AJ Benza: The Forrest Gump of the Entertainment Scandal World

Although this is an old photo, it’s an iconic one of AJ Benza from when he hosted E!’s <em>Mysteries and Scandals</em> (’98-’
Although this is an old photo, it’s an iconic one of AJ Benza from when he hosted E!’s Mysteries and Scandals (’98-’01)

Before you proceed with reading this, I will answer your question: Yes, I have decided to profile AJ Benza on Huffington Post, a site that caters predominantly to a liberal audience. And yes, perhaps you’ve heard that his politics do not align with yours (assuming you’re in the main demographic of this site’s readership) or mine. However, I had a captivating discussion with Benza, the self-professed “Forrest Gump” of the entertainment scandal world. As you read ahead, you’ll see why he refers to himself in that manner. Our mutual interest in that entertainment world is what helped us to forge a bond, putting political differences aside during an intriguing conversation. We even did touch on politics a tad…and managed to avoid killing each other.

You may know Benza from his days writing for Newsday and the New York Daily News, or later on from E!’s The Gossip Show and Mysteries and Scandals, or from his appearances on daytime talk shows when those were in their hay day. You also may have caught AJ Benza on air while listening to Howard Stern - although he did not escape from those interactions unscathed. http://www.eonline.com/news/41933/stern-gives-benza-the-boot

Today, you can listen to Benza talk Hollywood scandals on his popular podcast Fame is a Bitch. The title is based on his popular catchphrase uttered on Mysteries and Scandals: “Fame, ain’t it a bitch” (which is also the name of his 2001 tome. In 2015, he published another book titled ’74 and Sunny).

After finding myself intrigued by the “Fame is a Bitch” podcast, I decided to catch up with the host. Following is our interview:

AJ Benza today
AJ Benza today

Tell me about the genesis of the ‘Fame is a Bitch’ podcast.

This is going to sound crazy, but this is my life: I am someone who is somehow connected to almost every Hollywood scandal just by knowing someone somewhere. I always say that once you’re in LA for a long time you basically become who people say you are…There’s something attached to you and I got stuck being known as that guy who talks about dead celebrities.

People would approach me with the inside dirt. It was like this with Mysteries and Scandals and shows I did for the Reels channel. There was one that pertained specifically to LA called Demons in the City of Angels. Just like with that ‘6 degrees of Kevin Bacon’ game, there are so many times I’m somehow attached to people in the news whether it be through someone I dated many years ago before getting married…or through someone I had interviewed and by knowing the LA/Hollywood scene (I’m now on the West Coast though I grew up in New York).

I feel like the Forrest Gump of the scandalous entertainment world and I take the knowledge that I have from personal interactions and bring that to my reporting. Having the connections makes you more passionate about looking into these stories and investigating them further. I’ve been a reporter since 1982 and now, I take the interest that’s entwined with experience and meeting people over the years and I have fun with it.

The podcast came about because I had reconnected with a childhood friend named Michael Agovino who was with me in little league. Mike said he was starting a podcast company and that we should work together. We had mainly lost touch over the years and he didn’t know I had all of these stories, so he’s shocked to hear about some of the relationships that I had. I can cover a scandal a week. I covered Tupac Shakur early on because I actually did know Tupac years ago. We started with that story and moved to others like Hugh Hefner…

I heard you discuss personally knowing Harvey Weinstein on Heather McDonald’s podcast ‘Juicy Scoop’. https://pagesix.com/2017/12/02/weinstein-tried-to-hire-gossip-writer-to-get-dirt-on-accusers/

Sex stories really began to blow up and more so recently with the Harvey Weinstein scandal. And now, sex scandals are a major focus of mine for this podcast. I do know Harvey Weinstein personally and I have to say that although he had a reputation of being a tough and brash guy – a ‘bully’ even– I was shocked by this story and how it evolved. Harvey had come to me early on saying he was concerned about a story being printed, but I never anticipated it would be as bad as it is…as incriminating as it is!

I knew they were coming after him with a big story a while back, but the details were absolutely not spelled out to me! New York Magazine had been planning to do a hit piece and that was before Ronan Farrow came out with his article in The New Yorker. The New York Magazine story got killed and Harvey was also able to somehow get things killed with the NYPD early on - they buried a tape. People have friends in high places. In terms of these types of stories, there were thing that were done in the past that don’t fly today. Back then, if you heard that someone was going to print a gossip piece, you could use a barter system: ‘If you don’t print that, I’ll give you 3 other great stories that you can print.’ Political leanings and allegiances would come into play as well as power. It still does go on today, but you see that it didn’t work for Harvey here. People were scared of Harvey’s power for a long time, but it seems that there were so many stories….it got to be too much. When these types of things happen, there’s only so long a person can be protected by their power and having friends in high places.

I feel like the answer is a definitive ‘no’ and if it’s not, people are going to be outraged, but I have to ask anyway: Do you personally think Harvey Weinstein can make a comeback?

It doesn’t seem like Harvey can come back, but he swears everything was consensual and doesn’t seem to be terribly shaken to his core about some of the stories. I think he must have very well-paid people around him that are giving him assurances. I personally would be a lot more worried in his situation! He thinks it will be found out that these sexual encounters were consensual.

If Harvey has the script for the next Pulp Fiction, there are lots of people who would work with him because money talks in this town more than anything else. I wouldn’t bet against him. There are allegations and an awful lot of stories and they sound accurate enough that he should be very concerned and ashamed. If there are criminal trials in different countries and he’s locked up, a comeback is going to be severely curtailed. However, if that doesn’t happen, then I don’t think he’s made his last movie. This town is so full of shit that I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a movie with his name attached to it by 2030.

Are there other types of stories you are ‘obsessed’ with and really wish to delve into for your podcast?

As you can tell, I am obsessed with the #MeToo movement and I wonder where it’s going to go from here. I always want to believe that women are telling the truth and feel that women are! This is not something you want to come forward about. As a journalist and a man, I want to assume that every account is accurate. I do sometimes get bothered thinking, well, what if ONE of these stories is overblown? Many of these men who are being knocked on are complete creeps, there’s no doubt. However, I do get obsessed with the idea of balance. What if just one of these stories has more to it and significant backstory? Generally, I’m curious about what happens next with the #MeToo movement.

There is also an underground pedophilia history and I want to delve into that. In general, I feel compelled to uncover how much is true and how much is being fleshed out. I sometimes worry that we’re throwing wide nets out which can be very dangerous. We have to be careful about how we go fishing so good people aren’t getting hurt.

On ‘Juicy Scoop’, you discussed how you dated up a storm years ago. I know you have some wild tales about the NYC social scene. Are you ever concerned about claims being brought forward from your single days?

I’m a guy who ran around single for many years, but I’m not worried because my relationships were always consensual and I always treated the women that I dated very well. I grew up with sisters and that may have had taught me something. If the #MeToo movement had been taking shape 15 years ago, my concerns might be related to being loud, obnoxious and gregarious…like ‘did I flirt inappropriately?’ Now I’m married 14 years and I’m a little league coach. I’m not in that world.

What do your kids think of the fact that their dad knows all these people? I’ve heard you say that you personally know Donald Trump.

That’s why I also tell my kids - like I said to you - I’m like Forrest Gump. ‘Yes kids, your dad knew Winona Ryder who you now watch in Stranger Things. And yes, Dad used to go out with Mariah Carey.’

My son was more impressed by Rocky Balboa, Stallone and Schwarzenegger…and more so because 36 Mafia wrote the songs for their movie and he was excited to meet the rappers.

On the other hand, when I say that Daddy knew people like John Gotti (from my days as a reporter and living in New York. I was there to cover his trial when I worked for Newsday and we had a good rapport)…I think he’s less impressed.

Have you ever gotten scared or felt threatened due to people you’re connected with, or information you’ve been privy to?

Scared? No. But I do get disappointed. When I wrote for New York Daily News, it was part of the job to take pride in getting things right. In the days before the Internet, there was a ton of vetting that went into these pieces. You had editors and lawyers to pre-approve articles and I had some real legends around me in that regard. If I got something wrong, I felt guilt and couldn’t sleep right. I’m not scared, but I’ve also been around some very scary people. That has exposed me and helped me to be discerning about who not to be afraid of…people others might fear.

I’ve been doing this for so long and I think because I have a ‘tough guy’ exterior, people are less likely go after me than someone who is not as experienced. I don’t like bullies, but whenever I’ve been wrong about exposing someone as such, I’ll listen and talk about it and then exonerate that person in a follow-up report. I have no problem correcting myself and saying I was wrong (if I was). I think this is crucial nowadays when so many people prioritize being first over being right.

Can you give readers a heads-up on upcoming topics on ‘Fame is a Bitch’?

I plan to discuss Matt Lauer and the whole Today Show debacle and I want to get into the #TimesUp Movement that pertains to female empowerment in Hollywood.

I also want to talk about Corey Feldman and Corey Haim’s mom. Corey Feldman has had a lot to say and Corey Haim’s mom wants to set the record straight about how she raised her son and what she knows from his lifetime. There are questions regarding what Corey Feldman has said.

I’ll also be speaking more about Weinstein. In addition to that, I want to look into some of the scandals that happened on set of shows in the 80s and 90s. There has been talk about sex on set being rampant among teen idols during that time. Some got through it unscathed and I think they will soon be under scrutiny. That’s going to be a big scandal up ahead. I think that people are going to come forward and say ‘this happened to me and this heartthrob did it and until now, nothing happened to him.’

So, there’s a big elephant in the room. I’m a major liberal and I know you voted for your friend Donald Trump. Do I tell my liberal friends who are new to your podcast to fast forward past the political parts?

Although I voted for Trump, I destroyed him on my podcast and when I’m unhappy with decisions he’s made, I call it out. I know an awful lot about him personally and I do knock him. I still send him notes when I think he’s off. Once he got back to me about it. When he acknowledges what I’ve said and basically expresses that he appreciates my points or my perspective, that’s really the most you can hope for with him. He’s a confident man who doesn’t say he was wrong. He will say: ‘That idea may not be 100 percent wrong.’

I get along really well with Bill Maher so I don’t necessarily clash with liberals – although of course, there will be some listeners who occasionally take issue. However, despite people knowing me as ‘conservative,’ I’ve been hard on Trump and I’ve looked at things critically.

Before he won, I actually asked him ‘are you really serious about doing this? How many great summers do you have left in life?’ He replied ‘at least 30.’ He thinks grandly. I asked: ‘Why would you want to spend the next 4 years away from the things you love?’ He said ‘I love America and I want to fix certain things.’

I do think that the things he’s said about women and what was caught on the Access Hollywood tapes were gross. This brings us back to #MeToo. I think it’s important to tell these stories because I think that all of this shit we’re going through currently is like labor pains. There’s agony, emotion and pain right now, but it will bring forth something beautiful in the future. There will be a paradigm shift and there will be major changes in the environment and workplace. We are experiencing this as a country and we’ll see people evolve and behave very differently in 10 years.

Check out AJ Benza’s “Fame is a Bitch” podcast, available on iTunes: http://budurl.me/FameIsABitch

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