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Vanity fare.

In the April issue of Esquire, journalist Philip Weiss records, with a director's distance, his interview with actress Ellen Barkin. At the fade-in, Phil and Ellen are tete a tete in a New York restaurant, downing cafe con leche and wrestling over what this celebrity profile will be. Ellen wants to talk about sexism and cowardice in Hollywood and other, realer places. Phil wants to talk about Ellen's body.

When she resists--criticizing the studios, speculating on the emotional life of the waitress--Weiss can't control his impatience. He wants to know her secrets, not her politics. "While lots of things you say are long paragraphs--they're Ellen Barkin, social critic--I have to break this up for the reader," he advises her at one point. "I want a little narrative. I wanted you to tell me the story about what it was like wearing falsies."

Weiss's struggle to get the boob scoop from the actress makes a funny read about the mechanics of the celebrity interview. But it also illustrates a troubling relationship between substance and celebrity in today's general interest magazines. In pursuit of the reader in a cable-ready world, these magazines are increasingly the handmaiden to the very forms of media--TV and movies--that threaten to supplant them.

It's not that mythraking was invented by Vanity Fair's Tina Brown. Photoplay, Silver Screen, and Movie Mirror were mesmerizing housewives and teenagers as soon as there were movies to hype. What is new is the celebrity encroachment on more earnest publishing ventures. In 1988, a "reformatted" Time added a "Critic's Choice" section on movies, TV, and music and doubled the size of a column called "People." The New Yorker, that redoubtable franchise, began adding mini-profiles of theater, music, and dance personalities to the squint-print nightlife listings at the front of the book. Even The Washington Monthly managed to devise a, uh, perfectly good reason for featuring Julia Roberts on its cover this spring. But no transformation has been quite as pronounced as that of the general interest magazine, a barometer, like phone surveys and focus groups, of American middle-class taste. "It's nutty," marvels Jesse Kornbluth, until recently one of Vanity Fair's leading celebrity profilers, "but people today take their values from the media, and they relate to celebrities like their friends. When I talked to Kevin Costner, our conversation was about how to live. With Jodie Foster, it was the same deal. . . . Celebrity profiles carry a subtext, a code about morality." Celebrities, in other words, are the new lodestars of American values. Trouble is, journalistic values are paying the price.

In 1950, fewer than a quarter of Life's 52 weekly covers were devoted to Hollywood types. The others vivified such stuff as atomic warfare, the Korean front, Texas football, and children of poverty to an audience of 10 million people. Tinier Esquire hawked three celebrities on its cover in 1961, one--Joe Namath--in 1971, and none a decade later. What it did have were Mailer's politics, Talese's sociology, Gailbraith's economics, and Nabokov's memoirs. While magazine covers are, first and foremost, a way to sell magazines, they're also a window into an editor's soul, a gauge of what point he's trying to make with his product. By the mid-eighties, the point most of the general interest covers were making was celebrity--minimal spin, maximum starpower. In the last year, Esquire's gone 8 for 12 in the all-star game; Vanity Fair, the standard-bearer, is batting 1.000. When asked why so many celebrities, Esquire editor Terry McDonell protests, "I just came from a meeting where they told me I'm not doing enough."

Of course, you can't judge a general interest magazine by its cover. Buried in almost every issue of the slicks are pieces blessedly remote from the Hollywood ethic: In Esquire, Denis Johnson's powerful dispatch from Liberia; Ron Rosenbaum on the ethics of euthanasia in Vanity Fair. "We don't do that sappy profile stuff," says McDonell. "We use celebrities as fronts"--recognizable symbols employed to draw readers into more substantive pieces. This month, for example, he's hoping David Letterman will lure you into an essay on sentimentality in the nineties. Yet despite editors' protestations, the Variety virus has an uncanny way of infecting even noble endeavors. In August's Vanity Fair, the writer of a story on Daryl Gates, the L.A. police chief, manages to squeeze John Candy, Robert Stack, and Robocop Peter Weller into the second paragraph, Bob Hope into the fourth, and Tom Berenger into the seventh. (Rodney King, the victim, appears somewhere between Bob and Tom.)

What could be harmful about something as innocuous as celebrity? In an age when more young people "followed closely" the breakup of Donald and Ivana than the breakup of Drexel Burnham Lambert, more space spent on stars means less on everything else. And getting those celebrities sometimes requires the ceding of editorial independence, from dulling the hatchet to performing out-and-out PR. But even more disturbing than occasional ethical violations is the creeping tendency to level editorial aspirations, transforming even the esoteric into the easy. In a recent Vanity Fair interview with Vaclav Havel--a philosopher trying to erect a democracy on the ashes of a totalitarian state--writer Stephen Schiff pauses to press the leader about his thoughts on . . . celebrity.

"But wait a minute," says a skeptical Schiff at one point, driving for the truth. "Isn't Havel a little more celebrity crazy than he's willing to admit?" After much disclaimer, Havel finally breaks down. He likes celebrities. He wouldn't turn Mick Jagger away at the door.

Sure, most of us are susceptible to the celebrity seduction--of preferring Havel on Jagger to Havel on Yeltsin. In fact, that's the point. As the general interest magazine's own history demonstrates, great editing, like great leadership, consists in appealing to what's best in us, not in letting us wallow happily in the mush. Yet in an era of dismal ad sales and declining readership, such idealism appears to have gone the way of the Saturday Review. Last year, in a fit of boldness, Tina Brown awarded Mikhail Gorbachev her cover, displacing Ellen Barkin. Brown was rewarded with the worst selling issue in years. Unfortunately, she hasn't made that mistake again.

In another forum, Phil Weiss's piece might have been a clever bit of criticism, an obituary for the mass-market magazine in which serious work buffeted, even prevailed ovr, the idiosyncracies of the stars. But Esquire is a general interest magazine. Weiss doesn't just describe the conflict between politics and celebrity inherent in popular writing--he eventually chooses sides. Somehow, toward the end, the auteur finds himself writing the requisite wet kiss to the star.

"Ellen Barkin had been scared of herself, of who she was. When she faced it and got secure enough in it, she could make movies that made other people confront it, too." Coming away from the tangle, Weiss sums up the experience: He'll look at her differently on-screen--she's smart--but he'll "continue to admire her breasts."

Real to reel

In 1968, William Styron wrote eloquently in Esquire about his own "Silent Generation," grown up in the depression, horrified by World War II, wearied by Korea. "[W]e were the most mistrusful of power and the least nationalist of any generation that America has produced," Styron asserted. "And just as surely, whatever its defects may have been, it has been this generation's interminable experience with ruthless power and the loony fanaticism of the military mind that has by and large caused it to lend the most passionate support to the struggle to end war everywhere. We have that at least in our favor."

This May, Newsweek's media critic, Jonathan Alter, chronicled another generation for Esquire--the "Nowhere Generation" of cynical twentysomethings who grew up after Vietnam. But this is 1991. Alter's political thesis is literally and figuratively wedged into a plug for a movie called True Color. A bad movie.

"We'd been talking about doing a piece wrapped around the movie, but the movie wasn't very good," says Alter. "And the question become, should I do an article on the movie anyway?" The answer, explains Terry McDonell, was yes. James Spader and John Cusack, the stars, were available for interviews, and their faces would sell the cover. "The movie has problems, "Alter wrote, before noting that "Cusack, 25, and Spader, 31, deliver the quality work that is turning both of them into big stars."

"It ended up being a strange piece," says Alter. "I'm ambivalent about it." That's understandable. The Alter piece illustrates a critical difference between the general interest magazine of '68 and of '91: the debasing of real life, the inflation of life on the reel. "When you read the news, so much of it doesn't really touch your life," observes Jesse Kornbluth, himself ambivalent about the celebrity phenomenon. "I mean, do you understand this BCCI scandal? I don't. But for better or worse, people feel celebrities can touch their lives."

A long time ago, before Tina Brown was ever born, Henry Luce grasped the exploitative potential of the celebrity--second on his scale only to photos of corpses, executions, and other necrobilia. The first issue of Life, in 1936, pictured Greta Garbo and Helen Hayes inside. But Luce's ego resisted editing to the lowest common denominator, so he chose Margaret Bourke-White's photo of Fort Peck Dam--in Montana, of all places--for that first cover. He had the best-selling debut in history. While he continued to tap unapolegetically into Hollywood for titillation--Janet Leigh, Grace Kelly, and Eva Gabor were fifties constants--his covers formed a pastiche of critical moments in American life: Korea, Sputnik, the Kennedys, Castro, the H-bomb, Vietnam, the urban racial crisis. When Winston Churchill peddled his war memoirs, Luce was first in line.

Yet Life was no mere compendium. Amid the mass quantities of Americana between its covers were regular glimpses of the editor's simple anticommunist cosmology. For his preachiness Luce took his share of heat. "They accept their own righteousness before the Lord too comfortably to be successful apostles," sniffed The New Republic about Life's editors in 1953. But even this didacticism had an up side. While Luce's passion couldn't convince six million middle-class readers to like Chiang Kai-shek, it could help determine what those readers would have passionate opinions about.

If Luce was careful about the limbs he crawled out on, others took greater risks. At the height of Vietnam, Esquire's Harold Hayes gave Michael Herr license to draft the seminal antiwar piece, Dispatches, in his pages. He commissioned Gore Vidal to make Ralph Nader, his eccentricities and his drive, palpable to tens of thousands of 22-year-olds to whom he might otherwise have been nothing but a name. In the long, hot summer of '69, he printed a sympathetic portrait of a wizard of the KKK.

Like Luce, Hayes was keenly conscious of the market. "Commerce made us dance," he once wrote. "Sharper ideas, impertinence or sauciness . . . whatever [is] necessary to get attention so that the service then could do its work." But the "service," strange term, occasionally seemed real. Besides the ubiquitous celebrations of madonnas and whores, theme issues focused on such unlibidinous topics as black separatism, leaps in reproductive technology, and the death of American avant-garde theater (a gleeful obituary). Celebrity? Talese took on Sinatra and lesser mortals; Helen Lawrenson savaged that nice, nice Julie Andrews. But under the heading "Personalities" in a 1971 Esquire, there's simply Dean Acheson's memoir of Harry S Truman. That sort of editing wasn't premised on giving readers purely what they clamored for. It was about offering them something they didn't know--yet--they should care about. With the right writer and enough vigor, they would care. And that--not deft prose, not acid analysis--was the real power of the general interest magazine.

This winter, when confronted with Desert Storm--the first war many of its readers had ever seen, an experience that a great editor might've leapt on to engage the young--not a single general interest magazine editor dared displace a celebrity to put the conflict squarely on the cover. Instead, John Sack's excellent reporting from Saudi Arabia in the April Esquire was billed second to Phil Weiss and Ellen Barkin. Despite state-of-the-art technology for cutting the lag time between production and publication, Vanity Fair's March cover featured actress Shirley MacLaine, gossip columnist Taki, and Hollywood mogul David Geffen--and no Gulf war reporting at all. In April, the cover was Madonna, but several stories inside addressed the subject of the Middle East. In addition to a fine investigative piece on the assassination of Yasser Arafat's second in command, there was a celebration of the wartime ascent of CNN, a profile of "The Texas Buccaneer Who's Poised To Be a Major Player in Iraq," and a piece on King Fahd and his playboy scions. One of the royal princes goes to New York for urine baths, we learn; many of the royal princesses are porky.

What happened? Demographers tell us the profile of mass-market readers is the same as it was in 1950: young, most without college degrees, with a median household income now at about $35,000. But thanks to TV, far fewer of them are reading. Between 1975 and 1990, Esquire's audience shrank from 1.2 million to 750,000. Life, which once sold 10 million copies a week, averaged only two million (and dwindling) this year--one seventh of the circulation of TV Guide.

Part of the problem, of course, is TV. But there's an enemy within the print medium, too: New technology has made putting out a magazine easier than ever. Between 1980 and 1990, the number of magazines on American newsstands doubled; there were 500 new ones last year alone, from Crochet Celebrations to the bawdy Outlaw Biker. Market research told publishers that they had approximately two and a half seconds to convince the newsstand browser or lose him altogether. General interest magazines found themselves, more often than not, losing. And Lucian self-confidence gave way to economic terror.

The mass-market magazines could ride the vector and specialize. They could die a slow death, like the Saturday Evening Post. Or they could change their roles altogether. In editors' minds, an idea simmered. Could Hollywood, the competition, be a catalyst, too? Perhaps, instead of shaping mass taste, a general interest magazine could reflect it--or rather, reflect those reflections, movies and TV. If that sounded like Plato, it would read more like People, which had emerged from the seventies as the decade's most successful new magazine.

People's managing editor, Richard Stolley, once codified his strategy for reaching the restless with his covers. "Young is better than old, pretty is better than ugly, TV is better than music, music is better than movies, movies are better than sports, anything is better than politics." Today, movies have moved up in the rankings while TV has slipped, but as readership dwindles and ad revenue dries up, Stolley's Law has become the general interest magazine's mantra. "In a way, it's kind of comforting," says an editor now. "You can be brain dead and sell 100,000 copies of an issue with Cher." And in fact, you'd probably want to be. Because to get Cher on the cover, you may have to do some pretty sleazy things.

Make nice with Nazis

Editors peddling a general interest magazine in today's market deserve merit badges just for surviving. Unfortunately, there's an ethical price for the celebrity dependence that has allowed them to stay alive. As demand for saleable stars exceeds the supply--hot actors have dozens of choices, from Esquire to Forbes to The New York Time Magazine--access, once a given for the big magazines, has become a drawn-out series of negotiations and written agreements. And the bottom line is often quid pro quo.

"It's a little nauseous-making," says Peter Kaplan, a former editor at Esquire and Smart, a magazine that by policy was to have a beautiful, famous woman on every cover. "If you do something nasty about a celebrity, you won't lose ads, you'll lose something even more crucial--the cooperation of a small, closed, almost monopolistic industry. And you need movie stars. So you're trapped."

How trapped? Charles Fleming, a writer for Weekly Variety, describes reporting a piece on Arnold Scwarzenegger for Time last year. Before Swarzenegger would agree to the interview, Time higher-ups had to agree not to ask him about: a recent, unflattering unauthorized biography; his past steroid use; his friendship with Kurt Waldheim; and his dad's relationship to the Nazi party. And there was one thing they had to grill him about mercilessly: his appointment to the President's Council on Physical Fitness.

Most publicists don't need to issue contracts to cover such arrangements. Among the Hollywood press, a more informal arrangement obtains. While being interviewed over a long period of time by a prominent writer, a producer occasionally excused himself for "coke breaks," making little effort to disguise his departures. In any other setting--a federal office, a corporate boardroom, the locker room of the University of Texas--it might have been an act of foolish, even fatal, bravado. In Hollywood, it was safe. While the writer had no doubt that the producer, entrusted with tens of millions of dollars, was carrying around a serious addiction, all indications of it were left out of the story. The writer's editor, when questioned about it, defends the decision. "What you don't understand," he explains patiently, "is that movie star writing is partly glamour writing. You become conspirators in the dream."

How widespread is the conspiracy? Consider this memo, intercepted by Spy, from Tina Brown to Creative Artists Agency chief Mike Ovitz, the most powerful agent in Hollywood:

Right now, the most hackneyed prevailing perception of you is as a "packager," a term which has a connotation of crassness that has little to do with what you actually achieve on a daily basis. It seems to me that a better term for your role in the life of Hollywood would be a catalyst: activating creativity by a gifted sense of talent, material, timing, and taste; plus, of course, extraordinary business acumen in putting it all together. Probably no one since Thalberg has seeded so many creative partnerships or brought so many movies to the screen.

And so on.

What could possess Tina Brown, editor of one of the most successful magazines in the business, to compromise herself so plainly? Vanity Fair depends on newsstand buyers for more than a third of its sales, making celebrity covers seem essential. And Tom Cruise, Dustin Hoffman, Robin Williams, and Cher are just the sleekest of the hundreds of horses in Ovitz's stable. In the past two years, more than a third of Vanity Fair's covers featured CAA stars. Which may or may not explain why last month, in a story about the furor over the allegedly homophobic movie Basic Instinct, Ovitz appeared briefly but heroically in an article critical of his archenemy, screenwriter Joe Eszterhas.

Brown grew up in the British equivalent of Hollywood; her father made movies. She knows how the game works. "I tend to feel that you can't take on the world," she once told Newsweek. "It's much better to try and make alliances with the people who affect your destiny." Such amiability has clearly paid off.

Ladies who launch

When Frank Crowninshield's legendary Vanity Fair was exhumed in the early eighties, it was envisioned as an irreverent literary enterprise in competition with The New Yorker; its covers featured such postdebs as Francine Du Plessix Gray. Within a year, it had crashed mightily on the newsstand. Enter Brown, whose first issue featured a blindfolded Daryl Hannah in a tight red dress, a profile of rehabilitated Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards and his model-wife, and advice from famous people on how to read The New York Times.

"I hated that story," Dominick Dunne later said of the Daryl Hannah piece, which, as it happened, he wrote. "Incredibly superficial." But superficial was more or less the point. While there are brave exceptions, most journalists who want to be in the slicks agree to play by a specific set of rules. Simple rules: Daryl Hannah's got a new movie, and you're a cog in the rave machine. "It's like the pool coverage during the war," says Kim Masters, a former magazine writer who now covers Hollywood from the outback of the The Washington Post, "only there's no war."

"There's almost no institutional support for truthful journalistic pieces anymore," says another Hollywood-based writer. "Instead of saying, 'We stand by our reporter,' your editor's negotiating with the agents, saying, 'We'll give you a puff piece. Take your choice of writer.'"

How does that dynamic affect what gets written? Examine the cover profile of a neurotic, intensely self-critical Michelle Pfeiffer that ran last December in Esquire as the movie Russia House opened. The author, the usually acid-penned Washington Post critic Hal Hinson, finds himself suspending disbelief. The actress's one-day walk-off from the set is portrayed as a personal epiphany, and veteran director Robert Towne's vital summary of his dealings with the actress--"Of all the actresses I have worked with in Hollywood, going back a lot of years, to my earliest days, Michelle was the most difficult"--is tucked parenthetically into the middle of the story. Granted, astute analysis of what Michelle Pfeiffer is really like is probably not a priority of nineties journalism. But Hinson's conclusion, "I left her house thinking that the only thing wrong with Michelle Pfeiffer is Michelle Pfeiffer," has the ring, not of journalism, but of shilling. The cover type: "What does Michelle Pfeiffer need? Absolutely nothing." (Not to be confused with February's Ted Turner/Jane Fonda headline: "Some Couples Are a Perfect Match.")

"You carefully place your hatchet jobs," acknowledges one writer. "You have to." The result is that virtually all Hollywood profiles come in one of three packages. 1) He thinks he's a mess but he's not. 2) Lots of other people think he's a mess but he's not. 3) He actually is a mess--that's why we love him. The writer who expects editorial support for writing category 4--he's a mess and should probably be sent to Hazelden for rehab before he does any more damage to decent people--would do well to consider the case of writer Lynn Hirschberg, who drew a tough portrait of Beverly Hills Cop producer Don Simpson for Esquire in 1985.

Hirschberg's piece, the accuracy of which was never disputed, prompted Simpson's publicist, Peggy Siegal, to blacklist Hirschberg, barring her from screenings involving Siegal's other clients. Did editors rally 'round the writer in the name of journalistic integrity? Not exactly. Three years later, Esquire named Siegal one of its annual "Women We Love."

Is such sycophancy necessary? Post-blacklist, Hirschberg's been relegated to interviewing substars like Madonna. And there are a dozen other cases of writers who burned their bridges in Hollywood only to find agents rebuilding them six months later. Yet these heartening stories are not the ones editors invoke when talking candidly about the Hollywood hitch. It's the blackball that sticks in the mind--a perceived powerlessness that justifies future grovelling. In this year's "Women We Love," tucked between Jamie Lee Curtis in fishnet and Daryl Hannah in pasties, is an insurance policy taken out by the editors of Esquire: a group portrait of the female staff of LA's International Creative Management agency, women charged with packaging hundreds of future stars. McDonell insists the purpose was not artfulness, but art: "I stand by the picture," he says.

Rainforest crunch

The Hollywood press pack makes a fine case study in source journalism run amok; by comparison, the White House press corps looks like an investigative team from the Village Voice. But general interest editors seem oddly equable about the compromise. One Roseanne gets you a rainforest, as one editor puts it. "It's a bargain, if you ask me," says another. "It buys you the ability to do uninfected--if you will--editorial. It allows you to do great work in between."

The spoilsport exegete might consider the in-between of, say, the August Esquire, with its requisite celebrity--Jennifer Connelly, star of three weak movies--on the cover. After flipping past the usual columns, he'll find three articles within. One is the almost wordless, 30-page "Women We Love" spread, featuring actresses, rock stars, agents, and a handful of real people. Number two is a humor piece written, presumably with help, by a child star of the seventies, the Partridge Family's prodigal Danny Bonaduce. And last, there's a piece in Esquire's ancient journalistic tradition. Elizabeth Kaye's Palm Beach reportage on the Kennedys is all that separates this Esquire from People. Or does it? The subject is the Kennedys.

The overly hopeful might suggest that, by renouncing real life for celebrity spreads, today's American mass-market editors are writing themselves a ticket to obsolescence, as the starts to which they've hitched their wagons fade. Network TV viewing is declining, as cable fractures the medium into a thousand unreflecting pieces. With the rise of the VCR, mass moviegoing--despite the slicks' relentless cross-pollination--has stagnated. Perhaps, as those dominant media continue to splinter, diminishing the power of the mass-market icon, some editor might try to expand the horizons of the general interest magazine again, bringing middle-class readers more reality, less dream. "I think things are changing," says McDonell, heartened by the fact that earlier this year a George Bush cover sold almost as well as Ellen Barkin. The economic forces, he suggests, may finally be coming around.

But should economics be the only spur? The question brings us back to Phil Weiss. A contributing editor at Harper's and a former editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, Weiss Doesn't usually do movie stars; he occasionally even writes for magazines like The Washington Monthly. One subject, several years back, was New York Times reporter-turned-investment banker Steven Rattner, who traded his $50,000 salary for more than $1 million , uneasily abdicating his idealism in the process. "What's troubling about Rattner", Weiss concludes, "is that in recognizing that no profession is inherently moral, he also seems to have given up on the idea that individuals should strive to be usedful to society."

The same, of course, might be said of the editors of general interest magazines. As more and more middle-class people disengage from politics, public schools, the deficit, and a hundred other aspects of real life, might mass-market print leaders try a little harder to help us face American's problems instead of serving up another paean to Kevin Costner? Might they strive to find some middle ground between selling and selling out?

I called a veteran editor at one of the slicks, who is frustrated by the narrowness of the enterprise, the emptiness of his professional life. I wanted to ask his opinion. He called back a few days later, from L.A. "Sorry it took so long," he said cheerfully. "I've been talking to some folks about a movie."

Katherine Boo is an editor of The Washington Monthly. Research assistance was provided by Jennifer Bradley and Kate Martin.
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Title Annotation:magazines feature stories on celebrities to increase readership
Author:Boo, Katherine
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Sep 1, 1991
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