It was the spring of 1986, and I was close to graduating with my master’s in journalism. My university arranged for editors from several publications to visit our Chicago campus, and I signed up for several interviews. But for one in particular, I was the only student to throw my name in the hat. It was an interview with the National Enquirer.
Friends thought I was crazy. How on earth could I throw away a promising career on such a trash publication? I’d lose my street creds. No one would ever hire me again.
But I had a plan. I’d borrowed thousands in student loans, one of which had a double digit interest rate. If I could land a job with the National Enquirer, I could make more than double the starting salary I could make anywhere else. In the mid ‘80s, the Enquirer started reporters at about $60,000. At the newspaper chain I worked for just a few years later, that was about $10,000 more than the amount at which your salary topped out after working there 15 to 20 years.
So I had a plan. I would land the job at the Enquirer, write under an assumed name, stay long enough to pay off my loans and hightail it out of there to begin my “legitimate” newspaper career. No one would ever be the wiser.
I had my alias picked out before I ever went to my interview. I was going for irony, so with my dark hair and eyes, I decided to call myself Goldie. And without an ounce of Hispanic blood, I chose Lopez for my surname. Yes, Goldie Lopez would take the tabloid world by storm, getting paid the big bucks, while gathering tales that would guarantee she’d be a hit at every cocktail party for years to come. I would mesmerize crowds with tales of how Elvis was alive and well and cooking wieners at a Dog ‘n Suds in Arkansas.
My interview with the National Enquirer was like no other I would ever have again –over a champagne brunch at the landmark Drake Hotel in Chicago. The editor asked me all of the typical questions: Where had I gone to college? Did I have any prior work experience?
He told me how the tabloid operated, asserting that – despite public opinion – every story the newspaper printed was absolutely, positively true.
“Mike” the editor told me that if the National Enquirer printed a story about a two-headed baby, I could be sure they had an x-ray in their files to prove it wasn’t a hoax. He said the Enquirer fact-checking department was second to none and boasted about how most of the writers had decades of journalism experience. Many of them had had spent years working for tabloids in the UK.
And then it was my turn to ask a few questions.
Feeling a little less inhibited by the first Mimosa I’d ever had in my life, I looked at Mike and furrowed my brow as I boldly asked:
“But doesn’t it irk your conscience to print so many stories about deformed people … deformed children?”
He looked at me without flinching and responded very matter-of-factly:
“The National Enquirer doesn’t print any story that it doesn’t feel is of service to its readers.”
Then he read the doubt on my face.
“I’ll give you an example,” he said. “We once did a story on a couple with no arms and legs. They were able to find a medical professional who agreed to join their bodies, so they could conceive a child. The woman gave birth to a perfectly healthy baby with all of it’s appendages. … Now a story like that is an inspiration to people with no arms and legs everywhere.”
Was this some sort of joke? Was the human capacity for rationalization truly this far beyond anything I’d ever imagined? Even if the Enquirer’s 18 million readers were inspired by this story of armless and legless parents, how did some of the other bizarre stories qualify as inspiration? Did knowing that Michael Jackson was building a shrine in his mansion for Elizabeth Taylor inspire others to do the same? Did reading about “Pat Sajak’s Secret Divorce: ‘Wheel of Fortune Ruined My Marriage’” inspire Bob Barker and Richard Dawson to try a little harder with their partners?
I guessed I could twist any headline into being inspirational.
Poor Zsa Zsa’s Wedding Surprise: Her New Love Is a Convicted Con Man & Thief – You must do diligent homework before tying the knot!
Michael Landon’s Daughter Reveals: How My Parents’ Breakup Caused Me to Get Bulemia – Eating disorders are terrible. Get help! And be cognizant that your break up impacts the people around you.
Fantasy Island Exclusive: Fired Tattoo Fights Back: “They Treated Me Like a Monkey” – You have to stand up for yourself, even if you have to stand on a milk crate … or: It can be difficult to remove Tattoos.
Maybe Mike the editor was just a master at spinning a story.
Then again, back then the National Enquirer did print a lot of diet and weight loss secrets, medical discoveries, relationship advice and financial tips for the masses:
How to Be Richer a Year From Now: 52 Tips to Put Thousands in Your Pocket
Cheating: How to Tell if Your Mate is Unfaithful and How to Save Your Marriage
Add Years to Your Life: Easy Way to Live 10 to 15 Years Longer – By 2 Leading Doctors
5 Simple Ways to Attract Men Like a Magnet
If I wanted to, I could believe as Mike believed – that the Enquirer was providing a public service. I mean, as bad as it got, it still wasn’t the Weekly World News, which brought us hard-hitting stories like “Bigfoot Kept Lumberjack as Love Slave” and “Adoption Agency Selling Shaved Apes as Babies.”
No. I would not be deterred. I would get the job at the National Enquirer and ask for the medical beat. I would write pieces like “Eating Garlic May Prevent Colon Cancer” and “Dizzy Spells Can Warn You of Serious Health Problems.” Yes, Goldie Lopez would write with integrity. I would get assigned to legitimate stories. I would only write the truth. I would land this job and pay off my loans and live the rest of my life debt-free, with a squeaky clean conscience.
Well the National Enquirer contacted me a few weeks later and told me that, after careful consideration, they decided to stick with their policy of hiring only seasoned journalists. In other words, I wasn’t good enough to tackle pieces like “Liz Says Swami Saved Her Life.”
A few months later, Mike contacted me again. By this point I had finished my internship at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and was working at a newspaper in Leesburg, Florida. He asked me if I’d be interested in driving down to Lantana (not too far from Boca) for an all-expenses-paid week trial period. Since The Leesburg Commercial had me editing and laying out Dear Abby, the daily word jumble and the bridge column, I leaped at the opportunity for an adventure … and free room service.
The Enquirer newsroom reeked of cigarette and cigar smoke and the writers sat in rows, like they were raising money for Jerry’s kids. Everyone sat next to each other, like telemarketers – no walls, no cubicles. You didn’t have to try to eavesdrop to hear every word your neighbor was saying, which is how I knew the guy next to me was researching the hard-hitting question: “Is Michael Jackson the Reincarnation of King Tut?”
I quickly learned that the most challenging part of writing for the Enquirer was getting any expert to agree to talk to you, even on a story that might appear in a regular newspaper. I was doing a piece on the origin of slang, with a glossary to help parents understand their teens. It was a legitimate story, so it was more than a little demoralizing to have professor after professor hang up on me as soon as they heard the name of my publication. I plugged away, but couldn’t help feeling like a hack.
The second piece I was assigned was a quiz: Do You Have What it Takes to Be a Success? The Enquirer ran a quiz in every issue. My assignment basically consisted of making up questions, then phoning experts until I could find anyone from any university to say, “Why, yes, the answers to those questions might be a good indication of future success.” I was told to craft a results key where nobody came out a loser. Think about that the next time you put too much stock in a magazine quiz.
The Enquirer ended up buying and running both stories for several hundred dollars a piece. But, again, they decided not to hire unseasoned me.
So I went back to editing Abby, while waiting for my chance to cover some breaking news. Weeks later, Mike called again to ask if I’d be interested in freelancing. If I promised to send a hundred or so ideas a week, he promised to assign me stories, even if none of my ideas cut the mustard. This was no easy feat. I spent hours at the library, researching health, fitness and scientific discoveries and bizarre human interest stories.
Mike kept his promise, assigning me stories like “What do people in Mensa watch on TV?” but nothing I wrote ever made it to publication. I made a few thousand much-needed dollars in “kill fees” (the Enquirer paid half the fee for a story that didn’t pan out), but Goldie never got an actual byline.
Still, it was extraordinary money for a freelancer. Most newspapers back then paid about $25-$50 a story. The Enquirer paid a flat fee for a story that ran on the bottom of a page (somewhere between $350 and $500, if I remember correctly) and a higher fee for a story that ran at the top. I want to say top-of-the-page stories paid something like $750. And if your story got a teaser on the front page, you got a bonus of about $1,200.
I freelanced for the Enquirer for a few months, but eventually fizzled out. None of the ideas I gave them ever turned into a story … or they liked my ideas, but someone else submitted them first. After a while, they just stopped using me.
And that was okay, because I lacked the thick skin for rejection needed for the job. Every time someone slammed down the receiver while I was mid-sentence, the way I felt about my promising career plummeted a little further.
Goldie Lopez died a quick and painless death. And Parri Sontag didn’t pay off her student loans for at least another decade.
And just in case you’re wondering, Michael Jackson just might have been the reincarnation of Tut.
Because according to the Enquirer, they both wore gloves.