Arienne Thompson’s head is filled with golden pop-culture nuggets. But unlike most people who live and breathe all things celebrity, from Kimye’s fashion choices to Taylor Swift‘s relationship status, it’s her job to obsess over the minute details of celebrities’ lives. And there’s nothing she’d rather be doing. As an entertainment reporter at USA Today, Thompson knows who’s dating who, who wore what where and who’s got beef on everyone from Justin Beiber to Blake Lively to Beyoncé, so she can give pop-culture fiends their daily fix.
She spills the tea in the pages of the nation’s No. 1 newspaper in daily circulation, in USA Today‘s DailyDish vlog, and in the pages of USA Weekend, the paper’s weekend magazine. Sound cool? It is. But don’t get it twisted. Entertainment reporting is not for the faint of heart. You have to go hard. “You cannot be scared or shy or a wallflower. You can’t be psychotic — well, sometimes you have to be a little psychotic — but you have to be so aggressive,” Thompson explains.
Here, she serves up the scoop on how she went from being an extra in an America’s Most Wanted reenactment to being a sought-after pop-culture expert.
Name: Arienne Thompson
Position: Entertainment reporter at USA Today
Resume: Began her career as a production assistant on America’s Most Wanted. Hired as an online producer at USA Today. Promoted to entertainment reporter in 2006.
Birthday: January 19, 1982
Hometown: Memphis, Tennessee
Education: Bachelor’s in history, Notre Dame; master’s in journalism, American University
Marital status: Engaged
Media mentor: Amy Eisman, a journalism professor at American University (“She’s someone I always asked for advice while I was at school, and I still reach out to her now.”)
Best career advice received: “There’s no one mantra. It’s just been getting encouragement along the way and people saying I did the right thing or made a smart move.”
Guilty pleasure: Peanut M&Ms, bad Lifetime movies and shopping
Last book read: Kate: The Future Queen, by Katie Nicholl (on CD audio)
Twitter handle: @ByArienne
How did you parlay your role at USA Today into regular TV show appearances?
When Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes divorced in 2012, Entertainment Tonight asked our publicity team if someone could come on the show and talk about the divorce. No one else wanted to do it, so my editor asked me. I’m the type who always says yes. The only TV experience I had under my belt at that time was standing in a park pointing at a man, saying, “That’s him!” during a reenactment for AMW. I had no clue what I was doing going in to ET, but I did it. And it wasn’t terrible. It was actually fun. The paper was getting more into videos around this time, so I started doing more stuff in front of the camera, including a live Oscars video we streamed in early 2013. That video was a lot of work, but it was great for me. It was serendipitous. The next day CNN called and asked if I could come on and talk about the five best Oscar moments. It kind of snowballed from there.
I got calls to do Access Hollywood, Showbiz Tonight and others. Then in June of 2013, producers at Today said they were launching a new segment called “Ticket to Hollywood.” The paper’s publicist suggested me. I kind of helped launch that segment. Not long after, we made a real commitment and decided I would do the show at least once a month. It was kind of the same situation with [Washington, D.C.’s CBS affiliate] WUSA. Now I do an entertainment segment there called “Buzz by Arienne” every Monday morning.
You juggle writing for USA Today and doing those TV appearances as a pop-culture expert. Which medium is more difficult?
It’s hard to say because I was trained to do everything at American [University]. We learned everything, from making videos to building a website. I learned to be a multimedia, multitasking journalist. If I had to choose, television may be a little more challenging because I have no formal TV training. But that just means whenever I do something, I’m watching the professionals and trying to emulate them. I’m thinking, ‘What is Tamron [Hall] doing? Did Al Roker just laugh? OK, I should probably laugh.’ It’s been such an education. Now it’s becoming second nature.
Lots of websites and blogs cover fashion and entertainment now. How does USA Today distinguish itself? Does the plethora of sites make your job harder?
A lot of blogs and [celebrity] sites use anonymous sources and [base stories on] rumor, which they report as fact. USA Today is a trusted brand. We don’t do that. How many magazine covers said Beyoncé and Jay-Z were getting a divorce? Until we get a call from her publicist saying she’s getting a divorce, which we never will, we don’t care about all that other noise out there. Many of these sites are not legit to me, so I don’t consider them competition. Of course, Us Weekly is competition, but that’s still a tabloid, so it’s different.
Do larger sites such as The Huffington Post or BuzzFeed affect how USA Today works or puts out its news in general?
All media companies have to have a huge digital footprint. Major newspapers are thinking digital first, mobile first, social first. I just keep my head down and do what I’m supposed to do. If I’m able to break news, I break it online first. That’s a no-brainer.
What is the best part of your job?
Covering New York Fashion Week, the Oscars, the Emmys, interviewing my imaginary boyfriend, Brad Pitt, and gazing into Idris Elba‘s eyes — that stuff is obvious. But what’s really important, what’s really been fun for me is that I’m doing exactly what I always said I wanted to do. In college, and even as a kid, I watched Entertainment Tonight, literally, every evening at 6:30. I always wanted to do this. Not necessarily be on television, but be in the world of pop culture. And I’m doing it. In college, I remember one of my professors saying, ‘You’re so smart and talented; you should be an academic. You really want to write about shoes?’ And I’m like, ‘Yes, I really want to write about shoes.’ For me, this is it. It’s a wrap.
What is the most difficult part of your job?
Because of my beat, I don’t like to complain. I’m not writing War and Peace. But multitasking is so hard. On Mondays, I’m up at 3:45 a.m. and in full makeup shortly thereafter. I’m finishing two hits at WUSA before 6:30. Then I’m off to the paper. I’m managing the website, posting celebrity news stories and creating videos for DailyDish. I’m also the editor of the VIP celebrity page, the second page of USA Weekend magazine. I manage three freelance reporters, do all the scheduling, edit all the stories, help with layout, look for breaking news, tweet, etc.
Beyond that, red carpets are not fun. People are going to be fighting for territory. Somebody’s going to be elbowing you. You have to file your story, you have to tweet. You’re in the middle of one interview when you suddenly have to wrap it up because you need a quote from another celebrity who you see making her way down the carpet. One publicist is mad because you rejected her client. You’re trying to get another publicist’s attention so you can have two minutes with her client. That’s what it is. You have to be prepared for that.
What advice would you give an aspiring entertainment reporter?
You have to know your stuff. There are so many cute, funny girls who are like, ‘Oh, my god, I love Beyoncé, I love Rihanna. I want to be an entertainment reporter.’ But you ask them one question about some very specific detail and they don’t have the answer. That doesn’t work for me. Yes, of course, my brain is filled with so much pop-culture trivia that I don’t even want to know some of the stuff I know. But if they don’t know Blue Ivy‘s birthday or who Ben Affleck dated before he married Jennifer Garner, I can’t [be bothered].
And you have to have a certain type of personality to do this job. You cannot sit across from someone and have three questions about her epic divorce and be too scared to ask those questions. If a publicist tells you that you can ask one question, you ask three. If someone tells you that you can’t come in this entrance for the party, you find another entrance. You can’t tell your boss you didn’t get the story because they wouldn’t let you in. You’ll get fired. And you should. That’s just being a good journalist. That applies to any beat.
How do you get your subjects, particularly notoriously difficult ones, to open up?
I just try to be normal. And funny. I follow a lot of celebrities on Twitter and Instagram, so I may mention to the celeb that I saw the picture she just tweeted of her baby backstage taking a nap. I’ll say something about how the baby must not be ready for primetime just yet. That usually makes them laugh, which means I’ve warmed them up. And I’ve opened the door — hopefully — for them to talk about their personal lives. You just have to remember you’re just two human beings having a conversation, even if the other one does have a trillion dollars. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel and ask Mary J. Blige the most unique question she’s ever been asked.
What’s next for you professionally?
Next year I’m launching a new beat called “Race, Culture and Entertainment,” so I can start telling more serious stories that are important to me, long-form stuff. Being an entertainment reporter isn’t the most serious job in the world, so it’s is a great outlet for the smarter, analytical, more thoughtful stuff I want to do. It’s exciting.
Jenell Talley is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area. She can be reached at email@example.com.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.