The Writearound

Vanessa Grigoriadis

New York, September 8, 2011

JW: There’s a short piece you wrote for New York a few years ago that was essentially a digest of Jancee Dunn’s celebrity-profiling strategies as gleaned from a book of hers: for example, pay disproportionate attention to the drummer in a band, because the singer will eventually grow jealous, act out to get you to focus on him, and give you gold. It’s a vision of celebrity profiling as somewhat illicit: You’re cracking a safe, here’s how to get it open. Do you see what you do as safecracking?

VG: I do and I don’t. I kind of think it’s an illusion that there’s a safe to be cracked, because everybody knows what’s going on here, so why are we pretending? It’s an illusion that this person is not here to tell you things. They’re clearly here to tell you things. Can’t we just cut to the chase? “What’s the news here?” I wish you could say that to someone, but you can’t.

JW: I went back and re-read your Rolling Stone piece on Britney Spears, which is probably the definitive chronicle of her meltdown, and you had this fun profile of Paris Hilton where you stayed out all night partying with her. Flash forward a few years and you’re profiling Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber. Did you prefer writing about celebrities back when they didn’t wear underwear?

VG: Yeah, I mean, of course it’s more fun to hang out with Paris Hilton than Taylor Swift. Um, although Taylor, I thought she’s really sweet. I spent an enormous amount of time with her – I spent four or five days with her – and not once did she really crack and show me anything other than the straight-A student. I was like, Wow at 19, you really kept it up! I barely know anyone else who could have kept it together through all that. I think there may have been a dynamic there that was a little weird, like a I-want-to-be-mature-for-older-sister kind of thing happening.

JW: So when you see that kind of dynamic developing, are you consciously trying to mitigate it? And more generally, in a Jancee Dunn kind of way, do you have conscious strategies you use?

VG: I don’t have strategies like she does. She’s amazing in terms of, like, going on eBay and checking out how much a locket of Justin Bieber’s hair goes for and presenting this to him as a shiny bauble for him to consider and getting him super excited, so that his narcissistic tendencies flare up – that’s a very good idea. I almost can’t bring myself to prostate myself in front of these people in that way.

I’m a big believer of getting in a car with someone. I think it’s great to see what kind of driver they are, that’s helpful, and it’s a distraction, so they’re not as focused on telling you the same answers. The best thing with any story is going to someone’s home. People are most comfortable at home, and there’s all this stuff there to ask them about.

I ask personal questions. A lot of questions about childhood. I’ll ask things like what time of day do you get up. What’s the first thing you did this morning? What color are your sheets? What did you eat? A writer like Erik Hedegaard has all these questions up his sleeve and you can see them working in his pieces. He doesn’t ask for a lot of access, he just has such a good line of questioning that he can make something out of, you know, a boring lunch interview.

My thing is, I just want to be liked because I want more time. I try to be as cordial and friendly as I possibly can be, which I am as a person anyway, and try to bond my way to getting more time. And thereby make the piece better, because the more time I have, I can see those discursive moments, I can see what’s going on with this person. I really feel like, two hours, you can’t get a sense of somebody. Anybody can put up a front for two hours.

JW: From a publicist’s perspective, the stakes are so high. Which is to say, if Justin Bieber gives you a quote about abortion in the case of rape, it’s going to be reprinted everywhere.

VG: Honestly, when I was doing that interview, the thing they were most concerned about was me saying that Selena Gomez was his girlfriend. And I was like, I can’t help you there. She’s here! That’s his girlfriend, she’s here in this hotel right now and he’s asking about her.

The whole Justin Bieber thing is a complex, bizarre incident. First of all, I was totally into Justin Bieber in a way that was really unappealing to anyone who knows me as a woman in my thirties. I was constantly going, “Omigod look at this video; he’s so cute! Come see how cute he is!” I was super excited about this assignment. Typically, I fly to these places and throw on a pair of pants and could care less what the subject thinks of my relative attractiveness, and for him I literally bought a skirt and got an iron and ironed it and put together a cute outfit. Then of course when I saw him I couldn’t believe what a pedophile I was. I was like, This is a child. A true, actual child. I’m clearly not interested in him anymore. It was some midlife crisis thing for me. And, look, it works on all these women, I’m not alone in it.

Anyway, it finally came time for our sit-down interview, and I’d had an idea to ask him all these questions about his extremely religious upbringing. That’s where the abortion question stemmed from – that wasn’t me trying to do a gotcha on abortion. I figured I’d ask him what happens when you die, and is there Satan and hell, and what sin is, and I wanted to ask about abstinence before marriage because I knew that would be fruitful. And I kind of threw in this abortion question. And he gave a reasonable answer to a tough question. I was a little shocked that people said I couldn’t ask that question – like on The View. I’m like, I’m a journalist! What am I supposed to be asking, what color does he like? The point of having a person there is trying to get something different. You want to know what someone like him thinks about that. At least I do.

JW: This depends on the publication and the profile subject, but do you go into an interview saying to yourself, I want quotes that are going to get picked up?

I do. I look for things that are gonna get pick-up, for sure. But it’s not my primary motivation, which is to be there and have a piece that I think reflects what I saw. Also, obviously truth is fungible, perspective on the person is fungible, you know, you’re getting this thing filtered through me, who knows, do I associate this person with my boyfriend when I was 16 – it’s all a big mess. But for a big profile, like a cover story, or something that’s going to be over 6000 words, I am thinking about that and thinking about the best time to spring those questions on people and a way to make them feel like I’m not going to do that to them, like, I’m not going to hang them to dry with an abortion question – which of course, it’s handled gingerly in the article but when you go online you see it out of context.

But I don’t know, what do you get out of it if there’s pick-up? I think you get more jobs. So in a way you have to look for that a little bit because it certainly makes you more valuable to the institution. There’s no editor-in-chief who thinks it’s a bad thing that you get a lot of attention for a piece.

JW: It’s interesting that you went in to that story as a fan, or at least came to it kind of wide-eyed. 

In this case, yes, I was a fan of his. But it’s the sad truth of doing a lot of profiles – sometimes if you really love the person so much you’re shy in the story because you don’t wanna say anything to hurt or offend this person. Which is impossible. You’re always going to offend them. Even if you really want to put pressure on yourself to do this the right way, the person’s always going to be a character, even if you’re treating him gingerly or have love for him.

One of the most difficult things about profiling people is that the people you’re extremely excited to meet end up bland to your ears because you’re looking for something: you have an idea about this person and you want them to prove it right, and they’re not giving you what you want. It’s very freeing to actually not care what the subject has to say. When there’s people you don’t care about at all – like, you have no cultural affiliation with them, they’re not in your peer group, or you really could care less about them – sometimes you’re so much more open to actually hearing what they have to say that it becomes a more delightful experience.

Like Adam Lambert from American Idol was somebody where I thought, “This is a low point in my career, I’m interviewing someone from American Idol,” and he ended up being so cool and so awesome and fun and open. I really liked him as a person, it was a great interview – and of course he was not out as gay at the moment and then he decided to give this gigantic scoop to Rolling Stone.

What can make you so crazy as a magazine writer is that the more that you can hold your subjects at an arm’s length and just have them as these characters in your play, the better the writing is, but then maybe you feel, “I didn’t really get to see these people for who they were and it’s this superficial undertaking.” There’s a lot of Rolling Stone writers who’ve ghostwritten books, and I’ve thought about it because part of me is like, you know, I’d just like to know the whole story. I’d like to be on the inside, hear everything and be an ally, and start from there.

JW: With your Britney Spears story, what’s nice about that piece, besides you talking to all these weirdos who were in her orbit at that time, is your critical thinking about Britney at that moment. There’s a graf or two early on where you do this psychologizing, not having spoken to her, and you refigure her meltdown as her shoving our noses in her shit, basically. You write: “She is not ashamed of her new persona – she wants us to know what we did to her.” Why are you rolling your eyes?

VG: [Laughs.] That was a humorous-thought-at-three-in-the-morning kind of thing.

JW: It’s a fascinating idea. I wonder, if you’d actually had an interview with her and put that thesis directly to her and she’d said, “Nah,” would you have used it anyway, because it was too good not to?

VG: Yeah, definitely. But here’s the thing: I don’t ask people as many questions about who they think they are as maybe other people do. I’m going in there to get all these details about this quote unquote character’s life and I’m gonna create the person later. Sure, I’m interested in why they took on a project and what they got out of it, but at the same time I can see all those answers in all the other press people have done, so why would I spend my time talking about that? Unless you’ve got more sophisticated questions about it – “You said this, but I don’t buy it.”

I’m really into male writers from the ‘70s and I want my writing to have that kind of – you know, Nick Tosches is one of my favorite writers, and I want my writing to sound like that. I want to say offensive things. I’m not looking for the boring quote to set up the boring idea. I don’t always succeed at it, but I want things to push the limits of what is acceptable to say.

And I’m aware I haven’t made that many friends doing that, but I don’t write about friends, I protect sources, I’m careful not to offend people I know personally, and I’ve been able in a professional way to say, “These are my subjects, these are my characters, and I’m gonna do with them what I want to.” And maybe you could say the pure way to go about that would be to write fiction, but hey, this is available and people are willing to print it.

Obviously I said a lot of things in that Britney piece that were obnoxious, but they needed to be said. She was having this meltdown that was so epic and everybody was participating in it and watching these pictures of her coming out every day – why can’t I call her an “inbred swamp thing?” That’s what everyone’s thinking, looking at these images on their computer! Some people are saying “I feel bad” but other people are saying, “This girl has fucking lost it!” Making fun of her around the water cooler and saying horrible things. Unless you have an image like Matt Taibbi you’re not supposed to say something like that about the person in a piece, but this is all going on on blogs and the internet, in people’s thoughts and conversations, so why not try to do some good writing that uses that as fodder?

I don’t mean to offend anybody. I just think, it’ll be fun to read this; it was fun for me to write it. I’ve definitely, when I was younger, there were people I didn’t like and I was out to hurt them. But in the last five years I’m not trying to hurt the person. If anything, I feel bad. But I also feel like my job is to provide entertainment value in reading. It’s kind of journalism, but it’s kind of not. It’s trying to make something somebody might want to read at 10 o’clock at night, flopped on a couch. In order to get that person excited, I think you need to go there.

JW: So you’ve abandoned any pretense that the profile can convey a ‘true essence’, and that’s liberated you?

I believe the things I’m saying when I’m writing them. Let’s put it that way. Absolutely do. But I have a hard time sometimes talking to fact checkers because it’s like, you know, “Well, with this person, it needs to be exactly as he said it in the transcript.” And I’m like, Do you really believe that what this person said in the transcript about an event that happened to them ten years ago is true? No! It’s not true. It’s his memory of it. I could probably talk to seven other people that have seven other memories. There’s no absolute truth here.

That’s why I have a weird relationship with journalism, per se. I’m not one of those people who’s like, How can I get to bottom of this? There is no bottom to it. It’s all just thoughts that people have and perceptions of what they believe happened at this time.

That said, I do recognize – I’ve had people write things about me, maybe a student in school and they send it to me and I go, Oh my god, this is so not me. It was someone who interviewed me over the phone or spent a little time with me, so it’s a bunch of my quotes truncated and references to these stories I’m known for, linking them to come up with a theory of why I’d write these things that isn’t really true.

And I’m like, I don’t like this, this is awful. And I feel that’s probably the way most people feel when they read something I’ve written about them, because it isn’t really them. Of course it’s not. I feel sorry about that. What can you do? It’s a weird job, it’s a solitary job, very isolating. You work on your own, your editors aren’t super involved in the process, and the stuff of your life is going and having these bizarre, stilted conversations with people and recording them. What is this job? I don’t really know, but I think it’s very fun.

Interview has been condensed and edited.

All content copyright © 2014 Jonah Weiner

Jonah Weiner