You’ve probably seen Julia Allison before. The 28-year-old TV commentator and media personality has been featured on MSNBC dissecting the latest viral video... or you may have caught her hawking the Sony VAIO in TV commercials alongside Peyton Manning and Justin Timberlake. And if you’re into media gossip, you’ll definitely know her as the girl Gawker.com loves to hate. She has achieved a certain kind of micro-fame in the world of Web 2.0 that may be crossing over into the mainstream, but when we sat down to speak with her we wanted to know how it happened... and more importantly, why. The short answer: because she wanted it. Plus, no one else was looking out for her, least of all media companies.
“They weren’t going to ensure that I had a job... or even that I had an audience. I looked to the Internet as a distribution channel, and also looked to the Internet to allow me to cut out the middle men — the people who were running the magazines and who also took in the ad dollars,” she explained. Recognition was a commodity as far as she was concerned, and she wanted to be paid more than $50 per column for it. Why not become your own publication, talent and publicity machine — all rolled into one?
I’ve met Allison before but it’s worth noting that she is smaller in person, and less intimidating, than you would expect for someone who spends so much time in the public eye. But she undeniably has what could be called "presence." I overheard another guest talking about her when she was in the studio. He wondered who she was and speculated to his colleague, "She must be a TV person."
After she graduated from Georgetown in 2004, Allison started working on Capitol Hill because she was interested in politics and wanted to make a difference. She soon became disillusioned by the political process and decided the best way she could have an impact on people’s lives was to become a journalist. So she moved to New York and managed to land herself a gig writing a dating column for free subway newspaper AM New York. Again, she became disillusioned, this time because AM New York paid horribly and she came to the shocking realization that a) journalists make lousy money, and b) it’s a profession with very little security. She decided, rightly we might add, that if she could become somewhat well-known, she would be better able to support herself... and then some.
So she decided to start living her life online, and doing what she could to get noticed. Allison has many attention-getting stunts to her name, including a now-infamous appearance at media mogul Nick Denton’s 2006 Halloween party wearing a “condom dress” and jointly blogging about her relationship with new media millionaire Jakob Lodwick on the Web site JakobandJulia.com. As their relationship went downhill, and eventually ended, Allison realized that airing personal drama in the public sphere has a real drawback. The final post from her on the shuttered JakobandJulia site reads: “It’s always humbling to realize you’ve made an enormous mistake, but I know that, at the very least, my public relationship struggles in the last seven months made others feel less alone. They certainly taught me quite a lesson … just not the lesson I thought I would learn. Good luck to you all.”
But Allison couldn’t give up sharing altogether. She co-founded the lifecasting portal NonSociety.com, where she regularly posts ideas, photos and other content arguably designed to keep her in the public eye. In a sense, all of this was designed to eventually get some big corporation to take notice, and pay her to do something.
When she landed the Sony gig, she felt like it was finally all coming together—and it paid real money... more than a $50 gift card to the Sony store, she confirmed.
(Click here to watch a bit of our interview with Julia.)
But what exactly is she trying to be? Julia insists she is a journalist despite the fact that most journalists don’t go around directly soliciting money from would-be advertisers. That kind of dirty work is left to the ad sales department. When we pointed out that Bob Woodward probably never asked companies for money in exchange for endorsing them, Allison wasn’t having it. “If Bob Woodward were making fifty bucks a column,” she said, “You know what, he would do what it took.”
Actually, probably not. When Woodward graduated from college in 1965 he went right into the Navy for five years. Then, like Allison, he moved to D.C. where he tried to talk his way into a job at The Washington Post. He failed and instead took a job at the Montgomery Sentinel, a weekly paper. And after a year toiling in the suburbs he managed to land a job at The Post. I doubt he was making much at either gig, that is until he managed to help break the story that led to the resignation of the President of the United States. But really, that’s neither here nor there. If Allison wants to call herself a journalist, fine. But there are plenty of journalists who are making horrible money who would disagree.
(Here’s another bit from our interview. Julia calls herself a journalist, and I’m all, “not so fast!” Very Mike Wallace.)
The truth is that regardless of how she labels herself, Julia employed a particularly aggressive brand of self-promotion to get to where she is today, and she deserves a ton of credit for that. I understand her branding strategy on a too-close-to-home level. Before I came to MainStreet I tried something similar, though I was far less motivated. I wrote a book about generating buzz, tried a couple dim publicity stunts of my own... and even got on TV a few times as a result. But when it became readily apparent that producers did not care about furthering my career, I eventually quit the schtick, and went back to the mundane business of being a normal person. The truth is that it takes a certain kind of iron constitution to put yourself out there in the way that Julia Allison does... or it takes a kind of willingness to suffer. It seems that she possesses the former more than the latter.
Type “Julia Allison” into Gawker’s search bar and you will be presented with a long list of articles that mock her in one way or another. Click on one of the articles and you’ll probably find a ton of comments that just rip her mercilessly. I asked her if she thought that even the bad press, the worst haters, were actually good for her because they keep people talking about her. Allison says she doesn’t deal well with the criticism: “I’m maybe too sensitive to ever be a real public figure or a real celebrity; I want everyone to like me.” She said she doesn’t want people to think she’s a “dick.”
We got in touch with Gawker writer Richard Lawson and asked him why people seem to react the way they do to Julia and why she’s been such a fixture on the site.
“I think she was just one of the first people to harness web 2.0 and leverage her own personality to make something of a name, and a paycheck, for herself. That was (is?) inherently interesting to Gawker -- the whole idea of getting something from nothing but ‘oversharing.’ Is it indulgent? Sure. Does it take a special kind of person to do it? Absolutely. I think you have to decide whether you hate the game, the player or both. I think Gawker hated it all,” he told us via e-mail.
He added in a subsequent e-mail that while Gawker hated it all, it also loved it all. He said it is as interesting to them as it is repellent.
Thankfully for Julia, Gawker’s not the only game in town. She has appeared as a frequent guest on shows including FOX News Channel's comedic commentary program Red Eye and the now-defunct Morning Show With Mike and Juliet. She was an editor-at-large for Star Magazine for a year and she was reportedly paid a six-figure salary to go on television to talk about celebrity stuff she, by her own admission, often did not know all that much about. A potentially rewarding position as a FOX Business Channel contributor fell through, because producers saw how negatively her appearance was received by certain online commenters.
(Watch her talk about this incident and other TV gigs here.)
These days she broadcasts her inevitable rise in the media game on an almost 24/7 basis — tweeting, blogging, lip-synching (or "lip-dubbing" as she corrected me), vacations, boyfriends, business negotiations. She broadcasts them all, like a real-life version of The Truman Show, only she's in on the production (though she has said that she’s trying not to "overshare" as much). Her dream job, however, is to one day be a host on The View, though she’s unsure whether people her age (28 according to her Wikipedia, so it must be true) actually watch the show. People our age would watch The View with Julia Allison as a host — I really believe that.
Not everyone thinks her 24/7 lifecasting business model has a future, however. Mary Rambin, a former business partner and NonSociety ex-contributor, left Allison’s venture to form her own publication MoreThanMary.com, which launched Monday. We asked why she left NonSociety. She explained, “We built a great platform on NonSociety, one I believe in. Julia has chosen to maintain the lifecasting course, which I hope people eventually see the value in and realize how challenging it is. I left because Julia and I were not in agreement on how to build the NonSociety brand. That's the bottom line.”
Alrighty then! Reading between the lines here, but sounds like there’s some drama there. Now let’s all gossip about it, and write anonymous comments about Julia Allison on Gawker and everywhere else she appears. Keep it friendly, though — a booking producer at The View may be reading.
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