I spent a lot of the previous week ruminating over the most recent Rolling Stone profile on Johnny Depp. As I wrote in my brief recap of the piece, written by Stephen Rodrick, the profile is highly unusual in that it’s undeniably brutal about its subject. This was intended, as the piece notes Depp’s lawyer saying, to be a representation of the actor’s good side. Rolling Stone, a publication that had given him much positive press in the past, were seen as the easy sell to the masses. How could the historically cool magazine, one that lauded the torrid tales of hard partying rockers, not give Depp the full softball experience? What he got instead was a PR nightmare, one that exposed his disheartening but seemingly inevitable descent into booze, drugs, ego and debt. Rodrick’s piece helped to re-establish the new norm of Depp’s public presence, that of a man who had become a parody of himself, stuck midway between Peter Pan Syndrome and a Marlon Brando tribute act.
Indeed, they don’t make celebrity profiles like they used to.
The Rolling Stone piece was a shock to read, not just because of its content but because of how unashamedly pitying it was of its subject. His dark traits weren’t spun as rebellious quirks, nor was his bragging about ingesting Quaaludes and spending thousands of dollars on wine every month treated as an aspirational trait. It did not seek to defend its subject in any way. Even the most ardent Depp defenders struggled to come out of that piece with a feeling stronger than sadness. What was intended to be a counterbalance to the media’s current Depp narrative simply tipped the scales further against the actor.
It’s no exaggeration to say that these kinds of revealing celebrity profiles are on the decline. Most publications don’t get the kind of access Rodrick got to Depp - and they’ll probably see that privilege be further limited following this mess - and few publicists are willing to let such interviews get too personal. With a few notable exceptions, most celebrity profiles are dull and only worth reading for the occasional titbit and a deeper understanding of how this curious ecosystem works.
The first thing you should ask yourself when you read a celebrity profile is a simple one: Who is this piece for? Who is the intended audience, and who seeks to gain the most from whatever press it generates? Something like the Depp profile is an instance where the intent differs greatly from the outcome, but most profiles seek to strike a balance for mutually beneficial promotion and brand expansion. Profiles tend to happen when a star has a project to promote or a cause to support. Here is the star of this big movie and here’s why you should care about them both.
Yet general readers don’t tend to be all that interested in hearing about the newest indie darling’s small-budget project that could win an Oscar, but they won’t see until it’s on cable TV. Most of these stars are perfectly pleasant individuals but don’t make for riveting interviews. That’s not their fault, obviously. Being interviewed is weird and difficult and something you have to be trained for. You want to toe the line between being candid and private, firm but not cold (for obvious reasons, this is harder if you’re not a straight white dude who has the luxury of being able to shut up without complaint). Add to that the limitations of access, and the interviewing process becomes an impossible mine-field. Everyone knows it sucks but you go along with it because you take the little access you can get.
The question of access is one you must always consider when reading a profile. What counts as tangible and worthwhile access to a journalist who is fully aware of the narrow boundaries of which they work in? Consider last year’s Vanity Fair profile of Kate McKinnon. We wrote about how barmy that entire piece was, with the writer seemingly going off on a fantastical creative writing exercise that made you wonder how many espressos they’d had that day. What was most striking about that piece and its thousands of words was how little of them were from Kate McKinnon herself. There was a grand total of six quotes from the actress, and several descriptions of her silent refusal to answer further questions or elaborate on points made. Let’s be clear: Kate McKinnon, and indeed any celebrity being profiled, has no obligation to spill their guts to Vanity Fair. The chances are that access, as it pertained to this interview, meant half an hour of chit-chat and nothing more. Access was limited, both professionally and personally, but the writer still had to complete a cover piece for one of the industry’s most prestigious publications.
Yet even the most high-profile magazines and websites are willing to bend to the demands of those they profile. Once, it would have been unfeasible for a magazine to put a star on the cover without an accompanying interview, yet Vogue did it for Beyonce. You never would have allowed an interview to be conducted over Skype, but Alicia Vikander managed it with Vanity Fair. Some stars just have that kind of indomitable celebrity clout, but others simply have the money on their side. Vikander may be an Oscar winner but she’s not an instantly recognizable face or someone who sells millions of magazines. So, why would Vanity Fair acquiesce to doing an interview over Skype? It probably didn’t hurt that Vikander has a contract with Louis Vuitton, a big sponsor.
Nowadays, a lot of magazines want to create the illusion of exclusivity while offering nothing new to the table. The rise of having celebrities interview each other has proven to be another downturn for the practice. Interview Magazine, which recently ended its run, pulled some absolute blinders with its format, but getting the formula right is like trying to capture lightning in a bottle. There’s an air of the elite in this kind of profiling, but what it mostly allows for is further softballs. A recent ‘exclusive’ between sister models Gigi and Bella Hadid proved to be one of the more effective cures for insomnia I’ve ever experienced. The set-up can be cute but, by and large, most celebrities don’t have the journalistic skills necessary to pull off a great interview, nor do they have the drive to do so. They want to make the experience fun, not interesting. This trend is also another great excuse for publications to not hire and pay actual journalists.
Reading such profiles can also reveal how damn difficult the process actually is. You need the right journalist, the kind questions, the right subject, the right access, and for the stars to align just so. When it goes off the rails, it can be excruciating. Some writers go haywire with weird metaphors to meet their word count while others seem to think the professional process is an excuse to let out all their secret diary confessions. How many times have you read a celebrity profile of a woman written by a dude that immediately leaped into creep territory? Many of these profiles are written to establish stars, but especially women, as objects of desire. There’s a way to do that without being utterly dehumanizing, but such abilities seem to elude many writers.
Ultimately, the job of a celebrity profile is to sell a product, even if that product is a living being with a carefully modulated public persona. You’re meant to come out of reading a profile liking the celebrity, or at least feeling something positive towards them. Every now and then, we get a profile that simultaneously thrills the reader while fulfilling its simple objective: Think of Caity Weaver’s rollicking piece on Dwayne Johnson, or Edith Zimmerman’s real-life rom-com coverage of Chris Evans or Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s sweet cringe dissection of a post-Swift tank-top Tom Hiddleston (GQ in general are great for stuff like this, but they have the kind of casual cool persona that invites this). Celebrity coverage gets enough flack without us having to deal with when it’s done badly, but even then, it can reveal much about how we view our culture and those we elevate to its peaks. Media literacy matters now more than ever, and yes, it matters with stuff like this too.
(Header photograph of 2nd or 3rd Best Chris courtesy of Getty Images)