Tracey Thorn: interviews can be just as terrifying for the celebrity

We don’t know what to expect: whether they want us to be garrulous or mysterious; live up to our image or confound it; be starry or down to earth.

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Bad interviews always make good reading. I remember screaming with laughter at Janice Turner’s encounter with Rhys Ifans for the Times – a textbook car crash containing hilarious (for us) moments of stroppiness, with the prize finale of an actor flouncing out. We enjoy this kind of thing not out of sheer malice but because we read interviews to be entertained. The sight of someone losing their temper in such trivial circumstances is the sight of someone losing their cool, and people are at their most boring when they are fully in possession of their cool.

Quite often it’s disappointing for journalists to meet those they admire, even if sometimes I find myself raising an eyebrow at how surprised they seem to be at the news that many performers can be self-centred and haughty. Poor Simon Hattenstone of the Guardian seems to run into difficulties whenever he gets to meet his New York punk heroes – Patti Smith left him gasping for a cup of tea that she was too important and artistic to provide, and Lou Reed nearly reduced him to tears with his unexpected nastiness.

This is all, as I say, great fun to read, but my amusement is tinged with sympathy, as I have too often been in the interviewee’s position and I know how easily things can go wrong, especially when you’re young. I admit I once flounced out in a huff after being accused during my angry student days of making “easy-listening” music. And somewhere on tape there is a recording of my teen band the Marine Girls being interviewed on Radio 1, our extreme youth and complete lack of experience being the only justification I can offer for the combination of miserable silence and snippy sarcasm with which we met each mild inquiry.

I’m older and wiser now, and have learned the lesson that making cups of tea and generally being friendly to those who have the job of writing about you is entirely a matter of self-preservation. It’s about learning where the power lies and trying to work an unequal situation to your own advantage.

Because although we seem to live in a celebrity-ruled world, it’s still the writer who controls the interview. I’ve made many journalist friends through Twitter and it never fails to amaze them when I say that we – by which I mean anyone who’s ever been interviewed – are often afraid of them. We don’t know what to expect when they turn up: whether they want us to be garrulous or mysterious; live up to our image or confound it; be starry or down to earth. Different interviewers want different things and it’s not always obvious what until afterwards, when you read the piece.

And this, in a nutshell, is the source of The Fear – a meeting takes place between two people, but only one of them gets to recount what happened. One party determines whether the other party was funny or dull, clever or stupid, nice or nasty. The interviewee – who did all the talking on the day – is silenced, his version of events unheard. So any interview, while appearing to be an informal, relaxed conversation, is in reality a kind of performance, at the end of which you will be judged. In print. And possibly found wanting. No wonder we can get frightened, and tense, and no wonder we try to hang on to our cool, only to find ourselves losing it at the drop of a hat.

Over the years I’ve developed a reputation for valuing my privacy, which has made some question why I then wrote a memoir, and now a semi-personal column. But the obvious answer is that writing about yourself is very different from being written about; you are the one in control, and can choose exactly what to reveal and what not. The “secrets” you give away are only those you are comfortable with, and many more remain hidden, just as they should.

You may be shining a light on to your own life, but you are the one holding the lamp, and can angle it in whichever direction you choose. Even in your most honest moments, you will probably lean towards showing yourself in a good light, or as good as possible a light, opting for words that are at least not untrue, and not unkind. (Thanks, P Larkin.) 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her books include Naked at the Albert Hall, Bedsit Disco Queen and, most recently, Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia 

This article appears in the 10 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Britain in meltdown