Interview with a vamp

BY KRISTEN MACDONALD

Published January 26, 2006

It wouldn't be a week of celebrity news without the ubiquitous Lindsay Lohan. The poor starlet most recently made the gossip pages in a bid to refute her recent cover story for Vanity Fair, an interview in which she purportedly alluded to drug use and bulimia. Lohan's publicity camp responded by denying the supposed confessions, although, notably, only the bulimia part - it seems that having an eating disorder is more detrimental to her public image than coping to club-scene substance use.

Jess Cox

Lindsay need not worry; in fact, it rather works in her favor to have a controversial interview, as such a thing has recently become a rare find in the Hollywood sector of the entertainment industry. Athlete interviews are their own category - Sports Illustrated doesn't routinely profile its celebrity athletes as the all-around nice guys those touching NFL United Way commercials attempt to sell them as. Take Jeremy Roenick, the center for the Los Angeles Kings, whom SI's Nov. 14th issue happily paints as egotistical, attention-hungry, gambling-crazy and ultimately likable.

Good luck finding such three-dimensionality in the annals of your local grocery store check-out line. Anyone familiar with women's magazines or any form of journalism below People magazine will be no stranger to the following profile of a young actress:

"(The film's director) flew to meet her in a hotel bar . and there she was - just this scruffy-looking girl...He liked the way she says what she thinks, not what she thinks the director would want to hear. 'She's so smart and quick-witted.' And he liked the fact that she seems 'so normal. She really is the girl next door,' he says. 'Who happens to be extraordinarily beautiful.'

Taken verbatim from December's Vogue, the "she" of this quote could be Natalie Portman, Keira Knightley, Scarlett Johansson, Kirsten Dunst . hell, even Lindsay Lohan. Whichever starlet currently headlines the latest movie or TV show not only pops up on the cover of countless magazines but also inevitably receives the same, formula industry write-up. She is depicted as a modest, stylish, sweet (and naturally, stunning) girl next door, as equally enamored of her own storybook success as any of the magazine's dreamy schoolgirl audience.

How insulting. To the starlet.

Have actresses always been hocked about like bland carbon copies? Or is it simply the strategy of the modern publicist?

In the keynote speech of this year's Hopwood ceremony, acclaimed New Yorker magazine writer Susan Orlean commented on her early career profiling celebrities. On one occasion, she had felt herself honored when Tom Hanks seemed to personally confide in her that he found himself unattractive. She had even considered it a mark of friendship until, after regrouping with fellow reporters, she learned he tends to "admit" so much to almost all his interviewers.

It should come as no surprise that celebrity actors construct and present specific packaged personas. Fashion mags and gossip rags will never, of course, be mistaken with high journalism, but they shouldn't simply serve as a means of delivering industry marketing to the mainstream public. Besides, it is advantageous in the movie game to market an actor's image as singular, contrary to the noticeably formulaic spin young female performers generally receive.

Most of these interviews hardly even require the actress. That same previously mentioned December Vogue piece, actually written about Keira Knightley, conforms almost completely to the standard starlet interview:

Rule #1: She is always stylish, but never couture (Keira prefers vintage, her style is "grungy and scruffy" touts an "amaaaaazing" Fendi bag - yep, five a's - as a free gift).

Rule #2: She will invariably have her lunch selection documented and raved about (Keira, for instance, orders fish and mashed potatoes, though reporters have been known to praise a "big eater" for so much as an egg-white omelet, steamed vegetables and whole-wheat toast).

Rule #3: She will laugh off or underplay the glamorous Hollywood nightlife which often puts her in the tabloids (Ms. Knightley's profile accordingly features the typically lavish comments of her latest director, praising her as "quite shockingly focused" and with "something quite Zen about her").

With every starlet presented as so different from her peers in the exact same way, how could a reader ever take such a remark seriously?

Keira herself has the good sense to recognize her stereotyped presentation, even if her Vogue interviewer doesn't: "They come to you saying, 'Oh - we want the real Keira!' But then they have all these amazing clothes . and of course what they end up with is not the real you - how can it be?"

Keira's right. In a way, no magazine interview - whether it consists of a lunch or a film shoot or a week of being followed - can ever be the "real" celeb. But kudos to Vanity Fair for making the attempt with Ms. Lohan, offering for once an article that is at least a little more three-dimensional than its pretty accompanying pictures.

Kristin can be reached by e-mail at kmacd@umich.edu