By Michael Miner
“So why did I pose for Playboy? I guess just for the hell of it,” Tribune exile Brenda You was telling me. “When I was a reporter I jumped out of planes and wrote about it–I’ll never do that again. I got a tattoo and wrote about it, etc. I feel that most journalism is completely recycled and secondhand experiences written by people who couldn’t possibly understand the true experience because they are programmed to report on what people do, not do themselves.”
The differently programmed You says she has no intention of writing about her Playboy experience. Then why did she have it? “It wasn’t for the attention–that was the biggest drawback actually, because I’m a private person,” she said. “And it wasn’t for my career, since I don’t have any ambitions to model or have a career as a Playmate. I was sort of hoping Beck–the singer–would call though. Oh well. And my mom really encouraged me. She said, ‘If I knew then what I know now, I’d do it, because it [the body] doesn’t last.”
You reminisced. “It was the day after New Year’s, and I was thinking I ought to try something new and outrageous this year–like I do every few months. I typed out a short letter, sent them a picture, and completely forgot about it until they called me two weeks later….I’m not typical Playboy material. I’m too old–31, which is a sad commentary on Playboy, I think–too thin, too pale, my hair color is natural, and I’ve never modeled or stripped or done anything remotely like this.”
It turned out there wasn’t much to it. “I didn’t have to do anything at the shoot I didn’t want. Nobody touched me, no one was around the set, it was no big deal. And the lingerie they give you to wear is so ugly and uncomfortable that it’s a relief when you finally get to take it off.”
“The money was amazing too. From a few days’ work, my daughter now has a mutual fund that will put her through college.”
You’s credo of talk the talk but walk the walk sets her apart, she believes, from most of the journalists she remembers back at the paper. No doubt they’d agree that something does. “I just don’t think the adventurous reporters are the main makeup of the Tribune,” she told me. “Most young, energetic reporters are shut down really fast for stepping on toes. Most of the true no-BS journalists that will not abide by corporate policy are either dead or have banished themselves from Chicago because they are so fed up. Those people, I know what makes them tick. But there are a huge number of ‘slicks’ who don’t represent anything.”
One thing You represents is the other side of the tracks. She says she grew up poor, the daughter of a downstate dairy farmer and a farm wife who’d married him at 16 to get out of the house. She graduated from Columbia College in 1989, and after a year of grad school went to work at the Tribune as a part-time switchboard operator. She moved up to editorial assistant, spotted an opportunity, and began freelancing reviews of heavy-metal concerts. She’s still remembered for her miniskirts and a sheer blouse–which she says she wore only once and then under a blazer. KidNews was launched in 1992, and she was named a staff writer; soon she moved up to Tempo. Meanwhile, she’d married a martial arts instructor and begun learning to speak Korean (since they split she’s forgotten most of it). She defied the curse of most writers at huge urban newspapers–anonymous redundancy.
Suddenly she disappeared. Indifferent to the fussy old canons of propriety, she’d started writing for supermarket tabloids on the side and had been caught lending them Tribune file photos. The Tribune investigated, and in summer 1994 it got rid of her.
The other day I spotted her name and number in the new edition of the media directory Getting on the Air & Into Print. I dialed it. So you’re working for Jerry Springer, I said.
Have been for five years, she replied, and asked if I was calling because of the press release. Playboy had just sent one out, she explained, to promote her upcoming chat-room appearance with Springer at playboy.com. In honor of the occasion, a few of the photos taken last April for Playboy’s subscribers-only site were going up on the free site.
This was news to me.
I tracked down the press release, which touted a “Live Chat With Infamous Talk Show Host and Sexy Assistant Director.” It identified the “sultry” You as the “first pictorial subject of Playboy.com’s members-only Cyber Club.”
I dropped by playboy.com and got back to her. Dubious career move, I said.
She doesn’t think so. “I’m not too concerned with burning bridges or hurting my career,” she replied, as we began trading E-mail. “I work in the entertainment industry. Even serious actresses who don’t have to do nude scenes do; I can’t imagine someone wouldn’t let me direct the new version of ‘Melrose Place’ or read a script I wrote because I was naked in a Playboy once.”
The script isn’t hypothetical. It’s been written, and now it’s out and about. It’s “a black-comedy horror movie based on teenagers becoming obsessed with an outrageous national talk show. You can guess who is already contracted to star.”
You was pregnant and nauseous when the Tribune booted her. She said that when she stopped being sick she sent out one resumé; it went to Springer because his show was taped next door to the Tribune, in the NBC Tower, and she knew how to get there. She became a producer for two years, coordinating producer for another, and now she’s assistant director and postproduction editor. “I do miss writing,” she said, “and it’s sad there are no young or rebellious voices at most major newspapers. It’s sad that most people my age never read a newspaper. I know that television is hardly a stable job and that this show won’t last forever–and probably not even another five years.”
But she thinks she’s made her mark on it. “Most of my innovations have been in producing shows that might be considered black comedies–very dark, possibly offensive, but also amusing,” she told me. “For example, in ‘Christmas With the Klan,’ we went to a Klan member’s home for his big White Christmas party. The Klan is scary, but it’s also taking a symbol of fear and revealing to viewers that these grown men baking swastika cookies don’t deserve the fear they want–they deserve to be ridiculed. I did a lot of Klan shows, and we didn’t have fights and certainly no Geraldo-style antics, because we wanted to tweak them or ridicule them with their own words, not to give them what they want–a confrontation. And Jerry, being Jewish and having lost his grandparents in the Holocaust, is a really good foil for them.
“I also worked a lot on getting exclusive interviews with people who didn’t do TV. I had exclusives with Jeffrey MacDonald–the Fatal Vision killer–with Bernhard Goetz after he lost his civil trial, etc. I also produced ‘The Mole People,’ where I spent 11 hours in the underground tunnels of NYC. I went there first and found the people, and then Jerry came in and spent a day doing the show. I went to death row in Huntsville, Texas, to do a taped piece of serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. The show was called ‘I’m in Love With a Serial Killer,’ and Henry’s girlfriend came on and defended him. We showed his outrageous comments, the girlfriend’s daughter told her mom to give him up, the family of his victims confronted Phyllis (and watched Henry’s comments about those specific victims), and it was great. It showed a whole different side to this issue, that a serial killer can have a girlfriend who is completely devoted, that he can be a nice guy–he was such an act–and that families of victims don’t all want to be the Kennedys. These families shouted and yelled and cried. They had waited 15 years to tell him off, and I think it really helped them.”
When the show shifted “to do more relationship/love-triangle issues,” You almost quit. Triangles don’t interest her. But then the assistant director’s job opened up. “A lot of my input has been in the editing,” she said. “I’ve changed it from other shows to make the shows faster paced, more direct.” She’s even done some writing. She pointed to “Dumpster Diving,” where she had the Springer staff crawling through NBC garbage looking for unaired tapes. “We taped the whole show from the Dumpster area, and it was funny and a good poke at ourselves always being called trash.”
You has been sensitized to the contempt in which journalism’s betters hold her show and its guests. “At the Tribune I didn’t really separate myself from the elitist people who do that,” she said. But a few years observing Springer’s guests opened her eyes. She marveled that “elitists were so angry that we gave people like that airtime. That’s when I first thought, well, I’ve been there too.”
You likes the phrase “outlaw journalism.” She said the phoniness of good, law-abiding folk infuriates her. “I think the media is a joke. It’s self-flagellating, often incorrect and misleading. It’s propaganda for advertisers and nothing more than a for-profit venture–which is all fine and good if they would just admit it. The Jerry Springer Show admits what it is. We’re here to make money. We’re here to entertain.”
She went on, “My problem isn’t with integrity–it’s with the laziness and the hypocrisy and the elitist reporters who went to NU and don’t know the first thing about living life like the people they are supposed to be educating us about. I grew up poor on a farm and I couldn’t afford to get my teeth fixed until after college. My high school friends didn’t all go to college–not everyone has the opportunity, and I don’t care what people say about pulling yourself up by the bootstraps. I have a friend who got married at 16 and couldn’t get a higher education–but she had to get married so she could get out of her family home where her stepfather was molesting her. She doesn’t have any higher education, and she’s the best writer I’ve ever read. A reporter is supposed to be the voice of the people, not a sheltered snob. A reporter should have compassion and understand this country, and I’ve not met many yet.”
These are the views of Brenda You on journalism, which come to our attention thanks to her foray into ecdysiasm. “I would say this is an age-old way for any person without power to get listened to, whether it is through being on a talk show, posing nude, or going from being a flamboyant wrestler to a governor,” she asserted. “Even for people with some amount of influence, many need to do something outrageous to compete in our packed newspapers. Without a few of his extreme views, Pat Buchanan’s candidacy would not get the attention it does. It may not get him elected, but to never be heard of at all guarantees he won’t get elected.
“So it’s the same for men and women, although men may be more likely to use outrageous statements or acts while women may use their looks. I don’t know that women created this situation by doing it or that men created the situation by responding to it so well. I can’t say who is the dumb one–the woman who strips for money, or the man who is dumb enough to give all his money to a stripper.”
Playing the Favorites
Robert Feder had a scoop. On Tuesday, October 12, he reported in his Sun-Times media column that next month “Crazy” Howard McGee, host of WGCI FM’s popular morning show, will begin sharing his mike and billing with a cohost: stand-up comic Adele Givens.
Feder’s Tribune counterpart, Jim Kirk, didn’t have this news and wondered why. He called WGCI president Marv Dyson.
“I was expecting your call,” Dyson told him. “I just want you to know that because of our long-term friendship with Robert Feder I gave him this exclusively.”
Kirk said, “Marv, you’ve got to remember, your advertisers read my paper.”
Dyson replied, “Yeah, but my listeners read the Sun-Times.”
“He just kind of said ‘All right’ and hung up,” says Dyson, finishing the story. “I could tell he was still mad.”
Feder has written his column for 19 and a half years, which is 18 years longer than Kirk’s been at it. What Kirk heard from Dyson was nothing he hadn’t heard before.
Later on the day of Feder’s scoop, the Radio Broadcasters of Chicagoland presented their Achievement in Radio awards at a luncheon. Howard McGee was named best talent on a music station. Mike Love and Victor “the Diz” Blackful won a second award for WGCI for best evening or overnight show on a music station.
Feder decided that the best-talent-on-a-music-station award was the most important award of all. He led his Wednesday column with McGee’s triumph.
Kirk chose to lead with the news that the Tribune Company’s WGN AM had “cleaned up” with six awards, then segued immediately to the heartwarming triumph of a young radio reporter following in her father’s footsteps. By the end of his report, Kirk still hadn’t mentioned McGee. Love and Blackful didn’t make the column either.
“You get your feelings hurt and you retaliate,” says Dyson. “But I thought your job was to report the news.”
“I didn’t leave anybody intentionally out,” says Kirk. “I mean, Howard McGee had won that award last year.” And, he points out, the winners he didn’t mention on Wednesday–including McGee, Love, and Blackful–were remembered in his column Thursday.
“These columnists are like DJs. I think it’s an ego kind of thing,” says Dyson. “Everybody wants to be first. I think Jim thinks I’ve done something unthinkable to him because I didn’t call him, and that’s not it at all.”
But though Dyson doesn’t think he did anything wrong, he doesn’t want to do it again. So he hopes to take Kirk and Feder to lunch one after the other and give them both a heartfelt message: “It can’t go on this way.”
Correction. I wrote last week that the Daily Herald was founded by Hosea Paddock in 1872. Not so. Established that year as a weekly called the Cook County Herald, it had twice changed hands and was known as the Palatine Enterprise when Paddock purchased it for $175 in 1889.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.