Here’s a concept I think of as law, but that seems to be less and less popular as time goes on: Subject and interviewer are at odds. They are not friends. Their motivations should not align, and if they do, it should not be because the mutual objective is to present the subject in the best light. That isn’t journalism; it’s PR. I’m not suggesting that the only way to conduct an interview is through antagonism, and indeed plenty of illuminating interviews are harmonious and pleasant experiences for subject and interviewer alike. I am suggesting that it’s beyond okay and, in fact, a journalist’s job to ask tough questions. It’s okay to make your subject uncomfortable.
Subjects, naturally, don’t agree. When celebrities tell the stories behind the stories about them, it’s often in the form of complaining because they didn’t like how they were portrayed or set up. (Another good rule of thumb: Your subject doesn’t have to like what you wrote about them. It may indicate that you wrote a stronger, truer piece when they don’t.) Madonna felt “raped” by Vanessa Grigoriadis’s New York Times Magazine profile from earlier this year that focused on the superstar’s age. Tituss Burgess called Andy Cohen a “messy queen” for asking about working with Eddie Murphy, who repeatedly mocked “faggots” in his ‘80s standup sets. And this week, out pop star-actor Troye Sivan said being asked if he’s a top or bottom in New Zealand’s Express was “wildly invasive, strange and innapropriate [sic].”
These “clapbacks,” or what have you, can leave a citizen of our celebrity-worshipping world with the impression that an injustice has been committed. How dare the interviewer... ask questions. That’s so rude.
Sivan, though, (heh) opened himself up to this line of questioning via his 2018 single “Bloom” (“Hold my hand if I get scared now/Might tell you to/Take a second, baby, slow it down”) which he announced in a now-deleted tweet that contained the hashtag #bopsaboutbottoming. He’s also denied being a bottom on Buzzfeed, which could mean he’s vers and didn’t want to get into it during the final, “lightning round” moments of an interview in a New Zealand rag. (Express printed his response to this question as: “Ooo...definitely passing!”) Fair. On its face, the question asked by Express’s Matt Fistonich, then, was at least redundant, but given the sexual content of Sivan’s music, it was not exactly out of left field. The question would be way more jarring if directed at, say, Sam Smith, who has given very little indication of his sex life.
But it would be interesting to hear how Sam Smith would answer that question! And that’s often a point that’s missing from celebrities’ rants about interview questions. Some questions solicit information, some function more rhetorically. Often celebs’ extended responses to questions they don’t like, even if they don’t answer them, is telling. No response is a response, storming out of the interview is a response, a paragraph-length comment on instagram is a response, a thread of tweets is a response.
And a thread of tweets is what Sivan delivered Thursday, a follow up to his initial tweet on the interview Wednesday:
You see, that’s certainly more illuminating to “Ooo...definitely passing!” What inspired Sivan’s second round of tweets on the subject was a short post on Out that asserted it’s “a bit hypocritical for Sivan to act as if talking about his sex life is taboo when he wrote a whole ass album about bottoming,” and wondered, “Do queer journalists have to adhere to the same respectability politics as straight ones?” That’s a perfectly fine question to ask from an outlet that, in fact, recently asked Madonna whether her Madame X alter ego is a bottom or top. (So there goes Sivan’s point about that.) “She’s both,” Madonna said reportedly laughing. “I don’t like choosing sides.” She did not follow up with a tweet to scold the interviewer, Rose Dommu, for asking the question.
Out has deleted the final three, analytical paragraphs of its post (you can read an archived version of the original here) and slapped an editor’s note on top that reads:
This piece has been updated since its original publish time due to the editorial team’s determination that it did not meet our standards. We have condensed and revised the piece accordingly.
Of course, unless those standards exist in flux—a possibility in today’s capricious, access-obsessed media—or unless there was some process error in enforcing the site’s standards pertain to hyperboles about whole ass albums about bottoming, a more likely story is that Out caved because a celebrity didn’t like its coverage of him. (Jezebel has contacted multiple editors at Out for comment and will update this post if we hear back.) The idea of a pop star dictating journalistic standards and practices is at least disturbing, if not horrifying. Sivan should not be trusted as an arbiter of what constitutes good reporting. If Out removed its story because of Sivan’s objections to its analysis, that too would be a telling reaction, and it would further prove that Express asked Troye Sivan a very good question.