The case for the celebrity profile: a dying art being slowly brought back to life
Around this time last year, it seemed like the celebrity profile was dead and buried.
Or so music critic Jon Caramanica argued in the New York Times, declaring celebrities want “monologue, not dialogue” and citing Beyoncé’s much-debated personal essay for US Vogue — billed as “Beyoncé In Her Own Words” — as evidence.
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She’s not the only star to eschew interviews for personal reflection: Taylor Swift offered British Vogue a sad little poem (definitely not a song!) in January 2018, while in ELLE UK’s September issue, Angelina Jolie wrote an ode to “wicked women”, shamelessly opening with the definition of “maleficent” while studiously avoiding mentioning the upcoming film sequel.
When they’re not firing off their own musings, celebrities prefer to speak to fellow celebrities, who guarantee a softer, safer ride. Perhaps the most dire example came in ELLE US last September, in which Emma Stone was interviewed by Jennifer Lawrence (first question: “you’re so pretty, how’d you get like that?”) — Stone even requested Lawrence do the honours again for British Vogue’s February 2019 issue (“we politely declined,” journalist Giles Hattersley notes).
The unspoken message is that it’s their way, or no way at all. The profile is the last part of their “story” that celebrities can’t control, unlike their social media, their wardrobe, and in some cases, even the photos we see of them (Beyoncé, for example, ditches red carpets and releases her own images later).
Their team may try to stage-manage a profile — as Melissa McCarthy’s attempted to do with the New York Times, setting the interview at an indoor sky-diving centre and telling the journalist, “I hope you see the metaphor here. She’s flying, she’s up high, she’s soaring” — but ultimately, the power is out of the celebrity’s hands.
While answering questions was once part of the gig, celebrities can now bypass traditional media altogether and self-publish through social media. When they do speak to a reporter, they can deliver corrections via Instagram, as Madonna did in June, writing that she felt “raped” by Vanessa Grigoriadis’s New York Times profile, or Selena Gomez did last September, listing all the things she felt had been insufficiently plugged in ELLE US.
Yet when celebrities grant decent access to a journalist, the results can be genuinely illuminating. The best profiles give greater context to their subject, challenging received wisdom and fleshing out a real person rather than a cardboard cutout. Much of this comes down to the rapport between interviewer and interviewee, and their willingness to be transparent — consider Bradley Cooper’s notoriously uncooperative interview with Taffy Brodesser-Akner, the New York Times’ profiler par excellence.
Contrast that with her rigorous profile of Gwyneth Paltrow, in which “GP” cooks clams in a white dress with no apron and introduces her “house manager”; and Brodesser-Akner interrogates the meaning of an “aspirational” lifestyle.
Or, more recently, Jiayang Fan’s New Yorker profile of Constance Wu, an actress who has been painted as a diva. There are moments that seem to confirm that, but it’s just one aspect of the portrait Fan presents: of a complicated woman, at once stroppy and sweet, ambitious and afraid, indignant and insecure. We see her admonishing Fan for taking notes on her phone during a session with Wu’s acting coach, while in the same session worrying that the actress playing a younger version of her character won’t respect her.
It’s revealing, just as it’s revealing when Jonathan Van Ness, in a New York Times interview this month, is interrupted twice by fans while he reflects on abuse he suffered as a child. He tells Alex Hawgood, “If you’re having a terrible moment or in the middle of a conversation about something serious, people don’t care. They want their bubbly JVN and to get that major selfie.”
Such details give an insight into Jonathan Van Ness, the human, rather than JVN, the professional. So too does Jonathan Van Meter’s intimate Vulture profile of Renee Zellweger, in which we learn, among other things, she’s an incredible texter, yet prefers to live in a home with no phone service, for “solitude and silence” after six years on hiatus.
At its best, a profile is a piece of art, and tells a story no social media post ever could. The celebrity profile is in peril, but it’s not dead yet. Long may it live.