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People Magazine’s red carpet reporter remembers roots at IUP

02/21/2014
Brandon Clemens
Lead Wet Ink Writer

On a calm Indiana morning in the late 1980s, Indiana University of Pennsylvania journalism major Monica Rizzo ‘87 walks west on Philadelphia Street.

She’s walking to her internship at The Indiana Gazette.

On her way there, she passes the Indiana County Courthouse and, naturally, the Jimmy Stewart statue.

Just a few years later, she’s standing face-to-face with Stewart, and he’s telling her about how, as a young man, he dated the girl whose family owned Musser Forests, an Indiana tree-growing business.

So how does someone go from simple interactions with a little-seen commemorative statue to speaking face-to-face with the world-famous figure the statue was modeled after – coincidence?

This type of high-profile interaction isn’t, in Rizzo’s case, the result of coincidence or even luck.

Talking to celebrities is what she does.

Rizzo works at People magazine, and it is her job to do just what she did with Jimmy Stewart, if only on a much less nostalgic level.

After graduating from IUP’s journalism department in 1987, Rizzo managed to turn her internship into a job at the Gazette.

After six months of employment, though, Rizzo said she felt that it was time to exchange the comfort and security of her job in Indiana for the excitement and ambition of a job on the other side of the country.

Leaping into her journalism career head-first, Rizzo packed up her belongings and moved to Los Angeles, accepting a job as an advertising sales assistant at Sports Illustrated.

But working for the major publication didn’t necessarily mean that her career was set in stone. Rizzo said the job didn’t actually require much journalistic experience.

Instead, Rizzo put her coffee-running skills to the test.

“I was kind of a gopher,” Rizzo said.

Then, after she opted to trade her ad sales assistant position at Sports Illustrated for an ad sales assistant position at the now-defunct Life magazine, Rizzo moved on what would be the beginning of her career at People.

At 22, Rizzo was hired as an editorial assistant after a chance meeting in an elevator resulted in an interview.

In the years since, Rizzo has moved up to being People’s senior entertainment writer, interviewing and dining with the best the industry has to offer, from Matthew Perry to Betty White to George Clooney.

Rizzo said her lunch date with Betty White was one of her favorite interviews she ever did at People.

“[She’s] one of my favorite all-time people,” Rizzo said. “I felt like I was sitting with my grandmother.”

But Rizzo’s job isn’t just grabbing lunch and shooting the breeze with celebrities, especially during this time of year.

Rizzo gets the honor of covering the red carpet during awards season.

During awards season, the deadlines, which Rizzo said are stressful on any normal day, are even more difficult to meet.

This is mainly due to the heavy competition from other journalists, Rizzo said.

“Everyone’s going after the same thing,” Rizzo said. “More quotes and more anecdotes.”

But that stress is a fair price to be paid for getting to attend the Oscars.

Rizzo’s success has had an impact on IUP and, in particular, its journalism department.

In recent years, Rizzo has been invited back to IUP several times, including the fall 2009 visit during which she spoke to several journalism classes and gave a lecture, detailing her career experiences. In the spring of 2012, Rizzo again returned to her alma mater to teach a special magazine writing course.

Rizzo said it was a welcome experience being able to teach alongside her former professors Randy Jesick and Patricia Heilman, two people she considers to be heavily influential in her success.

“It was wonderful to see these people who were so inspiring to me,” Rizzo said.

Upon her exploration of the town, though, Rizzo said she noticed that a lot had changed since her undergraduate days.

The ground which once held the dormitories where she used to live was now occupied by a series of apartment buildings.

This added to the overall conversion of what Rizzo called a “quiet, sleepy town” into one that was much more developed.

“The campus was almost unrecognizable,” Rizzo said.

A local addition that Rizzo wholeheartedly enjoyed, though, was the voice of Jimmy Stewart being added to the crosswalks in town.

She enjoyed it so much, in fact, that she felt it necessary to take a video on her phone so she could show her friends and co-workers.

Although the others failed to react as strongly, the humor wasn’t lost on Rizzo.

Hearing the voice that has become so commonplace to current IUP students brought Rizzo back to her conversation with Stewart in the early years of her career.

After all of her experiences with heartthrobs and starlets and moguls, it’s that intimate conversation that stands out most to Rizzo.

“That was one of my biggest all-time thrills ever,” Rizzo said.

Rizzo was so starstruck, in fact, that she couldn’t resist asking Stewart for his autograph.

Naturally, the gracious leading man fulfilled her request.

That autograph has since been framed and resides in her office, always there to remind her where she came from and just how far she’s come.

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