If all goes well, this is the one and only time I’m going to write about Selena Gomez. Because…yeah.
For someone I think about for about roughly five seconds a month, or about the time it takes for me to scroll past her headlines on Google News, she served as the catalyst for an interesting discussion on Twitter last week about celebrity journalism. It was NPR’s Linda Holmes who kicked things off with a tweet criticizing this story about the pop star, and she was quickly joined by Criticwire’s Sam Adams, among others. (Because I’m a nerd, I made a Storify to commemorate it.)
Holmes’ issue? Basically, everything. The story in question was theoretically written in light of Gomez’ new album, yet the resulting story came out as some kind of Orwellian expose on the reality of celebrity journalism: red tape, bodyguards, pushy PR reps and at the heart of it all, a seemingly oblivious pop star whose tepid personality draws the whole schematic into question.
Stories about the publicity machine are not uncommon. The other side of fame — and all the obstacles manufactured to keep a celebrity as isolated from the public (and therefore, criticism) as possible — are incredibly enticing in their otherworldliness. Sometimes this notion creates the core of the story (as it does in the Gomez story), but you often see that journalist-through-the-looking-glass scenario used as a scene-setting device to open a story. (Just one recent example that comes to mind: this interview with Angelina Jolie done by Marie Claire. But seriously, scores of these exist; even I did it once.)
From the outset, I thought I’d disagree with Holmes’ impression that this story was pointless. After all, stories about the system of fame do often share at least something interesting about its subject or fame itself.
But, nope! Not this time.
The story in question recounts author Vinay Menon’s experience meeting Selena Gomez, which is, apparently, the Hardest Thing in the World. He texts Gomez’ publicist. The publicist texts back, telling him that under no circumstances is he to ask about the pop star’s relationship with Justin Bieber. After being escorted to what sounds like a prison cell block of hotel rooms and locked doors, Menon is supervised during a 30-minute preview of Gomez’ new album, Stars Dance (?!?!), and must surrender his phone and recorder before doing so. Menon, feeling unprepared after listening to album snippets, finally meets Gomez and finds himself at a total loss, resorting to inane questions like, “If someone were completely unfamiliar with you, how would you describe yourself?”
The outcome of Menon’s piece seems to question the power imbalance between PR reps and journalists, the newsworthiness of a pop tart like Gomez and the purpose of celebrity journalism as a whole.
The first problem: Menon’s story simply raises too much objection to the common facets of celebrity culture. Of course a publicist will, on pain of death/exclusion from future interview invites with Disney stars, implement strong restrictions on particular subjects. (This is a post- Jennifer Aniston/Brad Pitt, Rihanna/Chris Brown universe, after all. But seriously, that’s been going on forever.) And of course people will take away your phone and recording device before you listen to a pre-release album. Drawing attention to these measures, and his own surprise about them, makes Menon appear a tad naive.
Yet the greater problem: Menon’s story is just an elaborate excuse for being a bad journalist. He was unprepared to meet Gomez, and, as he admits in the story, “desperately [tried] to come up with something to ask.”
So after reading this, I didn’t feel any more jaded by the culture of celebrity — I felt bad for Selena Gomez. And that’s something I feel needs to be emphasized. I felt bad for Selena Gomez.
At the same time, I can see what Menon was trying to do. As I mentioned previously, the cult of celebrity is pretty damn enchanting. When the most you’ve ever seen of a given person is limited to “who wore it best” photos and interviews on E!, the notion of being alone in a room with a celebrity is surreal. Yet when writing a profile about a celebrity under such stringent conditions, those who excel tell stories that tap into the true nature of their interview subjects despite the measures taken to protect them from vulnerability.
Menon didn’t even try.
Sam Adams pointed to this great feature at the SF Weekly about Michelle Shocked, the now-disgraced musician whose homophobic comments incurred a roaring public backlash. Shocked reached out to the publication to run a print apology, and was in turn invited to perform at the San Francisco Pride festival — and give an interview to author Ian S. Port. The interview never happened because Shocked desperately tried to control every detail of the interview process. However, Port didn’t need the interview to get to the heart of her as a person and write a damn good story.
While not so much about the red tape of celebrity interviews, there are a couple other great examples I’d like to point out, both from Esquire, both written by Tom Chiarella: one on Ben Affleck, another on Bruce Willis.
The former opens with an anecdote about Chiarella getting picked up at his hotel by Affleck himself. Affleck rented a car for the occasion because, as we learn later, he didn’t want to open himself to what a journalist could glean from the contents of his car. When writing the story, Chiarella tells Affleck he’s planning to open the story with a description of what he thinks his car would look like, which finally prompts the actor to provide a description of the car and its contents. (I love this story. Go read it.)
The Willis interview took place in a hotel room over the span of a few hours. While a hotel room is, by nature, an incredibly impersonal space, and Willis himself is a closed-mouthed kind of guy, Chiarella took what he saw and basically MacGyvered a story that is incredibly telling of Willis as a person. And how did it do it? By structuring the story around the five pears Willis ate during the interview — and the (frequent) restroom breaks he took.
The Michelle Shocked, Ben Affleck and Bruce Willis stories exemplify situations in which the subject (and, of course, his/her “people”) agrees to an interview under certain conditions, or attempts to control the narrative. And yet, no matter how much control the interview subject thinks he or she has, there’s still plenty you can learn about a person just from interacting with them — be it by email, in a rented car or a hotel room.
Now, back to Selena Gomez.
Menon walked into that hotel thinking he’d write your average album preview. But that wasn’t the story. And the story wasn’t about her security detail, either.
It should have been about Selena Gomez. Plain and simple.