Within five minutes of meeting Gil Robertson, IV, you are instantly aware that he has that “certain something.” What it is, you cannot clearly define, for it is a unique blend of LA cool, European sensibility, and Southern charm. However, as the conversation continues, you discover why he is so engaging – he is relevant. Though success is a moniker which references things previously achieved, relevance is a direct connection to what is substantively present. And anyone who has met Gil can concur – he is very much in the now.
Having achieved many of the goals he set for himself as an A&E journalist, he now sits in an interesting position. Though he is focused on the future, he has traveled enough miles to now stop and reflect on the journey. With the passport stamps, awards, and fabulous friends he’s amassed over the last 10 years, many would stop and go into full vacation mode. Not Gil. He is keenly aware that his success is atypical. That fact has consistently served as his chief motivator. Even though he does rest for a moment to celebrate the victories, he never pauses for long! Why? The work is simply not done.
The strength of a creator is not that he can create – it’s finding new ways to channel his creativity. At this juncture in his career, that’s where we find Gil – blazing new trails with a very simple tool: writing.
Q. Though you’ve shared your story dozens of times, could you briefly recap your path to arts and entertainment journalism?
A. When I decided to pursue A&E journalism full-time, I left a good-paying job working for a political think tank in Los Angeles. I moved back home, immediately got kicked out, and ended up living in a studio apartment with a futon and television. I mean, it didn’t even have a stove! But, I was very persistent, and was able to carve out a niche for myself as the go-to guy in Los Angeles for a lot of east-coast based publications that were looking for content covering the film and television communities. From there, I was able to add legitimacy to my by-line by becoming the Urban Music Editor at Cash Box, and then became the Urban Music Editor at Music Connection which is a regional trade (and I operated in both of these roles simultaneously). I went from becoming this fledgling A&E writer, just making enough to keep my bills paid, to being someone with influence at two influential trades. I have to say, that really turned my life around because it provided me with a platform. Fortunately, I was able to nurture relationships that have been very beneficial to me ever since.
Q. The most fascinating aspect of your career is the diversity. You’ve not only maintained a solid reputation as an A&E journalist and pop culture critic, but you’ve also successfully navigated the roles of publicist, best-selling author, producer, and socio-political commentator. How do you explain your ability to move across different forms of media?
A. I never wanted to repeat myself. The one thing I like about my life is that it’s always fresh and new. I could never fully settle into the grind of doing something that is typical or just expected. Once you’ve been doing anything for a while, it becomes just that – ordinary. Fortunately, writing has opened doors for me to become engaged with other parts of my creativity. That’s how I’ve been able to move seamlessly from one form of media to the next. Yet, in my eyes, they’re all different creative expressions of the same gift – writing.
Q. Are you surprised that writing has taken you around the world? It’s not the first thing that people would normally think of career-wise. Our culture doesn’t always recognize that there are formidable alternatives to the traditional paths of medicine, law or education.
A. Well yes and no. I mean, it is amazing isn’t it? Something that seems so inconsequential has provided me with such a deliciously terrific life! I’ve always said, the best thing about my life is that every morning I wake up and my phone rings – and I wonder, “Who’s calling today?” Luckily, no two days are ever the same. Yet, there is always someone on the other end of the line – a publicist, actor, record label, TV show, or national magazine – wanting the services that my unique experiences and knowledge can provide. Every time that phone rings, it’s magic!
Q. As you continue conducting entertainment press around the world, serving as President of AAFCA (African-American Film Critics’ Association), your books, “Not In My Family: AIDS and the African-American Community,” and “Family Affair: What It Means to Be African-American Today have become bestsellers. What new projects are on the horizon?
A. My new book, “Where Did Our Love Go: Personal Essays on Love and Relationships in the African-American Community has just been released. It’s a project that looks at the marriage gap in the Black community. That book will be followed by my first Children’s book that profiles notable blacks in 21st century politics. Of course you have the AAFCA Awards, in additional to my plans to produce documentaries on my previous anthologies.
Q. So it’s true that you’re preparing to enter the land of television. Are my sources correct?
A. Yes, and as quiet as I’ve kept that, you must have excellent sources! My writing partner and I have formed our own TV production company, and are presently developing two reality shows. Clearly, this is definitely new for me, but developing TV projects was always part of my long-term plan. The timing just had to be right! However, I’ll continue to do speaking engagements around the country. To my delight (and those who attend my seminars and lectures), I’ve really come into my own in this arena, having gotten better at framing my message and presentation.
Q. Does this mean your national byline, The Robertson Treatment Syndicated Column, will be undergoing changes?
A. I definitely plan to continue the column. I’m particularly interested in covering China and Australia. It’s really a branding opportunity, where I can say my column was able to visit every continent in the world. However, my desire is to hand-off some of the frequent traveling and writing duties it requires. I would really like to find a group of young people who are ready and willing to take those tasks on, and allow the column to create opportunities for them, the same way it has for me.
Q. Has the work/life balance been challenging to achieve?
A. Oh yes! As any traveling businessman can tell you – it’s not fun after the first week. People really don’t understand the amount of skymiles I’ve amassed over the years. When you write like my peers and I do, it becomes a job. So after all of the hard work and sacrifice, I’m making time to develop other parts of my life.
Q. How do you see entrepreneurship and writing moving together?
A. What you have to remember is that this is a business. A lot of times people don’t think of journalism, or being a journalist, as a career. And it is – and it’s a career like any other that goes through stages. You create a foundation for yourself, erect the framework, and then you put the roof on, and everything that goes into building a house. So, I mean you’ve got to have a sense of timing. You’ve got to know when you’ve developed, when you’ve done what you need to do in a particular area, and when it’s time to move on. And you have to plant seeds, lay the groundwork. You must always be laying the groundwork for the next stage of your professional development. So while you’re working as a staff writer at magazine A, if you really want to work in television, then you know what, you should be getting to know people in television.
Q. So relationships have played a valuable role for you?
A. Yes! I’ve always been very good about keeping relationships alive managing them like the guru of publicity, Terrie Williams. I send people cards and notes out of the blue every six months. Just to keep thoughts of me on the peripheral of their psyche and thought process. It requires a lot of due diligence, but I value these relationships, which have truly helped me to begin the work that I’m doing – even now.
Q. What advice would you share for A&E journalists rising through the ranks?
A. First, and foremost, don’t take it too seriously! It’s very easy to get caught up in the trappings of excess and luxury we’re exposed to. This is the only area of journalism where “underwriting” is an acceptable, common practice. In other areas of the press, it’s frowned upon. But in this arena, impressing the journalist is just as important as the assignment itself. Though, at the end of the day, it’s all about the work. Secondly, it’s not about where you go, or who you’re hanging out with – it’s really about what you have. You may be going to a fabulous restaurant, but could you afford to go there on your own? Achieving financial independence must always be top-of-mind. Many of the things I’m privileged to do as an A&E journalist, I would still be able to do on my own dime. Sure, gratuity is a wonderful thing – but don’t rely on it! God blesses the person who can pull out their AMEX card and take his girl on that nice date without having somebody else pay for it.
Q. Do you think your longevity is more the exception, or the norm?
A. I think I’ve had a very exceptional career. I’ve been at the right place at the right time. Well-connected people have been willing to stand in my corner over the years. Combined with hard work, I always knew that I had the potential to build and continue growing in this profession. I’ve been very strategic and very tactical, in such a way, that it’s given my career momentum and staying power. So no, few of the people I started working with 20 years ago are still doing this. It’s hard to pay a mortgage, maintain a relevant lifestyle to support yourself (much less raise a family), purely as a freelance A&E journalist. That’s exactly what I was when I started out. But I’ve been able to grow various branches that have all represented various income streams. I can’t say it enough – I’ve been extremely blessed – but I’m not the only one. That’s the true message – discover your talent, and you will find the right lane to walk in.
RAEGAN L. BURDEN