Seven years ago this week, my journalism career took a momentous turn.
I had dinner with Nikki Finke in Santa Monica, Calif.
At the time, I didn't understand how significant this was going to be for my reputation. Actually, the back story of the interview is probably more interesting than our actual conversation from that evening.
You see, I was based in New York, so Nikki’s breathless coverage of the Hollywood dealmaking scene was not nothing special to the self-contained people who lived and worked in the shadow of Wall Street.
Further, I was a media columnist for a website that focused on stock market, financial and industry news. Nikki’s tales of show-business intrigue seemed more like Inside Baseball to us than the stuff of legends.
That’s what Nikki had become: a legend in her own time. She was one of those people who somehow had constructed a bigger-than-life aura for herself in Los Angeles, a glorified entertainment company town.
Now that she is back in the news, I thought this was a good time to share with you snapshots of my dinner with Nikki.
Many people were actually afraid of her and spoke the name in undignified hushed tones. They fretted that Nikki could hurt their careers by writing something undesirable or perhaps turn her secret army of sources against them.
By mid-June 2006, when I came calling on her, Nikki was the best-known Hollywood business writer. She produced the most scoops, the most controversy and provocation at every turn. Everyone in LA, it seemed, had a special Nikki story.
She was important. This was kind of journalist I wanted to profile. I’d met heavy hitters in New York and Washington, people who dominated the media discussion in their cities – people you wanted to know more about, if you happened to care at all about them.
One snag in my plan: Nikki didn’t do interviews. Period.
That’s what she told me when I called her to “take a meeting” (when in Rome…) with me. I was going to be in LA for a few days on a personal matter but I fibbed and told her I was coming out just to see her. That was true – my editor agreed to pay for me to go if I could get an interview with Nikki Finke. He was excited by the prospect.
When I called, Nikki demurred. She said she didn’t want to be profiled and that was that. When she stayed on the phone to chat, though, I had a feeling that I could sway her. Finally, after I injected some shameless flattery into our conversation she suddenly reversed her course.
All right -- ALL RIGHT! she said. ”I’ll do it.”
It was as if Maria Callas had given her approval.
I was thrilled – and I had a sneaking suspicion that she was happy she said yes.
Again, I had no idea that this would turn out to be such a coup. When I mentioned the upcoming interview to a few Hollywood journalist/friends, their jaws all but dropped. I felt smart for pursuing it and lucky that she said yes.
It appeared that more people wanted to know HOW I got her to talk with me than what she actually said during our interview.
The day before I was set to leave NYC, though, she got the heebie-jeebies. She begged out of the meeting, saying she just didn’t feel right about it. I wanted to shout and break something in my apartment, but I kept my cool and talked her down. After some pleading (by me) the interview was back on. Here are snapshots of what I can recall.
Nikki picked me up, right on time, at my little hotel in Santa Monica and drove us to dinner at a small restaurant whose name I sadly can’t recall.
I know you want red meat details – what did she look like? What was she wearing? What kind of a car did she drive? I don’t want to misrepresent her, or me, and take a stab at stuff I can’t distinctly remember. So, you’ll have to skip the red meat this time.
We settled into a table that gave us some privacy. Nikki, an icon on the page, was not well known enough in person to elicit gasps from onlookers or even the spectacle of people craning their necks to get a good look at her.
I had brought with me one of those handy, long, legal yellow pads. I hadn’t written anything on it so I had a lot of space. It was a very pleasant conversation. She was witty, charming and free with info about everyone in the town.
By the time Nikki and I finished talking hours later – as the waiters were finishing the task of stacking chairs on tables at closing time – she was still going strong. I had filled up most, if not all, of the notebook, and I was fairly certain I had acquired a case of RSI by then.
But I was ecstatic. Nikki had been chatty, to say the least, dishing dirt on the whole Hollywood scene and filling in the blanks in her life with tremendous panache.
I went back to NYC and wrote this piece about her http://www.marketwatch.com/story/nikki-finke-keeps-hollywood-honest
I thought it turned out well. While I was asleep, I got a phone message from Nikki. The piece had been published at 12:01 a.m. and apparently she was waiting for it to appear online. She said initially that the profile was OK – I guess (again, this was a long time ago so I’m not quoting what I don’t absolutely recall).
Then she called back in the wee hours, NY time, to say she had had a change of heart and dressed me down -- like I was some flunky Hollywood studio head, no doubt. She was very angry, and I was surprised by the radical shift in her tone.
I called her back and we talked. Everything was OK.
Obviously, I’m leaving out a lot of details, out of respect to her – and there are more colorful treatments of Nikki available online for your perusal.
Now, I feel like I’ve let you down, dear readers. Tell you what. Next time you see me, I’ll try to give you the good stuff.
MEDIA MATRIX QUESTION OF THE DAY: What's your opinion of Nikki Finke?