What It Was Really Like to Film E! True Hollywood Story During the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Natalie Finn Mar 22, 2021 3:00 PMTags
E! True Hollywood Story, Covid FeatureiStock; Melissa Herwitt/E! Illustration

Hello blazer, my old friend... I've come to put you on again...

Let's just say, it had been awhile since I had contemplated work outside the home, let alone thought about having to get dressed for it, when I got the request that would require organizing both my thoughts and my appearance.

It had been almost six months since I had last sat at my desk or seen any of my E! colleagues in person, the coronavirus pandemic having scattered us to the four winds, our little office comforts left abandoned in drawers that wouldn't be opened again for the foreseeable future, forgotten half-drank cups of coffee that we assumed we could always toss out upon our return in a few days, when this was all under control, just sitting there.

Instead, the energy of our bright, chatty newsroom cooled off along with those cups for the long run.

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On the bright side, I now had full control of my "office" thermostat, and more elaborate midday stretching helped keep chair-imposed kinks at bay. Moreover, that Microsoft Teams software that always seemed superfluous finally started to come in handy, and I've seen my New York-based colleagues more in the past 12 months than I'd ever seen them over all the years.

But for the most part, it's just been weird. Sorry, I have no better words left.

So when I got an email in early September asking if I'd be available to go on camera for the upcoming season of E! True Hollywood Story, our classic signature series E! revived in... oh, was it only in 2019? Feels like just a bit longer ago... Anyway, when I got the invitation, I was of course happy to be asked, and perfectly willing to extend the expertise that had crept up on me over the course of 15 years chronicling pop culture highs, lows and everything in between.

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For starters, even the preemptory phone call from the producer to chat about the material (and, subsequently, about what life as we knew it had become) was a nice treat. I hadn't been as isolated as some for the duration—and, at that point, things were sorta-kinda looking up, at least if the ability to eat on a restaurant patio was any indicator—but still, a pleasant conversation on any day shouldn't be taken for granted.

We discussed what I'd be commenting on—major Hollywood comebacks—and she gave me an overview of the pandemic protocol, which other than having some extra forms to sign wasn't going to be too different from other shoots, only this one would involve wearing a mask to the set.

And, gulp, as I realized later, doing my own makeup. (And, I suppose, hair, although these days I've just substituted having really long hair for any perceivable style.)

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But a note on makeup: I wear at least some more often than not in daily life (or at least I did when daily life involved a larger variety of people), at least eyeliner and mascara, but camera makeup is a whole other thing.

Every time I go out thinking I look like Natalie Portman in Black Swan, I see a photo taken from that night and you can basically see that I have eyes. Meaning, it doesn't take all that much to look to yourself like you're wearing a lot, but it takes a lot to look like you're wearing barely enough on camera.

We'll see when the comebacks episode premieres whether I look like I'm wearing any, but I'm not too proud to admit I slathered it on. I mixed base colors, I blended, I highlighted, I applied multiple coats of mascara and I remembered to bring extra powder, because shine, and no one else on set was going to be able to fix it. 

Actually, I remember thinking at the time it was a miracle my contact lenses remained smudge-free throughout the whole process, what with all the times they didn't in the past, so... little victories.

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It was also an exceptionally warm October day, so I blasted my car's air conditioner toward my face to keep everything in place for what was happily a very short, no-freeway-necessary drive.

Per the very detailed directions (thank you, logistics team), I arrived at the correct gate, got buzzed in and parked—all the while trying to keep my foundation (which normally I wouldn't be wearing yet and I'd be very excited about getting into that makeup chair) off my jacket, which I was still just carrying so I wouldn't get too hot.

Because really, while I was a little nervous about the part of the deal in which people were counting on me to put words together coherently in an informative, engaging way and say them out loud, mainly I was trying not to sweat. Not only was I concerned for my amateur makeup job, but also, when you sweat and then enter a very cold place (sit-and-talk sets are notoriously chilly), it can get real uncomfortable, real fast. Which is also why I was wearing pants in skirt weather, because rather a hot car ride then teeth chattering during the interview.

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I found the right door and saw exactly one person inside, the greeter at the desk, who asked me to go on over to that little machine on the wall to check my temperature—my first time, but not my last, with a thermometer that you just put your face in front of, no other person required. I registered somewhere around 97, my usual abnormally low body temp.

This gentleman guided me to the correct area, past a sunny solarium full of empty tables that in normal times must have been a fantastic place to gather for lunch and chats with your colleagues. There didn't seem to be anything else going on in the building, though, other than the THS shoot on this quiet Friday afternoon.

Everyone was friendly, but of course no one shook hands. There was a small dressing room to stash my purse and touch up my face without a mask. And there was a bowl of snacks! Which, even though I was a little too on edge to eat (plus, crumbs and the danger of stuff in my teeth), there's just something so nice about the option to have a granola bar.

These types of talking-head shoots don't exactly require a huge team, so I didn't notice much of a difference in the number of people I met—in addition to the field producer who I had first talked to on the phone, there were just a few others, including the cameraman and the lighting tech (sure enough, I needed the powder). Instead of being there in the room, however, once the filming began they stayed in a different room with the door closed, watching on a monitor in there.

I perched on one end of a small velvet couch, and the field producer, sitting at least six feet away, was the one who guided me through all the talking points for the episode on major celebrity comebacks.

We delved deep into these stars' lives and the session flew by, the words about this familiar subject pouring out of me like it was any old day in any old year. We said our goodbyes. Surely if we hadn't been in the middle of a pandemic there would've been more "thanks so much!" handshakes with the whole crew, and maybe even a hug for the producer, feeling familiar after our long chat. Instead, just waves and admonishments to "take care" and "stay healthy."

I went home, took some selfies since I was all made up, and assured my parents that of course I would tell them when the show would be on. 

And later that night, I noticed that, during the shoot, my Fitbit had registered it as three hours of cardio even though I didn't take a step.