Thursday 29 September 2016

Katie Byrne: Same old story - The cookie-cutter guide to celebrity journalism

Published 17/07/2016 | 02:30

Features writer Katie Byrne
Features writer Katie Byrne

It feels like breaking omertà to criticise the work of another journalist, and yet it's hard not to weigh in on the recent furore surrounding Vanity Fair writer Rich Cohen's interview with Margot Robbie.

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The interview between the US writer and the Australian actress was slammed as 'sexist', 'xenophobic' and more than a little bit creepy when it was published online last week.

According to Cohen, Australians are "throwback people"; Australia is just like America - "only different"; and Margot Robbie "can be sexy and composed even while naked but only in character". If, like me, you have difficulty understanding the latter abstraction, the writer follows it up with: "As I said, she is from Australia. To understand her, you should think about what that means..."

Admittedly, reading Cohen's interview is akin to discovering someone's marijuana-inspired experiment with Beat poetry on a crumpled-up piece of A4 paper. Still, he deserves some kudos for avoiding the celebrity-interview-by-numbers approach.

In case you haven't noticed, celebrity interviews follow a very specific formula that invariably start on a cold January morning in New York's Meatpacking District or a sunny April afternoon in the Chateau Marmont. Otherwise, the celebrity is late. It doesn't really matter how late they are - or how profusely their publicist apologises. Tardiness makes for a good opener.

When they eventually arrive, it is absolutely crucial that they 'stride in' to the room. Celebrities don't walk; they stride. This is the law. Failing that, journalists must observe an utterly inconsequential aspect of their interviewee's behaviour and use it to frame their piece.

It's 3pm on a blustery November morning and Jane Doe is not late. Instead she is brushing her hair/chatting on her phone/staring out the window as she contemplates the existential despair of telling 30 journalists, one by one, what it was like to work with Brad Pitt...

This style of opener is designed to make the reader believe that the journalist was privy to the celebrity's inner world and not, in fact, one of dozens of hacks who waited in a queue outside a hotel suite for a glorified meet-and-greet.

It also gives the writer an opening to seamlessly segue into a paragraph describing what this exalted being looks like in the flesh. Strangely enough, celebrities don't wear red-carpet couture gowns on Wednesday afternoons. Even so, it is important to forensically deconstruct this apparent peculiarity.

The actress's hair is almost always 'pulled back' into a low-slung pony while her face is 'scraped clean' of make-up. And yes - you guessed it - she still looks radiant. Her outfit is worthy of its own paragraph, too. If she is wearing anything other than 'off-duty' jeans and a sweater, then her attire should be described as 'exquisitely tailored'.

Facial features should also be described at length, using language worthy of a Shakespearian sonnet. Blue eyes are 'aquamarine'. A nose that is even slightly bigger than average is 'aquiline'. Lips are 'pillowy'. Most importantly, actresses aren't small or slight. They are 'gamine'. At least Cohen rewrote the script by comparing Robbie's beauty to "a minor knock-around key, a blue mood, a slow dance".

He also avoided commenting on her eating habits, which is yet another tedious celebrity interview cliché. If there is food within a 20-metre radius of a female celebrity, then it must be mentioned - but only if she 'picks at' it or 'pushes it around her plate'.

Otherwise the interviewee will write this paragraph on the interviewer's behalf by 'wolfing down' fries and a hamburger and declaring that she "eats like a horse!" This statement is designed to increase the interviewee's likeability, even if it just makes the interviewer consider the prevalence of bulimia in the equine population.

Meanwhile, the reader begins to wonder exactly how many times the interviewee has undergone liposuction. This is perfect timing because it's here that we transition into the subject of cosmetic surgery.

It would be refreshing if celebrities could just tell us who the doctor is and find out if they do mates' rates. Unfortunately, there is strict protocol around this question, too - and only two possible stock answers to choose from.

Generally the actress, a woman who has survived the bloodthirsty Hollywood casting system, will claim that needles make her squeamish. Alternatively, if her forehead is shiny enough for the journalist to see his/her reflection in it, she may concede that she "wouldn't rule it out" or would "never say never".

Her beauty tips come next, but don't go rushing for your notebook because she's only going to sensationally reveal that she 1) drinks gallons of water and 2) always takes her make-up off before she goes to bed...

Yes, there's a lot to call out in Cohen's interview, but you certainly couldn't call it predictable.

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