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Q & A with journalist, kelley l. carter

Want to know how to achieve rock star status as an Emmy Award-winning journalist while remaining incredibly humble and focused on being exceptional? I turned the mic on entertainment reporter, Kelley L. Carter to find out. This superstar is used to being the interviewer but this time she is the subject who shares her fascinating journey with honesty, integrity and humor. Read below to learn how Kelley got her start as a journalist, what inspires her, what she loved about covering Detroit's underground hip hop scene and how she manages her fabulous life as the CEO of her own LA-based freelance business.

LeslieWrites: Kelley, thanks for taking the time to talk with me today. Let’s start with some general background information. Where are you from? How many siblings do you have? What college you did you attend?

Kelley: I’m from Southfield, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. My family moved from Detroit to Florida. My mom is an English professor. My dad is a coach and so we moved to Florida and eventually moved slowly up the east coach to get back to Michigan. I went to Southfield-Lathrup High School. I’m an only kid and I went to Michigan State University. I’m one of those Spartans that will travel with the team. I go to Bowl games. I go to Final Four games. I bleed green and white.

LeslieWrites: Was there a defining moment when you were a child or young adult that inspired you to become a journalist?

Kelley: I’ve always been a writer and I really blame that on my mother, the English professor, who made me her guinea pig. She did a lot of experiments on me when it came to language arts so I started writing short stories at four or five-years-old. In fact, my mom saved a lot of my writing which is so funny. We found some of it recently and she’s threatening to put it out there in the universe. [Laughter] My very first story that I wrote was called “Funny Bunny.” I guess I fell in love with words at a very young age and I was very competitive as a kid. My main competition was my mom because I would always see her writing. I remember one Christmas I asked for a typewriter and I got it. It was the best Christmas gift ever. I used to tell my mom that I was going to beat her and win a Pulitzer first. What five or six-year-old kid says something like that?

By the time I was in 5th grade I guess that’s right when teachers start identifying strengths and talking about what you want to be when you grow up. That’s when we first start seeing career days and people coming in to talk about vocations. I said I wanted to be a writer and there really isn’t a vocation for being a fiction writer which is what I was thinking at the time because I was writing all of these short stories and fiction pieces. The only vocation for writing that made sense from my teacher’s perspective was journalism. In 5th grade I started working for my middle school newspaper and literally I’ve been working as a journalist ever since. I really didn’t falter and the only other job I’ve ever had was being a babysitter. I wanted to be a journalist so bad by the time I was a senior in high school that I picked my school based on the school newspaper.

LeslieWrites: That’s interesting. A lot of high school seniors decide to go to a particular college or university based on the size of the campus, how many attractive guys go to the school, or what the fraternities or sororities are like. You were so much more focused than the average high school student.

Kelley: Yes I was but I should say that my focus could have been kind of dangerous too. If journalism turned out to not be the career that I wanted to pursue I would have been in a really bad place because that was the only thing I prepared myself to do. I think that kind of made it a bit challenging in terms of career possibilities because I limited myself in some ways. My mom and my dad will probably tell you that because I knew I wanted to be a journalist and I was so strong at an early age, I knew what I didn’t need to excel academically. That was the source of many of our fights. I didn’t excel in math, for example, not because I wasn’t good at it but because I knew I didn’t need it as a journalist. I feel badly when I look back. Of course my parents were right about everything but I could never tell them that, even now. [Laughter]

LeslieWrites: You were a music critic/columnist for the Detroit Free Press for almost a decade. Was this your first significant journalism gig after graduating from Michigan State? What were some of the highlights from your time at the Free Press?

Kelley: I had a couple of internships in college but the Free Press was my first job after college. Like a lot of rookie journalists, you know, once you get a taste of covering hard news and what comes with that, you think this is where you want to go with your career. To be fair I have to venture back because as you know before college I wanted to be a journalist but I was also interested in theater. I told my dad that I wanted to study theater and he wanted to know how I was going to pay my light bill particularly in theater. I said, “Okay, well I’ll study journalism” and he wanted to know how I was going to be able to pay my light bill with a journalism degree. My mom said “that’s okay because she’ll probably go to law school anyway. It’ll be fine.” I loved theater and I was doing a lot of school plays. Probably right around my sophomore year in high school I started thinking that I could combine my interest in theater with journalism and maybe become a live theater critic. I got that idea from my best friend, Jemele Hill. She’s been my guiding light for cute boys to date, career advice and all that good stuff.

How I got the Free Press gig was I started telling different recruiters at NABJ that I wanted to be a theater critic. There was a program for minority journalists at the Free Press who wanted to develop specialties whether it was arts and entertainment criticism, business writing, photography, editing or sports writing. The Free Press offered me the job to learn theater criticism. That’s why I went to Detroit but what happens is you write one story about music, you get a hundred phone calls and thirty of them are really great story ideas. That kind of took me in a different direction. Also, this was before Detroit had a national hip hop scene. Shortly after I started working with the Free Press and we’re talking three or four months, Marshall (Mathers also known as Eminem) got signed with Dr. Dre. All of a sudden people were paying attention to what looked to be a burgeoning Detroit hip hop scene. I was the youngest person in the features entertainment department. I was the only woman and I was the only African American. I was the only person who probably listened to and knew about urban music and knew how to put urban music in a context that would relate to a mainstream audience. Having that kind of background really benefited me and that’s what shaped my music, and more specifically, my urban music specialty at the Free Press.

LeslieWrites: So you were a catalyst for helping to define, shape and report on the burgeoning hip hop scene in Detroit, right?

Kelley: That would be a little too much like tooting my own horn but I definitely was a regular fixture when it came to covering Detroit hip hop. It was great because I think Detroit has a very specific and very unique brand of hip hop. Detroit rappers are storytellers and it kind of fit along the same lines of what I think that I do as a journalist. It was really great being around all of these really young, really creative artists who were starting to make names for themselves. I was so honored to be in a great position to able to cover the scene’s rise.

LeslieWrites: In 2008, you won a National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Emmy for "40 Years of Respect.” Tell me about this project. What did this do for your career?

Kelley: I grew up in a house divided. My mom is from Detroit so she loves all things Motown and Aretha. My dad is from Alabama so he loves all things Bill Withers, Otis Redding and the Commodores so there were lots of fun fights in our home. As a result of that I know a lot about music. It was one of those destiny things that I happened to be pretty well versed in Otis Redding and I happened to be pretty well versed in Aretha Franklin and that story idea came from an editor who said “Hey, I read a line in Aretha’s book that ‘Respect’ came out in 1967 and maybe there’s something you can do there since the song is turning 40 years old.” I wanted to do something a little different so I talked to my editor and told him I wanted to try something crazy and do something with multimedia because that’s what a lot of newspapers were starting to figure out how to do at that time. I identified a photographer I liked working with and told her what I wanted to do. We were in a great position because our editors just trusted us. We went out, figured something out and arranged this presentation for all of the top editors to give them an idea of where we wanted to go. Quite frankly she’s a print photographer and I’m a print reporter and we wanted to make a documentary for a newspaper. Kind of absurd. We didn’t know anything about it but that’s what we did but it was probably one of the highlights of my career so far. But after the Aretha Franklin piece I was like, it’s definitely time to go. I had hit my ceiling in Detroit and I wanted to grow more with my career so I went to the Chicago Tribune.

LeslieWrites: How long were you in Chicago?

Kelley: I was with the Chicago Tribune for only a year. That was right before the bottom fell out in the newspaper industry. For the first time in my career I was seeing many of my contemporaries get laid off from newspapers. That kind of jarred me. The Tribune at the time started announcing lay offs. I started thinking about what would be my out if I got laid off. The only thing I came up with was being an entertainment journalist. I thought okay well, if I get laid off in Chicago I don’t know if I could have a career without having a job. Before I could think too much about it I got a call from the USA Today about a great job as a celebrity reporter based in LA. They asked if I was interested and of course I was. I didn’t think I could afford not to be interested in this climate where people don’t know if they would have a job the next day. My thought in leaving the Midwest and going out to LA was that I didn’t know anyone and I didn’t know if I would be able to sustain a career without having a job. And that’s exactly what ended up happening a year and a half after I moved out to LA.

LeslieWrites: You seem to make it work no matter the circumstance.

Kelley: I’ve tried to adapt and evolve as journalism evolves. The biggest change for me and kind of what I’m figuring out is that you can’t just be a one layered journalist anymore. When I first started working at the Free Press back in 1998 I thought I would retire in my 60s working for a newspaper and I would have been happy. I was kind of laughing to myself the other day thinking about how my college friends and I would salivate over these newspaper columnists like Donna Britt and Clarence Page. It was a highlight when Donna Britt shook your hand at NABJ as a 19-year-old kid because that was the goal to work for the Washington Post or the Chicago Tribune as a columnist. That was the pie in the sky. But now so much has changed. I talk about entertainment journalism more than I actually write about it these days. That’s been a big adjustment for me. The uneasy part has been that people look to me to be a commentator and I wasn’t necessarily prepared to have a career as a commentator. I was prepared to be an authority on entertainment and to write about it but not necessarily to be in front of a camera and all of a sudden have to worry about my makeup or my wardrobe or what my stylist thinks looks good. It’s been a big change and it takes a lot of getting used to.

LeslieWrites:Tell me about the most fascinating person you’ve covered or written about and why that person is so fascinating to you.

Kelley: I love interviews where I get to learn something about myself through talking with someone. My first magazine cover story was on Paula Patton for Ebony Magazine. It also happened to be her first major magazine cover. She was coming off of the success of the movie Precious and she also was pregnant with her first kid. You know, Paula is a biracial black woman who is married to a white guy (recording artist, Robin Thicke) who is embraced by the black community. He makes R & B music. We had this really great series of conversations about identity and esteem and sense of self. We were promoting her upcoming movie but over tea we just had this amazing therapeutic conservation. We are the same age and we talked about growing up being obligatory black girls and what that was like for us. We talked about her fear with falling in love with a white man, what that meant for her and how she viewed race. It was just one of those great conversations. I can’t say that she was the most fascinating person that I’ve ever interviewed but our conversation did what I love to have happen in interviews which is we kind of forgot that something was being recorded and that I’m the reporter and you’re the subject. It was like somebody sat on somebody’s couch and to be honest with you I’m not sure which on of us was the therapist.

LeslieWrites: Which professional experience has been most gratifying thus far? Being a music critic? Covering red carpet? Doing on-air commentary?

Kelley: I think the most gratifying is not the obvious answer. It’s not being on TV. The most fun I had in my career was working for the Free Press, going to these after hour rap battles with these Detroit MCs and being in a position where everything was so unfiltered and getting to really tell people’s stories. I think when you work for larger mediums and when you’re dealing with larger stars and celebrities everything is so edited and so filtered because you’re dealing with people who have a team of 20 around them as opposed to going to Coney Island with Detroit’s favorite rapper and doing a piece on him or her. So, it was just more fun in Detroit. We were all the same age and kind of had the same goals. We wanted to be great at what we were doing. I really loved that time in my life. I loved being a newspaper reporter. That was the penultimate for me especially in a town like Detroit because everyone is so appreciative and so respective of Detroit’s contributions and musical history.

LeslieWrites: As a journalist, you’re immersed in many interesting aspects of popular culture. What do you appreciate most about popular culture? What about popular culture makes you want to hurl yourself over a bridge?

Kelley: Well, let me tackle the second part of the question first. The thing about popular culture that makes me want to hurl myself over a bridge is people’s wayward view of what celebrity is. I think we actually need a new word to define 'celebrity.' Are we talking about someone that’s infamous or someone that’s famous? Someone that’s wealthy and has great influence? You don’t really know what that is anymore. You get to have these interesting relationships in this business. (Actor and R&B recording artist,) Tyrese Gibson is someone I talk to fairly regularly and we have an industry friendship. He said something interesting to me one time: “Fame isn’t even important anymore. That’s not even the goal to be famous. Anybody can be famous these days. People are more famous these days for fighting and cohabitating on television.”

Recently people were talking about how Snooki from the reality TV show, Jersey Shore got more money to speak at a university than Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Toni Morrison. It’s ridiculous but that’s fame in 2011. Whatever the measuring stick for what celebrity is makes me ill about pop culture right now.

What I love about popular culture is that it connects people. I love getting phone calls from my parents when they say “Hey, use ‘shorty’ in a sentence.” [Laughter] or they ask about some piece of vernacular from popular culture or some TV show. Or when my mom asks, “So do we like NeNe or do we hate NeNe?” My reply is, “What are you doing watching the Real Housewives of Atlanta?” These things that break down these generational, racial or cultural divides are really cool aspects of pop culture.

LeslieWrites: What can aspiring journalists learn from your mistakes? From your successes?

Kelley: One thing that stands out is that I think I stayed at the Free Press too long. I stayed because I was having a great time doing what I was doing but I wish in retrospect that I had left after two years. Largely because it became this measuring stick and it was like leaving my first family to go and live with another family and trying to gauge which one was better. That made it very difficult to work other places. Also, I couldn’t have known I was going to get laid off (from The USA Today) and end up being this accidental freelancer but if I had if I known that things would turn out the way that they turned out I would have started trying to build up my freelance contacts earlier. More than that, I would have started thinking about journalism from a business perspective. It goes back to when my parents used to yell at me for not being interested in math or business classes. I mean those things would be immensely helpful now that I’m CEO of my own freelance business. Today I have a good attorney helping me but something my best friend said stuck with me: “The second you become a better businesswoman is the second you become a better journalist.” The thing most journalists are uncomfortable with are numbers and finances because we really just want to write or talk at the end of the day but the business supersedes the work and I wish I was more business savvy now having my own shop.

LeslieWrites: What really moves or inspires you?

Kelley: What really inspires me is seeing women who have really well balanced lives. I’ve been at this for 13 years now professionally and I’m only now at a point where I’d like to find more of a work-life balance for myself. What I find really inspiring is seeing women my age or a little older who have these great marriages or romantic relationships…they have children and they have great careers. You know, at some point we’re taught as young women that we have to make a choice and some women still feel that way. I mean Oprah said just recently that she made a choice not to have children because knew she wanted to build a certain type of empire. Those are the early lessons that we get as women, but I get so inspired when I see people who have it all and they have it all on their own terms.

I have a really good friend from high school that's a college professor. She and her husband have been married for maybe six years this summer. They have a three-year-old son and a newborn son and they can talk about gas grills, dissertations and international travel and I think that’s so great. I find that to be so inspiring and encouraging too. It comes down to making personal adjustments so that you can have it all. I think that’s what a lot of professional working women want. And I think having it all may not look like what you thought it was going to look like. It may not be the stilettos and walking down Madison Avenue but it can be something else and it can still feel like your life is balanced.

LeslieWrites: What pisses you off?

Kelley: Umm, there’s lots of stuff. For example, if you’ve never been laid off before and you’ve never had to go it on your own you don’t know what that’s like because none of us are prepared for that in any real sense. What probably pisses me off now is some of my friends who have been working and have never had an interruption in their work life don’t understand how freeing and so great working for yourself can be. I probably get questions on a daily basis from friends or people I used to work with or know through journalism. They ask, “Are you going to apply for a job?” My response is, “No, I’m not looking for a job. I have a career and I’ve very happy with my career.” Because they’re so wedded to the rat race of clocking in and clocking out, they don’t understand that you can do this on your own. It just requires some out of the box thinking.

LeslieWrites: Give me one word that best describes you?

Kelley: Diverse. I grew up in relatively diverse communities. In most cases, I’ve been the only black kid but I’ve always had friends from different backgrounds. With regards to my career, I’m an entertainment journalist but I also do stuff for ESPN and I’m also a writer and a speaker. I think the word diverse carries through to so many pieces of my life from my background to my profession, from the friends in my inner circle to the way that I view life. That is such an important nugget to have as a journalist because we’re always on a quest to be unbiased to present a story the way that we see the world. If you see the world through a prism that isn’t diverse, you’re really not being very accurate in how you’re laying that story out for the other people to see so I think being diverse is such a keystone to who I am and what I bring to the table as a journalist.

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