My Washington: ‘Reliable Source’ Columnist Emily Heil

by Virginia Coyne

The Washington Post’s Emily Heil on what it’s really like to be a gossip columnist.

Interview by Kevin Chaffee and Virginia Coyne

Emily Heil is co-author of The Washington Post’s “The Reliable Source.” Photo by Marvin Joseph.

It’s rare to be at an A-list party in this town and not see Emily Heil mingling with the guests. What differentiates her is the notebook in hand – and her knack for drawing secrets out of people mere mortals couldn’t possibly elicit. And at the end of the evening, when everyone else is headed home, Heil is at her computer, writing her must-read gossip column for the next morning’s paper. >>

MANY JOURNALISTS WOULDN’T WANT TO DO A GOSSIP COLUMN. WHY DO YOU? Because it means writing about things people really care about, what they actually talk about with their friends. Because the beat offers endless variety and gets me away from a desk — one night I’m interviewing Tom Hanks on the red carpet and the next I’m at a court hearing. Because it’s an even tougher challenge than writing about more traditional subjects since sources either want to sell me something or want to hide something. And I love trying to be both entertaining and informative — ideally at the same time.

WHICH NUMBER IS LARGER, THOSE WHO WANT TO BE IN “THE RELIABLE SOURCE” OR STAY OUT? My favorites are the ones who pretend they don’t want to be in it but actually love seeing their names. I know who you are!

HOW DO YOU HANDLE THE “FEAR FACTOR,” I. E. WHEN YOU SENSE PEOPLE ARE AFRAID TO TALK? Being honest and transparent helps build trust. And it’s amazing how far simply acting like a normal adult human will get you.

WHAT IS YOUR IDEA OF A REALLY JUICY SCOOP? Something that gives readers insight into how Washington works or really captures a moment. 

WHAT IS THE BEST YOU’VE HAD THUS FAR? I have a hard time remembering what I wrote last week! One recent funny favorite was about short-lived White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci being listed as dead in the Harvard Law alumni directory. It was perfect timing.

YOU SEEM TO BE AT EVERY SOCIAL EVENT IN TOWN. HAVE YOU EVER NOT BEEN INVITED BACK BECAUSE OF SOMETHING YOU WROTE? I don’t think I’ve been blacklisted anywhere, although maybe I have and just don’t know! People are generally going to be OK with what I write as long as I’m responsible. I recently dealt with someone about something that he didn’t want me to write about. After it was done, he thanked me for being professional. Then he laughed and said, “Still, I can’t say I hope to talk to you again anytime soon!” and I thought, “well, that’s fair.”

HAVE YOU EVER LOST A FRIEND AS A RESULT OF AN ITEM YOU’VE RUN? I don’t think Omarosa Manigault and I are going to be getting mani-pedis together anytime soon. Not that we were spa pals before, but still …

YOU’VE BEEN DOING INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING WITH YOUR COLLEAGUE MAURA JUDKIS ON SEXUAL HARASSMENT IN THE RESTAURANT INDUSTRY. WERE YOU SHOCKED ABOUT WHAT YOU’VE DISCOVERED? These stories have been very different than my usual fare, and they’ve been some of the most meaningful I’ve written. I had previously assumed that sexual harassment was rampant in the industry, but I came to understand that it was nearly ubiquitous and often takes a damaging toll on victims. That realization and the painful stories that the women I spoke to were brave enough to share were jarring to me, and to many readers as well.

WHAT WOULD PEOPLE BE SURPRISED TO HEAR ABOUT YOUR JOB? People imagine that it’s all parties and gossiping and chatting up celebrities and that it’s all so glamorous. But it’s a hustle, too. Comfortable shoes (I’ve started wearing fun sneakers with gowns and dresses to parties) and club soda are my survival tools.

The lobby of the Willard Hotel. It’s my “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” place – it feels like nothing bad could happen to you there.

Beuchert’s Saloon on Capitol Hill. The shrimp and grits and any of the house cocktails make for the best Sunday brunch.

Congressional Cemetery. Sounds weird, but it’s such a great place for a walk. I love the quirkier headstones and always make a point to stop.

Union Market. I could spend an entire day here, from lattes at Peregrine and bagels and smoked salmon at Neopol Smokery to a plate of Olde Salts at the Rappahannock Oyster Bar.

This story first appeared in the February 2018 issue of Washington Life Magazine.

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