Back when I was a teacher at Manhattanville College, I liked to tell my students that I’d rather interview the random stranger than Derek Jeter.
“Why?” I’d be asked.
“Well,” I’d say, “Derek Jeter’s life is repetition. He shows up to play baseball, he goes home, he sleeps, he shows up to play baseball. He makes lots of money, has lots of fame.”
“And,” I’d reply, “life is more interesting than that.”
Indeed, it is. Life is funny and quirky and weird and funky. You never know what someone’s story will entail. That mystery is what makes people riveting. Where have they been? What have they seen? What challenges have they overcome?
This is a long way of saying that, a few weeks ago, I was sitting at a coffee shop near Venice Beach when I began chatting with the woman at an adjacent table. She was young and perky and cool. She also happened to be a writer with a marvelous life. In short, Laurenne Sala is someone I’d rather interview than Derek Jeter. The 179th Quaz Q&A explains why.
Laurenne Sala, stranger at a table, welcome to The Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: In an essay for Huffington Post, you wrote the words, “I’ve spent my career convincing people to buy things they don’t need. And in order to do this, I’ve lied. I’ve made teenagers think they had to have video games. And when I wasn’t sure if my lies would really ring true to them, I surveyed their peers and conned them into telling me what tricks I could use.” Which sounds like you feel really guilty about some of the advertising work you’ve done. Where does that guilt come from? What was the moment in the biz when you said, “Crap, I really can’t believe I’m doing this?” And has that belief changed the path of your career?
LAURENNE SALA: When I was a kid, I used to make commercials in the bathroom mirror. Uncles Jesse and Joey seemed to kill it writing jingles on Full House, so I thought it would be fun to do that as my job. And it was cool at first. People pass around appetizers to you on set. You get to meet celebrities and travel for shoots. It’s the perfect job for bragging at your high school reunion. Kinda. Unless you really think about it and realize you’re putting in a ton of effort to make “films” about cheeseburgers or cars. But I didn’t think about it in my 20s. I thought it was the coolest. But there are only so many focus groups you can take. Watching a group of teens open up and tell you what they want to hear and then writing ads that tell them just that started to feel pretty gut wrenching.
I wanted my life to mean more than that. I started doing some things on the side that involved telling really intimate stories and creating a community. I started blogging on humansarefunny.com and meeting a ton of people who became my friends because of solidarity. I realized how important it was to be honest and authentic. I didn’t want to live by lying to people every day. And yes … most ads are made of lies. Lots of lies … or at least stories that steer you to believe you’ll be a certain kind of person if you buy something. And that’s never true! You’ll be the same damn person you were before you bought that thing.
J.P.: You were hired to rebrand eHarmony—which featured notoriously boring, cheesy ads. So, soup to nuts, how’d you go about that? What was your process? Do you have lightbulb moments? Or is it a gradual development of concepts?
L.S.: This was in the very beginning of 2010, so I don’t exactly remember (I did some drugs in the 1990s). But, I can tell you that most rebranding campaigns collect people in a focus group and ask them how they feel about the current campaign and what they want to feel instead. Or … brands will look for the groups they’re not reaching and figure out ways to go after those people. There are usually huge strategy meetings and big debates. For months. I know that, in the case of eHarmony, we found that people thought eHarmony was super saccharine, uber Christian, and hated that old dude. So we wanted to steer away from that.
It made me sad they’d been showing that campaign for years because when we finally met the couples, they were truly in love and it was amazing to see. I knew that if we just put that authenticity on TV, people would love it. However, companies get really scared. We shot eight days with Errol Morris, who is known for his really authentic documentaries, and they pulled the ads. Never ran them. They were scared that the truth—people kissing and black people (yes, black people) would scare away their big ticket spenders, who I guess are really conservative.
OurTime.com, another dating site for older couples run by match.com, saw my website and hired me to make their commercials more authentic. Then … they never ran those either.
J.P.: You spent five months in 2013 writing copy for Beats By Dre—now one of the biggest products/labels out there. How’d you land that gig? What did it mean for your career? Do you actually think Beats By Dre are better than, say, the $10 headphones I buy at Marshall’s? And did you ever actually meet Dr. Dre?
L.S.: A Beats guy read my blog and thought I could bring some personality to the brand. This personality was never actually embraced by Beats (are you sensing a pattern here?).
I did meet Dr. Dre while I was there! I ran into him in the hallway and the elevator several times. Every time, I wanted to come off totally cool and say something super in-the-know about the music industry or something. But I just said, ‘Hey.’ I’m sure one of these days he’s gonna remember that chick in the elevator who said ‘hey’ all the time and call me up for some advice.
The sound guys and product guys at Beats take their product really seriously. They have some specialists tune the headphones to make them the best ever, but I personally don’t hear a difference. I’m more into lyrics, though, than sound. I probably wasn’t the best person to work there.
What did working at Beats mean for my career? I met some cool people. I learned a lot about how popular brands run social media and what it means to have celebrities backing your brand. Basically, it made me realize how uncool I am. Or how I really, really don’t care about keeping up with the trends. It also gave me a bunch of confidence in my acting and writing abilities. If I can write passionately about something for which I don’t care at all and if I can pretend to be super impressed by the DJs and athletes constantly strolling through the office, I can do anything!
J.P.: You wrote a book of Spanish poetry—even though you weren’t fluent in Spanish. Um … what? And why? And how?
L.S.: Me encanta hablar espanol! My dad is Spanish and never taught me a single word. So I’ve been studying and spending some time in Spain every few years for the past 20. I am alllllllmost fluent, but there was a gap that kept me from being confident in myself. I would have the ability to speak to native speakers, but I also had this voice of fear inside that would tell me I just wasn’t good enough to actually speak Spanish well. That kept me from speaking for years. I went back to school for psychology recently and did my thesis on my perfectionism. I forced myself to live in Spain for two months and speak to everyone I could without judging myself. I also forced myself to publish something in Spanish. I basically had to be wrong/imperfect in front of as many people as possible. It was hard and agonizing but so helpful. Now I care much less about getting every single thing right. Except these questions. Must. Get them right. Are they right?
J.P.: I know you’re from Chicago, I know you attended USC. But, womb to writer, what has been your path? Like, how’d you get here? When did you realize media was your thing?
L.S.: I was always writing as a kid. All sorts of things. Fantasy worlds. Poems. Then I decided to write commercials, and I really have no idea why that idea appealed so much. It probably had to do with the toilet paper account episode with Angela from Who’s the Boss. Before graduating from USC, I went to ad agencies and they all told me I needed a portfolio to get a job, something that USC didn’t teach or offer. So I immediately got a bunch more loans and enrolled in Miami Ad School for grad school. It’s a program that sends you around the world to learn in all different kinds of ad agencies.
This was awesome. But … when I applied to that school in Miami, they looked at my portfolio and said it was too visual and that I should be an art director. So that’s the track I took even though I’m so much better with words than Photoshop. (an art director is the copywriter’s partner who comes up with the concept for the commercial/ad and then chooses the wardrobe, location, logo placement, design, etc)
I spent three jobs being an art director. I got my first one by sending out a big packet of creativity. There was a portfolio of print ads. Then there was a little booklet of ideas on how to re-brand bowling alleys. And then there was another booklet of art pieces. I spent three months putting those together and ordering the right boxes and making labels and being a perfectionist. (I think now you just e-mail a link) It worked. I was hired almost immediately to make commercials for Jack in the Box. I think it was almost on the very first day of that job that I began writing a book. I needed to. I decided to go on 50 blind dates with 50 guys who were not my type. And then I wrote about each one. And then I suddenly had a manuscript that was 80,000 words long. A horrible manuscript, but it was a start.
When that didn’t sell (I got at least 30 rejections from agents, and now I’m really happy I did because that book was awful), I took a trip around the world to figure out what my life was really about. I wrote every day on the trip for a year, and I came back even more invigorated. I started freelancing as a writer and left the art director aside (I was the worst art director).
I then put all my energy into writing my second book, which was another 80,000 words of rejection. This time, though, I loved the subject. It was about my family and how we dealt with my father’s suicide. I told the story from three points of view: mine, my mom’s and my dad’s.
When that was rejected, I decided to quit writing all together. I became a yoga teacher and started studying ayurveda. Just this past April I took a month-long course in which I dissected cadavers and thought about going back to medical school. That’s when Harper Collins called me with a book deal! I think if you’re meant to do something it’ll really work out. So now I am sitting in cafes writing books and occasionally freelancing in ad agencies.
J.P.: You have a children’s books scheduled to be published by HarperCollins. Ten million people want to know: How did you land a book deal? And, since we’re on the subject, how does an adult woman in her 30s understand how to reach little kids? Is it hard writing for an audience that young?
L.S.: I will say the annoying thing that I think everyone in the publishing industry would say. And I hate myself for saying it. But … I think the way to get a book deal is this: keep writing.
Ugh. it sounds so cliche. But that’s what I did. I wrote those two books. I started getting better. I began to develop more of a style. I learned that I like poetry. I wrote a poem that was actually used in a commercial for a baby product. This video went fairly viral because people couldn’t watch it without crying. Then… Harper Collins called me to make two children’s books out of this video and its sequel! Imagine my surprise after sending out so many manuscripts and getting rejected so many times. It is true: If you were meant to do something, it will happen. I took a bunch of Groundlings classes in 2007. I see all these people from my classes taking off now. It’s been seven years, but they kept at it. Now some have shows and one is on SNL. The ones that didn’t give up are finally getting there. It can happen if you really love it and you keep keep keep going and you don’t get defensive. Any time someone has a note for me, I really take it into consideration (unless it’s my boyfriend. Then we get in a fight.)
Also, from a spiritual perspective, I think that things come to you when you’re ready for them, and it’s hard to know when we’re ready for things. I don’t think I was mature enough to be an author at 25 when I was writing about lame guys in LA. I needed to grow a little and work out my dad stuff a bit before I could take it on or be responsible enough to reach a larger audience.
I think working in advertising and writing that book from my dad’s POV helped me a lot to be able to write from other people’s POVs. I feel like I can channel people really well. I mean, I’ve spent 10 years saying, “OK, I’m a teenager who wants to stand out from all my friends. This is what I think about cars. This is what I want to hear about cars/videogames/fastfood/anything-bad-for-you” So, I wrote from the mom’s perspective and then the dad’s perspective, and it worked! There will be two companion books coming out in winter of 2016 and 2017! (We’ll be so old by then.)
One last tip is to be fearless. Don’t care about rejection. Fuck it. Just ask people. for advice. for help. for ideas. for love! Whatever. You can’t get anything without asking for it, so you might as well. Once I had the first deal, I asked an agent if she’d represent me, and she said yes! And … she wants me to write about suicide, which is the best! I want my mark on the world to be more about what I learned from my dad’s death than a higher ROI for Kia motors.
J.P.: How do you write? What I mean is, what’s your process? We met in a coffee shop—you were at a laptop, drinking a coffee or something. Is that your way? Do you have a method? How do your organize your thoughts, get them on paper?
I like to be surrounded by chaos when I’m writing, but it has to be chaos from which I’m totally unattached. If it’s people I don’t know talking or doing things, I’m all about it. If it’s stuff at home being chaotic, I have to leave or I’ll put off writing. My method is to make an appointment or get out of the house as early as possible and work from somewhere else. I organize stuff by being fairly unorganized. Everything’s in my head mostly, but one thing I love to do is make a list every day of goals and then cross stuff off of it. That crossing off feels so good!
J.P.: I might be falling for an obvious joke, but did you really audition for Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation Tour? And, if so, what’s the story behind it?
L.S.: No! hahahaha! I remember that being a joke in some blog piece I wrote, but I don’t know which one or why I wrote that! I do remember doing a dance to that song in a fifth grade recital. And I thought the lyrics were, “We are a part of a big erection …”
J.P.: I’ve always believed the truth sets us free. I just watched a video where you talked about your clit—openly, freely, excitedly. How do you do that? Like, how do you stand on stage and open up about something like that? And why?
L.S.: Great question. My boyfriend asks the same thing. Why? Well, first— my dad was gay in the 80s. Then, he committed suicide when I was 16. I spent pretty much my whole life hiding those things from people for fear of being rejected or judged. I really didn’t talk about it to anyone. Even my friends at school. I just held it all in. I think that phrase about being as sick as your secrets is true. They eat away at you. If you are ashamed of your body parts and tell yourself how gross you are inside your head all the time, it will really affect you. If you secretly are mad at yourself for not “saving” your father, it will come out in some other form of self-hatred.
I finally wrote a post about him in 2010, and I felt such a relief. It was freedom to not have to lug around a secret with me everywhere.
Since I know how great that feels, I want to share that with others and encourage others to share. And they do! This is why my partners, Corey Podell and Rahul Subramanian, and I started Taboo Tales…
J.P.: You host and produce a monthly show in LA called Taboo Tales. People get up, speak—and the stories have to be true and taboo. How’d you come up with the idea? What’s the grossest thing you’ve heard?
L.S.: Our motto is “The more we all talk about how fucked up we are, the more normal we all feel.” And I totally believe it. I mean, if we just all shared our truths all the time, I think life would be so much easier. I tried it the other day, and it worked. Instead of coming up with a lie, I told my friend I was just too depressed to go to her birthday party. It ended up in a great conversation and we met a few days later to talk out our issues, which was a much more healthy experience for me than making small talk with strangers at a party. (Note: I’m not feeling depressed anymore).
So we get seven storytellers to come out on stage and tell their truths in front of 120 people each time. Some are professional comedians but many people are simply folks who have been holding something inside. We help them write their stories into comedy pieces. We have had such crazy stuff (because the truth is crazy!). Some good ones were: A guy who got HIV from a Craigslist date, a woman who was born without rectal muscles, a woman whose mom’s twin died while in utero and then remained in a jar in their closet for years, a guy who has OCD because of his hoarder parents, and a 35-year old virgin. But some are just people in their 40s who are lonely or men who’ve been broken up with several times and really want a relationship. Sadly, just talking about these simple truths is taboo in our society.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH LAURENNE SALA:
• Explain the background of your first name: Named after Sofia Loren and Lauren Bacall. I’m gonna be a sex symbol probably any day now.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Reggie Bush, 212 Pier, fruit punch, Duracell Coppertop AAA batteries, The Idiot’s Guide to Tax Deductions, Heart, Delta Airlines, Dean Martin, Coca-Cola, nipples, Bonnie Tyler: Heart (I am pretty sure you mean the band, but I’m going to pretend you mean the organ. Hearts are pretty awesome.) Dean Martin (total stud), Coca-Cola (it’s universal!), 212 Pier (I know you hate it, but I’m here right now. I think the key is sitting upstairs. You gotta try it again.), Bonnie Tyler (didn’t she only have that one hit, though?), Idiot’s Guide to Tax Deductions (so helpful), Reggie Bush (nice guy, plus go Trojans.), nipples (wish I liked them more.), fruit punch (so sugary), Delta Airlines (meh), batteries (I feel so guilty when I have to throw them away and keep them for a while to recycle them but then end up just throwing them in the garbage)
• Five things you always carry with you: Chapstick, Spanish metro ticket (good luck), ankh (good luck in the afterlife … just in case), some credit card, water (I am always thirsty.)
• Your mom threatened to put a hex on me for writing negative things about Walter Payton. What would your mom’s hex entail?: She would probably just talk to you about her senior club for hours and hours.
• On a scale of 1 to 10, how worried are you about the California drought? And why?: Six. Just went up now that you just reminded me.
• One question you would ask Candy Crawley were she here right now?: What do you wear for pajamas?
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall …: I think I’m going to die when I get into any plane. Every time. And every time I think about all those people who have always said they were about to get on the 9/11 flights but had a gut feeling and then stayed back. And so every time I wonder if I should be that person to stay back, but then I’d never go anywhere.
• Would you rather eat 20 hardboiled eggs in a 15-minute span or thoroughly lick the bathroom floor of your nearest McDonald’s?: I’d have to lick the bathroom. I seriously don’t understand hardboiled eggs. How is it OK to eat something that smells like farts?
• Why is Ned Yost so heavily criticized?: Who is Ned Yost? You and I met in a coffee shop and talked about Walter Payton. I love him. He brings me back to the 85/86 Bears. This was the last time I paid attention to sports. Sorry! Eeek.
• In exactly 14 words, make an argument for the papaya: Health enzymes taste good with sugary milk. Don’t judge a fruit by its cover.