When done properly—something increasingly rare in an era with image-shaping handlers and hyper-savvy media-coaches—celebrity profiles can pull the curtains back in ways that are nothing less than revelatory.
See “Jack White’s Infinite Imagination”, Alec Wilkson’s beautifully written New Yorker look at the world of rock ’n’ roll’s version Willy Wonka. ("White’s manner is restless—a foot or a leg or an implement in his hand is nearly always in motion.")
Or, for those who like their horror real and unsanitized, Rolling Stone’s "The Trouble With Johnny Depp" by Stephen Rodrick. (The high-wattage movie star, famous for playing Willy Wonka, was so appalled by the way he came off, he took to disparaging the piece as a “sham” in other magazines like British GQ.)
On the flipside, there are profiles where writers are unable to forge anything even remotely resembling a connection during the interview process. When you can’t get to the person behind the mask you end up with nothing to work with—that seemingly the case with Vanity Fair’s fabled trainwreck of a Kate McKinnon profile last year titled "The Kate McKinnon Report".
(After starting with the argument that celebrity interviews are like police interrogations, writer Lili Anolik gave every indication that cracking the Saturday Night Live star’s protective shell was mission impossible. Over 4,000 words long, the piece yielded six quotes, none of them any more illuminating than the suspiciously economical first one, which came 1,200 words into the story: “Hillary [Clinton] has great timing.”
All of the above is why Vogue writer Rob Haskell deserves some sort of gold star for getting Justin Bieber to let his guard down in a new piece titled “Justin and Hailey Bieber Open Up About Their Passionate, Not-Always-Easy but Absolutely All-In Romance”.
The article is ostensibly about the Canada-spawned former teen heartthrob’s marriage to his famous-for-being-famous wife Hailey Baldwin. But there it gets interesting in when Bieber reflects on the period of his life where he transitioned from tween sensation to sudden bad boy.
You might remember that as the phase where he was in the news every second day, for pissing in janitor’s mop buckets, "racing" stupidly expensive cars in residential neighbourhoods while impaired, and partying in South American brothels.
Haskell notes that Bieber has a reputation of being difficult to talk to, quoting the star as saying: “It’s been so hard for me to trust people. I’ve struggled with the feeling that people are using me or aren’t really there for me, and that writers are looking to get something out of me and then use it against me
But he also gives every indication that the Bieber wasn’t afraid to open up, talking about everything from his being changed by the music industry (““I was real at first, and then I was manufactured as, slowly, they just took more and more control”) to his descent into a tabloid bad boy (“I started really feeling myself too much. People love me, I’m the shit—that’s honestly what I thought. I got very arrogant and cocky. I was wearing sunglasses inside.”)
Oh, he also talks about what it’s like to be married. You can read the piece here.