From Hemingway to Miles Teller, a Brief History of the Tough Celebrity Profile


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Miles Teller, who in a recent Esquire interview compared his penis to a highball glass and boasted of all the pot he had smoked.

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Lucas Jackson/Reuters

One can imagine the gatekeepers of Hollywood emailing the September Esquire cover article about the actor Miles Teller to their clients with a cautionary warning: “This is what happens when you run your mouth to a reporter.”

Mr. Teller, the 28-year-old star of films like “Whiplash” and “Fantastic Four,” appeared to go off-script in a way celebrities rarely do during those highly negotiated restaurant sit-downs with crumb-snatching writers.

He compared his penis to a highball glass, boasted of all the pot he had smoked and mused about his appearance, saying, “I was thinking about that today, how I probably think I’m better looking than the public thinks I am.”

If the Esquire article did little to advance Mr. Teller’s appeal with some fans, it was nevertheless part of a long, if infrequent, journalistic tradition.

Sometimes an interview with a famous person transcends its usual stage-managed blandness for something unusually revealing — and riveting. In the continuing battle between the handlers and the media to control the public image of a given star, now and then the celebrity loses.

And the rarity of such occurrences is a testament to how well modern-day publicists guard access to their clients (and perhaps the lackluster job that writers and their employers do at circumventing them).

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Miles Teller on the Sept. issue of Esquire.

Such stories can take various forms. Lillian Ross’s classic article on Ernest Hemingway, published in 1950 in The New Yorker, belongs to the hang-them-with-their-own-words school, in which, through a subtle accumulation of quotes and observations, the writer creates a damning portrait.

The profile of Mr. Teller, on the other hand, feels more overt. The writer of the article, Anna Peele, comes right out and calls the actor a jerk early in the article (in stronger language).

Though unflattering, the article may not be so bad for its subject’s career. After all, was anybody talking about Mr. Teller before the profile went online last week?

He responded on Twitter, saying the article was “very misrepresenting.” (Ms. Peele was reached for comment, but declined to be interviewed for this article.)

Mr. Teller is hardly alone among famous people whose images have taken something of a hit thanks to an article that ignores the usual niceties of the celebrity profile genre. The reaction to the Esquire article brought to mind other examples from the recent and deeper past.

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Cara Delevingne.

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Richard Shotwell/Invision, via Richard Shotwell, via Invision, via Associated Press

Cara Delevingne, Vogue, 2014

Ms. Delevingne’s awkward on-camera interview recently with the hosts of “Good Day Sacramento” while promoting her role in the film “Paper Towns” wasn’t the only time she appeared disengaged with the media.

A profile in Vogue last year by the writer Plum Sykes made much of how Ms. Delevingne, a model and actress, arrived late to the interview after oversleeping. And then, after writer and subject received separate massages, Ms. Delevingne fell asleep in her massage room and kept Ms. Sykes waiting for more than a half-hour.

An overscheduled model falling asleep during an interview may not seem like much of a transgression. But consider the publication and the power that its editor, Anna Wintour, has over a young model’s career.

As part of the profile, Ms. Sykes laid out how Ms. Delevingne’s behavior suggested a lack of respect toward the fashion bible: “Dear reader, to misquote Oscar Wilde, can I say that to oversleep once for a Vogue interview may be regarded as a misfortune, but to oversleep twice looks like carelessness?”

Like Mr. Teller, Ms. Delevingne said she was misrepresented after the article appeared and took to Twitter: “All I can say is that I work extremely hard and ‘sleeping’ is proof that sometimes I work too hard. I apologize for being so ambitious.”

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John Mayer.

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Ryan Pfluger for The New York Times

John Mayer, Playboy, 2010

This infamous interview began, prophetically, with the writer Rob Tannenbaum asking the singer if it would be his last. “No, though I have fantasies of it,” Mr. Mayer said.

Instead, he went on to kiss-and-tell about his relationships with famous women like Jennifer Aniston and Jessica Simpson (“It was like napalm, sexual napalm” he said of the latter in a much circulated quote) and to profess his fondness for pornography and masturbation. He also used a racial epithet discussing his appeal with African-American audiences and said his penis was “sort of like a white supremacist.”

Because it was a long-form question-and-answer Playboy interview, Mr. Mayer’s damning portrayal came not at the hands of the writer but his own foot-in-mouth.

After a media firestorm, Mr. Mayer issued an apology on Twitter and addressed an audience at a concert in Nashville, reportedly saying: “I quit the media game. I’m out. I’m done. I just want to play my guitar to whoever is around.” He has since lifted his self-imposed media blackout.

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Tiger Woods.

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Nick Wass/Associated Press

Tiger Woods, GQ, 1997

This profile of a 21-year-old Tiger Woods by the writer Charles P. Pierce shares similarities with the article about Mr. Teller: a young male celebrity, in the first flush of fame, talks unguardedly (and grandiosely) to a writer who decides not to play by the usual rules of the game.

After protracted negotiations with Mr. Woods’s team at International Management Group, Mr. Pierce was granted access to the golfer during a limousine ride from a photo shoot.

In that short span he captured a side of Mr. Woods that golf insiders (but not the public) had already observed. Mr. Woods “told some puerile and sexist jokes,” Mr. Pierce wrote of the exchange, and the golfer repeated racial stereotypes about African-American men, which were detailed in the article.

Mr. Woods and his team refuted parts of the feature, and his dominance on the golf course (he won the 1997 Masters soon after the profile was published) shifted the media’s focus.

But Mr. Woods’s father, Earl Woods, expressed concern to Charlie Rose that the article would do lasting damage to his son’s career. As attention-grabbing celebrity profiles tend to do, this one has cropped up over the years, both in the wake of Mr. Woods’s cheating scandal in 2009 and more recently when Grantland published an annotated version.

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Courtney Love.

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Jesse Dittmar for The New York Times

Courtney Love, Vanity Fair, 1992

Lynn Hirschberg’s profile of Ms. Love and her husband, the Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, arrived at the height of grunge music’s popularity and was a bombshell at the time. Ms. Love, 26 then, was quoted about her drug use after an appearance by Nirvana on “Saturday Night Live”: “Then, we got high and went to ‘S.N.L.’ After that, I did heroin for a couple of months.” The article said that Ms. Love’s heroin use had come during her pregnancy with her daughter by Mr. Cobain, Frances Bean.

The rock star couple released a statement after the article was published, saying it contained “many inaccuracies and distortions”; as revealed this year in the documentary “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” Mr. Cobain left a threatening voice mail for Ms. Hirschberg. He is also said to have written the song “Rape Me” as a veiled critique of the article.

Vanity Fair stood by the article. Ms. Love later admitted she did use heroin while pregnant.

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Ernest Hemingway.

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Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Ernest Hemingway, The New Yorker, 1950

This profile, later published as a short book, “Portrait of Hemingway” (Penguin), is considered a classic takedown, though it’s an odd one.

In her introduction to the stand-alone book version, Ms. Ross wrote that it was meant to be “a sympathetic piece” that would capture Papa Hemingway’s “vitality and his enormous spirit of fun.”

She was so assured of this result that, in an admission that would cause heart palpitations for The New Yorker’s present-day staff, Ms. Ross said she sent a galley proof of the article to Hemingway and his wife for their approval before its publication. Ms. Ross wrote that Hemingway “found the Profile funny and good, and that he had suggested only one deletion.”

Still, her fly-on-the-wall description of two days Hemingway spent in New York captures a blustery macho man who talked like a stereotypical Native American in a Western movie (“Eat good and digest good,” he said after eating oysters).

It caused a sensation when it was published, baffling Ms. Ross. She suggested some readers were bringing their own biases. “Some of the more devastation-minded among them called the Profile ‘devastating,’ ” she wrote.

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Mira Sorvino.

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Richard Shotwell/Invision, via Associated Press

Mira Sorvino, GQ, 1996

This profile of the Oscar-winning actress by the writer Andrew Corsello inspired the columnist Ross Douthat to write an Op-Ed piece for The New York Times in 2010 expressing sympathy for Ms. Sorvino and calling the GQ article a case study “in the power of journalists to celebrate or destroy.”

Mr. Corsello, who brought into the story a previous encounter he had had with Ms. Sorvino at Harvard, portrayed the actress as intellectually pretentious and eccentric. And her meta-commentary on the sexual politics of male-reporter, female-starlet magazine profiles (“There’s almost a script, you know, where I playact this sex symbol persona”) exhausted him.

After the article was published, followed not long after by an Esquire profile of Kevin Spacey that explored the actor’s sexual orientation, Variety published a piece asking if magazine editors and writers were acting maliciously — a topic no doubt being discussed among Mr. Teller’s team.



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