Bad celebrity magazine profiles are a long and storied genre, and a new profile of comedian Kate McKinnon in the latest Vanity Fair is so terrible that it deserves an instant addition to that dubious canon.
Writing a deft and nuanced celebrity profile is hard. But writing a celebrity profile that is not only bad but contains antagonistic asides that compare the act of writing to a police interrogation, treats your subject’s sexuality as a shameful secret not to be discussed, and gives her almost no voice in a story that’s supposed to be about her, is much harder. Contributing editor Lili Anolik somehow pulls this feat off.
As The Cut first pointed out, the profile in the November edition of the magazine, which featured a ghostly pale cover photo of McKinnon by Annie Leibovitz, features a mere six direct quotes from the star herself about Hillary Clinton, her comedic collaborators, and her childhood (“We watched The Producers once a week.”)
What Anolik spends much more time doing is waxing on with weird asides about her own flimsy research process (YouTube, Wikipedia) and being preoccupied with McKinnon’s sexuality.
Here’s Anolik opening the story with a rumination on the act of writing a profile (a topic fascinating to no one but herself):
If journalists played it straight with movie stars, they’d call it an interrogation not an interview. It’d be conducted at a police station—some grimy, windowless room at the back, cramped and full of the hot stink of fear and funk. After bouncing the star off a wall or two, ignoring the pitiful pleas for a phone call, a lawyer, a mommy, the journalist would shine a light in those pretty, pretty eyes, and start grilling.
She then spends a paragraph describing how McKinnon, who’s “badly” dressed for their lunch, is cat-like in her looks and mannerisms.
Then, finally, some 1,200 words in, we get our first words from McKinnon herself, on playing Clinton for Saturday Night Live:
Hillary has great timing.
Their lunch arrives “following a discreet dick adjustment” by the waiter, and then the writer takes on McKinnon’s relationship with Clinton, reflecting along the way that the interview isn’t going great:
Kate and I start with her professional life, and we stay there for a long time, and we’re doing all right, are cooking with gas, in fact, even if we do encounter the occasional bump in the road...When I ask her about a dinner she had with Hillary...her eyes begin to skitter and jump.
Then, after a lengthy detour on the writer’s “own set of ethics and practices” for asking personal questions of an interviewee—which, again, nobody cares—we get into some weird tip-toeing around the fact that McKinnon is gay, which is not at all a secret and is something McKinnon has never been shy about:
All this information [about McKinnon’s personal life] is but a Google search away. Which means her sexuality is in the public domain. Which means it’s fair game for the likes of me.
Was there anyone, anywhere, ever, saying you shouldn’t talk about McKinnon’s sexuality?
BUT FIRST, there’s another 250-word parenthetical about celebrity nudes and how Jennifer Lawrence “say[ing] funny dumb shit” on the red carpet has transformed the art of profiling a rich and famous person. (What was McKinnon doing during all this deep thinking over an East Village lunch? We’ll never know.)
Then, when Anolik clears her throat to signal a weighty line of questioning coming up, she notices that McKinnon’s face tenses up, “as if she senses where I’m going.” She continues:
I say, ‘You don’t want to talk about your personal life?’ She gives a fast, nervous shake of the head. And, since I’m no cop and Kate’s certainly no criminal, I nod back. Then I lean across the table and switch off the tape recorder.
And with that, the cover story is over. We are not transformed, we’ve learned next-to-nothing about what drives McKinnon as a person or a professional; we’re not even told what the comedian ordered for their lunch (although we’re told the “food is as good as the [restaurant’s] ambience is bad.”)
Overall, it’s a bizarre profile that centers the writer, not McKinnon, and reads like a write-around profile, a form made famous by Gay Talese’s“Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” and rarely done well ever since. (I’ve reached out to Vanity Fair for comment and will update if I hear back.)
But McKinnon does look great with the Leibovitz treatment: