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'They are all a little strange': a famous journalist revealed the secrets of world stars

Hadley Freeman is a Guardian columnist and writer. She has interviewed an unthinkable number of celebrities. Hadley shared her observations and impressions about people from the top list, reports TheGuardian. Next - from the first person.

Photo: IStock

I started working for the Guardian in the summer of 2000, not writing, but looking after the key. Behind the key to the fashion closet, which ensures that clothes for fashion photo shoots are not stolen. It was my main job as a fashion assistant. Or, as I preferred to call myself, Keymasters. And I will never have a job with more responsibility or power.

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However, shortly after I started, the section editors asked which celebrities I would like to interview. I was too young and stupid to realize how incredible it was for editors to even know the name of a fashion assistant, let alone ask who she would like to interview. But that's what the Guardian was like, and my God, how lucky I am to be here. Among all the various jobs I've had at this newspaper, from an incredible job as a northern news reporter to an even more incredible job as a World Cup reporter, one thing has remained the same - I've always interviewed celebrities.

On some level, this is as amazing to me as being sent to follow Wayne Rooney around Brazil in 2014. It's just that I've never been interested in famous people. As a teenager, I never hung out at concerts, never wrote to fan clubs asking for autographs. I really like 1980s movies, but as a kid it never occurred to me to write to, say, John Hughes and ask him questions about his films. Why would he talk to me?

Well, one lesson I learned at university that stuck out to me is that famous people love to talk about themselves. I wrote for my university newspaper, and from time to time famous people came and spoke to the students, and I was sent to interview them. I learned that some famous people were surprisingly charming (Ben Affleck), some were surprisingly not (Stephen Fry, he might have had a bad day), but everyone was perfectly nice to me, an 18 year old girl who asked them really pretty personal interview questions.

It was a real epiphany. Because I'm not only enthusiastic, but also curious, and because of this I sometimes got into trouble in Britain. In New York, where I come from, two strangers on the subway usually chat about what prescription drugs they take; and there are people in London whom I have known for over 20 years and I would not dare to ask them if they dye their hair. I quickly realized that the interview is a context in which excessive curiosity is not only accepted, but expected. This is a place where personal information is sold as a commodity for advertising. And while it still surprises me that so many celebrities answer the most direct questions about their unhappy childhood/deep trauma/disgusting divorce in exchange for a newspaper mention of their movie, it's a deal I'm always happy to use. There hasn't been a single day in the past 22 years where I haven't been surprised that I'm also being paid for this job.

Two celebrity interviews helped me get a job at The Guardian. My mom noticed the Daily Telegraph writing contest and encouraged me to enter it. So I dutifully sent two interviews that I did for the university newspaper. One with Richard Whiteley, the hilarious and unfortunately former Countdown host, and the other with Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye. I won and thanks to this I became responsible for the key. So the moral of the story is: Aspiring journalists should always enter writing competitions. And listen to your mom.

But at first I had some concerns about interviewing famous people for The Guardian. Like I said, I'm an enthusiast. And while I felt good writing about my undying love for Countdown in the university paper, I wasn't sure my tastes would really appeal to Guardian readers—people who bought the paper to read Polly Toynbee on social housing and Jonathan Steele on international affairs. An even bigger problem was that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, as evidenced by the transcript of my first newspaper interview. It was with Simon Amstell and Mikita Oliver, hosts of the Channel 4 show Popworld, which I loved. Lucky for me, it was not only my first interview, but theirs as well, so the three of us were equally clueless.

Me: Why did you want to become a TV presenter?

Simon: Because it seemed funny. Is this a good answer? What should I say?

I do not know. Was it a stupid question?

Mikita: Yeah. But it normal.

Others were less understanding. When I made the rookie mistake of showing up to an interview with shoe designer Christian Louboutin wearing a very dirty pair of ballet shoes, he contemptuously informed me that if I were a shoe, I would be a "Dr Martens boot." Robert Downey Jr. was also unimpressed and, looking at my not very well-groomed face in his twenties, expressed surprise that the Guardian had sent a “girl with work experience” to interview him.

It is unlikely that the fact that I was only a fashion assistant would have softened it. As a person who is used to pleasing people, such interactions were unnerving at first. But it soon helped me to abandon my childhood habits of pleasing people. Often the best interviews contain a bit of grit.

Aside from wanting to know who Marina Hyde is, the most common question I get from readers is who the celebrities I've interviewed really are. It's simple: they are weird. All celebrities are a little weird because wanting to be famous is a weird thing, and living your life as an object and not a subject is a really maddening way of being. Some celebrities are very good at being celebrities. For example, George Clooney and Tom Hanks, who maintain such a commitment to their image (the old heartthrob and the modern-day Jimmy Stewart, respectively) that they maintain their legend even during interviews. It must be exhausting to be them - always on - but at least they make popping more fun than most.

Shortly after I started my job, TV shows like Popstars, Pop Idol, Big Brother and others began to dominate TV and the real prize was fame, not money. I already realized what kind of pretense it was when I interviewed famous people. One day I went to Los Angeles to interview Nicole Richie, who was then so weak that she could barely walk. And I watched as she frantically swallowed a huge cooked breakfast. Or the time I was given a five-minute interview in New York with Justin Timberlake, who looked so unhappy that I wondered if he was being held hostage. It was all a lot of fun to write about, but it made me think that living in a cave as a hermit might have been an underrated way of life.

It took me a while to let readers know how weird I am. It happened by accident when the then editor of G2 sent me to the US to interview Michael J Fox about his new sitcom. Reader, I adored him. I let my full enthusiasm show through in the article. The night before the article was published, I was a little worried - would they make me laugh? Will CP Scott persecute me in disgust?

To my surprise, readers liked the article, and it was at that moment that I learned one of the most useful lessons of my life: I am not unique. If I like someone, chances are, others will too. In this I am quite ordinary. Since then, I have been full of enthusiasm: I interviewed almost all the idols of my childhood - Mel Brooks, Rob Reiner, Ivan Reitman, Frank Oz. I was in awe of how beautiful they were. Guardian readers shared my love for them. When I was overwhelmed by Keanu Reeves' beauty to the point where I could barely ask him questions, Guardian readers were sympathetic, not sarcastic as I expected. And when I ran around the Oscars every year vainly begging Eddie Murphy for words (although Kevin Hart always did it instead of his buddy - thanks, Kevin), Guardian readers didn't roll their eyes too much. It turned out that they may be interested in social issues and the Oscars.

In addition to writing interviews, I also wrote columns. As a reviewer, it's tempting to be categorical on the subject, focusing solely on black and white rather than the more complex grays. But people are rarely black and white, which is why they are so interesting. Charlie Sheen was a charmingly different conversationalist, a man who did terrible things but was smart and surprisingly self-aware. He was trying to figure out how to live with HIV. Woody Allen is now widely portrayed as a bad person. This is done by people who have little understanding of the 30-year-old allegations leveled against him (Allen is accused of molesting his adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, at the age of eight). I will always be grateful for the opportunity to interview him, and later his son Moses, and for giving me the opportunity to review the allegations. Journalism is about asking questions and refusing to accept any currently accepted narrative, be it politics or celebrity. It's not about getting likes on Twitter.

There is now an opinion - popular in some progressive circles - that giving someone a "platform" (i.e., interviewing someone) means that you support him. But that's only true if you're writing empty interviews, whereas I like what Mrs. Merton called "hot debate" or what I call conversation. So I argued with Jeff Koons in New York about politics and art, and I argued with Margaret Atwood in Toronto about gender.

PR people hate this, of course, because they think it's a journalist's job to unquestioningly transcribe everything a celebrity says, but I know that's not what readers want. It's definitely not what I want when I read an interview.

In the 22 years that have passed since I started at the Guardian, other changes have taken place in the world of celebrity interviews. Back then, people mostly laughed at celebrities when they made political statements.

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Now they yell at them if the celebrities don't. And so they nervously plaster their Instagram pages with their thoughts on social justice. And, of course, social media didn't exist back then, so journalists were the only way for celebrities to communicate with the public. Now celebrities like Beyoncé and Harry Styles see us as inappropriate intermediaries and tend to bypass us completely, which is a relief to me because such celebrities rarely have anything interesting to say. Give me Steve Guttenberg's "Police Academy" memories instead of Justin Bieber talking about his day. Harvey Weinstein was once so powerful that he could write a newspaper column complaining about me for calling his Baft party boring. Well, we all know how this story ended.

God, that was fun. I know that some journalists hate to deal with celebrities, hate to cover events with celebrities, and I never understood it. If you're into journalism because you want to tell interesting, weird, and very human stories, what's not to love about spending a day with Pete Doherty on a beach in Normandy? Or contemplating the power of the vagina with Aerosmith in Los Angeles? Or chatting with Helena Bonham Carter about a divorce over a cup of tea? Thanks to everyone I interviewed for putting up with my curiosity.

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