Jo Piazza owes her journalism career to talent, persistence and a little bit of luck. When she was a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, it was her incessant calling that earned her a job at the New York Times. She later won an assistant role at the Daily News because her resume was one of the only two to survive getting lost in the ocean.
Dedicated to the craft and possessing an innate ability to talk to anyone – she’s interviewed subjects as varied as a group of nuns to Jay Z – she went on to hone her skills at Columbia Journalism School. Her resume includes stints as a gossip columnist, Wall Street Journal contributor, and her latest position, as managing editor at Yahoo Travel, which puts her on the road two weeks a month.
The 34-year-old is disciplined enough to write 1,000 words of a book each day, which has resulted in two novels, one loosely based on a breakup she endured, and another, The Knockoff, a look into the fashion and tech worlds, which she co-wrote with Lucy Sykes and will be released this spring.
When asked if she ever considered leaving Manhattan throughout her career, she said, “I don’t think I would have wanted to come up as a journalist anywhere else. Because you walk down the street and there’s a story on every single block and around every single corner…I think that helped me become a really good journalist. Knowing that there’s a story in everyone and everything.”
When did you know you wanted to become a journalist?
I started working at the student newspaper at Penn, doing restaurant reviews because I could go out to dinner for free. Then I started writing culture and became an editor of our culture magazine. And I was the crime reporter at the student newspaper, which was really fun. Then, in my senior year, I saw a sign for an internship in the Trenton bureau of the New York Times. And it was 45 minutes away, and right by my parents’ house, so I applied. Then September 11th happened and they stopped getting back to me. I mean, they were obviously busy. So I just kept calling and calling and calling. Then I just kept showing up. And finally, they were like, “Fine, we’ll hire you.” And what’s funny is that David Kocieniewski in the bureau kept telling me, “Don’t go into journalism. Stop it. There’s no future in it.” And he won a Pulitzer Prize two years ago. We’re still good friends and hung out at his Pulitzer party and I said, “I’m still doing it.” And he said, “I told you to get out.” And I’m like, “I have three books, Dave!” And he’s like, “Alright, I guess you’re doing okay.”
What was your experience like at Columbia Journalism School?
I think Columbia was great, but I don’t know if I recommend it to young journalists. Here’s the thing. I met so many amazing people and made so many amazing connections, but I learned just as much being a reporter at the New York Times. So I think J -School is useful when you want to specialize in something. Like I got a lot by getting a master’s in religion, because then I was specializing in something. But I love Columbia, there is nowhere else I would have gone.
How did you get your start at the Daily News?
I graduated from Columbia and met George Rush, the gossip columnist at the New York Daily News, at a breakfast panel there. And he needed an assistant, so I gave him my resume. And the legend goes that he went on vacation with his then very-young son, and his son threw all of the resumes into the ocean, except mine and Chris Rovzar’s. So we ended up working there together on the same day and I knew nothing about celebrities.
What have been your most memorable celebrity interviews?
I went to a birthday party for Sean (then Puffy) Combs at Marquis. And I talked to this guy for an hour and he was really nice. And I came back the next day and told George, and he asked, “What was his name?” And I said, “Jay.” And he said, “Jay what?” And I’m like, “Z.” And he said, “Did you take any notes?” And I said, “No, why is he famous?” They almost fired me on the spot. Lil’ Kim called me a bitch at a club opening once in Harlem. I did an amazing interview with Meryl Streep where she was so incredibly genuine, smart and nice that I just fell madly in love with her. The celebrities that I really like are the ones you don’t read about. The ones that are ridiculously smart and stay out of the spotlight. Like I loved talking to Leonardo DiCaprio and George Clooney. I love Sarah Jessica Parker, we got to wax on about how much we both love New York City.
In your book Celebrity, Inc. you explain how celebrities make money.
That book was so intense because I conducted more than 1,000 interviews with celebrity managers, agent, publicists, lawyers and celebrities themselves. The math and the economics were so integral to making that book work and to making it not be like a real gossip book. And it was interesting because I had the idea and shopped it around to a bunch of different agents and publishing houses. And they all said to me, “You’ve been a gossip columnist, we want something dirty and gritty and we want you to spill the beans.” And I was like, “I don’t think those books ever do well.” In fact, they don’t do well. So many gossip columnists have done those kind of tell-alls and I didn’t want to do that. I was like, “I want to write about the economics of Hollywood. No one’s done this.” And Jane Friedman at Open Road was the first person to say, “I get it. This is a smart idea. Of course I want you to do it.” It’s so much more poignant now, that celebrity has become an even bigger business. I almost feel like that book was writing the future.
You’re technically Catholic, but you say you’re agnostic, so why did you get a master’s in religion? And what made you write a book about nuns?
I’m fascinated by religion and spirituality. My issue with Catholicism is that I never want to have a daughter and tell her that she can’t be something. And the Catholic Church still says women can’t be priests. But I love so many things about it, like the culture and the morals. And when I was doing my master’s, I did my thesis on how nuns used social media. So I found all these nuns on Twitter and Facebook. They tweet about everything, reality TV, baseball. One of them tweeted the whole Rosary every single day. That led me to this world that no one talks about, bad-ass nuns. One nun just led to another and I kept uncovering these amazing stories. These are women in their 60s, 70s and 80s and no one was telling their stories.
Tell us one of the nun’s inspiring stories.
Sister Madonna Buder is one of my favorites. At age 47, she started running, and then she started running marathons, and then she started running Iron Men. I’m not sure if she still is, but she was the oldest women to ever complete an Iron Man. And she’s the one who dared me to start running. And it completely changed my life. I feel so much healthier. I lost 30 pounds. Before I have my races, I always send her a selfie.
How do you get your story ideas for Yahoo Travel?
It’s a mix. We get pitched and they’re our ideas. The purpose of Yahoo Travel, as we conceived it when we launched last year, is that we want to talk about how real people travel. Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is an aspirational thing, but we found a woman who lost her house, her marriage fell apart, and she climbed it and it helped her rebuild her life. And so we told that story. A good example is that I recently wrote a review of the Four Seasons Lodge in the Serengeti and talked about how a baboon broke into my room and ate all my sugar and then stole my coffee. I woke up and there’s a baboon literally sitting right there.
How did the co-authorship come about for The Knockoff?
I met Lucy [Sykes] almost two years ago. I’ve known her brother for years and we were always in the same circles, but never hung out. She had this amazing idea for a book. She told me, and it was like fireworks went off in my head. We immediately clicked and started working on a book proposal. The book is about the clash between Gen X and millennials in the world of fashion and technology. And Lucy is like an icon in the fashion world. I’m at the very tail end of millennial, and work in tech. It was a nice marriage of being able to blend the two worlds.
To learn more about Jo’s work, visit www.jopiazza.com