Jessica Allen is an assistant editor at Maclean’s magazine where she writes and edits for the website in the areas of arts and culture, and makes podcasts and videos. After work, she maintains her personal food blog, Foodie and the Beast, and is the editor-in-chief of T Magazine, a bi-annual publication put out by Terroni restaurant, a Toronto Italian restaurant that she worked at for nearly a decade. During that time she completed a Master’s degree in the history of art at the University of Toronto and spent a year teaching art history in Florence, Italy. Jessica’s TIFF coverage in 2011, her first time reporting on the festival, earned Maclean’s a National Magazine Award nomination.
always want to be in the media? If not, what other careers were on the horizon?
Well, as a kid I really wanted to be a
cashier, a waitress or a writer because I loved cash registers and typewriters.
I was very good at pressing buttons. Some might even say gifted. I also used to
host my own radio show that I’d tape on a little cassette recorder from the
living room floor, in private, when I was seven. Topics included: Why does my
brother like Star Wars so much? How
do you make musical instruments from stuff you find in the kitchen? How do they
make those Strawberry Shortcake dolls smell so good? And…Holy s- – t. I just
realized I’ve been a cashier, a waitress, a writer and a podcast host, which is
kind of like being on the radio. I have achieved all my childhood dreams.
would you like to be five years from now?
Surrounded by friends and family at an
intimate, modest book launch. And maybe the book would have my byline. Or maybe
not. But it would still be a lovely evening
with wine, cheese (fancy kinds) and crackers that would all be FREE.
advice for people getting started in your industry?
Most days I feel like I’m still getting
started. But for freelancers, I’d suggest avoiding emailing an editor with,
“I’d love to write for you. What are you looking for?” It’s just a bit vague.
Do a little homework and see what sort of stories are making the cut and then
pitch a specific idea. And ideally, those queries should reflect who the writer
is, that they can write and that they have a clear idea for a solid story. If
the pitch is vague, boring and poorly written, chances are, the story will be
are your favourite media outlets, not including your own?
Right now I subscribe to three
publications: the New Yorker, the National Post and Bon Appétit.
My dad suggested to me 15 years ago, when I was probably reading Sassy, to start reading the New Yorker: if you want to be a better
writer, he said, then read good writing and cross your fingers that some of
that fine craft on the page will be absorbed. I don’t read each issue
cover-to-cover, but man, does it manage to both entertain and enlighten. I love the ritual of first looking at the contents
and mapping out what I’ll read. I’ll usually jump to something by my favourite
contributors, like Amy Ozols, Tad Friend or Calvin Trillin. And I especially
love that the stuff I might resist reading at first, usually ends up being my
favourite. Reading the National Post
is my morning ritual. I like to think that it keeps me sharp because I don’t
always agree with the positions of the columnists and trying to articulate—or
at least think about—why that is, is a nice little exercise with morning
coffee. And since Adam Rapaport from GQ
came on board as editor-in-chief at Bon Appétit,
I’ve been thrilled with that magazine. And I do love television but don’t have
cable so I just keep watching my favourite shows in rotation: The Sopranos, Deadwood and Northern
interview you’ve ever had?
This September on
the red carpet of a movie called Quartet,
directed by Dustin Hoffman and starring Maggie Smith and Billy Connolly. We had
a chance to talk with all three of them on the red carpet for the film’s
premiere at TIFF. And man oh man did
they bring it! That is how you do a
red carpet. And their enthusiasm, humour and professionalism made me feel a
little less sympathetic to other celebrities who slinked their way down the
carpet, with little verve or vigour, giving one word answers.
I once had a scheduled phone interview
with a Toronto chef of international renown. He didn’t answer my first three
calls. He picked up on the fourth though, but asked if I could call back in an
hour. There were a couple of more no answers. By the time I got him, he was
talking to three or four other people in the background at the same time as me.
That was a tough one.
advice you’ve ever been given?
There are three, and they’re so simple
I’m almost embarrassed to tell you: First, I was doing a video with Maclean’s colleague Brian D. Johnson,
who’s covered TIFF for 27 years now and appears on CityTV every Friday to talk
about the newest movies to hit theatres. I kept flubbing a take and he told me
to slow down and pause if I didn’t know what to say, instead of blabbering on.
GENIUS! Second, Philippe Gohier, a former editor at the magazine who now works
at enRoute, told me not to be afraid
to focus on what I think the best bits are in a story: think about the stuff
I’d be most excited to tell my friends about.
And finally, my boyfriend, after being appalled over how many times I
interrupted celebrities on
my first TIFF red carpet—think Anna Faris, Chris Pratt and Brad Pitt—told
me maybe to stop interrupting people in interviews. It’s just that I don’t like
making people uncomfortable and would always fill in the awkward silences. If
you let them do it instead, sometimes magic will happen.
rule(s) do you live your life by?
I wish I had more
rules to live my life by, but here’s one: Be nice to people. And hopefully not
because your motivations are selfish: be nice to people, including the security
guard, the cashier, the sales clerk or the taxi driver, because
being polite and nice are just good things to be in a world that sometimes
lacks those basic courtesies.
the most important tip you can give PR pros?
I suppose to do a little research before
emailing a press release or pitch: For example, while I’d love to cover a media
scrum on the Hill in Ottawa that you’ve emailed me a press release about, there
are probably far more capable reporters at Maclean’s
to do the job, even ones who actually work in Ottawa. Also, peg the person,
place or thing you’re promoting to a specific section of the magazine or
website that you know would be a good fit for your pitch. And don’t be alarmed
if I choose not to write about those chipotle-yogurt-acai berry gluten-free
chips that you’ve sent. I’m sure they’re amazing, but our readers might not
understand why I just dedicated 500 words to them.
experience you’ve had with a PR pro? We love to hear about #wins.
Last year was my first time covering
TIFF. I was so naïve and had to count on the kindness of PR strangers
(including you fine folks! But it might be considered gauche to recount here.) I
managed to connect with Jennifer Love of Duet PR, who practically held my hand
after I flat out admitted that I was new to TIFF and usually wrote about food. She
did her best to include me at events that might have a culinary focus. One was
a private dinner for a movie called The
Artist where the star, Jean Dujardin, director
Hazanavicius and producer Harvey Weinstein would be
in attendance. Media wasn’t supposed to be there but I promised to behave and
be a fly on the wall. I ended up sitting with two of the smartest people I’ve
met working in media—Anne Thompson and Dana Harris of Indiewire—and had the time of my life. Hearing Thompson over dinner
confess that: “I’ve been quoted in print as saying
Ewan McGregor has the most beautiful penis I’ve ever seen. Well, the title now
goes to Michael Fassbender,” was especially memorable, not to mention watching
the Weinstein brothers work the room, or rather, the room working them, and
being privy to New York PR sensation Peggy Siegel doing her thing, were like
scenes out of a movie on the business of making movies. And I
got a great little story out of it to boot.
Chicken on pizza, or in pasta. And
strawberries in rhubarb pie.
My bike. I ride it everywhere. Sometimes
in heels (don’t recommend.)
Currently on the bedside table are A Room With a View (because I just
re-watched the Ivory-Merchant film), Philip Roth’s Zuckerman Unbound, and a food history called Consider the Fork.
Lately, my couch, in home-time comfy
clothes, fire going (in fireplace), one of the above-mentioned TV shows
playing, with my feet on my boyfriend’s lap and a glass of Sancerre resting on
my tummy. (I will take a cheap Italian white, if funds are limited, which is
more often than not.)
Daniel Day Lewis as Nathaniel in Last of the Mohicans, Matt Damon as
Jason Bourne and Brad Pitt as Tristan from
Legends of the Fall. And if there was room, Russell Crowe as Gladiator. Okay, and Daniel Craig as
007. They would arrive in costume, and be in character the whole night. After
dinner, which I’d prepare at my place, we’d all go sit on the couch with
glasses of bourbon and watch the movies they’re in, or maybe deconstruct
episodes of Girls, and eat a Deep and
Delicious cake out of the container. I’ve said too much.
Professionally speaking, Elaine Lui of LaineyGossip. Her writing is not only
hilarious, but it also, for me, blurs the line between high and low culture. If
I’m ever feeling lazy, I think of how much she works, and how she manages to
pump out copy on pop culture that is often so acute and illuminating that I
wonder why she’s not a f–king university professor. (Probably because having
your own gossip website is more fun, and you still get to do TED Talks on the
app (or whatever you are downloading these days)?
I use the LCBO App quite a bit. Probably
too much, actually.
Always the ocean.
Always the email.