The celebrity interview
Commercial media and celebrities negotiate many sociological and commercial processes creating a space that demonstrates intersection of many interests. The celebrity interview is particularly a unique phenomenon as it has evolved into sophisticated voyuerism, which rewards the reader with background “factual”, “routine” or “exclusive” information about the star that engages the reader as spectator and consumer. Permitted by the mass media, which allows for the celebrity engagement to come into fruition, the readers are rewarded with “exclusive” or “behind the scenes” information about the stars and culture industry setting off a cycle of further curiosity, interest, and consumption.
Furthermore, the capacity to re-present the intersection of art and celebrity life is not simply a product of the artist and their genre conventions. That is to say, celebrities do not become a part of our consciousness through some objective interaction of their field with us. For example, Shah Rukh Khan’s recent appearance on a chat show hosted by the respected journalist Prannoy Roy was dependent on NDTV‘s willingness to make airtime available for the same. Without the mediated public sphere provided by the broadcaster, Shah Rukh Khan would not have been able to reach out to the audience. On the other hand, the star’s public persona created by the films he acted in and the media discourse surrounding him created the compelling conditions for NDTV to have him on air as a means to making the news channel relevant to young audiences. So we can see that the celebrity and the public sphere are not spontaneous expression of culture but are the result of a complex interaction of medium, media economics and sociology, art, and audience. Since the explosion of mass media since the mid 90s, I am particularly interested in the interview as format for the circulation and understanding of the celebrity.
We could argue that the interview is a negotiation between two individuals, the journalist and the celebrity. However, the interview cannot be simplified to an innocuous Q&A session between the two. Other variables come into play, such as mutual deference/irreverence, mutual consensus over the limits of the interrogation, background information made available to the journalist, the experience and knowledge of the journalist, the market position of the media, the deadline for publication/broadcast, the socio-economic and demographic profile of the media outlet’s audience. Since the sociology of media is outside the scope of this article so we shall stick to the celebrity interview.
If we considered all the variables to be stable, the celebrity interview is an interesting phenomenon because it represents the role of media in society. The media becomes a space where the interview negotiates the demands of the culture industry that the celebrity represents, the media supply side represented by the media and the journalist, ultimately leading to the reader/audience who consumes it. What is telling is that in a consumerist society there will be little cynicism and social distrust of this mediated persona because there are no alternatives to challenge it. Even if such alternatives exist (e.g., Medha Patkar, Arundhati Roy), they are ignored by the media due to various reasons, primary being such personalities’ lack of fit with the consumerist spaces such mediated images operate in.
How do we conceptualise a celebrity and the mediated engagement with audience/spectators? As individuals living in a largely mediated world, it may be instructive to use some conceptions as starting point. Not because of any deference to theories, but because they help us distantiate from the media and its messages. Marshall defines “celebrities” as those people who, via mass media, enjoy”a greater presence and wider scope of activity and agency than are those who make up the rest of the population. They are allowed to move on the public stage while the rest of us watch” (1997, ix). On the other hand, being a “fan” or even a curious onlooker, is an important, even defining, characteristic of modernity. It entails formation of relations of “intimacy with distant others” (Thompson 1995, 220).
In India’s case the seminal position of film in its media culture is crucial to understanding the cult of the domestic celebrity. Indian television started life in 1959 as a series of regional units producing linguistically-specific programming, as part of the state-run public service broadcaster Doordarshan, mainly promoting government policy and social welfare. In the last three decades television has grown exponentially, exploiting synergies of programming with cinema, to emerge as the most commercially successful component of India’s media industry. Beginning with 1991, a liberalised or commercial phase of Indian media has begun.
In the increasingly crowded and competitive media market of satellite TV, radio, and print media, editors are generally instructed to make content light and marketable. News is seen as commodity, no different from any other consumer durable. With news organisations being re-conceptualised as business with eye on consumers, news is now considered as commodity. Thus news of spectacles created by consumers and celebrities take front page precedence over drought. The media exploits the “mass” or “low” culture of which the celebrity is a part. Though it is quite a paradox how this comes into being — the celebrity needs to be set up for public imagination before she/he can be exploited. So which one comes first, the celebrity or the fans?
The above concepts raise many issues which can be examined in a 2007 Screen India interview with Karan Johar (read here). The Screen interview is informative of the ways in which contemporary celebrities are at ease with media and play a central role in fulfilling the latter’s role in a consumerist/commercial environment. Here, in the interaction between the interviewer and the interviewee it is the latter who controls his image and persona, reinforcing his position not just as a constructed celebrity but also revealing his skills and proficiency that qualify him for this role. This not only confirms to the reader his stature as an exeptional and qualified individual in the society, but also serves as a reward to the media outlet and reader for having conferred on him the same.
The celebrity as the expert
Karan Johar sets himself up as expert by revealing that what he does involves a specialised skill, expertise, and art. He is not only one who works with the best in the industry but also possesses a great work ethic, which is rewarded by the position that he occupies. This motif is central to his appeal, particularly to an aspirational audience. Having established his authority, he provides intimate and specific details about his work, which elevates what he does to the level of an important role. Such revelations provide vital cues for the interviewer to pursue further questions, and this continues to build on his persona. Sample the questions and the answers:
Q: What was the look you had in mind for Shah Rukh Khan’s KBC wardrobe?
A: “The only concession to fashion that I’ve made is to go in for skinny ties as opposed to the broad ties that everyone favours today. These ties were very “in” in the ’60s and ’70s and I felt that Shah Rukh with his compact frame could carry them off.”
Q: “Did you shop abroad for the show”
A: “Not really, because Mumbai today is a very savvy city. When everything that is fashionable is accessible here, why would I feel the need to travel abroad?”
Q: Wha’s Shah Rukh’s biggest USP as a style icon?
A: “He (Shah Rukh Khan) can carry off anything, from jeans to a three-piece suit. He’s your dream clothes- horse. Everything looks good on him because he is neither too broad nor too slim, not too tall nor too short… ”
Q: What was your first impression of KBC’s new host?
A: Warm…Endearing…Instantly connecting with his audience. I loved it when he got up and so casually began to give his tense guest a massage.
Q: Is he in the habit of doing that?
A: No, but he truly cares for people. And I think that’ss why h’ss able to bring a smile to so many faces.
A large portion of the interview focuses on his specialised role in the making of Shah Rukh Khan’s image for KBC, his proximity to the star, and thus his legitimacy as a celebrity who has earned his stature. As a character in a media performance, he provides intimate details about celebrity life that is normally hidden away from public knowledge. The interview not only makes us intimate with Karan Johar but gives us a ringside view of celebrity life.
On the other hand he is aware of his role as television performer in his chat show Kofee with Karan and he carefully constructs his persona around his role as “the interviewer”. He is the object of affection and his intent informs the way in which he communicates, particularly in the construction of persona. Again, here too he first sets himself up as the “expert” chat show host, who rewards the media outlet and the reader with information that would be considered privileged, exclusive and accessible only to the deserving.
Q: You too are returning with the second season of Koffee With Karan. Will it be easier the second time around?
A: It is never easy. I’m as scared as I would be if I were making my first film. But there’s a lot of excitement too because today Koffee… is a large part of my entity and has helped tremendously in brand-building.
Q: Who was your most difficult guest on the first season?
A: They were all fantastic but I had to research Sunny Deol because, though I have great regard for him as an actor, I’m not very close to him. I did not mind the effort. In fact, now that I’m a member of the media, I plan to take on a dozen people who I don’t know all that well.
The above examples demonstrate the ways in which the celebrity interview intersects varied interests where the “expert” celebrity carefully constructs and engineers the persona, not through “media power” or fandom, but through demonstration of “expertise” and his role in a media “drama” and “narrative”. This is only made possible by a commercial media, which is driven by an audience demand for intimacy with consumerist and commercial images. It is not enough that we are passive consumers of brands and celebrities, we are also made to feel we have priviliged access to their lives — even though we will never be a part of their lives or have physical access to them.
Bettag, Tom (2006) Evolving Definitions of News Nieman Reports. Cambridge: Winter 2006.Vol.60, Iss. 4; pg. 37, 3 pgs
Marshall, P. D. (1997) Celebrity and Power: Fame in Contemporary Culture (London: University of Minnesota Press).
Thompson, J. (1995) The Media and Modernity: A Social Theory of the Media (Cambridge: Polity).