The following story originally appeared in the spring 2019 issue of the W&M Alumni Magazine. – Ed.
Olivia Newton-John didn’t know it, but in the 1980s, her biggest fan was a third-grader living in the D.C. suburbs.
“When I was 7 or 8, I would watch ‘Grease’ over and over again, and I had the ‘Xanadu’ soundtrack practically memorized. If she was on TV, I had to record it so I could re-watch it and analyze it,” remembers Jen Chaney ’94 with a laugh. “I liked her for simple reasons — she seemed really nice, she was pretty and she had a great voice!”
Little did she know that her early obsession with a cultural icon was the embryo of a career immersed in television and popular culture. Chaney, who is now a television critic for the media outlet Vulture, doesn’t remember a time when she wasn’t obsessed with the small screen. She always knew more about her favorite shows than anyone else around her and found ways to incorporate her TV hobby into her schoolwork.
“Once we had to choose a person we admired, write a report about them and then attempt to do their job. I picked Steven Spielberg and I made a movie about a superhero who helped people become better at video games,” she recalls. “I was the first female director for a superhero movie!”
With such a strong affinity for popular culture, it seemed destined that Chaney would enter the entertainment industry in some capacity, but she points out that there were no people in her orbit that she could look to for inspiration. She wanted to be a writer, but her mother was concerned she wouldn’t be able to earn a living doing something creative. Once she came to William & Mary, however, she found herself molding her coursework to accommodate her passion for the arts.
“I was a DJ for WCWM, the campus radio station, and was also a features editor for a news program called Brave World News. We would try to feature local arts events like plays or exhibits at the Muscarelle, but sometimes there weren’t enough events to cover, and we would fill in with movie and TV reviews,” she says. “I started by recapping ‘Beverly Hills 90210’ and eventually added in ‘Melrose Place’ — really exploring the breadth of the genre!”
She parlayed an internship at the DC101 radio station into her first post-college job working for a small-town paper in Montgomery County, Maryland, following the time-worn advice that a journalist can only move up by starting at a small paper and gradually jumping to more prestigious publications. Deciding she wasn’t cut out for the vagabond lifestyle, she once again considered her options, at one point even working for nearly a year as a mid-career fellow on Capitol Hill. Eventually, she decided she wasn’t interested in politics and decided to aim big — working for The Washington Post.
Read the full story on the W&M Alumni Magazine website.