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Deadline at Us: Into the Wee Hours

NEW YORK — At 6:45 Monday night, Us Weekly editor in chief Bonnie Fuller still doesn’t have her cover story — and the issue is due to the printer in 12 hours.<br><br>The interview for the current issue’s cover story on Justin...

NEW YORK — At 6:45 Monday night, Us Weekly editor in chief Bonnie Fuller still doesn’t have her cover story — and the issue is due to the printer in 12 hours.

This story first appeared in the August 30, 2002 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The interview for the current issue’s cover story on Justin Timberlake of ‘NSYNC, is being conducted at this very moment in a downtown recording studio. Meanwhile, Fuller walks into the office of executive editor Janice Min to make an announcement: “The Angelina [Jolie] photos are here.”

Since Fuller took over at Us Weekly six months ago, the magazine has become a must-read about celebrities, with a readership that ranges from gossip hungry soccer moms to Manhattanite publicists and fashionistas. Overall circulation jumped 16 percent in the first half to 1,065,589, with newsstand sales — the most accurate barometer by which to judge an editor’s performance — soaring 30 percent. And the travails of Jolie, a movie star whose weird marriage and even weirder divorce to the much older Billy Bob Thornton has been the stuff of tabloid fodder, have become something of a cottage industry for Us.

“There’s always a lot of empathy for women who get left or whose marriages break up,” Fuller says.

Welcome to deadline time at Us Weekly.

7 p.m.: Min is sitting at her desk, awaiting copy that is currently being written. Among the outstanding stories is a piece on the hospitalization of former “Beverly Hills 90210” star Jason Priestley that is still being reported, plus the cover story — the exclusive interview with Timberlake about his breakup with Britney Spears and his upcoming solo album.

“This is by far the latest we’ve ever had a cover story come in,” says Min. “We thought about doing a cover story on [TV show] “American Idol,” but it was too limited. Then we toyed with turning the Jason Priestley thing into a cover story on ‘90210,’ a sort of ‘Where are they now?’ piece but there wasn’t enough heat to sell it as a cover.”

And so five days ago, on Thursday, Us approached Timberlake about doing an interview. They felt they had a shot because Spears’ story had been told the week before in a vicious write around by Us and a slightly more friendly exclusive interview with People, both of which were covers.

Timblerlake was enthusiastic. He would be in New York for the week preparing for the MTV Video Music Awards, arriving in New York on Monday at 12:30 p.m. But this morning, the plane was held up five hours by bad weather. Now, things are coming down to the wire. Tapes of the interview are being delivered from the hotel in a town car every half hour to be transcribed into a computer.

But Min isn’t stressed. “We’ve never had to chase the trucks and we won’t have to tonight, but we do get close,” she says. “If we can’t offer the latest breaking news, our readers won’t buy it.”

7:10 p.m.: Michael Lewittes, who pens a gossip column called “Hot Stuff” in addition to doing duty as the magazine’s news director, walks in.

“Matt LeBlanc’s publicist finally called back,” he says. “We don’t have an answer yet about whether he thinks ‘Friends’ will continue past this season but we have everyone else’s quotes. We also don’t know whether they’re letting Jason Priestley’s dog into the hospital, but he definitely requested it.”

“Great,” says Min.

Lewittes adds that they’re checking into rumors that Madonna and Guy Ritchie are planning a Kaballah wedding this weekend. He has gotten an initial denial from Liz Rosenberg, Madonna’s publicist, but a source has recently called him to say that Christopher Ciccone, the singer’s brother, has been taking Kaballah classes.

8 p.m.: Lewittes is sitting in his office. He has not heard back from Rosenberg. “I guess if the wedding doesn’t pan out, we’ll just do a story on how she’s involving her family with the Kaballah. Hang on,” he says.

Lewittes pulls out a Palm Pilot and picks up the phone to dial a number from it.

“Sorry to call about this again, it’s Michael Lewittes from Us, but we do need an answer about Sharon [Osbourne’s] condition because we hear that she’s back in the hospital again.”

8:30 p.m.: In a large corner office off the magazine’s newsroom, Pino Impastato, the senior art director, is beginning to lay out Lewittes’s column. He has to leave a chunk of space on the screen blank because it is not clear how much room will be allocated for Madonna and how much for Osbourne.

8:45 p.m.: Kent Brownridge, the longtime senior vice president and general manager of Wenner Media, is walking around the office cracking jokes with the staff.

“What are you doing Brownridge,” shouts one of the staffers. “I’m waiting for the cover meeting,” he yells back.

He pauses. “I’m too old for this s–t, but I’m trapped,” he says, before explaining the real reason for his late night: “I’m here because Bonnie is the greatest editor I’ve ever known and she asks for input.”

“It’s this girl talk thing,” he says of his editor. “There are all these Bonnie-isms she does. She’ll circle the wedding ring on someone’s finger in a photo or draw arrows to it. She’s constantly thinking of sidebars for a main subject. An entire sidebar because a star gave his girlfriend a big ring. Then I say ‘s–t’, another hour and a half I’ll be stuck here. But if you can get one little gossip item, one little nugget, one Bonnie-ism, you take it. Because if we didn’t, think of everything we’d lose.”

At the same time, Lori Majewski and Jeremy Helligar, the two reporters on the Timberlake piece, return.

9:35 p.m.: Fuller, Min, Lewittes, and Brownridge gather in the office of design director Elizabeth Betts for the first cover meeting of the night. Fuller begins to mull over the headline for the story. “Put in ‘Justin Timberlake: On His Own,’” she says. “That’s not very good, but let’s try it.”

Min suggests ‘On My Own,’ but the editor in chief isn’t crazy about that either.

Helligar, for his part, wants a play on “Independence Days.” Fuller decides to move the conversation over to the cover photo. There are three shots of him: The best of them features Timberlake with a beanie cap, but Fuller thinks the hat looks strange. The other two aren’t great.

“Give us a sense of the story, Lori,” Fuller says.

“He’s a force to be reckoned with; he’s not the playboy you thought he was.”

“What was he saying?” Fuller asks, grasping for straws.

“He was saying ‘I’m not what you think.’”

“Try that,” Fuller says to Betts. “I’m Not What You Think.”

10:45 p.m.: Lewittes has gotten confirmation that Osbourne is in the hospital but he’s worried that her condition (said to be dehydration) could “blow up” (translation: the situation could go from stable to critical.) He doesn’t want to close the page yet.

11:10 p.m.: Fuller calls four women from consumer marketing to do a mock focus group on the cover choices. They’re in collective agreement: the current photo of Timberlake doesn’t look good. Fuller is minorly concerned. “Well, you know it’s him, right?” They nod. Phew.

Fuller decides to see if they prefer either of the other two shots. In under a minute, Betts has printed out new versions of the cover and places them on the glass plate wall that separates her office from the newsroom.

The women are in collective agreement. The beanie shot has to go. But they like the photo of Timberlake flashing his million-dollar smile. This will be the cover.

11:40 p.m.: Now that the cover photo has been decided, four different headlines are making the rounds. The first is “Now Justin Speaks Out.” But that acknowledges the cottage industry his breakup with Spears has spawned. The second is “Justin: On The Record.” A third is “Justin — Why I’m On My Own.” The fourth: “Justin Speaks Out.” Someone is worried that it may be misinterpreted as a coming out story. So much for that idea.

12:15 a.m.: A freelance copy editor is working on Faces and Places, the front of the book gossip section, and she isn’t happy. “We’re gonna be here seven more hours,” she says to a co-worker. “The whole thing is in the confirm-ery.”

In the conference room next door, the evening’s detritus of popcorn and potato chips have spilled onto the table.

Fuller is down the hall in Min’s office, reading through the Jason Priestley piece when it hits her. “I haven’t even read the cover story,” she says.

But no one has forgotten to deliver it to her. It’s still not done.

12:45 a.m.: Majewski, a writer on the Timberlake story, walks in and sits on the floor. Her Marc Jacobs Mary Janes are off, replaced by a more comfortable pair of flip flops. The first draft of the Timberlake story is done, she announces.

1:55 a.m.: The cover is almost done. The headline will read: “Justin — On My Own,” because editors think it makes him look sensitive. This is good for their female readers.

Fuller is seated in Betts’ office when Einsele arrives with the good news: the Hot 100 (now transformed into the Hot 64) has been recovered from a computer black hole that has everyone — including Fuller — snapping, and Min is now plugging away at a draft of the cover story.

Betts is making some last-minute changes to the cover, adding the Hot 100 as a box on the upper right hand side. Two photographs are placed inside it. One is a pickup shot of Madonna and the other is a Manolo Blahnik heel. But there’s a problem: Research apparently failed to uncover that Madonna may not wear Manolos anymore because Blahnik dissed her in an interview with The New Yorker a couple years back. Phone calls are put out to the fashion department, who have left for the night, but no one knows. A researcher is able to find The New Yorker piece on the Internet, but Madonna doesn’t seem to have responded to the designer’s disparaging comments anywhere in print.

3:14 a.m.: Angie Harmon and a Hogan bag are temporarily slated to replace the Madonna cover shot, but Fuller still isn’t sure. Min is in her office editing the Timberlake piece, which has been reduced from 2,500 to 1,871 words. It’s 27 lines too long (about 250 words) and Min is moments away from having the draft ready for Fuller.

Majewski, meanwhile, is planted on a small couch in the office of the art department. Her current task? Taking a nap.

3:30 a.m.: Min has finished editing the piece, but she has some questions for the other Timberlake writer, Helligar. The piece still doesn’t say how much money Timberlake is worth, nor does it address his sleep habits or how much time per day he spends dancing.

The front of the book is pretty much closed, though research continues to double check things at their desks in the center of the newsroom. Lewittes’ column will run that Christopher Ciccone is taking Kaballah classes, but Rosenberg is still denying that a wedding is imminent.

4:20 a.m.: Fuller walks into Betts’ office; the Angie Harmon cover caption has been replaced by Sarah Jessica Parker, who likes Manolos and hasn’t been dissed by the designer. But Fuller is requesting some tweaks. In the photo of Parker, a man’s suit is showing in the background and Fuller wants it blacked out.

Einsele comes in to give an update. The cover story is done, but another round of fact checking has to be done. Ditto for the Hot 64.

“They’ve had this for a week,” Fuller snaps. “Why are they doing it now? I don’t want that story to blow our deadline.”

“It shouldn’t,” he says.

5:21 a.m.: Fuller has signed off on the Hot List; the only thing left is the final proof of the cover story, which is still being fact-checked. The production team will continue to tweak until about 7:30 a.m. when the issue is due at the printers. But yawning, rumpled staffers are beginning to go home in droves as their stories reach final proof with the copy desk. An equally dishevelled Fuller — whose blouse has been popping open all night long — stays on, changing the color schemes on certain photo captions before they are funnelled off to the desk.

Meanwhile, the sun is coming up.

6:31 a.m.: Min, Fuller, and Lewittes exit the building together — but Fuller’s Town Car isn’t there yet and Min’s driver won’t go to Hastings. Upstairs, fact checking will work to the wire, delivering the magazine to the printers at exactly 7:30 a.m., after which they go into late fees. The two women wave goodbye to one another. Another week is done.