On celebrity profiles, and lunch
If you’re a celebrity profile junky, there are few things quite as exciting as a new Taffy Brodesser-Akner story popping up on Twitter. But Brodesser-Akner’s latest, a US GQ cover story on Robert Pattinson (first line: “So it’s settled, says Rob Pattinson, we’re going to do ayahuasca together!”) got me thinking about lunch.
Lunches — specifically, lunches that take place in hotel restaurants — are the bane of the profile writer. We’ve all been there: you talk to a publicist, negotiating access.
You: how about I spend a month shadowing them at work.
You: how about we go skydiving together
And so on. Inevitably, there are major exceptions to this rule (see: the complete works of the New Yorker, etc). But nonetheless, particularly in the UK, if you want access to a household name you might as well get fairly familiar with the waiting staff at the Soho Hotel. (I won’t lament at length about the decline of the profile, as Tad Friend already did the best possible take on that… in 1998. Oh.*)
The average profile writer, starved of time and maybe imagination, decides to give up, and with the absence of an exciting visual scene merely describes the conversation at hand. It’s infuriating. Who, when asked to recount their day, starts with their lunch choice? Unless it’s Tom Hiddleston’s bolognese, we don’t care.
Which brings me onto the Robert Pattinson story. What’s so great about it is that the entire opening section — a joyful, illuminating, mildly meta saunter through the profile-negotiation process itself, takes place over the course of one conversation at a lunch joint. It doesn’t need the physical scene, because she creates a conceit in itself.**
Stuart McGurk, of GQ’s UK edition — and just crowned PPA Writer Of The Year — is also a master of this. See: his Matthew McConaughey profile, on the actor’s habit of collecting rules for life in a meticulous spreadsheet. (McConaughey gives good profile.)
Great profiles don’t just recount a conversation: they reach for meaning, for deeper truth. They try and make you understand a person, and the culture they shape and inhabit. The challenge for us writers is to draw that out — despite a publicist’s best intentions.
So please, unless it involves unusual psychedelics, no more lunch orders at hotel bars.
*Thanks to Greg Noone for tracking down the link.
**Obligatory mention of “Sinatra Has A Cold” here