Celebrity interviewer turns the camera on herself

By Jerry Waxler

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Jancee Dunn was an ordinary girl from the suburbs of north New Jersey who dropped out of college, became a cub reporter for Rolling Stone magazine, and stayed there for 18 years. At her zenith she told the world about celebrities on MTV and Good Morning America. In the memoir “Enough About Me, How a Small-town Girl Went from Shag Carpet to the Red Carpet” she became the object of her own reporting. Thanks to her reporting skills, I empathized with her as she started her career, a nobody waiting at the doors of some of the most famous people in the world. “Oh my God, what must it feel like meeting a famous girl band, or rock and roll star?” Naturally her knees turned weak, but she went in anyway, and I kept turning pages.

For example, she interviewed singer Barry White, who gave her a big wet kiss at the door and treated her to a romantic dinner for two. Then she closed the door behind her. When she emerged a couple of hours later I don’t know what happened, in a virtuoso example of informing without revealing. Her discretion could provide a good model for other aspiring memoir writers who wonder how to explain awkward situations without getting into trouble.

During an interview with an unnamed celebrity who recently completed a month at rehab, he suggested that drugs were only a phone call away and asked if she would like to get high. She politely declined, and then went to the bathroom where she called her sister to explain the situation. Her sister said, “Are you crazy? Get out of there.” Jancee said, “But he’s so persuasive.” When she arrived home later, feeling shaken, she phoned her father, who talked to her about the routine details of his afternoon plans. His patter about gardening and errands soothed her and reminded her of all that was stable in her life.

Turned to the reader and offered interviewing tips
Walking with Jancee into interviews made me curious about how she worked her magic, getting the stars to say things they hadn’t said a thousand times. How did she work her way into their confidence? Occasionally she turned towards me and offered an insider tip. For example, in one of her more elaborate strategies, she started a celebrity interview by sharing a tidbit of gossip she heard about the star on the radio that very morning. Excited by this news, the star called over her publicity manager and they had a good laugh. By then, everyone was loose, and treated Jancee as a fine, generous person.

The anecdote showed me Jancee was smart, and gave me some insights into the mind of a celebrity. But I kept thinking about her interviewing tips long after I closed the book. In retrospect I see she was doing the same thing with me that she was doing with her stars. She was taking me into her confidence, making me feel like an insider. I felt her generosity and opened up to her. By turning towards the reader, she connected with me. I’m going to file this strategy away. Perhaps I can offer my own readers insider insights that will make them feel open with me.

Memoir of an ordinary girl in extraordinary circumstances
While I enjoyed learning about her interviews, this is a memoir, and I wanted to know more about her as a person. Rather than trying to be a star herself, she explored her life as an ordinary person. Her refusal to claim stardom for herself became a story element, providing a dramatic contrast between her own life and the lives of her interviewees. Her father was a manager at J.C. Penney’s, so loyal he named his daughter “Jancee” as a tribute to his employer’s initials. As children, when she and her sisters visited the department store, they were treated like royalty by the other employees. It was like being the fairy princess of suburbia.

In other memoirs, the exotic tastes and smells of food demonstrate the author’s ethnic life. Jancee uses food to show her background, too. Her family ate only beige and tasteless food. Think macaroni and cheese and Velveeta on white bread. These unremarkable food choices set a tone for her life.

What about inner struggles? Without the dark, there’s no way to emphasize the light. In Jancee’s memoir, the darkness came through her relationships with men. Her two disastrous boyfriends provided insight into her struggle to grow. The first guy was a sort of innocent sleaze, who left most of her self-respect intact. The second one was more self-involved, and his neediness and lack of care for her inner process pulled her into a darker place. When she started lying to her family, I wanted to cry out, “You’re going the wrong way! Turn back!” Eventually she realized that her strength came not from this self-involved guy but from within herself and her roots. As she pulled away from him, I felt dramatic relief, the sign of a good story.

Jancee found a compelling central arc to tie her book together
While she was paid to inform us about the world of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, Jancee really celebrated the world of normal people, returning to her unglamorous roots as her safe haven. This contrast between her ordinary life and the lives she reported created dramatic tension. As the subtitle says, it wasn’t just about the famous nor just about suburbia but about how a suburban girl interviewed famous people. By the end of the book, she made it clear she was a regular person, with ordinary feelings, family, and circumstances.

So how did her simple life relate to the life of the stars? In one scene, she joins singer Loretta Lynn making fudge. They were talking so much, the fudge didn’t turn out right, and the next day, a courier delivered a better batch to Jancee’s door. It was a gesture that reached across the divide, a star saying “look, I’m ordinary too.” While the masses of celebrity watchers long for the stratospheric heights of stardom, Jancee raises the possibility that at least some of the stars aspire to normalcy.

I love her comfortable, trendy approach, not only to her stars, but to her readers. Through years of experience as a reporter and interviewer, she has apparently gained the knack of turning to the reader or viewer. I too am looking for a comfortable open voice, and her example inspires me. I look for other opportunities in my life when I have been forced to open my voice, such as in public speaking at Toastmasters, or doing interviews, or writing letters. It turns out that blogs are an excellent tool for finding a voice. Blogging creates a conversational atmosphere that leads to a more intimate connection with readers.

Many themes run through Jancee Dunn’s memoir. Her suburban roots, her meteoric rise as a reporter, her relationships with family and men. And yet, in thinking about the book, my mind returns to the central theme. Her ordinariness pulls the whole thing together. And while the subtitle of the book claims she made it to the Red Carpet, I’m not so sure. I find Jancee’s real intention is right there in her dedication, in which quotes Emily Dickenson. “Who am I? I am nobody. Who are you? Are you nobody too?” Thanks, Jancee for grounding me in ordinary life, while you share your story, your insights, and your tips for interviewing the stars.

Podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]

Writing Prompt: If you can’t find dramatic tension in just one theme of your life, look for two themes and explore the contrasts and conflicts between them.

Note: Memoir writers sometimes think the only way to get published is to be famous. If you’re looking for a counter-example, check out A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel, a popular memoir by a very ordinary person. It’s her writing and observation that makes it so interesting.

Visit Amazon’s listing of Jancee’s book by clicking this link.

Check out Jancee’s website to see what she’s up to these days.