You don’t need to wait long before you see it: Lurking in almost every profile of a celebrity or a public figure will be one sentiment: Wow, aren’t they busy?
It crops up in interviews of every conceivable length—whether the writer has been granted access to the subject’s house or whether they are being forced to squeeze something out of an only-just-long-enough-to-shake-hands conversation in a hotel room.
But are these actors and musicians any busier than the rest of us? Isn’t it less impressive to be “busy” when you have a phalanx of staff to take care of the little jobs that truly take up our time and energy? As journalists, should we consider ditching this particular cliché?
For the New York Times, Kyle Buchanan has profiled people including George Clooney, Emma Stone, and Penelope Cruz. “The frequent citations of a star’s busy-ness have a lot more to do with catching them in the middle of a press blitz than anything else,” he tells me, though he’s guilty as well: in a Times profile, he described Jon Bernthal as “one of Hollywood’s busiest actors.” (Google shows that dozens of journalists make this claim about dozens of actors.)
Buchanan doesn’t necessarily agree with me that describing a person in this way is intended to make them seem more impressive than they are. What interests him as a profile writer is how his interviewees deal with “the work of the thing”; when he profiled Richard E. Grant, for example, he wanted an inside eye on what Grant was doing with his time—he likes to see “how the Hollywood sausage gets made.”
But Tom Lamont, who regularly profiles public figures for The Guardian and described Keanu Reeves as “busy, busy, busy,”offers one explanation. He also is uncomfortable with the idea that he is putting subjects on a pedestal when he describes their “relentless” schedules. But “I feel sometimes a sort of tacit pressure to make them sound better than they are,” he says, “or more impressive than they are, because that in turn makes the magazine more impressive for having secured them.”
Promoting a film, actors slot interviews like jigsaw pieces around other commitments. When this becomes too challenging, says Buchanan, and the person cuts down the interview time, he is irritated, not impressed. Adam Driver, for example (or, perhaps more accurately, Adam Driver’s people), shortened his New York Times profile slot from two hours to one. Buchanan didn’t want to emphasize this element in the piece “because what we’re trying to do is give you a sense that we have spent the necessary time with that person.”
Kemi Alemoru, who also used the B-word in a GQ profile of British-Zimbabwean comedian Munya Chawawa, talks about the trope being one potential result of minimal access. Writers are often limited to stacking up a subject’s achievements to give the person a perceived edge. “A lot of profiles are puff pieces these days,” she says. “Trying to get something tragic or heartwarming or revealing can be difficult—more difficult than just saying, ‘This person’s up to a lot of stuff.’”
Lamont says the trope can simply be “shit journalism.” He thinks it’s a shortcut to help journalists convey some granular detail of the person’s life. “It comes from an honest place,” he says; writers are often speaking to the star in a “hugely artificial” encounter and are so relieved that the figure is nice that they may overemphasize how well the interviewee is coping with a frenetic schedule. When Lamont interviewed Reeves, the Matrix star was jet-lagged and doing a range of interviews. Lamont likens the journalistic experience to an airplane being brought in to land by a flight controller. There was a sense of “hustle and urgency,” he says, that may have made him quick to reach for the word “busy.”
The tic is frustrating because the word “busy” can read comparatively: this celebrity is more important than you because they are busier (or vice versa). A single mother reading a gushing profile before starting a twelve-hour night shift might wonder if the word “busy” has lost all meaning. “I absolutely 5,000 percent agree with what you say that it’s always easier with money,” says Buchanan. This doesn’t mean that burnout isn’t possible for celebrities—Buchanan cites Channing Tatum’s self-imposed break from acting—but stars have money and staff to help them deal with the fallout of the burnout.
Alemoru doesn’t agree, however, that describing a star as busy is inviting any comparisons with regular people. She points out that Chawawa is often working twelve-hour days. “Obviously, compared to a worker in an Amazon factory…they’re both busy, but one doesn’t really take away from the other.”
Lamont is a little baffled that the celebrity profile still exists at all. “I like reading ’em, and I like writing ’em, and I want it to continue,” says Lamont. “But I do sometimes wonder what happens when every public figure wakes up and realizes that when they get over a certain threshold on social media, you and me are out on our arse.”Ralph Jones has written for The New Yorker, The Guardian, Wired, GQ, Vice, The Observer, Jezebel, and Esquire among others. Until 2018 he was staff writer for ShortList magazine.