welcome to the era of celebrities interviewing celebrities
It’s not a good era, not gonna lie.
Image via Instagram.
There was a time -- and the time was not that long ago -- when the idea of a celebrity being interviewed, not by a journalist, but by another celebrity was new and exciting. What, a celebrity, asking the questions, treating the celebrity being interviewed like they’re a normal person? How novel! This was how we thought, back in the days where celebrity on celebrity interviews were the exception and not the rule. Now though, they’re everywhere. In the past few months alone, we’ve seen Kylie Jenner interviewed by sister Kendall for Vogue Australia, a phone conversation between Gwyneth Paltrow and Drew Barrymore (with Cameron Diaz) for In Style and, perhaps the pinnacle of the format, Emma Stone interviewed by Jennifer Lawrence for ELLE.
The latter provided such sparkling and probing commentary as: “Emily, you’re the best, care to comment?” and “You’re so pretty. How’d you get like that?” They’re exactly the kind of searching questions that result in clipped, useless answers like (and I’m quoting verbatim here): “Uh, no comment” “okay” and “that’s a good question!” In short, it’s a nice, cute conversation between two friends that has little if nothing in terms of substance or an actual interview. These kind of pithy, toothless interviews are maddening and frustrating for readers, especially when they appear in glossy print magazines like ELLE and Vogue that actually require people to pay money to read them. They’re also the epitome of our new celebrity culture, which places importance on control and optics above all else.
We should have seen it coming, the slide away from actual readable celebrity interviews to the uber sanitised, celeb on celeb fare we see in magazines today. After all, it’s not far off the personalised poems and essays that many celebrities choose to contribute themselves, rather than partake in a more traditional question and answer format -- Taylor Swift’s poem for British Vogue, for example. But at least in contributing personal pieces, like Frank Ocean’s powerful visual essay for i-D, rather than doing interviews, a celebrity is still giving an insight into their thought processes and personality. Whenever they’re interviewed by their friends who neglect to ask them any real questions, even this is lost.
Vanity Fair points out that the appeal of being interviewed by another famous person, often a close friend, is irresistible to our modern day celebrities, who are already used to portioning out access to their private lives on a day to day basis through social media. “At the very least it’s a good sell to celebrities who want more control of their image”, Kenzie Bryant writes . “Especially those who, like Paltrow, have built a very successful business on that image. It allows the ad hoc, unvarnished appearance of Instagram, but in magazine form.” Rather than being a space where a “normal person” can quiz a reluctant celebrity on their private life, and ask them potentially tough questions on their career choices, this new wave of famous-on-famous interviewing is nothing more than an extension of a celebrity’s own, highly curated social media persona.
“If the less fun part of an actor’s job is the part where they have to sell a piece of work or product, at least they can do it with someone they have a relationship with, who won’t push them on harder questions or ask them things they’re sensitive about”, Kenzie goes on. “Usually it’s the interviewer’s job to offer a window into a person’s life, capture them at an inflection point, or help a reader know what it’s like to be with them. The celeb-on-celeb format can succeed in some of these approaches, without the potentially critical lens an outsider might bring. And with much, much more flattery, the kind that only your friends can get away with.”
It’s true that once upon a time the celebrity on celebrity interview format was groundbreaking and exciting. Interview Magazine, founded in 1969 by Andy Warhol, was literally created on this premise, and it did provide many iconic, intimate interviews that provided often unedited, raw look into celebrity lives that was at the time unheard of. Often the best interviews though, were those conducted by ‘celebrities’ with a literary or journalistic background -- Joan Didion by Martin Torgoff, for instance, or George Saunders by Zadie Smith. And as the interview format of the magazine became less groundbreaking, so too did the content, until Interview sadly folded in May 2018. The magazine is currently planning a September relaunch, but its future is still uncertain, and it remains to be seen if, with a relaunch, the once groundbreaking and by now tried-and-tested formula of the celeb on celeb interview will be resurrected.
This is the problem, fundamentally, with the celeb-on-celeb interview -- while the very concept is intended to invite intimacy, it actually puts more space between the celebrity and the reader. It makes them seem, if anything, more inaccessible. It begs the question: how can you identify with Kylie Jenner as a person if she doesn’t even trust anyone other than her equally famous, equally curated sister Kendall to ask her questions about her life?
In a traditional interview, of course, there’s always a risk of embarrassment for a famous person. There’s always the risk that they’ll fuck up the conversation so much that they’ll throw the project they’re promoting into jeopardy, risking massive losses on whatever album, film or TV show they’re plugging at the time. It might seem like paranoia, but the risk is real; you only need to look at the car wreck New York Times interview with the cast of Arrested Development that led to Jason Bateman issuing a grovelling apology for mansplaining to know that. The celebrity interviews celebrity format, conversely, offers no room for awkwardness, the upshot being that the person being interviewed is comfortable enough to offer personal information, but the person interviewing them is far too polite, or friendly to ask them anything uncomfortable. The end result is, invariably, boring.
And yes, social media is partly to blame for our new era of uber curated celebrity spin, but it’s also down to a change in how celebrities market their new material to us. In times gone by, a celebrity would announce an album or a film and then spend months on a gruelling PR tour promoting their wares, and often the story would become not the music they’re promoting but instead their awkward replies to questions they don’t like. Nowadays, where surprise album drops are the norm, the old format is out the window. While it’s true that traditional interviews resulted in some awkward moments for stressed, exhausted celebrities (remember that awful Cara Delevingne segment on morning telly?), it also results in gems if handled well. When music critic Alexandra Pollard met St Vincent on her album tour and found her uncooperative, she wrote a nuanced piece on the experience, and on St Vincent’s personal apology to her for her behaviour in the interview. Neither of them came across badly, and it’s an example of when a bad day can turn into a great interview.
Other times, bad celebrity behaviour makes great a great interview purely because it’s classic. When Gemma Collins for instance, went on a spree of bad behaviour while promoting her book, it resulted in a viral interview where she repeatedly demanded the interviewer read it (despite the fact that it hadn’t yet been released), and asking: “have you been briefed on the book, hun?” It’s rare that an interview will be such a car crash, but even when it does -- at least it’s bloody entertaining. The same can’t be said of two rich, famous pals chumming up to sell you an insight into their lives that’s faker and more cynical than a Kourtney-Kim Kardashian Twitter beef.
They, whoever they are, say all publicity is good publicity, but they’ve probably never had to suffer through reading a transcript of a Barrymore, Diaz, Paltrow phone conversation (highlights: “I’m on a raw juice cleanse right now”, “you guys are so cute!”). If they did then they might not say it anymore.