Five years ago, I was an editor at Vibe, and I got an assignment to interview Usher. It was my second time profiling him for a cover story, but this setting would be more intimate than the previous one—instead of meeting in a hotel conference room, we’d talk at an outdoor bar at the Sunset Marquis in Hollywood, just the two of us. We talked about music, career failure, fantasies and sex. “You think I have sex appeal?” he asked me, at one point. “Of course,” I replied. I moved on quickly. I had to bury the crush I’d had on him since “Make Me Wanna” and ignore the fact that the first concert I’d ever been to was his 8701 Tour in 2001. I played it straight to be professional. Had I interviewed him today, there’d likely be a different agenda at play.
The July 2015 issue of Elle features a strategically sexy photo of Friday Night Lights’ Taylor Kitsch, who stares back at you with brows strategically arched and one hand on his cheek. Every magazine editor aspires to run this kind of photograph, in which the subject makes penetrating eye contact with the reader and, in this case, the writer, Lili Anolik, who wrote a profile called “Taylor Kitsch Lives Up to Our Fantasies.” Anolik is a Kitsch disciple who unabashedly and proudly writes through a lens of fandom. The result is equal parts alluring and discomforting.
Anolik, who’s also a Vanity Fair contributing editor, invokes the YA narrative overtly:
“As he walks toward me, I stand, my heart kicking in my chest. I’m nervous. This is a high-stakes game for me: FNL is my favorite show, Riggins my favorite character. I’m afraid that Kitsch is going to be a world apart from Riggins—that he’ll talk in actor speak, use the word process a lot and tell me about the benefits of a gluten-free diet, gaze into every reflective surface, and fluff his hair. I’m afraid that meeting him will kill the fantasy, basically.”
A profile writer is traditionally expected to maintain emotional distance; this piece, tied to the premiere of True Detective season 2, finds Anolik defying that expectation. Jezebel’s own Bobby Finger wrote about seeing adulation this unaltered in print: “[One paragraph] made me wish there were a monthly magazine filled with intellectual musings about cute famous people writers have crushes on. Tiger Beat, but for the New Yorker set. It could be called Pacemaker.”
But Pacemaker might be the look of the future. The need a celebrity has for the middleman is dwindling rapidly, forcing the profile writer to be more inventive, which means writers using their adoration of a famous person to their advantage. There is essentially no other choice.
For ages, celebrity profiles have operated in a vexing loop of unbroken convention, with few publications finding reason or nerve to break from the norm. Only a few large-budget glossies like Vanity Fair or Esquire have the muscle to set up their writers in the subjects’ homes, and then only occasionally; otherwise, writers are typically meeting celebrities at generic locations: restaurants (as in the Kitsch feature), conference rooms, concerts and photo shoots, with nosy publicists looming nearby.
The relationship between celebrities and magazines has always been symbiotic and a lot of times boring. At the Awl, John Hermann wrote about the decline in celebrities selling exclusive photos to magazines, leaving the magazines the less appealing option of publishing already-public Instagrams instead. On the cycle that’s now sputtering:
Why did these magazines have money to spend in the first place? Because they had subscribers and advertisers. Why did they have subscribers and advertisers? Because they published things people enjoyed, some of which weren’t available anywhere else. How did they do that? By reporting and curating, but also by asking for and gaining access. How did they gain access? In part, by promising an audience. And so on.
The system has changed; so has the format of the writing produced within it, and perhaps most noticeably, so has the tone. In a bid to keep their access, it’s becoming increasingly common for publications and writers to aim for what they once avoided: the fanboy/fangirl celebrity profile was one of the most fascinating revived trends of the year.
This type of profile has a strong lineage—for instance, the culture of male writers turning into pathetic puppies around attractive female subjects like Angelina Jolie or Megan Fox, a phenomenon Jezebel has written about at length before. The economy of worship also realigns the celebrity profile with its original use as a pure publicity vessel. Anne Helen Peterson wrote in 2014 for the Believer:
In classic Hollywood, the publicity apparatus—fan magazines, gossip columnists—worked in concert with the studios. A profile was constructed using biographical sketches provided by the studio itself, mixed with quotes the star may or may not have provided, and thoroughly vetted, before making its way to audiences.
In her piece, Petersen cites a 1928 profile of Clara Bow in Photoplay that basically functioned as propaganda for the silent-film actor’s career transformation and describes the story as “a public-relations marvel, further piquing interest in Bow—who, with her turn in the smash hit It, was quickly becoming the biggest star in Hollywood—while engendering enormous sympathy for the star.”
Celebrity profiles, as Peterson notes, began a gradual shift toward actively scandalizing Hollywood stars with the popularity of Confidential Magazine, a sort of old-school TMZ. This, coupled with the increase in celebrities ditching studio PR for independent representation and the rise of New Journalism (i.e. Truman Capote’s “realism”) changed the way profiles were approached. The writer’s goal was revised: to be incisive and honest, offsetting the filthy feeling of being a promotional pawn.
Of course, fawning and subjective personalization didn’t disappear from the celeb profile; arguably, those two things are still the genre’s home base. Acknowledgment of fandom is not necessarily detrimental to the writing: the best writers expertly work the angle. Think of Vanessa Grigoriadis’ 2011 Justin Bieber Rolling Stone profile, which leads with “Today, I’m the luckiest girl in the world,” and then flatly explores the fanaticism of Bieber fever, allowing manic details—“‘swag’ is Bieber’s favorite word,” she writes—to pile up into absurdity on their own.
The best of these profiles find honest, chilling and literary ways to probe the famous among us while still paying homage to the subject. But these good examples are rare. As we found out this year, the fan-on-celebrity profile is difficult to execute in a way that feels meaningful to anyone outside that fandom: more often it feels evasive, soft, full of fluff quotes, empty commentary, uncritical drooling.
It’s tough to write critically about a famous subject; it’s much easier to trade insight for pure flattery, ensuring that magazine their access and that writer an opportunity to write that profile again. But the fanboy profile benefits everyone involved in it and none of its readers. It’s a PR piece done artfully, targeted primarily at the uncritical, which means the hordes of celebrity fans who will distribute the piece for free online.
No artist works the dynamics of the internet quite like Drake does. Jon Caramanica described him in The New York Times as “something of a meme artist himself, or at minimum a meme archivist-historian.” And so it’s fitting that two of the most fannish profiles written this year were Drake profiles: one by Ernest Baker (“Drake in Real Life” for Four Pins) and another by Leon Neyfakh (“Peak Drake” for The Fader).
Baker documented his experience with Drake at Coachella, as an insider (he frequently tweets about being friends with Drake) and a fan. He wrote:
Being around Drake has reinforced that he is a real person, an actual human being—more than just a meme for public consumption. Maybe I’m empathetic because we share similar stories and background. Maybe it’s because he’s a young, ambitious black man. I relate to that. I can’t help but to be happy for the guy.
Yes, I’ve seen better Drake shows, but this weekend’s reality check was a welcomed one. Ladies and gentlemen, you have your arc. How will Drake redeem himself next weekend? Will the world still stop the next time he drops new music? The plot thickens.
The above is a very soft way of describing a set that flopped. Neyfakh, a much sharper critic, still swerved every insight into a compliment:
As he says this, Drake projects a practiced but convincing friendliness, and the effort he’s putting into making sure I know he’s being sincere is palpable and disarming. Still, looking at his newly close-shaved hair and the beard that now covers the lower half of his face like armor, I remember the advice he gave recently on one of his songs—Please do not speak to me like I’m that Drake from four years ago/ I’m at a higher place—and make a point of taking it.
Both writers spent ample time dissecting Drake’s intense self-awareness and exploring how the artist so effortlessly settled into fame (in part by embracing viral saturation). They were intelligent on many aspects of contemporary celebrity reality, while seemingly unaware of or unwilling to acknowledge the signals that their own pieces would send—the fact that, just like Hollywood’s devices of yore, these profiles would feed perfectly into the high-functioning Drake PR machine.
There’s nothing wrong with a writer having natural chemistry with his subject, or a writer negotiating that chemistry in the piece. But this year, more than ever, celebrity profiles were visible as what they really are—business transactions between writers, editors and publishers who get paid to preserve the publication’s reputation and sales. Having written cover stories on celebs like Janet Jackson, Lil Wayne, Trey Songz and Fergie, I’ve caved to the pressure to be uncritical; as a magazine editor, I’ve allowed provocative quotes to be pulled, too.
The fanboy profile threatens journalism’s credibility, but it’s not without merit: most notably, it avoids the tendency to disregard or dress up the absurdity of a situation or a subject instead of acknowledging it. The fanboy profile is—hopefully—radically honest, something that prototypical profile writing often lacks, for better or worse.
One such celebrity profile this year showed a possible future for the genre that allows for a strange, unbridled love of the subject. In this scenario, the syrupy nature of fandom is eased somewhat, maybe, when the profile writer is famous too.
For its October 2015 issue, The New York Times’ T Magazine published the cover story, “A Very Revealing Conversation with Rihanna,” by director, author, and screenwriter Miranda July.
The story opens with an anecdote about July’s ride with a Nigerian cab driver and their conversation about Rihanna. The author later has lunch with Rihanna, a clichéd but casual setting for a profile that allows July to ask unique, if not probing, questions, including: What does Rihanna search on Google, and What types of apps does she use?
July is a skilled writer. She knows exactly what she’s doing, expresses it in vivid and jarring language, and, most importantly, does not try to hide a minute of her celebrity awe:
Rihanna hugged me hello and we sat down in front of two glasses of white wine. “Your eyes are amazing,” she told me, pulling her chair closer. “I’m staring at you and I feel like my eyes are gonna blur because all I can see are those tiny dots.”
“Well, it’s mutual,” I said stiffly. “Trust me.” It was probably the weakest compliment she’d ever received but praising her seemed like a slippery slope. I glanced down at my carefully typed-up questions, looking for an easy opener.
The tone is deeply weird, but it is the center of the story in a way that no other fan-profile writer—not being on the more equal if not fully equal footing that July and Rihanna share—can express. It makes the story better.
I wanted to add, “You have a special body. Nothing you can Google applies to you.” I asked her what kind of apps she had on her phone and she mentioned something called Squaready.
“Thank you,” I said. “I dressed for you.”
I said that it took me a long time to find a guy who wasn’t threatened by my power, and Rihanna quietly replied, “I’m still in that time.”
Looking at her, I was reminded that thousands of people search “Rihanna’s eyes” every year. And there they were: a pair of dizzying hazel-green starbursts. I took another gulp of wine. “What turns you on?”
July seemed to think she and Rihanna had a moment—a subtle wink, perhaps, to both the experience of absorbing a celebrity’s charisma in the moment and the bullshit of profile writing, fandom at large. And, surely, the writer had an experience: “Before stepping inside my house, I lifted my blouse to my face; her perfume was still there,” she writes. “The problem with this kind of romance is that it all falls apart in the retelling.”
The profile led to such aggregated headlines as Frisky’s “Rihanna And Miranda July Talked To Each Other, Are (Maybe) Best Friends” and i-D’s silly teeny-bop-style “Rihanna and Miranda July Fell in Love During Maybe the Best Interview Ever.” Clutch Mag’s headline was much more biting: “The New York Times Profile of Rihanna Is All About the White Woman Who Interviewed Her.” The gripe was that Rihanna’s perspective had become lost in the fandom, as Choire Sicha also indicated on The Awl:
You can see why women pop stars prefer to produce and execute their own content, rather than playing with the media to let it be created from them. There, sometimes, a subject becomes obscured, instead of revealed. Maybe that’s on purpose sometimes? Maybe it’s a byproduct of the system, where this one iteration of the story was plucked from the windowsill of all time and space.
In any event, this is why T magazine should release the transcript of their Rihanna interview that was used for the profile they have just published. It is her first extensive interview in years.
The reaction to July’s piece was quite different than those to Rihanna’s cover story for Fader, in which the star refused to even answer questions over email for Mary H.K. Choi, who had interviewed her in person eight years before. The resulting piece was a fascinating meditation on access that did not get heavily aggregated with words about love.
Katy Waldman at Slate wrote about this in a piece called “What If Celebrity-on-Celebrity Interviews Are the Future of Celebrity Profiles?” (Note that Interview magazine has long owned the star-meets-star format.) Waldman wrote:
So much of today’s celebrity coverage centers around asking stars to clarify how they feel about various feuds and missteps, or to answer third-rail questions like “Are you a feminist?” Journalists spend a lot of time digging for “drama.” A star like Beyoncé can show she’s a “boss” by refusing to let them control the narrative.
But in the binary star interview, the interviewer exists on the same level, in the same orbit, as the interviewee. They circle around a common experience, perhaps even the experience of being badgered by the press. These two heavenly bodies are sympathetic collaborators. Their joint project is a mutually flattering, mutually wattage-brightening affair.
Yet what’s good for celebrities isn’t necessary good for profiles. Certainly, the binary star structure can upset the traditional power dynamics of a sycophantic interview.
Particularly if the alternative becomes journalist-turned-fanboy only, an editor might well think that the best person to tell a celebrity’s story is a person who’s on a pedestal of their own. That’s the thought process behind celeb-run publishing arms, including Derek Jeter’s Player’s Tribune (where athletes produce the content) and Lena Dunham’s newsletter Lenny, which turns celebrities into writers. It’s happening more frequently. In October, similar to July, screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis interviewed Quentin Tarantino for The New York Times. Ryan Adams likewise grilled Taylor Swift for her GQ story on video, in which they discussed another act of strange reciprocity—Adams’ full-album cover of Swift’s 1989.
“You know when actors say a line, they say a sentence, but they say it with different emphasis on different words and they completely change it? That’s what you did with my album,” Swift said.
Fanboy profiles seem to draw heavily on another internet-era illusion: that the playing field has been evened out, celebrities included. For fans—not magazines—Twitter and Instagram solve the issue of access while creating a false idea of proximity. But the celebrity’s reputed open door (that of social media) doesn’t lead to insight: it leads to a simulated room with a fixed narrative and preordained reality. Any similarities that a writer possibly sees between himself and Drake is of Drake’s creation, not his.
On a less blatant level, there’s a brief moment in this Taylor Swift Maxim cover story where writer Jessica Roy surrenders to Swift’s inane BFF culture. It comes across as a strange request meant to be humorous:
Given all that, how do you make time for all your friendships? It seems like everyone is your best friend. Can I be your best friend?
[Laughs] Thankfully, 10 years into my career now, I’ve learned how to work in a smarter way. You have to have time to breathe and have a happy life, and friendships are so important to me. Thankfully—thanks to the fans—now we get to play stadiums, so we do two or three stadium shows a week. I’ll see my friends in whichever city I’m closer to.
Swift, like Drake, has capitalized on the false intimacy of social media. Their empires rely on the (mostly imagined) perception of closeness. Anyone writing about them could easily fall into the trap.
This summer, for example, Dayna Evans at Gawker wrote a piece not on celebrity profiles but on the groaningly positive reviews of Swift’s concerts (“Taylor Swift Is Not Your Friend”) that called out writers who overlooked her disturbing power of manipulation. She included a piece Jia Tolentino wrote at Jezebel, which criticized exactly that Swiftian quality but, in many places, sounded as breathless as any praise.
The internet thrives on this type of strong language. Entertainment blogging has gone past innocuous to ridiculous in tone. (Take E! Online’s 13 Reasons Taylor Swift Is an Actual Angel Sent From Heaven; CNN’s 5 Reasons You Love Taylor Swift ... Even If You Don’t Want To; People’s 7 Reasons We Loved Blake Shelton & Miranda Lambert Together; Pop Sugar’s 43 Times Eddie Redmayne Was Really, Ridiculously Good-Looking. ) From my experience at previous jobs, this is often with the sole intention of getting a celebrity or their online fan clubs to socialize a post.
This limits critical coverage, in most cases, to a “But Graf,” usually towards the end. In the midst of all the worshipping, the Kitsch profile wedges an acknowledgment of his setbacks leading up to his role in True Detective: “If John Carter isn’t as bad as its reputation suggests, it isn’t very good, either,” she writes. The moment of critique is brief.
Over email, I asked Anolik whether she had any concerns about writing a feature that blurs the traditional—some might say archaic—line of fandom. How much is it worth glorifying a subject you care about?
Anolik says her editor at Elle chose her specifically because she knew of her Friday Night Lights and Kitsch obsession. “My guess is that my complete lack of impartiality was why she wanted to me to do the piece,” Anolik wrote to me. “The idea being that Taylor-as-Tim-Riggins was way up there on a lot of girls’ sex wish lists (guys’ sex wish lists, too), and would those of us who who loved Taylor as Tim be able to accept him in a new role.”
She adds that, “Too much of the writer can get annoying and distracting, not to mention obnoxious. If done right, though, it adds to the piece, makes it pop and fizz.”
She notes, of course, that this isn’t new, but it is a glaring new strain. “Having the writer figure into the story isn’t some recent phenomenon. The New Journalists—Wolfe, Mailer, Kael, Didion, etc.—were doing plenty of that in the 60s and 70s,” writes Anolik. “With social media and TMZ and Perez Hilton and all that, stars are less remote these days—people already know a lot of celebrity dirt, or think they do. It would seem crazy to me to do some old-fashioned, polite story. You’ve got to shake it up, get weird!”
The best-selling cover of 2015, according to Ad Week, was Caitlyn Jenner’s debut on Vanity Fair. It was a culturally significant occasion, and the 11,000-word profile about her transition was the work of renowned author Buzz Bissinger, who in his measured fairness and acknowledgment of the iconic oddity of Caitlyn’s story, proved that a writer can be deeply invested in a celebrity profile without being groveling or lenient. Bissinger’s personal life figured heavily—“I have been a cross-dresser with a big-time fetish for women’s leather and an open critic of the often arbitrary delineation between men’s and women’s clothing,” he writes—and so does his experience interviewing Caitlyn, which he describes as full of “miscues” and weirdness. It felt authentic. The only catch: Bissinger spent “hundreds of hours” with his subject, which other magazines and subjects would not likely provide.
On the other end of the spectrum was Beyoncé’s 2015 Vogue cover, which featured no interview at all but rather a short essay by cultural critic Margo Jefferson. Even Vogue caved to the celebrity’s power to write her own narrative, tacitly acknowledging that another non-illuminating Beyoncé interview would be editorially worthless.
Ultimately, there are few great ways around the contemporary publication’s dilemma: How do you get a celebrity to bare anything to a writer when that’s all they do on social media in a system that they fully control themselves?
The last alternative seems to be to provoke the celebrity, and rare are the writers that could or would try it. This method backfired—potentially to the benefit of the profile and the profile genre, if not the magazine or its writer—earlier this year, when Nicki Minaj shut down Vanessa Grigoriadis at the New York Times Magazine for what she felt was an offbeat question about drama between Minaj’s label heads.
“That’s the typical thing that women do. What did you putting me down right there do for you? Women blame women for things that have nothing to do with them,” said Minaj, who later abruptly ended the interview. “I really want to know why—as a matter of fact, I don’t. Can we move on, do you have anything else to ask?” she continued. “To put down a woman for something that men do, as if they’re children and I’m responsible, has nothing to do with you asking stupid questions, because you know that’s not just a stupid question. That’s a premeditated thing you just did.”
Minaj had a point, and Grigoriadis acknowledged her misstep. But it was too late. The story immediately incited Nicki’s fanbase who, naturally, used their access to the writer to share their wrath. One gripe, of course, was that Grigoriadis wasn’t enough of a Minaj fan, which is a silly expectation. A Twitter user wrote: “Finished up reading article. It was interesting. Writer, @thevanessag really was subtlety condescending”; and in a subsequent tweet: “You could feel the rank hostility the writer had...” Grigoriadis replied: “that’s soooo not true,” and she later affirmed her music cred, tweeting, “And newsflash everyone: I’ve been a writer for Rolling Stone for 15 years. And I’ve been listening to rap since before you were born.”
Grigoriadis broke the formula and found herself in a lose-lose, criticized for not doing what fanboy profiles do best: indulging a celebrity’s ego. And it’s true that perhaps a diehard Minaj fan-writer may have broached the question better—making Minaj perfectly comfortable, keeping a slick genre intact. Would that have made for a better story?
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby, image of Rihanna cover via T Magazine