In a world where you have more options for satisfying your longform reading needs than ever, your friends here at Flavorwire are taking the time once a week to highlight some of the best that journalism has to offer. Whether they’re unified by topic, publication, writer, their status as classics, or just by a general feeling, these articles all have one thing in common: they’re essential reading. This week, we’re looking some of the most notorious celebrity profiles from then and now.
The celebrity profile is its own weird beast, able to tip over the line into horrific cliché or mean-spirited takedown with ease. Gay Talese’s landmark profile “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” written for Esquire in 1966, hangs over the genre like a colossus — Talese took a star on the wane and came up with a piece that said profound things about the way we live now. While not every celebrity profile hits that Talese brilliance, the ones that do get some notoriety, for whatever reason, can be well worth reading. The results will enchant, annoy, and fascinate you in equal measures.
“Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” by Gay Talese, Esquire, April 1966
The granddaddy of them all, the first thing you read in journalism class, one of the ur-texts of New Journalism, Talese’s classic is so perfectly written, so ingeniously structured, that it’s hard to imagine a world where this profile doesn’t exist, mocking every writer about how you could do better. A delicious bonus: Talese annotated it for Nieman Storyboard last year. Enjoy.
“Strange Love,” by Lynn Hirschberg, Vanity Fair, September 1992
As a celebrity profiler, Hirschberg is one of the great takedown artists. This particular profile — written right in the center of the grunge era and at the height of “Kurt [Cobain] and Courtney [Love]”/Nirvana and Hole mania — is notorious for its allegations that Love took heroin when she was pregnant with the couple’s daughter, Frances Bean. After the magazine came out, the child was temporarily taken away from Love and Cobain by the authorities. Love’s grudge has continued: she threatened to beat up Hirschberg at a party with Quentin Tarantino’s Oscar, and she’s gone on record as saying the humiliation of that interview led to Cobain’s suicide.
“Angelina Jolie Dies For Our Sins,” by Tom Junod, Esquire, July 2007
The Esquire man, often a staff writer like Tom Junod (a good journalist!), is often charged with writing the florid poesy that passes for insight on the erotic mystery that is the beautiful Hollywood star (but never, alas, Jared Leto). Jolie, of course, has always been a canny manipulator of her own image (remember the vials of blood? Knives? Billy Bob?) This particular profile of Jolie has gotten howls that it may be “the worst celebrity profile ever,” as, well, it starts with, “This is a 9/11 story… It’s a 9/11 story because it’s a celebrity profile.” Yeah.
“M.I.A.’s Agitprop Pop,” by Lynn Hirschberg, The New York Times Magazine, May 2010
Ah, yes, the notorious “truffle fries” interview. The second appearance by Hirschberg on this list, the juxtaposition of M.I.A.’s revolutionary statements with her bourgeois existence was a hatchet job that seemed to be M.I.A.’s last big moment of nearly mainstream cultural relevance (until “Bad Girls” and the 2012 Super Bowl). Her image took a hit, and the very long list of “corrections” at the bottom of this piece indicates some fights between her people and the magazine: “While M.I.A. did make those remarks, she did not make the entire statement at the same point in the interview, or in the order in which it was presented.”
“The Apostate,” by Lawrence Wright, The New Yorker, February 2011
So, this profile is a little bit different. Yes, Haggis was a Hollywood screenwriter and director, an Oscar winner for Crash in 2004. He was also a Scientologist, and one who publicly broke with the church. He shares his story with Wright in a stunning 25,000-word profile, a piece that would be the root of Wright’s brilliant book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. The last lines are corkers: “I was in a cult for thirty-four years. Everyone else could see it. I don’t know why I couldn’t.”
“American Marvel,” by Edith Zimmerman, GQ, July 2011
This weird little humor piece is, in its own nutty way, a kind of brilliant riposte to the average drooling over babely ingenues piece by devolving into its own deranged drooling over babely male star Chris Evans and maybe kind of sleeping in his guest room, googling “help me california” on my phone piece. It came on the heels of a bananas profile of Channing Tatum that involved drinking in a California ghost town, and it was part of a short-lived wave of celebrity profiles that were actually surprising to the reader. At the time, it inspired a lot of hand-wringing about journalistic ethics and female journalists in particular, but now it seems to be enduring as a piece of celebrity profiling that’s bratty and hilarious and almost radical in its fuck-off to the usual suck-up ethos.