STARS MOONLIGHT AT MAGS
Byline: Marcy Medina
LOS ANGELES — Gwyneth Paltrow survives three days stranded on a desert island! Jenna Elfman rushes into a burning building! Courtney Thorne Smith learns to rock climb! The latest crop of magazine headlines — and bylines — has given new meaning to the term celebrity journalism.
It’s no longer enough to score an A-list celebrity for a cover. To maintain an edge in Hollywood coverage — some magazines have resorted to using out-of-date cover shots and recycled quotes — editors are now asking the stars to become writers.
The notion of actor as journalist has often been scoffed at by staff editors. Cynthia Leive, the former Self editor in chief who took over the same role at Glamour last month, said: “I’ve always raised my eyebrows at the concept of celebrity contributors. To generalize wildly, they sometimes tend to be more work than they’re worth.”
But with traditional celebrity profiles becoming ever more sanitized by controlling publicists, having stars pen their own pieces is sometimes the most effective way to capture their true personas.
“I’m tired of reading celebrity interviews which all sound exactly the same,” said new Harper’s Bazaar editor in chief Glenda Bailey. “How do you do something that shows what they’re really like as people?” During her five years at Marie Claire, Bailey included an annual guest-edited issue and regular celebrity features in the lineup.
“We thought if we gave stars physical challenges and asked them to write about it we would get original copy and see them in an original light,” she said.
The assignments have included Ashley Judd doing a stint in the Peace Corps, the stars of “Charlie’s Angels” going to survival camp, Heather Locklear attending boot camp, and Brooke Shields building an igloo in the Arctic.
“We had increased our circulation by 80 percent over four years,” said Bailey, “and I think the reason is that we treated celebrities like every other subject in the magazine and we got them to do things that people thought would be impossible.”
Ingrid Sischy, editor in chief of Interview, which was founded on the principal of one star interviewing another, said, “The right combination of people with the right pictures can give a good old jump in sales.”
She said some of the most successful covers this year have been Nicole Kidman (interviewed by Baz Luhrman), Erika Christensen (interviewed by Steven Soderberg) and Javier Bardem (interviewed by Dennis Hopper).
But can most movie stars adhere to magazine editorial standards? Many editors said they’ve been impressed by the quality of celebrities’ work, and surprisingly, they don’t receive special treatment or massive rewrites.
“We’re tough bosses over here,” said Sischy. “Whether it’s Jack Nicholson or Sean Penn or Sheryl Crow, we treat every one the same.”
Noted Jane editor in chief Jane Pratt, “As difficult as they can be to work with, there are celebrities who make it so easy that I tell them, ‘You should quit your day job.”‘ Pratt said Ben Stiller, Minnie Driver, Ethan Hawke and Yasmeen Bleeth have been among her best writers.
Pratt sent a Polaroid camera once to Hawke on the set of his movie to take some quick shots of the cast. He went out and got a really good camera and “did the most beautiful photos. We did a 12-page feature with him, and it was supposed to be a little picture of the cast up front.”
As most editors concurred, celebrities can sometimes cause problems and the stories may not work out. For example, Pratt said Kathy Najimy agreed to do a story for Jane’s athletics page, and “everything we proposed to her, she didn’t want to do. We asked her to ride a bike, or do some exercises in her apartment, and it didn’t happen. The piece never ran. Another time, Sean Patrick Flanery wrote a beautiful story but it was really long. They’re not used to being edited. We had to fight him tooth and nail to make some small cuts, and he said he’d never do anything with us again.”
Martha Nelson, managing editor of In Style, said she reduces the risk of editorial disaster by limiting assignments to actors who have written before.
“The trick is to go to people who can write, like Isaac Mizrahi or Garry Shandling or Molly Shannon,” Nelson said. “People like that understand how to shape their thoughts and work with words because they have spent years writing and performing their material and are quite strong.”
As Pratt pointed out, “Even if the quality of a star’s piece is not of the same caliber as a regular one, I think it’s interesting to see what kind of writers these household names really are. It’s funny to see that some are not that bright or that they are, and it reveals more about them than a profile could.”
In addition to household names, stars of the literary and social worlds often pepper the mastheads of prestige publications like Vogue and Vanity Fair.
Despite having a whopping 66 contributing editors on its August masthead, Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter insisted that none of them are vanity titles.
“All those people do contribute to the magazine in some way, either helping reporters with access or background or producing photo shoots or generating ideas,” said Carter, adding that each contributor files a monthly letter detailing the goings on in their worlds and all have formal contracts and receive varying stipends.
While Leive believes that “contributing editor is a special honor you reserve for people who can write,” socialites have long graced Vogue’s masthead, lending cachet, as well as valuable contacts and access into their worlds.
“Vogue has used social figures as contributing editors for decades,” said managing editor Laurie Jones.
Although women like Anne Bass and Gayfryd Steinberg, whose bylines one may not see in the magazine, share masthead space with regular writers such as Robert Sullivan and Jonathan Van Meter, Jones affirmed that “these are people whom Anna [Wintour, editor in chief] talks to on a regular basis as another way of extending information to the staff.”
Wintour often derives story ideas from her contributors, and her staff editors rely on them for sources, Jones noted.
“If one of our writers was doing a profile on, say, Lynn Wyatt, he would need to call these women to get names of people to interview,” said Jones.
As with society, sometimes the best access or information comes from those in the same milieu. Last month’s cover interview of Julia Roberts was by Billy Crystal, her co-star in “America’s Sweethearts.”
When Leive was at Self, which is not a Hollywood-heavy magazine, she hired her first and only celebrity contributor, actress Courtney Thorne-Smith, whom she said “was hired on the merits of her writing.”
“She originally approached us to write one story about body image and when it came in we were completely floored by how fabulously written it was,” Leive said. “It was in better shape than many stories from professional writers. We decided after that to offer her a job.”
Thorne-Smith, an avid Self reader, said, “I went to them because I really like what they represent.” Although she’d never written a magazine article before, she had done a lot of personal writing and felt at ease writing about her experiences.
While Leive said Thorne-Smith “has a contract and gets paid for her work like any other contributor,” most celebrities work gratis.
“We don’t pay stars because it would get sticky,” said Pratt. “Most of them aren’t doing it for the money. The $500 they could make doesn’t compare to the $5 million they made on their last movie.”