As I’ve written before, it’s not uncommon to see bad profiles happen to good celebrities. The art of the deep-dive profile has changed drastically over the past couple of decades, and what could once be a revealing opportunity for a tell-all has become managed into safeness. There are exceptions, obviously (a recent example being Vanity Fair’s wonderful piece on Michelle Williams), but nowadays, your typical celebrity profile will be perfectly pleasant and not much else.
The most egregious errors in such profiles happen for a number of reasons: The journalist may not be fully prepared for their subject; the person being interviewed may be cagey or intensely private; the allotted time for the interview could be as little as 30 minutes; and, of course, the writer could just be a total pervert. That’s the thing we’re going to focus on today. We’ve all read those profiles: The ones that seem to have been written by a guy who’s convinced the stunning actress he’s interviewing is desperate to get into his underwear. I’ve always wondered what the intended effect of this approach is. Do they think it will genuinely end in a night of passion? Is it supposed to convey a mood of delight or starstruck awe? Are readers meant to relate to the guy who’s practically gawking at the woman in front of him?
Stuff like this happens a lot in profiles for male-driven publications but it’s not exclusive to them. Sometimes, you just have a word count to meet so you spew everything onto the page, from how the person looks to what they eat and how the eat it - a personal pet peeve of mine - to the kind of strained metaphors that would have any professor bringing out the red pen.
This list is not comprehensive. I’m sure history has much more awful examples that have been lost to time or were never scanned onto the internet. I’m primarily focusing on how women are objectified in these profiles because there’s a stark difference between how women are sold on these magazine covers versus how men are sold. That’s one of the reasons it was such a delightful surprise to see Michelle Williams on Vanity Fair looking serious, professional and dressed in something other than a bikini or red-carpet dress. If you can think of worse examples, let me know in the comments so we can share in the horror together.
In 2005, Jessica Biel was named Esquire’s Sexiest Woman Alive. To accompany this cover story, the magazine sent A.J. Jacobs to interview her. I’m tempted to post the entire article here and be done with it but let’s just include the worst sections. First, it takes over five paragraphs for the writer to even name her. He spends most of his time talking about her like a serial killer:
‘I know the body climbing out of that SUV alarmingly well. I know it better than the body of any other human being, with the possible exception of my wife’s. I’ve been staring at photos of this body for weeks now — thinking about it, scrutinizing it, asking lots of probing questions about it … I have become planet Earth’s greatest expert on this body. I know about the blue tattoo of a dove on her stomach and the scar on her left shin from slipping on a tractor. I know about her preference for shaving over waxing because waxing feels like a flyswatter on her skin. I know her thighs are strong from riding a big white horse in Prague this summer for the movie The Illusionist. I know she loved having pumped-up shoulders for her role as a vampire slayer in Blade: Trinity. I know her opinion about her breasts.’
Are you creeped out yet? It gets worse. Biel, who comes across as very lovely in the piece, goes to the Metropolitan Museum of Art with the writer, as well as his wife and 17 month son because, in his words, ‘this, I figured, would show Jessica that I’m not a John Wayne Gacy-like perv.’ Mission failed, dude. He seems unable to see her as human throughout the whole piece, and when she details doing a topless photoshoot at seventeen, one that left her feeling miserable and taken advantage of, the writer’s priority is her willingness to pose sexily for his cover story:
‘In fact, she says, she might not be opposed to baring herself for the camera in the future. I know it’s a cheap question to ask, but we happen to be within spitting distance of some very naked Rubens women.’
Fortunately, Biel seems ahead of his bullshit game. When he asks her to pick out the sexiest woman on display in the Met, she picks Massimo Stanzione’s portrait of Judith gripping the decapitated head of Holofernes.
Objectification comes in different forms. Sometimes, is it the unnerving dissection of a body, breaking someone down to their composite parts through your words. Other times, it’s an inability to see someone as human, deifying them to the point where they are stripped of their basic traits. The latter seems to be the case for one of Esquire’s more bizarre profiles, once again part of the Sexiest Woman Alive spiel. This one definitely seems to be a case of a subject who gave a short, very controlled interview and had little interest in humouring a journalist who didn’t do the work.
The usual stuff is here: Cruz is described as having ‘no physical flaws, the bent noses and crooked teeth we would normally use as signifiers. Her face contains no secrets, at least not about her. But her face tells you and the room plenty about you.’ Weird, but not like the Biel piece. The problem here is that Jones had a word count so spends most of his time labouring this bonkers metaphor about bullfights and matadors, desperately trying to find a connection between Penelope Cruz and this one thing he understands to be so very Spanish. He doesn’t even mention Cruz’s name until about nine paragraphs of this.
Some of the metaphors in this piece are straight-up bonkers:
‘Over the course of a long lunch, Cruz looks like a thousand different women. She flips her hair, or she shifts in her chair, or she creases her forehead or widens her eyes, and these alone are enough to transform her. It feels like watching close-up magic, an actress playing every possible part and well enough to be confounding.’
Cruz eats a steak during this interview, which is described with zeal and then paralleled with not only the bullfights but the interviewer’s attempts to figure her out. Essentially, she is the bull, he is the matador, and he wants to nail her down. Yes, it’s creepy. Only by reading the whole damn thing can you understand just how creepy it is.
‘Alicia Silverstone is a kittenish 18-year-old movie star whom lots of men want to sleep with.’
That’s it. That’s the opening line. The first damn line of this piece and he goes there. She’s 18.
It doesn’t end there, of course:
‘Silverstone has straight blond hair that falls around her shoulders, wide eyes and a mouth that people describe in ways that she finds inappropriate. They liken it to a slice of tangerine or call it wedge shaped or say she has bee-stung lips. Well, if your lips were stung by a bee, do you have any idea how much that would hurt? “Like hell,” she says. Silverstone’s lips have not been stung by a bee. Nor does she have the vague, abstract, off-putting beauty of a supermodel like Linda Evangelista or Stephanie Seymour. Silverstone is a girl you could conceivably date, a girl you did date, even, raised to the highest power. She has the brand-new look of a still-wet painting - touch her and she’ll smudge.’
Don’t touch her, dude.
Speaking of Rich Cohen…
Margot Robbie is beautiful. That should be a surprise to absolutely nobody. The thing about profiles like this is that people can’t just be pretty: They have to be earth-shatteringly stunning, the kind of beauty that changes the world and makes us all crumble to dust. I think it’s intended to be complimentary to the subject but it never is. It’s just weird. Rich Cohen goes to town in his objectification of Robbie, positioning her not only as an exceptional beauty but a strange exotic creature whose Australian roots make her otherworldly.
That’s his word, not mine:
‘America is so far gone, we have to go to Australia to find a girl next door. In case you’ve missed it, her name is Margot Robbie. She is 26 and beautiful, not in that otherworldly, catwalk way but in a minor knock-around key, a blue mood, a slow dance. She is blonde but dark at the roots. She is tall but only with the help of certain shoes. She can be sexy and composed even while naked but only in character.’
Cohen seems flabbergasted by Australia, as if he’s only just discovered it’s a country.
‘As I said, she is from Australia. To understand her, you should think about what that means. Australia is America 50 years ago, sunny and slow, a throwback, which is why you go there for throwback people. They still live and die with the plot turns of soap operas in Melbourne and Perth, still dwell in a single mass market in Adelaide and Sydney. In the morning, they watch Australia’s Today show. In other words, it’s just like America, only different. When everyone here is awake, everyone there is asleep, which makes it a perfect perch from which to study our customs, habits, accents. An ambitious Australian actor views Hollywood the way the Martians view Earth at the beginning of The War of the Worlds.’
So, now Robbie isn’t just otherworldly beautiful: She’s a bloody alien. Nice going.
Lane made headlines recently for an intensely creepy review of Incredibles 2, where he spent a little too much time talking about Elastigirl as future sex fantasy material for bored parents wanting a new 50 Shades fantasy. His profile of Scarlett Johansson, which totals several thousand words, isn’t as blatantly creepy as that review, but it’s still a specific kind of highbrow leer that inspires discomfort. The whole piece is equal parts unnerving and exhausting. Its overload of wonky metaphors and questionable word choice reminds me of the episode of Friends where Joey uses the thesaurus on every word (‘Signed Baby Kangaroo Tribbiani!’)
First, there are all the food and drink metaphors…
‘She seemed to be made from champagne.’
‘She has played an operating system, using nothing but the honey of her voice.’
‘Then came the laugh: dry and dirty, as if this were a drama class and her task was to play a Martini.’
Lane spends a solid paragraph talking about Johansson’s sex appeal. There’s a way to discuss Johansson’s aesthetic and how it has influenced her career, but I’m not sure this creepy uncle approach is it:
‘As they say down at Dolce & Gabbana, she adorns pulse points, although even she had to brake in shock beside a billboard in Los Angeles, brought up short by what she called “my cleavage the size of a brontosaurus.” Then, there’s the voice; like Bacall, Veronica Lake, and Jessica Rabbit before her, Johansson appears to speak to us through a stream of invisible smoke, and her seductive nonappearance as Samantha, in “Her,” showed how much body survives in the disembodied. Marvel, of course, remains wholly confounded by sex, as befits a company that feeds, and shares, the fantasies of adolescents. It should count itself lucky to have Johansson on its books, for she is evidently, and profitably, aware of her sultriness, and of how much, down to the last inch, it contributes to the contours of her reputation’
I need someone to tell me how someone’s reputation can have contours. I’m baffled.
Oh Britney, you’ve had a tough time with creeps like this, haven’t you? I remember the hubbub that surrounded Spears posing for Rolling Stone with the Teletubby at the age of 17. It always seemed odd to me that this was apparently a crossed line for so many given how much her early image was defined by that coquettish schoolgirl sexualisation. Anyway, Daly opens the piece with this delightful bit:
‘Britney Spears extends a honeyed thigh across the length of the sofa, keeping one foot on the floor as she does so. Her blond-streaked hair is piled high, exposing two little diamond earrings on each ear lobe; her face is fully made-up, down to carefully applied lip liner. The BABY PHAT logo of Spears’ pink T-shirt is distended by her ample chest, and her silky white shorts — with dark blue piping — cling snugly to her hips. She cocks her head and smiles receptively. But hold on. It’s not like that.’
Well, I’m glad you cleared that up, dude!
This piece was bad even in the Twitter link, as some misguided social media intern gave it the headline, ‘What Slash is to guitar, Sky Ferreira is to looking hot.’ When talking about her breasts - in the first two damn paragraphs - he compares them to Madonna’s ‘defiantly atomic boobs - he two knockers that altered the course of human history.’ When describing a naked photograph of her, he says:
‘Even in the candid photo of her nude in the shower, soaking wet, she looks natural, like she’s shooting a home video, rather than being photographed by a creeper. She looks like a more cherubic Sharon Stone, icy but also sweet, like a freshly licked lollipop.’
Ferreira was not happy with this profile, as you can imagine, calling out the misogyny on Tavana’s piece on Twitter. LA Weekly eventually issued an apology, but you can’t help but think of how many editors and people that piece had to go through before it reached publication. Not one of them thought talking about their ‘knockers’ was a bit much?
(Header photograph courtesy of Getty Images)