An Intimate Interview With Joanna

Hurrah for finding this piece from 2001 on the web archive site!
I once wrote an article about someone up-and-coming, the next big thing on the New Zealand part of the Internet. At least, that’s what she told me she was going to be, but I didn’t believe her, and neither did she. The ‘She’ in question is Joanna McLeod, owner of the domain hubris.co.nz. The article I wrote was never formally published, but the attention and feedback I got from it was all positive. The article actually managed to vanish off the face of the planet, due to crashing servers and a thousand and one other mishaps. Now my editor has compelled me to write a sequel profile. I have to admit I’m looking forward to it – she made me some great pancakes the last time.

I have interviewed her before, but that was almost two years ago. She lived somewhere else then. On the phone, she sounded like another person. Now she has some PR phone voice thing going on. But at any rate, I’m invited around to her new apartment. When I get there, she’s wearing a suit, a far cry from the pajamas she was wearing the last time we met. “Oh don’t worry,” she reassures me. “I’d still live in pajamas if I could. This suit is just like fancy dress for me. Whenever I buy a new one, I always stand in the changing room laughing for about ten minutes. The sales ladies always think I’m a weirdo, so I think about how much more money than them I’m making”. She laughs again, a cross between a giggle and a witch’s cackle. “Oh god, I must sound like the most awful person, going on and on about the money. I’ve only just started working and the novelty of it hasn’t worn off yet. Sorry. I do know there’s more to life than money though. Really”. She takes me on a tour around her apartment, and I admire her fancy plasterwork ceilings and green tiled bathroom. “It’s a cool place, huh? Last time we did this interview, I was living at Garland – that might have even been with all the original flatmates. Only Clay’s left now. I could talk to you for hours about all the flatmates since, but there’s a whole lotta history right there, so I’ll try to refrain. But just if you want to know, I’m living with a guy called Clayton, and a girl called Louise, who I’ve only known since we moved in a month ago and advertised for a new flatmate”.

All Joanna’s sentences seem to be monologues, and I tell her as much. “Well, you’re here to interview ME, right? And besides, you can edit this up and put in your little witty commentaries and your thoughts in between my sound bites. I’m savvy – I know the score. Oh, but make sure you let your readers know I was using the word ‘savvy’ ironically”. And she laughs again. “I’m never sure if people know that I’m taking the piss all the time. But if they don’t get it, then Oh Well. The man I want to marry is this guy I nearly ran over in a car parking building – he was standing in the middle of the road, so I sped up towards him, and when he finally saw me coming, he got out of the way, and he was laughing his head off. He got me. I want him”. Then she excuses herself to get out of her work clothes. I look around the lounge, noticing two large vases of flowers, a bear mask in the fireplace, and a degree casually lying on the dining room table. When Joanna comes back, she tells me these things:
1. One bunch of flowers were from her parents a while ago, to say congratulations on the new flat and the new job. The other bunch was from her childhood best friend’s parents to say congratulations on graduating.
2. The bear mask was from Clayton and her old flatmate Brad, because they are obsessed with bears. She does a weird back handed motion on my arm and proclaims “I’m batting you for salmon” before giggling.
3. The degree is hers, a Bachelor of Communication Studies from AUT, with a major in Multimedia. “It was a very good course. I learnt a lot about all the different kinds of media, and then I got to specialize in what I was best at – computery shit. And then as soon as I left tech, I got a job doing Public Relations. But now I’m a CBT Designer for a very large and very conservative company”.

“So what does all that tell you about me, then?” she asks me, and then when I tell her that I’m asking the questions, she laughs, again. It’s not a Dr. Hibbett nervous laugh though, more that she finds almost everything to be genuinely funny. “I think I have mental tourrettes” Joanna says, “I keep getting all these uncontrollable images in my head in every situation, and while some of them are sick and twisted and sexual, others are just cartoon moments – I look at buildings and see fridges falling off them, and then when I look at people I get Run Lola Run flashes of what the rest of their life will be like. I guess everyone has that, but no one’s ever told me that they did.”

Joanna is possessed by an insatiable need to entertain, and she offers me a drink 5 times before finally I give in and admit I’d love one. She returns from the kitchen with a bottle of red wine, two wineglasses and a screwdriver. “The bloody corkscrew’s gone walkabouts again. I swear, that is the worst kitchen implement to lose in this house. You’ll have to excuse how absolutely unclassy this is,” as she opens the bottle by pushing the cork inside using the screwdriver, “but it’s such a cheap bottle it’s probably more appropriate this way anyway”. Drinking is very important to Joanna these days, but she’s making an effort to drink better. “I go out a lot more now that I live in town, and now that I have a bit more money. I’ve become more of a skank too. I remember back in the good old days, I used to value myself. I had this huge huge huge crush on this very spunky boy, but I never scored him because I didn’t think it was right that he only hit on me when he was drunk. And I was actually attracted to him. Things have changed now; standards are so last millenium.”

So, are these stories to be told then? “Oh, there’s nothing really very noteworthy. It sometimes goes in the old online journal though. I like starting out entries with phrases like ‘So his balls are in my hand, and I’m not quite sure how that happened’ – it gets people’s attention. And getting people’s attention is what I’m all about. Pity me, worship me, love me, hate me, whatever”. She says this in a mocking tone, turning her wrists out to show me scars that don’t exist. Her veins stand out though, bright blue against white skin. “I’d make a great junkie, wouldn’t I?” noticing me staring, “I’m sure I have an addictive personality. And it’d be great to have another excuse to fall back on for fucking up myself. But I’ve probably got too short an attention span to become a smackhead. I’d go hardcore for a couple of weeks, and then get bored and be a Hare Krishna the next month.”
She tells me that right now she’s being a vegan, for her health rather than out of any concern for animals. “I wish that I cared more about others, but I don’t. See, I don’t feel like it’s enough to just not eat them – if you’re going to care, you should be part of the Animal Liberation Army or something, and I haven’t got the commitment to that. But it’s all or nothing with me, so either I care 200% about something, or I don’t care at all”. She tops up our glasses. “So have you talked to any of my friends about me yet?”

As a matter of fact, I have. After phoning Joanna to arrange the interview, she emailed me a copy of an article her friend wrote about online journalers that included her (“but not enough about me”). I contact her friend Shirley McGill, and ask her to give me
a) her first impressions of Joanna
b) her current impressions of Joanna
c) an amusing anecdote about Joanna
d) anything else she feels like telling me.

“I find it hard to remember when I first met Joanna,” Shirley tells me over the phone, “because my first days at tech were a blur. But my first impressions were of her sense of humor; I was never sure if she was kidding or not, and it was very disconcerting.”

Joanna laughs when I tell her this. “I didn’t like Shirley when I first met her at tech” she says. “She seemed far too in control and self assured and outgoing, it was intimidating. I still think she is, but it’s a good thing for her though. I’m not usually wrong with my first impressions of people, although when I am, the results can be devastating. But that’s another story. What else did Shirley say about me?”

Strangely enough, Shirley spoke of your self assurance too, I say, and the fact that you had an opinion on everything which seemed to be well founded.
“I always worry that I come on too strong when you first meet me” Joanna confides, “but the thing is, that’s me, and if I toned it down, you might get lulled into a false sense of security, and then where would you be? While I do want everyone to like me, if they can’t like me then they can at least hate me. No middle ground.”

As I make a note of this, Joanna puts on a strange German psychiatrist’s accent and makes observations about herself “Subject makes continual reference to a lack of middle ground in her life, as if she wanted that to be her theme song. Possibly is terrified of mediocrity, is definitely a drama queen”. I ask her if she’s ever been to a psychiatrist before.

“I was supposed to go and see a counselor, but I was actually too scared to make the appointment. How pathetic is that? I got referred to one by the doctor who wanted to put me on Zac after knowing me for all of five minutes. God bless the mental health system here. Actually nah, I don’t blame her, cos I was a wreck when I saw her. But I told her I wouldn’t take the pills, because I was just in a very very bad place at the time. I’m up and down all over the place sometimes, but at least I’m me. So many of my friends have been on A.Ds at one stage or another, and most of them haven’t had good experiences. Actually, it’s funny because I never knew very much about depression and anti depressants and all’o that jazz until I got on the Internet – it’s kinda like which came first, the chicken or the egg. But then again, I don’t know how anyone who’s got any level of intelligence can be expected to be happy all the time. Oh my god would you listen to me rant? Get down off your soap box, Jo”.

She apologizes to me for speaking in too long a sound byte, but I remind her that this is a written piece, not a 30 second spot on television, and the more she talks the less writing I have to do. “You’re a naughty naughty journalist,” she tells me, “although I guess it’s good to get interesting subject matter and just go with that. But I don’t think you’re being particularly objective, especially since you’re sitting here drinking wine with me, and I bet you haven’t talked to anyone that doesn’t like me.”

I ask Joanna whom I should talk to get a different point of view on her then. “That’s a bit of a toughie. I’m not in contact with anyone that dislikes me, although I’m sure there are plenty of people that don’t. Maybe you could look up people from my high school, or various Internet types. I dunno actually. Most people that know me well like me, or at least tell me that they do. I don’t like myself very much sometimes, does that help?”

Shirley actually gave me the email addresses of various friends of Joanna, and I wrote to them all asking them for their brief thoughts. One girl called Kate Hamlin, one of about a half dozen of friends called Kate, wrote back “well she’s a bit of a boozehag, but she buys me coffee and entertains me with her journal, so she’s pretty cool.”

The mention of Joanna’s online journal allows me to get back to the original point of the interview. How does she feel about having her friends read her most intimate thoughts? “I think to say that it’s my most intimate thoughts would be wrong. My journal is personal, I do say what I’m feeling, but obviously, because I know that people are going to be reading it, I have to be a little guarded . Now in a way, you might think that would undermine the whole self purging aspect of it, but because I’m recording my basic memories and emotions and stuff, I can still look back and remember the way that I was actually feeling. I write in code for myself, and have triggers. It’s a record for me, and entertainment for others”.
Does that mean it’s not real?
“It’s real, it’s just edited. I don’t mean that I’m cutting out the problems or whatever, but I realize that no one’s going to want to read every single boring little thing. Basically I want to make people laugh, if I can’t make them cry, so I’ve gotta get the interesting stuff in. Like I said before, I wanna grab people’s attention and make them feel some kind of emotional response to it. Sometimes I write really really boringly, because even I can’t have wacky adventures every day. I don’t think it’s phony, it’s just like sports highlights or something – except with less sport.”

I ask her why she can’t just tell her friends stories like any normal person.
“Oh I do! And sometimes they turn around and go ‘I know, I read that on your site’. But because I’m so massively popular, I have to keep repeating myself to cover everyone. My real life friends didn’t use to read my site, only my Imaginary/Virtual ones. And that was good. It’s also cool that now my real life friends don’t think it’s such a freaky thing to do; they’re used to it. But it does mean I have to be careful not to misquote them or whatever, cos they’ll get antsy.” Do they ever get antsy about being mentioned anyway? “Ooooooooh yes. But that’s a bit of a whole separate complicated issue. Moving past that though, I do try not to splash too many of my friends’ intimate details all over the place, because those aren’t my stories. Obviously, what’s going on in their lives will effect me because I care about them, but I try to be a bit discreet. With an emphasis on the Try. My journal is about my stories, but everything in life overlaps, unless you’re a hermit. The past relates to the future, the future relates to the past, and the present is caught up in the middle. Gosh, that sounded deep.”

Joanna’s dedication to her friends is becoming apparent to me, because her eyes light up when she talks about them. “My friends are the most amazing people in the world – I mean fuck, they put up with me, and I’m horribly nasty to them frequently. And they’re supportive and loving and wonderful and the reason I can be here now talking to you. I’m so lucky and privileged to have them all. Even if I bitch about them sometimes”.

Although I don’t tell Joanna this now because her head doesn’t seem to need any further swelling, Shirley said she was “a fantastic, loyal person that is always there, and will do so much for her friends. She’s the kind of person you can relax and be yourself with, showing your warts-and-all and she’ll accept you, primarily for your faults.”

“I try to be honest and straight up with everyone, and encourage them to be the same to me, because that just makes everything so much easier in the long run. However, I contradict myself all the time, so it’s a bit of a jumble. Still, there is nothing I hate more than someone lying, or just not doing what they say they were going to do. And woe betide anyone that betrays me – I may forgive, but I will never ever forget. And now I sound like the mafia – tell your readers, I’m not, really!”

She goes to the kitchen to retrieve another bottle of red, because as she put it, we polished off the other one so eloquently. “I like to use words slightly out of their context. I also try and resurrect old phrases – I go through phases of saying ‘smashing’ or ‘peachy’ or whatever. I have a problem though, because I’ll use phrases to take the piss, like ‘sweet as bro’ and then they become part of my staple diet, and I can’t shake them no matter how hard I try. Yep, I’m a wannabe. But a very verbacious one “. (Later, my computer spellchecker will confirm what I suspected – that verbacious is not a real one. Quite possibly she was going for the word ‘verbose’, or equally likely, she was testing me. Or maybe she was just tipsy)

Joanna fills my glass to an alarming level, and tells me to drink up, because it’ll put hairs on my chest. I ask her if she’s trying to get me drunk and take advantage. “Of course I am. But possibly not in the way that you think. I have a very predatory nature, and far too many hidden agendas. I may seem all nice and loving right now, but I’m plotting on the inside. I wish I didn’t. There’s Good Joanna who tries to hold back Bad Joanna, but mostly she loses the fight, so she shuts her eyes, sticks her fingers in her ears and hums. Oh yeah – did any of my friends tell you I was a nutter?”

None of them used the actual word ‘nutter’. However, her friend Kini from Australia told me that Joanna has a very nice purple skirt which Kini likes, and that she likes Joanna and her cooking as well. When I relate this, Joanna jumps up immediately. “Oh my god I haven’t offered you anything to eat! My dad was a diplomat, I’m like, genetically programmed to be a host. Have you eaten dinner? Shall I make you something?”

So our conversation moves to the small kitchen, where I sit on the bench and watch her frying eggplant. “Kini actually taught me this – I don’t know if she can cook anything else, but this is wonderful. She’s like the only person I know who can actually cook eggplant properly. I wish I could ban my flatmates from trying, because they just can’t grasp it.” The fried eggplant is stuffed inside toasted pita bread and spread with hummus. It is one of the best sandwiches I have ever eaten. For my information, she narrates every step she takes in the cooking. “I always wanted to have my own cooking show. From when I was like 7 and started baking by myself, I would say out loud everything that I was doing, and offer the viewers hints, and random pieces of information and everything. It would have been the coolest show, way before the Naked Chef came along. Unfortunately, my talents were never discovered by TV producers. D’ya think this article will be my big break?”

But then she admits that maybe her look isn’t suited to television. “I’m far too young to be like a roly poly Jo Seager, but I’m no hot spunk either. So I don’t think it’ll ever happen. Ahh well, at least on the Internet, no one knows that you’re a dog”. I cut in here to tell her that she’s far from a dog, but she laughs that off. “Oh, I know I’m not a dog. I do have the potential to be beautiful, but�” and she gestures at herself. “Low self image is so boring, so let’s not dwell on that one, eh? Besides, I know that I’ve got great tits.” She rounds this off with a laugh, and thrusts her chest out. “I’m sorry, that probably sounded really tacky. I’m just used to my breasts being an ongoing topic of conversation. Long story. Anyways, what’s your angle with this profile?”

I didn’t actually have an angle in mind, I just thought I’d let her speak for herself in long monologues, so I tell her this. “Oh, in sixth form drama, we did monologue assessments, and I was baking a cake while I delivered mine, and so I mentioned in that my cooking host thing too. It’s funny, cos I wrote the monologue myself, and it was about the death of a girl I knew, so it was a very personal thing, but I nearly failed the assessment because my teacher said I dropped out of character. I found that kind of amusing, cos I was just me, but apparently, I am a character that I don’t play right all the time. What a faker!”

It becomes apparent to me pretty quickly that we’ve both had a fair amount to drink, as the conversation gets smuttier. I accuse her of trying to get me into bed when she tops up my glass again. “If I did that though, neither of us would be having orgasms” she tells me. “Besides, I’m enjoying talking to you, and I don’t tend to talk to people after sleeping with them.” She pauses for a moment, possibly in contemplation. “Oh my god I’ve become like the most horridible person. It’s like if I talk the talk, then maybe I will walk the walk too. Or I dunno. Or I’m just full of shit. Shut up Joanna”.

I refer to Shirley again here; “Joanna has a great self-depreciation built on a strong knowledge of her own worth, strengths and weaknesses”. It seems to me that she’s only half joking when she puts herself down, but again is only half joking with her arrogance. It is very disconcerting, but I won’t tell her that, because I know she will just laugh at me. Instead I ask her to tell me about her family.

“You wanna see pictures?” She jumps up immediately and runs out of the room, clutching at the walls a little, the wine having had an obvious effect on her. When she returns, she thrusts a snapshot in my face. It is of her and her two sisters and parents, and all of them are wearing white sheets like Greeks and lying on a lawn. “I’m not the only eccentric in the family, you know. My mother is a potter. And my father is a bureaucrat working for the government. Anji is somewhere in South East Asia, and Karen works in the best bookshop in Wellington slash New Zealand. I get on really well with all of them, my sisters are like my best friends. Then again, I have many best friends. But um yeah, we just decided that we’d take more interesting family portraits one year and that’s the result.”

I already know that Joanna was close to her family from the last interview I did with her. She told me then that spending four years of puberty away from her sisters when she lived in Japan and they didn’t was especially hard, but found that when she got back to New Zealand, they seemed a lot closer in age. Travel was a big part of Joanna’s childhood, so now she is the only person she knows who doesn’t want to go for a big OE. “My parents were living in Rarotonga when they had me, although technically I was born in NZ, just to ruin my exoticness. Then when I was 1, we moved to Germany. When I was 5, we moved back to Welly, and when I was 10, I moved to Tokyo, and golly gee, that was a fun time in my life. Thank you New Zealand government!” Apparently her slightly different accent is her legacy from the American school she attended there. Her other legacy from the school? “Really bad self esteem. It’s kind of hard to be in a place where you don’t fit in and everyone teases you when you’re in the tender formative years’o puberty. Cry me a river and all. I feel a lot better about myself now though. Truly.”

I try to tell Joanna that I probably only have about 800 words left, but then I realize she’s in the kitchen making chocolate martinis, and for some reason, my legs aren’t that keen on standing up. This is highly unprofessional of me. “Don’t worry about it,” she tells me. “Pretend you’re undercover and come out dancing with me. And then you can email me a list of basic Q&A, I’ll give you a quote from someone that was unhappy with me to balance the article out a little more, and that’ll be it. No one needs to know it was me pulling all the strings”.

And so we do, although it turns out we do more drinking than dancing. Around 4am when places start to shut, we head up to the Casino where Joanna refuse to play blackjack, claiming the moral high ground against gambling, but she is perfectly happy to watch me do it, and occasionally put aside my chips for me so I don’t lose too much. When we get bored of that, she makes me jump in an elevator to see how far we can get through the hotel before being stopped. “It’s amazing what you can get away with if you just look like you’re doing the right thing. I think I must have an inner angelic-ness, because I just never get in trouble with Authority.” I call her a teacher’s pet and she agrees. “All my teachers loved me, because I would always have the answer and I’d generally do my work independently if needed or take part in class discussions or whatever. Actually no, my homeroom teacher when I was 13, Mr. Vigeland, really didn’t like me cos me and Beth always used to laugh at him cos he wore his jeans too tight and thought he was hot shit when he so wasn’t. He kicked me out of class once for throwing a stuffed toy at Beth, and he also yelled at me once for rolling my eyes at him. What a dork. But other than that, yes I know how to play the system and win.”

Eventually, we’re finished with the casino and starving, so we proceed to the nearest fast food outlet on the way home, where, by her own declaration, Joanna is “a bad bad vegan. Naughty bad bad vegan. But it doesn’t count when you’re drunk.” And then she giggles, and I know her well enough by now to realize that what she said applies to a lot of things in her life. We return to her apartment, grab a bottle of vodka and collapse on her bed where we talk until dawn, giggling continuously, but I can’t remember anything that we said. I think she started to interview me, enjoying turning the tables. In the morning, she unceremoniously throws me out to treat her hangover alone.

Later that day, I email her a list of basic questions and along with the answers, she includes an emailed quote from her ex boyfriend that she’d been saving up. He said “you are (and feel free to quote me, at least then it will be the only accurate representation of me you manage to put across to people unlike your other inaccurate slander) a pathetic attention seeking bitch attempting to fill out her mediocre life and cravings for stardom and attention with selffulfilling melodrama, who revels in the exact same angst that she crys about to her friends serving only to hurt whoever is the object of your angst and titillate your starcravings.” (His own punctuation and grammer). Obviously a rather negative point of view, and so Joanna gave me a little background, but asked me not to include it in the article because they’re friends again. “It’s kind of nice to still be in contact with someone who knows me so well. I think all of my different friends know me in different ways, but it’s like they all have different jigsaw pieces and they’ll never sit down together, trade and figure me out. Thank god; I think I would just be too much holistically.”

# But if you want to try and break Joanna down into fragments, try analyzing these responses: Birthday: 17/6/80 – I am a Gemini, I am two people
# Favourite Music: radiohead, placebo, tori amos, hole
# Favourite Movie: Spiceworld/Breaking the Waves (because contrast is your friend!) Oh, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I saw it three times at the movies, and I’m going to marry Lo and go and live in the desert.
# Love status: I’m only in love with Lo. I’m waiting to be swept off my feet again. I feel like I was earlier this year, but that was like only a four day thing. Plus there’s that whole thing about how no one else can make you happy until you can make yourself happy yadda yadda, so I think I’m trying to avoid love for a while. It’ll find me.
# Occupation: CBT Designer. I dream of grander things. I wonder if you know what CBT is.
# Hobbies: Who has hobbies anymore?
# Earliest Memory: being one, and my sisters wouldn’t let me go in the Tom Sawyer treehouse at Disneyland because they didn’t want to have to look after me
# Favourite Memory: of whom? There is no way in the world I can answer that one, thank you very much. I have many many memories of a zillion different people, places, thoughts and emotions. And while there’s some things I’d rather forget, I can’t, and they’re part of me too. So that was a dumb question. You should be ashamed of yourself. Why don’t you ask me a “yes/no” question next? Sheesh, didn’t you do a degree in media?
# What are you afraid of? See above. And not being able to make people happy. Also, I’m not very fond of birds.
# What famous person would you most want to be and why? Geri Halliwell – I would love to be a Spice Girl, back before they imploded. Also, if there’s any truth at all to those Robbie Williams shagging rumours, I want in!
# Favourite way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Long leisurely Sunday lunch with my friends like we used to do at Garland, then just mellowing out somewhere. Drinking beer in the sun maybe
# Favourite thing you own. I’m trying to give up valuing my possessions too much. But I guess I’d have to admit to needing my computer in order to stay in touch with everyone.”

While writing this piece, I look back at my notes and laugh at a discovery I make.
“Make me sound sexy and more exciting than I am please!” Joanna has scrawled across one of the pages. Accompanying it is what I can only presume is a self-portrait, and spirals crowding the page margins. I’m tempted to ask a handwriting expert to analyze her strokes, but possibly something written at 6am after a whole lot of drinking wouldn’t be the most accurate representation. Thinking about that, I’m still not sure that I’ve gotten to know the real Joanna. Was she all for show, was she incredibly candid, or was she just taking the piss? I don’t know if even she could answer that.

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