Episode 405: Andrew McCarthy, Zakiya Dalila Harris, Tori Telfer

Air Date:
Heard On BETA
Andrew McCarthy
(C) Jesse Dittmar

Actor Andrew McCarthy on being a member of the “Brat Pack.” Also, Zakiya Dalila Harris talks about her captivating debut novel, “The Other Black Girl.” And author Tori Telfer gives us the lowdown on con women.

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  • Actor Andrew McCarthy Looks Back At His 'Brat Pack' Legacy

    For an entire generation, the name and face of actor Andrew McCarthy has the ability to transport them back to their youth. He was the star of several 1980s romps and rom-coms like, “Class”, “St. Elmo’s Fire” and “Pretty In Pink.” He was also a charter member of an unofficially linked repertoire of actors dubbed “The Brat Pack”, along with others like Molly Ringwald, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, and Anthony Michael Hall.

    Until recently, McCarthy hasn’t revisited his time as one of Tinsel Town’s leading men. In fact, McCarthy backed away from acting almost altogether and sought the solace of freelance travel writing. Today, he keeps most of his film and TV work behind the camera as a director for shows like “Orange Is the New Black.”

    But now he’s released a memoir looking back on that era titled, “Brat: An ’80s Story.” In the book, McCarthy grapples with the powerful dichotomy of the Brat Pack label and its impact on his career.

    “I had been sideswiped by the tag and then shackled to it,” he writes. “To label anything so easily is to make no further attempt at understanding it. Yet that label also elevated me even as it weighed me down. It gave me stature while diminishing me, made me a part of something even as it isolated me, gave me a platform and limited my options.”

    By intentionally titling the book after the label, McCarthy is looking to reclaim it. He told WPR’s “BETA” that he is now able to lean into the association with a warm embrace of an imperfect, but undeniably original time in Hollywood history.

    “What I didn’t understand at the time was that the public really never saw it that way. The public always largely saw it as an affectionate term for these young guys who are in the ultimate ‘in’ club, and they wish they could be, too. And that I didn’t understand or embrace. And had I done that right away, it probably would have saved me no end of grief. But that’s turned into a beautiful thing,” McCarthy said. “If I’d done the same movies and the Brat Pack term had not been invented, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

    McCarthy caught the acting bug in high school when a series of athletic failures and missed bus rides led him to discover the drama club. He would end up landing the role of Artful Dodger in the musical “Oliver!” and was hooked.

    “There was something about doing it that just made me feel like I inhabited myself completely for the first time and made me feel like, ‘Oh, this is how I’m supposed to feel,’” he recalls.

    Admittedly not an academic stalwart, McCarthy followed this new love to NYU acting school and was on the verge of dropping out when he crossed paths with acting teacher Terry Hayden. Hayden was from the famed method acting mecca, The Actors Studio, and offered some encouragement.

    “Terry just saw me. She was the first person. Everybody just needs someone to see them. That’s what we all want, is someone to hear us and see us,” says McCarthy. “Terry kind of saw through all that and said, ‘You, stick around.’ And it was all I needed.”

    While at NYU, McCarthy began auditioning and learning the ropes of becoming a professional actor. His sense of naivete in one audition worked to his advantage as he worked his way through to a role in the 1983 romp “Class” with fellow acting newcomer, Rob Lowe, and the iconic actress, Jacqueline Bisset.

    “I had no idea what the hell was going on. I was so out of my depth in a certain way. I remember they would say, ‘OK, go over and hit that mark on the floor’ and I was like, ‘I’m sorry. What do you mean?,” quips McCarthy. “That kind of naivete and that kind of deer in the headlights was very effective for the part.”

    By most metrics, the film was a flop, but it introduced McCarthy to Hollywood. He would endear himself to Bisset and ended up renting a room in her home.

    “I lived at her house for some time and she used to drive me to auditions occasionally, which is this mind-blowing thing. I really should have quit show business right then.”

    McCarthy and Lowe would reunite a few years later on the set of Joel Schumacher’s “St. Elmo’s Fire”, co-starring Estevez, Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy, Mare Winningham and Demi Moore. It was during this time when the infamous New York magazine article would come out. It started as a small feature on Estevez, as the son of actor Martin Sheen, and ballooned into an era defining moniker.

    “Emilio invited the writer out to go drinking with him and Judd Nelson and Rob Lowe, which in hindsight proved to be not a very smart idea,” said McCarthy. “But anyway, they went out to the Hard Rock Cafe one night, the three of them with the writer and behave the way young guys who are getting successful in the movies do when they’re in bars drinking and there are pretty women around and sort of behaving in this sort of way that the writer turned off to. And instead of being a small little feature about Emilio, it turned into a cover story of New York magazine.”

    Ironically, the shade from the publicity blowback threatened to overshadow McCarthy’s growing confidence in himself as an actor.

    “(St. Elmo’s Fire) was the third movie I’d done, and it was the first time that I felt like I was really holding my own and that I could do this,” he recalled. “And I felt that during that movie, no one could have done it better than me.”

    McCarthy would move on to cement his legacy as a true ’80s icon with his next movie. The film McCarthy is arguably best known for (depending on where you fall on the “Weekend at Bernie’s” fandom spectrum) is the 1986 John Hughes classic, “Pretty In Pink” co-starring with the queen of the pack, Ringwald.

    Funny enough, McCarthy was only given a courtesy audition due to the success of “St. Elmo’s Fire.” Hughes had written the rich high school socialite, Blane, that captures the heart of Ringwald’s working-class Andie, as the quarterback of the football team.

    “I certainly did not fit that bill, but I was given this courtesy audition and I went in and Molly was there reading with people, which is unusual,” McCarthy says. “And then Molly apparently turned to John and said, ‘That’s the guy.’ To which John responded, ‘That wimpy guy?’ And Molly said, ‘Yeah, he’s poetic and sensitive. That’s the kind of guy I’d fall for.’ And John, you know, to his credit, said, ‘OK.’”

    The rest was history.

    McCarthy says that even today how he can barely get through a public appearance without someone talking to him about what his work meant to them. It’s a stark example of how his films allow a certain generation to recapture their youth.

    “When people come up to me about movies, they need to say things to me. It’s not that I need it. They need to share what it meant to them. And I just have to be open enough to receive it.”

  • 'Get Out' Meets 'The Devil Wears Prada' In 'The Other Black Girl'

    Zakiya Dalila Harris’s debut novel, “The Other Black Girl,” is generating a lot of buzz. The Washington Post, Time magazine, and Entertainment Weekly are among the media outlets that have named it one of the most anticipated books of 2021.

    “The Other Black Girl” is about a young editorial assistant named Nella Rogers who is the only Black woman at Wagner Books. At least until Hazel starts working there. Nella envisions becoming friends with Hazel but that’s not how things work out. After a series of disturbing events, Nella sees Hazel as an enemy. Besides crafting a propulsive page-turner, Harris also delivers some incisive commentary about diversity in the workplace.

    The fact that “The Other Black Girl” is set in the world of publishing is no coincidence. Harris spent almost three years working in editorial at Knopf Doubleday. And, fittingly enough, it was while working there that she came up with the idea for her novel.

    “I was washing my hands in the bathroom and this other Black woman came out of the bathroom stall and I had never seen her before,” Harris told WPR’s “BETA.” “I knew how many Black people were on the floor. It was me and another older Black gentleman and that’s it.”

    Harris recalled being surprised by the other Black woman’s appearance. She did what she believes a lot of Black people and persons of color do.

    “I was trying to get her attention, maybe strike up a conversation in some kind of way, but not in a weird way and nothing happened,” she said. “And I went back to my desk and I started writing the book in that moment because I was just so interested in, of course, seeing her and wondering if we would be friends, if we would find solidarity in being the two Black women on our floor.”

    She also thought about another truism Black people share: “Sometimes we feel like we’re in competition with one another because there are so few of us that there’s a joke that there can only be one of us. But then that joke truism comes from a real place.”

    In “The Other Black Girl,” Harris explores the underrepresented theme of the professional Black woman’s inner struggle. Nella has to work twice as hard and engage in code switching in order to be successful.

    “It definitely made me think a lot about my own experiences, not just in publishing, but just in every job I’ve had as a young Black woman,” Harris said. “I know that a lot of people will have expectations of me in the moment they meet me. And this is something that I think, again, a lot of Black people can relate to, of a feeling like you have to prove yourself. You have to constantly be a certain way. You have to leave this Black part of you essentially at home.

    The concept of a Black woman’s hair looms large in “The Other Black Girl,” and Harris uses her characters’ hair as a brilliant backdrop and as a wholly original plot device.

    Harris says that like Nella, she has a very complicated relationship with her hair. She grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood in Connecticut. She was mostly around white people until she went to high school.

    “So I always wanted to relax my hair. Like most of my friends, I wanted to have straight, straight hair, like most of my white friends,” Harris recalled. “And I started to really think about why am I doing this? Like, besides the fact that I can’t afford this, it’s expensive to do it on the regular.”

    She realized just how many of the decisions that she made as a young person had been informed by other people.

    “And my hair is really the most obvious thing. And so I cut it all off about five or six years ago, did the big chop. And it was such a freeing feeling. And I know for me personally, I just felt so much more connected to the Black experience, too,” she said.

    In the novel’s backstory, Nella also grew up mostly around white people and felt like she was missing out on the Black experience everyone assumes she’s had.

    “The one thing that she does truly know is Black hair and that experience of having Black hair and having this love/hate relationship with it as a young person,” Harris explained. “And so I really wanted that to be the thing that when she meets Hazel, they’re both so different, both raised in different environments. Nella’s based in Connecticut, Hazel’s based in Harlem. But the thing that they can really connect over is their hair. And I think that’s so beautiful. And also, of course, it has its implications, too.”

    “The Other Black Girl” ends with an unexpected twist, something Harris said she was working toward all along. And while she describes herself as “a really positive person,” Harris said she has her cynical side, which comes out in the book’s ending. Harris said she wanted it to have the same powerful impact that the endings of classic horror movies like “Night of the Living Dead” and “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers” had on their audiences.

    “Diversity issues are one thing that sometimes I’m hopeful about but other times I’m like, are we ever going to get it right, though?” Harris said. “And so I really wanted to have this moment at the end of the book where we really were done with the book, but we’re not actually done with the book.”

    Hulu is set to produce a TV series based on Harris’s novel. She’s working on the series with Tara Duncan who helped develop shows like “Orange Is the New Black.”

  • The Long History Of Long Cons (And Shorter Ones) Committed By Female Con Artists

    When you think of con artists, you probably think of men like Frank Abagnale (played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the Steven Spielberg film “Catch Me If You Can”), Charles Ponzi, or Bernie Madoff. But the history of con artists includes many devious, diabolical women who have swindled, grifted and scammed their way to acquiring ill-gotten gains; examples include Elizabeth Holmes and Anna Sorokin who used the name Anna Delvey for her cons.

    Tori Telfer explores the long history of the long con (and shorter cons) in her book, “Confident Women: Swindlers, Grifters, and Shapeshifters of the Feminine Persuasion,” about female con artists.

    Why did Telfer decide to write a book about female con artists?

    “Well, I had written a book about female serial killers, so I was sick of that,” Telfer told WPR’s “BETA.”

    She looked around for other kinds of female criminals to see which ones ignited her imagination.

    “When I found female con artists, it was just so obviously right. And I couldn’t believe that no one had really written about them comprehensively before, when there’s so many of them, more than serial killers, I think,” Telfer said.

    Telfer says she thinks the main difference in the way that con men and con women operate is that con women use gender stereotypes to take advantage of their marks.

    “The con women are going to lean into being a sobbing young mother or a sad elderly widow or whatever stereotype of femininity others might want to avoid,” she said. “The con woman is like, ‘I’m going to use that because it’s going to work to my advantage because people will be more willing to believe me,’ whereas con men might be like, ‘I’ll sell you the Brooklyn Bridge or trust me, I’m a doctor.’”

    In the introduction to her book, Telfer writes: “The fact that we like con artists so much is probably the greatest con of all time.”

    What I mean by that is that everyone in my book, every con artist that we know has had a run-in with the law, has probably done some serious prison time. And yet they’re like folk heroes to us,” Telfer said. “It’s just like the con artist population has swindled us all so thoroughly that we applaud them when they are still criminals. They’re still committing crimes that get them in trouble with the law, just like robbers and drug dealers.”

    Telfer says she believes there are two reasons why we often find ourselves admiring con artists. For one thing, they’re very clever, as is evident by the backstories and aliases that they use. The second reason is that most of the time, they don’t physically harm anyone.

    “So, I think that we feel comfortable cheering for them because we’re like, ‘OK, so she swindled some people out of money, but it’s not like she killed anyone. And that is part of the con, because actually the victims in my book are extremely broken and traumatized from their run-ins with con artists.”

    Of all the con women that she profiles in her book, Telfer says Rose Marks may have left the biggest impression on her. That’s because Marks is one of the few Telfer wrote about who is still alive. Telfer spoke to her sons and she interviewed the detective who tracked her down.

    “She was a fortune-teller who swindled her victims,” she said. “Fortune-telling is not illegal. Fraud is.”

    Marks used the aliases “Joyce Michael” and “Joyce Michaels.” She would tell her customers she couldn’t give them their money back when her predictions didn’t come true, saying their money burned in the World Trade Center attack or that only “Michael the Archangel” knew where it was. Marks also told her customers they would be reincarnated and marry Brad Pitt.

    “That sounds so silly. But when you dig into how she did it and how convincing she was and how manipulative she was and how vulnerable her victims were, it starts to make sense,” Telfer said.

    Telfer devoted a chapter in her book to a specific kind of con artist which she refers to as “The Tragediennes.”

    These are women who use a real tragedy to con people. So they will say that they lost their house in Hurricane Katrina or they were there on 9/11. I’m sure they’re doing it right now with the pandemic … The con artist looks around, sees that everyone else is being really generous and is giving a lot of money to the victims,” Telfer explained, “and they’re just like, ‘I’m a victim, too.’ And everyone’s emotions are running high. It feels callous to fact-check them — ‘Are you really a victim?’ And so these are very effective and very, very common.”

    Telfer says that Tania Head is the most audacious of the tragediennes that she profiled. Head was a 9/11 faker.

    “She wasn’t even in the U.S. on the day the World Trade Center came down, but she just seemed to be obsessed with the attention that being a survivor, quote-unquote, would bring, even though, of course, the real survivors weren’t reveling in the attention,” Telfer explained.

    Head came to the United States and finagled her way into a 9/11 survivor organization. She became an advocate for them.

    “She actually did some really positive things for them,” Telfer said. “And she had this incredible story of being right there when the second plane came through the window and her arm coming unattached from her body. It was an outrageous story but she sprinkled in enough real details of things that really happened so that it made her story work for quite some time until a journalist decided to do a profile of her. And he was like, ‘Why won’t you tell me your husband’s name? Why are you breaking down in tears?’ And the whole thing unraveled.”

    At the end of her book, Telfer writes: “To achieve these nefarious ends, the con woman weaponizes confidence itself.”

    “So we think of confidence as like ‘I’m really feeling myself today,’ and that’s one meaning,” she explained. “But there’s an older meaning, a rarer meaning, which is, ‘I’m taking you into my confidence.’ And the con woman uses both of those things. She takes you into her confidence, partially using the fact that she is so confident. She then destroys your confidence in yourself after you figure out that you’ve been conned. So it’s like this tangle of all the meanings of the word are used and damaged by her.”

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Technical Director
  • Andrew McCarthy Guest
  • Zakiya Dalila Harris Guest
  • Tori Telfer Guest

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