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If you had asked me five years ago who Tina Brown was, I'd have probably told you she was an MTV VJ whose name was most often preceded by the adjective "downtown." That, as it turns out, was Julie Brown, not Tina Brown.
In my defense, I was working in finance at the time, and had no reason to know who Tina was, and with all due respect to Tina, I don't think anyone who works outside of the media industry ever has any pressing need to know who Tina is. I'm not even sure most media people have any pressing need to know who Tina is. (Most people lead lives of quiet desperation and most people are completely ignorant of who's topping the masthead of their favorite magazines, but as far as I can tell, there's no causal relationship between the two.)
My own blissful ignorance didn't last and three years later, I had unwittingly acquired the Tina Brown beat at New York magazine. I had written about Tina occasionally on Gawker.com prior to joining New York, but only because Gawker was supposed to cover New York media to a certain extent and my English publisher gave me the impression that not covering Tina Brown would be like attempting to write about beltway politics without mentioning Karl Rove. I didn't quite understand why an MTV VJ from the 80s was so damn important in the New York mediasphere, but I was determined to Google and Nexis her until I found out.
In the first few weeks of my tenure at New York, Tina's CNBC talk show, Topic A With Tina Brown, launched. One of my editors handed me a tape of the show and suggested that I write a front-of-the-book piece analyzing how Tina had ostensibly remade herself for TV. Like most front-of-the-book pieces, this one had an ever diminishing text-to-art ratio and the final product consisted of four captioned photos of Tina at various stages in her career, the last of which was a Topic A promo shot that had Tina looking very much like Diane Sawyer. We almost could have done a SPY "Separated at Birth" ripoff and made the same point with even less text.
The same week, CNBC threw a launch party for the show that was also a party for a CNBC documentary about the Worldcom scandal. At the time, my primary job at New York consisted of going to parties and asking celebrities questions for the magazine's gossip column, so my editors sent me to the party, tape recorder in hand, my qualifications being that I had recently written about Tina, and my superhuman ability to listen to people talk about Worldcom accounting intricacies for hours on end without falling asleep.
I arrive at the party in an Upper East Side private club/townhouse sometime after Alec Baldwin and before Henry Kissinger, and am intercepted at the door by infamous PR woman Peggy Siegel, who puts her arm around me and proceeds to steer me around the room, magically avoiding anyone to whom I'd actually want to speak. "Do you want to talk to Tina?" she says, dragging me by the arm. "Let me introduce you to Tina!"
The previous week I had been yelled at on the phone by Ed Klein, the former editor of the Times magazine, for suggesting that a handful of lunches with Jackie Kennedy didn't necessarily constitute the "close friendship" he had used to promote his multiple Kennedy biographies (the yelling sort of reinforced my hunch that I was right), and as Peggy pulls me in Tina's direction, I wonder if Tina saw the front-of-the-book piece, whether she finds the Diane Sawyer comparison flattering and whether I'm going to get screamed at again. Tina doesn't strike me as the screaming type, but you never know.
I had met Tina briefly a few months before at another event and I had sat on a panel a couple of weeks prior with her producer, a tall charismatic woman named Heather Vincent, so the introduction probably isn't necessary but I decide it's more trouble to argue with Peggy than it is to be reintroduced.
"Tina!" says Peggy, "I want to you to meet—what's your name again?"
"Elizabeth Spiers," I say.
"Elizabeth Stires!" says Peggy. "And you're from where?"
"New York maga—"
"New York magazine!" says Peggy.
"Nice to see you," said Tina, smiling (or possibly, smirking; I couldn't tell) "Thank you for coming." Her husband, Harry Evans, walks by. "Oh, Harry," she says. "Have you met Elizabeth Spiers? She used to write a snarky little website called Gawker." Harry gives me a blank stare.
She then mentions the front-of-the-book piece, conspicuously fails to scream at me, and says nice things about it. That out of the way, I pull out a tape recorder and begin "working."
"Why TV?" I ask. For added lameness, I could very well add, "Why now?"
Tina begins to answer when Alec Baldwin taps her on the shoulder and exclaims, "sex and the World Trade Center!" Tina says she'll keep that in mind.
"I try to tailor the show to the guests," she explains when he walks away. "I ask them what they'd be interested in talking about. Now I have him down under 'sex and the World Trade Center.'"
The requisite Tina portion of the program completed, I look for other people to interview. Years of practiced social ineptitude have made talking to people at parties—even people I know and like—an awkward process and I'm not really sure how I ended up with the party-hopping job. I'm not really a party girl.
I try asking a few people what their personal Topic As are, and I get uniformly the same answer. So I reverse the question. "What's your Topic Z?" I ask. What are you sick of hearing about?
"Ben and J-Lo," Tom Brokaw intones in exactly the same voice and in exactly the same cadence in which he reads the nightly news. "I don't want to hear another word about Ben…(pause, look at teleprompter) and J-Lo."
Well, understandable. Me neither, Tom.
Henry Kissinger walks in and is immediately mobbed by other party attendees. Alec Baldwin gives him an actual hug. Weeks before Baldwin had vowed to move to Canada if the Bush administration's existing foreign policy continued apace. He is, at present, conspicuously not in Canada and conspicuously hugging an alleged war criminal.
I start moving toward Kissinger and Peggy intercepts me again, complaining that some reporter from the New York Times had insisted on asking Dr. Kissinger some very rude questions. I assume the rude questions have something to with the whole "alleged war criminal" thing and would frankly like the opportunity to ask Dr. Kissinger some very rude questions myself, but before I can get through the throng of people, Kissinger has already made his exit.
I spot some people I know: Jesse Kornbluth, who moderated the panel I sat on with Tina's producer; Maer Roshan, who was Tina's number two at Talk; and Ali Wolfe from the Observer's Transom column. Maer introduces me to Jacob Bernstein, a Women's Wear Daily media reporter who will later become one of my colleagues at New York, and they mention a party later that night for Kate Moss at the Maritime Hotel.
I'm still working, so I look around for someone else to interview. Conveniently, George Plimpton is standing by the bar, seemingly looking for someone to talk to. Topic A for George: the war, the economy, the usual. Then, before I can ask him about Topic Z, he asks me if I know about the upcoming fireworks show in Central Park and launches into a short monologue on the historical use of gunpowder in Chinese culture. It's completely fascinating and sadly, completely unusable for the magazine column. I turn off the tape recorder and continue to listen, asking questions and wondering why no one else is talking to George Plimpton.
When the conversation ends, I still need another quote to feel comfortable with the amount of material I'm bringing back. I turn around and find myself face-to-face with Alec Baldwin. At this point, it's inevitable, so I might as well.
I ask him about his "topic A" and unlike everyone else in the room, he seems to interpret this as a question about his personal life and not his general worldly concerns. He says something about how as a middle-aged divorcee it's tough to stay in shape and look good.
Earlier in the summer, the New York Times's Warren St. John had introduced a few million people to term "metrosexual," so I ask Baldwin if he considers himself one, which he half-interprets as a question about his sexual preferences.
"What do they call men who are gay but like to have sex with women?" he says. I'm not sure if it's a rhetorical question, the opening line of a joke or a sincere inquiry, so I shrug and tell him I have no idea. "Because I'm finding I want to work on my softer side. I'm getting into decorating, and I want to become more sensitive." It sounds suspiciously like he wants to be a metrosexual. "Well, those guys are high-maintenance," he explains. "I want to be low-maintenance. Basically, I'm gay, except for the sex-with-men part." This does work for the column and will later appear in the magazine under the hed, "Homo Imbibicus?" in an item that notes Alec's proximity to the bar.
A year later, this will have been one of the easiest and more interesting parties I've had to cover, I will have written two more front-of-the-book stories about Tina Brown for New York (having been assigned them, perhaps, for consistency's sake), George Plimpton will be gone, and I will have realized that I hate doing party coverage because I have no interest in celebrities and don't particularly want to talk to them. I'll resolve to never do it again, while grumpily downing a fluorescent pink cocktail at a book party for Paris Hilton celebrating what was not so much a book with what was not so much a party after having been unintentionally but sharply elbowed by her publicist as Paris was ushered past me, muttering "get me out of here" through her perfectly whitened teeth.
Work is done at the Topic A party so I leave with Maer and Jacob and we head to the Maritime for the Kate Moss party. Maer gets dropped off along the way.
Jacob and I walk into Matsuri, the sushi restaurant in the basement of the Maritime, and past the women with clipboards to a floor full of celebrities and business types. Harvey Weinstein is at one table, Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg at another, and P-Diddy has an entourage of people squeezed into a large booth. But there's something odd about it, even for an inherently surreal event like this: There's a noticeable lack of journalists, gossip columnists, and media people in general (unless you count Barry Diller). It's a private party.
"I don't think I'm supposed to be here," I mutter to Jacob.
But I mean it in the larger sense.
Elizabeth Spiers is the editor-in-chief of mediabistro.com.