Of all the clichés of the hack celebrity profile, perhaps the most overdone is the one where the writer opens with an observation of the famous person’s eating or drinking behavior from across a table. You’ve encountered this countless times, I’m sure: the bombshell sex-symbol tearing lustily into an implausibly huge, bloody steak; the gritty artiste taking the cigarette out of his mouth only to slurp down some black coffee and note that he loves this joint for being one of the last places where you can smoke with a meal; the brawny athlete, profiled at the beginning of a contract year, daintily picking through a plate of macrobiotic greens and grimacing through a story of how he used to keep nothing but Twinkies and frozen pizza in his refrigerator, before he smartened up and professionalized his act.
[Sensitive Birdlike Singer] cups her mug of tea—black, unsweetened, and “piping hot,” as she put it to our waitress in a nigh-inaudible whisper from beneath huge black sunglasses that can’t hide her frail beauty—between her tiny hands and close to her body, as if to draw its warmth into herself. At lulls in our conversation, she lifts it fractionally closer to her face and inhales through her nose, savoring, blushing at the sensation—but does not drink. Like the lonely, withdrawn protagonist of her song, [hit song from Sensitive Birdlike Singer’s last album], she feels safer loving from afar.
The next paragraph always, always, always begins, “We’re sitting in the....” They’re sitting there because the celebrity is booked in a hotel nearby, and didn’t make much time for this interview session, and so there wasn’t a very wide library of observable behavior to open with, and so the writer had to make do with reading an actual human being’s entire personality into how that probably very savvy and meticulously managed professional performer treated the props he or she chose to have placed in front of him or her on a table at what he or she knew for sure was going to be an interview with a journalist who would write about it.
As a device, this nonsense is meant to do what all lead paragraphs are meant to do: to crystallize in your mind the main idea of the story. In the case of the celebrity profile, that main idea is the set of attributes the writer wants to put over as defining the famous person. All of this to say, maybe the following lead paragraph, from Peter King’s profile of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, isn’t actually so bad:
SOMEWHERE IN MONTANA — During our conversation Sunday, in the shadow of a breathtaking mountain with fresh powder on a pristine winter afternoon, 39-year-old Tom Brady drank two 20-ounce bottles of Vitamin Water Zero. When he opened each one, he squirted the contents of a small plastic container labeled TB12 Electrolytes, maybe two or three ounces into each bottle. And over 90 minutes, he drank those 45 ounces or so of Vitamin Water plus the electrolyte solution.
I mean, Tom Brady actually is the sort of airheaded self-obsessed doofus who would not only take time to squirt liquid salt into flavored water at regular intervals during a conversation with Peter King, but who would invest meaning in this ritual and in the specific brands of liquid salt and flavored water he partnered with in its performance. In all the 15 years that he has been an extremely famous sports celebrity—in all the 15 years guys like Peter King have spent telling him and the world that he is some kind of wise guru of personal optimization and competitive triumph, rather than a dull-eyed steakhead who throws 10-yard out patterns for a living—he has never shown the least indication that his personality contains any greater depth than that. This truly is all there is to Tom Brady: He is a very rich man who squirts liquid salt into his drinking water. Good job, Peter King. You got him. He really is this guy:
For that matter, if pretty much any other NFL writer or profile journalist (okay, not Mike Florio, but anybody other than that) wrote that paragraph, you could convince me that the prominent placement of the brand names of Tom Brady’s preferred liquid salt and flavored water—at the top of a story about Brady’s anomalous longevity within such a notoriously punishing sport and the reasons for it—were intended as sly satire, a way of nudging readers toward thinking about what an empty branding robot Brady is.
After all, the entire rest of the story is positively chock full of direct quotes that reveal Brady to be some kind of actual moron, like this one:
When you are faced with things that are negative, those are challenging for me, because the positivity … I just want this to be a positive, why is this a negative? Why are all these things negative now? What I’ve learned is this is other people’s attitudes towards me as well. These aren’t necessarily my attitudes.
Or this one:
You never know. That’s why I want to keep taking care of what I need to take care of. That’s what it comes down to. I want to take care of Tom Brady. I want to make sure Tom is available to the team, Tom is playing at a high level, so the team wants to keep him.
Or this one:
I want to be the person that proves to other people: this is the right thing. Just do it. And you’ll see all the benefits that I’ve seen. This is going to be the norm in 10 years. I actually think it’s going to make for a more competitive game, when you have so many players that are so healthy for long periods of times.
Or this one:
I feel like the last 17 years have been a washing machine, and it’s been a great washing machine because I have had so many great moments, but they have gone so fast, and I feel like they have gone faster as the years have gone on, and maybe that is because there are a lot of other things that have happened in my life like marriage, kids.
Or the bit about how Tom Brady stands still and smiles a lot, because he is a genius.
Actually wait. I have talked myself into it. Peter King owned Tom Brady. This story is an own.