In GQ this month, Claire Hoffman sits down with rapper Drake for the magazine's cover story. Drake is not a horribly interesting person, and celebrity profiling is not usually a horribly interesting craft, but Hoffman wrote a great piece. Within the few hours she spent at the rapper's mansion in The Valley, she essentially lived through a real-life chapter of a 16-year-old's fan fiction. Drake wined and dined her (with white wine spritzers!) in his backyard terrace—complete with waterfalls, bronze animal statues, and a giant fire pit "fit for a king from Middle-earth"—and they watched Sixteen Candles. All that was missing was a bearskin rug.
And then, Drake showed Hoffman his "sleeping quarters," located behind a passcode-protected fake bookshelf, and asked the journalist if she was going to sleep with him. Twice.
Oh, the perils of a man who must deal with a lady and her notebook. Magazine writing has long accepted and celebrated that male profile writers can and will sleep with their female subjects—and often they'll disclose it, like teenaged boys crotch-grabbing around a cafeteria lunch table, as uninteresting and desperate as it may be. Women don't. As played out and boring as the male seduction piece has become, the female reporter never gets past the passcode-protected bookshelf—and even if she has, we'll never hear about it anyway. A lady never gives away her secrets.
Back in 1994, Lisa DePaulo profiled beloved Philly mayor Ed Rendell for Philadelphia Magazine. In the course of the story, Rendell spent 24 hours in Manhattan without learning that his home city was under total lockdown as a blizzard approached, but that detail more or less got lost in the reaction to the piece. During a car ride together, Rendell told DePaulo that he'd heard "something very interesting" about her. Then he told her,
in raw and alliterative terms, how he presumes I am in bed. All of which he says I "should find flattering."
"How does one respond to such a thing?" DePaulo wrote.
Hoffman, for her part, said no to Drake, excused herself, and turned in a great story, proposition and all. But as these things go—and as we've seen in multiple GQ stories penned by women in the past year—the proposition, or at least the innuendo, is what made the story.
Before Hoffman, there were two other GQ pieces written by female writers that played off of and benefited from the same possibility. The Hairpin's Edith Zimmerman spent a drunken night with laidback, chiseled bro Chris Evans in L.A.; New York's Jessica Pressler spent a drunken night with laidback, chiseled bro Channing Tatum in a California desert town. In both stories, nothing sexual between writer and subject is disclosed, and presumably nothing happened, but the tension—hinted at by the authors, projected and expanded by the mischievous reader's mind—electrified the narrative. Not every girl can cook dinner or have a boozy night with a famous dreamboat, but at least she can read in a magazine about someone who did.
The art of the form lies in a seamless two-step between writer and subject that is hard not to appreciate. Plenty of celebrity profiles suffer from the simple balance of an actor protecting an image, and the reporter duly packaging his or her cut-and-dry photo spread. The male-female profile knows no such limitations. It tends to depend on flirtation, which depends on a certain amount of openness, which (often) depends on a certain amount of alcohol. The dynamic at play here—as in Hoffman's piece, where Drake presents the fantasy and she fills in between the lines—is almost always rewarding to read: The subject's mystique, the key to any memorable profile, is not only preserved but actually intensified. (Hoffman asks Drake about his absent father, and "his voice tightens, and he looks away." Cue the heartstrings.)
And if a lady never tells, the questions are left as questions, we think, maybe—as in Pressler's piece on Tatum:
He came back into Rusty's house once the call was finished. "'You know that's kind of weird, right?'" he told me she said. "‘I mean, that you're sleeping in the desert overnight with a girl?'"
Chan, to whom this hadn't occurred, apologized profusely.
"It's fine," she said. "I just wanted to note that it is kind of weird."
That's the last thing either remembers of the night. "What happened after that?" Pressler asks Tatum in the morning. In an email this week, Pressler wrote that there was no "sexual tension" with Tatum. "We almost immediately put on Snuggies, which are the most sexless garments of life, and we passed out with pita chip breath because we had no toothpaste," she explained.
Using sexual politics to a story's benefit in celebrity profiles is not a new technique. "We hardly bat an eye when a male writer goes to profile a sexpot celebrity," Salon's Rebecca Traister told me this week. She's right. How many times have you read a male writer comment on a subjects' lips or breasts or suggest at a sleepless night in a hotel room? "Yeah, Tom," Tom Junod told Tom Cruise from a Sydney hotel room for Esquire in 1999. "She's right here, in my hotel room. In my bed." He was speaking of Nicole Kidman, Cruise's wife at the time.
Tad Friend, who
"dry-humped" joked about "dry-humping" Demi Moore while profiling her for Vogue long before Pressler and Tatum got in Snuggies under the desert sky together— and whose career has hardly been affected by that admission—described the dynamic in most male-female assignments as "that of an aborted affair" in his 1998 Spin piece, "Notes on the Death of the Celebrity Profile":
Editors try to bamboozle the celeb by sending a writer of the opposite sex, hoping the sexual frisson will provoke indiscretions. It usually works the other way around.
"It's just that normally I slip into this flirt/sex mode with single male reporters," Mira Sorvino told GQ's Andrew Corsello back in 1997, after noticing that he hadn't asked any of the standard profile questions she'd come to expect. "There's almost a script, you know, where I playact this sex-symbol personal, or whatever, and the reporter feeds me…obligatory titillating questions."
Male writers have gotten away with the form for a very long time, and it's sad, as Traister suggested, that we cross our arms and wonder about integrity and ethics when it's a woman who writes the story. ("It's still such a small sample size," Traister pointed out. "There's such a relatively small number of women profiling men.") The basic question, I guess, is what exactly makes a story written by a woman interesting. I'd like to say perspective, and I think that's true to a certain extent, but I also know that boobs have a lot to do with it. There's a reason, for example, that the editor of this website (smartly) sent me to the Gathering of the Juggalos last summer instead of a male writer from Deadspin, or that Maureen O'Connor went to Philadelphia's Wing Bowl in January. The "lady treated badly" bit is just as alluring as the "lady getting flirty/flirted on" bit. (Sometimes, as in DePaulo's piece, Claudine Ko's peep show with Dov Charney, or Radar's foiled reporter-as-prostitute stunt, those two motives overlap.)
For her part, DePaulo told me last week that she included Rendell's proposition in the final article because "writing without mentioning it would be like writing about Joe Namath without mentioning football." (A politician's presumed advances are also rather different from a celebrity's advances.) But she said that her editor, Elliot Kaplan, left the final decision up to her. She went ahead with it, and decided not to publish his actual statement: "If you print it," DePaulo remembers Kaplan telling her, "I think you'll deal with it for the rest of your life."
The Philly beat reporters were unimpressed with DePaulo's story—including the bit about the lockdown—even as the public got swept up in Rendell's comments. Zack Stalberg, editor of the Daily News, sent dozens of red roses to DePaulo's office the day after her story published and then ran a "LADY IN RED" cover. ("I happened to be wearing a red suit that day," DePaulo recalls. "Anywhere else, who cares, but in Philadelphia I'm Hester Prynne.") The beat guys said they "already knew" that Rendell spoke about women so bluntly—they'd just never published any of it.
Several times, DePaulo says, she'd remind Rendell that they were on the record, and he'd dismiss her. "Nobody ever writes about this," he'd say. He was right.
One thing we should agree upon when it comes to Drake, Channing Tatum, and Chris Evans: Most single or otherwise inspired young straight women would fuck them. To say otherwise is to be very naïve about the power of tall, brooding famous men with lots of money. To reflect that in an assigned article is only honest, and it doesn't hurt that it also makes it wildly popular.
"I can't speak for GQ or Edith," Pressler wrote, "but I think maybe when Channing Tatum went well, they asked Edith to do something similar, and her piece was kind of a brilliant sendup of that request." Hoffman's piece, she said felt "like a knockoff of that one, with the whole date theme." (It could also be read as a parody.)
"Overall, singling out these things as, like, exploitative or epidemic feels maybe kind of sexist?" she said. She's right. The assumption for female writers is that if you're not being exploited by an editor, you're exploiting yourself for an article. It can't just be something a woman chose to write. Pressler pointed to Ryan D'Agostino baking "a hot, sticky, wet pie" with Blake Lively as a recent example, ("She jams a few fingers into the hot apples and licks them," D'Agostino wrote), and added that men's magazines do "breathy" male-on-female profiles all the time.
"And no one makes a thing of it," Pressler said. "They're just like, oh, men's magazines, that's what they are."
Men's magazines are, by their very nature, about big swinging literary (-ish) dicks covering things that big swinging literary (-ish) dicks like to read. Mostly, this involves coverage of famous big swinging dicks. When this dynamic hits male-female profile writing, a certain formula follows: The male writer seduces (or perhaps dry-humps) the female subject, or the male subject seduces (or perhaps out-drinks) the female writer. When she was at GQ, DePaulo wrote in an email, she used to joke "that when the Boy Writers went to profile some babe, they came home, jerked off on their computer screen, then handed it in."
So how is a writer without a dick of any kind expected to deal with that audience? Regardless of how it was assigned, Zimmerman's piece on Evans is a brilliant adaptation on the form. Evans, a vanilla action star, comes out as secondary to Zimmerman's story. The kind of fawning inherent to men's mag profiles is so utterly insulting to both reader and writer anyway ("The guest on the late-night talk show crosses her long, bare legs," begins D'Agostino's piece on Lively). Why shouldn't the writers stop the swinging short and turn the deprecation on themselves?
In a roundabout way, DePaulo's "exposé" on Rendell used the same technique. It's really embarrassing and brave for a woman to admit that the mayor of a major American city knew gossip about her sex life. It's also pretty embarrassing and brave for a woman to admit that she got blackout drunk on assignment and woke up in a movie star's guest room and had to Google search for "LA cabs" to find her way back to her hotel.
"Does it add something of value?" Traister wondered. "One reason DePaulo's piece is so memorable isn't for the display, but because it actually added a dimension to a character."
But sometimes, a big swinging dick is nothing more than a big swinging dick. And if that's all there is to it, you might as well tell a funny story. Pure exhibitionism is where celebrity and journalism is headed, anyway. If a tired, cynical culture acknowledges that the people on our TV screens are essentially uninteresting humans (even, yes, the laidback, chiseled bros) or that our male politicians are all graying boners, then maybe a stunt is all we deserve.
DePaulo said that in celebrity profiles, it would be nice if the reporters could simply disclose whether or not they slept with the subject: "Did she fuck him or didn't she?" She remembered a female reporter who had profiled a big time male celebrity for a national magazine years ago. The celebrity had tried the seduction route, and the writer could have slept with him, but she knew she wouldn't print it if she did.
The decision, DePaulo said, was an easy one.
"What good is it if she can't tell anyone?"