The Economy of Words: On Celebrity Profiles

Here’s the thing about celebrity profiles: they’re deathly boring. At least in Hollywood, writers actually get to spend time — even several days — with their subjects (though still sanctioned by the celeb’s PR team). They get to ride with them in their cars, maybe get into an accident (Taylor Swift, Rolling Stone2012), spend a day in the zoo (Matt Damon, GQ 2011), or a sit-down interview at their childhood home (Lady Gaga, Vanity Fair 2012). The environment provides the context, rather than just deftly navigating around the boundaries of what should and what should not be asked. More often than not, Hollywood’s A-listers make for an interesting profile because writers get to do stuff with them. There’s an establishment of trust, that they will bare their soul out, ideally unguarded, opening up a new facet of their personality that hasn’t been seen by everyone else.

Beyoncé’s profile though in Vogue’s mammoth of a September issue (832 pages this year), doesn’t have a sliver of the actual Beyoncé in it, at least besides the photographs in the accompanying spread. In place of an interview is a piece by Pulitzer Prize-winner Margo Jefferson about the whole Beyoncé phenomenon. Queen B, it turns out, hasn’t answered a direct question in more than a year (she has only spoken in writing or taped appearances).

“This is unusual for Vogue,” The Times wrote. “A review of five years’ worth of cover articles indicates that she is the only celebrity cover star not to submit to some type of interview (and on the occasion of her two previous Vogue covers, in 2009 and in 2013, she did). When models appear on the cover, as in the case of last September’s issue, they typically do not get the same profile treatment, but even the ‘Instagirls’ of September 2014 — Cara Delevingne, Karlie Kloss, et al. — answered a few questions online. Not only did Michelle Obama agree to an interview when she appeared on the cover in 2013, she even brought along her husband.”

Maybe there is something to be said of Beyoncé’s choice to decline (as of this writing, we can only speculate the reason behind it since her camp hasn’t issued anything yet). The whole Bey story has been told many times (not to mention the sphere of influence she wields through social media) and perhaps she felt there isn’t really something new to say, choosing instead to let her work do the speaking for her.

Local showbiz is a different circus altogether— everything has to be micromanaged and PR-ed to death. Everyone has to play nice and by the rules. I’ve had countless celebrities interviewed over the years and most of these were merely 30 to 40-minute conversations while they’re doing their hair or makeup. They’re just being profiled to promote a TV show or a movie and an in-depth interview should be the least of my worries (the photo will be the one shared on social media anyway and not the article). But I still have to care because first of all, my byline will go with it, and second I should at least think of the fans who will actually want to know more about their beloved actor or actress.

I’ve had the dumbest answers thrown at me and then made more palatable when they finally hit print. These are usually the PR-sanctioned answers that go along the lines of “Masaya naman po siyakatrabaho” or, if pitted against another actor “Wala naman rivalry. Friends po kami. I’m not really asking for life-changing quotes but maybe soundbites that have more substance, that make the subject look like they’re not just some pretty face on the TV screen. I might have asked the wrong questions but seriously, you pretty much zone out after the first few showbiz answers that you’ll just want to be done with it. There’s not much story on sets anyway. It’s mostly a waiting game for the scene to set up. Someone will get yelled at, tempers will flare but eventually, these events will fold and will just be whispered as gossip, attached to the personal myths of the respective celebrities.

Some interviews don’t happen at all. I’ve written about a model for a magazine’s cover story with just scraps of quotes through email and WhatsApp exchanges. Scheduling conflicts are a bitch and sometimes questions are just sent to their manager and the subject relays it with just bits and pieces that can’t even be properly called answers. Others are brief and succinct with just one-sentence replies that make you want to claw your eyes out. I’ve had an actress read out to me the rules of what I can and cannot ask her. Some even answer condescendingly, as if you’re not worth their time. These things really happen and usually you just, to quote a robot from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, “activate shrug mode.”

Interestingly, the more gripping interviews are with the ones you can call “legitimate” actors, those who actually have an insight on their craft; people who have actually lived and have tales of success and failures that they’re willing to expose. It’s not actually the interview that they care about but the meat of the story that they will share. It’s hard when you’re just a few years into your career, there’s really not much happening (unless you’re someone like Jasmine Curtis Smith who’s had a number of acclaimed films since her debut). But when you’re a character actor who’s played the different permutations of psychotic murders, snarky in-laws, supportive parents, or, like Joel Torre, Jose Rizal’s different on-screen versions, your profile can be a wealth of stories that are engaging and stimulating.

Originally published in The Philippine Star (August 29, 2015)

Author: donjaucian

25 year-old film nut.

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