My first day on the job at the most powerful gossip page in the world, I tracked down a story about Farrah Fawcett falling, drunk, in public. At the time, I wondered: Who was I to out someone for succumbing to her vices? I could barely get out of bed.
When I was 33, a dream job landed in my lap. Unfortunately, it was the wrong job in the wrong lap. I answered my phone one October day and heard seven words that could inspire fear in the bravest of people: “This is Richard Johnson from the Post.”
Richard was among the most powerful men in media. He was the longtime editor of Page Six, the gossip column that set the bar high for the all the rest. A mention in the column could be the tipping point or downfall of a career.
Richard had gotten my name through a mutual acquaintance. I’m not sure he’d read anything I’d written before hiring me as a reporter. Until this point, I’d been widely published in narrowly read forums. This was a huge opportunity and well beyond my comfort zone.
I had recently started dating someone who would be my boyfriend for two and a half years. Of my own volition, I decided to taper off anti-depressants for the sake of this relationship. He didn’t ask me to, but I was embarrassed that I needed the pills to, I then thought, make me a decent person. I hadn’t told him about them; I decided on my own that it wouldn’t go over well and that, anyway, it was time to give them up. I mistook their efficacy for remission.
I started my gig in early October. Unlike every other job I’d held, there was no orientation, no instruction on how to do my work. I was thrown into the water and had no choice but to swim -- though in truth what I did was tread water for four months. What I lacked in celebrity contacts, I did my best to make up for with my willingness to take any story assigned. I studied the way my colleagues operated and knew that I was out of my league. They were fearless, would pick up the phone and call anyone -- anyone -- with confidence and certainty that they’d get their story.
While I was doing what I could to stay afloat, depression snuck up on me and grabbed me by the throat. Fellow travelers have written so eloquently about the condition; Winston Churchill referred to it as a visit from the black dog. I saw it as a heavy gray blanket falling from the sky with me as its target; soon enough it enveloped me, and I couldn’t get out from underneath it.
When you’re depressed, you feel that it’s written all over you. Everything hurts and the only escape is to sleep. This was my “Groundhog Day,” but instead of promise, I awoke to crushing feelings of despair, like being punched anew in the stomach every morning.
However, I had my glamour job to contend with, and everyone told me to seize the opportunity. I felt like a hypocrite for moralizing on others' failings. But this was my job, to follow up on intrusive leads and risk getting hung up on, ridiculed or cursed out.
Celebrities have myriad reactions to the gossip game. During my brief tenure, Donald Trump returned my calls, Ellen Barkin yelled at me, and I had a daily conversation with Vincent Gallo for two weeks -- I was the only reporter there who would still listen to him. I got snubbed by Robert DeNiro, interviewed porn star Mary Carey about her bid for governor of California, and did a favor for an elephant’s publicist.
We were invited to everything: fashion shows, film festivals, star-studded parties. Had I been 10 years younger, I’d have been out every night. Had I not been depressed, I’d have been out some nights. But it was hard enough to get myself out of bed; to see and be seen when not absolutely necessary was unfathomable.
The only modicum of comfort I got during my waking hours was food -- friends would stop by to walk my dog and drag me to dinner, where I’d apologize for the tears that spilled from my eyes. I wouldn’t have wanted to dine with me. So when I would venture out to events I was asked to attend, I felt out of shape among the 20-something publicists and their taut and toned clients. I was certain that everyone could see how entirely out of my element I was. I kept this up for four months.
In February 2004, I left the Post to work in the PR department of Cardozo Law School. A ghostwriting project had also come my way, and this was an easy excuse to leave. The day I announced my departure, my boss said, "I'm disappointed; I thought you were doing such a great job." I don’t recall how I responded.
Cardozo was the antithesis of Page Six: calm, intellectual and void of intimidation. That it was across the street from my apartment was a blessing; my world was easier to navigate and I could attempt to start breathing again. I went back to my doctor, and a few weeks into my gig, the meds he prescribed kicked in. At last, finally, I was back to abnormal.
Six years after I left Page Six, a reporter friend ran into my former boss and my name came up. My boss said, "Oh -- she's fabulous -- tell her I say hi." Fabulous? The one who wore the ill-fitting clothes, ate the wrong things, went to Jamaica and came home more pale? I was bewildered.
Things are much, much better today. Still, it’s hard to write about this time without the threat of Proustian memories of the relentless emptiness that pervaded those months. Depression will always loom over me, but I can sense it descending and I know what I need to do to keep from imploding.
To wonder what the job would have been like without it is pointless; we’re a sum of our experiences, the good and the bad, and so the better exercise is to create as much good as we can while we can. For this lesson, I am grateful.