Magazines’ celebrity profiles take exposure to another level

On the cover of the current GQ, a beaming Drake strides confidently toward the reader, fit and fearless in a $3,100 Gucci suit and $1,590 Tom Ford shoes. Inside, the 25-year-old rapper greets the magazine’s reporter poolside at his “lady-fantasy” (her words) compound in the San Fernando Valley.

Writer Claire Hoffman gets Drake to reveal cover-worthy morsels about his womanizing (prodigious, now purportedly regretted), his fragile paternal ties and his Internet-fueled entree into the music world. After wine spritzers, dinner and a look at the projection system above his bed, the story ends with the young star asking the journalist: “Are you or are you not sleeping with me?”

The proposition may have been hypothetical, as Hoffman wrote, but it lent a telling zing about Drake’s ample feeling of oats. The1,500-word magazine piece, in fact, gave the star and his interlocutor something of what they both wanted. Drake got the chance to be confirmed as a lord of the pop culture moment, if stumbling a bit on his own swag and swagger. Hoffman got to demonstrate her skill at getting famous people talking and misstepping — as she previously did, more dramatically, with profiles of the boorish “Girls Gone Wild” kingpin Joe Francis coaxing underage girls into his videos, and of the ill-starred singer Amy Winehouse, smoking crack and flirting with the abyss in her London flat.

“Drake Is Living the High Life” represents one of the latest iterations of an apparently unsinkable, occasionally intriguing, media vehicle. The celebrity magazine profile — especially the ones suggesting an intimate view inside a hidden world — survives even as many luminaries seize control of their own stories via blogs and social media, even as über-controlling publicists parse out less and less time with the stars.

“Whether it’s a private meeting, or something like a date, many readers fantasize about going out with a big celebrity. These journalists are still their surrogates,” said Meryl Gordon, director of the magazine writing program at NYU. “I don’t have trouble with the conceit, as long as you don’t take it too far.”

Gordon thinks Hoffman’s Drake profile got it about right. “She does it with a wink and a nod,” Gordon said. “In the end, it just made me smile.”

The magazine industry, which has struggled for years with declining newsstand sales, leans heavily on the allure of celebrities. And men’s magazines have used the conceit of date-as-interview for at least 30 years, cranking up the lust-meter with each ensuing year. But, by many accounts, the stars have gotten more parsimonious about access. And the challenge for writers and editors never wanes: presenting hyper-public figures in a fresh way.

“It’s not brain-surgery hard, but it’s hard,” said Hoffman, previously a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times and now a freelancer who has written for GQ, Rolling Stone and other publications. “The conceit is always that you are going to get in there and discover them in some way they haven’t been discovered before.”

“Drake is a creature of the Internet and social media. He has been blogging since long before he became famous and he tweets pictures of himself,” Hoffman said. “He is constantly already exposing himself and the idea is, I am going to expose him anew.”

Hoffman had to make that happen largely based on the 90 minutes she had been granted to visit Aubrey Drake Graham at his home. She stretched that to maybe two hours and mostly let the performer do the telling, and showing — his house, the abundant waterfalls, the pool filled with statues of nude women, all forming a scene, Hoffman wrote, akin to “one of those late-night Lifetime soft-core romance flicks.”

Hoffman suggests it is her host who has decided to offer something more than a simple conversation. “He’s going to ignore my pen and my tape recorder and my list of questions,” she writes, “and open up his soft, emotive heart as if we were on the most amazing first date ever.”

When it launched “Esquire Goes on a Date” in the early 1980s, the unusual pretext was all the magazine’s idea. The magazine’s once and future editor, Lee Eisenberg, wrote the un-bylined stories.

“There would always be this conversation at the beginning of the date,” Eisenberg recalled. “Often, the women would say, ‘This is not a date, right?’ and I would say, ‘It’s not, because we know it’s going to be written up.’ ” But, Eisenberg added with a laugh: “I would say, ‘Can you Method act a little bit and get it in your head this is a bit of a date?’”

The evenings with stars like Susan Sarandon and Charlotte Rampling — a trip to a ball game or a circus or, once, a flight to San Francisco for dinner — would end with, at most, a kiss on the cheek. Men complained the unnamed writer wasn’t getting enough action; women found the gentlemanly stance sweet, or so Eisenberg recalled.

Since then, profiles in Esquire and other magazines have been considerably less subtle. A 2006 “Sexiest Woman Alive” piece on Scarlett Johansson by A.J. Jacobs begins with the “scientific study” that found she had the best breasts in Hollywood. In 1999, writer Tom Junod tells Tom Cruise (as noted in Gawker last week) that the actor’s then-wife, Nicole Kidman, is “right here, in my hotel room. In my bed.”

A couple of GQ pieces in the last year reinvigorated the “date” formula, but with women interviewing men, in this case a couple of beefcakey new stars, Channing Tatum and Chris Evans. Writer Jessica Pressler told readers a year ago about her night camping out with Tatum in a desert town, where they got drunk and did goofy things with small-town locals. Over the summer, writer Edith Zimmerman apparently got even more drunk and reported, among other things, that even smoking a cigarette with a movie star felt “amazing.” (The comment seemed ironic.) She ended up spending the night at his house, albeit in a guest bedroom.

Zimmerman’s story concedes the layers of make-believe around these situations. She muses about whether Evans’ flirtations are just an act and wonders: “Whom I should pretend to be in response.”

Ben Yagoda, a University of Delaware journalism professor who co-edited “The Art of Fact: The Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism,” bemoans what he sees as a decline of the form. He intentionally avoids most profiles today because most are “cynical and formulaic and like four dimensions removed from reality.”

At least some Internet Age reporters, born into the more self-referential culture of blogs, have no such qualms. Gawker’s Emma Carmichael, in an essay last week about the celebrity profiles, celebrated the journalists’ more prominent and provocative role. “Pure exhibitionism is where celebrity and journalism is headed, anyway,” she wrote. She called luminaries, including politicians, so unworthy that “maybe all we deserve is a stunt.”