The Long and Happy Death of the Celebrity Profile
There's more entertainment coverage than ever, and that's why it's so crappy.
As the audience at Hollywood's Comedy Central Stage snickers expectantly at the German prog-rock strains of Einstürzenden Neubauten, Richard Rushfield, dressed in a pompous black turtleneck, begins to solemnly recite a Details magazine cover profile of Keanu Reeves. "He was diffident and shook my hand," Rushfield reads archly, to laughter. "I knew I wanted to engage him in crazily serious things. Death stuff. How do you jump into that without being crude when all you have is 90 minutes?"
The punch lines–crafted as earnest prose by the well-regarded Details Contributing Editor Bruce Wagner, lampooned as pretentious ass kissing by the Vanity Fair-employed Rushfield–keep coming: "There he was. Handsome as expected–you get the automatic hetero crush, metrosexpuppy love. But he's invisible, too….I turn back to look at him. He is moved, subtly quaking."
Wagner's piece, from November 2003, contains most of the devices we've come to loathe in celebrity profiles: precious descriptions of banal interactions, an intrusive and unabashedly narcissistic use of the first and second person, and a hyper-inflationary regard for the interviewee's wisdom and earthly importance. (Sometimes all in the same sentence: "Now here he is, impossibly innocent, eating fruit, you can almost smell him, very Siddhartha.")
These well-worn tropes, deployed daily over the explosion of celebrity coverage across all media (most jarringly at "hard news" outlets such as CNN), were more than enough to sustain an entire night of comedy last May, when Rushfield and his pals from the satirical Hollywood zine L.A. Innuendo gave a series of readings they called "Adventures in Profiling." The celebrity profile, once the canvas upon which much of the groundbreaking "New Journalism" of the 1960s and '70s was painted, is now a laughingstock.
The root cause of the decline and fall is no great secret, even if the underlying economics aren't always appreciated. "These days, what the writer wants to say, and the reader wants to learn, and the actor wants to reveal, are wildly at odds," wrote veteran Hollywood interlocutor Tad Friend, in a widely circulated 1998 essay for Spin. "The compromise is heavily weighted toward the actor….It's a return to the 1950s, when studio minions misinformed us that Bing Crosby was jolly and Rock Hudson was girl crazy."
Well, not quite. Hudson didn't have to contend with supermarket tabloids hunting down every peccadillo (or, in the astonishing case of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his benefactors at American Media, owner of the National Enquirer, buying the silence of those who might reveal said peccadilloes). Nor did he routinely make the glossy covers of the tabs' kissing cousins–supermarket celebrity magazines such as Us Weekly and In Touch Weekly, which feast on a diet of Bennifer, Brangelina, and Britney Spears.
The latter two magazines, Business 2.0's Greg Lindsay reported in August, grew their circulation by a whopping 33 percent and 49 percent, respectively, during the first half of 2005, while the rival American Media title Star notched a 20 percent increase and People maintained its position as "the industry's top cash cow." These impressive gains come at a time when weightier glossies such as GQ and Playboy consider themselves lucky not to lose circulation, and when ever more celebrity skimmers, such as Life & Style Weekly and Celebrity Living, keep appearing on the racks. The splashiest new entrant is OK!, the North American version of the popular British magazine, which openly offers stars such as Jessica Simpson as much as $200,000 plus editorial control to appear on its cover.
OK!, of course, doesn't set the standard for The New Yorker or the Los Angeles Times. But it brings two very well-greased elbows into an already crowded press gallery. Hollywood's rapacious global audience, combined with the worldwide proliferation of cable programming and Internet content plus the mainstream media's doubling of entertainment coverage during the last decade, has created a situation in which too many reporters are chasing too few stars. Increasingly, publicists can dictate whatever terms they want to reporters desperate for a crumb.
In June, 20th Century Fox officials promoting Mr. and Mrs. Smith broke new ground by requiring journalists to sign a "loyalty oath" swearing not to ask co-star Angelina Jolie any questions "regarding her personal relationships" or to use the quotes "in a manner that is disparaging, demeaning or derogatory to Ms. Jolie."
Reporters were further limited to publishing or broadcasting the material only once, "to promote the Picture," and any violation of these strict conditions would give Jolie the right to sue for an "undisclosed sum." Some entertainment reporters have taken to signing these increasingly onerous release forms with names like Mickey Mouse or Number 6, from the paranoid 1960s TV series The Prisoner.
In this atmosphere, the only plausible motivations for a famous person to expose himself at length to an independent reporter are masochism and impenetrable self-regard. I can think of only a handful of magazine profiles from the last decade and a half that have seared themselves into my consciousness, and all of them were sharply negative: Maureen Orth's devastating 1994 takedown of Arianna Huffington in Vanity Fair, a September 2002 New York Times article by Chuck Klosterman dissecting Billy Joel's pathetic personal life, an infuriating March 2003 look at Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar by The New Yorker's Elsa Walsh, and Tucker Carlson's pre-2000 election profile of George W. Bush in Talk (which wasn't uniformly negative but memorably portrayed the Texas governor mocking Karla Faye Tucker before authorizing her execution).
Even celebrities desperate to repair a severely battered image take a carefully structured approach to the media rehabilitation process: Their "crisis management" firm negotiates with a network morning news show for a round of softball questioning, lets Larry King compete with Barbara Walters for the wet-eyed prime-time redemption, then ghost-writes the "How I Rebounded From Rock Bottom" story for Parade.
It's a far cry from the glory days of New York and Esquire in the mid-1960s, when young writers like Dick Schaap and Gay Talese upended the journalism craft by immersing themselves in the world of their famous quarry, then employing novelistic writing techniques–including an omniscient knowledge of their subjects' interior lives–to give readers bracingly fresh insights into people they thought they knew well. To this day, journalists discuss Talese's 1966 Esquire piece "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" in the same reverent tones with which originalists describe the Constitution.
But by 2001 Esquire was reduced to mocking its own legacy, with a Tom Junod piece headlined "Michael Stipe Has Great Hair" (next to a picture of the R.E.M. singer, perfectly bald), in which whole bushels of impressionistic details were just made up. Five years earlier, in a far more inspired stunt, the magazine devoted its cover to "Hollywood's Next Dream Girl…The Allegra Coleman Nobody Knows." The fictional blonde actress, played by model Ali Larter, immediately triggered phone calls from starlet-hungry casting agents, and Larter actually kick-started a lucrative acting career as a result.
So is the long-form narrative journalistic profile dead? No, it just jumped pasture from the overgrazed entertainment industry. The New Journalism, the 1973 anthology edited by Tom Wolfe and E.W. Johnson, is chock-a-block with celebrities–Rex Reed interviewing actress Ava Gardner, Gary Wills interpreting Martin Luther King, Wolfe crashing a Leonard Bernstein party–because back then you could still gain access and raise eyebrows with flashy writing gimmickry. The New New Journalism, Robert Boynton's 2005 book of conversations with modern literary journalists, focuses on people like Michael Lewis, Lawrence Weschler, and Susan Orlean, who root out fascinating but undercovered personalities.
So don't expect high art when reading about pop culture personalities. Looking back, we'll probably be amazed we ever did.