step one: make a good first impression.
Jim is a little disappointed when Kris wins American Idol, and not just because it lost him a few bets. The media hound in him is a sucker for narrative, and Kris just doesn't fit. It hadn't been about Cute Country Mouse With Guitar at all, until it suddenly was.
But here's the thing about reality TV - most of it isn't real. The distinction between manufactured and real drama is what makes it interesting, all the more so when one works at MTV. Or as they might as well be called, Awful Reality Shows and Sometimes We Even Play Music Videos.
(It's a little long, but Jim's sure a suitably hip acronym could be found.)
Anyway, Cute Country Mouse With Guitar. Also known as Kris Allen, from Conway, Arkansas. Likes: God, his adorable wife, music and Kanye West. Possibly in that order. Dislikes: interviews, audience swaybots and (very probably) Danny Gokey.
That's all Jim knows. Or more accurately, that's all he's been allowed to learn from the clips on TV, the press rounds and some not-intensive-enough-to-be-creepy Googling. If all that yields so little, the guy has to be dull as a Phil Collins song or really interesting in person. At least that's Jim's working hypothesis. He's out for proof today. That, and an interview clip with decent sound bites.
Jim spends most of their first few minutes in the same square mile trying not to get kicked out of the press zone - stupid ID issues - and watching other people get their quick sound bites out of the way. He witnesses: one guy who keeps his hand on Kris's arm during their entire conversation, three reporters from local Fox affiliates redefining the concept of personal space, and two demands for hugs.
Observation: people like to touch Kris.
When Kris finally stops in front of him, he rubs at his eyes, and for one fleeting moment he seems utterly exhausted. When he looks up again, though, the Press Face is firmly back in place. "Right, sorry, who's next?"
One of the many fascinating things about Idol is the false currency of fame it deals in. It makes the participants instantly recognisable for a few short months, maybe a year, but it makes them famous as personas, not musicians, and the process happens very quickly. Most people who have made it as far as the top two cope fine - after a certain adjustment period.
That's why meeting the winner right after the craziness of finale week is so telling.
"Hey, what's up?"
The insanely perky-sounding handler cuts in. "This is MTV News - "
Kris grins. "Oh yeah, I know - Jim - I don't even know how to pronounce your last name."
"Holy crap - Cantiello," Jim says, after he's finished picking his jaw off the ground.
"Cantiello," Kris repeats, enunciating like he's trying to memorize it, savouring the syllables.
Inner Jim is flailing. Professional Journo Jim soldiers bravely on. "How do you know me, man? I'm just a silly blogger dude."
"I think American Idol in 60 Seconds is the funniest thing ever."
Jim has as much ego as the next film school graduate turned MTV 'personality' - which is to say, a moderate, healthy amount with occasional dramatic fluctuations - but he's a realistic guy, too. Even taking the human capacity for masochism into account, he doesn't expect Idol contestants to watch video recaps that exist to make fun of their personality slash singing voice slash outfits.
If he's really honest, Jim especially didn't expect it from Cute Country Mouse With Guitar.
* * *
The interview is short, but he makes sure there's enough in there for a news article. (And maybe a blog piece he's already writing in his head about how The American Idol likes his work. This encounter is threatening to bring out his inner twelve year old girl in a big way. First the flattery, and now the shiny puppy-dog eyes.
Twice as effective in person, as it turns out.)
"Okay, that's it. Kris, we gotta move on," the handler says, half stern and half doting, the moment the cameraman stops recording.
"In a second," Kris replies. His smile is perfect, made to order, no signs of exhaustion or frustration whatsoever. It's as if that single moment of weakness earlier had been a figment of Jim's imagination.
"It was nice talking to you, man. See you on tour?"
There's a mischievous glint in his eyes, like he's more self-aware than he'd ever let on.
"Only if I get exclusive backstage access," Jim grins.
Kris leans in close - close enough to be inappropriate, if such a concept even exists in reality TV land. "I dunno, how do you feel about sharing airspace with Danny?"
Jim laughs, surprised and delighted.
Observation: occasionally media training fails. But not in a bad way.
So there is a personality underneath the Impenetrable Shield of Aw-Shucks. Interesting.
"Apprehensive. But I'm happy to take one for the good guys."
Kris high-fives him on his way out.
Observation: sometimes the narrative lies.
step two: when in doubt, flirt.
If asked to give a description of his job, Kris might say that it involves: weird hours, demanding and/or vocal customers, great highs, frustrating lows, and a surprising amount of time spent deflecting come-ons.
The press work is probably his least favourite part, at least when every second question is about the Idol judging panel or how his life has changed since he went from househusband to reality show contestant to gainfully employed musician.
His tried and true coping mechanism of giggling a lot, making weird faces and not saying any more than he has to in response to the same old same old works okay most times. After all, the people asking those questions don't really want anything else. The ones who want to have an actual conversation or at least some fun - those he likes.
Jim's the best because he wants both. He's interested in the answer, but not so interested that he'll abandon the chance to make hilariously inappropriate comments instead.
And Kris - well, Kris likes it when other people make his dirty jokes for him. So it works out.
They're supposed to be taping an interview about the Idol tour and his album. So of course they're talking about Paula's love for Danny, people who put their tongue down his throat, and fanfiction.
"Well, that was awkward," Jim says after that particular discussion. He sounds vaguely apologetic but mostly amused, and he's not looking Kris in the eye. "I swear I didn't mean for that to be a question about porn."
Kris grins through his instinctive blush. "It's okay, I've heard worse. You should see the 'artwork' people give me to sign." He does the air quotes.
"I can imagine. Impressive or scary?"
"Both. Sometimes I just wanna tell them - you know, I'm not that bendy."
Jim laughs so hard that he nearly falls off his stool. When he regains his composure (and seat), Kris catches the betrayed look he's giving the cameraman - the recording light was and is off - and has to bite his lip against a gigglefit.
"You enjoy doing that," Jim says eventually, in a kind of admiring, you're-more-evil-than-I-expected tone.
Kris gets that a lot these days.
He doesn't just enjoy it, though. It's part of his job, now, to make people think twice, no matter what they might have thought of him before.
And Jim - Jim likes to be surprised.
step three: encourage healthy rivalry.
Jim's 'rivalry' with Michael Slezak isn't real. They both obsess over American Idol more than is probably healthy, and there's a kind of comradeship that comes from having both raged and flailed over the same show for so many years. Jim thinks Idolatry is brilliant. He's only ever a little bit jealous when Michael gets the exclusives he's been after because 19 Entertainment doesn't want to do business with MTV.
Okay, there may also be some lingering resentment over the fact that Slezak got a full preview of Kris's single and Jim didn't. But he's looking on the bright side. That being both of them getting the same interview-and-song-previews treatment today. And maybe he'll ask for a hug. Just to trump Slezak, mind, and not because he wants one. That would be unprofessional.
Kris emerges from the DJ booth at Z100 with the broadest grin Jim's ever seen, raising his eyebrows at the sight of Jim and Michael standing around in the corridor. "Hey, guys. Sorry to keep you waiting."
"It's okay, we haven't been here long - "
"Not a problem. We were just talking - "
Kris's eyebrows climb even higher. Jim looks over at Michael, and there's a very pregnant pause before all three of them dissolve into laughter.
Slezak recovers first. "So, Kris. How does it feel to be waited on?"
"Uh - flattering? Sort of?" Pause. Head tilt. "I've never been fought over by two guys before."
"Never?" Jim mutters before he can stop himself.
Kris abandons all attempts to keep a straight face. "Uh huh. So let's settle on flattering. Even if I know you're just after the exclusive."
He's kidding, but Jim still feels the need to hastily protest the purity of his motivations, which gives Slezak the opening he needs to go in for the hug. All congratulations on your first single and I'm so happy for you. Smooth bastard.
* * *
Jim's a naturally competitive guy. He's not above pulling out all the stops. (Read: spend four out of five segments of an interview with Mat Kearney talking about Kris. Desperate times call for a complete lack of shame. Which may or may not include candid, on-camera admissions to bemused Nashville-based singer-songwriters about just how obsessed he is.)
So, yeah. Jim's 'rivalry' with Michael Slezak isn't real. Except when it is.
step four: just go with it. whatever it is.
Jim's lair - or rather MTV's headquarters in New York City - is one of Kris's first stops on the whirlwind press tour to promote his first album.
(Take that, Slezak!)
Kris is tired and it sort of shows - the make-up artist takes twice as long as usual and he takes Jim's proffered can of Red Bull with a meltingly grateful look. Or maybe Jim's just getting good at reading the guy. Kris is an open book in some ways, but he also has an instinct for keeping the wolves at bay.
They're just getting ready to start when the idea occurs to Jim.
"Hey, Kris. While you're here, would you mind taping a little something extra for me?"
"Sure. Whatever you want, man." Kris sounds half asleep, but not in a I-am-ignoring-you-and-you-bore-me way, especially when paired with that teasing grin.
"Be careful who you say that to," Jim says drily, because he can never let an opening go by.
Kris smiles serenely over his Red Bull, eyes fluttering closed briefly as he lies back against the couch. "Yeah, but you're the one asking right now. So it's fine."
Jim finds himself unexpectedly touched.
"So you're okay with doing a bit for Idol in 60 Seconds?"
Kris sits up straight, suddenly all animated motion. "What do you mean, am I okay? That's freaking awesome. Let's do it."
Across the room, Kris's long-suffering handler shakes her head, looking like a familiar combination of exasperated and fond.
* * *
Jim's long since given up on trying to make their interviews anything like a serious conversation about music between serious people. They're just not. It's a good thing the fans seem to enjoy watching two grown men giggle about one of them drunk tweeting the other.
Nevertheless, he thinks better of bringing up Kris's very unbuttoned shirt as soon as the words leave his mouth. It probably doesn't do to seem weirdly obsessed with the amount of skin The Idol is showing at any given time.
"Oh, Jim," Kris says reproachfully, shaking his head, smile still intact. One of his hands makes an abortive motion towards his shirt collar before pulling back, as if he's suppressing some remaining vestiges of modesty.
"Sorry," Jim blurts. "I'll edit that bit out."
The surprising thing is he actually means it. As if Kris's delicate sensibilities might be offended by the implications of a little banter. He knows better that that, and yet he still offered.
(His man-crush is a little ridiculous sometimes.)
Kris laughs like Jim just told one of his snide jokes. "Thanks, man, but seriously?"
Well, in that case...
"No. Not really. Do you want to try that bit again?"
"Sure. I'll play it different."
It goes much more smoothly the second time, with appropriate amounts of mock-outrage and mock-contrition.
Jim's heard the journalist-celebrity relationship described as parasitic before, but he prefers to think of it as mutually beneficial - at least when done correctly. He and Kris do good work together.
step five: make friends for the long haul.
"I'm sorry, man, we're going to have to reschedule."
Jim sounds eight kind of frustrated over the phone, and no wonder.
"No problem. I saw your tweets about the epic quest to get here on time. Stupid traffic."
"Yeah, it was rough. Next week good for you?"
"Talk to Lizzie, but I'm sure it's fine. See you then!"
* * *
"Cupcakes? Really?" Cale's giving him that aw, aren't you adorable face again.
Kris grins. "Jim likes chocolate."
As his mom would say, it's the little things that show you really care.
"Why don't we get cupcakes?" Andrew says from his perch on one of the couches. His tone is light, just teasing, but there's a speculative gleam in his eyes that Kris has learned to be wary of when it comes to food.
Ryland pokes the box with an elbow. "Good question. I see how it is - playing favourites on us now?"
"Kris thinks Jim's the best thing since sliced bread and Chick-fil-A," Cale says, very seriously. Traitor. "I get it - he's a funny guy."
Well - yes and no. There are lots of funny guys working in the industry.
"Jim is awesome, okay. And there's - "
" - an extra box for you guys backstage," Lizzie says briskly. She really needs to stop doing that thing where she pops up from out of nowhere. "I know some of you get hungry after shows."
Actually, Kris suspects that she knows precisely when each of them needs to be fed. It's kind of scary. Awesome, but scary.
* * *
Jim's face when he's presented with the cupcakes is just as amazing as Kris had hoped.
"You bought me cupcakes," he says, a little blankly.
"Uh huh. I hope you like frosted chocolate," Kris says, which is only a little bit disingenuous. He hadn't researched or anything. Vaguely remembering that Jim really likes chocolate from a conversation they had last year doesn't count.
"Thank you. This is the nicest thing anyone's done for me this week. Month. Possibly year."
"Wow, and we're only halfway through. Now I feel like I should have gotten you a proper cake instead," Kris laughs, ducking his head to hide his blush. "Rough week?"
"You have no idea. But let's not talk about that," Jim says, carefully putting the box of cupcakes to one side and shuffling his interview notes. He sounds oddly serious. "You remember last August when I asked you how you were?"
Kris had been about to toss off the standard fine, great, thanks, but Jim's tone made him pause. He'd asked the question not as a casual greeting to start off the interview, but like he really wanted to know.
"You said to ask you again in a year's time. So...how are you?"
Kris smiles. "I'm fine. Thanks. Seriously."
It's been a crazy, topsy-turvy year. A lot more good than bad, though, and a lot of that is down to the awesome people he's met. Like the guy sitting in front of him right now with this is about to become too much sincerity for me written all over his face.
"Hey, remember when you drunk-tweeted me?"
Jim facepalms. "...and yet, somehow, we're still friends."