Celebrity journalist celebrated at IUP

Monica Rizzo, April 25, 2012, Beard Auditorium, Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Photo by Andrew Hesner.

By Andrew Hesner

INDIANA — Monica Rizzo, 1987 Indiana University of Pennsylvania journalism alumnus-turned-senior writer for People magazine, pep-talked an audience of prospective scribes and others in a half-full Beard Auditorium Wednesday-night.

“If you keep telling yourself ‘you can do it, you can do it,’ you eventually will,” the California-based celebrity journalist said.

Rizzo recounted her roots in print journalism — high-school paper, IUP campus newspaper The Penn, The Indiana Gazette — en route to her position profiling Tinseltown’s beautiful people for the 3.7-million-circulation magazine.

“People ask me how I got from point A, B and C to my current job,” said Rizzo, in a conservative blue V-neck and black pants. “I say I didn’t really have a plan. I just knew what I wanted to be.”

Her advice?

“Be yourself in the world,” she said.

 Rizzo started at People as an assistant. But she connected with celebrities such Warren Beatty, Meryl Streep, Zac Efron and Cheryl Burke. Her secret: being genuine.

“This is who I am,” Rizzo said. “I’m not going to manipulate you. I’m not going to lie to you. It is what it is.”

And another thing: “Don’t take no for an answer.”

Criticism? Embrace it, she said.

“Be your own worst critic,” she said. “If you only get positive feedback and no negative, you won’t learn anything.”

She said she proved that she was not just an assistant who fixed coffee and answered phone calls. She also proved that she was “not afraid to beg.”

Money? It’s not everything. She said she turned down high-paying jobs because they were not a perfect fit.

“When you factor out the money,” she said, “is this what you want to do every day?” 

She also cited the journalism textbooks: Preparation is key for conducting interviews.

The evening concluded with a 20-minute question-and-answer session, with Rizzo responding to the questions for a change.

IUP journalism department chairman Randy Jesick asked several about her worst interview, for example, or her interview with Pittsburgh Steelers player and “Dancing with the Stars” performer Hines Ward.

IUP journalism student Jeremy J. Hartley asked about changing media landscapes.

“Do you see the rise of the blogosphere taking over the traditional entertainment print media?” Hartley asked.

The largely student audience — some seeking academic credit, some not — reacted positively to Rizzo, laughing with her all the way.

“I thought it was great to hear Monica speak,” said Jacob “Jake” Williams, news editor at The Penn. “She’s an inspiration to me and the others in my class, and I am happy other students got to hear a little bit about such an amazing woman.”

Andrew Hesner is a junior journalism major at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He is from Blairstown, N.J. 


Sidebar: A celebrity journalist on celebrity journalism

 INDIANA — Celebrity journalist Monica Rizzo addressed the effects that celebrity journalism and reality television have had on American culture and on journalistic integrity during an exclusive interview following her speech in Stouffer Hall on the Indiana University of Pennsylvania campus Wednesday night.

“There are aspects of celebrity journalism that I find negative,” Rizzo said. “It’s changed dramatically — the digital media, the online presence, the paparazzi, the constant frenzy and competitive nature of celebrity journalists.”

Rizzo praised her employer’s brand of celebrity journalism but decried the competition.

“The definition of celebrity has also changed over the past 10-15 years,” she added.

“There is some good celebrity journalism out there. I think a lot of it can be found in People magazine and Vanity Fair. But it’s changed and is very sad.”

Rizzo said that she enjoys watching some reality TV, including “Deadliest Catch.”

“Reality shows are the McNuggets of TV — cheap, quick and an easy fix,” the senior writer for People magazine said. “They are so inexpensive to produce and so easy to throw together. And who cares if no one watches them? They only run for a half-dozen episodes.”

Rizzo cited AMC’s “Mad Men” as an example of “substantive programming,” including quality acting and storytelling.

“You have to look hard for the good stuff,” she said.

— by Andrew Hesner

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