Chronicling the World of Celebrities In this special roundtable, black journalists give us a backstage look into their experience reporting on the world of entertainment and big name stars, like Jay-Z and Biggie Smalls.
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Chronicling the World of Celebrities

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Chronicling the World of Celebrities

Chronicling the World of Celebrities

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This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Movie premieres, glitzy parties, and plenty of stories to tell your friends - that is one part of the life of the entertainment reporter. But you've also got celebrity ego madness plus racial politics on the red carpet and in the newsroom. Today, we've got three black entertainment reporter writers who are willing to take us backstage in their world.

NEWS & NOTES regular Allison Samuels is a national correspondent for Newsweek magazine. Cori Murray is the entertainment editor for Essence. And we've got writer and filmmaker Dream Hampton. Ladies, welcome.

Ms. ALLISON SAMUELS (Correspondent, Newsweek magazine): Hi.

Ms. CORI MURRAY (Entertainment Editor, Essence magazine): Hi.

Ms. DREAM HAMPTON (Writer; Filmmaker): Hi.

CHIDEYA: So I'm going to start with you, Allison. We love to have you in here. So, what does it take for a sister to make it in the world of big-time entertainment reporting? Is there - are there a lot of hoops to jump over?

Ms. SAMUELS: I think there are a lot of hoops to jump over in the sense of you definitely have - you sort of have to have this double life in a way. You have to sort of be able to present African-Americans in a positive light while also telling an interesting story. And that, I think, is the hardest part of what we do.

And naturally, if you work for a mainstream publication like myself, it becomes even harder because sometimes, your editors don't understand exactly what you're up against in terms of having to explain certain things about African-American celebrities and the comfort level that you have sometimes with them where they open up to you in a way that they might not to another type of reporter.

CHIDEYA: Now, Cori, what about that? You know, there is - in every aspect of reporting, there's always a question of who's the source on background, who's going to make it into the pages, who do you cut a little break here, you know, who do you hold to the highest standards. How do you make sense of, you know -because I've done some entertainment reporting - mainly hard news. But there are different rules and there's different courtships and there's different ways that you interact with people. How would you describe the relationships that you have with your subjects-slash-sources?

Ms. MURRAY: Well, I think you need to have an extreme level of professionalism because, you know, you never want to come off as a fan, you know? I think early in my career, I had to do a phone interview with someone, and it was someone who I like, you know? You know, we all have our celebrity crushes, and I had to - I mean, not that I would ever done anything crazy, but, you know, you have to kind of not say, oh, I loved you in this film and I loved you in that. You have to just, like, stick to your questions and just go there. And if there comes a nice break in the interview, you can say, hey, I really like your work in this.

As far as to the point of your question about holding back and do you have some slack with some people, I guess it just depends on the relationship that your publication or your media outlet has with that celebrity. If you know that they're going -if it's a long-term relationship, then you may have to make a editorial decision not to maybe ask that question that's so very sensitive because, you know, this person is going to be in X amount of films down the road, and they're not going anywhere. It just - I think it depends on the situation, it depends on the subject and your relationship with it - I mean, with that person, if you are that comfortable with them or they'll really, you know, open up.

But then, you know, we also want to make sure that we pair our writers with the right celebrity so that the celebrity is, in fact, comfortable because there's some celebrities who they - there's some tension.

CHIDEYA: Right. Well, let me get you in, Dream because you carved out a very special niche as a woman covering hip-hop and dealing with - there's always gender issues everywhere you go. And, you know, hip-hop can be, in some ways, a very male space. How did that change the game for you as you approached the people that you had to talk to?

Ms. HAMPTON: I think that, in every way, it's a very male space so I was - certainly, even the job that I took back when I was 19 as an editor at The Source, I was the - we didn't have a woman receptionist. She came on about four months later. So I was certainly the only woman in the office.

The issue of distance between, like, subject and what Cori was just talking about, I know that there - I know that - I never took a journalism class. Like, I went to NYU Film School, and I started writing for The Source. And so my education in journalism was to go back and to read Norman Mailer on the set of "The Misfits," doing a profile on Marilyn Monroe or Gay Talese and his relationship with Floyd Patterson, the boxer, and as well as other kind of profiles.

And I understood very early on (unintelligible) of, like, entertainment reporting that there were different ways to approach it, that it wasn't the same as covering weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, or interviewing the president of Iran.

That, for me at least, particularly at The Source, it was okay to, like, tell Rakim or Tolc(ph) Harris when - I've stopped eating meat because of you. like, that - it - I wasn't very in the closet about being a fan. And then as the job kind of, you know, evolved, I found myself actually interviewing peers of mine, like I did a profile on Biggie, whose demo I had helped pass on to Puffy because he was my neighbor. And later, when he had a daughter, he named her after me and - so I, you know, so there…

CHIDEYA: That's high praise.

Ms. HAMPTON: Well, yeah. I mean, it's her middle name. But - so, yeah, it was, you know, so these - and I didn't feel any - and, of course, you're going to getting flak, people are going to speculate, and there'll be rumors because you're a woman, that you wouldn't get, say, if you were Gay Talese writing about Floyd Patterson. But I didn't - again, I didn't - I felt like there was this precedent for this kind of writing of, this kind of immersion journalism when it comes to celebrity. And…

CHIDEYA: Let me get Allison in here, you know…

Ms. HAMPTON: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: Newsweek - a place like Newsweek is going to have a different tone, and the Source is going to have a different tone than being a book author, which you are, too. But you have not written, for example, a celebrity biography…

Ms. SAMUELS: Right.

CHIDEYA: …or autobiography you've written on a kind of top down level…

Ms. SAMUELS: …right.

CHIDEYA: …about celebrity. Are you able to or willing to keep a little bit more distance, and I guess what I'm trying to get at is, in my limited experience being an entertainment reporter, if you aren't out there, you are nowhere. If you're not at the parties…

Ms. SAMUELS: Right.

CHIDEYA: …if you're not kind of working the scene…

Ms. SAMUELS: Right.

CHIDEYA: …you have no job.

Ms. SAMUELS: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: So how does that work into your life?

Ms. SAMUELS: You really just have to do it. I mean, for me, covering athletes, particularly, like, the Lakers, I was able to do a big Kobe Bryant story -cover story because I would go to the games all the time. I went every week, and I did that for eight years before I actually got the cover story on him.

And I have to say, for me, as a woman, I think it works really well with hip-hop stars and athletes because, I think, with male reporters sometimes, there's definitely a tension that's not there when you're a woman. I think there's a whole different dynamic that goes on when you sit down with these guys. They let their guard down, I think, a little bit more. And you have a whole different report, which I think works really well.

I always tell people when I interview someone like 50 Cent, who has this image of just, you know, the hardest, most, you know, criminal person you'd meet. He's the sweetest guy, you know, absolutely an angel whenever we talk. And I found that with most of the sort of hip-hop stars and athletes that I have sort of interviewed. So I think it works in my favor in many ways.

CHIDEYA: Cori, how golden is your pen? How much do people court you and try to get you to do what they want so that they can get the exposure that they want?

Ms. MURRAY: I actually have a folder on my inbox of my e-mail that has just people pitching me to get in Essence. And I just keep them there because they may not be a star or an artist that has kind of got the notoriety that we may be needing or maybe we just don't have the space to cover because, you know, essentially, in Essence, we put a celebrity on the cover every month, but the entertainment page is our only, you know, roughly three to four pages a month. So, that's a small amount of space to kind of cover everyone.

But I do get a lot of phone calls, I get a lot of pitches of people who want us to cover their people, and what we find that's kind of - well, at least what I find - as kind of sweet is that sometimes, it is interesting when - with white publishers, they'll say to me, yeah, you know, my client, they said before, you know, it's all over, they want to be in Essence. They got to do this for their mother. They got to do that. As opposed to, like, you know, if I get a pitch from someone else. So every now and then, I have to think about that and, you know, and try to work them in the pages somehow and try to work them in the pages somehow.

CHIDEYA: All right. Well, I want to refresh everybody on where we are. If you're just tuning, in you're listening to NPR's NEWS & NOTES. I am Farai Chideya.

We've got Allison Samuels, national correspondent for Newsweek magazine; Cori Murray, who we were just hearing from, entertainment editor for Essence; and writer and filmmaker Dream Hampton.

Dream, you just got a new doc out. Why don't you tell us a little bit about that?

Ms. MURRAY: It's actually called "Bigger Than Life." I didn't direct it. Peter Spears, who did a lot of the B series, directed it; and I am one of the co-producers, Maddie C. and I - Maddie Cobbelango(ph), who's an editor that I worked with at the Source back in the day, who actually discovered Biggie's demo.

Biggie got his deal by submitting. We had a section in The Source that reviewed brand new demos, and that's how Biggie kind of got his start. Biggie lived around the corner from me at the time that I was in a documentary class at NYU, so I shot hours and hours of footage of him. As he was becoming a star, when his first album broke out, I've all this hours of footage. So I basically contributed that to the film and I'm a co-producer on it, and it came out September 11th, the same day as Kanye and 50. And it's actually doing really well. It's called "Bigger than Life."

CHIDEYA: Well, we actually have a clip from the doc. Let's take a listen.

(Soundbite of documentary, "Bigger than Life")

NOTORIUS B.I.G. (Hip-hop Artist): It's like an autobiography of myself, you know what I'm saying? You could take it any way you want. You could take it if you want to be like me, or you could take it if you want to stay away from what I was doing, you know what I'm saying? It's all on you. Everybody's got their own mind, you know what I'm saying? Go to your parents for messages, you know what I'm saying? Come to me for good music.

CHIDEYA: Now, why do you think that he's still alive in the public imagination?

Ms. HAMPTON: I think for the same reason that Jimi Hendrix was, who did four albums. I think that he is a virtuoso in his field. As an MC, he'll be a standard bearer beyond - as Coltrane is, as Jimi Hendrix is.

So it doesn't matter that Eric Clapton outlived, you know, Jimi Hendrix. It's that Jimi outplayed him in the little time that he was here. So I think the same exact analogy would apply to someone like Biggie.

CHIDEYA: Who do you miss? I'm going to ask that of you, Cori and Allison, like who has passed on that you miss or that you think still deserves to have their light held aloft? Cori?

Ms. MURRAY: Ooh, that's a good question. Well, you know what, I will say this, I think, I miss a lot of people. I love the memorial sections of all the Academy Awards and - I mean, the Emmys and the Grammys, I love that - but I will say I do have a regret. I regret not ever going to see James Brown perform. When I saw - I live up in Harlem - and when I saw the outpouring of people on the 125th Street and I was at my family in Maryland when I, you know, when we all heard the news that he passed. And my mother was there. My grandmother was there. And for my grandmother to be so emotional about, you know, James Brown passing, I was like, oh, my god. I mean, you know, you kind of know - but when you see it kind of affects your family and I said, you know, really, well, I want to - I hate I missed seeing him perform. I hate I never witnessed him in person.

CHIDEYA: Allison?

Ms. SAMUELS: Oh, I guess about three key people. One, of course, will be Tupac. I just miss his spirit. I miss what he meant to music at that particular time. I saw a video of his last night and I'm just sort of like that was such a great time for hip-hop and such a great time, I guess, in my life that I really miss him. I miss Luther, miss Barry White, and, you know, guys like that. I just love - whenever I hear their music, it just, you know, takes me back and I just think there's nobody out there like them. So Luther and Barry and Tupac.

CHIDEYA: Allison, what role or what value do celebrities have in terms of our human community? I often think, for example, that one of the reasons people are obsessed with celebrity is because it's an almost familiar relationship where people relate to, people who they may never have met or they may have only seen from a distance. In this way, that's more like cousins or aunts and uncles. Why do we get obsessed?

Ms. SAMUELS: I think because, obviously, they live a life that we probably would love to live. You know, we see these, you know, celebrities on boats in Europe and going different places and with wonderful clothes. And you think they have this absolutely perfect life that you would love to live. And the sad part about it is - because I keep telling people I look at Britney Spears and I feel so sorry for her because I feel like that is the part of celebrity where, I think, people are somehow entertained by someone else's downfall. And that's the part of celebrity…

CHIDEYA: (Unintelligible).

Ms. SAMUELS: Yeah. I don't - I really just don't understand that. So it's like a catch-22. It's like we admire celebrities and we want to live that life on some level, but we also enjoy when we see them fall. And I think that's a way for us to feel good about our own failures. That's sort of what I see. But I look at that Britney Spears thing it just saddened me beyond belief. And I don't know why because I'm not a Britney fan. But to see somebody lose their mind right before our eyes and for people to be entertained by it, this is really disappointing to me.

CHIDEYA: Cori, let me throw this at you from a different angle, the angle of the survival of news and news entertainment hybrids. I mean, Essence lives in both worlds, has news, has, you know, features on health and so on, and also has entertainment. In some ways, do you feel like what you do allows the other parts of the magazine to exist?

Ms. MURRAY: Yes, because, you know, if you know Essence's history, you know, for a long time, for many years, we had models and we had real people on the cover. But lately, I would say in the last five to ten years, it's been mostly celebrities. And when we've taken chances on going back to doing a model, the sales have dropped.

So it's like while our reader needs that balance of, like you said, the health and fitness, the love and relationship stories, the fashion and beauty, they also want a celebrity that they relate to, that they love and that they want to hear from. And it's like hand and foot, hand and foot that we have to exist. So it's very important to us.

CHIDEYA: Dream, you co-wrote Jay-Z's autobiography and in 2005, he chose not to release it. In a quote from the San Francisco Chronicle, he said, "Just someone having your life in their hands made me like I ain't doing this."

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: How does it feel to be in a position to do what you think is a collaboration and then maybe to do it too well to the point where you get, you know, the knife to the bone and the person you're collaborating with says, oh-wo-wo(ph), that hurts.

Ms. HAMPTON: Yeah, I know. Oprah did the same thing to her biographer. She paid her biographer like Jay paid me, not a kill fee but the fee, and then she locked it in a vault. I don't know where Jay has the black book. We're actually working on turning it into a screenplay.

I think that for someone like Oprah and like Jay, who've been so - I don't watch Oprah's show but I know that she did coke and had a miscarriage and abortion. When she was a kid, she was raped or something. So you know these facts about people, they'll speak them.

But to see them in black and white - and Jay, same thing, he's talked about drug dealing in his music. He's talked about his father abandoning him. He's talked about some of his family issues in his music. But in black and white, it freaks him out. People give real precedent to the written word. And now, it just freaked him out.

So of course, as a writer and author, like his publicity machine, had kicked in and told everyone we were writing this book. So it's a little like ego bruising than to, you know, to have it pulled. But he also is someone who I've been friends with for 11 years. And so as his friend, I do appreciate that side of him that's really private. He's kind of wearing that side. He's still never come out…

CHIDEYA: So you stayed friends or stayed acquaintances?

Ms. HAMPTON: Yeah. We're working on the screenplay right now. We're working on the second book. I'm breaking down his lyrics called "Decoded." I'm writing the insert for the "American Gangster" album right now. He bought my daughter a weed(ph) for her birthday. We still have a relationship.

(Soundbite of laughter)


CHIDEYA: As long as you can play weed tennis, it's all good, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: Well, ladies, we're ending it here. Thank you so much.

Ms. SAMUELS: Thank you.

Ms. MURRAY: Thank you.

Ms. HAMPTON: Thanks.

CHIDEYA: We've been talking to Dream Hampton, writer and filmmaker. Her documentary, "Bigger than Life," is in stores. And Allison Samuels, national correspondent for Newsweek magazine. She joined me at NPR West. Plus, Cori Murray, the entertainment editor for Essence magazine.

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