Atop a warehouse, high over Santa Monica Boulevard and just under the shadow of the Hollywood sign, a ghetto blaster blares the chorus of Elvis Costello’s “This Year’s Girl.” The view is panoramic, and each surrounding building looks like a confection of sugar cubes, glazed with pale pink frosting. Late afternoon sunshine casts a warm, amber glow on the hair and makeup assistants, dressed in head-to-toe black, who swarm around their subject. It’s a photo shoot for GQ magazine, it’s on the rooftop of big-shot photographer Herb Ritts’ studio and for these bit players, it’s the closest to heaven that a mere mortal could hope to get.

A white stretch limo idles on the street below, waiting to whisk away the tired, young ingenue at the centre of the whirlwind. But Johanna Schneller’s still got work to do. “That’s beautiful. Pick your neck up a little bit-yes, more of that!” Schneller leans back, the palms of her hands scraping the tar and gravel roof, listening to Ritts’ directions. It’s all she can do to stay out of the way as a nubile Julia Roberts slithers her way across the roof, her sinuous limbs clothed only in a shirt and men’s Jockey shorts.

The other celebrity present, Ritts’ Rhodesian Ridgeback-a long-bodied, tan dog named Jack-sits in the corner beside Schneller. “Hi, Jack-Jack, gooood dog,” the assistants coo as they glide past, ignoring Schneller, GQ‘s Los Angeles-based senior writer, who is there to profile Roberts for a cover story. The supporting cast aren’t the only ones snubbing her, though. Earlier, Roberts whispered and giggled with her makeup artist while Schneller tried to ask questions. It seems the popular girls don’t want to be friends with her. Schneller feels like a stone in the stucco. “Well, I’m gonna go,”; she says to no one in particular. No one in particular answers her. “It was ridiculous,” says Schneller of her role, six years later. “In that world, the dog is way more important.”

Schneller’s no pup when it comes to the Hollywood beat. The girl from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, got a crash course in glamour at her first New York job in 1984 as an editorial assistant at GQ (where she doubled as 5 p.m. ice-fetcher for editor Art Cooper’s daily cocktail). Since moving from L.A. to Toronto in 1994, Schneller has freelanced for magazines like Vanity Fair,US, Chatelaine and Toronto Life. But after schmoozing and interviewing more than 30 celebrities, she’s learned that it doesn’t get any easier-profilers can never stop hoping celebrities will throw them a bone.

The world of celebrity journalism is a throwback to high school, where the cool kids were unapproachable. Celebrities move in tight cliques and usually only date one of their own. They’re wary of outsiders. So talking to stars isn’t easy; it’s an art form. You’ve got to lie around waiting for the phone to ring, you can’t sound dumb and you can never let them know you’re intimidated. And if profile writers are the nerds in the metaphorical high school of celebrity journalism, they don’t fare much better in the world of journalism as a whole. They are the loud-laughing, lampshade-wearing uninvited party guests at the bottom of journalism’s hierarchy. Of course, celebrity journalism has done much to deserve its shoddy reputation, filling papers with ridiculous rumours and puffy profiles. But the upper echelon is entirely different and shouldn’t be confused with its tabloid country cousin. Truly talented practitioners of the genre in Canada and the United States are gifted storytellers, applying the principles of literary journalism to their celebrity subjects. So if journalists can play it just right, exorcise the demons of insecurity, reverse the illusion of power and maybe even get the celebrity to think they’re a little bit cool too, then the celeb will talk. And the writer’s got the story.

The unit publicist for Rob Roy opens the trailer door. “Liam, this is Johanna from Vanity Fair,” she says, leaving the two alone in the small trailer. Neeson is in the middle of making a cup of tea. As he turns and walks toward Schneller, he swings his six-foot-four inch frame to the side and ducks, without looking, to avoid the hanging kitchen light. Neeson is dressed in full Highland regalia, but his shirt and kilt are filthy-Rob Roy had just been dragged by a horse. His arms and legs are encrusted with fake scabs, his nose looks bruised and broken and his hair is matted. Still, Schneller thinks, he is knee-bucklingly handsome.

“Oh my god,” she mentally squeals as they sit down. “I’m in Scotland; I’m in Scotland with Liam Neeson!” She notices the table is littered with scripts, books of Scottish lore and the latest issue of Vanity Fair, with Tom Cruise’s admissions of his father’s abuse on its glossy pages. Neeson picks up the magazine and swats the table with it as he speaks.

“You know-whap-I’ve been readin’ this Vanity Fair with Tom Cruise talkin’ about his father and I thought, ‘I would never-whap-tell anyone anything like that. I would never, ever tell a journalist anything nearly that personal about myself.’ And then I started thinkin’, ‘Why-whap-am I doin’ this at all?’ Why are you here? I’m in the middle of a movie, I’m in every scene and I’m workin’ really hard. I just-whap-don’t want to do it. In fact, I thought you were comin’ tomorrow so I was goin’ to call my publicist today sayin’ I want to cancel it. But you’re here now and we have to try to do something. I have 15 minutes, so what’s your first question?”

Schneller remembers a hot flush creeping over her face. “I thought, ‘Okay, I don’t want to be in Scotland with Liam Neeson anymore.’ What the hell do you ask somebody who just said that?” Schneller quickly learned she wouldn’t get to ask much at all. After several days and limited time with a cranky Neeson, Schneller called the magazine in New York to say she was in trouble-something she’d never had to do before. Vanity Fair in turn called Neeson’s publicist in L.A., who faxed him in Scotland. An hour later, Schneller got a phone call from the film’s unit publicist: “Yeah, you can come to the hotel for an hour. Meet him at seven, but he has to go to dinner at eight.” Neeson was slightly more cooperative for this brief meeting but Schneller knew that what he’d given her wasn’t enough. She also knew there was nothing more she could do-she’d already used every ounce of her skill as an interviewer.

It wasn’t until Schneller was on the plane home to L.A. that indignation set in. She was a professional writer, damn it, not some pesky high-school kid begging for help with a book report. And although she had just the skeleton of a story, Schneller realized she was in control. She could write whatever she wanted because Neeson was a jerk and that was what she would say.

But jerks aren’t necessarily stupid. Within a week, Schneller got a call from Neeson himself. Suddenly he’s Mr. Nice, totally apologetic. “Somewhere the realization sunk in that yes, in fact, this measly high-school-book-report girl had some power-the power of the pen,” Schneller says.

Everything about celebrity journalism reeks of power. Celebrities-the very term suggesting their role in society-are used to having all the control. But it wasn’t always this way. There was a time when celebrity journalists were star makers instead of just star watchers. The gossip column was born during the Roaring Twenties, the era of Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, of Mary Pickford and Gloria Swanson. In those days, Louella Parsons was the matriarch of the Hollywood scene and she alone controlled the grapevine with her column. Established and aspiring stars alike recognized her reign and bowed down to Parsons in hopes of a mention in her column. But by the early 1930s, Depression-era fans flooded the theatres to escape the reality of lean times. Soon, interest in matinée idols grew and others began gossiping for the masses: Hedda Hopper, Sheilah Graham and Walter Winchell. It wasn’t only gossip, though, that found its way to the printed page. Harold Ross’ magazine, The New Yorker, began featuring longer celebrity profiles, sending acid-tongued Dorothy Parker to capture Ernest Hemingway and assigning Virgilia Peterson Ross to render Greta Garbo. Clearly, a new species of writing had evolved. In the late sixties and early seventies, a cluster of new magazines would devote themselves to celebrity profiling-Rolling Stone, People, Interview, the list goes on.

 

To read the rest of this story, please see our ebook anthology: RRJ in Review: 30 Years of Watching the Watchdogs.
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