Why should we care about celebrity interviews anyway?
There's something surreal and wonderful about opening up to somebody you've never met
After I’d written my last newsletter about the frustrating state of celebrity journalism – and with so many of you getting in touch to share your similar experiences – I felt I had finally scratched an itch in the middle of my back. But days later, I received an email from a publicist that flared it right back up again.
I had just published an interview with an incredible artist that I had loved and respected for years. After 12 months of chasing, I had finally sat down with them for an hour over Zoom, and engaged in a conversation so engaging and unpredictable it sent my planned set of questions flying straight out of the window. At the end, the artist told me how much they’d appreciated our chat, which, as a journalist, is one of the most fulfilling things you can hear.
It’s always a relief when writing about someone you genuinely think is brilliant and who hasn’t said or done anything you need to take to task (which doesn’t happen all that often). My generation of writers don’t tend to get their kicks from tearing anyone down – I recently had to interview an actor whose new film was an outright abomination, and spent the entire interview feeling like I desperately needed to tell a friend they had spinach in their teeth. As I said in my last newsletter, I often feel anxious when a piece goes to print – no matter how glowing, you never know how the talent might react. But with this one I felt excited.
So you can perhaps imagine my reaction when I received an email from their publicist to tell me they hated the piece and were about to address their issue with it on their Instagram to their hundred thousand followers. I got that feeling some might recognise from their teens: the heart-flip and rising nausea that accompanies arriving into school the morning after a drama, knowing the person you’re up against has the whole class behind them. I spent the rest of the day unable to do anything beyond refreshing the artist’s Instagram feed in a frenzied panic, and re-reading my piece to try and understand what had gone wrong.
In the end, the artist agreed to talk it out privately instead – something I’d never done as a journalist. It turned out they were unhappy with the angle: they felt like I spent too much time going over their past achievements, and explaining them to a reader who should have already been aware. What I had believed to be formative experiences, they felt were needlessly retreading old ground. Quotes that I had found enlightening, they felt weren't relevant.
We sent each other several lengthy emails, batting our concerns and rebuttals back and forth for the good part of two weeks. Unusually, it was conducted without using the publicist as intermediary, with my emails landing directly into the artist’s personal inbox.
It was surreal, and, without a doubt, the most honest and “real” conversation I’ve ever had with a celebrity – the first to puncture the protective film that so carefully prevents our worlds from ever truly colliding. They told me that some of my article’s pressure points had prompted insecurities that went far deeper than anything we had spoken about, and shared their frustrations with journalism – with seeing an entire life contained within a nutshell.
In return, I explained to them my reasons for my points of focus: that these were the stories and quotes that I found most important, and that a profile was fundamentally subjective: one individual’s understanding of another. I can understand that seeing one’s life and work from somebody else’s perspective is scary, but the idea that we might only ever see ourselves through our own is scarier still.
The email exchange was moving and constructive. The artist, having now understood my intentions and the journalistic process, warmed to the piece, while I felt motivated to think about the way I framed stories in a more adventurous way, and to take more risks with said journalistic process, so as to allow a person to truly come alive on page.
It also got me thinking more philosophically about the celebrity interview, which, as anyone following me on Twitter or who read my last post will know, is something about which I have become increasingly cynical.
On paper, a celebrity interview is so intriguing because it is so utterly bizarre: two complete strangers probing things perhaps more personal and meaningful than two friends might ever probe, often in the space of a single hour. The conversation is not unlike therapy. It is a surreal interaction that requires a remarkable level of curiosity, empathy, and pure blind trust.
Which is why I think it can be such a shock for talent to read their interviews after a particularly intimate exchange, to see their deepest thoughts arranged and analysed by someone they may never meet again, laid out for thousands of readers who will form their own opinions. It’s not, frankly, a process I’d like to be on the other side of, and I can see why many celebrities hate it, putting up with it at the behest of a label or a film studio, contractually obliged. I don’t blame anyone for opting out, particularly when, as the Framing Britney Spears documentary captured so vividly, the tabloids have abused this trust, so often conducting their work without an inch of compassion.
But the writers of my generation take their responsibility seriously. (If anything, as I said in my last post, we are often scared to do anything but pander. Had I received that hair-raising email from the publicist just a year into my career, I honestly think I might have been too scared to write profiles again.)
But sadly, this greater responsibility in journalism seems to have come too little too late. The walls are already up: the mistrust between talent and media feels almost unbridgeable, with artists in particular preferring to create their own media channels, from Twitter and Instagram to hosting their own podcasts. Many magazines allow stars to interview each other, instead of getting a journalist involved, or, as per Beyoncé and Taylor Swift when they each covered Vogue, submit an essay and a poem – no interview needed.
With the celebrity machine becoming so much more independent, it’s no wonder that stars are now becoming increasingly intolerant of anything they can’t control, of any narrative that isn’t aligned exactly with their own.
The process has become far less enjoyable for writers too. Whereas once, a writer might spend an entire weekend with a subject they were profiling, now the average interview is down to a matter of minutes – I was once offered six – stuck in a stifling office that we both can’t wait to get out of. Or, with the subject in a make-up chair, surrounded by five people waving powder brushes up their nose and pretending not to listen.
My favourite interviews are when the writer and subject are off on some sort of adventure together. US magazine interviews are always so entertaining because they aren’t static – they don’t so much as tell the reader what the celebrity is like but show you what the celebrity is like. An activity always guides the story.
For her GQ profile of Dwayne Johnson for instance, Caity Weaver got him to train her in his home gym. When Allison P Davis met Mariah Carey, it was at the singer’s home, at midnight, because Carey sleeps through the day and works throughout the night. For her longread on the Goop empire, Taffy Brodesser-Akner attended one of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Harvard classes, before Paltrow cooked her dinner at home. A brilliantly no-holds-barred Rolling Stone profile of Ed Sheeran saw the writer accompany the musician on an all-night bender.
When it comes to my own interviews, my best remains my first: when I profiled Stormzy for British GQ just as he went mainstream in 2016. It was his first big interview as well as mine, and he was so excited by his success that he allowed me to tail him over two days – access I would never get with anyone now.
He drove me around Thornton Heath where he grew up (giving a lift to fellow rappers along the way, while local fans chased after his car screaming), visited his old school to hand out trainers to gleeful kids, and played football with his friends in the park where he recorded WickedSkengMan 4 – the first freestyle to crack the UK charts’ top 20. When I visited his flat, full of unopened boxes of furniture and bottles of cognac, he spent most of the time desperately trying to access his old PS4 account, going through a list of defunct email addresses, each one more absurd than the last. These little flashes of colour told me so much more about Stormzy than any of his quotes.
Stormzy seemed to love the piece – no doubt because I had fully got the measure of the man, rather than hazarded a guess. Had I been given just one hour, all I would have got of him was a sketch. He would have read it and barely seen himself on the page.
Of course, in the grand scheme of things, the future of celebrity interviews is not exactly high up the pecking order. It’s not like the world has crumbled because Drake almost never speaks to press, or that Beyoncé hasn’t allowed a writer inside her mansion.
But celebrity is important – it shapes our culture and our values, and is a currency in which millions of people invest. You only have to watch the Britney documentary to see how much the musician has changed people’s lives.
For me, the very best interviews are always those in which an interviewer and interviewee are working together on behalf of the reader: to inspire, to soothe, to enlighten or to entertain. And, if the respect and the effort is there on both sides, then hopefully the writer and their subject can give each other something, too.
Ahead of being filmed for Apple’s brilliant documentary The World’s a Little Blurry, Billie Eilish told the director RJ Cutler – who was granted final cut – the reason why she wanted to do a documentary in the first place. “I can’t help but think about the last episode of The Office when Erin was like, ‘How did you do it? How did you really get how we felt and what we were doing? How did you do it?’”, said Eilish. “That would be amazing, if somebody did that. And you could re-watch those parts of your life from a different perspective.”
Five of my most recent favourite celebrity interviews
This Tom Hanks Story Will Help You Feel Less Bad by Taffy Brodesser-Akner (New York Times)
Michaela the Destroyer by E. Alex Jung (New York Magazine)
Donald Glover Can’t Save You by Tad Friend (The New Yorker)
Ariana Grande: The Vogue Interview, by Giles Hattersley (British Vogue)
The Interview: Rob Delaney by Decca Aitkenhead (The Times)