Desa Philadelphia

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About 20 years ago, I was standing in the Sports Illustrated hallway when a reporter from Time Magazine showed up and asked—I believe—to use a copy machine.

The moment lasted all of, oh, three minutes, and when it ended I certainly couldn’t have expected Desa Philadelphia to be one of my good friends in 2018, let alone back in 1998. But here we are, two ex-Time Inc.-employed Californians whose families have grown close and who dine on a fairly regular basis.

Which is not, to be clear, why Desa is the 384th Quaz Q&A.

Nope. I asked Desa here because she’s smart and fascinating and the liver of a most unique life. She’s been a reporter at multiple outlets, a writer at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, a Hollywood insider (well, sort of) and attendee at myriad parties. She shares her last name with a city, her husband played in the NFL, she’s been inside Elisabeth Shue’s house and admires Sylvester Stallone’s dedication to cutting hair.

Put simply: She’s one of the most fascinating people I know.

Desa Philadelphia, you’ve been Quazed …

JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Desa, I’m gonna start with a random one. I just found a small article from Florida Today in 2001 headlined CNN TARGETS YOUNGER AUDIENCE. And it’s about CNN starting a Saturday night talk show featuring young journalists—including Jake Tapper, Roger George and you. Two questions: 1. Whatever happened to it? 2. Why do you think media outlets struggle so much when it comes to the famous/infamous, “Draw a younger audience” challenge?

DESA PHILADELPHIA: Unfortunately 9/11 happened to it. Understandably, after the attacks there were important stories to cover. So everyone who was involved with the show went back to our news outlets to do that very sad work. We never reconvened.

As for the second question, mainstream news shows are not created by younger people. There are always older people who think they know everything who have the final say. So the end product is never really something that younger people want. Let’s use that show, for example. It was called Take Five, and the concept was five younger journalists discussing the week’s news. Think a show like The McLaughlin Group, but much younger. I think I was the youngest journalist they cast. And one of the things I remember, which is illustrative of the point, is that I had to go out to buy “jewel-toned” clothing, because I was told that’s what looked good on TV. Now at the time I was a New York City party girl who looked the part. I wore a lot of black, a lot of high-heeled boots, a lot of jeans or short skirts. My wardrobe could have been themed “day into night” because I almost never went straight home from work. But I remember I bought pinks shirt to be on that show (pink!!). Also, the news we covered was Washington-centric so for example we talked a lot about Gary Condit’s political career after the murder of his intern Chandra Levy, who he was sleeping with. I don’t think young people were as worried about whether Gary Condit’s political career could survive.

I also remember one segment where we talked about Chris Ofili’s elephant dung paintings. I think that segment was considered hip, but really we were talking about art that was in the most prestigious museums, that sold for millions of dollars; also not exactly what the kids were talking about. And I wonder how that show would have looked if we were allowed to just wear what we normally wear. My point is that news shows for younger people aren’t really designed to appeal to younger people. It’s old people speculating about what young people want. Which is ironic because so much of television news is speculation. Also the show aired on Saturday night. What young people are watching CNN on Saturday night? Even the guy I was dating at the time never bothered to stay home to watch. I used to rush to the airport after we were done to catch the shuttle back to New York, then go straight to whatever bar he was at.

With husband Aaron.
With husband Aaron.

J.P.: I just found another piece—this one from 2007. And it’s a profile you wrote on Elisabeth Shue, the actress who was making a comeback in a movie no one wound up seeing. And you start the piece with Shue in her living room, wearing jeans and a tank top. I’m always fascinated by “celebrities being just normal” sorta stories, because it seems like they’re really only being normal to appear being normal. So what do you recall from the Shue experience?

D.P.: That she seemed really normal! First off, she and her husband Davis Guggenheim lived on a really busy, very walkable street in L.A. with no heavy security gates or anything. It was a beautiful home, but it was accessible. I walk by it sometimes and wonder if they still live there; but I doubt it. Also she talked a lot about her family because the movie, which was called Gracie and which Davis directed, was based on her experience of losing her older brother Will who died in a very tragic, very gory accident at their vacation home when they were all gathered there together. I’m pretty sure I didn’t include the details in the piece, but we talked about it at length. I also remember resisting the urge to ask about her brother Andrew. Not because he was a Hollywood hunk. I’ve never watched Melrose Place so I don’t know much about his acting. But when I was in college I was impressed with his non-profit Do Something; I thought it was so cool that a young Hollywood actor had started that. I also remember she had just gotten back from playing tennis and I asked if she was good because I am obsessed with tennis and would love to be good at it but am not. I’m working on it. I just bought one of those tennis trainers that are advertised on Facebook. At first she kind of demurred but then she admitted she kicked ass at tennis, and I loved that. It’s true too; she’s like a semi-pro player. OK, I’m realizing I should qualify the normal comment a little—she seemed really storybook-white-people normal to me. She was like the grown up version of a character in a Babysitters Club YA novel come true. I even thought it was cool that she spelled her name with an S instead of a Z. I also recall that we ate something that I really enjoyed but I can’t remember what, specifically.

Speaking of celebs and normalcy. I get asked a lot which celebrity I’ve covered seemed the most normal and I like the reaction I get when I say Sylvester Stallone. Not because his existence is normal in any way. I went to his house and it was in a crazy gated community of mega mansions owned by Saudis princes and A-List Actors. And there were a few insanely questionable pieces of furnishings; some velvet stuff that his mom had picked out. But HE seemed normal as hell. My favorite thing is how much he loves Rocky, the character. He showed me his Rocky paintings; and this was before he had exhibited them. His daughter also had this very precise Louise Brooks bob that he had cut, and he said he cut her hair to keep up his skills because he used to be a hairdresser before Rocky made him rich and famous. I teased him about needing to keep up his hairdresser skills and he was a good sport about it.

J.P.: You are a communication and development writer at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. So what does that entail? And how does your journalism background come into play with this genre of writing?

D.P.: I’m a jack-of-all-trades writer. I write everything the School of Cinematic Arts needs, from proposals to the admissions brochure to speeches to the bronze plaques on the walls celebrating the donors who have endowed faculty Chairs at the School. It’s marketing, development and communication. I also edit the annual magazine and I oversee student writers who do stories for our website, so those duties are directly related to my journalism training. I consider myself a professional writer but also still a journalist. I don’t think you ever really stop being a journalist if you were a good one.

My journalism training means I’m very precise with details; I fact check everything. And not some willy-nilly I-found-it-online fact check. But like a New Yorker fact check. I once had an informational interview at the New Yorker. The head of the fact-checking department asked me if I had heard about Stephen Glass, The New Republic writer who had fabricated stories. I told him yes and he very firmly said: “that would never happen here!” I was kinda like “alright,” I didn’t really know what to say to that. I didn’t get a call back at The New Yorker. Looking back I realize I didn’t wear the right clothes. The guy who interviewed me, Matt Tyrnauer, grew up in Hollywood and has since directed a documentary about Valentino, the fanciest person on the planet. Tyrnauer himself looked like he stepped out of a magazine. I knew as soon as I saw him that I didn’t have the right clothes. It’s like that “What People Wore to Interview with Anna Wintour” column; you need the right clothes for the Condé Nast building. But I was fresh off the boat and broke as hell. I didn’t know.

J.P.: You wrote a book (“111 Shops in Los Angeles That You Must Not Miss”) that’s been a Pearlman bathroom staple for two years or so. I ask two questions: 1. How did this project even come to you? 2. How does one decide which 111 shops to not miss? And what’s No. 112?

D.P.: So there is a travel book series of 111 Places that you Shouldn’t or Must Not Miss, that had successfully been done in Europe and they decided they wanted to bring the series to the United States and also do a few versions with shops. My friend Katrina Fried was hired as the U.S. editor and she asked me to do the version about Los Angeles Shops.

To answer question #2: If you’re a journalist you begin by gathering stories about Los Angeles history and culture. Then you choose shops that are quintessential in their L.A.ness because they allow you to tell authentic stories about L.A. history and culture. So that’s how I approached the book. I wanted it to be informative and entertaining for people who were coming to L.A. as well as people who live in L.A. And I also wanted it to be enjoyed by someone who would never set foot in L.A. So I did a lot of research and reporting. For example, the stories about Flour and Flowers. My profile of the “urban flour mill” Grist & Toll in Pasadena is about the role that mills played in the development of cities, including L.A. And my story about the wholesale flower marts in Downtown Los Angeles talks about the Japanese-Americans who started them and the flower farms they once owned that made up much of Santa Monica back in the day. Doing the book was also a great way to explore stores I wouldn’t normally shop in. One thing that made the book very difficult is the publisher wanted the shops to be one-of-a-kind. So no chains, all had to be “unique finds.” Also they wanted me to take the photos for the book. I’m not a photographer but since I work in visual media I can tell the difference between shitty photos and skilled ones, and my photos were shitty. So I ended up paying for a photographer myself and she did an amazing job. To decide on 111 shops I visited at least 130 shops. My daughter, who was only about 4 when I started working on it, grew very wary of going “shopping” with me. She’d ask “Are we going to YOUR shops or MY shops”? After a while she outright refused to get in the car to go to see shops. To answer your other question, there are so many 112s. Everyone in my life is tired of hearing “I almost put this shop in my book.”

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J.P.: So you moved from New York to Los Angeles in 2003 when Time wanted you to cover the movie business. And I wonder—what is it to cover the movie business? What does it entail? Is it more fun or nightmare? And did you know what you were doing?

D.P.: The definition of “covering the movie business” depends on the goals of the outlet you’re working for. So Time, being such a mass- appeal publication, really needed celebrity driven stuff. So I spent a lot of time lunching with celebrities or the people who promote celebrities. So let’s just say I had a lot of insincere conversations. Some really great ones too, but there was A LOT of bullshitting. A lot of my job was finding really inspiring stories about movie-making in all that. They exist, but they’re not the ones you get pitched the most.

And it’s funny you ask if I knew what I was doing because at first I did not. I was a hard news reporter so I didn’t know a lot about Hollywood culture. And being the Time movie correspondent was a one-person job in L.A. so I had no one to shadow or learn from. But that’s when your journalism training kicks in and you realize you just have to figure it out. You figure it out because you have to do your job. And because I was working for Time I ended up being schmoozed a lot by people who were often surprised when I walked in the door because they might have been expecting someone who was more Hollywood-polished than I am. I mean Jess Cagle, who is now editor-in-chief of People magazine and hosts a lot of red-carpet shows, did the job before me! He got married in Bridgehampton this year and there were many celebrity guests including Sofia Vergara, Sarah Jessica Parker. And I only know that because I just googled him to make sure I gave you the correct spelling of his name. Needless to say we do not socialize in the same circles. Jess probably knows Matt Tyrnauer.

And if I’m being really honest Hollywood celebrity parties are not as fun as they photograph. I mean I was a party girl in New York; I know how to have a good time. But in L.A. you walk into a party and if you didn’t arrive in the right car with the right people in the right clothes nobody wants to talk to you. These parties are goal-oriented affairs. You’ve only had fun if your career is in better shape when you leave than when you arrived. I did enjoy taking my friends to the parties and watching them enjoy themselves. My friend Seamus, in particular, loved chatting up celebs. And he’s got a great Irish accent and is very relaxed so I could see them trying to figure out if he was someone they needed to accommodate or not. I would of course make sure I was nowhere near. Also I enjoyed going to film festivals. The publicists were always surprised that I actually spent most of my time watching the movies.

Fun story. I went to the Oscars the first week I arrived in Los Angeles and I got invited to the Governors Ball. And because I had just moved from New York, I still smoked socially. So I go out on a balcony to have a cigarette and I start chatting with these women who looked like they were Marilyn Monroe impersonators. I start asking them what they thought of the movies that won etc. They have not seen anything. They knew nothing about the Academy; didn’t even know the party was called the Governor’s Ball. I explain stuff. They tell me they are just there as “dates” for some older dudes. Fast forward a year later I’m told I’m not invited to the Governor’s Ball because I’m not high ranking enough. There are hookers at this party; but I don’t make the cut.

So to answer your final question on this topic. As with everything else Hollywood is more fun once you figure out how everything works. Cause then you spend less time on the bullshit, and you can actually focus on the art. And filmmaking is an incredibly difficult art form to master. People who can successfully think of an idea then do everything needed to bring it to a theater are geniuses who deserve every cent of the millions of dollars they make.

J.P.: You grew up in Georgetown, Guyana—but I know jarringly little about your actual journey to America. So how? Why? When? What was the reasoning? How hard was it?

D.P.: The why I came to the U.S. is that I really really wanted to be a U.S.-trained journalist. I wanted to be a reporter since I was about twelve years old. We got pirated American television stations when I was growing up in Guyana. I was obsessed with Bernard Shaw and Bella Shaw who co-hosted the evening news on CNN. I also loved the “read Time and understand” commercials that ran nonstop on TBS in the eighties. I can still sing the jingle verbatim. I could hardly believe it when I landed a job there.

Also my older sisters were working as nannies in New York, so I was determined to be with them and study journalism at an American university. So that’s why I chose New York. Yes it was hard because no one in my family knew how to do what I was trying to. So figuring it out was hard and I did most of the research myself, as an 18 year old with no information to start with. I spent a year in New York in limbo with my parents trying to scrape together money to pay for college. Early in the process someone “official” told me I didn’t qualify for financial aid. I didn’t realize that with my grades and high school achievements I probably could have gotten a scholarship to a really good private university. So I enrolled at City College of New York, which ended up being a really great experience, and my parents borrowed money to pay my tuition and my sisters fed and clothed and sheltered me.

During that year in limbo I went out of student status and I wrote a letter to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service explaining all the difficulties I was having and asking them to not cancel my student visa. And they extended it. I think international students today would be too afraid of being deported to write the letter I did.

J.P.: You’re on a college campus, meaning you’re around students all the time. And I often hear, “Ugh, kids today” and “Ugh, 20-year-olds today.” And I wonder, from your experience, whether there’s any generational justification for the frustration with this era of youngsters? Like, are they more entitled? More bratty? Or are we just old assholes?

D.P.: We’re just old assholes. Every single day college kids are realizing there is so much about the world they know nothing about. And that, understandably, is intimidating. And they get a little scared and insecure and they try to front. Once you realize what’s at the root of a lot of the behavior you can genuinely engage them. You just have to let them know that they don’t have to be experts on anything around you; that they won’t be judged for not knowing everything. You have to start with empathy.

That said, I have to admit I can’t listen to their conversations with each other for very long.  But I understand that it’s not because of any deficiencies on their part. It’s just that I’m old. So when I find myself wanting to launch into lectures about syntax or the virtues of vulnerability, I just move on. I move my body out of earshot. But sometimes it’s fun to blow their minds with fun facts from any time before 5 years ago.

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J.P.: Your husband Aaron played college football, then in the CFL and NFL. And I wonder (because I’ve actually never asked this before of someone in your shoes) whether you see the echoes of sports in your man’s existence? What I mean is, from approach to things to limps to impulses to reactions—can you see sport’s imprint?

D.P.: My husband loves being on a team. He really enjoyed playing at Indiana University and he actually graduated so he’s proud he got an education out of it. He coaches high school football now so football and team culture are still a big part of his life.

He’s very disciplined about getting his work done, ticking off any tasks he has set himself, and setting goals. I think that’s because of sports. On the flip side it’s hard for him to switch course or abandon something, even if it’s not working out. A comical example of this is that he will watch a bad movie to the end rather than bail. He just needs to see things through. Play until the last minute.

And yes, sports has definitely taken a toll on his body. He has really bad knees. He’s had several procedures and will eventually need to have them replaced.

J.P.: Greatest moment of your life? Lowest?

D.P.: Greatest moment was the first night after my daughter was born when it was just the three of us alone in the hospital room and I didn’t feel like I needed anything more to be happy.

Lowest was realizing just how much being sexually molested as a child has affected my life.

J.P.: You’re a journalist. I’m a journalist. We live in the era of #fakenews. What are we supposed to do to maintain the public’s trust? How do we survive this shit?

D.P.: By doing our best. And I mean that sincerely. We have to strive to do good work, all the time. And we have to call out bad work. I do not watch cable news. I think all the cable news channels do a shitty job. I hate fake punditry, which is what you see on cable news. It does not make viewers smarter or better informed.

I try to remind myself to go read source material as much as possible—the whole speech rather than the clips; the report rather than the teaser “findings.” We also have to understand what we are fighting for even if other people don’t get it. There is no democracy without a free press.

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• What are the complications of having a city for a name?: Being accused of making it up. My first class, first day of college, we go around the room introducing ourselves. Guy next to me says, in a really sarcastic voice, think Valley Girl stereotype: “So are you trying to be like Judy Chicago?” Also early Facebook kicked me off because they said my name was fake. I only got restored because a friend had a friend who worked there who hooked me up. Another annoyance, people thinking that there’s a “mistake” that needs to be fixed. An airline rep made me step aside and wait until everyone else had boarded so he could explain they had made a mistake on my boarding pass and printed the city of departure—Philadelphia—instead of my last name. I had to point out there were two instance of “Philadelphia” on the pass.

Another thing, I’m still trying to live up to this great writer’s name. I don’t really have the desire to write the great Caribbean-American novel, but I’ll probably have to; just because.

• Rank in order (favorite to least)—Cam Cameron, Santa Claus, the new Miami Marlins logo, Fruit Stripe gum, Budweiser Clydesdales, Guinness Beer, The Last Bookstore, your daughter’s teacher from last year, Hideo Nomo: My daughter’s teacher from last year (she won a national teaching award), Guinness Beer, The Last Bookstore, Cam Cameron (he coached my husband in college), Hideo Nomo (I love baseball), Santa Claus, Fruit Stripe gum (I bite myself when I chew gum), the Budweiser Clydesdales, the new Miami Marlins logo.

• How did you meet your husband?: He went to high school with my Canadian cousins, and is besties with one of my cousins in particular. Everyone in my family knew him before I did, even my parents. He was a frequent visitor to my family’s gatherings. I had to introduce him to no one. I hit on him at a New Year’s Eve party in Toronto, gave him my number and told him to call me the next day. I’ve been bossing him around since.

• Five greatest Asian-American journalists of your lifetime: Connie Chung, Atul Gawande, Ann Curry, Lisa Ling, Lakshmi Singh.

• I don’t think Eminem’s “Relapse” album was particularly good. What says you?: I probably can’t name a single song on that album. I still listen to Midnight Marauders (A Tribe Called Quest) and Daily Operator (Gang Starr).

• Tell me a joke, please: I’m going to do a standup comedy kind a joke rather than a knock-knock category joke. Here goes …

When my daughter was five and the Frozen movie was huge we were at a birthday party with an entertainer dressed up as Elsa. I was chatting with some moms and I see Elsa trying her best to escape my kid. I walk over to hear my daughter ask: “Is that your real hair?” Elsa says yes. My daughter, accusingly: “Well how come I can see brown hair underneath?” I practically drag my kid away. She is mad as hell at this obvious imposter: “Mom, her name isn’t even Elsa you know. It’s Idina Menzel!”

This is my all-time favorite song. What do you think?: Great choice. I love Shannon Hoon’s voice. No Rain is probably the only song my husband and I would both have on our favorites list. It’s in my top 10 for sure; probably top 5.

• What’s the worst smell in the world?: I don’t know. But the worst smells I’ve ever experienced were the smoke in the air from the 9/11 attacks; you could smell it for weeks everywhere in Manhattan. And a person being hit and killed by a subway train. I was shocked by the fact that there was an immediate small. And we have a fruit in Guyana called Stinking Toe. It smells really bad; I can’t remember what it tastes like.

• You’ve met my dog Norma. I think if I banged my head, fell to the floor and started bleeding while unconscious, she’d happily lick up the blood. My kids think she’d bark for help. What says you?: Hmmm, I love your dog; she is a sweetheart. I think she’d lick up the blood until you stopped bleeding. Then bark when she got hungry again.

• Four great things about being so short?: 1. I always got to be at the front of the line in elementary school. 2. Never dated a guy who was too short. 3. I don’t hit my head much. 4. Always at the front in photos.