THE METHOD: Inside the Celebrity Interview with Kevin Sessums
Kevin Sessums, the celebrity journalist, has smoked a joint with Heath Ledger in Prague; he’s sparred with Barry Diller; he’s even been scolded by Barbra Streisand for not mentioning how “fuckable” she is in a story he once wrote for Vanity Fair. But nothing rivals his tête-à-tête with Courtney Love:
She kept me waiting for hours. Hours! She was upstairs at her house—that’s when they used to let you come to their houses—and I was downstairs looking around the living room. There was a little Buddhist altar with a little box on it. I opened it up and there was coarse, thread-like stuff in it.
I was like, What the fuck is this?
I started sniffing it and all of a sudden I heard, “What the fuck are you doing?”
I looked around and it was Courtney.
I said, “Well, what is this?”
“Those are Kurt’s [Cobain’s] pubes,” she said, “Will you please put them back.”
Before all the Hollywood madness, Sessums was a self-confessed “Mississippi sissy,” who preferred to gab with the girls than roughhouse with the boys in his youth. “My love of language comes from sitting inside the house with the women,” he told The Slant during a Skype chat in March, “listening to them talk, while all the other kids were outside playing.”
Those formative coffee klatches taught Sessums the art of conversation and imparted an Oscar Wildean sense of comic timing—“knowing how and when to make a joke,” he says—skills that enabled him to confidently roll with Hollywood heavyweights, like Tom Cruise, Madonna, Johnny Depp, Jennifer Lopez, Hugh Jackman and many others, when he became a celebrity writer for Interview magazine, Vanity Fair and more recently, The Daily Beast.
Yet no matter how beautifully written, smartly executed or thought-provoking his celebrity coverage has been, he has always felt like “a poor stepchild,” in the home of respectable journalism.
In Sessums’s view, celebrity occupies a paradoxical position in the magazine world. On the one hand, the public’s insatiable appetite for stories about the rich and famous is the engine motoring newsstand sales and revving up online traffic. On the other, the literati deride it as a necessary evil to fund journalism of serious consequence. No one knows this contradiction better than he does.
From his cottage in Provincetown, MA, Sessums, the editorial director of the new LGBT magazine, 429, gave The Slant an inside look at working the underappreciated celebrity beat for legendary editors Tina Brown and Graydon Carter at Vanity Fair. He also reminisced about the good ol’ days when PR people had less power, magazines gave you more space (6,000 to 10,000 words) and celebrities offered you weeks of their time instead of hours.
In honor of long-form and Sessums’s heyday, this post runs more than 5,500 words. But it’s full of so many revelatory anecdotes about Hollywood stars and surprising insights that it’s a quick and exhilarating read. Promise.
You started your life in New York City as a Juilliard School of Drama student.
I didn’t graduate. And I never graduated from college. I’m not smart, just clever. I ain’t got no book smarts. But I can carry on a conversation and keep up. Juilliard wouldn’t let you work and go to school at the same time. So I decided to go to work. I don’t think I finished the first year. I was there in ‘78 so Robin Williams and Christopher Reeve were still roaming the halls. Juilliard was really just an excuse to get to New York.
Why’d you give up acting?
I had been out as a gay guy since I was 15 in Mississippi. It was ‘71 or ‘72. And I looked at the lay of the land and thought, I want to be a star. I want to be famous. I want to be successful, but I’ll have to go back in the closet. I couldn’t reconcile living a lie to enable myself to pretend. That was a falsehood that I couldn’t quite wrap my head around. So I stopped being an actor to work in the movie business.
Well, first I got a job as a freelance script reader. A woman named Buffy Shutt was head of production at Time Life Films. She needed an assistant and she liked the way I read scripts. So I gave up my agent and went to work for her. Then, within six weeks of my arrival, they did away with the whole division. I had sort of given up my life and was pissed. I went to the heads of Human Resources like a big shot, breaking through doors, going, “Fuck you! I’m going to take you to court! I’m going to sue your asses!” I was scared to do it, but I thought, “Don’t fuck me.” I worked for six more weeks and got a year of my salary when I left. Anyway, Buffy went back to Paramount and took me with her. I worked there for five years. She’d let me sit at my desk and write short stories and plays, and every now and then, I’d file. I was a highfalutin factotum. I was the only male secretary. This was the early 80s.
When did you start your gig at Interview magazine?
The whole division I worked for at Paramout moved out to Los Angeles. I didn’t want to live there. So a friend of mine, Mark Martousek, who worked at Interview, told me about a senior editor position there. So I went in and talked to Gael Love, the editor in chief at the time. I had no clips. Nothing. Nothing! So I had to give her some short stories I’d written. I didn’t even know the lingua franca of magazines. When people would talk about things, it was like, What language are you speaking?! I write about the whole experience in my next book, I Left It on the Mountain, in a chapter called “The Factory Worker.”
Did you ever run into Andy Warhol?
I’d met him several times. I knew him through a mutual friend, Henry Geldzahler, one of my first mentors in New York. He was the commissioner of cultural affairs for Ed Koch and a curator of 20th century art at the Met. So, I knew Andy through Henry. I had reservations about working at Interview. I thought it was tacky. I didn’t want to be part of the whole thing.
I was hired on a trial basis and was having a hard time. I was so stressed out I couldn’t sleep. Andy had a little office down on the first floor, near a bathroom I always used. I’d go in there and have panic attacks, thinking, I can’t do this job. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m faking my way through this. I remember looking in the mirror one morning and seeing dark circles under my eyes for the first time because I’d lost so much sleep. I’d think, You’re just working at a factory. That’s all you are—a factory worker. I never thought I’d be working for Andy. It sort of embarrassed me.
One day, I came out of the bathroom and Andy said, “You go in that bathroom a lot.” I said, “You think I’m doing coke? I’m no drug addict.” (I wasn’t yet, anyway.) He was taken aback. I said, “Honestly, I just want to do a good job here, Andy. And I’m still on trial.” He said, “I didn’t know that. I’ll talk to Gael and Fred Hughes.” Fred was the publisher back then. Later, he came back and said, “I told them to go ahead and give you a job. Welcome to the factory!”
You eventually went up the ranks to executive editor before leaving for Vanity Fair. How’d you end up there?
I did two interviews that got Tina Brown’s attention. I did the Playboy interview with Barry Diller back when he was the chief executive officer at Fox. He really wasn’t doing any press at the time. I was able to get an interview with him because I’d worked on the executive floor at Paramount, so he sort of knew me. Playboy had been trying to get an interview with him for years. So I wrote him a letter. I thought, He may remember me when I was a highfalutin flunky! This was ‘88 or ‘87. We went back and forth for weeks, trying to negotiate the terms of the Q&A and how much time I would spend with him. Playboy demanded lots of time.
In the old days, subjects spent a lot of time with you. Weeks! Now you’re lucky to get an hour between a Botox injection and a bowel movement. It’s all about seduction–you’re seducing them, they’re seducing you. It’s all about understanding the person. Giving a writer more time gets a better story.
Anyway, I was getting ready to go to a screening one night. I had shaving cream on half my face when the phone rang. It was Barry, saying, “I have to really mull this over.” And I’d had it. I said, “You know what? There’s a fine line between mulling over this decision and playing with me. You just crossed it. Fuck you, man. I’ll give myself your answer: It’s no. Enough.” And he said, “Well, if you put it that way, I’ll do it.” But, Barry became a friend. A kind and generous one.
Celebrities are like thoroughbreds—I don’t mean to compare them to animals—but they are creatures who are sort of apart, and the minute they sense that you are afraid of them, you can’t ride them. Some of the things I’ve always said about myself are I am not a journalist. I am too lazy to be a journalist. I’m a writer who knows narrative and I’m not intimidated by fame. I don’t find it intimidating at all.
I also did a Sam Shepard cover story for Interview. He was another celebrity Tina Brown wanted to get for Vanity Fair, and couldn’t. Suddenly I was this person she had never heard of who was getting interviews she wanted. She started asking around about me and then called me.
When I interviewed with her, I said, “You only need to know a few things about me. I’ve always had a woman boss, so I’m very comfortable with having a woman as my boss. I don’t like bullshit, so don’t bullshit me and I won’t bullshit you. And I don’t do anything unethical in my own mind, which gives me a little leeway.” She said, “OK, the job is yours. I want you here as a contributing editor.”
What year was that?
Eighty-nine or ‘88. Three months into starting, David Kuhn gave up the Fanfare section and Tina asked me to take it over. So within three months, I had two jobs there. One of my proudest moments as the editor of Fanfare was when I got a call from a friend at Harvard. He said, “There’s a guy here who’s really cool. He’s black and he heads the Harvard Law Review. Nobody knows about him, but I think he’s going places. He’d be a good subject for Fanfare.” So, I went to Tina and said, “This one’s a little different for Fanfare, but I’d like to put this guy, Barack Obama, in the column. She said, “It’s your section!” So we shot a big picture of him and put him in the magazine. It was his first national exposure. Boy, did he leave me in the dust. Good God!
Anyway, for my first story she sent me to England with Annie Leiboviz to interview all these women who were married to the Rolling Stones. I handed it in with the title, “The Women Who Still Sleep With The Rolling Stones.” Tina loved that title. She loved it a lot more than the story! She made me go through ten drafts. It was nightmarish. I thought, I’m in over my head. I can’t do this. I don’t know what she wants. I can’t please her. At one point she said, “Give me all of your research. I’ll write this damn thing!” So I brought in a shopping bag full of my back-up and plopped it on her desk. She said, “What’s this?” I said, “It’s my research. Good luck!” Then she called me and said, “Look, I hired you to write this. You have to write it. I don’t have the time.” Finally, after the tenth draft, she really loved it. She was even toying with the idea of putting it on the cover. So that was sort of a hit. The next thing she gave me was a cover story on Madonna. She accepted the first draft I submitted. She just loved it. From that moment on, I was golden. She gave me everything.
You’ve worked with two legendary editors, Tina Brown and then Graydon Carter. Tell us a little bit about their different styles.
They’re both amazing editors and are deservedly legends.
Tina is very much a part of what I call the BWSJ—the Barbara Walters School of Journalism, which means being a part of the world you cover because it’s all about access. It’s all about being in some lane of traffic, at a dinner or a party, and being able to turn to someone and say, “You should do a story.”
Also, Tina made it her mission to make her writers stars. She put our names on the cover. There were always the names of the writers as much as the title of their stories. Vanity Fair was like a marquee. I’ll always be grateful to her for that.
But both Graydon and Tina want respect from the insular world of journalism in New York. They want to be considered serious and thoughtful. When they get criticized, it’s for their celebrity coverage and their covers. So I was often the weapon that they would be attacked with. When they looked at me, they saw a weapon that was used against them. And I sensed it. I once told James Wolcott, whom I adore, “James, I wish I was as cool as you, but I know my place. I’m the trailer park.” That’s been the curse of my life. I’m a little Mississippi sissy, a poor boy from the South. I’m the white trash. I’m what’s used for criticism. It was frustrating and odd, you know. The better I was at what I did, the bigger the criticisms and the curse.
I’m a dinosaur now. I outlived my use. The business—the world—is a very different place now on lots of levels.
For one thing, back in the day, they gave you so much more space. When I would write prose in the old days, they gave me 5,000 to 7,000 words. Some of my stories were 8,000 to 10,000 words! They would give you space to really write and explore a subject. Maybe it’s a reflection of the times, but editors today give you 1500 words. They want you in and out. I don’t understand it.
It’s the Twitter universe! Magazines just don’t want long-form journalism, especially when it comes to cover stories and celebrity stuff. Long-form is saved for all things serious.
Also—I’m going to get in trouble here—there is an abdication of editorial responsibility to publicists. A lot of editors give publicists too much leeway.
In the old days, publicists would never get to approve a writer. Ever. Ever. Ever. Ever. Ever! Now, they get to dictate who gets to write their client’s story. When did writer approval happen? Just as celebrities shouldn’t be able to sense your fear, publicists shouldn’t either, and I think that editors should be willing to say, “You don’t get to approve who I hire as a writer. If you don’t want to do this, fine.” Call their bluff! Go to a second, third or fourth choice.
I was fired off a story for a fashion magazine and took the story to The Daily Beast. It was a real revelation, like “Wow, the world has changed.” That’s when I realized I belong in the Museum of Natural History. I’m just a cranky, old dinosaur.
Wait, you got fired?
I got fired off the story because the star felt that my questions were too personal. The magazine sided with the celebrity instead of backing up their writer.
What happens is when you interview people there’s an understanding that you’re not supposed to ask certain questions. The PR person will talk to an editor and say, “He’s not going to ask this question.” I’ll agree to let the editor agree to that, but then when I go to talk to the person I’ll say, “OK, so your PR person told my editor that I wouldn’t ask you this question, so I’m not going to ask you this question. But I am going to write about it. We can talk about it, or we cannot talk about it. But I want to be honorable and upfront with you by letting you know that I didn’t agree not to write about it. I only agreed not to ask you about it. Now it’s up to you.” Eighty-five to 90 percent of the time they say we can talk about it. It’s interesting.
Speaking of off-limits topics, you often ask subjects who are presumed gay, but are not out, about their sexuality. Why ask that question?
In the past I was like, Never out anybody. I was very adamant about that and at some point I sort of switched. I thought, You know what? I’m not going to buy into somebody else’s shame. They can deny it. I don’t give a shit. That’s fine. But I’m not going to be denied the question like it’s something shameful. Also, I’m not asking them what they do in their bedroom. I’m not asking them if they are a top or a bottom or what their sexual proclivities are. If someone is straight, that part of their life infuses all aspects of who they are. They talk about it all the time, and it’s not about being private.
I understand if you’re a movie star, you’re selling an image and people have to be able to project things onto you, especially if you are a romantic lead. I understand all of that in the abstract. But I’m not an adjunct to their career completely. I’m there as someone who’s got a job to do. I’m there to have a conversation. I’m not their agent. I’m not their PR person. That’s not my job. My job is to have conversations with them as people.
So your problem is with celebrity handlers?
It’s not even a problem, but you know what? I’ve got a job so respect my job as much as I respect yours. Don’t look at me like I work for you. I don’t work for you. You work for the celebrity. I work for the editor. Those should be two separate things. In the recent past, they’ve sort of become blurred. But I like publicists. I even thought about being a publicist because I get it. Because I’ve seen all sides of it, I could be a great publicist. I feel for them. They have to be the bad cop so that their celebrity can be the good one.
Having written in this genre for decades, we wondered why you think celebrity journalism is so important to American culture? Aside from feeding a lust for gossip, why is it relevant?
Well, I don’t know if it’s important. I think it has its place. One hundred years from now, when people look back on this time, they’ll see it as the gray parrot in the cultural mine. If it was done well there’s a cleverness to it. There are amazing writers who write about pop culture. Mark Harris, an Entertainment Weekly columnist, is incredible. The subject matter doesn’t determine the quality of the writing.
I’ve always looked on what I do as a truck-driving job. I drive glamorous cargo. I deliver the goods at deadline and dump it out. I get back behind the wheel, and I drive the truck. It’s a blue-collar job. I realized early on that people read magazines on airplanes and while taking a shit. That’s where your work is read! So I have a very realistic attitude about it all.
If I thought of myself as a journalist, I would really have an inferiority complex. Thinking of myself as a writer is self-protective. If I didn’t think of myself as a journalist when I was at Vanity Fair, then I didn’t feel quite so inferior. It was weird though: You’re writing the cover story and your name is splashed across the cover, and yet the incongruous fact was that you just felt like the poor stepchild. I was Cinderella and it was always midnight. Very seldom was I at the ball.
You’re sometimes criticized for being too soft on your subjects and for being too present in your stories. What’s your response to that?
People say, “Oh you’re never mean enough” and I always tell them that these people are not Nazi scientists. There is nothing evil about them. Sometimes their egos run rampant and they can be a little diva-esque, but they are not evil. I never understood trying to make your name as a writer by being mean to celebrities just because they’re famous.
And yeah a lot of people say, “You put yourself in your stories too much. Remove yourself.” I know this is going to sound egotistical but a lot of times I thought I was more interesting than the person I was interviewing. Not all the time. Don’t get me wrong. Maybe 40 percent of the time, I’ve sat there and thought, Thank God I’m sitting here or this would be really boring! That’s what I take into the room: I’m not lucky to meet you, you’re lucky that I’m the one interviewing you.
What qualities make for a great interview?
A really good interview is a personal, intimate conversation as performance art. You and the interviewee realize it’s going on a page, yet there’s a heightened intimacy that goes on where an interview ceases to be an interview and becomes a conversation. But then you have to be able to translate that onto the page and know how to write. I write it like a short story. I love the Q&A format. It’s like a talk show!
But, I am amazed sometimes when I read Q&As. I think, Did the interviewer even listen to what the person just said? I will always be the Mississippi sissy, who is inside with the women, listening to them talk, while all the other kids are outside playing. I love language and conversation, listening and hearing the stream of conversation, knowing how and when to make a joke. That comes from sitting inside the house with the women. That’s part of my interview technique: I go back to that little kid who loved sitting with the women.
What are some of your other interview techniques?
I do my research the night before the interview so it’s fresh in my mind. Then, I sit down and write out my notes and imagine the conversation. I prepare where I am going to lead this person and decide beforehand where to drop in a reference. And I sort of know and expect what an answer will be so I can then follow up with some unexpected thing that will surprise them.
One of the oldest tricks in the book is to be totally open and honest about yourself. Tell them your deepest, darkest secrets, some nasty awful shit. It never goes in the damn story and totally throws them off. Plus, they love it when you talk dirty. It shocks them.
The impetus for them to talk to you is a new product, a movie, or a book. So on some level it’s a commercial transaction. Use that commercial transaction to find your way into some other area of their life. Your research will often lead you to a bit of knowledge about the person that is far removed from their popular image. It’s always there. You have to follow the breadcrumbs when you’re researching them. Keep following the trail. Sometimes it’ll take an hour or two, but you’ll get to a detail that’s like, Oh my God. From that one detail you never expected, a whole world opens up. You’ll drop that detail into the conversation and they’ll say, “Oh my God. How did you know that?”
Give us an example from one of your past interviews.
Sure, I used to submit stories I’d written to The New Yorker. There was a woman there named Linda Asher, who found my work in the slush pile and began to engage me. I sent her like 12 or 13 stories. Howard Moss, their poetry editor for nearly forty years, found out about me from Linda. He was one of the first people who read my work and became my mentor.
Because I had done my research, when I went to interview actress Michelle Williams, I knew she loved poetry. (And if I were straight, honey, I’d still be chasing her. I fell in love with her!) I went down to her house in Brooklyn. I stopped at a bookstore on Smith Street and saw Selected Poems by Howard Moss. I thought, I’m going to buy her a Howard Moss book of poems because I loved Howard and that’s a good way to connect my life with her. (By the way, sometimes it’s good if you give your subject a gift; they love a thoughtful gift. The one thing celebrities love is free shit! They do, honey, more than any others I’ve met in my life!)
I gave her the book and she gasped.
“Oh my God,” she said, “this man is one of my favorite poets in the world. When Heath died, there was a poem of Moss’s that got me through my grief. I would read it over and over and over. Just the other day I was trying to find it, but I couldn’t remember the name of it.”
Then, she looked at the table of contents and found it. It was called “The Pruned Tree.” I said, ”Will you read it to me—for Howard, for Heath, for me, for yourself?” And she did. So the impulse to give her a gift, to honor her love of poetry, gave me an “in” into an interview that I would have never had if I had just sat down to talk about her movie.
Plus, I had done Heath’s first big story, which was on the cover of Vanity Fair. The photographer Bruce Weber and I flew to Prague. Heath was filming A Knight’s Tale. I snuck over a joint in my sock, which I always did back in the day. I spent a lot of time there, about a week, doing lots of things with him. One night, he asked if I wanted to go to a party with him, but it had to be off the record. I said, “Sure.” We were on the Charles Bridge shootin’ the shit, and I pulled out my joint and shared it with him.
I told Michelle about that. I said, “I’ve always cherished that memory, thinking it was really cool, but I almost feel like I have to make an amends because of the way he died. Before I really talk to you, I need to come clean. It was just pot, but I did drugs with Heath and I feel like I should apologize. You’re being in my life as an interview subject is a way for me to say, ‘I’m sorry.’” Sometimes it’s more than just a job, it becomes your life.
What celebrity profile are you most proud of?
A personal favorite of mine is the one I did on Emma Thompson. I think that was some of my best work. The Courtney Love story was a good one too. Again, I spent a lot of time with her, which was exhausting, but it turned into a really great story. It was complicated, but full of everything.
I interviewed her naked in the bathtub! I told her, “You need a bath! I can’t sit here and talk to you unless you get a bath. Why don’t we go to the bathroom and you get in the tub.”
She said, “I’m not doing that!”
I said, “Think about it Courtney. You’ll get attention, so I think it’d be good. Strip down and let me interview you next to the tub.”
I watched her bathe.
People thought I was too nice to her, but she was this very tortured person that I found compelling. Journalist Lynn Hirschberg had done a brilliant hatchet job on her. My piece came out as a sort of bookend. It was to say, “This is who she is. You interpret it. I’m not going to color this. This is what I saw. This is everything that happened.”
And I like the Barbra Streisand story I wrote for Vanity Fair. This was ’91 or ’92, before email. She invaded my life—faxes! faxes! phone calls! phone calls!—trying to control the piece. I finally had to tell her to back off.
The night she got the early issue of the magazine she called me at 2:00 a.m. I was sound asleep when the phone rang: “Hi, it’s Barbra. Did I wake you up?” she asked. Then she went through the whole story: What she liked, what she didn’t like, what was a bad quote, on and on.
At the end, she said, “So, I have a question. Why didn’t you say I was sexier?”
I said, “Barbra I got Jon Peters saying that when he first met you, you walked up some stairs in front of him and he saw how sexy your ass was.”
She said, “I know. That was nice, but you as the writer should have said I was sexier.”
So I said, “Barbra let me tell you something. When people asked me what is Barbra Streisand really like, I give them a one word answer: Fuckable.”
And she said, “Oh my God, I love that! Why didn’t you put that in the story?”
Ha! Why didn’t you?
People would have thought I was a sexist pig!
So who are you dying to interview?
When people say who’s the most interesting person you’ve interviewed I always say, “The next one!” So I’ll say that to you, the next one.
Can you tell us a little more about your forthcoming book?
It’s sort of a sequel to Mississippi Sissy, my first book. The title, I Left It on the Mountain, comes from having climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. I made the summit. I sold it to St. Martin’s Press as a glamour pus, life in the fast lane of New York City type of book. Each chapter is sort of self-contained, yet they all connect.
The chapter called “The Climber” is about my climb up Mount Kilimanjaro, which a note from Tom Cruise inspired me to do. I had just told his girlfriend at the time, Penélope Cruz, about my HIV status. I’ve interviewed her twice. I love, love, love her! And if I were straight, I’d still be chasing her too. She told Tom that I was HIV positive, so he sent me a note, saying how sorry he was to hear of my illness. But I hadn’t thought of myself as ill.
Tom and I had become friendly at one point after I interviewed him years ago. I’m sure someone said, “Stop seeing him. He’s an out queer writer. What are you doing hanging with him? People gossip.” I found out that people were gossiping, which shocked me because I didn’t look at him as a sexual creature at all. I didn’t. He was just a nice guy to hang out with.
Anyway, I saw the word illness in the note that he had sent me. While it was a thoughtful, sweet note, it felt like a statement about my life. Getting that letter made me climb that mountain. So when I saw him at the Vanity Fair Oscar party later that year, I had just climbed it. He came through the back door. He’d ridden his motorcycle to the event. He was wearing a black motorcycle helmet and black leather pants. I said, “I made the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. I climbed it because of you motherfucker. I loved your note and it touched my heart, but I had to prove to you and to me that I wasn’t ill so I climbed that damn mountain.”
The last chapter is called “The Addict.” During all that time of interviewing all these high-profile people, I became a meth addict. For the last year and a half, I’ve gotten sober. The book covers my spiritual journey to getting sober in this heightened world of celebrity.
I just hope St. Martin’s likes it because it’s not exactly the book they bought! There are parts in it that will make Shirley MacLaine’s eyes roll.
Andrew Sullivan once said: “Kevin is a one-off. So at home and canny in the world of celebrity journalism and yet the reason he is so good at understanding character is because he’s lived it. Underneath the urbane exterior is Flannery O’Connor on acid.”
You know, it’s Flannery O’Connor’s birthday today. That’s not a coincidence. That’s God. God just spoke through you. On Facebook, I posted some excerpts from her lecture, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction” and an audio of her reading from her most famous short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”
I think part of what I do and the reason I don’t write hatchet jobs is because I look on it as my mission to find the good man or the good woman in each of these celebrities. They’re in there somewhere.