The sort of celebrity profile that opens with an anecdote set in a restaurant or hotel room is more or less always bad, if only because the whole premise is so transparently ludicrous. The writer pretends that a short time in the presence of some closed-off celebrity has given them unique insights into their inner being, the closed-off celebrity pretends that they have opened up and given those insights, and everyone agrees to pretend that this is something other than a transactional act of public relations.
The New York Times published a profile of Serena Williams today and boy oh boy is it a doozy. Take a gander at this opening:
On a gray, gloomy Wednesday in Manhattan, Serena Williams was swaddled in bath towels to stay warm in an air-conditioned corner suite on the 41st floor of the Lotte New York Palace Hotel. The room’s normally panoramic view had been obscured by dense fog, making it a challenge to see even across the street.
That seemed an apt metaphor for Williams’s tennis career as she comes back from maternity leave at age 36.
Immediately and explicitly explaining that a metaphor is a metaphor does not a promising start make, and the story gets worse from there. Written by Christopher Clarey, the profile is ostensibly about Williams’s pivot to being more open about her private life—“A lot of people see me on the court, and they only judge and see that side of me, and there’s so much more to my life and to me,” she says—but the main evidence that this is happening at all comes in the form of scenes from Serena’s brand new TV show, which gets seven slobbering mentions, including this one:
Williams’s private sphere is about to become much more transparent with the premiere on Wednesday of a five-part series on HBO called “Being Serena,” which tracks her pregnancy, her life-threatening postnatal problems and her comeback in remarkably unvarnished fashion.
One would hope that a New York Times profile of Serena Williams—among the most compelling athletes and enigmatic personalities of our time—would amount to more than an extended press release for a prestige TV channel, but this story doesn’t even attempt to deliver on its promise to show Serena Williams opening up as she never has before. In fact, every time it sniffs at something interesting, it turns around before it can take a bite. Take a description of the scene from the TV show in which Williams, accompanied by her husband Alexis Ohanian, gives birth to her daughter Olympia. Clarey writes:
The scene and the series are all the more surprising in light of Williams’s longtime reluctance to share much publicly about her previous relationships, or even acknowledge them.
It’s true that in the past, Williams has been secretive about her romantic relationships with people like Drake, fellow tennis pro Grigor Dimitrov, Common, and her long-time coach Patrick Mouratoglou. But instead of delving into what makes her relationship with Ohanian different, what’s changed that makes her want to share more about her life (or at least be perceived as doing so), or how her past contributed to her present, the profile skates right on, before returning to the topic of the documentary and how it came to be:
“It was super-organic,” she said. “When I found out I was pregnant, I was saying, ‘I really want to get some footage of me,’ because I remember my dad had all this film when we were younger, all this cool footage, and I wanted to start this journey for Olympia, even though she was the size of a raspberry at the time.”
She shared the thought with her agent, Jill Smoller.
“HBO got wind of it, and they said, ‘We would love to do it for you,’ ” Williams said. “My original idea was to do more just Olympia stuff, and then I thought if we’re going to do this, let’s go all out.”
I’m not sure why the New York Times is so interested in burnishing this HBO show’s claim to be “organic,” but they could at least squint at the claim that HBO simply “got wind of it.” The profile alternates between elaborate descriptions of what happens in the show, Williams’s present comeback, and answers to the mostly bland questions Clarey puts to Williams. At least the bland ones are better than this:
I asked Serena, who had dated black men and white men, what message her marriage to Ohanian sent.
In the year of our lord 2018, is the New York Times really out here asking people to explain the meaning of their interracial marriages? Williams handles the question far more graciously than it deserves—“Ultimately I wanted to be with someone who treated me nice, someone who was able to laugh with me and someone who understood my life and someone that loved me,” she says—and thus makes a good argument for not opening up to the sort of reporters who write this sort of story.
While there are a couple of interesting tidbits about Serena’s post-baby life—Clarey writes that she has struggled to drop her pregnancy weight because she’s still breastfeeding due to mastitis; she’s an advocate for protected seeding for female tennis players who leave the tour to have children and then return; and she keeps her 2017 Australian Open trophy in Olympia’s room—the profile is overwhelmed by color from the TV series, and reads mostly like promotional material. It’s difficult, of course, to get anything revelatory from a famous person like Serena Williams, who has been in the spotlight for 23 years and maintains a carefully crafted public persona on social media (not that Clarey mentions this, lest he undercut the faux-revealing tone or the promise of HBO viewers getting to see “the real Serena”), so the shortcomings are unsurprising. But they leave readers with a question: If no one can reasonably expect any real substance from a carefully produced profile like this, why does it need to exist?