“I write stories about people that everyone wants to know about,” says USA Today celebrity reporter Kelley L. Carter. Based in Los Angeles, Carter takes a modest, very real approach to interviewing the world’s most famous people, including Heidi Klum, Jamie Foxx, and Courteney Cox.
She’s got her finger on the pulse of Hollywood culture and has instant access to events and personalities that many people dream about, but Carter’s celebrity-journalism career wasn’t something she’d always aspired to attain.
As an ungrad at Michigan State University in the mid-’90s, Carter got a taste for the professional world of journalism while working as an education and crime reporter for her daily campus paper, The State News, in the mid-1990s. Her best friend and S’News co-worker, Jemele Hill (now an ESPN columnist), planted a seed in Carter’s mind to develop an area of expertise. Carter initially selected theater, which evolved into music during her decade tenure as a writer for The Detroit Free Press.
Carter jumped ship to work as an entertainment reporter for The Chicago Tribune until fall 2008, when she accepted her current position at USA Today. “It certainly wasn’t the plan, but I’m glad it worked out this way.”
Carter talks with inkpop about how fiction writing informs her journalism, how to engage Brad Pitt, and about Reese Witherspoon’s down-home attitude …
inkpop: When did you know that you wanted to become a journalist?
Kelley Carter: In fifth grade. That’s when your teachers start asking, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I didn’t exactly know that I wanted to be a journalist per se, but I knew I wanted to be a writer. My first job was as a movie reviewer for my middle-school newspaper, and I’ve been working for newspapers ever since.
Have you ever written fiction?
I have for personal exercises, but not professionally. As a non-fiction writer, I’ve worked on exercises to fictionalize people’s real lives—I was trying to improve the way that I include dialog in a narrative. I realized that fiction writers have it on the money. The reason we pore over fiction books is because we love the way that people talk in fiction stories, and I wanted to mimic that in my journalism.
I also took a screenwriting course at University of Michigan, because I love how films paint a picture—I wanted to do the same thing as a journalist. I use some of the tricks I learned in that course in my writing.
Can you give us an example of how you infuse fiction-writing and screenwriting techniques into your journalism?
We have a sensationalized view of who famous people are, and we forget that they’re human, so when I go into an interview, I want to illustrate how they talk. I hate it when someone sounds very robotic in a story—especially when I know how that person really is. I try to bring out casual dialog in my stories.
At the end of the day, I’m really just having a conversation with a celebrity the same way that you would with a friend. I like to disarm people. I think a lot of journalists who are intimidated by their subjects don’t talk to them the same way you talk to everyone else.
I always try to bring my personality to the forefront—which can be challenging when you’re talking to somebody like Brad Pitt. You might be compelled to say, “Brad, it’s awesome that you were nominated for an Oscar nomination for Ben Button. Fill in the blank here with ‘Typical Question That Everyone Else Asks.’”
Instead, ask something like, “What does Zahara think about your accent in Inglourious Basterds, and do your other kids try to imitate it?” You have to engage people in a way that makes them feel a little less onstage. It’s not always a home run, but I try to do this as much as possible.
Do you have an example of an interview that was slow-going at first, but you ramped it up by disarming or engaging the person?
Reese Witherspoon. I found a connection with her in the Southern-girl thing. She’s from Tennessee, and we got to talking about collard greens and sweet potatoes, and that totally took the conversation in a different direction.
The interview was about Four Christmases. Other reporters were doing the “What does Reese Witherspoon really want for Christmas?” angle, but I was the only reporter who got a really good answer from her. And it was because we went on a complete tangent about sloppy hogs and life in the South. She said, “You know what I really want for Christmas? I want a man to build me a pigpen.” It was hilarious, because no one could imagine Jake Gyllenhaal building a pigpen for Reese Witherspoon.
What’s your lifestyle like as a celebrity reporter?
I feel like I never turn it off. The hours are predictable but unpredictable at the same time. Tomorrow is the New Moon premiere, one of the most anticipated films of the year. That’s going to be a really long thing—I have to cover red-carpet arrivals, which means I will check in at 3 p.m., cover arrivals until 7:30, and then high-tail it across town to cover another event, where David and Victoria Beckham will be. I’m covering that live, so I’m writing that story while I’m on the carpet, so that it goes into the paper the next day. And the other event will be something that I’ll file shortly after midnight. That’s a pretty typical day.
But there are some days where I’m just having lunches with publicists or doing interviews with actors or singers. On [November 19], I’m going to have a sit-down with Keri Hilson, and then a planning meeting to have high tea with Julie Andrews in January. It kind of varies every day.
What’s your advice to aspiring writers?
To read other writers—that’s ultimately how you develop your voice, and that’s what’s going to set you apart from other people in this business. Find a favorite writer—and it doesn’t have to be another journalist. I have favorite journalists, but my favorite writers are novelists.
One of my favorite writers is kind of an obscure novelist—Beverly Jenkins. She writes Harlequin-esque romance novels for African Americas, that are set after slavery and before reconstruction. She really teaches you—she’s a former librarian and researches these obscure, little-known groups of people. She’s so good because she’s well researched and has a solid narrative. Journalists, especially right now, should reach outside the box to find other ways to engage readers.
The inkpop blog is written by inkpopAmy