“Tell me, what do you want to be?” I looked up from the nude painted nail pointing to me and smiled.
I knew my answer.
This question was posed to me minutes after meeting journalist Reba Merril in a Chinese restaurant in the middle of Beverilly Hills, CA.
I ended up here after some fellow Academy Gold interns and I left to have a quick dinner before the next film screening of the night. We had just sat down and ordered when a luxurious woman in a black ruffled jacket with carefully-styled-blonde hair strode to our table and introduced herself as an Academy member. She said she recognized us from the shout out we received during the morning screening of the classic film Rashomon. This is why it pays off to watch old movies. Anyways, back to the story.
“I want to be a journalist,” I said confidentially. She grew a pearly white smile and raised an arm above her in a monarch like fashion. This gesture solidified in me that she was a journalist. Only we can be so extra and not have any shame in our game. We all smiled as she genuinely wanted to meet us and offer us wisdom that no textbook could offer. “I want to say I am so excited for each of you!” she said as she clapped after hearing our dreams.
“Listen I need to be real with all of you, it is going to be hell,” she said in reference to making it into entertainment. She looked at me and said, “You’re a boy and so it will be easier for you than her.” A clear reference to the disproportionate number of women in entertainment. “Sweetie you will have it the hardest,” she said to one of the woman of color at the table. Sadly, we learned that out of the 5 percent of women who work as directors and producers, only about 1 percent are women of color. “But if you push through you will make it through.”
Merill gave us anecdotes about her journey from reporting news in rural Arizona, to eventually becoming the millionaire she is now. She did us justice by telling us the turmoil she endured while trying to find work in Hollywood. “I was making $175 a week, while the male anchor made $375,” she said when talking about her first jobs in news. “Thank god for unions!” We all laughed. The waiter arrived with my chicken loi mein, but this was food for the soul, and it was 0 calories.
Her tone was seasoned with humor, and every sentence she formed delivered even more inspiration. “I was a beautiful young woman. And in my day I was expected to marry rich. Which I did.”
“But you know what? He left me one day with two toddlers- one 3 and the other 5. What was I supposed to do? I couldn’t find work,” Merill said after telling us about her recent battle with breast cancer. I am glad to hear that she beat it, and not only may it stay gone but I hope her husband recovers as well. “I had to go on dates, and then some, in order to simply find work.”
Merill delivered a riveting tale that felt like a confession worthy of a memoir, and that’s when she told me that she did have a memoir! Nearly Famous: tales from the Hollywood trenches is Reba Merill’s memoir, and if it’s anything like her conversation with us at dinner than trust me you need a copy!
She was very honest in telling us about the sexism and ageism that plagues this industry and how these –isms, along with racism and homophobia, are obstacles that we are all going to face. But she left us with a smile and this line, “Listen I want him,” referring to me “the future publicist to have my number and share it with all of you.”
“Please call me if you ever need anything. I got here because the VP of NBC used to work at my station. She saw my name and thought, ‘She was nice.’ You never know who will be there for you. Consider me in your corners now.”
The noodles were cold, but I did not care. I was stuffed with information and inspiration from Merill. Her bravado can compete with any male in media, and she knows how to get you talking. I am grateful to her for being real with us and for giving us another reason not to give up on our dreams of making it in the movies.