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So What Do You Do, Shirley Halperin, Music Editor for The Hollywood Reporter?

'We cover the business of music, which is so interesting these days.'

- November 20, 2013
In the three weeks or so that have elapsed since Shirley Halperin interviewed Justin Bieber for today's big Hollywood Reporter cover story, all sorts of crazy reports about the singer have circulated. The outlandish items have touched on everything from the identity of the woman who photographed him sleeping and an alleged place of ill repute in Brazil to some pet-monkey fees still outstanding in Germany.

With a lead-in like that, Halperin's cover story is bound to be read by far more than just the usual hardcore Justin Bieber crowd. He's appeared on a number of other magazine covers this year, including Teen Vogue and Billboard, but the THR feature really sits, more so than the others, in the eye of the Bieber storm.

When we spoke with Halperin, she was getting ready to do a fourth draft of the cover story, something she says is pretty standard for Hollywood Reporter cover assignments. We began by asking how difficult it was to pin down the hard-partying, globe-trotting Bieber.

Name: Shirley Halperin
Position: Music editor, The Hollywood Reporter
Resume: The two key things to know about Halperin are that she has been writing about music since the mid-1990s and first began working for Janice Min in 2002 at Us Weekly. These two strands have come together beautifully in recent years for Halperin at THR, where she has been responsible since 2010 for many coverage highlights. Halperin is also the author of several books and has previously worked for High Times, Bop, Teen People, Entertainment Weekly and the LA Times.
Birthdate: July 18
Hometown: East Brunswick, N.J.
Education: Rutgers University
Marital status: Married
Media mentor: The late Timothy White (Billboard editor-in-chief from 1991 to 2002)
Best career advice received: Breathe.
Guilty pleasure: Sleep
Last book read: Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town
Twitter handle: @shirleyhalperin

How did the interview with Justin Bieber come about?
This is a story I had been chasing for a long time, five or six months. [His PR team] finally gave us the opportunity, and I think a lot of that is a testament to The Hollywood Reporter. It's really such a huge get. I did the interview with him in person, just before he left for South America, where all the craziness has happened.

It was definitely a matter of convincing the Bieber camp that this would be a good forum for him, where he could not necessarily defend his actions, but defend his art. I think they knew that they would get a really beautiful-looking cover, a well-written, in-depth fair story. I think all these things came into consideration, but [then it's about] bugging the camp... and just constantly going, "When are we going to do the cover?"

What's your sense of Bieber after having spent time with him -- is he misunderstood, misrepresented?
That is basically the cover story. Is he misunderstood? Is his camp complicit in any of this? Is this [negative publicity] some sort of attempt to change his image in a radical way? All of these questions are addressed in the piece. And those are the exact same questions that I would have as a casual observer of Bieber. You know, what's really going on over there? Without giving away too much, I tried to get to the bottom of it.

"It was definitely a matter of convincing the Bieber camp that this would be a good forum for him, where he could not necessarily defend his actions, but defend his art."

Did anything about Bieber's physical appearance really surprise you, compared to the last time you interviewed him? [Halperin has also seen Bieber perform at various locations, including a concert in Israel.]
Yes. The tattoos. He's really covered in tattoos now, and it was a very striking difference from the last time I interviewed him in 2011. At that time, he was just this sweet little kid. I remember that it was such a big deal that we changed his hair style for the cover.

Now, he is covered in tattoos and he just looks like a different person because of that. It's very striking. And his new movie, which the story is pegged to -- it comes out in December -- the first scene of the movie is him playing piano, and you just see his arms full of ink. That, more than anything, tells you that this is a different Bieber.

The one challenging thing about writing this piece is that there were so many different ways into it. There were literally six or seven completely different ledes, angles, focuses that I could have done. It was really coming up with the one that was most relevant for right now -- that also appealed to Janice and our deputy editorial director, Mark Miller, and was also a really interesting read, [one] that felt exciting. But there were so many different ways to do that.

In the conversations that we've had about Min, that's always what comes up about her. Her intuitive sense of what angle to play at any given time.
She's so good at it. Reading the temperature of the culture, what people want to talk about, what people want to hear about... What they don't know yet that they want to talk about. I started working for Janice in 2002 at Us Weekly. So I've really seen the magic of Janice Min.

You've been covering music for a long time, and you sit in a very privileged position with The Hollywood Reporter today. What has that journey been like for you?
I was at Rutgers and working on the school paper, which I loved. It was a very exciting time musically. It was the early 90s. Grunge, indie rock and everything was happening at the same time. I still remember, very distinctly, where I was when I heard "Smells Like Teen Spirit" for the first time.

After college -- I didn't graduate, I just sort of left -- I didn't want to give journalism up, so I started a fanzine, Smug. It was newsprint. It was only distributed in New York and New Jersey originally, and it was all about music. Our first issue was a little bit more of a think piece. I didn't know it was called "think piece" at the time; it was about 'where do you find Paul's Boutique' [and] about the Beastie Boys having such an influence on the suburbs, on these kids and what that meant for the culture [and] the music. I'm sure it was a terrible piece; I haven't read it since 1995. But it was ambitious and a bit like what I still do today, which is really strange to be able to say.

I did the fanzine for five years. I had also interned for High Times in college and continued there full time [afterward]. I started out as photo editor, then was an editor, then managing editor. Then I went into teen magazine world. I went to work at Bop [at] the height of Backstreet Boys and N'Sync. I covered that whole scene; it was when I first interviewed Justin Timberlake.

"I still remember, very distinctly, where I was when I heard 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' for the first time."

At what point did you make the move from the East Coast to the West Coast?
[In] 2005. I was covering a concert for Rolling Stone, which is a sister publication to Us. It was a Gram Parsons tribute concert at the Santa Barbara Bowl. I remember I was driving back to L.A. on the [Pacific Coast Highway] and it was like, "I want to live here. This is where I belong." I called my husband and asked him what he thought and he said, "Yup, let's do it."

My husband [Thom Monahan] is a music producer. He produces really awesome bands and cool records. When I met him, he was in a band that I loved, called The Pernice Brothers. He's really thrived out here. He works with Chris Robinson -- he's in Sweden right now working with Peter, Bjorn and John. This whole West Coast thing has been really good for him.

Do you work with freelancers?
Yes, quite a few. I edit all their copy, but otherwise, it's just me. There's no other music person at THR. Every original, non-aggregated story that is conceived on the website is coming through me. We don't really do album reviews. We do write a lot about sales and the business. Billboard is our sister magazine, so it's amazing that we have all those resources: the charts, the numbers, the data.

We cover the business of music, which is so interesting these days. Not only is the business itself at a time of transition, but music is also everywhere, in movies, in TV shows. We write entire articles about the last song of Breaking Bad. That is an interesting, new way to cover music that I don't think existed as much when I was coming up in the rock journalism world.

Richard Horgan is co-editor of FishbowlNY.

NEXT >> So What Do You Do, Ryan Schreiber, Founder and CEO of Pitchfork?

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of Mediabistro Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of Mediabistro Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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