Many aspiring journalists dream of the glitz and glamour of celebrity reporting – who would not want to be chatting to their favourite actor in an expensive hotel suite for a living?
But in times of the coronavirus pandemic, the press tours and red carpet events have been put on hold. Like many others, celebrity reporters have had to adjust to Zoom interviews and even old-fashioned phone calls.
Ahead of their webinar next week on breaking into celebrity journalism, freelance journalists Nick McGrath and Donna Ferguson shared their experiences of interviewing the rich and famous from their living rooms. The interview has been lightly edited for brevity.
From lockdown onwards, my editors across journalistic genres have been crying out for an antidote to the stream of negative, anxiety-inducing covid-related news.Nick McGrath, celebrity journalist
How did the pandemic affect celebrity journalism?
NM: Personally, I have never been busier. From lockdown onwards, my editors across journalistic genres have been crying out for an antidote to the stream of negative, anxiety-inducing covid-related news that has been dominating the news agenda.
Celebrity interviews can offer an alternative to that. It has also never been easier to secure interviews with celebrities as they can no longer come up with the excuse that they are busy working on an important project or they are on an exotic holiday with no WiFi connection.
DF: At the start of lockdown, lots of celebrities – particularly singers and comedians – cancelled the publicity they had planned to do for their live gigs and national tours. Slots that I had planned to fill were suddenly empty and I had to scramble around to find a celebrity that was promoting something. Then, celebrities started promoting their YouTube channels and other things they were doing during lockdown, so they took the slots that the other celebs had left empty. Now I am noticing that lots of celebrities have been very productive during lockdown, like writing books.
How did the media industry adapt to these changes?
NM: The main challenge I have found as a freelancer is that some interviews I have done have not necessarily got into the paper due to the sheer weight of covid-related content coming in and the intense pace of the pandemic news agenda. A lot of staff were furloughed during lockdown and continue to be furloughed, but as I have worked from home for fifteen years, my day-to-day working practices have barely changed.
The only difference is that rather than doing one or two face-to-face interviews a week, I have now done just two in-person chats in the last six months. The vast majority of interviews have been on the phone or via Zoom, with my personal favourite being a highly entertaining audience with children’s television character Basil Brush.
DF: I have not done any face-to-face interviews since lockdown but it has not made much difference to my copy. None of the editors I write for have been furloughed but sometimes articles I have written have appeared online only instead of in print as well because the Guardian has reduced the number of pages it has been printing.
I have had to adapt my own working conditions too. I have always worked from home, but during lockdown my husband and my eight-year-old daughter, Flora, have both been housebound too. It has been wonderful interviewing children’s authors during this period. Each time I have, they have said hello to Flora and made her day. It has given her a much better sense of what I do each day and she has now started writing her own short stories. It is wonderful to think I may have inspired my daughter to become a writer herself.
“Ocassionally the people I interview are happy to be snapped by a mere mortal, underlining why they’re in front of a camera and I’m not. When my Jack Russell joins me they’re much keener,” says Nick McGrath.
How did you figure out new rules and strategies for “virtual” celebrity interviewing?
NM: Zoom makes the process more interactive than a ‘blind’ phone interview. I have used the ‘share screen’ function on several occasions to remind interviewees of old photos of themselves or specific news stories about themselves mid-interview and it has taken conversations in directions they would never have veered without the video technology.
There are pitfalls though. For example, a Zoom conversation I had with Kelly Brook about her partner’s habit of wandering into shot with just his pants on sparked her to ask if I ever conducted interviews in just my underwear – including the current one with her. I suspect she realised I had been minimally dressed as it was bang in the middle of the heatwave, and she demanded proof. Fortunately, it was a boxers not a Y-fronts day.
Freelancers in all fields of journalism have been hit hard by the pandemic. Was – or is it still – the case for celebrity journalists?
NM: Not personally. Celebrity interviews are escapism at the best of times. In times of crisis and stress people seek out escapism more than ever and editors understand that. I am lucky enough to be well-established and write for most national UK newspapers regularly so my existing relationships with editors are already strong. For celebrity journalists at an earlier stage in their trajectory, it has probably been way more challenging.
DF: I have been adversely affected by the pandemic. Commissioned work has been shelved and pencilled-in interviews have been cancelled on me. I am sure my income and my turnover would have been higher if it had not been for the pandemic, particularly because I have had added responsibilities to home-school and care for my daughter.
When you help out other freelancers, good deed comes back around.Donna Ferguson, celebrity journalist
Tell us more about your Facebook group
DF: I set up the Celebrity Interview Club Facebook group three years ago with two other celebrity freelance journalists, Sarah Ewing and Nicole Lampert. We set it up to help freelance journalists connect with celebrity publicists. You have to be a freelance journalist to join – no editors are allowed in – because we set it up to help freelancers like ourselves, who are making a living out of precarious self-employment. We pooled all our contacts and spread the word among publicists and freelancers, and it really took off. Today, we have more than 2,000 people.
All you need to do if you are looking for a celebrity to interview is post about the type of celeb you want and the slot or publication you are going to pitch them to. Publicists can also promote celebrity slots and any newspaper slots they are after.
It has proved extremely useful. In the pandemic, it has become more important than ever and offered people a lifeline, including myself. It has also taught me that when you help out other freelancers, that good deed comes back around, which is a wonderful lesson to learn.
What was your most memorable virtual interview moment?
NM: The most bizarre thing to have unfolded was an ongoing transatlantic relationship with Bros frontman Matt Goss, where from the comfort of his luxurious Las Vegas apartment he essentially became my Zoom relationship counsellor in between answering questions about conkers, his brother Luke and why he quite fancies Boris Johnson’s job one day.
DF: I loved interviewing Steve Backshall for The Observer during lockdown about the strange places he has defecated in. He had just recently had twin babies whilst trying to look after a toddler so we could only do the interview while they were all asleep. That meant it ended quite abruptly when one of them woke up.
I also really enjoyed interviewing Martin Lewis for The Observer about all the people he has helped during lockdown and how he sits and cries when he thinks about the people he cannot help. He was a very inspiring person to speak to and one of my absolute heroes.
With graduates feeling anxious about their future, what advice would you give to fledging celebrity journalists?
NM: Be persistent. Be enthusiastic. Be polite. No today does not mean no forever. Pitch. Pitch. Pitch. Then pitch again. And do not take rejection personally.
DF: Perseverance and self-belief will take you really far as a journalist.
On a practical level, I would recommend joining a mentoring scheme. Women in Journalism run one for women (I am a mentor) and so does Second Source. JournoResources is a great website with lots of resources for young journalists starting out. I also recommend joining the NUJ for free training.
Nick McGrath and Donna Ferguson are running a webinar on 7 September 2020 on ‘How to get pitch, get commissioned and make a living interviewing celebrities’.