To know Julia Allison is to look into the heart of modern media itself. That glittering, put-your-brand-on-everything-you-can-get-your-hands-on ethos—augured by that Time Person of the Year cover with the faux-reflective computer screen (It’s You! Get it?)—is a good paradigm for understanding Allison, but there’s more. A lot more.
A former editor-at-large at celebrity rag Star and relationships columnist at amNY and Time Out, Allison has since given her undivided attention to the internet; that it took eight-odd weeks after her appearance at Gelf’s Non-Motivational Speaker Series for Allison to rap with us is a testament to just how freaking busy the girl is. So we hope.
For Allison, 28, a day’s work involves things like microblogging and lifecasting, peppered with a bit of Twittering, Tumblr-ing, and other polysyllabic verbiage that will make your grandmother blush. If there is any doubt that the emergence of blogroll bon mots like “fameball” and “egoblogger” correlates with Allison’s emergence, let her 2008 Wired cover, subtitled “Julia Allison and the Secrets of Self-Promotion,” put the haters at ease. Gelf spoke with Allison about what drives her one-woman quest, designing your own cult of personality, and why she sees her blogging as modern art.
Gelf Magazine: First off, congratulations on being picked up by New York Nonstop. It seems like Nonstop fun. What’s the official arrangement there—are you filming original content for them, or are they rebroadcasting your TMI stuff?
Julia Allison: Thank you! We’re thrilled about being included on the channel. They actually contacted me in December, wondering if we might be interested in—for lack of a better word—”licensing” TMI Weekly to NY Nonstop for a year. We signed the deal prior to their launch in March, and provided them with a lot of our back content, as well as new episodes every month. Most exciting for a lazy cabber like myself, they air episodes in the seatbacks of cabs.
Gelf Magazine: You had some Bravo options on the table too. How’re those going?
Julia Allison: Bravo has decided to pass on both IT Girls and Fashionality. It’s the TV biz! Only the strong—and persistent, and perhaps delusional—survive. I’m disappointed that I won’t be working with their ridiculously talented team, but I believe these things happen for reason. It wasn’t to be! I am, however, working on a new pilot with an as-yet-to-be-determined network, which I’m really, really excited about. I’m crossing my fingers we’ll have something in production by the end of the year, and on the air by next! But, as with most things in my career, I believe in delusional optimism.
Gelf Magazine: Back to the start. You’re a writer by trade, basically handling the same beat since college: sex columnist. Why and when did you start to cultivate your internet personality, and why do you think you’ve been so successful at it? Less gently: Why do you think people care?
Julia Allison: Ha. Well, first of all, I think it would be a bit inane to say, “Oh yes, I set out to cultivate a purposeful public image,” as if I hired a 10k/month PR firm and they told me, “Hey! A spot for the ‘poor, ugly man’s Paris Hilton’ is available—arm thyself with a digital camera and get thee to Forever 21 for some cheap slut gear, but keep the pearls! Everybody loves a contradiction!” My specialty, if I have one, is being extremely interested in a wide variety of things—especially why people do what they do, and how they can make themselves happier. I have an endless fascination with the absurd machinations between men and women, otherwise known as “dating”—which is, of course, what led to seven years of dating columns. But more generally, I’m interested in sociology, biology, psychology, philosophy, architecture, media, technology, feminism, and personal growth. (And I stand by my controversial belief that no one can be too kind or own too many self-help books).
That said, there was certainly a moment towards the beginning of my time here in New York when it occurred to me that conventional methods—query letters and job postings—weren’t going to get me a job in journalism, let alone a career. What followed was a humbling year of interning, while struggling to get even one out of twenty emails I sent to editors returned. And that’s when I had that “triggering event.” I remember seeing a cover with Tom Wolfe on it, in his signature white suit, and hearing from my friend Lloyd Grove (then gossip columnist at the Daily News) that Tom made $6 a word for his writing. I was making $50 per 700 word column. And it was at that moment that I realized that Tom Wolfe probably got his emails returned. People would read his writing simply because they knew his byline. And so, I thought —somewhat unconsciously at the time, later much more consciously—if people were familiar with me, and with my byline, I would: a) be able to publish my writing in a wide variety of publications; b) be able to write about what and whom I wished; and c) be able to make a decent living off of my writing.
To be totally honest with you, I don’t quite know why people care. In fact, I’m fairly sure they don’t much care. But to the extent that they read my website, or about me, I should hope that it’s because they’re amused or intrigued, or something I’ve written or filmed or reposted makes them think or laugh or gives them a bit of an enjoyable distraction.
Gelf Magazine: NonSociety is your latest online venture, categorically called a “lifecast,” but something probably better described as hyperblogging; you’ve got self-captions, videos of you dubbing the words to “I Want Candy” in a Dylan’s Candy Bar, and, my personal favorite, Pictures of Things You’ve Just Eaten. Why this format, and what’s the larger goal, aside from the obvious army of followers it affords you for your impending coup on local government, of course.
Julia Allison: NonSociety as a whole is quite different in its aspirations than my little NonSociety lifecast. As far as the former is concerned, we have a long way to go with it. Turns out that nothing was quite as easy to implement as I thought it would be when we launched about a year ago. As far as my lifecast, or hyperblogging, as you call it—it’s really just a collection of thoughts and images from my daily life. I think the draw for the people who enjoy it—if I may be so bold to assume why my readers read—is because they feel like they’re following a friend. On a smaller scale, perhaps they’ve moved away from the city and they miss New York. Or maybe they’re in college and they want to know what life is like in the chaos of one’s twenties. Or they really like photos of pink tutus and small white shih-tzus.
Ultimately, it exists to tell a story, but it’s not a story you can understand by reading for a day, a week, or even a month. This is a story that could only be told in this way through the tools of technology—taking videos and photographs and quotes and conversations and music and longer form writing to form an amorphous whole, roughly following the chronology and events in one’s life in realtime, sometimes with an interactive audience component, seems like a totally new modern art—and that’s what I find most fascinating. I suppose you could call it a memoir or journalism or “blogging,” but I think that when it comes down to it, it’s mostly art. (And I don’t just mean just my story, I mean the new genre of lifecasting).
Gelf Magazine: Art or not, you seem to live your life on the Internet. Is this existence necessary for someone to be successful in the media? What is the burgeoning writer to do in these revolutionary times?
Julia Allison: I don’t think anything is “necessary” for being successful, except passion and persistence. If you have both of those, along with a bit of creativity (or flexibility—they really go hand in hand) you’ll be fine. But the key to surviving as a writer in these “revolutionary times,” as you aptly call them: Don’t be a slave to the constraints of the old medium.
You have an incredible arsenal of tools at your disposal, and a truly mind-boggling breadth of distribution channels that have heretofore NEVER EXISTED in the history of the world. What more could a writer ask for than a place to write and an audience to listen? (Oh yeah, a paycheck). Well, just realize this: with a voice, comes an audience. With an audience, comes influence. And with influence—if you’re entrepreneurial—comes financial reward. Of course, the ultimate reward is being able to reach people, to entertain, educate and inspire them. Isn’t that why we writers—or journalists, authors, screenwriters, producers—do what we do? Otherwise we’d just write in our diaries while listening to Joni Mitchell and call it a day.
Gelf Magazine: All of this isn’t a bad deal for a journalist. Norman Mailer had to build an entire newspaper before he got his recognition. Technically, journalism is your day job still, but as your profile grows and your the industry shrinks, is it even of interest to you anymore?
Julia Allison: Yes! I absolutely love the profession of journalism and I think [journalists] have a very bright future when they paradigm-shift and start to embrace the radical possibilities instead of mourning the anachronistic constraints.
Gelf Magazine: Do you ever find it difficult to parse your lifecast from your actual life? Surely you don’t put everything online.
Julia Allison: I do indeed find it difficult, for some of the reasons you’d expect, and for lots of reasons you wouldn’t. I most certainly don’t put everything online, not remotely, not even close. I’d say it hovers at around 20% right now, down from a high of 50%. It might be even less of late. Ideally—for this particular art form to work—I would share in greater depth. But I’ve been in a bit of a vulnerable, transitional state for a few months now, and, like one of those bugs (I think they’re called roly polys) that curls up when you try to kill it, I’ve retreated into a shell I never knew I had before this whole “Internet thing.”
I love forthrightness and honesty and transparency and openness, but I also realize now that with that comes judgment. As all memoirists or first person journalists will tell you, this is one of the most difficult aspects of mining your own life for material. You have the advantage of the emotion and depth inherent in the first person perspective, but you have the disadvantages of the excessive opinions of the largely uninformed.
Gelf Magazine: You seem to address your haters quite frequently, including some tearful, hard-to-watch videos, open letters to detractors, and coffee date invites.
Julia Allison: Yes, I’m finished with that, though. People are going to think what they’re going to think, and I have to exist outside of that, and not be influenced by it. Inasmuch as I can stay completely neutral—to both praise and criticism—I will save my sanity, and my soul, I think.
A quote from a post I wrote about this issue:
Here’s the deal: It’s fantastic to have the approval of others. It’s a high. I want people to like me. I crave it! I think many of us do. But that high comes with a downside: “The very thing that gives you pleasure today will give you pain tomorrow, or it will leave you, so its absence will give you pain.” (Eckhart Tolle)…It’s a dangerous—and unwinnable—game, isn’t it?
I’ve tried to bench myself from that game by not reading the haters, addressing them, or even acknowledging they exist. I think it’s a healthier state of mind.
Gelf Magazine: You owe a lot to Gawker for sinking their unfeeling meathooks into you early, and your relationship since has been complicated, to say the very least. It seems they kind of hate you, but, there arguably isn’t anyone more responsible for getting your name out into the media—not even you. (Conflicting reports highlight your early push for Gawker’s double-edged attention, though I can’t imagine anyone willingly putting their head into the mouth of that beast.) Care to clarify this?
Julia Allison: Ugh. I’m not sure Gawker and I understand our relationship, either. It’s fraught, to be sure. I’ve gone back and forth over the last three years: love/hate, love/hate, love/hate, hate, hate, hate. As to why I’ve at times gone along or even encouraged it? My meta analysis? As a child, I just wanted to make people laugh, but not being a terribly talented comedian, I settled for refusing to distinguish between laughing AT and laughing WITH. And so it goes with Gawker. I have, over the years, intermittently tricked myself into believing they were teasing me because they loved me, like a roast. In hindsight, I don’t believe that’s what they were doing, but what’s done is done. For better or for worse, being covered relentlessly by them has taught me quite a bit. It certainly crushed my inner Pollyanna, which probably had to die sooner or later.