You are a bright young female celebrity, emerging from years of training, struggles, and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it roles to break out onto the international scene. You’re famous. You’re beautiful. You’re young, but tough; and the future is spread out in front of you for the taking.
And then you get the phone call. It’s a leading fashion magazine, and they want to put you on the cover. Yes, YOU. The shoot goes well – albeit slightly uncomfortable – and they take you out for lunch to speak with one of their leading journalists, who will be profiling you.
He’s older, approaching 50. You sit down, and he compliments your beauty. You feel, once again, slightly uncomfortable, but he’s held in high esteem so you put on your best smile and turn up the charm. Weeks later when you read the article, your skin crawls. It’s not what he said, but how he said it – the tone of his piece is leery, and patronising, and over sexualising what you thought was meant to be a conversation about your career.
You’re disappointed. But what were you expecting?
In recent months, we have seen a spate of high-profile male journalists come under fire for the tone of their interview profiles.
From Rich Cohen’s widely-panned piece on Margot Robbie for Vanity Fair, to this week’s Vogue interview with Selena Gomez by Rob Haskell, a similar narrative is emerging: older man profiles younger woman, and something just doesn’t feel right.
The tradition of the male entertainment reporter runs deep. From Jimmy Breslin to Russell Baker, Truman Capote to Johnny Carson, the role of the ‘fatherly’ figure reporting on the beautiful and naive starlet is as old as Hollywood itself.
Indeed, it was the story of Hollywood overall, really – whether they were marrying them or seducing them, auditioning for them or trying to capture their attention (and imagination), it was forever the role of the young woman to play into the hands of the older man.
But in 2017, the role of the damsel in distress does not sit as comfortably as it once did. Actually, it doesn’t sit well at all. The young women of Hollywood today are self-aware and strong, striving to portray feminist ideals and inspirational female characters for the younger generations to idolise. Little wonder some of the recent celebrity profiles have landed to earth with a disapproving thump.
We all remember 48-year-old Rich Cohen’s drooling write up of our own Margot Robbie.
“She is 26 and beautiful, not in that otherworldly, catwalk way but in a minor knock-around key, a blue mood, a slow dance,” he wrote.
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“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.”
To call his lingering description of Robbie ‘inappropriate’ is an understatement. To him, she was little more than a sexualised beach babe, a ready smile, a big-screen goddess from the land of ‘throwback people’ who graced the earth for the appreciative eyes of men like himself.
“She wandered through the room like a second-semester freshman,” he gushed, “finally at ease with the system. She stopped at tables along the way to talk to friends. I don’t remember what she was wearing, but it was simple, her hair combed around those painfully blue eyes. We sat in the corner. She looked at me and smiled.”
Young. Beautiful. Eager. Made for his entertainment. What was this, an interview, or a date?
For the April 2017 Vogue cover story, 24-year-old Selena Gomez was interviewed by the much older Rob Haskell. (Yes, that Rob Haskell, the guy who described Cara Delevingne’s bisexuality as a ‘phase’.)
Like Cohen, he seems to be under the impression he was on a romantic evening for two… not an interview.
“As I slip an apron over her mane of chocolate-brown hair,” writes Haskell, “for which Pantene has paid her millions, and tie it around her tiny waist, I wonder whether her legions have felt for years the same sharp pang of protectiveness that I’m feeling at present.”
Why were they cooking together? Was she in his house? Why? They are questions we almost can’t bear to ask, but Haskell would love you to anyway. The interview is leery in its fatherly gaze, dripping with sexual nuance.
But wait, it gets worse. Haskell goes on to paint Gomez – who has worked full time since age six, and owns her own production company – as his damsel in distress, arriving at his door amidst “an unusually wet and windy evening in Los Angeles.” He talks in great depth about her mental illness, about her pretty-in-pink young female fans. The Gomez we see is devoid of her usual strength and professionalism, something… weaker.
“Even as she projects strength and self-assuredness, Gomez is not stingy with frailty,” says Haskell. “’I’ve cried onstage more times than I can count, and I’m not a cute crier,’ she says.”
To Haskell, she is young. Lonely. Desperate for domesticity, for a simple life – like cooking her favourite dinner for a man, on a rainy night, to the tunes of Dolly Parton. Lucky she had him, right?
“’Oh, Mylanta!’ she wails, watching her cheesy potatoes travel around the table, a whiff of the simpler joys of home. ‘Look, I love what I do, and I’m aware of how lucky I am, but—how can I say this without sounding weird? I just really can’t wait for people to forget about me’,” Haskell writes.
It feels like an episode of the Brady Bunch.
The temptation to judge the older male reporter in his plight to portray the beautiful young starlet hangs heavy. But can you really blame Cohen, or Haskell, or the hordes of other male writers for falling to the knees in the presence of a star? Do they know any better? Is this simply the comet’s tail of a tradition, an understanding of gender roles, that traces itself back to almost the beginning of time?
One thing is certain. The tone of these articles is uncomfortable to read. The gushing descriptions of their beauty, the numerous references to their age… it’s a style that feels dated, a relic of a bygone era. A lingering wink that belongs in Mad Men, not modern journalism.
For comparison’s sake, I spent some time trawling online for the instance of female reporters interviewing handsome young men. I wanted to know if, given the same opportunity, their responses to youth and beauty would be the same.
Unsurprisingly, the level of respect was infinitely higher. When 60-year-old American entertainment journalist Katie Couric interviewed Prince Harry, for example, she did not even mention his looks, introducing him instead for his charity work, cheeky sense of humour, and “warm and personal side” when speaking about his Grandmother, the Queen.
Australian veteran reporter Angela Bishop, when speaking with Hollywood actor Aaron Eckhart, touched on travel, Formula One (which he was here to attend), his new movie, and his career as a whole. Not a single mention of his looks, his photoshoots, or his legions of female fans. Oh, the restraint!
In fact, once you step out of the trashy world of celebrity gossip and into the hallowed realm of interview pieces with Hollywood’s biggest stars - the crème de la crème of entertainment reporting - you’ll actually be hard pressed to find a female reporter who shows the same shameless attraction to their subject.
Whether it’s because of instinct, personal experience, or simply respect; smart female writers know that there’s always more to someone’s story than their looks alone. We’ve had to fight that battle ourselves a long time ago.
The age-old custom for powerhouse publications like Vogue and Vanity Fair, both steeped in tradition, to use an older male journalist to profile a younger female star must certainly be on its way out. When I first considered the quandary of the roles - older man, younger female, the power play of journalist and subject - I was sure that the only solution was to avoid it altogether.
But just as female writers have taught themselves to look beyond sexuality or easy angles, male writers must to the same. Be better. Try harder. Aim higher. Because with the new wave of unbelievable talent sweeping through Hollywood, they better catch up quick - or get left behind, with that leery wink and a pinch on the bum.