Getting nervous around celebrities is unedifying, and when it’s part of your job to occasionally ask them questions, plain unacceptable.
But I think (hope) that even the most hardened hacks have at least one famous face they know they’d crumble before like an under-cooked soufflé.
This week I came within one blurted syllable of meeting mine. No, not a political heavyweight or a literary titan – the Barbadian pop star Rihanna, or Rih-Rih, as she is also known.
Having slavish teenage crushes on pop stars two years your junior is also unedifying, but there you go. Whenever Rihanna pops up on a TV screen, or whizzes past on a billboard, I feel like a puppy being driven cruelly past an open beach. Dribble like one, too.
And so it was that the fates aligned and I found myself heading to a press conference where Rihanna was promised to be making an appearance.
A press conference is a bit like a small gig, where famous people are sat on a little stage with a microphone, only instead of an adoring crowd they’re confronted with 40 yawning journalists, five of whom eventually ask them a question.
Normally, I’d be yawning along with them. But not today. Today I show up half an hour early. Today I take a seat on the front row. Today I wait, desperate for the toilet but unprepared to move an inch, while Rihanna runs an hour late.
Other journalists gather around me. Some chat. Some set up cameras. One taps away at his laptop like a man trying to finger punch his way out of a lowering coffin. But I don’t budge. I don’t stir. I stay put.
Finally, the doors swung open. Flanked by some other beautiful people, Rihanna walks in.
The most immediate thing about seeing famous people for the first time is that they always look small. If it’s a celebrity you admire, they look even smaller. Screens - and unhealthy obsessions – tend to add a few feet.
And so there she is, tiny Rih-Rih, taking her seat. In an olive dress, with big blonde hair, big round earrings and an achingly perfect face roughly the size of a throat lozenge. A toddler’s throw away, perched daintily in front of my Dictaphone.
Questions begin to ring out from around the room. Some of the other people on the stage say some things. Then Rihanna says some things. I can’t follow the words exactly – not ideal, given the job in hand – but I follow her face as it nods seriously one moment, blossoms in laughter the next.
Suddenly, I remember the point of my being there. To ask her a question. No, not one my audience would be interested in. Not even one my editor would be interested in. No – a question that will make her think I am cool.
Options race through my head.
“Hi. Sam, from The Huffington Post. Rihanna - did you enjoy making the film?” (Oh yeah, unforgettable that one…).
“Could you ever see yourself as a leading lady?” (Of course she fucking could, she’s Rihanna)
“Did you get seasick on set?” (Are you kidding me?)
“Rihanna, I know you’ll be naturally inclined to distrust journalists, so if I ring my editor, now, and resign, right now, will you go out for a drink with me?” (GET A GRIP FOR CHRIST’S SAKE)
Time is running out. I have to act. Slowly I raise my hand. It’s trembling. I’m effectively waving at her from two feet.
Then it happens.
Someone asks ‘the question’.
‘The question’ is the question everyone in the room knows you’re not supposed to ask, and it invariably involves the celebrity and another celebrity they are rumoured to be having sex with.
For the first time, Rih-Rih’s perfect lozenge-sized face collapses into a frown. It’s like seeing a church destroyed by a mortar bomb.
The host swiftly interjects. He signals the conference has come to an end. Horribly, Ri-Ri stands up to leave.
I burst forward to join the obligatory rabble that swarms over the desk, desperate to grab an extra question, but the moment is gone.
She begins to walk away towards a Private Room, moving with the effortless beauty of sunlight slinking over a quiet tide.
I ache. I look down. I realise I have no idea what anyone has said. I see my Dictaphone sitting in a pile of four identical Dictaphones.
I realise that when Rihanna is involved, it’s easy for a good journalist to go bad.