A Tale of Celebrity Journalism and a Journey with Mental Health
Hundreds of celebrity interviews… and countless more panic attacks. That’s the story syndicated entertainment columnist and Miami Living contributor, Allison Kugel, tells in her deeply personal memoir, Journaling Fame: A memoir of a life unhinged and on the record. The book opens in a hospital room, with Kugel in the throes of a panic attack that is being treated with copious amounts of the tranquilizer, Ativan. The descriptions of her every thought and bodily sensation puts you inside her skin. You’re then refocused to simpler scenes of her 1970s and 1980s Long Island, New York childhood and adolescence. The details of her early life plant seeds for her creativity and love for journalism, and (from Kugel’s recounting) the makings of her anxiety disorder.
It is with insight, humor and thoughtful reflection that Allison Kugel takes readers on an engaging and informative journey, growing into adulthood with her anxiety and panic disorder looming. She simultaneously rises to become a prominent profiler of some of today’s most notable public figures from entertainment and popular culture. Kugel manages to seamlessly tie her story together with humor, grace, and inspiration, as she shares her mental health journey, and ultimately, her healing.
This book also delivers on insider celebrity stories with the likes of the Kardashians, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, former heavyweight boxing champ Mike Tyson, The View co-host Meghan McCain, wellness guru Deepak Chopra, famed attorney Gloria Allred, legendary comic Dave Chappelle and countless other recognizable names.
As someone who has known her for years, I can share that Allison is an eclectic spirit with unlimited potential for growth and evolution, as she allows it. She has a great light, tempered by a darker dichotomy that she is consistently at odds with. Her duality offers readers a spiritual push and pull that makes Journaling Fame a page turning read; like reading the diary of an old friend or former lover.
Journaling Fame’s appeal is in the unvarnished humanity with which Allison Kugel shares her layered story.
Sheldon Wright: I can honestly say your book was the first of its kind I have ever read, in that it covers your life as a celebrity profiler, as well as some of your mental health struggles. It goes back and forth, but seamlessly and brilliantly!
Allison Kugel: Thank you. When I began my interview column about fifteen years ago, I would tell anyone who would listen that one day I was going to write a book about all of the interviews I've done. That was always the dream. About seven years ago when the shit really hit the fan with my anxiety and panic attacks and OCD, I was in and out of the ER, on and off tranquilizers and keeping a journal as part of my therapy. As I was healing from these horrific anxiety issues, the journaling was such a huge part of my healing process, and the entries were so deeply personal and so graphic that I never would have imagined that one day I would put them into a book for the world to read.
SW: But you did it, which was very courageous. How did you then decide to incorporate all the behind-the-scenes celebrity stories into the book?
AK: I got better; I healed. Once I was back on my feet, I was on a mission to help as many people as I could reach with my story, so I resolved that I would turn my mental health struggles into a memoir. But then I thought, "Oh, wait. What about my dream to write about my interviews?" One day it hit me, that I could combine those two aspects of my life into one book. I mean, who was going to tell me I couldn't do it? It was my book, my story, my rules. If anything, I love that the pop culture appeal gets people to pick the book up, but my journey with anxiety and panic attacks could end up helping a lot of readers, by default. If you think about it, 40 million people in the United States have dealt with some kind of anxiety disorder, so I am hoping it can reach some of those people.
SW: You've done a lot of interviews over the course of your career…
AK: Yeah, I think I'm edging up on 300.
SW: What's the big takeaway from doing all those celebrity interviews?
AK: That you really don't know someone unless, or until, you sit down and talk with them and ask them about their life. Now with social media you can see the more human side of celebrity, because you see their makeup-free selfies and some of their personal unfiltered moments. But when I first started in celebrity journalism in 2005, social media didn't exist. My goal with my interviews was to strip away the veneer of fame, uncover the human being, and share that with my readers. All these years later, that is still what I aim to do with each interview. I like to peel away someone's layers, like I'm peeling an onion. I've even had some celebrities tell me some of my interview questions are very challenging. I push people a bit out of their comfort zone.
SW: In your book, you are the subject and you peel back the layers on yourself.
AK: I had to hold myself to that same standard. Because of the behind the scenes stories in my book, I've been asked if it's a celebrity tell-all. My answer is, that if it is a tell-all, it's a tell-all about me. With the celebrities that are written about in my book, I would say I stuck to an 80/20 rule. About 20% of the celebrity stories I could have written about actually made the cut in my book, 80% didn’t make the cut. That's because I made a promise not to repeat certain things I've been told over the years, and I had to respect that. But there's still some great stuff in there.
SW: My favorites are the chapters about 50 Cent, Jenna Jameson and Dave Chappelle. I love how you connect each of these experiences to something that was going on in your own life at the time.
AK: Dave was never an interview subject. We knew each other and hung out together as "kids" in our twenties, so that chapter was more of a chronicle of that period in my life as a young adult. I was commuting back and forth between LA and New York at that time and so was he, and we would run into each other in both places and pick back up where we left off. When I wrote that chapter, I had no idea he was going to re-emerge back into the spotlight. At the time that I wrote it, he was still under the radar and doing sporadic stand up gigs in small clubs around the country.
SW: I also love your chapter about interviewing Anne Frank's first cousin. I know how much that experience meant to you.
AK: I read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl over and over again when I was growing up. That story is such an important one, especially within the Jewish community. It was surreal to be able to get to know her first cousin, who was like a sibling to her. Hearing stories about their childhood before Anne had to go into hiding during the war, when she was free to just be a little girl, it was truly amazing. And I connected that chapter to my grandfather's experience as a soldier in the 1st infantry division of the army during, World War II.
SW: Shortly after your book was originally released, you got back into journalism and you've done some of your biggest interviews in the past couple of years. In your opinion, which of your recent interviews has been your most successful?
AK: Commercially speaking, my Gwen Stefani interview has been my most successful interview of the past couple of years. It was syndicated to more than fifty different media outlets throughout the United States and Canada, and then I was able to sell the European rights to the interview, and it went into syndication overseas. I will say that it was quite validating to even book that interview, and for her team to trust me with her story and to promote her Las Vegas residency. It was an honor.
SW: What do you hope people gain from reading your book, Journaling Fame?
AK: Most importantly, when I was growing up and dealing with symptoms from anxiety, panic attacks, depression and OCD, there was nothing I could read to give me comfort and let me know I wasn't alone in what I was experiencing. I love that the stigma is eroding, and more people are talking about mental health than ever before. I am proud to be a part of that movement. I hope my book can give people comfort in knowing they are not alone. I also hope my book serves as an example to show how much can be accomplished in life, even while dealing with personal struggles, whatever they may be. I've always pushed through the pain and discomfort to make my dreams a reality. I want that to serve as a road map, especially for young people who are going through something similar to what I have experienced in my life.