MEDIA

Taylor Rooks Puts People First

Rooks generates viral clips from thoughtful interviews. But the Emmy nominee doesn’t want the fame her subjects possess — she wants a vault of significant conversations.

The first book Taylor Rooks couldn’t put down was Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. She began reading the novel on a Friday night, and she’d blazed through all 320 pages by Saturday night. A tradition with her mother was born: sleeping over at the local Gwinnett County, Georgia, Books-A-Million with a sleeping bag to get her hands on the newest Harry Potter book as soon as midnight struck.

On Rooks’ desk now is So Much Blue by Percival Everett. Over the years, the Emmy-nominated Bleacher Report host and interviewer developed the habit of underlining passages within every book she devours. She is obsessed with “soaking in new information,” intentionally shaping her worldview, and broadening her scope for empathy. Once she finishes a book, she doesn’t allow herself to start another until she’s fully processed it. She keeps a journal full of notes applying every passage to her life. She most recently underlined this from So Much Blue:

“He’s also a great reader of people.”

Rooks reads people like books as the host of the Bleacher Report vodcast Taylor Rooks X, produced entirely by women.

Rooks has mastered the art of humanizing unfairly dehumanized stars across sports and entertainment. Taylor Rooks X boasted a jam-packed 10-episode first season, featuring Quavo, Ja Morant, Candace Parker, and Michael B. Jordan. Since returning for its second season, Rooks has welcomed the likes of Sue Bird and DeMar DeRozan — the first time they sat down, for Take It There with Taylor Rooks, DeRozan admitted to feeling like “the sacrificial lamb” for the Toronto Raptors.

“This, to me, is the people business,” Rooks tells Boardroom from her New York City apartment. “I learned a very long time ago that the key to life is actually winning over people.”

Becoming a Leader

There’s a story about her father that Rooks likes to tell. Every night before bed when she was growing up, her father, Thomas, would ask her the same question.

Were you a leader or a follower today?

She couldn’t just answer it like a multiple choice question. She’d have to tell him why.

“And then, if we were outside on a bench or at the airport, he would point to someone and say, ‘Tell me their story. Are they a leader or a follower?'” Rooks recalls. “I’d have to pick up on things that would help me with people. My dad would always say, ‘You should never be afraid of someone; it’s just a human.'”

Rooks’ family is full of particularly gifted humans. Thomas ranks fourth in all-time rushing yards for the Illinois Fighting Illini. Uncle Lou Brock, who passed in September 2020, is in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and won two World Series with the St. Louis Cardinals. But she discovered early that if she decided to pursue playing sports, she’d be a follower.

Rooks’ parents wholeheartedly supported her passion for conversing. They’d buy her camcorder tapes, and she’d set up the camcorder to interview herself. She’d be a singer, and ask herself about performing on stage. She’d be an actress, and ask herself about a new movie.

Rooks had made a significant dent in her 10,000 hours by the time college rolled around. Like her parents, she attended the University of Illinois. In this case, she wanted to follow in their footsteps. It’s important to her to have a family lineage at U of I.

She hustled on campus, interviewing anybody who’d let her. She started a blog, “The Online Sideline.” FOX Sports noticed, and she began handling broadcasts for the Big Ten Network. In 2012, she landed a credential to NBA All-Star Weekend in Orlando, where she earned the respect of Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James.

Rooks graduated in 2014 and worked for the Big Ten Network for two years. She moved on to a bigger stage with SNY, where she launched the popular “Timeout with Taylor Rooks.” Another two years elapsed, and she committed to Bleacher Report in September 2018.Take It There premiered in April 2019.

Take It There transitioned intoTaylor Rooks X after the NBA Bubble. Rooks was one of few journalists selected to report from within the Walt Disney World isolation zone from July to October 2020. There, she alleviated and applied pressure — either by asking difficult questions or playing Heads Up. She was a one-woman band, a role she thrives in.

“I not only host the show, I do all my research,” Rooks says. “I think that there’s this idea that when somebody interviews, their producer is feeding them questions, and they just regurgitate. No, no, no. From start to finish, I do it all. I produce the show. In many instances, I book the show. I am so hands on in all of this. I pour so much time and research and field reporting before I do an interview.”

She continues: “Chemistry is a skill. Somebody might turn on an interview and say, ‘Oh, this is easy. They’re just talking.’ Making somebody feel comfortable, making someone feel like they can talk to you, making someone feel like they can say something they have never said, is an acquired skill. And I’ve only been able to do that by working hard at it. Nothing is effortless. It takes effort to do the effortless.”

Friends First

Rooks traveled to Iceland last month. The trip wasn’t work-related, but of course, everything she does feeds her work. Tommy Alter of The Old Man and the Three spearheaded the scheduling, and the mishmash group included Maude Apatow, Cord Jefferson, Anna Kendrick, Sammy Koppelman, and Desus Nice.

“It was such a bonding experience,” Rooks says. “We all entered the trip one way and left even closer than before.”

It illustrates Rooks’ instinct to prioritize relationships over the business of media. Nobody else interviewing Apatow or Kendrick can pull on shared experiences in Iceland.

“Interviews now tend to be a bit more intimate than they have been before because you are understanding that the viewer does want to see friendship, but also wants to see journalism and objectivity,” Rooks says. “The stories that exist between you and the person that you’re interviewing, I think all of that stuff makes interviews feel very special. It makes the interviewer unique, too.”

During Rooks’ interview with Sue Bird, they casually referenced past messages from their ongoing group text. Rooks’ “Friends on Film” Instagram posts frequently features familiar faces — including (but not limited to) Drake, Jack Harlow, Allen Iverson, Saquon Barkley, Megan Rapinoe, Joy Taylor, and Durant.

Because Rooks has invested in nurturing her friendships with a wide range of people, she never falls into the trap of projecting judgment that often pervades the media landscape.

“A lot of the times we create self-fulfilling prophecies for athletes because we decide who they are without knowing them,” Rooks says. “I think to myself, Does this guy have a bad attitude or is everyone’s treatment of him creating an environment where you need a bad attitude? Is this person actually rude or did one clip on social media make everyone decide that that’s his personality? If you get told that you’re something enough times, it’s really easy to become it. Moments aren’t people. Perceptions aren’t people. I don’t think it’s my job to tell anyone anything. The critical job of being an interviewer is letting people tell you who they are.”

Rooks has known Durant since she was 19. They often vent to each other about these sorts of misconceptions. Rooks is happy in who she is, though never complacent nor satisfied. She doesn’t subscribe to what strangers say about her. But she’s also human, and so in the instances when something someone assumed about her online hits a nerve, she texts Durant. She trusts KD will understand.

“Kevin is somebody who I deeply respect,” Rooks says. “He’s somebody that I truly do admire as a human and an athlete. He has endured a lot of people deciding who he’s going to be. He has done a beautiful job just by living authentically and engaging so well with other people on social media. A fan can still decide, ‘This is what I think about him.’ That’s what a lot of people do. But you have to give him the credit for being so open about who he is and confronting everything that’s been said about him very head on.”

Durant’s “super levelheaded” advice to Rooks is simple, but it’s usually all she needs to hear to ground back in her truth:

“No one cares about the internet. Let the internet be the internet.”

The Modern Journalist

Rooks’ youth, in some ways, can be measured in episodes of The Oprah Winfrey Show.

During a March visit to The Pivot Podcast, Rooks reminisced on hurrying home from school to catch Oprah.

“If you didn’t watch Oprah, you felt like you missed out,” she said on the show. “Oprah was a societal and cultural thing. Watching Oprah was a feeling.”

Television no longer feels as singular, with endless content and outlets fighting for finite attention spans. But Rooks isn’t nostalgic for a simpler time. She’s encouraged by the vast media landscape.

“I do not think my career would exist without social media,” she says.

When she began building her platform, she zeroed in on picking the clip from her interviews that would spread across Instagram and Twitter and spark a larger conversation. Nobody is better at the viral moment than Rooks.

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“I don’t think there’s any shame in people realizing that the internet can be the biggest tool,” she adds. “There’s something amazing about being able to turn something on and watch it in your living room, sure, but I don’t even see the phone as a second screen. If your work is good enough, it will be on TV. And not only will it be on TV, it will be everywhere. The internet is a boundless place. That is the main reason we’re seeing this shift in what journalism is and what journalists can do.”

To Rooks, the definition of journalism has changed for the better. Journalists, to her, have always been and should always be “a vehicle for everyone else” who “create access for unanswered questions.” With a boom in accessibility, it’s all the more difficult to stuff a journalist’s role in one box.

Still, people try their hardest to reduce her to one.

“If somebody like Stephen A. [Smith] does an interview, the interview is about the work that Stephen A. provides to us,” she says. “Stephen A. doesn’t come onto an interview and get asked about what it means to be a man and the things he’s overcome as a man in this industry. But we are so enamored with the fact that women are women that you don’t even allow anyone to get to the heart of what they do — the thing that they have worked their entire lives to be able to do. I’m not paid to be a woman. I’m paid to be a journalist.”

“There are a lot of systems that exist that are built against us, but I also never want me being a woman to be viewed as something I see as an obstacle because I draw a lot of my strength from my femininity,” she continues. “There are so many advantages, too, that come from being a woman. People inherently trust you more. We tend to be incredibly caring people. If we continue to talk about how hard it is, we’re also ignoring how great it is and how much power and strength comes from being a woman, too.”

Rooks is a lifelong Atlanta sports fan. She grew up watching Michael Vick redefine the quarterback position with the Atlanta Falcons. It wasn’t until she left Georgia that she realized that having a Black quarterback was an anomaly. To her, it was normal. And now, her top priority is providing the same sort of representation for young women — especially young Black women —so they can know it doesn’t have to just be Oprah Winfrey.

“It’s so important to me that everybody knows that nothing that I do or have done is special,” she says. “It’s no more special than what anybody can do.”

Rooks leaves no room for misinterpretation when it comes to her future: “More of the same, but better.”

The Rooks Ripple Effect

Rooks read Mariah Carey’s autobiography, The Meaning of Mariah Carey, and recalls one of its passages:

“Not living based on time also became a way to hold on to myself, to keep close and keep alive that inner child of mine. It’s why I gravitate toward enduring characters like Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and Tinker Bell. They remind me we can be timeless.”

The concept of time — or rather, the incomprehensible coincidence of living at the same time as someone else — has been an all-consuming fascination for Rooks since she was small.

“This is going to be a bit of a tangent,” she warns, “but when I was younger — and even still now — I would always be super tripped out about the fact that everyone is in a car and in a home. Everyone is living these very complicated lives, going through all these things, simultaneous to yours. I would think about that, anytime I looked out a window and saw someone else in a house. Lives [are] happening everywhere — complexity, happening everywhere.”

Rooks recently talked about this with her friend Jack, whom the rest of the world knows as Jack Harlow. The chart-topping rapper informed her there’s a word for that sensation: sonder.

“I say all that to say, the thing that makes me feel alive is knowing everyone is alive,” she continues. “We all have something to say. We have all lived through these beautiful moments and sometimes scary moments — moments that have changed us and changed the trajectory of our lives. All of that is out there, and it’s never-ending. Sonder keeps me alive.”

Rooks comes alive when asked what she wants the next evolution of her career to look like. “I want it all,” she says. And she doesn’t see any reason why she can’t do it all as a multimedia figure. Whether it’s an athlete, artist, or a president, she wants to be “the go-to person” for the definitive conservation that fans revisit for years afterward.

“I just want my work to be a staple,” she says. ” I want you to think about interviews and picture me. Anyone can be famous. Fame is fleeting and boring. It’s empty, and it’s overrated. I’ve seen it. I want to be significant. And that means creating things that matter, talking about things that matter. I want to have moved the needle and inspired people. Significance is what I’m chasing. I think the most beautiful thing you can do is have a conversation with another person.”

She isn’t quite ready to end this conversation.

“There is one more thing I’d like to say, though, if I can?”

Of course you can.

Before So Much Blue, Rooks read Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s Someone Who Will Love You in All Your Damaged Glory: Stories. Within the collection of short stories is one about killer whales and dolphins that Rooks has been ruminating on — asking how it applies to her life — and she’d like to get off of her chest what she believes to be the answer.

“I just want anybody who decides they want to enter into this business to really understand the importance of knowing who you are, that who you are cannot be taken from you,” she says. “Did you know that killer whales aren’t whales? They’re actually the largest member of the dolphin family. And the most dangerous animal in Africa is actually a hippo — twice as deadly as a lion — but the lion gets labeled as the scary one.”

“We turn things and people into what we think that they are — the thing that makes us comfortable,” she continues. “Those animals, like us humans, they become mislabeled. That’s why knowing who you are is important because you are inevitably going to be mislabeled in life. People are going to think what they think about you, even when it’s wrong, but no one can stop you from being you. I wish somebody told me that a really long time ago. Just because somebody says you’re a whale, it doesn’t change that you’re a dolphin.”

It’s advice worth underlining.

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