The celebrity profile is dead.
There is no more point, it seems, in commissioning one or researching and writing one or participating in one — not for the journalist and certainly not for the celebrity, who now can control his or her narrative to an unprecedented and thuddingly boring degree.
If this seems a minor complaint, consider that whom we make famous — and whom we consign to notoriety or irrelevance — tells us a lot about who and where we are as a culture.
The most significant new social movements of the last two years, #MeToo and Time’s Up, were born of Harvey Weinstein’s downfall. And with that has come a continuous airing of systemic sexism, assault and career-ending throughout every industry you can think of.
So celebrity matters, as does critical examination of it.
Yet our most august publications — self-appointed left-leaning critics of all that is wrong with America — now curiously genuflect at its altar.
The most recent example is lengthy profile of Madonna, published earlier this month to much fanfare by The New York Times. “Madonna at Sixty,” reads the headline.
Implied was an examination of an unprecedented figure in American culture, the lone female pop star of her generation to remain as famous now as she was 30 years ago, an aging provocateur who has, for at least a decade, been casting about for something to say, whose life and love affairs and custody battles and controversial adoptions have played out as performance art, who has been publicly criticized for clinging, a bit too hard, to youth and overt sex appeal — the latter a charge Madonna throws back as sexism and ageism, perhaps her last great fight.
What we get, instead, is an anodyne read.
The most provocative observation is that Madonna is “short” and hangs her art low on the walls so she can meet it at eye level.
This is not fully the writer’s fault; Vanessa Grigoriadis is a skilled and sharp interviewer. Yet even she admits that Madonna can be intimidating. And so halfway through, possibly because there was nowhere else to go, the profile folds in on itself and becomes the writer’s meditation on what Madonna meant, and means, to her.
“I first heard Madonna when I was 11,” Grigoriadis writes. “My friends and I were virgins singing along to ‘Like a Virgin’ without understanding what the word meant.”
Later, she subtly acknowledges seeking Madonna’s approbation as they talk about child-rearing.
“This was a moment of bonding,” Grigoriadis writes. “We were both older mothers devoted to our very young children, and managing to do it all despite the challenge of constant messiness and too little time (and with the benefit of hired help).”
And for all that, Madonna did not like the piece, was not pleased at all. “Women have a really hard time being champions of other women, even if they are posing as intellectual feminists,” she wrote on Instagram.
In focusing on her age, Madonna wrote, the piece was just another example of reductive misogyny — even though, she said, Grigoriadis had “months” of access.
Madonna closed with a punch. “It makes me feel raped,” she wrote.
Now, what Grigoriadis actually did have access to, or what topics she was told were off-limits, or whether Madonna was, over all that time, still able to put a veteran celebrity profiler on edge remains unclear — but these are all-too-common tactics deployed by celebrities and their teams.
Seducing and bullying, attempts to control the narrative — all are as old as Hollywood.
Star-making was, and to some extent remains, an institutionalized effort, one with a lot of money and power at stake, myth-making that journalists traditionally sought to puncture.
For all that social media has done to democratize fame, there remains a distinct difference between Kim Kardashian and Chris Hemsworth. What the latter has is simply harder to get, harder to retain, and therefore more valuable than the other.
It’s worth looking at how and why that is, in the macro and the micro.
Yet a weird, potent strain of fandom now suffuses far too many profiles and essays, palpable desperation — “Please, famous person, like me!” — from writers who should know better, ones with their own degrees of renown and respect.
It’s painful to read otherwise smart people publish the equivalent of an emoji face with hearts for eyes.
New York magazine and The New York Times, which otherwise have no problem dragging to filth anyone slightly to the right, are the most common offenders.
A few recent examples include actor Jonah Hill, who once gave a memorably obnoxious interview to Rolling Stone that left no doubt that he is, in fact, an irredeemable jerk.
Yet he was venerated this past September by New York.
In promoting his semiautobiographical directorial debut, “Mid90s” — which soon flopped — the magazine put Hill on its cover in full director drag, shot in somber black and white, looking very serious indeed as he gazed off behind black, chunky eyewear.
The writer, Adam Sternbergh, did not begin subtly.
“We can start with a phrase that would have seemed hilariously unlikely ten years ago but now seems poignant and possibly important: ‘Written and directed by Jonah Hill.’”
Poignant and important? Really?
Or this, from the magazine’s Vulture section, a recent rumination on Robert Downey Jr.’s career resurgence tracking with his character Tony Stark’s moral growth.
“We watched an arrogant a–hole melt and reshape himself as a kinder and more giving man and knew we were seeing something more than fictional text,” wrote Abraham Riesman. “We were seeing the sacred human potential for change.”
If only Riesman had someone demanding the sacred human potential for a strong edit.
The New York Times’ Style Magazine set the template years ago, sending the smug indie writer-director Miranda July to interview Rihanna.
July came back with this: “I wanted to [tell her], ‘You have a special body. Nothing you can Google applies to you’ . . . Looking at her, I was reminded that thousands of people search ‘Rihanna’s eyes’ every year. And there they were: a pair of dizzying hazel-green starbursts. I took another gulp of wine. ‘What turns you on?’ ”
Last year, the Times sent writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner to profile Gwyneth Paltrow — more specifically, Paltrow’s company, Goop, which sells and promotes dubious products and claims (e.g., yoni eggs for vaginal health) and was at the time valued at $250 million.
Did we get a highly critical look at someone with no college degree, no prior business experience, no medical knowledge who dictates products and practices to untold fans?
Glancingly. What we got, instead, was the writer comparing herself to Paltrow and the resulting desperation to be just like her — even as Paltrow staged such a scene of domestic blended-family bliss that a less starstruck reporter would have taken it apart, quickly and surgically.
Nope. Instead: Paltrow is “luminous,” her feet delicate with “a perfect substantial arch, just as the Romans intended,” a rebuke, the writer tells us, to her own “big, disgusting” size 11 clodhoppers. Paltrow’s posture is “a marvel.” She can smoke the occasional cigarette and not smell, as the writer does, “like the city,” revolting her poor son.
If this is a misreading — if Brodesser-Akner meant this ironically, or as comedy with Paltrow as the punchline — it doesn’t come through. Her profile reads, instead, as blind worship of a wellness-profiteering celebrity who drinks and smokes and has access to the best dermatologists in the world.
Who, in other words, may not be buying what she’s selling.
It wasn’t always like this. Nearly 70 years ago, the venerable Lillian Ross, writing in The New Yorker, published a vivid profile of Ernest Hemingway as he approached 50. Think of the context: Ross was that rare thing, a high-profile female writer for the nation’s premier literary magazine, a full-on post-war career woman sent to spend days with a brutish, bullying, sexist, larger-than-life icon.
Yet she refused to be cowed. She did not seek his approval. She did not care if he liked her, or, as important, if the reader thought he liked her. She documented everything without ever offering her opinion, and the result was a harrowing, unput-downable look at a lion in winter, a once-great ruined by booze, self-regard and, yes, his own fame.
‘It’s painful to read otherwise smart people publish the equivalent of an emoji face with hearts for eyes.’
Sixteen years later, Gay Talese would set the standard in Esquire magazine with his masterful profile “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” which is still taught in journalism schools today. This is no mere celebrity profile; it is a snapshot of postwar American masculinity, itself undergoing profound change.
“Sinatra with a cold is Picasso without paint, Ferrari without fuel — only worse,” Talese wrote, because Sinatra at that moment “seemed now to be also the embodiment of the fully emancipated male, perhaps the only one in America, the man who can do anything he wants, anything, can do it because he has money, the energy, and no apparent guilt.
In an age when the very young seem to be taking over, protesting and picketing and demanding change, Frank Sinatra survives as a national phenomenon, one of the few prewar products to withstand the test of time.”
Contrast this with Esquire more than 40 years later, profiling Angelina Jolie — whose team once tried to force journalists to sign a contract promising they would not criticize her in any way — and comparing her narrative to that of Sept. 11.
That contract, by the way, circulated as Jolie was promoting “A Mighty Heart” — a film in which she wore semi-blackface to play the widow of Daniel Pearl, a journalist murdered by terrorists in Pakistan.
Not one editor considered any of this a sacrilege?
“This is a 9/11 story,” Tom Junod wrote, “because it’s a celebrity profile — because celebrities and their perceived power are a big part of the strange story of how America responded to the attacks upon it.”
He went on to assert that “in post-9/11 America, Angelina Jolie is the best woman in the world because she is the most famous woman in the world — because she is not like you or me.”
The idea that fame itself is the sole metric for all that is good and worthy is ridiculous at best, toxic at worst.
It’s no good for us collectively or individually.
It’s a childish, risible concept that keeps us in a state of perpetual, unthinking supplication, one that allows former teen stars to become anti-vaxxers with a legislative platform (Jessica Biel), or to be shameless, vocal 9/11 conspiracy theorists (Charlie Sheen, Marion Cotillard), or to proudly insist that all of mathematics is wrong and only theirs, in which one times one equals two, is correct (Terrence Howard).
It’s past time for a corrective. How wonderful it would be for these otherwise smart and critical journalists to consider the flipside: Perhaps it’s better, for me and for you, that indeed we are nothing like Angelina Jolie — or, for that matter, that we are not famous at all.
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