Over on Clutch, the staff responded to a recent T Magazine profile of Rihanna with dismay, noting that the interview really isn’t about Ms. Fenty. The profile was written by artist and actress Miranda July, and appears to be more about July’s feelings about meeting Rihanna then the “revealing” conversation teased in the headline. Clutch explains:
For instance, when Rihanna recalls being sent to America as a teen, admitting, ‘That’s something I don’t think I could ever do. Send my only girl to another random country to live with people she’d just met,” July doesn’t ask what it felt like, or if she ever asked her mother about how she was able to let her baby go. Instead, we get a tidbit about a then-27-year-old July trying to figure out what to do with her life. […] I seriously doubt most people cared July “dressed for Rihanna” or that Uber Black was the “highest level of Uber [she’s] ridden” in.
The staffer also drew attention to the September New York Times Sunday* Magazine profile of Nicki Minaj, also noting the interview left much to be desired.
Reading the full profile, July is fangirling hard for Rihanna in the piece, so much so that that outside of breathless descriptions of all the other people she encounters on the way to Rihanna, it takes almost half the piece to get to Rihanna actually talking. (The same thing happened with Nicki’s interview – you are almost half-way through the piece before she speaks a word.) Some commenters, familiar with July’s work, praised the piece as yet another piece of performance art from an undoubtedly quirky artist making a larger point about society.
But part of me wonders if this is too generous of a reading. If this is the case, then July’s art came at the expense of the subject: Rihanna. This kind of treatment is frustrating because the writers don’t seem too concerned with understanding the core or essence of the celebrity they profile.
The number of celebrity “interviews” that offer little insight into the person while providing long indulgences of the writer’s stream of consciousness is an annoying trend. I felt a vague sense of deja vu while reading the T Magazine piece, and realized The Fader’s cover interview (that wasn’t) had the same problem – I have no more insight about Rihanna then I did when I started.
I wonder if that “omg can you believe I get to interview this person?” trope is just another kind of racially influenced narcissism – why center the words of the black woman I am speaking to when my inner dialogue is so much more interesting? There can’t be two subjects of a profile piece. And, interestingly enough, it’s anathema to the entire celebrity journalist code – the first rule is that you do not fan out, because it obscures your subject. If you are too busy fawning, you don’t ask follow up questions, and you don’t reveal anything new to your readers/viewers. (There are many issues with celebrity rags, but this sort of thing would not fly in People Magazine.)
July is also candid about the questions she backs away from, saying:
I wanted to ask her about being a young black woman with power in America but it seemed somehow wrong to speak of this; maybe she was postracial now. So I directed my question to a younger Rihanna, and asked if she had suddenly felt aware of race in a different way when she moved to New York.
But this too is a cop-out. I don’t think a journalist from Essence or Ebony would have shied away from this question. And I can understand a discomfort with asking questions about race, but why do a profile if you aren’t going to ask questions? Rihanna’s answer was still interesting but the writer left so much unexplored. I’m glad Miranda July got a few good selfies out of this, but the interview reads like one long missed opportunity.
This type of breathless coverage robs Rihanna of her voice. And when we take into consideration the swirl of stereotypes surrounding black female celebrities in particular, one would hope that interviewers would try harder to illuminate more of the inner lives of these successful and often misunderstood women.
*Corrected with correct magazine, thanks to @DearSpelenda on Twitter.