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Thursday, Feb. 12, 2004 02:56 am

Grace about town 2-12-04

Hard-hitting interviewer

I met Jay Leno. I got to meet him so he could tell me he didn't want to be interviewed.

Last week, when I told you Jay left me a message on my cell phone (he said, "Hi, Grace, it's Jay Leno. I didn't see you at the club. Sorry I missed ya. Uh. . . OK. Um . . . well, I missed ya. OK."), I left out one part of the story. I wasn't going to talk about my other job, but I feel it adds richness to the debacle.

I'm also a massage therapist. So, when Jay Leno CALLED ME ON MY PHONE, he heard the greeting: "Hi, this is Grace Smith, Massage Therapist. Please leave me a message."

As I mentioned last week, I decided to extend my LA trip and return to the Hermosa Comedy Club to try again to interview Jay (he left me a message because he wanted to be interviewed, but I'd left the club because I thought he didn't).

I wrote him another letter, saying I, too, was sorry we didn't meet, mentioning Springfield's "second most polite city in the nation" accolade. I signed it "Grace Smith, columnist & massage therapist."

I sent it via messenger. That's one thing I learned when I lived in LA, temping for a literary agency. People pay attention to things that arrive by messenger. I also learned how to rebuff people all the time in a really nice way, which is what I'd assumed was happening during the first week I was trying to get an interview.

I worked on questions for him. I'd ask about the rumor he was going to be in Springfield for the auction of that 1912 Harley Davidson motorcycle last November. Did he even hear about it, or was that just wild speculation? In his autobiography was a funny account about stopping in D.C. and at the last minute being invited to breakfast with the President. He had a suitcase full of money ($18,000) to buy an antique motorcycle from some guy who wanted payment in cash, and Jay didn't want to leave the money in the hotel room. So he taped it to his chest before putting on his suit and tie. He got stopped by security at the White House and the guard was horrified to see all that money taped to his chest.

I also wanted to invite him to Springfield to tape his show. "Jay in the Heartland," a great idea during this Presidential election year to broadcast from the hometown of our best President. He could do it during the Illinois State Fair, which is always entertaining.

I spent the week being anxious about the interview. I don't interview people; I observe them, I talk to them occasionally, but I don't do interviews. It seemed slightly ironic that my first interviewee would be somebody known all over the world.

I made it through the week (mostly by walking on the beach), and returned to the club Sunday night. I sat around for a while before the show, and then the manager ushered me back. To Jay.

He was sitting in a room, just finishing up dinner, watching the TV out of the corner of his eye (the Super Bowl had just ended).

I smiled and introduced myself, shook his hand. He didn't ask me to sit, so I asked if I could, and I did. He wanted to know why I hadn't been there last week. I apologized. I asked if I could turn on my tape recorder, and he said no, he couldn't do the interview now. This week was the entirely wrong for an interview, although for some reason last week would have been fine.

He seemed kind of edgy. Maybe because he was about to go onstage? Could he still possibly get nervous?

He told me there was nothing at all to the Harley Davidson rumor; he got stuff like that all the time. So at least he answered one of my questions.

He asked me what I was doing in Springfield, and why I'd lived in LA. I told him it was because I'd made an independent feature and he said, "That's unusual."

I grinned politely.

He told me I could call him in a few weeks because he has a children's book coming out. I thanked him. I gave him a Springfield T-shirt with a picture of Lincoln's home on it.

It took about 5 minutes. Maybe eight. I left, feeling sort of let down. But the more I thought about him, the more I decided I wouldn't want to be Jay Leno for anything. Yeah, he has more money than he could ever use, but does he ever have any fun? I'm sure he must, sometimes, but he's so hardworking and focused all the time, and constantly barraged by people wanting things from him -- an interview, an autograph, a chance to say "Hi," people always demanding things -- that he can't possibly have time to enjoy life. I'm sure he likes it that way; they call him the hardest working guy in Hollywood.

This is what I learned from the experience: 1. Never turn off your phone. 2. Be sure to take time to enjoy life. 3. If you're going to interview people, try to start out with the most famous person you can think of. That way everybody else will be a breeze.

Hear the phone call for yourself! Click here.

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