Talking with . . .

    Maureen Orth
    An interview by John Coyne

    MAUREEN ORTH (Colombia 1964–66) is perhaps the RPCV community’s premier journalist, having written for a number of major publications, including The Washington Post, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Esquire and Newsweek. Today she is a Special Correspondent to Vanity Fair magazine. Prior to joining Vanity Fair, she was a contributing editor at Vogue and a columnist for New York Woman. And prior to that, she was a senior editor for New York and New West magazines.
         One of the first women to write for Newsweek, Maureen won a National Magazine Award for group coverage of the arts while at the weekly. It was also while she was at Newsweek that she “discovered” Kinky Friedman (Borneo 1967–69) and wrote about him for the magazine only because, she says, Kinky had been a PCV. During this period, Maureen also took a leave of absence from Newsweek to be Swiss/Italian director Lina Wertmuller’s assistant on the film “Seven Beauties,” but then returned to journalism.
         She began to write for Vanity Fair in 1988, and among the people she has profiled was murder suspect Andrew Cunanan in the September 1997 issue. This was the first in-depth report on the man who killed Gianni Versace and served as the basis for her book, Vulgar Favors, published in 1999. Another of her articles — on Michael and Arianna Huffington — was nominated for a National Magazine Award in reporting.
         Maureen has a new book out that is a collection of her essays about famous people — including Arianna Huffington, The Importance of Being Famous: Behind the Scenes of the Celebrity-Industial Complex.
         I first met Maureen in the mid-eighties when she wrote an article for my wife, then an editor at Glamour Magazine. During this decade Maureen and I worked together on two major fund raising events for the RPCV community. Maureen had moved to Washington with her husband and young son, and briefly became involved with the National Council of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (now the NPCA). That experience with the NCRPCV even today sends her into mild fits of rage so I saved my questions about the NPCA until the end of this interview.

    Maureen, what was your Peace Corps assignment?
    I was in urban community development in Colombia.

    How did you Peace Corps experience help your career?
    My Peace Corps experience, particularly learning Spanish, was of great help to me.
         In journalism, you have to have energy and curiosity, and be willing to plunge into whatever environment the story takes you — that is very parallel to the Peace Corps experience. Ditto being able to fit in and be culturally sensitive to your surroundings.
         The Peace Corps teaches empathy — that is essential to winning people’s trust, particularly if you are dealing with people who are deciding whether to TRUST you or not with sensitive information or any information for that matter.
         I have gone all over the world in my assignments, and after two years in the Peace Corps at an early age I believe one is much better suited to deal with everything from impossible bureaucracy to difficult living conditions in pursuit of the goal — which is getting the story.

    Of all the people you have profiled, who has impressed you the most?
    Some people who have impressed me most are not those I most admire at all. Imagine the Sir Walter Scott rhyme “Oh! what a tangled web we weave When first we practise to deceive!” I am amazed at the lengths some people go to to invent themselves anew or try to gain status and power, so in that regard I have been impressed with the strivers and deceivers: Mohamed Fayed, Arianna Huffington, Andrew Cunanan and the rascal politico who was President of Argentina, Carlos Menem. Others I feel more sympathy for: I found Margaret Thatcher in the moment she fell from power to be a poignant character, although at the time she had become very unpopular. Tina Turner is just a great dame. I had the most fun watching designer Karl Lagerfeld ply his trade — equal amounts of creative and marketing genius. With the ultra famous such as Madonna and Michael Jackson, it is more a question of trying to find the nature of the there there. With Michael Jackson and Woody Allen, both considered geniuses and therefore not accountable to the rules the rest of us have to follow, it is not very pretty.

    Much of what makes your articles so good are your great quotes. How do you get them?
    Getting great quotes is a function of listening well. When someone says something that strikes me as interesting, I often ask them if they mean such and such and often they repeat my last words as the first words in their answer. I think hearing a good quote, though, is more an instinctive ability — it really cannot be taught: either you can or you can’t. It is probably akin to writing dialog for the fiction writer.

    What were you trying to achieve with The Importance of Being Famous?
    First and foremost this book should be an entertaining read of profiles of famous and remarkable people across the globe — some brilliant, others extreme in their ambition and desire to be famous or powerful. I often think of the old big game hunter, Frank Buck, and his phrase: “Bring ’em back alive.” That is what I try to do with these celebrities. Strip them of the artifice and bring ’em back, but truthfully alive to the reader. I coined the phrase “the celebrity industrial complex” to show the whole apparatus of the fame industry today with big media conglomerates on one side and all the handlers from accountants to stylists on the other. With the advent of the internet and 24 hour cable news on TV, the whole nature of celebrity and fame has changed RADICALLY — today someone is just as likely to be recognized for infamy as for achievement. Fame so often today is unearned: Paris Hilton and Scott Peterson SPRING TO MIND, and this book tries to show the machinery behind these stories and how the famous are recognized for their lifestyles as much as for their work today.
         THIS phenomenon of instant and extreme recognition is not only confined to show business. For example, I dissect how Private Jessica Lynch, who never fired her gun, was created by the Pentagon to be a great hero and used to gain sympathy for the war in Iraq. I begin the book with Laci Peterson to show how an ordinary young California woman and her husband came to rule the airwaves for so long. An underlying theme of my book is how the rules of journalism are being seriously bent and undermined, and how so much of our culture is being ruled by tabloid subject matter.

    Whom do you admire?
    People I admire: of those in the book my favorites is the late prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn — whom I interviewed at the end of her life while she was living on a small Panamanian finca that reminded me totally of Peace Corps territory. For decades she had the world’s applause and admiration — she danced for kings and queens and accepted thousand upon thousands of roses thrown at her feet, yet she had fallen madly in love with her husband, a difficult and complex Panamanian politician who had been wheelchair bound after an assassination attempt. Because of his demands and needed care, she had to dance for decades longer than she wished and while she was travelling, he dallied with a young mistress who committed suicide the day he died. Margot Fonteyn had such dignity and grace, was so totally unaffected by the fame and glory and so completely above the fray and staunch in what she wanted in the end — this humble finca — that I found her tremendously admirable.

    You have traveled in both private planes and in far more difficult ways to get your stories. Tell us about one or two of your memorable travel adventures.
    I recount in the book a trip I took with basketball star Shaq O’Neal and his team, the Orlando Magic on their specially outfitted private jet which had seven foot ceilings. Shaq was wearing a huge belt buckle with the letters TWISM: This World Is Mine.
         And indeed it was. Private planes are really the way that privilege is most determined among celebrities today. Not having to go through security or lines, being whisked off the field in big cars as the Magic players were — it is truly a different world. Julio Iglesias once told me he could not wait to get off the stage and go to his plane and “fly above the world through the heavens.”
         Of course I more often have experienced the other side of the coin: shortly after September 11, 2001, I was flying from a border town in Tajikistan to Dushanbe, the capital, in a Tajik airliner with burlap straps on the seats and a filthy strip of carpet in the aisle that was not tacked down. The night was pitch black and there were no airport lights. The metal detector for security had unconnectd wires hanging from it so there was no need to go through. Before we boarded, the stewardess had to knock on the plane’s door to wake up the pilot and tell him to open up. I was writing about the relationship between drugs and terrorism and to my eye most of the passengers were drug dealers. I luckily was seated next to a British cotton broker who spoke English. Upon takeoff I said I thought we were climbing nearly vertically awfully fast. “I certainly hope so,” he said. “because there is a 7,000 foot mountain directly in front of us.”

    Why do you think no one trusts the media?
    Having experienced both sides, I can understand why the media gets pummelled. The internet, especially, is such an unfiltered medium that anyone can say anything about anyone, including website columnists, and nothing ever has to be corrected. Part of the thesis of my book is how the voracious media beast, always hungry to be fed, completely bends the rules of journaIism. For example, I have written very long, exhaustively researched articles about Michael Jackson and three of them are in the book. To me, the issue of child molestation is extremely serious, and I believe that Michael Jackson is the apotheosis of celebrity corruption. Yet, despite all the evidence I mount, I still get attacked or dismissed and not just by rabid fans of his. This morning on “The Today Show,” a reporter, who knows better, said that MJ’s drug use Vanity Fair wrote about is “of course unconfirmed.” There is a documented trail of drug use — he has publicly checked into detox previously — just for starters. But to me it goes with the territory.
         On the other hand, there is so much fawning, trivial reporting in celebrity journalism and so much power on the side of the celebrity in the interview situation today, that they tend to view anything less than a puff as an offense. My point is that we are so drenched in celebrity and fame in our culture that it demands to be examined much more carefully.

    What type of stories are you doing now?
    So much of my reporting now is investigative, but my stories about the domestic murders at Fort Bragg by Afghan vets, the story of the pedophile priest, Paul Shanley, and the drugs and terrorism piece did not fit into the book. However, my stories about people like Denise and Marc Rich and his presidential pardon from Bill Clinton and, the profile of Arianna Huffington, both of which are in the book, are essentially political reporting. So in recent years I have been able to tackle tough, thorny subjects which take a tremendous amount of research. I remember reading about nine books on Northern Ireland just to prep for the Gerry Adams profile.

    Don’t you at times just want to leave all of these people behind and go off to a convent?
    I’m too curious to lead a cloistered life. But in the last third of my life or so I hope to do something with international themes — perhaps about women or a woman or do a great biography of someone.

    You have been involved with Returned Peace Corps Volunteer projects over the last twenty years. What are your thoughts on the NPCA?
    I always thought the idea of organizing returned Volunteers to help immigrants in their own U.S. communities was a great idea. We speak the languages and know the cultures. The Hispanic community, especially, needs help in the education system, and at least one model to do that with RPCVs has been created.
         I have raised a lot of money for the NPCA, but every time I get involved with them I end up tearing my hair out.