NEW YORK — For an independent magazine like Interview to survive three-and-a-half decades, two recessions and the death of its founder in an increasingly competitive marketplace, those at the helm must be doing something right. In the past two years, publisher Sandra Brant has landed 92 new advertising accounts, most notably in the beauty, fashion and automotive categories; the magazine will increase its rate base to 200,000 in January, and the first volume of books in a Steidl collector’s series of past interviews and photography is on the way. Meanwhile, the October anniversary issue — hitting newsstands Sept. 22 — is the magazine’s largest ever, at 400 pages. As the publication Andy Warhol founded prepares to turn 35, editor in chief Ingrid Sischy talked pop culture and celebrity with WWD.
WWD: What was the purpose of Interview when Andy Warhol started it in 1969?
INGRID SISCHY: There’s the joke, Andy started Interview because he wanted to get invited to movie openings and meet movie stars. But it was also to help promote his movies. So it was a movie magazine, but because of his artist’s vision, they were into European cult films, classics. If you look at the early Interview, it was Gloria Swanson, or King Vidor, or the biggest porn maker of all time. Now, my god, he was so right over and over and over again about what the culture would be interested in.
WWD: How has the magazine evolved since then?
I.S.: Andy understood that our gods and goddesses were stars. So it very quickly became that great combination of innocent/witty/naïve/sophisticated celebrity magazine — and absolutely the first of its kind. Yes, in the Twenties there had been Vanity Fair, but that was an uptown publication. Interview was a magazine where Candy Darling was treated as big a star as Elizabeth Taylor. In the Seventies, they added politics. And in the Eighties it really became a full-on alternative magazine, with glamour. You’d have a new kid who was making paper dresses, and he’d be at lunch with Valentino. Or a story on Calvin, when he burst on to the scene. To use Andy’s metaphor of a Campbell’s soup can, a great soup, an amazing mixture of ingredients.
WWD: How have you put your own stamp on Interview?
I.S.: I became the editor in chief 15 years ago, soon after Andy died. What I’ve tried to do is keep the spirit alive of a magazine that wants to help the new people and mix them up with the legends, that’s not interested in being a ghetto, that covers fashion and music and movies and art, and really reflects for its audience what’s happening now.
WWD: How has Interview put its stamp on the culture?
I.S.: We’re very proud that our magazine has so often been the one that gave people their first chance. David LaChapelle got his first shot with Interview, Robert Mapplethorpe, Bruce Weber. The relationships we’ve cultivated still are so strong. I remember when I met Elizabeth Taylor, she said, “I feel like Interview is my family magazine.” They feel like it’s their school paper.
WWD: From a journalistic standpoint, sending a celebrity to conduct an interview is problematic. How do you keep the conversations from being esoteric or just “oh, I love your work”?
I.S.: We tend to get on the phone with them before and say here are the ground rules: This is not an ass-licking occasion. This is not about flattery. Go in, put your reporter’s hat on, relax, and get the most accurate portrait of this person you can. Our priority is what’s fun for the audience. Sometimes something obviously would be a huge amount of fun for the subject, but that’s not who we serve.
WWD: Now that other publications have adopted similar formats, how do you keep reapproaching the celebrity-on-celebrity interview to keep it fresh?
I.S.: When other magazines do it, it just feels like two celebrities have been shoved together. With us, people say I want to give these guys who we are. They know we won’t exploit it. Years ago, Dirk Bogarde did this extraordinary interview with us where he said for the first time he was gay, and Interview didn’t call up Page Six — it wasn’t even our pull quote. So it’s always been a safe harbor, where people really feel like they want to be their truest.
WWD: Where do you think the most interesting ideas in pop culture are coming from today?
I.S.: I think it’s in the whole issue of: why does something have meaning? Pop culture has been politicized by this [presidential] campaign. After September 11, everyone was in shock. Things had gotten lazy in music, in movies. People were justifying their lack of involvement in the world by entertainment. What you’ve really seen in the last six months is people analyzing why in the late Sixties protest songs suddenly rang across the world. What made those Bob Dylan songs become anthems? Or movies, like “Easy Rider,” things that really reverberated with generations and helped change the times. And that’s what I’m really seeing in people now, this search for how they can do that again.
WWD: If that’s a movement that’s gathering force, how long do you think it will take to see the effects?
I.S.: About five years. When James Rosenquist painted, apart from Picasso’s Guernica, the greatest antiwar painting ever — F111 — that took a lot of years of Vietnam. You’re just feeling pockets of it now. People don’t want their art to not have meaning or for it only to have meaning at the box office. Even movie stars, Nicole Kidman, Johnny Depp, want their stuff to matter. So I think that’s what we’re going to see. Which is great for a magazine like this — it means real content.