I He started working at The Guardian in the summer of 2000 – not to write, but to look after a switch. The key to a fashion wardrobe, to be exact, is ensuring that no clothes are stolen for a fashion shoot. This was my primary role as a fashion assistant. Or, as I prefer to call myself—and say it with me as one, my fellow Ghostbusters fan—keymaster. Nor will I get a job with more responsibility or power.
However, shortly after starting, the section’s editors asked which celebrities I’d like to interview. I was too young and stupid to appreciate how completely unbelievable it was for the editors to even know the name of the costume assistant, let alone give a fuck to whomever she wanted to interview. But that’s what the Guardian was about, and God, how lucky I was to be here. But my point in this, my latest Guardian feature, is that of all the different job titles I’ve been given in this paper, from the unlikely (Northern news reporter) to the downright implausible (World Cup features writer), one thing that It never changed is that I always met celebrities.
On some level, this is as surprising to me as being sent to follow Wayne Rooney around Brazil in 2014, because I’ve never actually been interested in famous people. I didn’t hang out at parties as a teenager, and I never wrote to fan clubs asking for autographs. I’m excited, I mean truly I like the little niche stuff I like (80s movies), but it never occurred to me as a kid to write to, say, John Hughes and ask him questions about his movies. Why is he talking to me?
Well, the one lesson I learned in college that has stuck with me is that celebrities love to talk about themselves. I wrote for my university newspaper and sometimes a famous person would come and talk to the students and I would be sent to interview them. I’ve learned that some celebs were surprisingly cheerful (Ben Affleck), others not surprisingly (Stephen Fry, he may have been having a bad day), but they were all completely fine with me, a random 18-year-old asking them really, completely personal questions. Because I was interviewing them.
This was a real epiphany. Because in addition to being an enthusiast, I am curious, and this has sometimes caused problems in Britain. In New York City, where I come from, it is very customary for two strangers to talk on the subway about the drugs they use; In London there are people I have known for over 20 years who I wouldn’t dare ask if they dye their hair. I soon realized that interviews are a context in which obnoxious curiosity is not only accepted, but expected. It’s a place where personal information is traded as a commodity for publicity, and while it still amazes me that so many celebrities would answer the most candid questions about their unhappy childhood/deepest trauma/ugly divorce in exchange for their movie being mentioned in a newspaper, it’s a deal I’m constantly thrilled to exploit. . It was the rare week in the last 22 years that I didn’t think: I can’t believe I get paid to do this.
Thanks to two celebrity interviews, I landed my job at The Guardian. My mother spotted a writing contest in the Daily Telegraph and asked me to take part. So I obediently sent in two interviews for the University Gazette, one with Richard Whiteley, presenter of the funny and now sadly late Countdown show, and the other with Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye. I won, and on the back of that I became a Guardian key manager. So the moral of that story, aspiring journalists, is always to enter writing contests. And listen to your mother.
But at first I had some misgivings about interviewing celebrities for the Guardian. Like I said, I’m excited, and while I felt good about writing about my whole love of Countdown in my college paper, I wasn’t sure if my tastes would appeal to Guardian readers, the people who bought the paper to read Polly Toynbee on Social Housing and Jonathan Steele on Foreign Affairs. The biggest problem was that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, as a quick glance at a transcript of my first interview for the paper proves. It was with Simon Amstell and Miquita Oliver, the hosts of Popworld on Channel 4, which I loved, and luckily for me, as well as being my first interview, it was also their interview, so all three of us were equally clueless.
Me: Why did you want to become a TV presenter?
Simon: Because it sounded fun. Is this a good answer? what should I say?
I do not know. Was that a stupid question?
Mikita: Yes. But it’s ok.
Others were less understanding. When I made the novice mistake of showing up to meet shoe designer Christian Louboutin in a pair of seriously sloppy ballet pumps, he sniffed me that if I were a shoe, I’d be a “shoe DM.” Robert Downey Jr. was similarly unimpressed and took one look at my less than polished twenty-something face and expressed amazement that the Guardian had sent a “work experience girl” to meet him (it seemed unlikely that telling him, in fact, that I was a fashion assistant would placate him). As a people pleaser, these types of interactions bothered me at first. But I soon learned that they made a good version, and that helped me get rid of my childish people-pleasing ways. The best interviews often have a little bit of spunk in them.
Aside from wanting to know what (terrifying) Marina Hyde looks like, the most common question I receive from readers is what celebrities you’ve met are like. That’s easy: they’re weird. All celebrities are a little weird, because wanting to be famous is weird and living your life as an object rather than an object is a really crazy way of being. Some celebrities are so adept at being celebrities, like George Clooney and Tom Hanks, that they maintain such commitment to their brand images (respectively, juicy oldies and contemporary Jimmy Stewart) that they maintain a facade even during interviews. It must be exhausting to be them – always on me – but they at least make being famous seem more fun than others. Soon after I started my business, TV shows like Popstars, Pop Idol, Big Brother, etc. began dominating television, with fame rather than money offered as the real prize. I already learned what a con it was to meet famous people: There was a time when I went to Los Angeles to interview Nicole Richie, then so frail she could barely walk, and watched her frantically eat a huge cooked breakfast; Or by the time I got a five-minute interview in New York with Justin Timberlake, who looked so miserable, I wondered if he was being held hostage. It was a lot of fun to write about, but it made me think that living in a cave as a hermit was probably an undervalued lifestyle choice.
It took me a while to let my readers know how weird I am. It happened inadvertently, when the then editor of G2 sent me to the States to interview Michael J. Fox about his new sitcom. Reader, I adored him. I was so overwhelmed by my lifelong fan of Marty McFly and my now deep love of Fox himself that I allowed my full enthusiastic nature to come out in the article. I was a little afraid the night before the article was published – would I be laughing at the paper? Will CP Scott come back to haunt me in disgust?
To my surprise, readers seemed to like the clip, and it was at this point that I learned one of the most useful lessons of my life: I am not unique. If you like someone, chances are, others do too. I’m pretty basic that way. From then on, I moved entirely with my enthusiasm: I interviewed nearly all of my childhood stars—Mel Brooks, Rob Reiner, Evan Reitman, Frank Oz—and delighted in how charismatic they were and (b) how many Guardian readers shared my love for them. When I was so overcome with Keanu Reeves’ handsomeness that I could hardly ask him a question, Guardian readers gave me the sympathy rather than the derision I expected. And when I strolled around the Oscars every year, unsuccessfully begging Eddie Murphy for quotes (although Kevin Hart was always obliging rather than roommate — thank you, Kevin), Guardian readers didn’t bat much eye. It turns out that they could be interested in social issues and the Oscars, too.
In addition to writing interviews, I also write columns, and as a columnist, the temptation is to be definitive on an issue, focusing on the resonance of black and white rather than the more sophisticated grey. But people are rarely black and white, which is why they are so interesting. Charlie Sheen was a wonderful gray interviewee, someone who had done terrible things, but was smart, amazing, self-aware, and trying to figure out how to live with HIV. Woody Allen is now widely portrayed as a bad guy, generally by people who have only the skeptical knowledge of the accusations leveled against him by the 30-year-old. I will always be grateful for the opportunity to meet him and later his son, Moses, and for being given space to re-examine the allegations. Journalism is about asking questions and refusing to accept whatever narrative is currently accepted, whether it is about politics or celebrities. It’s not about getting likes on Twitter.
There is now a mentality – common in some progressive circles – that giving someone a “platform” (i.e. interviewing them) means you endorse them. But it is only true if I write quoted interviews, while I like to have what Mrs. Merton used to call a ‘heated debate’, or what I call conversation. So I argued with Jeff Koons in New York about politics and art, and I argued with Margaret Atwood in Toronto about sex. Of course, PR reps hate this, because they think a journalist’s job is to copy everything a celebrity has said beyond a shadow of a doubt, but I know that’s not what readers want. It’s definitely not what I want when I read an interview.
There have been other changes in the world of celebrity interviews in the 22 years since it began in the Guardian. At the time, people were largely mocking celebrities when they made political statements; Now they’re yelled at if they don’t, and so they nervously plaster their Instagram pages with their ideas about social justice. And of course, social media didn’t exist at the time, so journalists were the only way for celebrities to speak to the public; Now celebrities like Beyoncé and Harry Styles see us as irrelevant intermediaries and generally pass us off, which is a relief to me because famous people rarely say anything interesting. Give me Steve Guttenberg reminiscing about the Police Academy while Justin Bieber talks about his journey any day. Harvey Weinstein was so powerful that he was even able to write a newspaper column complaining about me when I (accurately) wrote that his Baftas party was boring; Now, well, we all know how that story ended.
Oh my God, it was so fun. I know some journalists hate dealing with celebrities, they hate covering celebrity events, and I never understood that. If you go into journalism because you want to tell stories that are sexy, quirky, and very human, well, what’s not to love about spending a day with Pete Doherty on a Normandy beach? Or consider vagina power with Aerosmith in Los Angeles? Or chatting with Helena Bonham Carter about divorce over cups of tea? To everyone I’ve met, thank you for putting up with my curiosity.
But most of all, I want to thank the Guardian readers for putting up with me. You bore my transgressions, patiently corrected my wrongs, and made me laugh often, and I shall miss you greatly. To use a quote from a movie that I reference on average once a week in this paper, I’ve had the time of my life. It is the truth. I and what I have for you.