Vanity Fair‘s December cover was, by all accounts, a score: a gorgeous, doe-eyed shot of a winsome, un-strung-out looking Kate Moss with the coverline: “Kate Moss: The Inside Story of the Cocaine, the Boyfriend, the Shattered Career. Can She Come Back?” Readers could be forgiven for thinking that Vanity Fair had scored an interview with the supermodel. It had not.
At the Globe & Mail, New York columnist Simon Houpt raises an eyebrow at Vanity Fair‘s inability to score an interview with its subject. He recalls interviewing Graydon Carter who said of his subjects: “Most of the time, we figure out who we want, and then we just get them.” Case in point: the bestselling Jennifer Aniston September cover by Leslie Bennetts.* Case not in point: Vicky Ward‘s December cover story on Kate Moss, which cobbles together factoids from the public record with comments from her friends (we’re to trust that these people are friends and not “hangers on” as friends of Moss boyfriend Pete Doherty are described).
Ward’s write-around glosses over the lack of access, never specifically alluding to any attempt to contact Moss or even whether she had an official spokesperson (at one point she cites Moss’ lawyer Gerrard Tyrrell, but it’s unclear whether she spoke to him or lifted from the public record). Ward does write that Moss “has rarely given interviews — and then usually only to top magazines, such as American Vogue.” I’d say snap, but can you snap yourself?
Lacking such access, Ward does survey a number of presumably close friends of Moss, leading with “an acquaintance” who opines authoritatively on Moss’ relationship and then quoting her hairdresser, artist Tracey Emin (described in this week’s New York magazine, incidentally, as “bigmouth”) and people at a photo shoot, “people she has known for years.” These people might all be her best buddies or they might be total media whores; honestly, there is no way for us to tell. (We can tell that the pics are from a year ago…if we read the fine print.)
Houpt asked Vanity Fair spokeswoman Beth Kseniak about it:
“The cover line does not in any way suggest that we spoke to her, or that she talked to us,” she said. I asked whether carrying that photo on the cover suggests Moss co-operated with the article. “I can see how someone might assume that she had because, as you say, usually our cover stories do have interviews. But I don’t think there have been any letters to the editor complaining about it.”
Aim high, VF.
(BTW, UK Vogue was fooled, writing “Just days after getting out of rehab, Kate Moss has swept away any doubt of her comeback with a cover for Vanity Fair that is bound to send sales through the roof. The British supermodel…looks better than ever as she poses over 11 pages inside.” The headline? “Kate Moss Returns.” Don’t feel bad, UK Vogue; they were fooled (“Moss has another crack at modeling”), and them (“Moss comes back as covergirl”), and them (“Kate Moss makes modelling comeback with Vanity Fair cover”).
The story is really good but it’s locked away behind the Canadian equivalent of TimesSelect so I’ve reproduced it after the jump. Disclosure: Simon Houpt is a friend of mine. Kate Moss is not. If she was, I expect I might have had a shot at getting into Vicky Ward’s article.
WRITING AROUND JOURNALISTIC ETHICS [Globe & Mail]
Vanity Fair: Kate Moss nipple alert [FishbowlNY]
WRITING AROUND JOURNALISTIC ETHICS
The Globe & Mail
Monday, November 28, 2005
Is Vanity Fair losing its power to make celebrities do what it wants? The December issue features a cover story about the recent tabloid and drug battles of the British supermodel Kate Moss. Readers are accustomed to the magazine scoring sit-downs with the most in-demand celebrity of any moment, as they did in September with Jennifer Aniston, whose conversation with Leslie Bennetts made the issue the hottest seller in Vanity Fair’s history.
A few years ago, when I interviewed editor Graydon Carter in his office overlooking Times Square, he said the magazine cover subjects were pretty easy to secure. “Most of the time, we figure out who we want, and then we just get them.”
Looking at the glamorous shot of Moss on the December cover, which makes her delicate, painted features look faintly troubled, most readers would automatically assume that the magazine had scored another exclusive interview, one in which the supermodel spilled on the scandals. The sell line on the cover, placed atop Moss’s lovely breastbone, certainly reinforces this notion. It reads: Kate Moss, The Inside Story of the Cocaine, the Boyfriend, the Shattered Career. Can She Come Back? (The Washington Post’s magazine critic Peter Carlson answered that with: “Yes. She’s on the cover of Vanity Fair. That means she is back.”) But Moss, who was in rehab until the end of October, did not co-operate with the story.
Close inspection of the article by Vicky Ward reveals it is what is known in the industry as a write-around, which means the magazine did not actually have access to its subject and therefore had to “write around” the lack of first-hand quotes. The two studio photos accompanying the article are old, shot more than a year ago for a Vanity Fair fashion feature.
Maybe Vanity Fair considers Moss to be veritable royalty. In the more than 150 issues since 1993, the magazine has carried only four write-arounds: Prince William (September, 2003), Diana, Princess of Wales (February, 1993) and two who married into American royalty, Arnold Schwarzenegger (June, 1997), and Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, who, alas, was unavailable for the September, 1999, story, having died in July of that year.
Beth Kseniak, the Vanity Fair spokeswoman, defended the write-around by saying there was no attempt to hoodwink readers. “The cover line does not in any way suggest that we spoke to her, or that she talked to us,” she said. I asked whether carrying that photo on the cover suggests Moss co-operated with the article. “I can see how someone might assume that she had because, as you say, usually our cover stories do have interviews. But I don’t think there have been any letters to the editor complaining about it.”
Maybe that’s because most readers haven’t caught on yet, since the magazine does all it can to hide the write-around. One call-out (a choice bit of text lifted out of the article and run in large print across the layout) reads: ” ‘What did I learn in rehab?’ Moss said to a friend with a wink. ‘A lot about alcohol.’ ” When you read the piece, however, you learn that’s an old Moss quote, referring to her 1998 stint in a London clinic.
Write-arounds used to be the province of cheap celebrity magazines with thin paper stock and low circulations. But as the success of the tabloids has pushed a huge swath of the entertainment industrial complex into embracing tabloid tactics, the formerly legitimate outlets have come around to the fiscal wisdom of slapping a chunk of paparazzi photos atop some tenuously relevant copy and calling it “exclusive.”
And to be fair to Vanity Fair, the tabloids are still leading the write-around pack. One of the most egregious write-around jobs of the year came in August, when People magazine cannibalized a story by — yup, Vanity Fair. “Jen Breaks Her Silence,” promised the cover line on the issue. Inside, it took nine crack reporters at People, spread across three different cities, to spend 1,062 words regurgitating VF’s sit-down with Jennifer Aniston. (That’s 118 words per scribe. I’m not sure if I should envy or pity them.) Recently released circulation figures showed that issue of People flew off the newsstands. “So Leslie Bennetts’s interview was the best seller for both Vanity Fair and People magazine,” crowed Kseniak. “Now there’s your story.”
A couple of weeks ago, I walked by the Beacon Theatre on Broadway at 74th Street, where workers were laying down the red carpet — actually a muddy forest-green colour — for the premiere of the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line. More than 40 place cards strung along a metal riot barrier indicated the spots for national and international TV and magazine cameras.
A few hours later, as dusk descended, a convoy of stretch limousines glided to a stop in front of the theatre. Then, roaring chaos, as the crowd spotted Reese Witherspoon hand-in-hand with her husband Ryan Phillippe, whose recent public absences had led to rumours about the state of their marriage. She twirled and smiled, and he gamely grinned, and after five minutes or so the couple disappeared into the theatre. The next day, gossip websites and syndicated entertainment shows alike shouted to the world the “inside scoop” about Reese & Ryan, “revealing” that the couple’s marriage was as solid as ever. It was all based — to borrow one of the outlets’ favourite words — exclusively on that glimpse on the green carpet.