Conventional wisdom holds that women's magazines aren't as good as men's magazines. That would be correct. Because where the general sin of men's magazines is going overboard — overthinking, overreaching, overwriting, women spend more money on stupid crap so their magazines don't have to win any prestigious awards to justify their existences as anything other than mindless profiligography! Anyway, that's why we like to solicit the advice of manly men's magazine male writer Tom Wolfian (not a real name!) to critique the ladymags for us. He's very busy and very important!
In this installment: Why women's magazines can learn from the "Worst Celebrity Profile Ever Written."
Dear Allison, Jonathan, Johanna, Carole, and Sherry:
No sleep last night for Mister Wolfian. So beware, gynoscribes. I'm pissy. It's the fault of my headstrong tabby cat, Mister Langewiesche. Little fucker spent the entire night digging mites out of his ears, raining little brown clumps of ear gunk onto my nice clean 600-thread count sheets. Seems impossible that that my midtown condo, luxury-constructed at $5 a word, could be so thoroughly soiled by a dirty kitty — but live and learn, gynoscribes, live and learn. So forgive me if I woke up to my assignment from the Jezebelles — a thoughtful, measured, articulate review of the celebrity profiles in the November issues of some major women's magazines, edging toward a general theory of the State of the Ladies' Magazine Celebrity Profile Today — and couldn't get past the description of Ashley Judd as an "actress, southerner, and infectious romantic" without thinking... infectious romantic. Whore with herpes.
Maybe it's me? (And nothing against herpes!!!!)
But I'm in a mood. I want to be nice. But I am not up to it today. So I'm dropping the whole premise of articulate thoughtful whatever in favor of telling you what I really think, because that's how real men talk about other men's stories in editorial meetings as long as the man who wrote the story isn't actually in the room. And the truth is, gynoscribes, it feels kind of good to be mean. It feels like revenge. A cleansing, radiant revenge. Because I have just read every one of your profiles from beginning to end. With the joyless, mercenary dedication of a child soldier. Perhaps one of the very same child soldiers whom so many of your celebrity subjects are now dedicated to helping. And you know what they say about war, ladies.
(It's no worse than learning the profession you love is shared by someone who would actually pose this "question" to Mariah Carey: ""When I read in the New Yorker than you hit one of the highest notes produced by a human voice that's ever been recorded, I got a chill and it almost made me believe in magic... So you're a diva and a genie!")
So to proceed, here is what I gleaned from each of your profiles, in 100 words or less:
"Ashley Judd's Love Trip" by Allison Glock, Redbook, p. 150
Ashley sad. Insecure. Angry all the time. Who knows why? Not Ashley. Then Ashley marry race-car driver. Ashley happy. Yet still sad. Ashley do drugs. Or something. Depression, rehab. Then Ashley find God in the poor. Ashley go on what she call "feel your feelings tour" of India. The poor "is my church." Clotheswise, Ashley like "ruching. I love a little ruffle." Ashley surprisingly grounded for a celebrity!
POSSIBLY RELEVANT TOPICS NOT BROACHED: "Heat." "Frida." "Natural Born Killers." Experiences re: any interesting movie she's ever filmed. Kissing prowess of Ensign Wesley Crusher.
"Dark Victory" by Jonathan Van Meter, Vogue, p. 327
Celebrity Profiled: Jennifer Connelly
Jennifer Connelly is a smart girl who lives a low-key life in Park Slope. "Nothing too scandalous." (What's scandalous is that $3.7 million actually isn't scandalous in this idiotic town, though I should admit I'm cheating here; Vogue doesn't tell us the sale price, so I had to use Google). Despite this, she and her actor husband "blend in with all the other young families in the neighborhood." Jennifer is, like, really, really smart. And surprisingly grounded for a celebrity!
POSSIBLY RELEVANT TOPICS NOT BROACHED: Anorexia. That sex scene in "Requiem for a Dream." David Bowie; Muppets; man-tights; what it's like to act in a movie with David Bowie wearing man-tights with Muppets.
"What's Up, Doc?" by Johanna Schneller, Marie Claire, p. 129
Celebrity Profiled: Kate Walsh, star of "Private Practice"
" 'I do feel I'm here to love, and to keep being curious, to better myself and give back to the world. That's the magical thing that happened with Grey's [Anatomy] — it was a cultural contribution. It sparked conversations, particularly for women. That's a great feeling. Rather than just, How to keep your butt firmer.' Walsh laughs again. BTW, her butt is just fine."
POSSIBLY RELEVANT TOPICS NOT BROACHED: Conversation-sparking potential of Kate's new show, particularly the scene where she dances naked on the deck of her new house and gets spotted by her hunky new doctor-colleague. 150-250-word elaboration on "just fine."
"Come On In! It's Mariah's House" by Carole Radziwill, Glamour, p. 266
Celebrity Profiled: Mariah Carey
Marriage to Tommy Mottola. Divorce. "Exhaustion." Perfume. "America: A Tribute to Heroes." Mariah is surprisingly grounded for a celebrity!
POSSIBLY RELEVANT TOPICS NOT BROACHED: Marriage to Tommy Mottola. Divorce. "Exhaustion." Psychic salience of creepy overabundance of pink Hello Kitty products in the home Mariah calls "Sing Sing."
"Thanksgiving Is My Favorite Holiday" by Sherry Suib Cohen, Ladies' Home Journal, p. 199
Celebrity Profiled: Food Network hostess Paula Deen
Paula Bubba Dawn Bubba Peggy Otis Cody Bodine walkin' laughin' say grace cook kook kooky damn fine instructions for fryin' a turkey plus poker catfish Uncle Bernie Aunt Glennis Aunt Beth Bubba macaroni ham mayonnaise GET OFFA THAT DAMN PHONE spatula gallonjug fame money fleeting not like family family never fades away Paula surprisingly grounded for a celebrity!
POSSIBLY RELEVANT TOPICS NOT BROACHED: n/a
In a way, gynoscribes, what I'm doing here isn't fair. You're the easiest of easy targets; you're writing the most vapid copy in magazines we all know are pretty vapid to begin with. But there is, in fact, a larger idea behind all this bile, even if it's taken me 600 words to get that idea to bubble up through the hot, acrid smell of Belarussian-refugee perfume and Revolution-brand feline pest drops that is now commingling in my aforementioned sweet-ass condo. And that idea is that even in the world of celebrity profiling — a world that's pretty fairly corrupted on both sides of the gendered magazine divide — there are useful lessons that Vogue and Redbook and Glamour et. al. can learn from Esquire, GQ, Details and the like. Because just trust me... you'll never find anything in GQ as artless as some of the paragraphs I came across in your pieces this morning. Here's one that stuck in my side like a rusty lawn dart:
When I mention to Connelly that I thought her character was probably more like her than not [her character in "Reservation Road" being a grieving mother whose 10-year-old son has been killed by a hit-and-run driver], she tilts her head and says, "Um. I don't know. I didn't really think about her in that way." When I tell her that I meant that her character seems like a stable person in a good marriage with wonderful children, she laughs. "Thank you!" She shifts in her chair and then acknowledges the similarities. "Yes," she says, "I think she is quite rational and clear. She winds up being incredibly resourceful in this situation... She has incredible reserves of strength. And I think she has an almost defining love for her children, which I think I have in common with her. She's completely in awe of her kids."
I cringed three separate times when I read this graf. Reading it was like watching the pimply, insecure, 13-year-old Wolfian in flashback, changing clothes in gym class and getting laughed at for sporting some profound tightie-whitie skidmarks. If only someone had pulled poor Wolfian aside and told him about boxer shorts...
See, there's no reason for any celeb-profile writer to look this dense in print. Really, there's no reason to try to do the job on its own terms. It's a sucker's game, as we all know. There's no way to write a fleshy, revealing piece about a celeb when all you get is a lunch and some kind of follow-up call or off-the-record "hangout" time moderated by some chick with suspiciously straight hair and a hunted look who doesn't know a sentence that's not: "Did you get what you need? Do you need anything? Here's my card if you need anything!!!!"
This is the cold, hard truth that successful celeb-profile writers at men's magazines have long since realized and run with. And because they've learned how to treat the job with disdain, they've been able to cast off those chains, gynoscribes. They're free. And they're writing more interesting stories because of it. The traditional critique of the genre tends to paint the profile writers as fawning sycophants, but in my (vast, hard-won, gimlet-eyed) experience that's not true. The apparent sycophancy is just a cover for a deeper trait and a deeper goal, which is a happy and useful one: to keep the writer's brain engaged. The modern mensmag celeb profile is actually a surprisingly prayerful, if superficial, blend of braggadocio and dogged practice. Unlike the celeb profiles in women's magazines, the profiles in Esquire/GQ/Details tend to recognize celebrity as a fundamentally alien thing, an institution to be marveled at and toyed with. The work of writing about celebrity is not real work. It's a break from the real work. It is The Writer's Time To Jizz — a way to keep that writerly muscle loose and limber and tuned up for the next Big Plunge... for that 14,000-word hillock of ASME-judge porn that all of us contract heroes have got sitting on our laptops. (Many of which, if we're being truthful, are nowhere near as playful or, in a weird way, honest as our best celeb pieces.) This is why you're way more likely to see something really formally or thematically inventive in a celeb profile than in a respectable magazine feature about politics or business or art or whatever. There's nothing to lose. So each celeb profile becomes a little underdog story, an uplifting tale of a ragtag writer saddled with a task that Nobody Thought He Could Ever Pull Off: Can he spin a few hours' worth of smalltalk and smiles into a revolution?
Sometimes, gynoscribes, he can:
This is a 9/11 story. Granted, it's also a celebrity profile — well, a profile of Angelina Jolie — and so calling it a 9/11 story may sound like a stretch. But that's the point. It's a 9/11 story because it's a celebrity profile — because celebrities and their perceived power are a big part of the strange story of how America responded to the attacks upon it. And no celebrity plays a bigger role in that strange story than Angelina Jolie.
This Esquire piece — and there's no more fruitful place to look for this stuff than Esquire — is essentially a mental exercise, the reification of a writer's private dare to himself; the important action here is all happening in the writer's (Tom Junod's) head, which is what makes it such a perfect document of this particular strain of writer-hero ambition, such a perfect jarring crashing clanging smashing collision of high and low, of material and purpose, task and talent. It's like watching Garry Kasparov play tic-tac-toe. Which is of course the whole point... to show your readers how valiantly you're chafing against the strictures of your impossible assignment while simultaneously transcending those strictures WITH MERE WORDS:
EXT. HOTEL COURTYARD
CHARLIZE [THERON] pinches her eye shut against a waft of smoke.
What choice do I have? I can't go anywhere. Not if we want to talk. This is L.A. I mean, if you can find me some taco place, a place where we can go, sit around, drink beers, argue politics, and be left alone, then take me there. I'll go with you. I'm yours. Those places don't exist for me. There aren't any little joints for me. The screen FREEZES. The background fades, the moment at the Chateau [Marmont] untiles itself in some fashion and is replaced, retiled, and patched in all around CHARLIZE and the WRITER, who are suddenly sitting across from each other at an empty taco joint, another place of the writer's contrivance, this one grittier in detail than the lake, glowingly lit by the late afternoon sun. CHARLIZE and the WRITER are in the middle of something, something like an argument, something like a hashing out between friends. The place is the WRITER's daydream, but the conversation is real.
So what do you think will happen with Roe v. Wade?
I'm the writer. I ask the questions.
Just tell me. Just say it.
The WRITER here is Tom Chiarella, a facile writer whose profile of Charlize Theron complains that nobody will ever read it because they'll be too busy looking at the pictures. The piece is very weird and very smooth. It's a pastiche of fiction and meta-criticism (several of the scenes are phone calls between the WRITER and his EDITOR about the terribleness of the Chateau Marmont as an interview location) and calculated banality. And gynoscribes, it manages to do something that none of your pieces accomplish, which is to make both the subject and the author seem like decent and halfway intelligent human beings who basically know what the deal is, this absurd magazine-profile deal, and are trying to find an honorable way to come out of it with at least as much self-respect — and certainly more money/exposure — as they had when they came in.
The downside of all this fierce invention is that, as with other forms of self-pleasure, it tends to have diminishing returns. In fact, the only place left to go may be... straight-up fiction.
That's all I've got for ya, gynoscribes. The ear gunk is still flying, and I have to get Weeshie back to the vet.