Here are some things that have happened to me, though they do not comport even a little with my current vibe, lifestyle, or who I am as a person: I was once at a movie premiere party at a rooftop bar in Midtown Manhattan when I rounded a corner and found myself face-to-face with Mick Jagger. Jennifer Connelly once reprimanded me at a charity event because I asked her what she had been reading lately (“I don’t think that’s why we’re here,” I can still hear her snap with a surprising amount of venom for such a boring question). I was once angrily shushed for laughing at Rufus Wainwright’s very self-serious performance of “Hallelujah” from just a few feet away while attending an intimate fundraising party catered by male models.
When I was 22 years old, I got an internship at New York Magazine because I emailed Adam Moss’ assistant with grating persistence and — if memory serves — another intern had unexpectedly quit. The interview for the position was brief, and it was offered to me on the spot. It paid $7.25 an hour, which was more than nothing, so I was thrilled. Although it overlapped with a particularly miserable time in my life, the job itself was not miserable. I helped with research for long features and did a lot of transcribing, which, however monotonous, was instructive — I learned how to interview people by listening to a veteran reporter I worked closely with, whose ability to make opposing sides in a contentious story feel equally comfortable has stayed with me to this day.
But towards the end of my internship, I made a grave error in judgment. Believing I could be the sort of person who was not only “good at parties,” but good enough to literally attend parties in a professional capacity, I asked an editor if I could give party reporting a shot. Being in my early twenties, I felt an imperative to try new things and step out of my comfort zone. In retrospect, the fact that I was not forced into party reporting but volunteered speaks to a capacity for delusion so profound I can no longer get away with seeing myself as a self-aware person.
My first outing on the party beat was to a red carpet where I was, at the insistence of Sarah Jessica Parker’s publicist, herded into a pool of fellow quivering babies with tape recorders. We were permitted to ask her questions as a group or not at all. She asked for each of our names — “my sister’s name is Allegra!” she exclaimed when I said mine, with genuine enthusiasm — and once she had walked the entirety of the carpet she jogged back to say goodbye and wish us luck. I discovered afterwards that the magazine didn’t accept pooled interviews, so everything I had was useless. It was mostly downhill from there.
Red carpet reporting can be especially harrowing because it underscores the transactional nature of the interview. This is how it typically goes: A harried publicist approaches, prescribes either a time limit or question limit for the interaction about to take place, then brings forth the celebrity for a brisk back-and-forth that feels about as natural as if you were both reading from a half-memorized script. The celebrity attempts to politely feign interest, but they are only human. They rarely give the impression of wanting to be there; to be fair, they could probably say the same of me.
Party reporting provides more opportunities to break that pattern. You’re roaming free, not standing in line behind a rope waiting for the famous to provide you with a 60-second soundbite. But this presents a different challenge — there is no transaction; no one has to talk to you. You can only amble up to notable party guests while they’re otherwise engaged and hope they’re in a giving mood, bored, or grateful for the attention.
I was better at party reporting than navigating the awkwardness of the red carpet, but on the whole, I was spectacularly bad at both. Part of being a reporter on any beat is becoming accustomed to approaching people who do not want to talk to you and trying to get them to talk to you. I would go on to do this so often as a local news reporter that it would become second nature. But the party beat induced in me a feeling of such profound alienation that I never felt able to break in comfortably. I vividly remember standing outside of venues I was about to enter and feeling crushed under a heavy sense of dread. “I don’t want to do this,” I muttered out loud one evening before bracing myself to enter a literary gala at the New York Public Library.
When I would get quotes, they were nearly always lackluster: rote observations about what it was like to work with such-and-such, uninspired musings on the film in question. My editor emphasized to me that I needed to get these people to say something funny, interesting, or punchy, but unfortunately, the art of extracting something interesting from a barely-willing conversation partner in one to two minutes was not one at which I was naturally adept. There are party reporters who can do this, and do it very well — who can shock a tired celebrity out of their repetition-induced red carpet stupor and draw out something rare and real. I was not one of those reporters.
But I’m ashamed to admit the real problem was more a matter of will — a casualty of being a 22-year-old wracked by existential dread and a terminal lack of conviction. You cannot stare off mid-interview to have an anxiety attack about what exactly you are doing with your one silly little life and treat the interview with any real seriousness. Nor can you tell your editor that, given the all-consuming terror of being alive that defines your every waking moment, what they’re asking of you feels nothing short of insane.
The Jennifer Connelly episode was the beginning of the end. I started out with the requisite questions about the charity event itself, but had been asked to squeeze in questions about what the interviewee had been reading for the magazine’s books section. Because I was bad at my job, I made a clumsy transition into asking her about the last book she had read. The Patrick Melrose novels, she said. The name of the series on its own wouldn’t make for an interesting quote, so I followed up with some questions about what she liked about the books that she very visibly found irritating. To her credit, after remarking on the question’s inanity, she did answer — furiously, her voice rising as she heaped praise on Edward St Aubyn’s prose, while glancing around desperately for her publicist with a repulsed look on her face. I vaguely remember apologizing for upsetting her in a small voice before running to the bathroom to cry and call my editor.
Months later, I had a similar meltdown after failing to nab Jonathan Safran Foer at a literary event. Given my chronically poor performance, I was certain it was the death knell for the party reporting career I did not even want. It wasn’t just that I was inadequate at a job I didn’t like — I felt inadequate in every way imaginable, in work and in life, and these fairly low-stakes failures only served to drive that home.
After the Safran Foer incident, my editor told me I needed to grow a thicker skin, learn to de-stress, and resist falling into fits of panic, which was absolutely correct but felt impossible at the time. We would have coffee some time later and she would be remarkably kind to me. As I got up to leave, she looked me in the eye and said, “No more panic attacks!” I repeated it back to her with a smile. I never understood why she didn’t simply cut me loose.
I kept picking up party reporting gigs long after my internship had ended. By then, I was working a soul-crushing restaurant job where megalomaniacal chefs proved infinitely more terrifying than Jennifer Connelly. I don’t know why I kept doing the gigs, other than that they paid $75 a pop and it seemed a way to keep my foot in a door which seemed in danger of slamming in my face otherwise.
It wasn’t all bad, anyway. I still cherish the memory of art historian Simon Schama rapturously recounting an acquaintance’s love affair that he attributed to the power of Caravaggio. I once had an improbably extensive conversation with Margaret Atwood about the glowing blue genitalia of characters in a book she had written. I got too drunk at the Rufus Wainwright event (hence my inappropriate laughter) and then interviewed The Smiths bassist Andy Rourke in his dressing room, after which he performed an unflattering impression of Wainwright that made me feel euphoric — finally, I thought, this person is being real with me. Not only that, but we loathe the same person.
Louise Erdrich once asked me where I was from, and when I said Texas she told me, “I love Texans. They’re resilient and they can be at home anywhere.” I wondered if that were true of me (I still wonder). I didn’t tell her that my skin was too thin even to talk to people at parties.
Months into the restaurant job, as New York headed into a brutal winter, I wrote an email to a writer who I saw as something of a mentor at the time and recounted my struggle on the party beat — I wasn’t good at it, I told him, and I hated doing it, but I felt like a brat for saying so; I felt I had to “pay my dues.” He gave me a lot of generous and sage advice that I was too self-pitying to fully absorb. He also told me that I would know when I could no longer do something for another minute, and when that happened, I would walk away.
I never made a decision to quit party reporting. I made a decision to quit the restaurant job, in no small part because of the writer’s advice, and soon after, I was offered a job at a local newspaper. I learned how to be a news reporter there, which was difficult and not without its humiliations, but I soon found, to my surprise, that I had become good at it. My editor, who listened to me talk to sources on the phone all day, even told me that I was good at talking to people. I didn’t tell her that when I had been face-to-face with Mick Jagger, I physically turned away from him with my hand clasped over my mouth, waited for him to pass, then stared at him, ensconced in his posse, from across the room.