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Stripping the Town of Tinsel

Posted By Kelly Hartog On March 30, 2007 @ 5:39 pm In Business,Movies,Movies & TV,Writers | 1 Comment

Hilary de Vries

The dot com slump, a shift in journalistic standards in the celebrity-driven Hollywood mill, and an overwhelming desire to be honest in her reporting, were the catalysts that propelled award winning Hollywood journalist Hilary de Vries to write her debut novel, “So 5 Minutes Ago” (Random House) which hit bookstands in February.
The novel, a first-person narrative about Alex Davidson, a single, female, 30-something publicist on the Hollywood media-go-round is a sharp, satirical, and hilarious look at life in Tinseltown from deep inside the fish bowl.
With 10 years experience interviewing Hollywood celebs for publications such as “Rolling Stone”, “W”, “The New York Times” and “The L.A. Times”, de Vries bares all her trade secrets – ­the good, the bad, and the ugly – in this novel. Some of the barbs are direct hits at top celebs in the industry, including the revelation that all Hollywood celebrities are shorter than you think… “except Nicole Kidman, who takes steroids or something so her height matches her self-regard.” Some are merely jibes at the industry in general, but they hit their target with venomous precision; such as “Smoking in Hollywood is like masturbation. Everyone might do it, but you would never let anyone see you do it.”
But the real kicker in this novel is that while de Vries makes a strong point about the ridiculousness of the public’s insatiable appetite for gossip, she feeds that appetite by making her major players in the novel thinly-veiled real life celebrities. There’s Alex’s latest client – Troy Madden – a young, sexy, actor who was riding a career high until he hit the skids and found himself in rehab, as well as in trouble with the law after being caught in a hotel room with a bong. He’s Alex’s first A-list client attempting to make a comeback and for whom she “has to convince that he won’t end up like Luke Perry.” Many people think the character is based on Robert Downey Junior but de Vries insists it’s not.
“It’s [based on] another young actor and I talked with the legal department prior to publishing the novel because we had to disguise his character in the book, because of the drug stuff. Legally, we couldn’t imply that he was incarcerated.”
Other characters include The Phoenix, a 50-something female rock star with a colorful wardrobe, and an Oscar winning actress with her own jewelry line on QVC who has survived by constantly reinventing herself. When Alex meets The Phoenix at her home in a secluded mansion in Malibu, The Phoenix informs her: “They used to call me The Cat when I played Vegas because I’ve done more than most people have in nine lifetimes. I don’t go into anything with a lot of confidence but I do have my fuck-it-all attitude.”
The character, de Vries says is inspired by Cher. Not surprising then, that Cher was one of the first celebrities the journalist interviewed when she first came out to Hollywood. Indeed, many of the characters in the novel are inspired by the slew of celebrity interviews de Vries has conducted over the years.
There’s Carla Selena, the new Latin queen who is a “one-woman industry ready to launch her franchises – recording an album, designing a line of sportswear, opening her restaurant. And like Cher and Madonna, she’s about to launch her brand name – “C.Se.” A client at Alex’s PR company, C. Se. is threatening to walk if the billing on her new movie isn’t changed from Carla Selena to C. Se. Or as one interoffice memo puts it: “We can’t help it if she’s decided to get a diva transplant.”
And again, while C. Se. is definitely fictional, she does bear a remarkable resemblance to J. Lo.
Also thrown into the mix are Scooby and Scrappy. Scooby was a rising young star before she came out of the closet. “Wit, intelligence, and sheer chutzpah were her calling cards. Scooby was the new Jodie Foster, only funny. Whoopi Goldberg, only white.” But then she came out – about her sexual orientation and her love for Scrappy – “another Hollywood starlet, who had a reputation for hitching on to older heretofore male stars.”
The couple in question could easily be mistaken for Ellen de Generes and Anne Heche. And de Vries says she did get a call from Ellen’s publicist prior to the release of the book, asking, “Is this a train wreck I need to stand in front of?”
However, aside from that comment, de Vries says she has received no feedback to date from the celebrities whom she skewers. “And that really pisses me off,” she says, with her tongue firmly in her cheek. “Because, honestly, I don’t really care,” she laughs. “Because the novel is not about them personally, it’s a metaphor for the way the media has been corrupted. Ultimately everyone’s corruptible. And that just breeds cynicism – among readers and writers. I think that’s why there’s a lust for gossip. It’s the psychological antidote to gagging on the “Oh, they’re so beautiful” comments.
For de Vries, it’s about magazines like InStyle (whom she has written for) saying things like ‘Here’s the lip gloss or the blouse that Gwyneth [Paltrow] is wearing. She’s just like you but with better stylists.’
“It’s ridiculous,” snorts de Vries. “These people are being held up as “fabulous.” I mean I think Gwyneth is a great actress, but should she really be a role model?”
On the other hand, she’s quite supportive of celebrities like Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon who use every available opportunity to make some form of political statement. Unlike many who say, “these people are celebrities, their opinions shouldn’t matter,” de Vries embraces them.
“I think the more people who think like real citizens rather than coat hangers, the better. That coat hanger stuff makes me want to shoot myself. It just makes us devalue ourselves. I think there’s something wrong when people want to be famous because they see it as adding value to your life, like if you’re not famous it doesn’t count. I mean, just look at all the people lining up to be on American Idol.”
So where does all the cynicism come from?
From watching the industry change over the years, says de Vries.
“I’d been working in Los Angeles for about eight years. And over the years I noticed how the relationship of celebrities to the media changed. Back then I don’t think InStyle even existed and Entertainment Weekly was just starting up. I was working for the L.A. Times and the NY Times. It was fun and exciting and it wasn’t this fawning, sycophantic thing.”
The change, says de Vries, came about when everything eventually came down to celebrities being on the cover of magazines. “Because today you can’t even sell a mascara without a famous person on the cover of the magazine. If a car company wants to sell their car then they just hire Jennifer Love Hewitt to appear on the page. So now there is this financially co-dependent relationship.”
For de Vries, whose career began as an Arts reviewer in Boston, the ongoing celebrity interviews became “just an extension of publicity and I was basically lying. I wasn’t allowed to say anything honest anymore.”
But “So 5 Minutes Ago” allows her to be honest – brutally so. If she has it her way, de Vries won’t ever do a celebrity interview ever again. With a two book deal with Random House, she’s already part way through the sequel to “So 5 Minutes Ago” entitled “The Gift Bag Matters” in which Alex Davidson is now the head of an event planning division, which de Vries says, is the latest thing. “First it was publicists, then personal trainers, then style coordinators, and now it’s event planners.”
She’s also currently shopping the TV rights to “So 5 Minutes Ago” – possibly to HBO. “I think it could become the next ‘Sex in the City’” she says.
On a practical level, says de Vries, freelance journalism isn’t what it used to be. “Several years ago I was the first person to interview Meryl Streep in years, when she spoke out about there being no roles for actresses over 40. I made $7,000 selling that story to various places, but today that kind of money just doesn’t exist because of so many people today in the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.”
She adds that most of the freelance journalists she knows have given up the job. “It’s really brutal trying to earn a living in this town as a freelancer. A lot of these magazines don’t want to pay good money and magazines like InStyle are no longer interested in the journalist’s individual voice. They just want their “magazine style” so essentially they’re asking you to file a bunch of notes and then they’ll rewrite your work in their own “style.”
But, luckily for de Vries, with a masters degree in creative writing, and the inside scoop on Hollywood celebs, “So 5 Minutes Ago” has been published at an opportune time. Although it wasn’t always smooth sailing.
De Vries says the novel was two and a half years in the making before she had it published, partially because she changed agents and partially because in the aftermath of 9/11 “people wondered whether we’d ever care about Hollywood again or if we’d even ever laugh again.”
Which is why, she can’t take credit for the art-imitating-life scenario in which just a couple of weeks after “So 5 Minutes Ago” was published, Tom Cruise split from his publicist, Pat Kingsley.
Says de Vries, many people think that the Suzanne Davis in her novel (Alex’s 50-something boss), is in fact Pat Kingsley. “Well, they do both share a passion for wearing white suits and they both speak with a Southern accent.”
And de Vries is willing to provide her own personal insight into the Cruise-Kingsley split. “I think [Tom’s] nuts about Scientology, he’s getting deeper and deeper into it,” she says. His career’s in trouble and I think he’s in really big trouble because you’d have to be crazy not to want Pat as your publicist.”
You read it here first. Anything else you may want – but don’t necessarily need – to know can be found in “So 5 Minutes Ago,” currently basking in its 15 minutes of fame.

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