From Dalí to Hurley, Lynn Barber‘s interviewed them all. She describes the nerve-jangling thrill of the celebrity interview and why Zoom will never replace IRL
Electric Encounters: Lynn Barber on Celebrity Interviews
Like everyone, I’ve missed meeting friends during lockdown, but I’ve missed something else more, which is interviewing people. I do think it’s the world’s cushiest job: choosing someone famous who seems interesting then going and asking them nosy questions – questions that probably their best friends would hesitate to ask – and GETTING PAID FOR DOING IT. The one possible downside is that having met your famous person and asked all your nosy questions, you then have to write up the encounter in a way that readers will find interesting. This seems to be where most would-be interviewers fail. They like the idea of meeting famous people, but not the long slog at the keyboard afterwards.
An interview is really not like meeting friends. You have to do a lot of homework first, reading up previous interviews, maybe watching stuff on YouTube, working out what questions you need to ask and trying to think of some ‘new’ questions that won’t have been asked a million times before. And having done all this homework, you’re then very nervous in case you screw it up on the day. In this respect, it’s exactly like sitting an exam – even with the best possible prep, it can still go wrong.
And, also like an exam, there is always great pressure of time. Nowadays, nearly all interviews are set up by PRs or publicists who give you a ‘time slot’ with your subject which they always try to whittle down. I won’t be whittled to less than an hour because I think it’s unfair to the readers, but younger interviewers have to take what they can get. Poor Hadley Freeman, an interviewer I respect, recently had to write a cover story about Julie Andrews on the basis of just 15 minutes conversation on Skype. She managed it but I don’t think it was good value for the reader.
Editors kept telling me during lockdown I could do interviews on Skype or Zoom or something, but I couldn’t face it, it felt like all the work with none of the fun of actually meeting someone. That’s the stuff I love – the shock of first impressions. ‘Oo, she’s so much shorter than I thought! She smells divine – is it Mitsouko? But why is she wearing those weird shoes?’ I try to remember as much as I can of these details but they’re quickly swamped by the greeting rituals – whether they ask where you’d like to sit, and whether they switch off their phone.
Rafael Nadal, I remember, was outstandingly rude, sprawling half naked on his massage table and making me perch on the end, whereas Kim Kardashian, even though she’d just landed from LA, was extraordinarily polite, apologising for ‘dragging’ me to Claridge’s (where I never mind being dragged) and saying she’d ordered tea and scones because she realised it was tea time in England. These little rituals can tell you so much about the person – whether they are polite, of course, but also whether they are genuinely friendly, or whether they actually resent doing interviews and are gritting their teeth at your presence. I interviewed Liz Hurley just before lockdown and she made a point of telling me, several times, that she only ever gave interviews when she had something to plug – in her case a totally forgettable TV series on Hulu. Of course, we all know that’s the unspoken contract with ‘publicity’ but it is incredibly rude, not just to me but to readers, to spell it out.
And – back to the exam analogy – you have to get the timing right. Of course, you’re dying to ask, ‘Do you still take drugs?’ or ‘Why did you fall out with your sister?’ but it’s definitely a mistake to start with those. So I usually start with the plug, to get it out of the way – ‘Tell me all about your new film which sounds so fascinating’. I remember once interviewing Liam Gallagher and being told I could only ask about his new clothing line. So, for a joke, I prepared at least 20 questions about parkas and fabrics and footwear until finally it was he who switched the conversation to his relations with his brother Noel. Ditto Courtney Love once told me off for not asking if she’d had cosmetic work (in truth it hadn’t even occurred to me) and led me over to a mirror to show me where she’d had ‘work’ done and where she planned to have more.
A lot of the success of an interview depends on your stance. My aim is to be polite, professional and genuinely interested, but not pretending we’re going to be best friends. I hate what I think of as star-fucker interviews where the journalist seems to be knocked out with excitement at meeting a famous person. Maybe they genuinely are but I’m too old for that. And anyway, it’s unfair to the readers because whatever stance you adopt, they have to share it. On the other hand, you’re not there to have an argument. I think this is where many male interviewers go wrong – they want to have a debate. I never do. I just want to milk my interviewee for all the information I can get out of them in my limited time. I want them to talk at least ten times more than me, with absolutely minimal intervention. My idea of the perfect question is, ‘Why?’ because it only takes a second to ask and often produces long, fascinating, answers.
Doing a good interview is really hard work. I’m often exhausted afterwards and rather appalled if my subject says, ‘Oh stay and chat’. I don’t quite know how to chat. Maybe that’s why I became an interviewer. Actually, I once had a very disconcerting experience when I wrote to Theresa May, while she was still Home Secretary, asking if I could interview her, and she sent a hand-written reply, saying she wouldn’t do an interview, but why didn’t I come and have a chat? Unfortunately, it quickly became obvious that she was as useless at chatting as I was and we barely got beyond, ‘Read any good books lately?’.
I love the challenge of interviews – the preparation, the time pressure, the nerves, the quick notes in the loo jotting down first impressions, the deep breaths afterwards trying to remember as much as possible, and then the impatient wait till I can play back the recording, and decide whether it was any good. It’s quite rare for me to come out of an interview knowing it was good, though it’s happened a few times – most memorably with Marianne Faithfull, but also with Salvador Dalí, Joseph Heller, Shane McGowan – usually because there’s been a sort of electricity in the encounter. A good interview is really NOT the same as nice cosy chat. During lockdown, I feel I’ve slightly overdosed on cosy chats, so I now can’t get wait back to the nerve-jangling tension of interviewing.
Lynn’s Interview Low-Down
Dress? Try to look vaguely smart.
Pre-interview ritual? Last cigarette.
Make-up? Red lipstick.
Drink during? Water.
Share a meal? Yes, but somewhere not too crowded or noisy and with very good service, like The Ritz.
Best place to interview? Ideally, the subject’s home.
Ever lost a transcript? No.
Model interviewee? Someone with bold opinions and good sense of humour.
Killer question? Don’t believe in killer questions, much prefer asking ‘Why?’.
Any walk-outs? Martin Clunes would have but we were in his house.
Does meeting the celebrity often make you change your mind about them? Not often but sometimes.
Favourite personality trait? Candour.
Best ice breaker? I usually start by asking where they would like me to sit.
Any tears? Yes. Julian Fellowes and Howard Hodgkin.
Longest ever interview? Five days with Salvador Dalí.
And shortest? Dawn French. I gave up after half an hour.
Publicists present? Often.
Who’s been more beautiful in the flesh? Helena Bonham Carter.
And less beautiful? Liz Hurley.
Who surprised you most? Courtney Love.
Who’s still on your bucket list to interview? Rupert Murdoch.
Do you like being interviewed? No.
Do you agree with your nickname of ‘Demon Barber’? No.
Career low point? Interviewing footballers for the Evening Standard.
And high point? Winning my first British press award in 1985. I’ve won five more since, but you always remember the first time.
How can an interviewee win you over? By being very frank.
Boris Johnson or Keir Stammer? Keir.
Lockdown rule obeyer or breaker? Obeyer.
Dogs or cats? Cats.