What’s the future of the big celebrity interview? It is tempting to shake out some recent data points and see if they form a pattern. Vanessa Grigoriadis, profiling Nicki Minaj for the New York Times Magazine, was haughtily dismissed for posing a question that Minaj deemed rude. Rachel Kushner applied an arch and stylized coat of socio-economic theory to her afternoon with Jonathan Franzen. President Obama (yep) spoke with novelist Marilynne Robinson about the faith and homespun American values animating her work. Bret Easton Ellis ably took on Quentin Tarantino. Artist and filmmaker Miranda July wrote a terrific Rihanna profile, a bizarre account of melding “souls” that shimmered with insight and eros.
Most of the celebrity interviews above—and all of the ones that didn’t end with the journalist getting kicked out of the subject’s hotel room—were themselves conducted by celebrities. Call it the “binary star” model of covering famous people. (From Wikipedia: “A binary star is a star system consisting of two stars orbiting around their common center of mass.”) Rachel Kushner is an award-winning author. Miranda July represents our collective understanding of what might happen when a manic pixie dream girl self-actualizes. Bret Easton Ellis has been translated into 27 languages. (President Obama is a nobody and the exception that proves the rule.) Around these profiles flock the never-rans, the interviews turned down by known interview-resistor Beyoncé and—famously, with the exception of July’s piece and a Vanity Fair feature with Annie Leibovitz—Rihanna.
In our celebrity-saturated age, is the “binary star” profile the new normal? For most aspiring bold-faced names, coverage in a prestigious magazine still matters, even if other paths to publicity are opening up. At the same time, social media has blown open the avenues of communication between celebs and their fans. Stars can easily control and disseminate their brand via Instagram and Twitter. Beyond a certain summit of renown, then, interviews with actual journalists may strike celebrities as both risky and redundant. (Not to mention that handing over one’s narrative to a third party in exchange for publicity seems a little thirsty.)
Seeking unmediated contact with our idols, we’ve entered a paradox: Celebrities can demonstrate “realness” by withholding access from journalists, who are perceived as just another filter. Jia Tolentino located the source of Beyoncé’s power in her refusal to respond to direct questions from the press, full stop: “She’s a woman from whom everyone wants everything, yet she does not have to answer to anyone at all,” Tolentino averred. “This is … the basic definition of a queen.” 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. My colleague Justin Peters suspects that Anderson Cooper proved such a good and tough debate moderator on Tuesday because he was confident in his own status. “America already likes him,” Peters wrote, “and he knows that.” Fame can also embolden an interviewer to break stylistic rules, as in Miranda July’s singular love letter to Rihanna, which pulls and twists the typical stuff of profile into something rich and strange. With the Obama/Robinson pairing, readers got something as lovely and simple as a bonus deal: two luminaries for the price of one! And—to state the obvious—if the interviewer is famous for his brilliant and perceptive prose, then your chances of ending up with a really good profile increase. (See Easton Ellis on Tarantino.)
But wresting celebrity interviews out of the hands of career journalists has a downside too. A profile writer must be willing to take a backseat to her subject, to get out of his way. Kushner’s Franzen piece utterly failed that test, as the Flamethrowers novelist scrambled to show off the range of her learning (“I mentioned East of Eden, by Steinbeck …”) and her own lyricism. Plus, as Dana Stevens lamented in an essay on the celebrities-interviewing-celebrities show “Iconoclasts,” “once people get past a certain level of fame, they seem to lose the internal monitor that reminds them that not everything they do and say is worth recording.” (Kushner again: “I had thought immediately of Wagner, and how such a thing works in Wagner, but I wondered how and if it works in fiction …”)
Most of all, the binary star structure sometimes forgets that asking the right questions, coaxing forth revelations, and doing all of it ethically requires a specific skill set. That’s what journalists do for a living, and many of them are good at it—better, probably, than a lot of people who have not had their specific training. The backlash against Grigoriadis presumes that eliciting truths from Nicki Minaj that Minaj would prefer not to expose is wrong, a violation. You can quibble with the writer’s knowledge of the musical and cultural tradition in which Minaj is working, or with the specific comment that blew the interview to pieces. But good profiles, of course, are more than blind homage, especially of the kind that two celebrities are likely to ladle on each other. Best case scenario of a binary star interview? A pair of powerful personalities confidently cross-examining one another. But we’ve already seen how tedious and empty the worst case scenario can be.