Today is the one year anniversary of Jon Caramanica’s New York Times article “R.I.P. The Celebrity Profile”. It came after Beyoncé basically wrote her own Vogue cover story and if it wasn’t celebrities conducting their own interviews, it was celebrities being interviewed by other celebrities. Or celebrities agreeing to be profiled by proper journalists and then refusing to truly participate (Bradley Cooper).
Amazingly, though, after that essay, the celebrity profile didn’t die. Maybe the piece ended up being a call to action because in 2019, there have been several great celebrity profiles. And the best one of the year was just published this week.
If you were a celebrity, how would you want to be profiled? I don’t think there’s an easy answer to this. Because, of course, it’s scary to put your story in someone else’s hands. It’s scary to imagine that the story would be told in such a way that people would be mad at you, not like you. Celebrities are insecure, narcissist. As actors, they gravitate toward complicated characters, eager to mine the imperfections of someone else. As people they spend more time hiding imperfections than exploring them. That’s true of everyone, celebrity or civilian. But the pressure of perfection or maintaining its illusion in the spotlight is much heavier.
That said, if you were a celebrity with the opportunity to be profiled, would you want that profile to reflect your perfection or your humanity? And, being that there’s a certain amount of famewhore in every celebrity, would you only want your profile to make you look good? Or would you rather be part of a profile that’s considered one of the best of its art-form, which means you come out as a real person and not just two-dimensional avatar? Well, why can’t it be both? It can be, but you have to let it. You can’t get in the way of it. You can’t get in the way of the writer.
The best celebrity profile of 2019 so far is the profile of Constance Wu by Jiayang Fan for The New Yorker. It is so f-cking good I want to, in the most uncreepy possible, run up to Jiayang Fan, shake her hand, without making eye contact, and run away. It’s been a sh-tty few months of press for Constance – the Twitter outburst after Fresh Off The Boat was renewed, rumours that she’s a bitch on set and demanded top billing in the film – and for some people, this piece might reinforce what people already now think of Constance: that she’s difficult, that she’s all the way up her own ass, who does she think she is. I mean…yeah. And no. “Constance Wu sucks” is the most basic reading of Jiayang Fan’s work. It undermines the work. Because that’s not actually her thesis. What she’s doing here is writing the portrait of a real person and not just drawing the outline of the person we wish Constance could be. She’s giving us what we need, not what we want.
What we need to know is what it’s like when Constance is with her acting coach, Craig Archibald – dramatic, emotional, bratty, pouty, critical, almost rude when she scolds Jiayang for typing on her phone during the session. It’s a wild section of the piece, one that’s gotten a lot of attention. Because, sure, you can project yourself onto Jiayang’s discomfort but that’s not the only reason, not even the most important reason. The reason it caught your attention is because it’s been SO long since you encountered such a truly candid moment like that in a celebrity profile. When a celebrity isn’t trying to accommodate the observer. When the celebrity isn’t performing pleasantness for the observer. No doubt there is performance here in Constance, perhaps the performance of artistic seriousness, performing outrage that a journalist who’s been invited to experience her working with her acting coach – one of the most intimate creative environments – is not paying enough attention. But even still, there’s more to learn in that kind of performance than if she were just there to offer milk and cookies and pretend to be a sweetheart. Because celebrities are typically both hyper self-aware and not self-aware enough. Here is someone who is clearly self-conscious, while sharing her most private work process, and seemingly not conscious of how precious she’s being…or maybe not caring how precious she’s being because she’s showing what she considers to be her true, honest self in excavating her creative possibility.
Whichever way you see it, there’s vulnerability in that. You don’t agree to a profile in The New Yorker without the understanding that it’s The New Yorker, it’s not Parade, this won’t be a puff piece. But it also doesn’t have to be a take-down piece and it could have been had anyone else written it. Jiayang Fan, however, isn’t here to use Constance against Constance. She’s here to help us understand Constance. Who is Constance?
Constance is the person who admonishes a writer for typing during her coaching session while admitting to her coach, in front of same writer, that she’s preoccupied with worry that the amateur actor who’ll be acting with her in her new film won’t respect her. That, to me, is the key takeaway from the whole scene with the acting coach. For the wonderful things she’s said in the past about representation, for all the certainty she’s seemed to have about what’s fair in Hollywood, and advocating about who gets to use their voice, Constance is still unsure about her own. And Jiayang Fan isn’t telling us that, she’s showing it to us, giving us examples of it. Every instance in this piece of Constance being “difficult” is accompanied by an instance of her being afraid. Not to criticise but to empathise. You can’t empathise with someone who doesn’t feel real. But in Jiayang Fan’s hands, Constance Wu feels real – complicated, messy, exuberant, sweet, indignant, curious, ambitious, and real. Which is how most celebrities claim to want to be seen: as real. Which is what a celebrity profile is supposed to achieve. That’s what Jiayang Fan has done here. Exhilarating, brilliant work.
Click here to read Jiayang Fan’s piece on Constance Wu at The New Yorker.
Yours in gossip,