Rhonda Medina on Rushing the Stage
Ten Girls to Watch is a novel, as in fiction, as in a book I made up, but it’s also inspired by an experience I had in real life, working on Glamour Magazine’s “Top Ten College Women” contest. Rhonda Adams Medina was one of the winners of that real life, non-fictional contest — Glamour Top Ten, 1987.
She was so smart and funny and warm when I interviewed her back in 2007 that she’s stayed in my head for years (and some of the smart things she said back then just may have seeped into the book). Lucky for me, we were able to talk again a few weeks ago. Nowadays, she’s a mother of four(!) and a Senior Vice President for Business and Legal Affairs at MTV Networks. (She’s also a terrific writer — check out this lovely piece of hers from the Huffington Post this May). Here, a little bit about how she got where she is today (near-firing and Spike Lee were both involved!), and a few words of wonderfully wise advice.
What did you think you wanted to be when you were in college?
I wanted to be the Tokyo Bureau Chief for the Far Eastern Economic Review. I studied Japanese and spent some time there in college and loved the country. I loved to write and had done an internship at the New York Times and at a small newspaper in Texas, and I thought it would be perfect to combine my love of Japan with my love of writing.
I even got an internship with them in Hong Kong, but then I got an offer in investment banking in New York. It seemed very sexy — it was the late 80s! A lot of my friends were doing it, and also, I thought I’d have a more fertile dating scene if I stayed in New York instead of Hong Kong. So I decided I wanted to try my hand at that kind of work.
How did those first years out of school actually go?
I worked like a dog around the clock. I wasn’t good at it at all — I almost got fired — but it ended up being a fabulous experience. I made all my best friends in those years, people I’m still really close to. I did a two-year analyst program, but after that you’re released, and all my friends were going to Harvard Business School. I couldn’t add, but I really wanted to go where they were going, so I thought “I’ll go to HLS.” It was a pretty immature decision, and I’m really lucky it worked out.
When did you figure out you wanted to do entertainment law?
I had been a Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton, studying domestic and international policy, and at Harvard I was on the Law Review. Most people go on to clerk after that, but I had a very frivolous side to me. I read People Magazine! In law school I had a professor whose wife was an entertainment lawyer. I was in Switzerland at the Montrose Jazz Festival, and she was there too, for work. I thought “what kind of job pays you to go to the Montrose Jazz Festival?”
When I was in law school I also had the opportunity to meet Spike Lee. He was teaching an undergraduate class. They had a big meeting in a theater on campus. There were something like 30 spots in the class, and in order to be eligible to apply, you had to be a visual and environmental studies or an Afro-Am major. I was neither, I was a law school student. I was sitting way up in the balcony with a friend, but as soon as Spike Lee was done talking I said “See ya!” and went running downstairs and pushed my way up to him and said “you really want to have me in your class.” He said I didn’t meet the requirements, but I told him all the reasons I should be in the class, and what do you know? He let me in.
He was an incredible mentor to me. Really encouraging. I took full advantage of being in the class. The next year he asked me to be his Teaching Fellow, which was an extraordinary experience. After graduation, he gave me a job in the development office of 40 Acres and a Mule, reading scripts. I was a total gofer. I then went to work in a corporate law firm for a little less than a year before I was tapped by Spike’s law firm, a small boutique entertainment firm.
Did anybody give you any great advice along the way?
When I worked at 40 Acres and a Mule I reported to the head of development. She made me do all these humiliating things. I had just graduated from law school, and she would send me out to get her tea. She was not approachable. She was not even remotely kind, but I asked her to lunch after it was all over, and she said, “If I can’t trust you to get my tea, what can I trust you to do?” I always remembered that. You can’t have any ego. You have to attack every job.
If you could say a few words to your just-graduated self, what would they be?
Keep working out! I do miss my 22-year-old body. Other than that, everything worked out the way it should. I can say “I should have broken up with him a few months earlier,” and things like that, but I’m afraid I would screw everything up if I changed things. One thing I was aware of at an earlier age than most people — especially when you get to college, the people who you’re going to school with are going to be your colleagues in life. I’m really proud of myself and the way I conducted my life and things with people. So that’s something I’d say to other people. Don’t act like an idiot in school! Treat other people with respect. If you don’t do it because it’s the right moral thing to do, at least do it out of self-interest.
Thanks so much, Rhonda!