I spent the last two weeks deep in the archives of Charlize Theron, reading every interview and profile, reviewing her social media, and watching as many films from her past as I could — some of them weird, some of them deeply forgettable, some of them masterpieces, like Young Adult, which is so pitch-perfect in its evocation of late 2000s self-obsession and pretty girl privilege. These deep dives (a word I don't love, but what else describes them? Extensive explorations of a star's career and ideological meaning?) are one of my favorite things to do, celebrity-writing wise, and in the three years since coming to BuzzFeed, I've done them on the images of Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Garner, Ben Affleck, Tom Hanks, Mark Wahlberg, Reese Witherspoon, Kerry Washington, Zac Efron, and Angelina Jolie.
In academia we call these "star studies," and it's a very easy format that requires a deceptive amount of time to complete. It seems increasingly important to "show our work" as journalists, or at the very least be diligent in explaining the tactics/understandings that journalists take for granted (see: anonymous sourcing). Most of this imperative to "show your work" applies to political journalism, but I think it also extends to online writing as a whole. The speed with which blogs posts and content on sites like The Hairpin were produced helped create an understanding that all writing could be done incredibly quickly, eliding the way that the best, most enduring content, even if it was written in a few hours, sprung from years of experience, years of developing sources, or years of accumulated research. It might have been quick to write, but it was not quick to get to the point that you could write like that.
I myself contributed to this understanding with my own (now long defunct) blog, where I regularly ripped out mini-star studies, some of which took a few hours, others a few days. Consciously or not, I contributed to the understanding that this was just a little ditty that effortlessly flew from my mind. That understanding made it easier for people to pay me less (which happened when I was first writing my Scandals of Classic Hollywood for The Hairpin) and for me to convince myself that I should be paid less. This paradigm also convinces readers that they shouldn't pay, in whatever way, for journalism: because it's a product that they've long accessed for free, but also because of the understanding that the person producing it had no real skill, devoted no real time.
Allow me to disabuse you of that notion — at least the time component. Each of these pieces begins with looking up every thing that the star has ever said in a public and organizing it (I use Scrivener). To best excavate a star's publicity "trail," I treat the process like trying to internet stalk an exboyfriend. I start with eBay, searching through the magazines that I know will either be too old or inaccessible online (for Theron, that meant buying copies of Good Housekeeping, Playboy, old Interview, Premiere, old Vogue, Elle, and W). You do this first because you need to get those orders in so that they arrive in time for you to actually use them. Then I use the results from the eBay search to figure out which interviews I need to find online: "Vogue 2015," for example, or "Interview 2014."
Profiles are perfect to read first — and I always try to start with the earliest ones — because they require the author to use some license to frame the encounter/star in a certain way, which is always a dead giveaway for what their image is at the time. The way an author describes how a star is eating, or driving, or walking, will tell you everything you need to know. In Theron's case, it was fascinating to watch the progression of Esquire interviews, how the author (always male, because how could a male reader of Esquire possibly relate to a profile of a woman if it wasn't from the perspective of a heterosexual male!) went from a posture of "look at us having fun drinking beers!" to "I'm mildly terrified of her."
No matter which star you focus on, the themes start to emerge after about three profiles. For Theron, it was "rural cool girl," "personal tragedy," and, over time, "bitch." Those overarching themes are reinforced when you start looking in the newspaper archives, which I do in LexisNexis and ProQuest using my brother's grad school password. Because these interviews, reviews, and mini-profiles (from places like the Denver Sun, the Ottawa Citizen, the Daily Mirror) are operating with length constrictions, they follow a formula from which you can extract MadLibs-like adjectives affixed to the star. There's the sentence when they describer her particular beauty, and one about growing up on a dirt farm in Africa, then something about how exotic she is even though she looks like she's from Minnesota, then a mention of her closeness with her mother, and how she made her way to Hollywood, and a few specifics about the movie she's promoting.
Sometimes you'll get a super weird/outlandish piece (usually, but not always, written by a man), like the one in the Atlanta Journal Constitution about how a journalist was "tricked" into watching Monster, or the editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald, circa 1998, about how Theron is "the blonde we need" ("As with all blondes over history, Charlize Theron's colouring appeals to the craving for purity that is built into the human brain. Like all success blondes of the 20th century, Charlize Theron comes in a sexy package. But unlike Marilyn Monroe, Theron is not a vicim. She doesn't mind a bit if we want to mindlessly adore her. And unlike Sharon Stone, she won't make us suffer for our blonde faith.")
A piece like that can feel like a goldmine, but it's also an outlier — and, given that it was written in 1998, more indicative of what this writer wanted Theron's image to become than what it actually did. But you still put it in the Scrivener document to see how that point does or does not develop. Here's what the organizational schema looked like for this last piece, for example. There's about 30,000 words of quotes in there for what ended up being a 5,000 word piece.
The next thing I do, research-wise, is look at stuff from the industrial press — Entertainment Weekly, but also Variety and Hollywood Reporter, to see how a star is figured in terms of value/power (you can search this via Academic Search Premier, which also surfaces even more articles from places like Time and Newsweek). And through it all, I'm watching and rewatching the movies. Here's where I'm very honest and say that no, I do not watch every single movie in a star's canon, and yes, I often watch the first hour, especially if I've seen the film before, and then move on to the next one. The specific plots of the movies matter less, after all, then the way that the star is represented, framed, and consumed — Theron's appearance in that orange dress at the Oscars in 2000 had more bearing on her overall image than, say, Reindeer Games.
Each time I do one of these pieces, there's a film that unlocks something that I didn't previously totally understand about the star and his/her talent, even if it had been gestured to in profiles and interviews (in part because I'm always disinclined to believe what profiles and interviews say about a performance). For Nicole Kidman, it was Dead Calm. For Tom Hanks, it was Joe vs. the Volcano. For Charlize Theron, it was Monster. I realize that is a cliched answer! But the first time I saw it, back in 2003, I don't think I knew anything about Theron other than that she was beautiful in Cider House Rules. The movie as a whole is heartbreaking and difficult to watch, but that first hour — from when we first meet Theron's character through the first murder — is electric and scary and lovely. (It's also worth noting that it was directed by Patty Jenkins, who had the foresight to see something different in Theron than anyone else had to that point...and went on to direct Wonder Woman).
Finally, there's the thinking-through what was happening in the industry during each star's time, the fluctuating value of stars (and female ones in particular) during his/her tenure, what was going on in the gossip magazines, how the texture of a star's image was subtly transformed, with or without her consent or participation, to better fit with what was going on ideologically (which, whenever you're talking about '90s and 2000s-era stars, means looking to the inhales and exhales of postfeminism). This is where a PhD in media studies becomes very, very handy.
You could obviously teach yourself all those things, reading deep and wide to try to get the context right. I do that quite often when writing about subjects in which I do not have a Ph.D. But that takes even more time than all the rest of this research, which, even for someone who's now methodical about it, sucks up at least a week. Once I have it all together, the writing comes easily. The draft expands with quotes, especially when the magazines finally make their way through the mail, and then contracts when my editor says "you probably don't need to indicate each time a magazine described her eating steak." The entire process usually takes about two weeks.
It's a privilege to be able to be able to write about the things that fascinate and frustrate me, to take seemingly silly things seriously, to offer readers (and myself) a way to be more thoughtful about the cultural products that surround us. But it's even more of a privilege to have the time and leeway to do it in a way that feels right, with the sort of deep context that allows me to say something different than the very interviews and profiles I'm analyzing — texts whose primary purpose is to flatten an image to the point of legibility. This is particularly true with female stars, whose images are sorted into the contemporary bins of "sexpot," "cool girl," or "good girl."
Some female stars lean into those designations, in part because they know it's the easiest way to make money (and endorsement money in particular). Writing about those stars often makes me melancholy, less because of their personal decisions, and more because of what those decisions reveal about the resilience of the image-flattening machine.
Which is why it's always such a delight to look into a star archive — like Theron's, or Kidman's, or Witherspoon's — and find these moments of resistance and weirdness. Of course, all three of those women have survived in Hollywood because of their whiteness and their beauty. But that survival is also a testament to their stubbornness, their talent, their bitchiness, and their insistence that they are far more complex, far more worthy of your time and consideration, far more than the sum of their exquisite parts than the publicity world would have you believe.
Thus: here's Charlize Theron, a woman who surprised and beguiled me many, many times over in the researching of this piece.
As always, if you know someone who'd like this sort of ever-variable mishmash in their inbox once a week, forward it their way, sign them up, convince them to go see Atomic Blonde with you, buy my book, stay unruly, and follow Peggy the Dog on Instagram.