Vogue’s new cover debuted today, and the accompanying story is an uncomfortable read. This has less to do with the writing, which was pretty standard Vogue fare, than what the interview revealed: about both the rawness of Grande’s mental and emotional state, and the odd state of celebrities profiles in general. Grande was her usual quippy, casually vulnerable self, offering details about her struggles with relationships, coping through work and alcohol, and setting boundaries, breaking down in tears multiple times as she did so. It was the same Grande we’ve come to know, but this angle changed the way I interpreted all the things I thought I’d already seen.
For the past few years, I’ve felt like social media finally killed celebrity profiles. And I didn’t blame it! Or celebrities! I can understand why famous people have a preference for the direct connection Instagram, Twitter, and the like offer, which allows them to control their own image, rather than leave it to a person who might depict them as an out of touch truffle-fry-lover. (There’s a reason the most iconic celebrity profile of all time—written pre-internet—is a story about a writer being repeatedly blown off by his subject.) And writers of profiles are increasingly dealt a losing hand these days: Even when they’re granted an interview, chances are writers will have extremely limited time with their subject, and the story itself will end up feeling like a predictable Mad Lib of canned quotes between descriptions of them gingerly tucking into their salads. (Even my description of a cliché profile is cliché!) That’s why the best ones written in more recent years tend have needed a really good gimmick to get any attention. Celebrity profiles have become, at best, a cursed genre.
But Vogue’s Grande story made me wonder if these stories have a purpose again. Yes, we may feel like we already know everything about Grande because she’s been so emotionally generous on social media and in her work. But while her embrace of Twitter one-liners and diary-style Instagram photos (plus her T. Swift-style news-and-rumor-referencing lyrics) have given us intimate access to her life and her feelings about her life, they haven’t given us the whole story. And this is not a criticism of Grande—we know this because we are the editors of our own social media dispatches too.
But maybe the dispatches have a new use? In the case of Grande’s story, they set up the celebrity profile to dig deeper, faster, since we’re all caught up on the backstory that’s been offered to us in piecemeal posts. (Vogue writer Rob Haskell notes that Grande cried for the first time only nine minutes into their interview.) Vogue’s profile was hard to read for this reason—her struggles and her sadness were no longer packaged by her, and her lack of control over that made her appear more vulnerable than ever. (How interesting it would have been if this story had been written by a woman who also shares a lot of her personal life online.) For her part, Grande said she’s pulling back on all her social-media sharing, but not in a “corny” way (as she put it)—so maybe she, too, is now finding use for a different mode of communication.
Although the New York Times already published an obituary of celebrity profiles, maybe it’s not so simple. It seems more likely to me that one type of story doesn’t need to die in order for the other to live. Instead, they create a more textured narrative in combination.
It reminds me of a quote about what makes a satisfying story that I often revisit—it’s an ending that gives the reader not a “surprise,” but an “amazed understanding.” In the case of our current media consumption, social media posts are the surprise, and cover stories—with their third-person perspective and the conversational interview format, which causes more pithy stars to elaborate—have a chance at offering the amazed understanding. In the case of Grande, there’s value in the fact that she’s invited so many people to relate to her experience by coping publicly online, but the profile reveals the deeper understanding that grief is a messy, real-time slog. A slog that doesn’t edit itself down to appease character limits and is un-photogenic, no matter how flattering the light.
Did you guys read the story? What did you think of it? What do you think of celebrity profiles overall? Do you read them? If so, which ones are your favorites?
Cover photographed by Annie Leibovitz, for Vogue, August 2019.