years, I've noticed that there's been a huge difference. And I'm not sure about if it's the chicken or the egg, because so many magazines have come out showing that lifestyle, and I think, I guess, when you look at the rap videos where they tell you about the bling and the furniture and the clothes and all that, I think all of us sort of want to live that life. And to live that life, for most of us, we have to look at someone else living it.
MARTIN: Well, you know, people have this idea that reporters are luring their recount several instances in which you did not actually report the most provocative things that were said or done.
For example, Whitney Houston, said some very uncomplimentary things about Rosie O'Donnell.
Ms. SAMUELS: Right.
MARTIN: Or Snoop Dogg doing a Crip dance and blowing marijuana rings…
Ms. SAMUELS: Right.
MARTIN: …during a photo shoot. And you didn't either didn't report it or kind of advised them to clean up their act. So I guess I'm wondering, is it - do you feel it's your job to protect these people from themselves or are you just protecting your own future access?
Ms. SAMUELS: I think it's my job to hopefully present a very balanced picture of African-Americans to mainstream media. And I think sometimes that can be very difficult when only one side is shown. In particular, with someone like Snoop who is a lovable guy but has a side of him that, you know - people only see that side.
And so, I'm like, OK, you know, Snoop, this is not the source. This is not the vibe. We don't need you to Crip dance in Newsweek. Go ahead and do that for someone else but for Newsweek, you know, we're just having a conversation. It's not about the gang thing.
And also, I've learned, like with Angela Basset, sometimes one quote can overshadow the entire story. She said she didn't want to be a prostitute on film. That was her quote about why she turned down the role in "Monster's Ball." But she also said, she didn't begrudge Halle, hers it says, and it just wasn't the role for her.
And I think people took the first part of the quote and just, you know, ran with it, you know, felt like this was her attacking Halle. When in fact, there was Angela attacking Hollywood and what Hollywood has to offer for women, and particularly African-American women.
MARTIN: Do you feel a special responsibility to your subjects because you are an African-American female reporter? Or is it because they are African-Americans and you feel that you have a special role in translating their experience for a mainstream audience?
Ms. SAMUELS: I think it's a little bit of both but certainly the latter, you know, I really feel like I want to show the mainstream audience something they may not know about someone in the African-American community - give a different picture of people that I think, you know - like I said, they only get one side of it.
Tupac Shakur is another person who I wrote about a lot and always made clear, you know, how intelligent he was, how cultured he was, how well-read he was. And it sounds cliché but it's something that I think cannot be lost on mainstream. I think they have to sort of realize these things. And the only way that happens is to write about it in a mainstream publication.
And it's tricky. I mean I definitely, if every story is different. But there's some people like Angela when we were sitting there, who is very fragile, you know, who I think had gone through a lot of disappointment in her career. She was really having an honest moment, and it, you know, came back to haunt her. And now something that I regret. That was a really difficult time for her. But for me as well because -
MARTIN: Why, why for you?
Ms. SAMUELS: You know, I just hate it to see what she was going through because I was there in a moment. I know exactly what she meant. And I saw her just sort of withering under the criticism. And that was not the point of that story.
MARTIN: But I think some might argue that, that's not really a journalist's job, to protect people from themselves or to protect them from the truth as they know it, even if that truth causes pain. What would say to that?
Ms. SAMUELS: Again a story by story and you also have to work in an environment where you are responsible for putting out these images that impact people's lives and create this overall knowledge of a group of people. I think the average reporter doesn't have that responsibility. Sometimes when people say things that are so, you know, over that top, people just really dismiss anything else. And I think that's something that I try to think about when I'm writing stories. You know, is one thing going to overshadow another. And most times you can't avoid that. You know…
MARTIN: Do people ever blame you? Do they say I never really said that? It was taken out of context?
Ms. SAMUELS: You know, people do that a lot.
MARTIN: There's an interesting flipside to that question which is how do you decide how far to push on a subject that fans want to know about? But really is, fundamentally, none of our business?
Ms. SAMUELS: I have to say that, thank goodness, at Newsweek, they want to know some of those things, but there is not a push push. I'll ask, and if a person sort of, you know, shuts it down… I have a story where I talk about Bill Cosby - and I interviewed him about a month after his son had died.
MARTIN: He was murdered.
Ms. SAMUELS: Yeah, he was murdered. And I was so worried about how am I going to ask this man who was clearly, you know, in mourning, about his son. There's no polite way to do it. And thank God, he brought him up. He said, I know you didn't want to ask about my son, let me talk to you about him. So I've been fortunate in some cases where people sort of, you know, know the game. They know that you, you know, have to ask the tough questions.
But as a rule, when it comes to personal things, we don't have to pry that much. And you'll be amazed at how many people will just sort of open up.
MARTIN: Oscar nominations are out this week.
Ms. SAMUELS: Right.
MARTIN: Two African-Americans are nominated for Best Actor, two for Best Supporting Actor, one African-American woman for Best Supporting Actress. Do you think that this means that there's finally a level playing field for African-Americans in Hollywood, or is it still feast or famine?
Ms. SAMUELS: This means that we're winning more awards. That's what this means. It does not mean that - I mean when you, you go and ask the average African-American actor, you know, in Hollywood, they would tell you they don't work. I think what this does show is that better material is getting through. I think 10 years ago, you would've seen a "Hotel Rwanda" or "Blood Diamond" or any of those kinds of films being made.
And I think because of the clout of a Don Cheadle, now, or a Lee Daniels, or John Singleton; you can get a "Hustle And Flow" made, you can get movies that, you know, a great sort of vehicles for these actors to show their talent.
MARTIN: What made you decide to blow up the spot and share some of these stories with the public now?
Ms. SAMUELS: Well a lot of things that are in the book are things that I didn't have room for, so a lot of the sort of nuance and a lot of the sort of environmental stuff and the little sort of funny things that happened just couldn't fit in the story. So I…
MARTIN: Like the fact that you're got your car towed…
Ms. SAMUELS: Right.
MARTIN: …got puked on, had to pass the hat…
Ms. SAMUELS: You're right.
MARTIN: …to get your car out of hock.
Ms. SAMUELS: Right, right, right.
MARTIN: Which Newsweek did send a check for.
Ms. SAMUELS: They said…
MARTIN: …little stuff like that.
Ms. SAMUELS: Yeah, they sent a check but they sent it written to Snoop Doggie Dogg. They didn't understand that that was not his real name. But, yeah, that little things like that that are funny, and what I would tell people they thought they were hilarious but, you know, they weren't in my stories.
So I sort of felt that I wanted to put all the stuff together. And to sort of, you know, since were in a celebrity moment, give people an inside track. In particular with African-American celebrities, because I sort of feel like the In Touches, and the Life and Style magazines don't necessarily cover African-Americans to the extent that they do mainstream Americans.
MARTIN: You think your story could be a movie, small-town girl from Augusta makes it big in the bright lights of Hollywood?
Ms. SAMUELS: No. No, I don't think it can be a movie. I think like I said, I think that the book, you know, it's humorous and you can put it down and you can, you know read from story to story and just decide, but as far you know, it's not a movie. I don't think so.
MARTIN: Allison Samuels is an award-winning sports and entertainment reporter for Newsweek magazine and author of "Off the Record: A Reporter Unveils the Celebrity Worlds of Hollywood, Hip-hop, and Sports." Allison, thank you so much for coming to talk to us today.
Ms. SAMUELS: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.
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MARTIN: That's NEWS & NOTES. $00.00
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