Breaking down how the celebrity-industrial complex hampers interviews of real value.
Update: Last week, a freelancer pitched us a 10-minute Q&A with Bono. After this piece ran we were contacted by the ONE Campaign, which wanted to clarify that the freelancer had not actually been approved for an interview. The piece has been corrected to reflect this.
Several years ago, I was offered a 15-minute interview with a well-known and well-respected musician. "You can't ask him about any of [his band's] internal drama," his publicist told me, "but everything else should be all right." Restricting what I could talk about rubbed me the wrong way, but I was young, inexperienced, and excited to speak with an artist I really liked, so I agreed to it. On the day of the interview, I waited for the musician and his publicist to call me, and then I waited some more. By the time I finally heard from them, they told me that, instead of 15 minutes, I now had "about nine or 10." I got flustered trying to decide which of my questions were most pertinent considering the new time constraints. Then, at the five-minute mark, the publicist cut in to tell me to wrap it up. "Has he been listening in this whole time?", I thought, which flustered me even more.
In the end, the publicist and the magazine for which I was writing the piece both told me they were happy with how it turned out. But I couldn't ever bring myself to read it. The whole process made me feel silly and amateurish. I had been somebody's mouthpiece, and it sucked.
As I would eventually learn, that kind of incident is not a rarity, nor is it relegated to the music world. Actors, politicians, and all kinds of self-important people often reach out to media outlets requesting coverage. It's only after you agree to provide that coverage that the caveats begin: "He doesn't want to talk about his divorce"; "The band's not here to discuss their legal troubles"; "Actually, she doesn't want to speak to those allegations at all, and if you bring them up, we're walking." The celebrity interview is a strange beast: Something that should make the celebrity feel at least a little bit vulnerable ends up being taken over by the celebrity and their publicist. The "journalist"? They're just there to transcribe.
A few days ago, GOOD was offered the chance for a 10-minute interview with Bono, legendary rock star, tireless activist, and the wealthiest entertainer in the world. Though later we'd discover that the interview hadn't been agreed to by Bono, we turned it down regardless. Not because Bono's charity work—the subject of the proposed interview—isn't admirable, but because interviews in which super celebrities talk about their charity work is about as interesting as watching a dog hump a couch cushion, and about as valuable.
I'd read, edit, or conduct an interview with Bono in which he discusses why so little of the money from his ONE Campaign goes to actual charity, or how he can rationalize supporting the poor while also going out of his way to dodge taxes in Ireland. But to get that kind of honesty and openness from a celebrity you need more than 10 minutes, and you need to be Barbara Walters or Matt Lauer, TV news heavyweights who seem to specialize in weepy, tell-all chats with your favorite movie stars and politicians. That's the strangest thing about interviews with powerful and wealthy people: To get the best ones, you have to be powerful and wealthy, too.
The celebrity-industrial complex is a real phenomenon, and a big part of the problem is the droves of publicists and PR people whose sole job is to shield their famous clients from saying or doing anything to tarnish their reputations. This means hawking out 10-minute, highly regulated interviews to newspapers and magazines in the hope that some of them won't care that they're being condescended to. And many of them don't care as long as they get to chat on the phone with a rock star—who won't tell them anything they wouldn't be able to find in the press release his publicist sent along in advance. To be sure, there are some great reporters who do beautiful work on the entertainment beat. But most of the time these interviews result in canned answers to pre-approved questions, and they're worthless.
If you'd like to read more about Bono's ONE Campaign to fight the global AIDS epidemic, you can do so here. It'll take less than 10 minutes.