Interviewing the Interviewer—Kevin Sessums

By William Georgiades 03/01/15

The Fix Q&A with celebrity journalist Kevin Sessums on his terrific memoir I Left It On The Mountain, A-listers, homelessness, crystal meth and reinvention.

Kevin Sessums
St. Martin's Press

On a recent afternoon, The Fix sat down with Kevin Sessums in a West Village café in Manhattan to discuss his second memoir, I Left it on the Mountainpublished this week by St. Martin's Presswhich details his rise as a celebrity journalist for Vanity Fair and Interview Magazine, and his fall from grace as a crystal meth addict. In between climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, trekking the Camino de Santiago, and interviewing the likes of Madonna, Courtney Love, Hugh Jackman, Diane Sawyer, and Daniel Radcliffe, Sessums went from Conde Nast limos and Oscar parties to a crystal meth habit that left him staying in a 100 foot room in Provincetown and working at a soup kitchen. He writes in the midst of his whirlwind that "glamor had become methodical," but his addiction became even more brutally so. Now, two and a half years clean, Sessums tells The Fix why his sobriety is about humility, grace, service and staying fabulous.

How is being back in New York?

I love being back. I love the rooms here. I think it's a very special place to get sober. If I lived here, I would be more tempted to use. I can walk a block from here and think, 'I used in that building, I had sex over there.' Now, I stay at a small hotel, a place where you have to shit and shower down the hall, because you can roll out of bed and go right across the street to this 7:30 a.m. meeting, and a couple blocks away is the 12:30 meeting that saved my life. I used to go to three meetings a day. And I'm lucky I liked them here, because in other cities I don't like them. But, I go anyway. It's about the commitment to the chair. But in New York, even stupid people are smart. That's what you get in New York. Let's qualify that. Stupid sober people are smart.

But you really bottomed out and got sober in Provincetown.

Provincetown is a big part of my story because that’s where I got sober. You go there to get sober or to use in the wintertime. January is when I moved there to get sober. There are a lot of meetings there, morning and night, and they don’t really mix. These meetings are very cliquish everywhere, like high school.

So much of this book is recent history, it’s as if you were writing it as you were getting high.

I was writing it all up on Facebook as it was happening. I’ve been very open about my struggles on Facebook, and I see that site as a literary experiment, like a meta-memoir. I post sort of addictively. I need a Facebook intervention.

Having written a memoir on the subject, how comfortable are you actually talking about your recovery?

I haven’t used all the aspects of recovery, and sometimes I feel guilty about talking about recovery at all because I’m not a poster boy for this. At all! I’m the opposite of a poster boy. In a way, I’ve written a published a 250 page inventory. But I do have someone in my life who offers advice, who I call my Zen master. I have a real problem with the aspect of recovery that says you should trust some stranger out of the blue.

Because using, no matter what the substance, is finally a purely narcissistic act.

Your active addiction seems to have been relatively short.

My qualification is like a two-year period. I never thought I could get any lower than being the guy who had someone else put a needle in his arm, but I did go lower because I was the person who put a needle in someone else’s arm. And to say that out loud astonishes me. I can forgive myself for doing that to myself, but it’s really hard to forgive myself for doing it to someone else. I just can’t believe I became that person.

Your last book, the best-selling Mississippi Sissy, had a book party at Indochine hosted by Diane von Furstenberg. How fabulous will the party be for this?

I'm not sure how you top that party. I'm not sure how to handle this book. Like, I don’t want to objectify or fetishize an addiction problem and when you write these kinds of books it objectifies addiction and you have to be careful. So throwing a celebratory book party, I'm not sure if it fits.

The whole book has the tone of someone scrambling around desperately trying to find something to affect you. You write about the Oscars, and then you're climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro and walking the Camino de Santiago [the experience of which takes up 60 plus pages].

Part of that is just proving to yourself that you’re alive. When you’re HIV positive, to know, ‘I can still do this.’ And I’m getting older. I know I want to do something when I’m 60, and I’ll be 59 this March. I really like proving to myself that I can do something physically challenging, to break myself down. The Camino trek was much harder than climbing Kilimanjaro. And you had a fellowship there of people I’ll know the rest of my life that’ll understand what we went through—say that one day we all walked 14 hours in the rain knowing we couldn’t do it, but doing it anyway. That was a very special month of my life.

Yet, after that you still used.

Yes. I saw a shrink who said they saw a lot of addicts and that I was not an addict, but a habitual. I said, 'I don’t care how you define it, believe me, I’m an addict.' It wasn’t until I stuck a needle in my arm that I thought, 'Okay now I’m an addict.' It was almost like proving to myself that I was an addict. ‘I’m gonna show you bitch, I’m an addict.’

But alcohol wasn't an issue for you—throughout your career you were at boozy events and they didn't seem to faze you.

I wasn’t a social drinker. I never really drank. I’d have a vodka at a party. Even when I first entered the rooms it dawned on me that I had a big bottle of vodka in my freezer and it never really occurred to me because I don’t like liquor. If I liked liquor, I’d be dead. It’s all about crystal.

But you found help from recovering alcoholics?

The wisdom and ironic grandeur of the universe that put a group of drunks in my life is not lost on me. It is humbling. Because I hate liquor and I hate drunks and the reason I gave up staying in New Orleans is I just don’t like being around drunk people. I don't really hear my story when people talk about alcoholism, but if someone is talking about drugs, then I do. But that means I take an extra empathetic step, an important part of my process. The other part is service.

Like what? You write movingly about being a mentor before, during and after your active addiction.

Yes, it's not just making coffee or putting chairs away. Its been about mentoring or working at the soup kitchen or taking my training to be a counselor for people with HIV or breast cancer. I used to volunteer narcissistically so you would think I was a good guy. The results were still good, but now, for me to stay sober, I have to learn how to be of service without being narcissistic. Because using, no matter what the substance, is finally a purely narcissistic act. No matter how you do it, it's about how you are feeling, not about anyone else, just about me, me, me, me, me.

I wanted that feeling so much—instantly—with a needle, that’s how immediate I wanted it. Now, that repulses me. I still have the impulse—I walk down the street, see a hot guy, and I don’t look at his face or his ass, I look at a vein in his arm. But then I go to the next step—I don’t want that feeling, just to be enclosed in me. I think its from service. That’s what stops me right now. Also, when I worked at the soup kitchen, I needed the food, and I was basically homeless, and if I was going to eat that food, I was going to earn it.

That seems the approach, and the reason for the success, of your journalism.

I have a very blue-collar view of my life, even my celebrity profiling. I think of myself as a truck driver. I put glamorous cargo in the back, hit my deadline, haul it out. Part of working at that soup kitchen was I gotta earn this damn Salisbury steak. I gotta earn it. Not just volunteering, being responsible for the job. Putting structure in my life.

Which of those glamorous cargos really made an impression you?

Johnny Depp was the only one I wanted to kiss. I told John Waters that and he said, 'You should have. He would have let you. The straight ones always let you kiss them. It's the gay ones who don't.' That's John Waters, he knows how to quip.

Throughout the book, on your descent, you interview a series of A-listers who keep referring to you as their friend, even as you clarify that you are at best acquaintances. But I wondered, when you were down to zero money, and nowhere to live, why you didn’t reach out to one of these stars who insisted they were your friends?

One part of my knowing some people who are wealthy and have fame is that I’ve always prided myself—there’s that word again—on never asking for anything. These people are hit up constantly. There was one person, who shall go nameless, who I bumped into in a hotel lobby when I had absolutely nothing, who took me aside and said, ‘Kevin, never get to this point where you can’t reach out to me, don’t be so prideful,’ and he gave me $10,000.

You write about when you received your HIV diagnosis and Tom Cruise reached out to you with encouragement. Has this coming out about your addiction elicited such kindness?

Not really. Not yet. I don’t know what this book is going to do. I think it's going to divide people. There have been two advance reviews, one was nice and the other was just mean.

That’s something you’ve never been.

I don’t understand being mean to celebrities. They’re not Nazi scientists, they’re just celebrities. There’s only a couple people I’ve had the impulse to be mean about, but I never did it.

The book is dedicated to Perry Moore, and he, and his death, come up at pivotal times in your bottoming out and your recovery.

We had such a connection when we were younger. I felt Perry’s presence throughout the process of writing the book. I can't believe he died of addiction—we didn’t know that about each other, he was a very special person. If nothing else, I hope this book honors his memory. That floored me that moment, I had no idea he was an addict until [a mutual friend] confirmed it on our meeting's street corner. I thought that was just a story made up in the Post.

With two and a half years sober, is there still a lot of wreckage in your life?

I'm still living month-to-month. I'm not only living one day at a time, but I had such financial wreckage from my addiction, that I'm just living month-to-month trying to figure out how to get back. I don't think I'll ever get back to where I was in a financial sense—addiction destroyed one of the pillars of my life, which was finance. I just have to live with it.

No matter how desperate you got, you still hung on to your art and belongings, even though it was in storage . . .

As long as that stuff was stored somewhere I knew I had to someday have a wall to hang those pictures on. That's why the art stayed in my life. I had to have my own walls, and as long as that stuff was still mine, I knew somehow I would have a place to live again. I was living in a 100 sq. ft. space and my stuff was in garbage bags in the bathroom. I look back two and a half years ago and I'm amazed I got through it. 

And I know I could go back to it like that. [Clicks his fingers.] Now, I'm in San Francisco and I live in an apartment and I have those walls and I have my art. I don't know that I have another reinvention in me at 59. The stress of the job, and the work is all fine. I get it done. It's the disappearing that stresses me out. It's all a very precarious precipice. I only have two and a half years. The job is a start up, the book could get traction or not. . . 

You also hung on to your dogs, Teddy and Archie, even at the very worst point . . .

They're both fine, back in San Francisco. Honey, I'm a cliche old homo with two dogs and two distended nipples.

And you've reinvented yourself—first moving to San Francisco and becoming the editor-in-chief of FourTwoNine and now writing a second memoir. You're busy!

I do look at the gratitude for all of that. Just think of all those people out there who aren’t sober—just think what you can accomplish if you are sober. You have all this time!

I spent so much time just getting high. And I was addicted to redemption. I would go like three weeks, and things would be going well and then I would think I'm not comfortable being this fabulous, so I'd binge for two or three days and then I would recover and ply myself with juices and wheatgrass and sleep and eat. And I loved that part of addiction. I loved the recovery from addiction. But that's a whole week out of your fucking life where you just recover. Now, I have all this energy. And time.

Did you write your first memoir, Mississippi Sissy, high?

I didn't write it sober. I was smoking pot. I never wrote high. I never wrote magazine articles, or Mississippi Sissy, high. I would write in the mornings sober and then take a walk and smoke pot. That was a really big part of my creative process.

So writing I Left it on the Mountain must have been a different experience?

Just taking a walk and learning how to take a walk without pot. Which is sort of what Camino was.

Towards the end of the book you interview Corbin Bernsen via Skype . . .

How the mighty have fallen!

And I thought what a perfect trajectory of addiction . . .

But right after that I interviewed Mary J. Blige, so . . . .

How would the former you see this version of you?

I think he would like him. He'd want to know the whole story, the narrative. But he'd be bemused and curious and I don't know . . . relieved.

Mountain is so different from your first book . . .

Sissy is very florid and sometimes I read it and think 'Honey, phew perfume!' so this is very different. I'm scared about this book, I'll admit it. There's a whole lot of people who can't stand me cause I write about celebrity and the other stuff. Narratively, I had to write about that—you can't just write about the fall, you have to fall from somewhere.

Some of us can get up and some of us can't. And that's not a moral judgment. Some of us just can't get up.

William Georgiades is Features Editor at The Fix.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

William Georgiades is a former editor at EsquireBlack Book, the New York Post and the Grapevine and has written for several publications including New York MagazineVanity Fair, the London Times and GQ. He has been the features editor at The Fix since 2013. You can find him on Linkedin.