Mandy Stadtmiller and I had been e-mailing for weeks, looking for a time to meet that would fit both of our schedules. (As it turns out, I’m an advance planner, and she seems to tend toward spontaneity.) Then, she e-mailed me out of the blue: “Want to go with me to New Jersey on a Thursday afternoon to interview a porn star?” It was the weirdest offer I’d gotten from a potential interview subject, so of course I rearranged my schedule and said yes.
It’s not a surprise that it’s hard to catch Mandy sitting still. She’s the deputy editor at xoJane, she runs the podcast Newswhore, and she’s written for a lot of places, including the New York Post. Most people who read her work come away with an opinion on it. As Tyler Coates wrote on Flavorwire earlier this year: “There are those who love her — her personable and confessional voice, like many of her memoir-writing predecessors, is successful because it’s relatable. And there are those who hate her and her ilk, those who pump up the pageviews solely by hate-reading the content on sites like xoJane and arguing with writers and fans in the comment sections.”
What is it about Mandy Stadtmiller that’s so polarizing?
There always seems to be something gendered in criticism of “over-sharing.” Maybe part of it is indignation that women dare to write about themselves on the Internet. Mandy writes about everything from how to pitch, to insecurity, to bedwetting. But even when she’s writing about very personal topics, there’s a surgical precision to her work.
When we arrived at Seka’s hotel for her Newswhore interview, she shook our hands firmly and introduced us to Michael, her “road husband.” (Mandy later asked, “What does he do?” Seka’s response: “Whatever I need him to.”) Michael offered us wine. Mandy politely declined, and I accepted, after a moment of hesitation. Dear Prudence doesn’t cover the etiquette of hanging out in a porn star’s hotel room with a sober alcoholic.
Then, on the drive back to Manhattan, it was my turn to ask questions. The following is an edited version of that conversation.
The Rumpus: I just got to watch you interview Seka, so I’ve gotten to see you on the other side, as the interviewer. As I was listening, it occurred to me that it would be interesting to ask you some of your own questions that you asked Seka.
Mandy Stadtmiller: Sure.
Rumpus: You asked Seka what she liked and what she didn’t like people to say when they approached her. How often do you get recognized, and what would you like people to say or not say?
Stadtmiller: I like it when people say something specific and sincere and thoughtful and kind. When we have a connection, that’s the best. I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad experience. Actually, that’s not true; one time someone recognized me after I had written that Aaron Sorkin thing—which was my very first thing I wrote for xoJane—and her friend had dated him, and she thought I was an exploitive shithead and was just very cold to me. Later on, her friend told me what the deal was and what was actually happening, and that was very bizarre.
Rumpus: What about random weirdos, like the kind you’ve mentioned that send you e-mails?
Stadtmiller: I don’t think I’ve ever had any creepy things related to recognizing my writing or podcasts or anything—those have been mostly positive.
Rumpus: One of the things about xoJane that I find interesting is the whole rule about having your photo with all your posts, so the writers are then immediately recognizable. (For instance, I ran into Emily McCombs on a bus in Brooklyn about a year ago.) Thinking about xoJane rules and different guidelines: you mentioned recently that on xoJane, you’re not supposed to use sarcasm or snide remarks.
Stadtmiller: I think, in general, it’s trying to not be too similar to the lady blogosphere where it’s like, “Look at the way this reality star looks in this picture! Why doesn’t she just kill herself?” Or whatever the really brutal tone that can exist sometimes amongst the blog world, where there’s not any real earnestness or positivity. So I understand the reasoning behind that ethos.
Rumpus: You’ve also said you find it frustrating sometimes, right?
Stadtmiller: Well, yeah. If I’m writing about my life, I’m already thinking of anyone in my life who might be reading it, and I’m keeping that as a kind of censorship voice in my head. And then, commenters—I’m keeping that in my head, too. I prefer to not be feeling like I’m having to be fake about things that are the most dear to me in terms of writing, which is something related to my own, personal writing. I mean, I’ve done tons and tons of fake writing. When I was at The New York Post, one of the last editors that I worked with definitely wanted there to be more of a classical women’s magazine tone to things. So a lot of times, a joke that might be really specific and funny—like [one] David Sedaris or Stephen Colbert might make, where the joke is in the specificity and the irony of something, and also not underestimating people’s intelligence—[the editor] wanted it to be much more…I would call it a “zombified” tone. I just don’t like to do that if I’m writing about my own life.
Rumpus: You mentioned getting negative comments. Do you feel like you’ve censored yourself in response, or are there parts of yourself you don’t want to share because of backlash?
Stadtmiller: Yeah. I think that sometimes I just don’t really want to deal with it. I would rather not write if I’m depressed, or am going through a breakup, or I’ve had some disappointment, or I’m having a family issue. You don’t want to just put out an open wound. Sometimes that just isn’t even really good writing. Good writing should be good writing and storytelling and not just therapy or someone’s personal journal.
Rumpus: You’ve written about so many personal topics and you do talk a lot about your personal life, so it surprises me a little bit to hear you say that you feel like you don’t write about breakups and things like that. It seems to me, as an outside observer, that you are pretty open, so I’m curious: what are your limits?
Stadtmiller: People don’t actually, a lot of times, know the game behind the game. If people think that they do, it’s a little bit of a naïve assessment of how the industry works. I can be the most cutting, angry bitch if I wanted to be, and I wouldn’t have any relationships if I was 100% honest, because people would be like, “Ugh, that fucking bitch.” You know what I mean? So, of course, things are always going through a filter of whatever the strategy is.
I’m fascinated by relationships. I think it’s one of the more important skills to have. Sometimes people critique someone like David Carr and say, “Oh, he’s being soft on this one interview and it’s kind of starfuck-y of him.” People who have never had access don’t understand the delicacy that it takes. If someone can guarantee that they can get a puff piece interview versus someone who will ask some tough questions, then they can be very selective on who they go with. It’s always a delicate dance of how you build relationships with people who are very wanted, like celebrities.
Rumpus: You’ve mentioned before this whole idea of access, and I’m thinking of, I think it was your first podcast episode—
Stadtmiller: Colin Quinn.
Rumpus: —where you mentioned the book The Journalist and the Murderer, by Janet Malcolm, and you talked about that, which I find very fascinating.
Stadtmiller: Have you read that book? It’s super-good.
Rumpus: I haven’t, but I’ve put it on my reading list after hearing you talk about it.
Stadtmiller: It’s a weekend read, and she writes very conversationally. It’s really good if you’re interested in writing. It’s the one really good book that really stayed with me from journalism school.
Rumpus: Basically, the journalist got access by presenting a picture that wasn’t true, right?
Stadtmiller: Yeah, yeah. Just being like, “We’re gonna get you off. You’re so falsely convicted. I’m here on your side.” And then [the journalist] comes out with the book, Fatal Vision, and it was the exact opposite. Because the jury sided with the murderer who sued the journalist. It’s really fantastic, because it starts off saying that anyone who isn’t too full of themselves recognizes that journalism is a con game. I like writing that makes me feel like I’m getting all the secrets that I’m not supposed to be getting, and that’s how that book reads. We were like, Ooh, she’s not supposed to be saying that.
Rumpus: That’s how I feel about some of your business posts, too.
Stadtmiller: Some of the ones that I feel good about, that’s definitely what I try to do with those, because I feel like, Why didn’t anyone tell me this?
Rumpus: Specifically, a lot of your advice about pitching is very no-bullshit, get-to-the-point. Like David Pogue’s Tumblr piece about the publicist who asked him for feedback, and he re-wrote her whole pitch because he said he didn’t even know what she was trying to pitch.
Stadtmiller: A lot of times, people in PR, or people in media—I know I’ve been guilty of this, everyone is—everyone is so overworked and exhausted. The mistake that people make is that it can be very hard to look squarely at something and ask yourself, Is there really a good story here? And if you look at it and you realize there isn’t, that’s devastating, because you think, Fuck, I have to promote this. So you almost don’t want to look too closely at it—you talk all around what the product is, and you say “we could go any number of angles,” “you could do this,” “what do you think,” and blah, blah, blah. You’re basically forcing the journalist to do the work, and the journalist is just trying to have clean underwear for work the next day because their schedule is so insane.
I made fun of a press release recently, but it was so brilliant. Badoo conducted a study of who gets the most responses from online dating, and it was women whose names had a J in them—like Jenny, etc. So that’s completely hilarious, the idea that Jenny’s are more fuckable than Mandy’s or more inherently something…
Rumpus: I wish they would’ve factored in date of birth and location.
Stadtmiller: My editor at the Post, the guy who hired me, he wouldn’t just call it a good story. He’d call it “a good water cooler story.”
Rumpus: Which editor?
Stadtmiller: Stephen Lynch. He hired me at the New York Post and he was my editor at The Daily Northwestern. He’s now, I think, the Sunday editor of the New York Post. He won first place in the Hearst Journalism Competition. He’s just a really, really talented guy.
Rumpus: You had something at the Hearst Journalism Competition, too, right?
Stadtmiller: Yeah, I placed twice in that, but to win first place in the actual competition, you are pitted against all of the other journalists around the country. I think you’re given a profile subject and a certain amount of time and then everyone turns in their writing. I got an honorable mention in profile writing, and then I think I got…
Rumpus: What, you can’t even remember them all any more?
Stadtmiller: No, not at all. I haven’t had an award since college. I just don’t submit to them anymore. It’s a different world—who gives a shit about awards anymore? Now it’s all about Twitter followers and Klout Score. Honestly, no one gets hired because of résumés anymore. They get hired because of a Google search. They get hired because of a Twitter feed. Do you know what I’m saying?
Rumpus: I do know what you’re saying. Do you use Klout?
Stadtmiller: Yeah. The reason I was interested in it was when I read that it was this kind of empirical measurement, like a Q Rating that shows how popular an actor or actress is in Hollywood. I’ve always been a fan of hard measurements of soft sciences, so it’s fun. It’s fun, especially if you’re kind of a workaholic and don’t have a boyfriend and that’s just a big part of your life to see: oh, my Bing results went up. And: my level of engagement on Twitter went up.
Rumpus: It’s interesting that Klout looks mostly at engagement. With Twitter followers, you can even buy them if you want, but what’s actually gained from that?
Stadtmiller: I looked at it the other day to see what the breakdown was in terms of what my Klout Score measured and it was like 50% Twitter, 10% Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook…
Rumpus: It seems like there are a lot of people who are secretly concerned with their Twitter and Instagram and how they’re doing, but they don’t want to admit it. I think that’s part of why your whole personal branding series was so popular.
Stadtmiller: Yeah. I need to go back to that.
Rumpus: People realize, Wow, there are other people interested in business and meeting people, and how can I use these tools to do things that I’m interested in?
Stadtmiller: The core elements of that still kill me—how people just don’t get it.
Rumpus: What would you say is the biggest thing that people usually screw up?
Stadtmiller: It’s not even screwing up. I mean, you can do whatever the fuck you want. The main problem is just that people think that other people care about them way more than they do. Anything that you do, that requires anyone to do an ounce of work that’s about you, is a mistake. Because unless you are Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, or David Letterman, or just a really, really giant celebrity, or you’re maybe at the center of a media storm where everyone is trying to get in touch with you, people don’t want to have to do any work to remember who you are, what you’re selling, or what your website is. So if you meet someone at a party and you captivate the shit out of them, and you’re like, “Yeah, you should check out my website, it’s BrandyJMonahan.net,” I’m not going to remember that. Register the Twitter, the Tumblr, register the handle for all the same thing across them. I met this woman whose daughter was really good at fashion and what we came up with was a play on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, but it was like, Child Eye/Adult Style. That sounds terrible, but it was what it was—a clever play on that. Apparently it wasn’t that good if I can’t remember it, but the examples that I always point to again and again are: Stuff White People Like, Humble Brag, The Naughty Mommy Diaries…
Rumpus: Didn’t you also coin the term “chuckle fucker”?
Stadtmiller: Oh, pfft. I didn’t fuckin’ coin that term, no way.
Rumpus: I’m trying to remember. Did you hear the term and use it in a pitch?
Stadtmiller: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That was in a New York Post story. No, that’s a term that comics use for comedy groupies, and that’s exactly what journalists do. They just steal from the zeitgeist.
Say I get pitched on a comic. Well, there’s a million-and-nine-hundred-thousand comics, and again, unless you’re like Jerry Seinfeld or Louis C.K., if you are pitching a comic, and you’re saying, “Hey, my client has all these really interesting things going on. He’s got this article here, he’s got this book, he’s got this radio show that he’s doing, and he’s really getting a lot of heat,” that doesn’t tell me anything. You’re basically saying, “Hey, do a profile on my client.” Well, that’s great—and I want a million dollars. We all have our desires. You haven’t shown me anything about why I would want to do a story on this particular comic. You always need some sort of a news peg.
Rumpus: You also used to work in PR, didn’t you?
Stadtmiller: I say I worked in PR, but it’s more complicated than that. When I left newspapers, I left The Des Moines Register, and I married my ex-husband in Chicago. I took a job working for Northwestern Medical School; my title was Assistant Director of Publications and Public Relations. I interviewed a lot of doctors and wrote their stories for the alumni magazine.
Rumpus: So it was really more of a journalism job.
Stadtmiller: It was PR in the sense of: they’re all seeing it, they’re all approving it. You’re working together, hand-in-hand, to put it together.
Rumpus: Right, you’re not going to say something negative about them.
Stadtmiller: There’s a joke: if you can’t get good press in your alumni magazine, that’s rough. Which is funny because I think Kyle Smith—the film critic for the Post—I think he had the Yale Alumni Magazine describe how he looked like crap in his sweatpants that he wore. It was very funny that he actually did get bad press in his alumni magazine.
Rumpus: You always see that in the big celebrity profiles: what they’re wearing, and how the makeup they’re wearing is representative of how down-to-earth they are or whatever. I remember you wrote about that too, the idea that made the whole Observer piece happen, of how you can spin the exact same quote and make it different for a different person. You’ve said you can’t bullshit a bullshitter, because you actually know the tricks and you’re able to break them down, and that’s really interesting.
Stadtmiller: I’m certainly not holier-than-thou. The podcast interview I just did with Warren Leight, the executive producer of Law & Order: SVU—I was talking to him because he had written for The Village Voice, and I had interned there and had gotten to write a couple of stories. So I was talking about the big story I had there. The headline was, “How Do You Teach Authenticity?” and it was all about the casting of the off-Broadway, traveling-around-the-country production of Rent, after Rent was a big smash. And I did exactly what that Observer chick did to me: all of the quotes were heavy with the weight of whatever my premise was. The casting director tells you that this one guy was so great and how he almost looked homeless; if you use a quote like that, and you’re positioning it just so, that’s actually what Jane [Pratt] doesn’t want. She doesn’t like all that cheap-shot kind of writing.
Rumpus: One other thing I’ve noticed is that there are a lot of distinct voices on xoJane, compared to sites that seem like they’re aiming to have a consistent editorial voice.
Stadtmiller: Yeah. Which I love. That’s a great way to make a living, but you’re working all the time. For me, writing with humor and writing with authenticity are my two favorite things, and capturing the human condition, and if that’s all getting edited out and you’re getting chastised for having a voice, that’s fucking purgatory. That’s nasty. I’d rather be a barista.
Rumpus: It’s also interesting to see how xoJane writers will openly disagree with each other.
Stadtmiller: I think it’s kind of like what Kerry [Seka’s co-writer for Inside Seka: Platinum Princess of Porn] was saying earlier about how there are no secrets anymore in the age that we live in, so any time that you try and have a kind of fake, gilded, PR image, people’s brains just shut down. The world, as a whole, has seen too much. I think that there’s just the savviness to know that. Why would we insult our readers by acting as if we’re all the same person and in agreement? Though I don’t know if I’ve ever really gotten into it with anyone.
Rumpus: Have you wanted to?
Stadtmiller: Like I said before, I think I could probably do that with everybody. I think that’s just the way my brain works. I try to not be that way. I try not to be reactive.
Rumpus: You just try not to engage? That’s how I feel about Facebook arguments.
Stadtmiller: Exactly. One of my favorite sayings is, “Don’t major in the minor.” Or like the Anaïs Nin quote: “The world will shrink or expand according to your own vision.” Meaning—and I totally bastardized her quote—but meaning that your world can be as big or as small as you want it to be. And I never knew that until I had a job, and I moved to New York. When I was at my job in Chicago, I would be like, What the fuck, they didn’t get back to me! Oh my god, they’re so rude. And now, I have over 4,000 unopened messages in my inbox. I can only imagine what someone like Jane Pratt, or Anna Wintour, or someone who’s at the highest level you can get, like someone who’s a sitcom star of something…
Rumpus: They probably have someone else read all their e-mails first, then tell them which ones to read or look at.
I wrote down a few other things to ask you. At one point, you were saying to Seka that people feel like they know her. Do you feel like you get the same kind of responses?
Stadtmiller: Sometimes. The only time that I mind it is if it’s someone who is kind of a passive-aggressive sadist, and they’re just looking to Mean Girls mind-fuck me. If I write something critical of myself and they’re like, “Well, I’m glad you’re finally realizing you’re an awful person, and you’re trying to change that. That’s really great. However…” And I’m just [groaning].
Rumpus: You’ve mentioned using Louise Hay affirmations as a coping mechanism, too.
Stadtmiller: I like a lot of different self-help things. I read [Louise Hay] in 2009, before I got sober, but I remember it being a really helpful book to me. I think it just helped me be easier on myself, and I’ve bought that book for a lot of people—any time I can kind of see someone verbalizing what is clearly warring shit that’s happening in their head.
Rumpus: You think that’s something that helped you in getting sober?
Stadtmiller: Sure. I think everything probably did. I think mostly just being really sad helped me. Not wanting to be so sad, and then talking to other people who had done it, and realizing that they weren’t social lepers, so I didn’t have to be an un-fun social leper if I stopped drinking.
Rumpus: And, it sounds like realizing you were done with it.
Stadtmiller: Well, I think it’s more like deciding you’re done with it, because who’s to say you’re done with anything? You have to make a conscious choice. At least for me, god knows I haven’t worked all the steps. And I don’t go to meetings, and I don’t have a sponsor, so I’m like the shittiest example of a “good” AA person there is.
Rumpus: Except for the “being sober” part.
Stadtmiller: For me, a big thing is just to not try and do anything too perfectionistic. Including sobriety.
Rumpus: That’s kind of the AA thing, right? One day at a time?
Stadtmiller: It’s so funny—and not to sound arrogant—but it’s a lot harder for me to not smoke a cigarette than it is for me to not drink.
Rumpus: Why do you think that’s arrogant?
Stadtmiller: Because you’re not supposed to be like, “It’s not hard for me.” Because it could be next week I’ll get found in the gutter with a bottle of whiskey. You’re just supposed to keep the humility that it’s great to be sober today, and hopefully I will be tomorrow, too. It needs to be an optimistic attitude about it, because I think you can make yourself go crazy.
If I see how something is, that’s how to convince me. I’m a very show-me kind of person. For me it was just, in the first three months of stopping drinking, my life on a stratospheric upswing that I had never seen before. So to me, that’s how I’ve experienced it, for the most part. Maybe that’s a very superficial way to look at it.
Who knows…maybe for the first three months, everything was super, super hard. The biggest thing was that I always thought some of the things that I felt the most shame and blame about on a regular basis. I just never thought I could be fully okay with myself, and then to realize that I could be completely okay with myself—that’s a really neat thing, because you’re the same. If you’re not drinking or doing drugs or anything, you’re the same person through and through. So you don’t have to be like, Oh my god, what did I say or what did I do? Or if you look back at a time where you did act like a jerk, you can see, Oh, well, sounds like I was fucked-up and not making good choices. You just develop a lot more tools for being okay with yourself.
Rumpus: I know you’re also interested in spirituality, and now I’m thinking of Mary Karr and her addiction and spirituality writing. Have you read Mary Karr’s memoir, Lit?
Stadtmiller: No, is it good?
Rumpus: It is good. Some of the things you’re saying are reminding me of the things she says. She’s Catholic, and she wrote this essay about her Catholicism for Poetry. She wrote that publishing this essay seemed like the most perverted thing that one could possibly do in a certain sense, and that it was something that made her different than a lot of the community of writers that she was a part of. Yet she writes that she realized, “You know, I’m doing this thing and it seems to be working, so I’m going to keep doing it and see what happens.”
Stadtmiller: My ex-husband was an atheist or an agnostic, and I think I just kind of experimented with that because I was so bleak and hopeless and shit—I would experiment with praying or asking for help of whatever. It seemed to help. So that’s kind of how I’ve always regarded that. When you see evidence of your life getting better when you’re open to those things, then that’s a convincing factor.
Abigail Welhouse wishes to thank Karly Little for her work transcribing this interview.