Who can resist learning about the “Secrets of Paris”? And who knows them better than Heather Stimmler-Hall, the creative founder of her extraordinarily popular website and unique French tours. Heather began writing about the City of Light on the Internet when few of us even knew what a blog was. Her unlimited access and knowledge of Paris’ tourist sites, both well-known and insolite, led her to write several guidebooks, including the enlightening and tasteful “Naughty Paris: A Lady’s Guide to the Sexy City”, now in its second edition. An independent woman and versatile freelance writer, this American-born entrepreneur has always beaten the drum to her own path and is ready to embark on another virage to fulfill her own personal goals.
How did an all-American girl end up in Paris?
I was born outside of Philly and grew up in Arizona before going to college in Minnesota. But I’ve lived longer in Paris than all those places. I studied journalism in high school, editing the weekly newspaper, then summer school at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, and an internship at the local Phoenix Gazette. When I was there, all the other journalists advised me, “Don’t go to journalism school, you’ve already learned that here. Get a real education.” So I ended up at Carleton College and majored in Political Science believing that would be more useful for a White House correspondent – my dream job – than English literature.
I was young, ambitious and really wanted to go abroad because I’d never been outside America. Carleton really encouraged us to study abroad so I saw it as my one chance of going overseas. I knew my French was bad and I almost failed my French classes, but the only study abroad program available in a political science program was in Paris so I thought, it’s in the middle of Europe and I can travel around! Perfect!
Did Paris live up to your expectations when you first arrived in 1995 as a student?
I arrived the week after the metro bombings in Saint Michel station. And unlike the recent Paris attacks, there was no internet news back then, no social media, just regular media. Shortly after, there were the massive French strikes that shut down all public transport for several weeks. Freak out! I was mortified not understanding what was happening.
I also thought I was going to Sciences Po but when I arrived I failed the French exam. My French was so bad they put me into the Institut Catholique de Paris (ICP) with the rest of the foreign students. I also attended classes at University of Paris 2, the school of law and international relations. My first time in Paris was a very humbling experience because it is a big blow to the ego when you’re 20 years old and used to being the smart one.
Is it true you were writing about Paris before people even knew what a blog was?
I graduated in 1997 at the start of the dotcom boom when every website paid for content. Since I was back in Paris “just for the summer” working at a bar part-time, I started writing the Paris column for a site called Suite101.com, which I called “Secrets of Paris.” When the company stopped paying, I turned Secrets of Paris into its own little Yahoo! group.
I wrote about Paris; not about me in Paris. So there were reviews and recommendations. Not a blog at all but a newsletter online. Occasionally, I would talk about an experience and refer to my then-husband as Mr. Heather, but it was never really about me. I also landed a job in 1999 as the travel editor at Elle.com, the first website for Elle Magazine, which opened more doors to gather tons of information and resources to cover the city.
Wasn’t “Secrets of Paris” one of the first English-language websites in France?
Yes, there were only three of us writing on Paris in English in 1999. Bonjour Paris, Paris Metropole and me, Secrets of Paris. The only other one was the tourism office site but it was not very good. My Yahoo! group wasn’t even locked, because I thought just my friends were reading it, yet suddenly I had a 100 people following. Who are these people? Who is reading this? I began by writing about what I wanted to write about, especially topics that didn’t fit on the ELLE.com site or anything my editors didn’t want me to write about in the travel guides and articles once I became a freelancer in 2001.
I used to see people reading my posts and I thought it was funny. And it kept growing. I turned the newsletter archives into an actual website in 2004. I now have over 20,000 subscribers and just wrote my 166th newsletter. I send it out now twice per month, but I used to sometimes go a few months without any writing because I was traveling, touring or dealing with my personal life, and readers would notice my absence and email to ask what’s happening.
What do you like to write about?
I like to write about amazing stuff I find in the French press that are really useful but are not written about in English. I also am attracted to things that are counter-culture. It’s not unusual to write about graffiti or the environment but it was when I started. Today, there are so many attractive websites with huge staff and designers, so I automatically gravitate to writing what others do not write about, but “useful” information is not always so sexy. Since leaving Elle.com, Naughty Paris is probably the only “sexy” topic I’ve covered in depth.
You created your own exclusive tour guide service, “Secrets of Paris”, in 2006. Great name! It’s not your typical tourist tour is it?
I’ve always offered customized tours. You can’t just go on the website, choose one from a list, click and pay. You have to actually email me so I can ask questions and figure out the best itinerary. Many times I turn down tours because we’re not a good fit, especially if they want to see 80 monuments in 10 minutes. They’re called “Secrets of Paris” for a reason. I want clients who are as interested in Paris as I am. It’s like any freelance job. You accept everything until you learn what you like and don’t like. I’ve learned over the years it’s just not worth doing tours if I don’t like them myself.
My favorite tours are for people who already know Paris. They have already visited the main attractions and want to go beyond that, but there’s often the language barrier. I like it when they’re curious, especially if they have a strong interest in something obscure because I’m good at finding places that they’ll like. I organized a visit for a man who was a mineral specialist. He wanted to see all the meteorites in Paris and didn’t know how to set it up. There are 130 museums and you have to know each one of them and when to get in, some are only open on request and often have zero info in English. There are also many writers who need specialized information when researching their books, so I like to organize tours for them because I learn a lot too. I meet interesting people and many become friends over the years.
Why did you decide to explore the naughty side of Paris?
People who read Secrets of Paris kept emailing me looking for advice about where to find the more risqué clubs in Paris, where to buy sexy stilettos, or where to pick up French guys. I was just shocked there wasn’t already a sexy travel guide for women in 2006. There were practical guides and romantic guides, but nothing the women from Sex and the City would have used. There was a French sex guide to Paris and I kept saying someone should translate it but I didn’t want to do it. It was for men who think Pigalle is a sexy place, and included information on how to pick up hookers in the Bois de Boulogne. That was not the book I wanted to write. My original co-author suggested that we should write a guide for women instead, write more for tourists and make it fun.
It wasn’t so different from the travel section of any fashion magazine like ELLE or Vogue. Plus it was the esprit of the moment in Paris. Sonia Rykiel had a sex toy line in her boutique and the racy nightclub Chandelle was very popular. We shopped it around the different publishers but only the small ones were interested in such a niche topic. But I’d already written for a small publisher and didn’t want to give up so much control when I’d end up doing most of the work anyway. I didn’t want the PR department turning it into something really tacky and horrible just to sell it. This book was my baby so that’s why I created my own publishing company, Fleur de Lire Press. If I was going to write a guidebook I wanted it to be beautiful, intelligent and something I would be proud of.
How did you do your research for the original Naughty Paris guide and its updated version?
I worked on Naughty Paris for three years until it was published. At that time, I was 30 years old, newly divorced and going out a lot anyway for my regular nightlife column in an inflight magazine, so research was pretty easy for most of the book. For the really naughty sections I found a couple of “regulars” who got me into all of the best places and introduced me to the right people to interview. The first edition sold out so five years later I did a complete update for the second edition. I must admit it was harder to do the research the second time because I rarely go out late anymore, so I wrote it more for people my age enjoying the nightlife, more lounge bars and fewer dance clubs. When you’re in your 20’s and 30’s you don’t need help going out to have fun and meet guys. When you are over 40 you prefer a nice place to sit down and talk, like a wine bar, not necessarily clubbing.
People are always surprised when they read the book and see how informative and well-written it is. I am not a sex expert or some fluffy sex blogger. I approached the book as a journalist writing about an interesting topic that people wanted to learn about.
What does Heather want to explore next?
I have lived in Paris for 20 years and I’m legally French. I don’t plan on going back to the States. Over the last 15 years I built a business centered on helping “all tourists” and writing light articles that “everyone” would like. But I think it’s time to return to my journalism roots, to cover Paris topics that are a bit more serious. Maybe it’s a mid-life crisis, but I can’t be the only person interested in reading about something other than pastry shops, concept stores and rooftop bars. I want to write for travelers, not tourists. Even if that means my audience gets a little smaller. If I don’t risk it all now and throw myself into something 100 per cent I’ll never know. If I’m going to lose a lot of sleep and not make any money, it will be for something I really believe in.
Along those lines, I’ve also started a completely new project for 2016, teaching 5-day travel writing workshops with fellow Parisian travel journalist Bryan Pirolli. It’s so much easier to break into the world of professional travel writing with some insider tips and advice from those who’ve been there, done that…and written the book! The first dates are in May, August and October.