“[Margot Robbie] is 26 and beautiful, not in that otherworldly, catwalk way but in a minor knock-around key, a blue mood, a slow dance. She is blonde but dark at the roots. She is tall but only with the help of certain shoes. She can be sexy and composed even while naked but only in character.”
These are the words that drew the ire of the world in Rich Cohen’s baffling profile of Margot Robbie for Vanity Fair. The internet has derided the profile as “creepy”, “sexist” and “ignorant”: it has also been much satirised, none better than by Fairfax’s Ben Pobjie.
Australia as a nation was also duly outraged by his comment that “Australia is America 50 years ago, sunny and slow, a throwback, which is why you go there for throwback people”.
Yet as a journalist I’m not so much taken aback by the “throwback” reference, but seeing the piece as representative of the US’s tendency to be fawning in their celeb pieces.
And indeed, how different it is to our own treatment of stars.
From my experience, Americans stars, used to being handled with kid gloves in the US, are sometimes surprised by what hacks ask them Down Under.
That’s because Australian journalists aren’t fawners in general – it’s not really in our national character, perhaps a “throwback” to our convict ancestors.
In general, we believe in reporting without fear or favour. We ask Hollywood stars if they do their own stunts, whether that’s their real hair or what is going on with the exes.
Plus because we’re that cute little country halfway across the world where the water in the toilet bowl goes around the wrong way, they underestimate us (just ask Frank Sinatra, who learned that lesson the hard way when he called a female Australian journalist a hooker … union boss Bob Hawke made sure no plane would take him out of the country).
The US is perhaps hamstrung by the competitiveness of its market … by the celebrity industrial complex itself.
The American media circuit is so competitive that few companies will risk being blackballed by the big stars. Not scoring a page one or an exclusive can be killer … and publicists, agents and actors have long memories of “difficult” questions. That might explain the kid-glove treatment, as well as the fawning. Better to be safe than controversial.
The Cohen piece is guilty of both fawning and overreach. Many star profiles struggle to convey their subject’s supposed “otherwordly” beauty or talent. The attempt to do so can come across as pretentious i.e. calling Robbie a “blue mood” or a “slow dance”. (Can a human even be described as a “slow dance”?)
Stars can seem so big, mere words fail to convey their greatness, their specialness. Perhaps the hack can demonstrate their perceptiveness by describing these Hollywood demigods using arcane language only they can understand, as if only they can pick up their unique wavelength.
It is the emphasis on appearance that is the downfall of the celebrity puff piece, the emphasis on the stars’ bodies, their sex appeal, the clothes they wear, their body language, the twinkle in their eye. I wonder in particular why all blue eye are “piercing” or jaws “lantern”.
(This emphasis on the physical can go two ways: for example, to say someone “lightly picked at their salad” suggests that he’s some kind of fussy asshole.)
This style of piece has almost become an institution of its own, a convenient shorthand. It would almost seem weird if we weren’t assailed by gems such as “she can be sexy and composed even while naked but only in character”.
In some cases, one can have sympathy for the writers of such pieces. If a subject gives you “nothing” – if their quotes or anecdotes are dull, if the movie they’re plugging is a dud – it’s tempting to build up a piece with descriptions or segues of one’s own. Those 2000-word page holes won’t fill themselves, after all.
Yet that still doesn’t justify sentences such as “she is tall but only with the help of certain shoes”.
Here’s a tip: leave the descriptions of the physical appearance of the stars to a lean few sentences. The accompanying pictures will describe them better than the writer ever could.
(But we want to know what the stars look like in real life, I hear you ask. In my experience it varies greatly. Some such as Keanu Reeves look EXACTLY like they do on the big screen. Others you could pass on the street and never realise who they are.)
So let’s save the superlatives for describing their talent and latest works and leave out what they look like.
Because everyone is tall with the help of certain shoes.
My ebook military thriller The Spartan is out now on Amazon.