Sheila Nevins gives good quote. The veteran HBO Documentary Film president never hesitates to say what she thinks. At this point, with 30 Oscar wins behind her, what does the outspoken Barnard and Yale Drama grad have to lose? She shares her accrued wisdom in her new book (published May 2) “You Don’t Look Your Age…And Other Fairy Tales.”
“I’ve spent most of my life making documentaries,” she writes in the introduction. “And I’ve spent most of this time hiding behind the people in the documentaries. If they were sad or glad, rich or poor, smart or dumb, killers or philanthropists, they would do the talking, they would do the confessing. These were their stories being told, never mine.”
It’s a scattered, anecdotal collection, from accounts of her first facelift and extensive dental work to odd third-person short stories, canny observations and poems. “A lot of stories I haven’t told,” Nevins told me on the phone. “People didn’t know I was married, that my mother was a Communist, that I had a kid. I tend to talk about work accomplishments; I never talked too much about my personal life, I didn’t go back. It didn’t seem appropriate. But when you get older it doesn’t matter. I have a few things I’d like to get off my chest. It’s arithmetic. When you’re in your late ’70s, how much time do you have left? ‘OK, baby, just do it.'”
(Typical of Nevins: when it came time to organize the audio version of her book, she got on the phone and wrangled every celebrity she knew, from Alan Alda and Kathy Bates to Lena Dunham and Meryl Streep.)
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“You Don’t Look Your Age” takes you through Nevins’ rise from would-be Cosmo girl to enlightened feminist who wants to be treated equally at work and earn as much as her male counterpart — who doesn’t work half as hard. She did more than OK. Under her leadership, HBO led the way in showing how documentaries could draw audiences with nonfiction programming that’s skillful, dynamic, and relevant.
The book is crammed with advice for women in the workplace. Here are five Nevin rules for getting ahead in what is still, 42 years after she started at HBO, a man’s world.
1. Be really good at your job.
“Women can be just as untalented and talented as men,” she said. “Just because you’re a woman doesn’t give you access to the throne. It’s much harder. It’s a man’s world. There are so few places at the top. There are just so many places where you’re allowed to make things look good. There’s too few vacancies on the climb to throne; it’s more competitive among your peers, who are invariably going to be women. The other ones have already succeeded.”
2. Remember to look down.
“Look for cracks in the sidewalk,” she said. “A crack in the sidewalk can trip you. It’s always good to look down every so often, otherwise you might fall.”
3. Know your frenemy (an enemy pretending to be a friend).
“They are vibrant and real and can be the same sex,” she said. “They worry about you and your career. I had a frenemy who’d say, ‘sweetheart are you all right?’ And I was fine! With this particular frenemy, you’d get left off enough things — ‘Oh, I didn’t know that.’ Or you see someone walking by with your contact, going to someone else’s office. Or you go to a restaurant and your frenemy is sitting with someone you invited to lunch a month before. But you aren’t invited. Maybe because it’s so hard to be a woman in the workplace, women are not always supportive. But never destroy yourself in the search to destroy. See a frenemy, but don’t be a frenemy.”
4. Stay honest.
“I am incredibly honest,” she said, “although I learned to behave against it to get to the next day. When I’m allowed the freedom to be totally honest — how are you going to reach people if you don’t tell the truth? I sit in editing rooms trying to tell the truth. It is necessary.”
5. Wear comfortable shoes.
“Pretty ones. “