When British journalist Jane Bussmann arrived in Africa in 2005, she was greeted by a pro-abstinence billboard featuring a smiling woman and the words, “She's keeping herself for marriage. … Are you?”
This was Uganda, a nation fighting AIDS, poverty and a civil war with a sadistic rebel who'd eluded capture for more than 20 years. Notorious warlord Joseph Kony, who claims to have supernatural powers, reportedly has kidnapped more than 20,000 children. (More recently, thanks to the short film KONY 2012, his ouster has become a social media cause célèbre.)
On assignment for The Sunday Times, Bussmann interviewed peace negotiators, missionaries, Ugandan reporters and Kony's former child soldiers and sex slaves. She met with women who'd had their lips cut off, and stared at a dead soldier in a ditch. Her equipment was stolen, and she became convinced that she was being spied on by the secret police.
Until that point, Bussmann's journalism career had been limited to celebrity profiles. But she was an experienced thrill seeker. She had partied her way from Sundance to Transylvania, and boasts of knowing how to operate her own intravenous drip. That would have to be enough.
Not surprisingly, it had been a guy who inspired her journey to Africa – that, and her frustration with the Hollywood scene. Raised in London, Bussmann caught the TV writing bug after she met Johnny Speight, creator of Till Death Us Do Part, the British inspiration for All in the Family. Bussmann started working for the BBC in her early 20s, and went on to write for So Graham Norton, The Fast Show, Smack the Pony and Brass Eye, considered Britain's answer to The Daily Show.
When reality TV began to rear its ugly, unscripted head, Bussmann left one fantasy land for another, relocating to L.A. in 2000. She wound up living here on and off for 10 years.
She moved around nearly 15 times, first settling into a guesthouse behind the Hollywood Bowl, while she plugged away at an ill-fated script that was supposed to be somewhere between The English Patient and Monty Python's Life of Brian. To pay the bills, Bussmann wrote about celebrities for British GQ, Esquire, Glamour, Marie Claire and InStyle.
She interviewed everyone from Jared Leto to Anna Nicole Smith, who, according to Bussmann, said two words in four hours. When she wasn't stroking her subjects' egos with stock questions like, “You're in great shape, what's your secret?” she was fetching coffee for their entourages, and usually getting stuck with the tab.
She calls the era the Golden Age of Stupid. “This generation didn't burn bras; it spurned panties,” Bussmann writes in her just-released book, A Journey to the Dark Heart of Unspeakable Nameless Evil: Charities, Hollywood, Joseph Kony, and Other Abominations.
“It's none of these people's fault,” Bussmann says on the phone from her home in Nairobi. “It's the publicists. It's the industry. It's the cavalcade of cunts, who try and keep this whole system going.” Bussmann's commentary, delivered with lighting speed, is gloriously expletive-filled; “cunt” is her favorite word. (It's no surprise she declines to give her age: “If I was a bloke I would tell you how old I am, but I'm a girl and I'd never work again.”)
Bussmann had such distaste for celebrity reporting that she occasionally made up her stories. She also admits to hiring other writers to pen some of her articles under her name. Unethical?
“Nooooo!,” Bussmann insists. “I didn't mind it at all. Two people got paid instead of one. It was a division of labor. Brilliant! Bear in mind that in most celebrity interviews, the journalist has never met the celebrity. They just have 15 minutes over the phone. So we might as well divide the money between two people, so I could go home and pretend I'm somewhere better. Maybe, I don't know, hell.”
Bussmann didn't get into trouble until she sat down with “the most fancied man in America,” interviewing Ashton Kutcher in 2003 in Beverly Hills. She made the mistake of asking him about religion, and he lectured her on Jesus.
“I remember thinking, 'If only I'd done better in school,'?” Bussmann recalls. “?'Even working in local government in a shitty London borough is better than this awful conversation.' Driving home I was literally thinking, 'That's the tree I could wrap myself around. That's the building I could crash on the side of.'?”
Unbeknownst to Bussmann, her editor at the Evening Standard subsequently inserted into her piece fabricated quotes about the actor's then-new relationship with Demi Moore. When Kutcher's lawyer threatened to sue, Bussmann began re-examining her life.
She wanted to be one of the “useful people.” She looked into working for Doctors Without Borders, but it wasn't hiring celebrity journalists. Then she saw a photo in Vanity Fair of John Prendergast, the handsome “conflict resolutions expert” and Clinton-era White House director for African affairs.
In an attempt to woo him, Bussmann convinced The Sunday Times to let her follow Prendergast to Uganda. “He wasn't just hot; he was wise,” Bussmann writes in her book. “I wondered how wrong it would be to sit on his knee during the interview.”
But when she landed in Uganda, Prendergast had split; ironically, he was in L.A. meeting with movie studios interested in making a film about his life.
“I think that night I nearly drank myself to death,” Bussmann remembers. “All I could think was Scarlett Johansson was on her way to find him. She'd be slithering down the hotel corridor with her bra strap out.”
But Bussmann decided to hang around. Rather than kick it with European trustafarians, she spent six weeks getting her hands dirty – and getting the ants out of her hair – as she went from child rehabilitation centers to villages without plumbing to huts, trying to uncover the government's ineffectiveness at nabbing Kony. She even volunteered as a teacher at an AIDS-ravaged village school, despite having no teaching credentials.
Though Bussmann eventually got her interview with her crush (“I was trying not to plan beyond our silver wedding anniversary”), the story had grown bigger than Prendergast – and too big for The Sunday Times. The paper killed the piece.
Of the draft she submitted, she reflects, “It was an unprofessional explosion of information. It just couldn't possibly have run in its form.”
After returning to L.A., Bussmann started performing a one-woman show based on her journey, which she took to New York, London and the Edinburgh Festival. South Park subsequently hired her as a writing consultant for a few episodes, so she gave Hollywood another shot, pitching her story to a couple of studios, including 20th Century Fox, where producers tossed around all kinds of wild ideas (Reese Witherspoon in the lead role?).
“The worst one was Romancing the Stone meets Out of Africa meets Heart of Darkness,” Bussmann recalls. “You know, that old chestnut.”
She landed a deal with a British production company, but says she's taking a break from writing the screenplay. She's currently working on a few sitcoms, including a web-based show about a celebrity reporter.
Bussmann returns to L.A. this week to perform an updated version of her stage show on May 1 at Largo. Using slides, footage and “a lot of dick jokes,” Bussmann draws on her experiences to argue that foreign aid in Africa has become an industry run by fat cats.
Of big-name charities, she says, “It's become a nice life for the people who work in them. I'm talking about the people who are driving Mercedes and BMWs with U.N. number plates, who are having three-hour lunches with money that was donated to feed the starving, not the peckish. It's constant showboating to make themselves look good.”
She particularly loves to slam Irish rockers – turned – do-gooders Bono and Bob Geldof for perpetuating the image of Africans as victims.
“It's a mixed message,” she says. “You can't say, 'Do business in Africa, it's great,' and then show pictures of starving babies.”
Bussmann's show originally was called Bono and Geldof Are Cunts, but she changed it after the recent death of Geldof's daughter, Peaches. Still, she promises, expletives will fly.
“It's completely cunt-ridden,” Bussmann reassures. “I may call it Bono Is Still a Cunt. I've got a very limited vocabulary.”
Jane Bussman performs at the Largo on May 1, 2014. Doors open at 7 p.m.; the show begins at 8:30.
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