When New York Times columnist Jon Caramanica recently pronounced the celebrity profile dead, I wrote a counter dissertation in my head.
“Since the 1960s, in-depth interviews have been a crucial part of the star-making process,” he writes, “but also a regular feature of high-level celebrity maintenance.” Today, he posits, that’s changed. In the age of social media, when public figures can simply write their own narratives online — or even offline, as in the case of Taylor Swift’s Reputation magazine or Beyonce’s “in her own words” Vogue profile — the traditional form has become irrelevant. Why read a 5,000-word profile when you can follow a celebrity’s every move on Instagram or consume their personal essays via iPhone note screenshot?
Here’s one reason: “Kim Kardashian West’s boob is so soft it makes velvet feel like splinters.”
That’s the opening line of Caity Weaver’s profile of Kim K for GQ in 2016, which I’d be happy to read aloud to you, in full, as a bedtime story (or any Weaver profile of your choice: Maya Rudolph? Tiffany Haddish? Gal Gadot? Jordan Peele? THE ROCK??? Pick your poison, I am down). Weaver is one of the best in the celebrity profile game, in my opinion, and she’s joined by so many other greats: Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Allison P. Davis, Carvell Wallace. And what these writers do so well, and what makes their pieces some of the most compelling and delightful to read on the internet, is tell the human story that social media never could.
Like, for instance, the way Justin Bieber engages in casual conversation: “Justin Bieber makes eye contact like a person who has been told that eye contact is very, very important,” writes Weaver. “He generally does not respond to irony. He speaks more quietly than a mouse that’s asleep, so you frequently have to ask him to repeat things.”
Or the way Cardi B responds backstage when Jimmy Kimmel calls “Bodak Yellow” the No. 1 song in the country: “‘Actually, it’s No. 2,’ Cardi quietly responds to the flat-screen TV in her dressing room,” writes Allison P. Davis.
Or the kinds of things Melissa McCarthy buys on her iPad while in the bathtub at night: “She buys a bunch of 1980s-style dresses from an Etsy shop owned by woman in New Mexico for the ’80s-themed party scene in Life of the Party,” writes Taffy Brodesser-Akner. “She orders these things under a different name but she also wants to call the woman and say: ‘Your dresses are in my movie! Thank you for the dresses! Go see the movie!’”
These little details offer rare glimpses into who the most celebrated people in pop culture really are, which stands to reveal a lot about our culture at large. Where the curation of an online presence is overwrought in places and surface-skimming in others, a good profile tells another, more grounded story. Specifically and typically, how a person behaves in the company of another for two to three days. As a consistently unfulfilled voyeur, nothing to me is so satisfying. I’d read a profile about a rat if it was honest.
In case it wasn’t clear, I fucking love celebrity profiles. And I’d argue that their highest calling — to offer dialogue where monologue feels insufficient, to use Caramanica’s words — remains just as relevant today as it ever was, perhaps more so given the scarcity of authenticity in 2018. I want to know how Kris Kardashian treats her employees! I want to know how the Queer Eye cast behaves at dinner! I want to know whether Tessa Thompson wants another gin and tonic! Is that so much to ask? I’m not even that into celebrities, I just want to know what the answers to these questions says about us, and now, and everything.
To be fair, this is essentially the point Caramanica was making when he pronounced them dead: “Sometimes, social media posts take the place of what was once the preserve of the tell-all interview. … These are one-sided stories, with no scrutiny beyond the comments section.” But I’d contest, wholeheartedly, his lethal diagnosis. Celebrity profiles are alive, well and possibly never better. And I suspect and hope they’ll become increasingly relevant the further we become entrenched in this age of, as he calls it, “all-access hyperdocumentation.”
I say that not just because I love the way a profile fills the gaps inherent to the internet sharing, but because, in rare moments, as in this Riz Ahmed profile by Carvell Wallace, a thoughtful profile offers a cultural temperature reading that’s hard to capture in any other form.
For that reason I say: All hail the celebrity profile. May it never die.
Collage by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.