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The Not-So-Secret History of How Celebrity Profiles Got So Boring

A New Yorker profile of Succession star Jeremy Strong went viral because it was honest, nuanced and highly revealing—a rarity these days.

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Stacy Lee Kong

Dec 10 2021

12 mins read

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Image: Shutterstock

I haven’t even started watching Succession, so I already know I’m missing part of the brilliance of Michael Shulman’s viral profile of actor Jeremy Strong, who plays the incredibly moody, rapping Kendall Roy. But honestly? While I was reading, I didn’t feel like I was missing out. Even before I clicked on the story, I’d seen so much social media chatter, including Shulman’s characterization of his subject as “one of the most intense people” he’d ever met in his life and more than a few very compelling excerpts. And it didn’t disappoint. There’s a fourth-paragraph reveal that Strong had “arranged to miss part of his wedding-week festivities” in Denmark for the filming of Detroit, a period crime drama directed by Kathryn Bigelow, which I took as an early sign that he probably was annoyingly dedicated to his craft.

LITTLE DID I KNOW.

Turns out, Strong is the epitome of unnecessarily method: On the set of The Trial of the Chicago 7, in which he played activist Jerry Rubin, this guy insisted that Aaron Sorkin tear gas him in the face during a protest scene. (Sorkin declined, seeing as there were 270 people on set that day who likely did not want to be tear-gassed.) Of playing Roy, he says, “to me, the stakes are life and death. I take him as seriously as I take my own life.” To that end, he has consistently chased the perfect take to the point of injuring himself on set. Once, he fractured his left foot after running in Tom Ford dress shoes so he could be realistically sweaty and breathless for a scene where he’s running late. He also impacted his femur and tibia while filming a third-season scene involving his character's birthday party. Shulman includes the perfect parenthetical: “(The take was not used.).” Also, Strong’s wife thinks he’s just a normal guy at home, but he likens going between his private and professional lives to “the legend,” the fake biography spies memorize before assuming a fake identity—and he says he’s not sure which life is the act. In short, this is a highly entertaining read about an actor who's a bit of a weirdo, so it’s no wonder that many, many people on my social feeds enthusiastically shared it.   

But then, Jessica Chastain decided to enter the chat on Wednesday with an earnest tweet about how one-sided and snarky the story was. The subtext was that it was mean to present Strong’s weirdness the way Shulman had, maybe even inaccurate or at least unfair. But here’s the thing: the piece was neither one-sided or even really snarky. Shulman was clearly granted exceptional access to his subject. (I mean… he accompanied Strong on a family trip to Denmark.) Not only that, but he spoke to a shocking number of secondary sources, including Chris Evans, Matthew McConaughey, Michelle Williams and several of his Succession co-stars, all of whom Strong suggested. And Shulman didn’t editorialize; he just reported a piece that was more interested in contextualizing Strong than lionizing him.  

That’s why I actually think the most interesting part of the profile wasn’t Strong himself; it was that it highlighted how rare nuanced celebrity profiles have become—and the vastly different expectations stars, publications and readers have for this form.

A brief history of celebrity profiles—and how they got so boring

 Celebrity profiles have been around for as long as publications have understood that covering stars could sell issues. But maybe the most famous—and definitely one of the most lauded pieces of journalism, period—is Gay Talese’s iconic “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold.” Published in 1966 by Esquire, the piece profiled Sinatra at a time when he was obsessed with maintaining his relevance. He refused to be interviewed, so Talese instead depended on at least a hundred secondary sources, including Sinatra’s friends and family, as well as other people’s writing on the singer. The result was a nuanced profile that acknowledged his charm, larger-than-life personality and status as a cultural icon, but didn’t shy away from his anger, arrogance and entitlement. And it was surprisingly powerful; the story went the 1966 version of viral, established Talese as a giant of journalism and is still taught at J-schools today.

It’s not clear if Sinatra liked the piece (his daughter, Tina, seemed to think he did), but I guarantee that studios, managers and other powerful people in celebrities’ inner circles did, or at least saw its value... which is why, for decades after it was published, these same teams actively pursued this type of coverage. Jon Caramanica explains why in a 2018 New York Times piece about a then-recent GQ profile of Paul McCartney: “the story worked in two ways: For the reader and fan, it was appealingly revealing; for Mr. McCartney, who’s been famous so long he is more sculpture than human, it was a welcome softening.” In other words, there was a dual benefit—fans received fodder for their parasocial relationships and McCartney was humanized.  Triple, actually, because the publication benefitted, too, both in sales and reputation. This is the dynamic behind just about every celebrity profile written over the past six decades. Fans are so reliable at shopping their interests that publications generally feel it's worth the sometimes extra-onerous behind-the-scenes negotiations, while on the celeb side, the chance that a profile wouldn’t be flattering was worth the risk because the brand-building effects could be so significant.

Ironically, Caramanica wrote that in 2018, when celebrity profiles had mostly stopped revealing anything. As a 2018 Pacific Standard piece points out, “nowadays, there's an inescapable feeling of narrative control that comes with the profiles of our biggest stars. Open up any issue of GQ and you're sure to find a story about how Gal Gadot is even more badass and beautiful than you thought—but she's still just like us—or consider a recent Esquire profile of Tom Hardy that centers entirely around how we, as a public, will never know the real Tom, just the public one. It is a product of a more reputation-driven age that even stories that are supposed to seem revealing are often nothing more than an exercise in performance—this actor does social media differently, this musician doesn't care about the hazards of smoking, [here's what] this athlete had for dinner.”

To be fair, this is not so surprising; there have been a lot of unflattering celebrity profiles written over the years. A 1957 New Yorker profile of Marlon Brando by Truman Capote allowed the actor all the rope he could possibly need to hang himself, simply by including all the cutting comments he made on the record about directors, other actors and even regular people. (There was also a lot of racism.) Almost 60 years later, Anna Peele’s 2015 Esquire profile of Miles Teller takes essentially the same tack, though Peele does also explicitly call him a dick in the story. I’d even argue that most, if not all, early 2000s profiles of young female celebrities by breast-obsessed male journalists also fall under this umbrella, whatever said journalists’ intentions. Around the same time, though, social media appeared and suddenly the power dynamic that had mostly been weighted toward publications began to shift. Celebrities’ willingness to be profiled by a stranger, to be analyzed, contextualized and potentially be found wanting, sharply decreased as it became easier to reach their fans directly. And media, which had separately entered a new state of terrifying and ongoing contraction, really had no choice but to play by these new rules.

What do celebrities think these profiles are for?

Which is how you get Beyoncé interviewing herself, as she did in the August 2021 issue of Harper’s Bazaar. The story, which marked the singer’s 40th birthday, includes a smart introduction by Kaitlyn Greenidge, the magazine’s features director, but the interview itself is unbylined, which leads me to believe that, if it wasn’t Bey penning both question and answer, it was her publicist, Yvette Noel-Schure. (The softball questions were another hint.) And listen, I found a lot of what she said inspiring and motivating. But I also felt like, reading between the lines, I could see strings being pulled. References to her “Virgo ass” and lines like “many aspects of that younger, less evolved Beyoncé could never f* [sic] with the woman I am today. Haaa!” felt like a careful parceling out of personal details and brand-approved phrases that were intended to communicate authenticity better than they actually did.

This is only the latest in a long list of times Beyoncé has implemented a firm boundary between herself and media. She mostly stopped talking to mainstream outlets in 2013, famously posing for a Vogue cover shoot in 2015, but declining to sit for an interview. She at least provided a series of quotes for a 2018 Vogue cover story, though as in the Harper’s Bazaar story from this year, they’re more platitudes than anything else. (This is the story where she said, “I have a little mommy pouch, and I’m in no rush to get rid of it. I think it’s real. Whenever I’m ready to get a six-pack, I will go into beast zone and work my ass off until I have it. But right now, my little FUPA and I feel like we are meant to be.” Homecoming, the doc about her historic headlining appearance at Coachella in 2018, revealed that, despite what she told Vogue, she had actually already done the whole beast mode thing when she was prepping for the show. Because… brand building, not reportage.)

Bey is probably the pioneer of these type of boundaries, but she’s certainly not the only celebrity to exert control like this. Adele, Taylor Swift, Frank Ocean, Drake, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen and Kate Moss rarely talk to the press, or set firm parameters on how they’ll do so. And it’s not just mega-stars; earlier this year, musician St. Vincent reportedly had a Q&A with U.K. music journalist Emma Madden killed because she found it “aggressive” and was “terrified of this interview coming out.” The unnamed publication that assigned Madden the story bowed to St. Vincent’s demands, and when Madden decided to publish it on her own website, it seems legal threats were made, based on her comments to Jezebel, where she said, “the fact it doesn’t exist on the internet tonight goes to show that the law and corporations reinforce one another and the law unfailingly permits corporations to win.”

Nuance is not actually a bad thing

I feel a bit at odds here, because on one hand, I definitely think boundaries are fair and important. What’s more, women—especially racialized women, and extra especially Black women—who historically have not been treated well by the press, should actually be applauded for setting those boundaries. But it’s clear that, from celebrities’ perspectives, profiles are marketing vehicles and if one doesn’t fit their brand strategy, it shouldn’t exist.

Often their fan bases feel the same way. Telegraph music editor Eleanor Halls wrote about the chilling effect stans have had on her own work after an ill-advised comparison to Nicki Minaj in a profile of Cardi B. In reaction, Minaj’s fandom flooded her DMs, reported her to her editor for sexism, threatened to doxx her—the usual out-of-control stan behaviour. “After that, fear of celebrity fandoms began to colour what I wrote. I would decline to write certain pieces for fear of prodding the beast, while my album reviews became increasingly glowing,” she wrote in her newsletter. “Meanwhile, celebrity interviews started to become evermore rigid. While most publicists I know are brilliant, I noticed many were giving me less and less room to move. They would define set lines of questioning… They listened-in on interviews so as to veto questions when needed, and some would phone me, furiously, if their talent felt in any way ‘misrepresented’ by the resulting profile.”

But I totally disagree with both the celebs and their stans here. Whether it’s about political scandals, health news or a very famous person, the point of journalism is to inform the reader and offer them context about the world that we live in. But when publications shirk their responsibility to their readers in favour of pleasing a celebrity and their fan base, the end result is inauthentic and kind of hollow. I mean… what’s the point of an article that functions as an extension of a star’s PR strategy, especially when we already have both their creative output and often their social media pages? Journalism, even entertainment journalism, has an obligation to its readers to go a bit deeper. And in that same vein, it’s not mean to go deeper, or to tell the truth about a public figure, even if it’s complicated or inconvenient.

To go back to Jessica Chastain and Jeremy Strong, everyone loses when you characterize a truthful story that tries to convey the totality of a person as cruel. That’s actually great journalism.


And Did You Hear About…

This Slate roundtable on the pros and cons of being a Wife Guy. (Inspired by In the Heights and Hamilton star Anthony Ramos’ recent and unceremonious fall from grace, but also relevant to conversations about John Mulaney and Chris Pratt.)

TikToker Kyle Prue, who is now on part eight of a series about things to say to piss men off. (Please let me assure you that every single suggestion is gold.)

This *brilliant* Bitch magazine piece on the new slate of diverse holiday movies, and what it even means to diversify a genre that is aggressively apolitical. (Alternatively, if you’d prefer a snarky service piece that helps you figure out which of the new Netflix movies you should watch, Vulture has you covered.)

Another Slate piece, this one by the actual TikTok Couch Guy, on internet sleuthing culture. Definitely worth the read.

Olivia Rodrigo’s Tiny Desk concert… which took place at a DMV 👌🏽

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Jeremy Strong
Succession
celebrity profiles