Interview by Tizzy Brown
Anne Helen Petersen is a lot of things – a features writer at BuzzFeed, a freshly minted Montana transplant, and the author of two books chief among them. At her core, though, she loves celebrity gossip just as much as the rest of us. That love – which long ago took a turn for the academic – led her to pen our September #GNIReads Book Club book called Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman. After discussing it in cities from New York to DC, Toronto, Chicago, and more, we were so happy to also get a chance to catch up with Anne Helen herself.
Life & Career
You write a lot about the intersection of pop culture and cultural politics. How did you become such an expert in this area?
I spent a lot of my childhood in rural Idaho obsessively reading Entertainment Weekly! Or at least that should’ve been the first clue that this was something I was passionate about. I wasn’t a huge movie junkie, but I loved knowing things about the business, and that eventually led to a PhD in media studies, with a focus on the history of celebrity and how it’s made, maintained, and received. My dissertation was on the history of celebrity gossip, which starts with the old school fan magazines in 1910 and goes all the way up to TMZ.
One of the things that I love so much about your book is how rich each essay and how well each engenders lively discussion. Do you have people in your life with whom you’re able to talk through these topics?
I mention these ladies a bit in the book, but my best friends from college were the ones with whom I’d first discuss celebrities, and they’re still my go-to when it comes to working through how I feel about a particular piece of gossip. Almost a decade ago, I started a Facebook group named for my blog Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style that’s now at nearly 40,000 members, but somehow remains a really civil and lovely and fruitful place to work through some of my ideas. I can’t recommend it highly enough; many women call it their favorite place on the internet.
Were some essays more challenging to write than others?
The Caitlyn Jenner essay was challenging, in part because Jenner is often so unlikeable and the opposite of unruly, and also because I wanted to defer, as much as possible, to trans scholars and writers and the ways they were thinking through Jenner’s place in celebrity culture and the world at large. Oh, and the Jennifer Weiner chapter [was difficult], because it’s hard to be precise with the distinctions between mass cult and mid cult! And then there was the intro, which I had to rewrite after Trump won (sad trombone sound).
How did the outcome of the election change this book? Has it changed your other writing?
See above! I seriously had a place in the Clinton chapter where I had written, “And Clinton won the election by INSERT NUMBER HERE percent of the vote.” I do think that Trump’s win has forced us to have a more frank conversation about the backlash burgeoning in the lead-up to the election — and if Clinton were elected, we might not be having those conversations, even as the underlying issues persisted.
What does self-care mean to you right now? What are some of your self-care routines and rituals?
GET OUTDOORS. These were my watchwords even when I lived in New York. Now that I live in Montana, I try to take time every day to completely get away from all screens and connectivity, usually to walk or hike or run with my dog and just be with my thoughts.
I read that you gave yourself just one week per chapter when writing this book. When you have such tight deadlines and you’re so busy, how to do you find time for self-care?
Academia trained me to be a workaholic, so that pace wasn’t unfamiliar. It was very similar to what I did for my first book, or what I try to do when I’m writing long-form pieces. For me, the only way to stay sane while writing so intensely — or doing a lot of traveling, whether for my job or the book — is to exercise. It’s not whether or not I’m going to exercise, it’s when, and I just really prioritize it. It makes me feel balanced and refreshed and all of those other things that people say about the positive benefits of exercise, but it’s also the result of years of routine.
What is your favorite book you’ve read recently?
What is your most recent splurge?
Um, I bought a car? Moving to Montana required it, but it’s the first new car I’ve ever owned!
What is the first thing you do when you’re done with work? Take my dog somewhere where she doesn’t have to be on a leash.
Where is your favorite spot to read and write? Read: On the beach. Write: on my couch, wrapped up in a blanket, with a cup of coffee and my dog at my feet.
What’s your guilty pleasure? Broccoli and Cheese Lean Pockets, NO QUESTION. Or Starburst Jellybeans.