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An Interview with Starlee Kine on Turning Detective for Her New Podcast, 'Mystery Show'

Got an everyday mystery you need solving? The radio host, writer, and producer is your gal.

by Nell Frizzell
Aug 20 2015, 2:55pm

(Top photo: Starlee Kine with the belt buckle at the centre of case number #3)

Mystery Show is a new project from Starlee Kine, who podcast fans will know from the time she asked Phil Collins how to write a break-up song after her ex-boyfriend Anthony broke up with her, the time she rifled through Andy Warhol's rubbish on This American Life, the time she talked about waiting to meet Marina Abramovic at the Moth, and the time made an onion chopping board inscribed with instructions on how to cry.

In Mystery Show, which is brought out by podcast platform Gimlet and already ranks as the third most popular podcast on Podbay and iTunes, Kine solves mysteries. It's that simple. Like the droll, well-connected lovechild of Columbo and Nancy Drew, she spends each episode solving a question that couldn't be answered just by googling it. The mysteries manage to be simultaneously banal and extraordinary, and in so doing end up revealing far more than originally intended. Cases to date include: Did a video store in Tribeca really close overnight without her friend returning a copy of Must Love Dogs? Why was Britney Spears photographed holding Kine's friend's woefully unsuccessful book? And who was the owner of the car with the numberplate I LUV 911 that Kine spotted at a traffic light? Mysteries all, thankfully, now solved.

So how did the show come about? How does Kine get people to open up to her? Does she hate the people at Serial? Why are so many women making podcasts? And, most of all, what does Britney smell like? I spoke to her on Skype to find out.

VICE: Hello Starlee. I'm sort of intimidated to talk to you after hearing you interview so many people. How do you always get such interesting stuff out of them?
Starlee Kine: I used to do this live show called The Run Down—it was kind of a set of instructions on how to eliminate small talk. One of the rules was, "Why chew the fat when you can chew the meat." In Mystery Show, the clues are what people really care about.

What you define in the show as a clue is often what a journalist would define as the story—the bit that makes you itch to learn more.
I've been thinking a lot about the difference between being a detective and a journalist for these stories. In journalism, you're hoping for the good anecdotes. But the clues here are more about a human connection. I don't know what I'm going to get in The Mystery Show; everything feels like a discovery.

Have you had much therapy? Because there are times in the show where you seem to be enacting quite a therapeutic role with some of the interviewees.
I had a therapist in Chicago and he was great. But then I had to move, and I feel like it takes a lot of time to find the right one. I really haven't had enough therapy. In Mystery Show I suppose I'm like a therapist who's allowed to talk about their feelings.

A successful therapy session simulates your real life in a little, controlled room. I would lash out at my therapist, and he said it was good because I was simulating how I would treat someone in my real life. In Mystery Show I'm trying to create the texture of real life in these little moments.

I'm not afraid of people saying they feel bad—and a lot of people are. Although I'm not one of those people who actively seeks out people who are feeling bad.

At what point do you tell people you're talking to that you're recording them?
I tell them right away. I say the call is being recorded for possible broadcast. I haven't had anyone say no. I think they kind of forget they're being recorded—even people like the book store woman or the Ticketmaster guy. I don't want anyone to feel bad; I'm not trying to trick anyone.

The detective is quite an ambivalent figure—like a spy. Has doing this made you feel differently about that role?
This feels more natural. A lot of time with This American Life stories, you only talk to that person once—you don't follow it up. My favorite thing is when people in the show start to become part of the investigation. I loved how chef Rene—who's this retired chef, in his seventies, in Arizona—straight away just totally got it. It was like he'd been waiting his entire life for someone to ask him to help solve a mystery.

It definitely made me understand that it's the whole conversation that matters. There can be a clue anywhere—it's not just about going from beat to beat. The raw tape of my interviews are so long and meandering. I keep people on the phone forever.

The thing about the detective—I'm thinking of Columbo and Humphrey Bogart in all his detective roles—is that, even at the beginning of the case, they look exhausted. Like someone who's living on coffee and cigarettes and sleeping in their cars.
I identify with Columbo so much. You feel like you've already been on a lot of past cases with them as soon as you meet them. They're weary.

The first episode of Mystery Show

Are you jealous of the success of other podcasts like 'Serial'?
Are you kidding? Serial has been super-helpful to me. I'm reaping the benefits of it because they made it so much more mainstream.

Before Mystery Show came out I saw a lot of things that said, like, this is Gimlet's attempt at Serial, and I didn't like that, because I'd had the idea before Serial. But everyone has been so supportive. I write to Alix [Spiegel] and Loulou [Miller] from Invisibilia for advice all the time—I feel no competition. I mean, if all our next seasons come out at the same time it will be interesting, but I really truly think it only helped.

Do you think there's a reason that so many women are making podcasts at the moment?
This American Life was primarily women. When I worked there it was only Ira and two male producers, and the rest was all women. I always felt that radio was less burdened by age and gender, because no one sees you.

What I like about my show and Serial and Invisibilia is that it isn't about being a woman at all. I have to say, I've got more feedback from guys about Mystery Show than I ever got from This American Life.

Read on Broadly: Is My Sex Life Emotionally Scarring My Cats?

When you tracked down Britney Spears for your second case, what did she smell like?
I was so focused on asking her those questions [relating to the case], I feel like I dropped the ball; I wasn't able to observe as much as I usually would have. The lights were so blinding, I felt like I'd slipped into a weird space and time. I can't remember why I stopped speaking—it's not like they had a hook and pulled me off. I think she just turned to the camera and we were done. She smelled like sun tan lotion, but more flowery than that. She smelled like someone who was wearing a lot of lotion—not perfume, but lotions. She smelled prepped, glossy.

I don't want to talk to you about break-up songs because I know you must have to talk about them all the time after that chat with Phil Collins about Anthony, your ex-boyfriend.
I don't mind. I just got bored of myself. Truly. And it's a weird thing to talk about. I still get tweets saying 'Hey, do you still talk to Anthony?' or 'How's Anthony doing?' The reason I think people respond to it is because they can feel that I was in pain while doing that story. It's super weird to have a really painful break-up, but for the guy you don't talk to any more to stay alive in your mind because people talk to you about it all the time.

Do you get accused of vocal fry?
I do sometimes. And it's always by men. I have a lisp, too. I read things that are like "Starlee overcame her lifelong struggle with her lisp," and actually I don't think I was even aware of my lisp until I went on the radio. I just don't speak correctly—I don't speak in proper sentences and things.

I do find the vocal fry thing really sad, because I'll be editing my own voice tracks and it just makes me more self-conscious, which is terrible. It seems like such a bullying thing those guys have done.

How many mysteries have you been sent?
So many—like 20 to 30 a day. I like it. I just can't believe how nice people are to me. People tweet saying, 'I hope you're getting enough sleep,' and, 'We're happy to wait—we want it to be good.' I feel like you should take time and take care of things.

Although, I want to make the next season as quickly as I can. I already have mysteries that are pretty far along. There will be some international mysteries next season; I'll go wherever the mysteries take me.

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