In my time as a pop music journalist writing for publications such as Top of The Pops, X Factor and We Love Pop I’ve met and interviewed a lot of pops stars and a few from TV and film, too. The experiences vary from harrowing – squeezing onto a tiny sofa with Marilyn Manson, eye-opening – getting The Wanted to pose in their pants, to utterly baffling – Amy Winehouse leaving me mid-chat to go to NatWest. To coincide with the release of my first book: Queerbook, [every morsel of LGBTQIA+ culture squeezed into 200 pages,] I’m revisiting some of the queer icons in my career and sharing some of the lessons I learned from them.
Lady Gaga: Visualise greatness and dream big
Gaga had a plan. From the very beginning she knew what she wanted and that 360 clarity of focus is a lesson. It’s almost eerie looking back at her words to me from 2009, because with only one hit under her belt, Just Dance, Mother was laying the groundwork for what was to come. To Stephanie the success of Just Dance was great, but it was only the first bedazzled rung on a Haus Labs ladder. “It’s not about having a number one hit,” she told me. “There’s a lot of artists with number one hits, and nobody cares about them as artists. I want to be cared about as an artist.” To the world, she was a pop girlie with a hit record, but Gaga knew different, and I took her at her word. She spoke with such conviction about every aspect of her vision that she convinced me that she was a star in a way that no other debut artist has.
Taylor Swift: Be cautious but not closed off
I interviewed Taylor for 1989 and it was a delight, until I asked something she perceived as coming out of left field. She doesn’t want her words to be taken out of context, and even though that’s something I would never intentionally do, words do get chopped up and served reheated without their original meaning, so who could blame her? I was desperate for cat quotes, cos of course, but Taylor did not for a second entertain the idea of writing a song for her Meredith and dismissed my question out of hand. Typing that now, I can see how if she’d answered ‘yes,’ to the Meredith question, dreary male journos might’ve used it to minimise her talent, boiling it down to: ‘Cat lady Tay is feline sad.’ She could see what I didn’t understand and was therefore editing as she went along. But she was by no means prickly. At the same time, she explained that she was also open to being open, saying: “I love this quote by Ernest Hemingway which is ‘the best way to tell if you can trust someone is to trust them.’ I think that people prove themselves really quickly.” And if I had a time machine I’d go back and say, “Taylor, sure, but if Kimye calls, please hang the fuck up.”
Billy Porter: Make time even when there is none
Journalists can chase celebrity interviews for weeks, months, even years. Getting Billy Porter on the phone took a little bit of wrangling. The man is a hurricane, he’s busy, in demand, working, rehearsing, hustling and turning events into AN EVENT, so when he finally called me of course he was running down a busy New York, street. This interview was so much fun. Transcribing, it and understanding what he was saying between car honks, and “hi honey, how are yous?” was a task, but I wouldn’t have changed it for anything. You know when your mate that calls you on the way from the station because their podcast won’t download, it was like that. He was running errands and I was one of them. Billy’s multi-tasking showed me that some people are so committed to doing the damn thing that they will make time in their schedule when there isn’t a scrap of time to be had.
John Waters: Your words matter, so think before you speak on serious subjects
When I called John Waters the glorious cult leader of at least three generations of queer anarchists and my favourite living film director, I tried my best to win him over, dropping in scenes from his films, his books and parts of his life that the casual schmo wouldn’t know. But when I mentioned ‘the Manson Girls,’ knowing that he was personally invested in that infamous criminal case, I learned a lesson, that just because someone makes humorous work doesn’t mean everything is a joke.
“If we’re going to talk about that, we have to be serious,” he scolded me. “It’s not Manson girls, it’s one woman, almost 60 years old.” I felt terrible. In a thoughtless second I’d become one of those journalists that people roll their eyes at, the sort that asks Jedward how they met. I’d been so giddy to match John’s irreverence that I had acted flippant about something incredibly serious. I love to joke, but there’s a time and a place to rein it in, and John Waters, of all people taught me that.
Dolly Parton: Know your own worth, and make a gift of it
Saint Dolly Parton, did a thing that no other star I’ve interviewed has done. Actually, she did two things. She changed outfit before meeting me, so that everyone interviewing her had a unique experience. That’s unmatched attention to detail behaviour for a start. We chatted, she was iconic and when it was time to wrap things up, she brought in a photographer to take our picture. No crummy iPhone selfie here. And not only that. She posted me a signed 10×8 of our meeting. Why was she, the most revered person, the most famous and most cherished person, also the kindest and most thoughtful? Sob.
Dolly knows that meeting her will be a lot to handle for most of us mortals and she wanted to make the experience as smooth and dreamy as possible. She seeds so much goodwill, that I find it hard to believe that a single person would dare think a bad thing about her, let alone write them down. A boss-level joy ninja.
Anohni: Beauty is not enough
A lot of artists have said a lot of things to me, but there’s one thing Anohni told me, that I’ll never forget. I made the mistake (?) of calling her album, beautiful and she immediately stopped me in my tracks. I was giving what I thought was a compliment, she thanked me, but said that beauty was not the goal, and that beauty would never be enough. This concept flashes like a 7-11 sign in my mind all the time. We are all beguiled by beauty, but it’s worth remembering that we should demand more because she’s right, beauty isn’t enough.
Victoria Beckham. Never leave a Spice Girl hanging.
One of my very first phone interviews was with Victoria Beckham when she was still Posh. We were having a lovely phone chat, Victoria was always my favourite, and not just because she says my name in Spice World the Movie, and so when I heard the iconic phrase: “I’m Victoria, Malcolm!” down the phone, it gave me goosebumps. She was the ideal blend of charming and sarky and happy to take the piss out of herself.
Well, maybe I believed the ‘posh is difficult’ BS, because when she told me mid-interview that she had to go, I was like ‘Oh, ok. That’s that then.’ Before she hung up, she did mumble something about ‘calling me back,’ but I didn’t think for a second that she would, she was fobbing me off, right?
I was young. It was 6pm. I was in the arse end of Shepherd’s Bush (the BBC). I didn’t want to wait around for an imaginary phone call and so after 10 minutes of impatient huffing, I packed my rucksack and went home. At 6.15 she called back: “Hi it’s Victoria, Malcolm!” But I wasn’t there to pick up. Gutted. What a twat. Thank God my editor had hung around, found my questions, grabbed a Dictaphone and finished the interview…and didn’t fire me.
Todd Haynes: Don’t be shy. Don’t play it cool
I met May December director Todd Haynes at a London Film Festival Screening of his film Safe in the 1990s. Unbelievably, an audience troll heckled him for using Julianne Moore, because she’d just appeared in Sylvester Stallone’s movie, Assassins. I was enraged and heckled back that Julianne Moore’s performance had been incandescent and he should shut up, or something to that effect. Later in the bar Todd came over and thanked me for sticking up for him. After that, I ran into him from time to time on the gay scene and he was always very lovely.
Years later I went to New York to interview him and I mentioned that we had crossed paths before and that some of my friends had appeared in his movie Velvet Goldmine, which he had been prepping at the time. “Oh,” he said, the mists of time and glitter settling, “you should’ve been in that movie.” I gulped down the regret and quietly moved on to my next question. Navigating queer spaces can be hard and so we often project a veneer of being aloof. Not wanting to embarrass myself, I didn’t dare pursue the acquaintanceship or attempt to keep in touch.
This lesson taught me not to be cool, but real. In relationships where there’s a status imbalance, be it power, talent, class, beauty, or wealth, remember you have a unique commodity that people might value above any of that: YOU.
Nick Jonas: People change. Don’t hold a grudge
When I first met Nick Jonas, he was a kid. A kid with a heap of success and an attitude befitting a freshly minted teen heartthrob. I wouldn’t have said I liked him very much although his tweedy suit was very dark academia-coded and very much my aesthetic. A few years later, the boy had grown into a lovely, freaking hot and funny man. At my first encounter, he’d been abrupt, almost dour, leaving brothers Joe and Kevin to pick up the slack, which was annoying for me, because I knew our readers liked Nick best and I needed him to say more–than–one-word. Grown-up Nick was not only a babe, but a happy chatterbox, so laid back, charming and polite. Polite how? When I told him that if I heard his song Jealous on the radio, I sang: “I’m still Nick Jonaaaas,” he didn’t sneer, sick in his mouth or side-eye his manager, he laughed and took a picture with me. Teen Nick would not have seen the funny side, but people grow and if you don’t allow for that, you’re the stagnant one.
Kylie Minogue: Ego is the death of growth
I’ve met Kylie a few times and she is always like the version of Kylie that you imagine, but with extra sides you didn’t see coming. Kylie projects a sweet every-woman warmth, and that’s why we love her and want her succeed, but she’s also CEO of an empire. Kylie the brand isn’t a success by accident. So, when you talk to Kylie you get the lovely, funny pop star, but you also get a sharp, focussed artist and mini-mogul. This doesn’t make her aloof and abrupt, but alert and you can clock her thinking. She’s also surprisingly more human than most stars of her calibre. She doesn’t exist in a place of ego, she knows what she does well, but she’s humble to a fault too. You get the sense that she’s harder on herself than any journalist like me could ever be. She will tell you what didn’t quite go right, because she’s done the inventory. Despite the smiles, Kylie is not a ‘positive vibes only’ type of girl. Yes, she’s sensitive, but she can also handle the truth, and I think that’s how she’s survived for so long: she takes the temperature of the world, listens and adapts. Kylie would be the first to say that ‘Kylie’ is a team effort, and in a wonderful way that team includes all of us.
Miley Cyrus: Don’t judge a book by the cover you brought with you
As a teen journalist you meet a lot of teenagers and Disney kids. Sometimes that’s fun, sometimes it’s a slog because they’re so busy being moody, or fake chirpy that they don’t say very much. When I met Miley in a bowling alley, she was 17 and like no teenager I’d ever met. She was still in Hannah Montana, still Disney’s number one smiley goofball, but the person I met, was nothing like that – nothing of the sort. I found a person on fast forward, waving goodbye to the House of Mouse in the rear-view. She spoke with the confidence and clarity of a person in their thirties. She didn’t give off annoying child actress vibes, or even precious try-hard energy. This was someone you could imagine being friends with, someone who would sort your shit out for you. From then on, I never thought of her as a Disney kid and stopped pre-pigeon-holing other young people I met.
Kelly Rowland: Don’t be grand, be normal
You don’t have to be the nicest person on earth. But what if you are? What then? When I did a shoot with Commander Kelly Rowland it was one of the loveliest and easiest days. Americans can be a bit ‘grand’ but Kelly was no diva. She let the photographer know what she liked but left him to Work, (Freemasons radio edit) his magic and she did the same with me. A lot of celebs have a PR perched nearby to jump in if a rude question comes up. Kelly Rowland wanted to talk alone, creating a sense of friendly intimacy between us and when the time was up and her PR came to tell me to wrap it up, with a smile she told them that it was no bother, and she was happy to finish whenever I was finished. My jaw dropped. Most pop stars want to get out ASAP. Kelly, can you handle this? Like dolly, Kelly gave more than she had to, which turned a job into feeling like it wasn’t work Give more than you need to, do more than you’re asked, because someone will really appreciate it.
Carly Rae Jepsen: Swallow your whinge, and just do it
Working in teen press, you come up with some pretty bonkers ideas and try the patience of many a super star. At Top of The Pops, our most regrettable shoot – was a health spa feature where the Cheeky Girls pretended they were having colonic irrigation. Can you imagine? Why?! We must’ve been on drugs! For Carly, I would never, but I did ask her to act out a series of cringe poses, so we could cut her out on the page or drop in stuff around her in Photoshop. You could see her die inside at the request and then bravely soldier on. She did the shoot without comment, presumably so she could get out of there and put the horrible memory of me behind her.
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