How Do Writers Navigate Celebrity Interviews?

Jenny Valentish has interviewed Jack White, Joan Jett, Shirley Manson and many more big names in the music industry. Ahead of our Longform Society discussion of celebrity journalism, she shares the trials, traps and terrors of profiling VIPs.

Illustration

Illustration: Jon Tjhia

I love doing interviews because they’re much easier to navigate than normal conversations. It’s like learning to cha-cha-cha; after a while, you know that if somebody comes at you with a Cuban break, you simply sidestep or spot-turn. You’ll rarely get thrown a Turkish towel.

It also pays to know your dance partner, even if that means watching how they talk in interviews on YouTube before you meet them. Then you’ll know not to bother sticking your hand up for, say, the Motown diva who was so graciously unhelpful in her answers to me (only allowing that everybody she'd collaborated with was 'divine') that I had to assume she was enjoying the sport of it. Or the Eighties rock star, famous for once dying before paramedics resuscitated him, who treated our phone interview with all the flair of a bank transaction. I pictured him, sitting with his feet up on a boardroom table, browsing the FTSE Index.

A seasoned subject might similarly chew up time by turning the tables and interviewing you. The first time that happens, your giddiness verges on delirium.

The bigger the star (or, conversely, the more naive the star), the more likely you’re going to get a publicist pretending to be on their phone at the next table during your chit-chat, which really dampens your squib. A close relative to this is the mysterious, nameless person listening in on the line, such as the minder who cut in when I was interviewing Brian Wilson and told me that the Beach Boy and I were talking about completely different topics. Once, a band I was interviewing even announced they were making their own recording of our conversation, which felt like a veiled threat.

Since Australia is the poor cousin of Western media, writers here are often allocated nothing more than a 15-minute phone interview. From this, you're expected to shape a devastatingly revealing profile. Valuable minutes can tick by as your wily interviewee takes your first question and goes off on a dull, extended tangent; something any good editor would immediately mark up as filler. A seasoned subject might similarly chew up time by turning the tables and interviewing you. The first time that happens, your giddiness verges on delirium. Then you realise you have nothing to file but a description of your own hometown and an account of how you came to be a journalist.

Flattery is a dangerous beast. I should admit to the occasion that a pop star (whose debut album alone sold more than 10 million units) contacted me after reading an article I wrote and showered me with praise. Of course, I wound up pitching a new interview with him to another publication, and then another to another, as he dangled before me the possibility of co-writing his memoir. Eventually I realised that I had simply become his new publicist. Free.

The thorn in every journalist’s paw is the interviewee who claims a wrongdoing, after regretting something that they’ve said. A local musician complained to my editor at a prominent American publication that she'd never uttered the rip-roaring anecdote I’d used, so I had to email over a snippet of the audio to rest my case. A month later, I was obliged to Dropbox the whole damn thing over when she complained that she’d never said her mother used to work down the mines, as if I was in the habit of inventing exciting professions for the parents of celebrities. I bore that irritation quietly, but when Lana Del Rey emphatically stated that the Guardian’s Tim Jonze had misquoted her, Jonze uploaded the audio to Soundcloud for all to hear. The original article was called I Wish I Was Dead Already. Jonze’s follow-up feature had a headline designed to push buttons: Lana Del Rey Has a Problem with Our Interview … But Why?

Illustration

Illustration: Jon Tjhia

A local musician complained to my editor ... that she'd never uttered the rip-roaring anecdote I’d used, so I had to email over a snippet of the audio to rest my case.

Sometimes, when an interview really goes tits up, the only option is to warn readers of the car crash ahead with a flashing-light headline. In the 50 years since Gay Talese wrote the candid Frank Sinatra has a Cold for Esquire, the Guardian’s Tim Jonze detailed Jake Gyllenhaal’s bad mood under the banner I Would Love Not to Talk About My Personal Life and Fairfax’s Decca Aitkenhead ran with her run-in with the celebrity chef du jour (War of Words With Gordon Ramsay). Perhaps we can blame the likes of tabloid journalist Piers Morgan for celebrities treating interviews like death matches. After he interviewed Steve Coogan for GQ in 2006, and opened proceedings with a moralising account of Coogan in a strip club, the pair have taken endless public pops at each other.

Even the most esteemed publications don’t always get it right. Vanity Fair’s profile of Caitlyn Jenner (rebranded by the masthead as a ‘reveal’), was so widely shared that President Obama even tweeted his thoughts, but it drew ire from sections of the trans community it could have served. Journalist Buzz Bissinger broke the fourth wall by announcing, mid-‘reveal’, that he could relate to Jenner because he 'has been a cross-dresser with a big-time fetish for women’s leather'. Coupled with all the detail about surgical procedures and some confusion around pronouns, this reveal just reinforced ill-thought responses to trans people.  

Then there was Vanity Fair’s fetishisation of cover star Margot Robbie, which read so much like a McSweeney’s spoof that writer Rich Cohen later claimed it was supposed to be funny. Cohen’s account of Robbie getting up to leave after being grilled about sex scenes is a teenage tableau that even John Hughes would have rejected as too cringe-inducing: 'We sat for a moment in silence. She was thinking of something; I was thinking of something else. Then she stood, said good-bye, and went to see a friend across the room. Jerry was right. She looked just like Audrey Hepburn going away.'

Not so much a dance as a lonesome twerk.


Top 3 wily strategies for getting interviewees to elaborate

  1. Ask the same question multiple times in different ways until it’s answered to your satisfaction.
  2. Adopt the Louis Theroux/Columbo approach of appearing to misunderstand.
  3. Use ‘reflection’ – a motivational interviewing technique used by counsellors. Here, you paraphrase what the interviewee has just said, sometimes in an exaggerated fashion, to move them to continue the thought or correct it.
Portrait of Jenny Valentish

Jenny Valentish is a regular contributor to the Sydney Morning Herald and the Saturday Paper, and former editor of Time Out Melbourne and Triple J’s Jmag.

She grew up in Slough, a satellite town of London, and moved to Australia in 2006. She quit drinking in 2009, which sparked a desire to explore the drives behind addiction. She has a graduate certificate in Alcohol and Other Drugs from Turning Point/Monash University.

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