This month’s edition of Vanity Fair features SNL star Kate McKinnon on the cover, with a lengthy profile accompanied by some beautiful Annie Leibowitz photos. I recommend you read the piece, although if you do so hoping for some words of wisdom from McKinnon or an insight into the life and mind of one of our generation’s great comic actresses, you’ll be sorely regretful. The piece is one of the most bizarre profiles I’ve ever read, and this is a field of journalism known for its oddities. As noted by The Cut, she says exactly six things in the piece. No joke, six quotes. It takes nine paragraphs of Pynchonian style prose from the profiler to even get to the first one, and nothing is revealed that you wouldn’t find in every interview with McKinnon. It’s what’s surrounding those quotes that fascinates: The rest of the piece is, to put it in professional terms, utterly bonkers. The writer spins yarns unconnected to the topic at hand, opens the piece with what reads like a casual threat, then spends a long paragraph dissecting the concept of the celebrity profile in conjunction with the evolution of the gossip industry. It’s akin to panicking during a French exam and just saying every word you know in the language in the futile hope that they’ll mean something if strung together in such a manner.
There are some barmy Vanity Fair profiles out there - remember the Margot Robbie one where the writer seems convinced the actress fancies him? - and the mere notion of a celebrity profile is a constant contradiction of rules and regulations. It’s a job I certainly couldn’t do, and one that ranks as some of the least thankful work in pop culture journalism: Do it well and people dismiss it as fluff; screw it up and you’re everything wrong with the profession.
Still, there’s something about the McKinnon profile that ends up being rather revealing about the entire process of the celebrity profile. Sometimes you need to see the mistakes in order to know what the good work looks like.
There’s a reason that 4000 word profile of Kate McKinnon has so little Kate McKinnon in it: She probably gave so little of herself to the interviewer. The days of Frank Sinatra Has a Cold are mostly over. Now, interviews and publicity tours are highly regulated by management and publicists, and social media often cuts out the middle man altogether. Why feel cornered into a possibly invasive interview when you can just tweet to your fans? From other interviews I’ve seen and read, McKinnon seems very private and happy to stay quiet for as long as possible. Check out her presence on a roundtable of comedic actresses with The Hollywood Reporter. She’s easily the quietest person there, doesn’t seem all that eager to join in, and only pipes up when directly asked a question by the moderator. You could easily forget she’s there amidst the fervent enthusiasm of Lena Dunham and Gina Rodriguez. Now imagine McKinnon alone with an interviewer.
Time is also the big curse of the interviewer. The chances are that this profiler had less than an hour with McKinnon. Hell, she may have only had 30 minutes of intermittent chat over a cheap lunch. In the piece, the writer notes when McKinnon will simply shake her head in response to a question or outright refuse to answer it, which is completely within her rights. Being interviewed is a weird process and one that some people never get used to. It’s also something she has to deal with a lot, more so now that she has two Emmys and is the nation’s most prominent Hillary Clinton impersonator. She probably gets asked these questions all the time - What’s Hillary like? How do you get into character? Which characters do you like playing the most? Who’s your idol? Tell us about your girlfriend, and so on. Sometimes you can spin something really good out of this but even the most talented writer will have problems filling out the word count.
What the McKinnon piece reminded me of the most was a very strange and creepy profile of Penelope Cruz in Esquire magazine, written to accompany her crowning as the sexiest woman alive. Again, Cruz is a private person and again, the journalist probably had half an hour with her (and the publicist) to try an extract some quotes for what is essentially the puffiest of puff pieces. The piece exists to justify the pretty pictures, there’s no second guessing that. Since Cruz remained so private - as is her right, because once again, celebrities don’t owe journalists bites of their life - the profiler went all out with an extended metaphor on matadors. It’s both intensely creepy - is Cruz a bull to be speared in his eyes? Is that what you associate talking to a beautiful woman with? - and unintentionally hilarious. You can practically hear the poor sod counting down the words in his head until he hits the point where his editor will say it’s enough. I’d hazard a guess that Cruz never read the piece. I’d say most of the people buying the magazine only glimpsed the paragraphs before focusing on the photos, as was intended.
It’s a sad, dehumanising process, particularly for women being written about by men. Think of the countless profiles focusing on women’s sex appeal and how every action is contextualized in terms of how much the writer wants to fuck her. Esquire are infamous for this, as evidenced by their earlier Sexiest Woman Alive piece on Jessica Biel, which reads like the diary of a serial killer.
Those pieces are intended to be complimentary too, which makes it even more unnerving. Most publications will not rock the boat with major celebrities who they would like to continue getting access to. These stars have multi-million dollar fashion contracts with companies who pay through the nose for on-page advertising, and that’s the kind of corporate synergy you just don’t mess with.
Ultimately, this just makes most modern-day celebrity profiles intensely dull. They’re not intended to be the tell-all diamond mines they once were, nor are they designed to create the same kind of buzz. Social media does that now. The Kate McKinnon piece is at least interesting because the writer has decided to let it all hang out and just go wild with the padding in a manic delirium that’s fascinating if only because it breaks the unspoken contract of celebrity journalism: Play nice and nobody gets hurt. The profiler never didn’t play nice, I’m sure she’s an affable presence, but you can only work with what you have and she had so little to share. Occasionally, during interviews like this, the writer can mine a nugget of something, and that’s all that will be needed from the process since that quote can be used for the next few days in every gossip site going (see the recent Bret Easton Ellis profile in the New York Times of Joaquin Phoenix, which is generally pretty good if not especially scandalous, but did reveal that he’s living with Rooney Mara, a story that appeared on every celeb site the following week).
Sometimes the stars align and a wonderful writer gets to interview someone who’s totally game for the process. Taffy Brodesser-Akner and Caity Weaver helped make the profile great again at GQ. The former’s piece on Tom Hiddleston, conducted after the Taylor Swift break-up, is a glorious glimpse into the mind of a perpetual people-pleaser who can’t understand why his usual tricks have stopped working, aided by an empathetic journalist who still knows the right amount of leeway to give him on any subject. Weaver’s piece on The Rock is another dynamic portrait of a man with charisma to spare and the savviest understanding of his own public image. Who can forget Edith Zimmerman’s legendary GQ piece on Chris Evans, which, if you didn’t know it had actually happened, you’d swear was a pitch for the ultimate rom-com. The New Yorker’s profile on Leslie Jones is one for the ages. Some celebrities just want to talk.
For the September Issue of 2015, Vogue featured Beyoncé on the cover. The photographs were beautiful, as expected, and the issue generated the required buzz. What it lacked was an actual interview with Beyoncé. Instead, scholar and writer of Negroland Margo Jefferson wrote a short essay on the inimitable star power of arguably the most powerful musician in America at the top of her game. It’s a great piece, but it says a lot about the economy of celebrity journalism now that Vogue, the ultimate bastion of this field, were willing to adhere to Beyoncé’s demands and allow her to be on the cover without the accompanying interview. Most stars, even the major ones, probably couldn’t pull that kind of power play, but it may be the future of the celebrity profile. Take the photos then let someone else do the writing, no access required. The process becomes less ‘exclusive’ as a result but it may be more worthwhile to read and write. At least the padding would make sense.