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so what do you do?

So What Do You Do, Michael Gross?
The people in your media neighborhood.

BY CAROLINE CALLAHAN | Michael Gross is the rare journalist who covers fashion without an ounce of frivolity. Aside from having written for almost every major mag in print, Gross has authored two provocative tomes (on baby boomers and the modeling industry) and is on the verge of publishing a controversial third—Genuine Authentic: The Real Life of Ralph Lauren. Gross, a columnist for the New York Daily News and a contributing editor at Travel&Leisure, lets mediabistro.com in on some pre-publication book news and shares his thoughts on the state of fashion journalism.

Do you believe, as has been reported, that Ralph Lauren is pressuring magazines to cover his 35th anniversary [by threatening to withhold advertising]?
I have no doubt that that's true. Any advertiser with a budget the size of Ralph Lauren's is going to get what he wants, especially in a world in which the separation between [editorial and advertising departments] is already porous at best. [Together with its licensing partners, Polo Ralph Lauren collectively spent more than $209 million worldwide to advertise and promote Polo Ralph Lauren products in fiscal 2002, according to Polo spokeswoman Ellen Maguire.] He's the proverbial 800-pound gorilla when it comes to fashion magazines. That's particularly true now that we're in the middle of an advertising recession.

Why haven't we seen an advance excerpt of the book yet?
The galleys have been embargoed by my publisher, HarperCollins. I've heard from people I consider reliable that Ralph is trying to get his hands on them. I'd do the same if I were him. I don't think that any self-respecting journalist would give him the galleys or pan the book to pander him, but it's better to be safe than sorry. I'll give you the perfect analogy: people in the fashion industry want to wear next season's clothes this season. There's a feeling out there that they're privileged, and that they should see my book first, discuss it amongst themselves, and be done with it before it's even in stores.

How did you decide to write Genuine Authentic?
I walked into Harry Cipriani [restaurant] in the fall of 1999 and saw Ralph, who had been as much a friend to me as someone you cover can be. Ralph said, "It's funny you should walk in here. I was just talking about you this morning. Would you be interested in writing my biography?"

How cooperative was he?
The situation was constantly changing—it was as fluid as Ralph Lauren silk charmeuse pajamas. I'd rather not spoil the story since it's in my book, but let's just say that it began with limited cooperation and ended up with limited hostility. I haven't seen him since August 2001 at his annual stockholder's meeting, when he threw his arm around me and introduced me to one of his former models as his "unauthorized biographer."

What's one tidbit people should know about Ralph Lauren?
If he knew his own story, he'd be a lot more secure.

How did you get your start in journalism?
I come from a family of journalists. My father was a columnist at the New York Post for about 35 years, and my sister Jane is a reporter for The New York Times. The first byline I had was in my high school newspaper, The Sportsman, when I was covering campaign appearances. Then I went off to college and became the rock critic for a Vassar weekly called the Miscellany News. During the summer after my sophomore year, I got my first paid assignment for a rock magazine called Crawdaddy—a $25 record review for the first Doors album released after Jim Morrison died.

What was your most memorable moment while writing Model?
Being physically threatened by an investor in a modeling agency who said to me, "If you harm Elite, Elite will harm you," while sitting at the table normally occupied by François Mitterand at the Brasserie Lipp on the Boulevard St. Germain.

So what is fashion journalism, anyway?
Fashion journalism generally is an oxymoron. If it's journalism then it's not fashion, and if it's fashion then it's not journalism. That said, there are a number of really remarkable people who manage to do both: Cathy Horyn of The New York Times; Robin Givhan, the fashion editor of The Washington Post; and Teri Agins of The Wall Street Journal. Also, when Holly Brubach [was writing as a fashion journalist], that was as good as it got. Most fashion journalists are a little torn as to whether they're writing for the fashion industry or for the public. I've never been torn. I've always written for the public.

How do you deal with getting negative feedback from your stories?
It depends upon the source! [Laughs.] Most people in the fashion industry wear their agenda like sequins. There are people in the fashion world who understand, respect, and even cheer what I've done over the years when I've written about fashion. There are people who appreciate the demystification, and who think that what I've done in various stories over the years has been a necessary corrective to the constant, relentless image manipulation that's the stock and trade of the fashion industry now, even more than the clothes. There are enough people who get the joke that it's not so hard dealing with the people who don't.

What's your favorite fashion magazine?
Hintmag.com.

Who are your favorite gossip columnists?
The "Memo Pad" and "Fashion Scoops" columns in Women's Wear Daily are like salted peanuts—even when they're about nothing, I can't wait to devour them. They're probably my two favorite columns at the moment. My wife is a fashion designer, and, on a daily basis, that's the best there is in covering it. I also love "Chic Happens" at Hintmag.com.

What's the origin of the name of your column, "The Word"?
Daily News editor-in-chief Ed Kosner had that title when I walked in the door. I'm not sure who coined it, he or his wife. I loved it the minute he told it to me—it lends itself to all kinds of play within the column. My joke title for the column was "No J. Lo." Oddly enough, J. Lo actually made it into my column last week.

What's your favorite aspect of being a newspaper columnist?
Being immersed in New York in a way that I haven't been in years. I'd always thought that I would be working for New York magazine for the rest of my life. When I was a contributing editor there, I thought writing a 6,000-word piece 5 to 10 times a year was the best job a boy could have. But when the magazine culture started to change in the '90s, the joy got leached out of it. Probably right after 9/11, there was a really dramatic reinvigoration of the daily newspaper, and magazines that were already looking a little irrelevant got even more lost in the fog. No way is the daily newspaper dead.

What bothers you most about the state of the media today?
The prevailing ethic among glossy magazine editors that access trumps enterprise, that a celebrity story is always more important than an interesting story. There's an old expression, apparently misattributed to H.L. Mencken (I believe it was actually coined by a newspaper editor in Kansas), that the job of the journalist is to "afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted." I'm not sure if it's been forgotten or just beaten out of magazine editors, but those stories have diminished.

In your extensive travels through Europe, what differences have you noticed between European and American journalism?
Paris Match and the British newspapers have a maverick attitude that no longer prevails in America. We tend to go along to get along. Having said that, American production values are really high in comparison to countries like France and Italy, and the brevity so often characteristic of American journalism contrasts very nicely to the long-windedness of the European press.

What are your favorite books on your shelf?
Refiner's Fire by Mark Helprin and Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. I also collect books by great journalists whom I admire: The Rich and Other Atrocities by Charlotte Curtis, The Dogs Bark by Truman Capote, The Armies of the Night by Norman Mailer, and Within the Context of No Context by George W.S. Trow.

What three elements make a good story?
A subject that people think they know all about when actually they don't know nothin', a great hook, and a kicker they'll never forget.

Caroline Callahan, a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism, is a freelance writer living in New York.


So What Do You Do? appears on Tuesdays.

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