Saturday, 27 October 2018

Drew Barrymore’s bizarre EgyptAir profile reveals the truth about the celebrity media circus

It’s no surprise that the actor’s interview was completely real. At junkets, the questions often swing between sycophancy and snark, writes Hadley Freeman in The Guardian. Read on: 

Honestly, I think everyone missed the real joke about Drew Barrymore and her EgyptAir interview. This may sound odd, given how much hooting there has been ever since a passenger, Adam Baron, tweeted images of it from the airline’s inflight magazine, which included such gems, attributed to Barrymore, as, “I focus on nurturing [my children’s] minds as well as their small bodies”, and “I feel overwhelmed when someone tells me that I have managed to lose that extra weight.” The latter was in response to an observation from the journalist about how Barrymore, post-birth, “gained several kilograms [so] that even your fans accused you of being overweight and neglecting your health. However, today I see you have returned to your previous graceful body; what is your secret?” No way could this be a real exchange, people said. But anyone who’s ever done a celebrity interview knew the punchline had yet to drop.

Barrymore’s representatives insisted the actor did not “technically sit down with EgyptAir for an interview”, but they had to admit the quotes came from a real press conference. Also known as “junkets” or “round tables”, these sessions typically involve an actor talking to multiple journalists at once; the writers, often from different countries, then translate the quotes and stitch them together into some kind of article. So the real joke is that the interview – albeit translated first into Arabic and then back, badly, into English – was completely real.

My own career as a celebrity interviewer began promisingly. Aged 18, and still at university, I spoke to a British actor who had recently quit a play early in its run.

“What would you say to people who say it’s your fault the play has now closed?” I asked, in all my wide-eyed starstruck innocence.

“What would you say if I called you a bitch?” he snapped back.

 ‘I think everyone missed the real joke about Drew Barrymore and her EgyptAir interview.’ Photograph: Getty Images
What I didn’t know then was that this was a rare – valuable, even – experience, in that I got a glimpse of the celebrity’s true self. When I tell people now that my job involves talking to famous people they tend to imagine I live the life of the kid in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, who goes on the road with a band in the 1970s. But that era of journalism vanished along with mullets, alas.

I am lucky to work at the Guardian, where editors insist that any interview must include at least an hour of one-on-one time: no stitched together random quotes here. But I have sat in on these round tables and the questions invariably swing between sycophancy and snark – partly because those are the approaches most likely to get some kind of reaction, and partly because the journalists are from different countries and some jokes get lost in translation.

“Ms Winslet, how do you feel about being such an icon of beauty?” I once heard a French fashion writer ask Kate Winslet backstage at the Baftas, a question to which there is truly no good answer. At a press conference with the notoriously temperamental and five-times-married James Cameron, one German journalist decided to kick off proceedings with “So James, why do you keep dumping your wives?”

One-on-one interviews can be just as strange. At their worst, these are held in a hotel, where journalists queue outside a room and are marched in, one at a time. There is something weirdly transactional about the whole thing: all those shifty hacks waiting to go into a hotel room where someone far more beautiful is primed to give them what they need. Similarly, the celebrity is expected to offer up the most intimate details of their life to sell a movie and make money. The comparisons with sex work are obvious. Well, to me, anyway. “It’s a bit like being in a brothel,” I once cheerfully said to a publicist, while waiting to interview Oprah Winfrey. Handy hint for aspiring journalists: don’t say this.

And then there are the celebrities themselves who, given half a chance, revert to bland celeb-speak, the verbal equivalent of muzak, because they’re trying to avoid saying anything too personal or – God forbid – controversial. I once interviewed Cameron Diaz and she used the word “journey” a total of – I kid you not – 12 times.

And yet, the high points of my career have all involved talking to celebrities: spending a weekend with Judy Blume; meeting Michael J Fox in his office; acting out a scene from Moonstruck with Nicolas Cage. And my favourite pieces of journalism are celebrity interviews, because, when done well, they reveal something about the culture we live in, told through a very human story. But those are the organic versions; most interviews are now battery-farmed junkets which reveal nothing beyond a publication’s desperation for a famous face to slap on its cover.

The joke about EgyptAir’s interview is not that it was so bad, but that it’s so typical of the genre; the airline’s only mistake was not getting a better translator. At least readers now know how deranged these celebrity junkets are – and for that I thank EgyptAir for showing us the truth, and in this way nurturing our small bodies.

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