As someone who recently earned herself a journalism degree, I yearn to interview the biggest names in media and entertainment. Allison Kugel can proudly say she’s already done that during her many years as a celebrity journalist, having chatted with the likes of Nancy Sinatra, Elle Macpherson and The Kardashians, to name just three.
Now, as she prepares to release her memoir Journaling Fame: A Memoir of a Life Unhinged and on the Record next year, I was honored when she agreed to this interview in which she opens up about the highs and lows of the industry, advice for aspiring journalists and her new app Upitch.
PopWrapped: Many entertainment/celebrity journalists often get a bad rep for being either too pushy or too timid when it comes to interviewing famous names. Would you agree with such a statement, or is the industry now too flooded with so many like-minded and ambitious individuals that it can be hard for them to truly stand out?
Allison Kugel: That’s an excellent question. I believe that many journalists in the celebrity interview genre are too invasive, and others who are maybe new to the genre can be a bit timid and intimidated, so I have seen both. I took a different approach. If a publicist or the celebrity themselves requested that something be off-limits, I respected that boundary and never broke my word. During the interview itself, rather than probe with invasive or humiliating questions, I would open up about my own life and experiences and create a comfortable, conversational environment. The celebrity would, then, become disarmed and begin to open up without my having to probe and prod.
Once that rapport was established, we could comfortably veer into more personal territory. But, see, my aim was never to have that “gotcha” moment because that was never my journalistic style. My aim was to capture the person’s humanity in a way that journalists had not and to get my scoops or “exclusives” by uncovering something about the celebrity’s character or life experience that hadn’t been in the press before. That way, I got plenty of secondary media coverage for my interviews, and everyone’s integrity and dignity remained intact. So much so that many celebrities would tweet about their interview with me saying things like “She really got me,” or “Great questions.” It was a win/win.
PW: Did you always want to be a journalist, or did you have other career ambitions prior to setting yourself on this path?
AK: Ha! Nope. I was a Criminal Justice major in college, and I’m still a criminal case groupie. I love investigating evidence from famous court cases. I modeled quite a bit in college to earn money and began working steadily, which led me out to Los Angeles. Living out in LA, I became very familiar with the Hollywood machine, so I knew all about the PR firms who represented entertainers and media personalities. I know the whole routine just from being around it all the time.
When I moved back to NY, I met Jason Manheim, who was building the online newswire PR.com at that time. Everyone had told me I had this flare for writing, so I propositioned Jason. I pitched him an articles section that would have celebrity and news-maker feature stories as part of its editorial makeup. I was told that, if I could make it happen, I could run it. 200+ interviews later, I definitely made it happen. That was from 2005 through 2012, and then I syndicated myself as a freelancer and continued doing my interviews until 2014.
PW: Which journalists inspired and influenced you and over the years? Have any of them passed on any advice which you've taken to heart?
AK: I really never consulted with any journalists throughout my career, to be truthful. I wanted to follow my own instincts and carve my own path and my own approach. I didn’t want to hear “Do it this way” or “Do it that way.” I wasn’t interested. I was really 100% self-taught and figured it all out on my own. I was my own teacher.
PW: You've interviewed more than 200 famous names in both political and entertainment sectors during your time as a celebrity journalist, but can you recall the first person you interviewed? How do you feel about that interview, looking back?
AK: The very first person I ever interviewed back in January of 2005 was Katrina Campins from the very first season of The Apprentice. Looking back, I marvel at how far I came, building my reputation, my resume and my editing skills with each interview I did. I shaped myself into a professional journalist and editor, and, along the way, I found my own unique journalistic voice, which was so important. A certain sophistication sets in over a period of time. As I got more and more interviews under my belt and with more notable people like Oscar winners, Grammy winners, senators, you name it, it became less about the novelty and more about the work.
PW: Your story in 2008 that led to the headline "Jenna Jameson endorses Hillary Clinton” received global attention. Did you ever think that such a piece would achieve the interest and almost notoriety that it did?
AK: The heavy coverage of my interview with Jenna Jameson did surprise me because it rode this wave of sensationalism. But I used my approach that I mentioned above. We engaged in authentic conversation, and my questions to her about the 2008 presidential primary race and which candidate she favored was born out of the flow of that conversation. I didn’t ask what everyone else had been asking. I went in a different direction. I felt that line of questioning was certainly interesting because of who she was and where people place her in society.
If people want to put someone in a box because of what they do for a living, that’s their hang up. I knew she was a full three-dimensional human being with opinions like everyone else. She liked Hillary Clinton ... kind of funny, considering our current headlines in this election cycle. The website JustHillary.com picked up the story. Then DrudgeReport picked it up, it filtered to FOX News, Rush Limbaugh. Then, the late night comics got hold of it: Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, Saturday Night Live. It just kept going and going. I just sat back as a spectator and watched it.
PW: Is there one particular interview you're especially proud of, and, if so, which is it and why?
AK: On a deeply personal level, I am proud of the interview I did with a gentleman named Buddy Elias, who was Anne Frank’s first cousin and only living direct relative at that time. He has since passed. Growing up in a Jewish family, every Jewish kid has read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, based on Anne’s experience as a teenager having to hide out with her family in a secret annex to keep from being captured by Nazis during World War II. It was an extremely proud moment for me to speak with him and to share his personal stories of growing up with Anne for people to read. I, then, received a touching letter from Mr. Elias telling me that our interview together and subsequent article had been the best article he’s ever read about himself. I have that letter framed.
PW: Have you had any bad interviews that you can tell me about?
AK: The closest thing to a “bad” interview would probably be Gene Simmons from KISS. From what people tell me, it’s a fun interview to read, but -- let me tell you -- it was not the best experience to actually do the interview. I would take my pre-interview research and preparation very seriously, but the PR person who arranged my interview with Gene kind of sprung it on me with like 30 minutes' notice. So we got off on a bad foot because he was a bit insulted. I noticed that he also kept trying to go into this narrative about all of these clichés about women, none of which fit my profile, but, because I was the only woman in the room, he kind of pinned all his meshugas about women onto me. It was like, “Who the hell are you talking about? Cause you’re not talking about me?” It was a lot of arrogance.
PW: You've now written a memoir entitled Journaling Fame: A Memoir of a Life Unhinged and on the Record, which is coming out next year. What made you decide to write this now rather than, for example, a few more years down the line?
AK: I have always lived with anxiety and panic attacks, and, in the summer of 2012, it really reached a boiling point. I had several traumatic events happen all at once, and I began suffering multiple panic attacks per day! It was pretty scary stuff. When I recovered, because I sought out help and worked very hard to recover, I didn’t want to keep it a secret. I wanted to reach out to people with my story in hopes of helping others. I don’t believe in keeping secrets. We’re all on this earth to learn and to teach. So I was ready to teach. I began writing about my experiences with anxiety, and it bled into me writing about my experiences as a journalist while I was experiencing the anxiety. At first, I thought, “This makes no sense. I can’t write a book about anxiety and celebrity interviews”, but, then, I thought, “Oh yes I can!” And the writing flowed from there. It’s just this perfectly seamless journey about my life living with an anxiety disorder as I was navigating my life as a journalist. Why not?
PW: Your career is all the more impressive given the fact that you've openly admitted to suffering from panic attacks, as you’ve just mentioned. How do/did you handle those when there's a big interview coming up?
AK: Oddly enough, my anxiety never revolved around social anxiety, like being with influential people, nor speaking with people. In fact, I’m a great public speaker. Most people’s worst nightmare, right? I’ve delivered speeches and conducted interviews with no note cards. My thing has always been not feeling in control or feeling like I might lose control over my body or my physical well-being -- so hard to explain unless you’ve lived it, but take my word for it. So, for me, the actual lights-camera-action work of interviewing celebs or news-makers didn’t make me feel anxious. In fact, it served as a sort of refuge for me. Getting lost in learning about someone else’s life has always been quite therapeutic for me, which I talk about in my book. But, I always say that, if you live with anxiety, you are a superhero! We often have to do things afraid. We have to feel the fear and do it anyway. That takes courage, believe me.
PW: You currently guest blog for The Huffington Post and Entrepreneur. How does holding such positions differ from the other celebrity work you do, and what made you get involved with writing for those sites?
AK: Contributing to outlets like The Huffington Post and Entrepreneur has allowed me to branch out and simply express myself -- it’s very much like streaming my consciousness and opening up about what’s on my mind right now. Writing is my outlet. When something is on my mind, the first thing I do is talk it out loud. If it makes sense when I speak it, then I sit down at the computer and write it. If it still makes sense when I read what I have written, then I submit it for publication. I’ve had the opportunity to write about spirituality, entrepreneurship, societal issues. It’s just a great outlet for expression, plus, with my new projects in the tech world, there’s a lot going on, so I can contribute on my own schedule.
PW: You're the co-creator of the Upitch App, a Tinder for matching journalists and PR professionals. Where did that idea come from, and how are you finding the response to it so far?
AK: I spent a decade as a journalist, and I have spent a decade and half consulting for companies in the public relations and media space. I observed that journalists are flooded daily with emails, many of which are not relevant to what they cover. PR folks and companies that endeavor to do their own PR get lost in the shuffle and can’t figure out how to effectively connect with the media. I wanted to create a platform that would offer direct access to media on the PR side, and that would shorten press releases to 400 character pitch briefs that could be categorized so journalists could filter for their topics of interest. I also wanted to put the power back in journalists’ hands to be able to log in to Upitch when and where they want and swipe through pitches quickly and anonymously rather than being barraged with emails. I want to foster better and more effective communication and productivity for journalists and for people looking for media coverage.
So far we have journalists from outlets like CNN, FOX News, TIME, Cosmopolitan, Esquire, Teen Vogue, Dr. Oz, Rachael Ray -- some truly great journalists -- who have downloaded the app. And we have people from all the big PR firms who have downloaded the app too: Edelman, Golin, Weber Shandwick, Allison & Partners, American Heart Association, Universal Music Group, the U.S. Army ... the list goes on. And we’ve only just begun, which is really exciting.
PW: How do you think the boom in social media is impacting the celebrity journalism world and the entertainment sector as a whole? Has it been a positive thing, or are there both good and bad sides to it?
AK: For starters, I don’t believe that celebrities or public figures should be on social media. I think it ultimately undermines their brand, their messaging, and, potentially, their safety. But we can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Everyone wants to freely express themselves, and I get that, but social media tends to enable impulsiveness, which can be detrimental. And the TMI is off the charts. Whatever happened to having an air of mystery? If anything, a public figure's representative should create the content rather than the person, themselves. However, when celebrities tweeted about my interviews, I wasn’t exactly insulted. It was a great promotional vehicle for me in that respect. Giuliana Rancic, Kristin Chenoweth, Kourtney Kardashian and Busy Philipps all posted about their interviews with me. I can’t complain.
In terms of how it affects the journalism world, it dilutes it, without question. And it encourages yellow journalism. There are a lot of blurred lines that we have to navigate, and there is also a lot of pressure on journalists to put out witty, snarky, or “gossip-worthy” posts on a very regular basis. I, personally, don’t participate other than through my companies.
PW: Finally, then, what advice would you give to anyone thinking of becoming a celebrity journalist? What skills and strengths would you say they need to have?
AK: There are sub-genres to celebrity journalism. My work was more features-oriented -- not so much gossip. I had a genuine desire to listen to, capture and share people’s stories. The gossip space was not really my thing. That being said, my best advice is to become an avid reader. Read as many biographies and memoirs as you can get your hands on. Read celebrity interviews in magazines you are fond of. Study other journalists’ voices, and, through that, discover your own voice. Be a good listener, and develop your ability to tune into other people and who they are. Try to break in with a local newspaper or smaller blog. After you have proved your salt as a writer, ask to be assigned an interview feature or two. Then, go from there, and work your way up. Reputation is everything.