Why This People Magazine Reporter Finally Snapped

Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
After 14 years, nine countries, and well over a thousand bylines, I decided it was time to quit my reporting gig at People magazine. With some sadness but no doubts, I fired off an open letter of resignation to dozens of recipients including People magazine staffers and a handful of top editors. The New York Post picked it up, and from there the letter went viral.

The move was a long time coming, and I spell out my reasons in the letter you can find online here. The final straw wasn’t a run-in with an angry celebrity publicist or just generally being burnt out. It was the knowledge that I wasn’t valued at the weekly magazine despite years of dedication. This spring, I released my first book, a middle grade mystery, The Underdogs. People has a long history of featuring contributors’ books in its pages or online — whether the works are celebrity-related or not — but despite several requests, the editors just ignored my new book. And for me, the writing was on the wall: It was time to move on. (And yes, I also decided that if People wouldn’t promote my book, a very public resignation letter would definitely help get the word out.)

For too long, I’d jumped whenever an editor called on a Saturday night or Sunday morning, and I’d cancel plans to work for little pay on a story that usually involved pounding the phones and asking strangers intimate questions about someone’s personal life. Celebrity reporter for People might sound like one of the most exciting jobs out there, but the majority of the time it’s far from glamorous.

I got into this business because I wanted to write about and interview interesting people. That part of the job is certainly fascinating. But all those A-list parties and chats with gorgeous movie stars are more of a sideshow. Like any career, celebrity journalism can be a slog and very unrewarding, not to mention low-paying. I was always permalance — working full-time in the office but receiving no health insurance, paid vacation, or job security — or freelance. A typical day was less swooning over Chris Hemsworth and more of this: An overworked editor calls and says, "We need you. Big Johnny Depp story. Huge. Maybe a cover. He’s broken up with Vanessa and seems to have a new love." It would be fun to meet him, right? Wrong. I won’t be getting within a thousand miles of Mr. Depp. My task is to scour IMDB for the names of everyone who worked on any movie Johnny’s starred in for the past three years. There are hundreds of cast and crew members, from the assistant-to-the-assistant to the makeup artists to extras to gaffers to stunt doubles, and I’m supposed to ask as many of them as I can about Johnny Depp and Amber Heard first meeting on the set of The Rum Diary. I spend hours tracking down contact information with the help of the magazine’s now-tiny research department. Next, I contact dozens of complete strangers via Twitter, email, cell, whatever it takes. I curl my toes, cold-call (it never gets any less awkward), and ask about Johnny.

My task is to scour IMDB for the names of everyone who worked on any movie Johnny’s starred in for the past three years

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Any plans I had are out the window. I settle in and dial, praying for callbacks and for no abusive “I’m not talking to you, tabloid scum!” responses. Why would any of them spill to a stranger about a celebrity’s behavior? A lot of them won’t. It takes hours or days to get one good interview, let alone two or three.

The good news is you have a team working alongside you. One colleague is calling publicists to ask for insider information or a comment, others are checking with sources who might know the actors, and a writer might be putting together a story based on how we think it will turn out, so all we will need to do is plug in reporting as it comes in.

As for those big, intimate sit-downs with A-listers such as Matthew McConaughey or Melissa McCarthy? They’re generally reserved for select senior staffers. Most of my chats with mega-stars over the years have been at press junkets (where celebrities meet with journalist after journalist in beige-colored, five-star hotels for 15-minute increments) or parties where I’d have maybe five minutes to coax a good quote out of a subject. These celeb-filled events seem glamorous — you can reach out and touch Uma Thurman or the actors from Twilight — but you’re there to get quotes, not party with the stars. And celebrities are experts at dodging, spinning, and providing canned statements meant to protect their images. If they talk to you, they often supply sanitized, pre-planned comments on whatever they think they’ll be asked about on a given night.

You have to tread carefully during these encounters. I was sent to an event to interview an A-list news personality who’d just started dating someone new, and my editors advised me to use my judgment about broaching the topic — we knew she was unlikely to talk about him and might even get angry if asked. I opted to go for it, making a joke and keeping it light and friendly. “Hi, Newswoman! You might want to slap me for this (ha ha), but I have to ask — how’s it going with your new man?”

She curled her upper lip, raised her hand, and smacked me across the face — as gently as one can, but still. Then, she walked away. Not my most shining red carpet moment.

She curled her upper lip, raised her hand, and smacked me across the face

Since I first started at People, the industry has changed at breakneck speed, and so has the magazine. The weekly deadlines we used to live by now feel secondary to the 24/7 news cycle, and the faster everything goes, the less editors seem to have the time or inclination to invest in their freelancers (and depending on whom you talk to, their staff). I finally got to the point where I realized I was there to serve them when needed, but was neither valued nor respected. So I quit, and I made it public, and I have no regrets.

Since I sent my resignation I’ve received dozens of supportive calls and messages from current and former Time Inc. staff, all sharing tough stories about their experience with the company. I’ve been heartened by every message of support. Of course there are still negative comments out there (always anonymous), including some “You’ll never work in this town again!” types of threats. And the magazine’s collective response has proven my point: I haven’t heard a word from any editor since I sent my letter, though I learned through other media that executive editor Kate Coyne tweeted that my missive was “spam,” “vitriolic,” and “unhinged.”

I was prepared for all of it — the good and the bad — and I’ll be just fine without the industry of celebrity in my life. Since the letter was published, both of my books had a sales boost, and because I can no longer rely on assignments from People editors, I’ve been forced to seek out new paths and ways to use my voice for something more meaningful. I’m excited for where my career goes from here and relieved it will never involve another red carpet regret.

Hammel’s mini-memoir, Red Carpet Regret, is a quick read sharing some of her most exciting assignments. It can be purchased for $2.99 at all online booksellers including iBooks, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Amazon. She recommends you do not buy this short book if you didn’t like her letter, are expecting to read a full memoir, or have read most of what’s in it online already.

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