Mike Albo Dramatizes His Firing from The New York Times
During the aughts, writer-performer Mike Albo’s literary career seemed to be scaling new heights. He’d ratcheted up a robust clip file at powerhouse pubs (The New Yorker, New York magazine, GQ and Details), penned two novels (Hornito; The Underminer) and two plays (Sexotheque; Three Women in Indecision) and was becoming something of a celebrity in NYC’s art scene with his satirical one-man shows. Then, in 2007, he scored the ultimate: a biweekly retail column (“Critical Shopper”) in The New York Times, which paid him a steady sum in an industry that’s infamously unsteady.
Life was good…until a perverse curiosity grabbed hold of him in 2009: What might it be like to go on a supremely tacky press trip to Jamaica?!
“It was the crassest junket ever,” he laughed in a recent interview with The Slant, rattling off the trip’s corporate sponsors—Trojan Condoms, Cold-Eeze, Pom Wonderful, H&M, Starbucks and Gillette! “The bukaki of a junket,” he joked.
What ensued forever floats through the blogosphere: The Times defended Albo on the grounds that he was a freelancer and not on assignment for the paper, then abruptly changed course amid a flurry of negative press and gave him the ax.
From his shabby-chic apartment in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, Albo talked about the struggles of freelancing, the hypocrisy of the media elite, and the high personal cost of pursuing a life of letters.
Are you barred from writing for The New York Times forever?
I don’t know. It’s probably not helping that I keep writing and blabbing about it all the time! If I was smart, I could play the game. I think that the letter I got from them said, “We can no longer work with you at this time.” So they left a slight opening.
You’ll probably make your way back there someday.
I’m not sure. Since I became patient zero of conflicts of interest over there, they’ve put more draconian policies in place. Right after it happened, they released a memo reminding the staff that they weren’t allowed to do press trips. Then they sent out another one that was like, If you know anyone on staff who has taken one, snitch them out. It was very Stasi.
Did you have a hard time getting work after the incident?
Actually, I got a lot of calls, where editors would say, “That sucks, come write for us!” Then, I’d go meet with them and they’d say, “We pay $75 an entry.” And I’d be like, I spent forty hours a week writing those articles for the Times. To do those jobs I’d have had to take a 90 percent pay cut. And other times, people were kind and wanted me to write for them, but it’s often very difficult to find the right fit for what I want to say.
How do you mean?
No one wanted the type of article about someone having a complicated relationship with retail and retail culture. They wanted a lot of “Look at these boots!” That retail column I did for the Times was a rare find.
How did the Times find out you’d gone on the press trip?
A woman on the trip, whom I became friends with, unintentionally outed me. Through one of her social media outlets, she said, “I’m here with Mike Albo!” I think that’s how it got out. But the journalist who reported on the incident was waiting for this. He was trolling.
Wait, but didn’t you also tweet about being on the trip?
Yes, I’m stupid. Let’s get that out of the way: I’m stupid and I don’t know how to play the game. I’m dumb about this shit. I went on this trip, which people were poised to write about because it was so over-the-top and crass. My name was on it and they were like, Red flag! He writes for The New York Times! But The Junket is a period piece in a lot of ways.
Because it all happened in 2009 and 2010 when journalism was at a very scary moment. In 2009, people were panicking. Print journalism was on shaky ground. It still is. But that’s the year The Boston Globe reported a loss; and The Rocky Mountain News folded. The bloggers were salivating! “Death of print, death of print!” They were so excited about it. The Junket is part of that story.
The internet has really diminished the value of the written word and challenged every writer’s ability to make money these days.
It’s funny. In the golden age of the internet—the early and mid-90s—I would get paid. There were all these start-up websites happening. One was through Prodigy. It was called Skim and it was this great kind of Gen-X website that let you write random stuff. I wrote something about having a fake I.D. once. There was also this other site called Word that was really popular. They paid really well. I wrote a horoscope column that paid $1000 a month and I’d make about $600 bucks an article.
Raking it in!
Ha! I know. Who knew? And then the tech bubble burst. So that all ended. The internet came back in a much less lucrative form. Now articles I would have written for magazines, I write for Salon.com and get paid a $150. On top of that, they pay four months after it publishes—and you have to follow people around, asking to be paid.
Magazines still pay pretty well, but it’s tough to make that consistent.
Let’s talk about the hypocrisies you observe within the media establishment. You note the contradiction between you getting fired for going on a press trip for the Times (as a freelancer who was not on assignment, no less!) and the inordinate amount of swag staff editors and writers receive and enjoy without risking dismissal.
Look, the Times policy is needed. Of course there should be a policy in place so that you’re not getting free Apple products and then writing about Apple. But it’s not clear where the line is. It’s way too blurry. My one point is that we are all part of the mess.
Once I was in Toronto, performing at this gay and lesbian festival in an auditorium. I looked around and there were banners all around for Bacardi and a bunch of other brands. Then, I suddenly imagined myself in 1950s China and being surrounded by pictures of Mao. Writers in the past have had to appeal to their leaders. They had to write odes to their dictators. The leader we have to venerate today is Chairman Consumer Goods. Whatever we do, as long as we move product forward, it’s considered a good thing. That’s the system we are all under. So that’s what I’m trying to say. We are all part of the system and you can’t say that you’re not part of it because you are. And the only way not to be part of it is to be rich and be able to sponsor your own life. It’s the only way.
So you’re probably concerned about the murky line between advertising and editorial.
Definitely, we can’t allow the border between the two to collapse. When I was writing “Critical Shopper,” I was never in bed with the fashion world. It’s a funny dichotomy because I went on this press trip, which was a huge conflict of interest for the Times, but when I was writing my column for them, I didn’t ever go to any fashion shows. And the more I wrote that column, the more I got invited places, but honestly I never went.
Because of my distance, I was able, in my soul, to appreciate good design and to also question the expensive things and the emperor’s new clothes aspect of it all.
What do you think of today’s “Critical Shopper” column?
It’s not as…I don’t know how Cintra Wilson, who wrote also wrote the column, and I got away with what we wrote, but I credit our editor. I mean, we knew we couldn’t go in there and be like, Pour pigs blood on haute couture! Commercialism sucks! Occupy Whatever! But we were complicated about it. Retail culture is a complicated, emotional, weird thing. Sometimes the stuff we saw was beautiful and sometimes it wasn’t. But I don’t see that kind of relationship going on in today’s column.
The column is all praise?
There’s not a lot of fun, weird, like, Who are we as consumers type pieces. There’s not a lot of soul searching.
And that is a reflection of our times?
Yes, I think so.
Have you ever gotten turned down to write a story because of a potential conflict of interest with a publisher’s advertisers?
Yes, I’ve wanted to do a story on Tom Ford. I’ve asked, “Please, please let me do a parody of him; the man needs to be parodied in a major way!”
They wouldn’t touch it.
No. He’s golden. You can’t make fun of him. But you can see it in the profiles of him that writers are dying to poke fun at him because he’s so pretentious. So they’ll do it covertly like, “He lit the fire in his grand estate and turned around…,” You can tell the writer is like, “God, this guy is such an ass.” That’s one example of where you can and can’t go.
The Junket contemplates the snark-heavy humor in our culture. As a comedic writer and performer, we wondered if you think snark is cheap comedy and what it says about American culture.
Snark is nothing new and there have always been people who want to undercut other people. That’s what happens when you put your name out there: You’re at risk of becoming an item. But I do think that something weird is going on. For example, almost all my lady friends are obsessed with The Real Housewives and it’s the kind of thing that should be the most insulting to them. If anyone should be grossed out by that show, it’s women. They’re fantastically grossed out by it and yet they can’t stop watching it. And there is something in our culture right now where we are so disgusted, but energized by our disgust.
What’s that about?
I think we’re all just a little broken hearted. I mean, I remember when 9/11 happened and there was that two weeks of “Wow, we need to look into ourselves and change humanity.” But then, it quickly turned back to, “Lets go shopping! Paris Hilton!” It was gross to watch. I think we’re all grossed out at ourselves. We’re ashamed of ourselves. That’s what snark feels like to me. It’s self-shame.
The Junket is also a commentary on how hard it is to sustain oneself as an artist in NYC these days. You’re 44 years old and you note that you don’t own an apartment, have no savings or retirement plan, and no stability. Was it worth it?
I don’t think I have a choice. I think I’m meant to do this. I feel committed to being creative and there’s no other way for me to be. The last time I worked at a Condé Nast magazine, I got kidney stones. I just can’t. It’s not in me. I can’t do it. I’ll die. I think I’d rather live on peanut butter and jelly in an apartment that’s falling apart.
That said, I have lived this way for ten years now and I do feel like something is going to have to change soon because I can’t afford it. I just went to the coin store the other day to get some cash. I am waiting for some checks to roll in so I have like forty bucks until they come through. It’s kind of a scary time for me right now. I don’t know how long I can sustain this. But I believe in what I do and have a bunch of stuff coming up that could go places. I just want to be paid for the one talent I have, which is to write. I really don’t have any other skills.
You published The Junket as an Amazon Kindle Single. How’d that go money-wise?
That was a really good experience. The cut was 70/30. 70 for me, 30 for them. That’s much better than a book. Books are like 30 for the writer. I made about $7000 from it so far. It’s the equivalent of getting paid for a long magazine piece.
What other projects are you working on right now?
I’m working on a non-fiction book proposal about the culture of shopping.
What about the culture of shopping?
In the 20th century, shopping was transformed from a chore into a pleasure. Back the in 30s, there was a mom and pop shop on the corner and you would tell your child to go get the sugar and your kid would go get the sugar. Then markets and franchises and malls happened and shopping became beautified. So you’d have your typical advertisement of a woman enjoying her day with her shopping bags. Now, shopping has turned into a lifestyle and we don’t know when we aren’t shopping anymore because we shop for everything. We shop for sperm, sex, babies. We are always shopping. We don’t even know when we are not doing it anymore. The book is going to explore what that’s about.
You have a triumphant line at the end of The Junket: “The only thing still humming in me will be that constant urge for expression, ringing like a little dinner bell. Not even a city can silence it.”
That’s the last line of the show! For me the question is: How far do you follow your calling—or something you thought was your calling—and when does it become a delusion? And what’s the difference? Everyday I lie here and I think, “Am I an idiot? Am I deluding myself? Am I supposed to be doing something else? Am I a hack or am I a committed artist?” Those are tough questions. You can get into a really dark space thinking you’ve been fooling yourself the entire time. At the same time, if you’re going to do this, you have to do it completely. You can’t just marry a hedge fund analyst and do it.
Do you regret going on the junket?
When people ask me that I say, “It sharpened my knives.” I didn’t even try to fuck up. I just fucked up. I was semi aware of what I was doing, but I was just living my life the way that I thought I should live it. It was destiny. I think I’m more committed to being an artist than I thought I was. And I didn’t try to be. I just am. The experience reaffirmed that what I’m doing—it might lead to tragedy, I might be living in a wheelbarrow one day—but that’s just how it’s going to be. It’s what I’m here for. I can’t live any other way.
See Albo in The Junket at Dixon Place on Nov. 1-2 @ 7:30 p.m.; and Nov. 8,9, 15, & 16 @ 10:00 p.m.