Name Dropping for Money By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

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“It’s not what you know but who you know” has never been truer when interviewing celebrities.

Interviewing celebrities gives you more than just the ability to name-drop at parties. It also lends credibility and interest to your articles and springboards your writing career to better-paying assignments. You don’t have to live in Hollywood to gain access to celebrities. These tips will help you get rolling.

1. Find a celebrity who needs publicity. It may seem like they have all the press they need, but celebrities undertaking a new endeavor or endorsing a new product need publicity to sell their “brand” like anyone else selling a product. While researching an article on NASCAR for GEICO Direct, I learned that the GEICO-sponsored car had just signed Mike Wallace as its new driver. My editor helped me contact Wallace, who welcomed the opportunity for me to interview him and publicize his new allegiance. I’ve also reached celebs by going through the companies whose products they endorse, such as the manufacturer that hired baseball legend Orel Hershiser to promote their physical therapy equipment. Now celebrities occasionally request me, such as Sylvester and Jennifer Stallone, who read my business articles and asked my editor if I would profile Jennifer’s new business, Seriesse International.

2. Query a niche market. Supermodel-turned-fashion-mogul Kathy Ireland has been photographed for Sports Illustrated and interviewed for Reader’s Digest, Inc., and many other prominent publications. But I believed she’d make a great profile for Home Business Magazine, a trade publication for entrepreneurs. The editor agreed. I contacted Ireland through her web site and, within weeks, she scheduled a phone interview.

3. Attend a star-studded event. After reading in the newspaper that a charitable motorcycle ride planned to host William Shatner as special guest, I contacted a motorcycle magazine editor for which I had written before. He gave me a green light to attend and cover it. Now that I had a periodical seeking my article-to-be, the event organizers made arrangements for me to attend. Nearly always, you must have at least an on-spec opportunity lined up to get close to A-list celebrities. As it turned out, I was able to get really close: rainy weather gave me a four-hour van ride with only Shatner, his wife and a driver!

4. Keep abreast of political appearances. While covering city board meetings for the local paper, I learned that Hillary Clinton would soon visit my area. Since that was my beat, my editor let me cover the event. I was able to ask her a few questions one-on-one after her speech. I’ve also interviewed lesser-known senators and assemblymen by writing for newspapers about their local appearances, some of which are also attended by pop culture celebrities. That’s how I met then-Governor George Pataki of New York, NASCAR’s Tony Stewart, Ben & Jerry’s co-founder Ben Cohen, and others.

Once you nail down your interview opportunity, here’s what you do next:

1. Research the celebrity through press releases, the celebrity’s official web site, and from reputable sources such as his authorized memoirs to avoid asking too many obvious questions.

2. Write open-ended, thought-provoking questions to guide the interview but remain flexible. You never know when an interview may take an interesting turn that can spawn more articles. During an interview on his business enterprises, I learned that George Foreman collects classic cars. I subsequently interviewed him for Auto Restorer.

3. Exhibit professionalism by punctuality, preparedness and by treating them like any other interviewee (i.e., don’t gush about being “their biggest fan”). However, most celebrities want to feel you’re aware of their achievements. (Sorry, Orel Hershiser, that you had to tell me you are a Cy Young Award winner.)

4. Ask if they’re open to being interviewed for subsequent articles and for the best way to contact them in the future. Don’t assume that it’s okay to call a private number; they may first want to have you speak with a secretary who arranges their schedule.

Visiting celebrities’ official websites represents a sensible way to gain access. These tips will help you get through to them.

+ Sending e-mail to a fan address undermines your professionalism.

+ Indicate “Attn: media relations” in the header.

+ Be succinct: “Hello. I am writing on assignment for XYZ Magazine and I would like to interview you for my article about 123…” Then explain in greater detail what the publication is like (if it’s obscure) and what your article is about. You may want to include a few sample interview questions. Reference any other celebrity-driven pieces you’ve written and provide links.

+ Do not pay an entity that charges to put you in touch with a celebrity, such as a booking agency. As a legitimate member of the media, you should not have to pay to contact a celebrity for an interview.

Living a few miles from a very small village in Upstate New York, Deborah Jeanne Sergeant writes full-time for a variety of trade and consumer publications. Her web site lists her other notable interview subjects. See: http://www.hometown.aol.com/skilledquill/freelance.html.