Hadley Free­man

Drew Bar­ry­more’s lat­est in­ter­view re­veals the truth about the celebrity me­dia cir­cus

The Guardian - Weekend - - Contents -

Hon­estly, I think ev­ery­one missed the real joke about Drew Bar­ry­more and her Egyp­tAir i in­ter­view. This may sound odd, given how much hoot­ing there has been ever since a pas­sen­ger, Adam Baron, tweeted images of it from the air­line’s in­flight mag­a­zine, which in­cluded such gems, at­trib­uted to Bar­ry­more, as, “I fo­cus on nur­tur­ing [my chil­dren’s] minds as well as their small bodies”, and “I feel o over­whelmed when some­one tells me that I have man­aged to lose that ex­tra weight.” The lat­ter was in re­sponse to an ob­ser­va­tion from the journalist about how Bar­ry­more, post-birth, “gained sev­eral kilo­grams [so] that even your fans ac­cused you of be­ing over­weight and ne­glect­ing your health. How­ever, to­day I see you have re­turned to your pre­vi­ous graceful body; what is your se­cret?” No way could this be a real ex­change, peo­ple said. But any­one who’s ever done a celebrity in­ter­view knew the punch­line had yet to drop.

Bar­ry­more’s rep­re­sen­ta­tives in­sisted the ac­tor did not “tech­ni­cally sit down with Egyp­tAir for an in­ter­view”, but they had to ad­mit the quotes came from a real press con­fer­ence. Also known as “jun­kets” or “round ta­bles”, these ses­sions typ­i­cally in­volve an ac­tor talk­ing to mul­ti­ple jour­nal­ists at once; the writ­ers, of­ten from dif­fer­ent coun­tries, then trans­late the quotes and stitch them to­gether into some kind of ar­ti­cle. So the real joke is that the in­ter­view – al­beit trans­lated first into Ara­bic and then back, badly, into English – was com­pletely real.

My own ca­reer as a celebrity in­ter­viewer be­gan promis­ingly. Aged 18, and still at univer­sity, I spoke to a Bri­tish ac­tor who had re­cently quit a play early in its run.

“What would you say to peo­ple who say it’s your fault the play has now closed?” I asked, in all my wide-eyed starstruck in­no­cence. “What would you say if I called you a bitch?” he snapped back. What I didn’t know then was that this was a rare – valu­able, even – ex­pe­ri­ence, in that I got a glimpse of the celebrity’s true self. When I tell peo­ple now that my job in­volves talk­ing to fa­mous peo­ple they tend to imag­ine I live the life of the kid in Cameron Crowe’s Al­most Fa­mous, who goes on the road with a band in the 1970s. But that era of jour­nal­ism van­ished along with mul­lets, alas.

I am lucky to work at the Guardian, where edi­tors in­sist that any in­ter­view must in­clude at least an hour of one-on-one time: no stitched to­gether ran­dom quotes here. But I have sat in on these round ta­bles and the ques­tions in­vari­ably swing be­tween syco­phancy and snark – partly be­cause those are the ap­proaches most likely to get some kind of re­ac­tion, and partly be­cause the jour­nal­ists are from dif­fer­ent coun­tries and some jokes get lost in trans­la­tion.

“Ms Winslet, how do you feel about be­ing such an icon of beauty?” Io I once heard a French fash­ion writer ask Kate Winslet back­stage at the Ba Baf­tas, a ques­tion to which there is truly no good an­swer. At a press co con­fer­ence with the no­to­ri­ously tem­per­a­men­tal and five-timesma mar­ried James Cameron, one Ger­man journalist de­cided to kick off pr pro­ceed­ings with “So James, why do you keep dump­ing your wives?”

One-on-one in­ter­views can be just as strange. At their worst, these are he held in a ho­tel, where jour­nal­ists queue out­side a room and are marched in, one at a time. There is some­thing weirdly trans­ac­tional about the wh whole thing: all those shifty hacks wait­ing to go into a ho­tel room wh where some­one far more beau­ti­ful is primed to give them what they ne need. Sim­i­larly, the celebrity is ex­pected to of­fer up the most in­ti­mate de de­tails of their life to sell a movie and make money. The com­par­isons wi with sex work are ob­vi­ous. Well, to me, any­way. “It’s a bit like be­ing in a br brothel,” I once cheer­fully said to a pub­li­cist, while wait­ing to in­ter­view Op Oprah Win­frey. Handy hint for aspiring jour­nal­ists: don’t say this.

And then there are the celebri­ties them­selves who, given half a ch chance, re­vert to bland celeb-speak, the ver­bal equiv­a­lent of muzak, be be­cause they’re try­ing to avoid say­ing any­thing too per­sonal or – God for for­bid – con­tro­ver­sial. I once in­ter­viewed Cameron Diaz and she used th the word “jour­ney” a to­tal of – I kid you not – 12 times.

And yet, the high points of my ca­reer have all in­volved talk­ing to ce celebri­ties: spend­ing a week­end with Judy Blume; meet­ing Michael JF J Fox in his of­fice; act­ing out a scene from Moon­struck with Ni­co­las Ca Cage. And my favourite pieces of jour­nal­ism are celebrity in­ter­views, be be­cause, when done well, they re­veal some­thing about the cul­ture we live in, told through a very hu­man story. But those are the or­ganic ve ver­sions; most in­ter­views are now bat­tery-farmed jun­kets which rev re­veal noth­ing be­yond a pub­li­ca­tion’s des­per­a­tion for a fa­mous face to slap on its cover.

The joke about Egyp­tAir’s in­ter­view is not that it was so bad, but th that it’s so typ­i­cal of the genre; the air­line’s only mis­take was not ge get­ting a bet­ter trans­la­tor. At least readers now know how de­ranged th these celebrity jun­kets are – and for that I thank Egyp­tAir for show­ing us the truth, and in this way nur­tur­ing our small bodies

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