I can’t say that I’m an expert at interviewing celebrities—but I’ve done it enough to offer some advice. Certain questions have succeeded. Certain patterns have emerged.
I probably learned the most from Carrie Underwood, because she was my first “big time” celebrity interview in 2008. Of course, I was super nervous. To top it off, a construction crew started hammering away in the office next door, just 10 minutes before our scheduled phone call, so I had to relocate to an unfamiliar office and reset all my recording equipment–leaving me with 30 seconds to catch my breath before the phone rang. Whew!
Since then, I’ve found that interviewing celebrities isn’t much different from interviewing business people, local experts, or average citizens. The biggest exception is that I have to dig deeper to get past their overly-practiced answers and find that nugget of information that zillions of fans don’t already know.
SO, my number one advice on preparing to interview celebrities is….Do tons of homework first!
Yes, this seems obvious–but winging it doesn’t work on a celebrity. Remember, he or she is constantly interviewed—it’s become part of their job description. Don’t bore them with the “usual” questions. Plus, it will be embarrassingly obvious if you are unaware of this person’s current tour schedule, latest award, or most recent break-up.
Know Your Story Angle
You must have an outline of questions. Don’t hope the celebrity says something relevant to your storyline—guide them down your path.Most of my interviews highlight celebrities who grew up in Oklahoma, so I’m looking for the “down home” information that will help Oklahomans feel like they “know” this person. Actress, Megyn Price, grew up in Norman, Oklahoma, so I asked her where she liked to visit when she returned home.
“I always go back to Van’s Pig Stand,” Price said. “It’s my favorite.”
Well, this is a well-known local BBQ place. Readers thought it was pretty neat that she eats where “we” eat. And Van’s Pig Stand didn’t mind the free advertising either.
That quote would never show up in Entertainment Weekly, but it was unique to my reading audience. It made her more real.
2. Skip the Facts, Go for the Feelings
Don’t waste precious time asking a celebrity to rehash well-known information—ask them how they felt!
Barbara Walters, in her 2008 autobiography, Audition, wrote, “Interviews with politicians and world leaders are about issues, but interviews with celebrities concern their lifestyle and their emotions.”
Walters relies on the questions, ‘What do you mean by that?’ ‘How did you feel then?’
Everyone knew Carrie Underwood had won American Idol, so I didn’t need to ask her about that. That year, they wanted to know how she felt when she sang at her first Country Music Awards ceremony.
“I’ll always remember the first performance of Jesus, Take the Wheel,” Underwood said. “And we had to kind of beg for me to be able to sing it on the CMA because I wasn’t an established artist. I didn’t have an album out or a major single, or anything on the radio, or no name for myself, so it didn’t make sense for me to perform, but it was like, ‘Please, just let me perform.’ So I got to sing half of the song. I was so nervous, but it went really good.”
That’s what people wanted to know. And her “brand new celebrity” personality really came through.
3. Search for the Unusual Tidbit…
In 2009, I interviewed Reba McEntire. What a challenge! Try to think of a unique question to ask a mega-celebrity who’s been in the music business over 30 years and interviewed by Oprah multiple times.
I again borrowed advice from Barbara Walters—who frequently found herself in this same quandary. She tells the story in which she startled Julia Roberts with the statement, “You write poetry.”
Roberts asked “How do you know that?”
“By reading, reading, reading, and then talking to anyone who might have some personal insight into the particular star I am talking to.” Walters said.
My unique Reba question came from an unusual source. I had been writing plant articles for a national gardening site, Learn2Grow.com. I mentioned my upcoming Reba interview to the editor, Mark Miller, who said, “Did you know there is a rose named after Reba?”
I didn’t! But Reba did. She said, “Yeah. Got ‘em back here in the back yard. They’re really pretty.”
Which led to a rare conversation about Reba’s attempts at gardening while keeping her tour schedule.
In fact, I ran with the rose theme throughout the article, entitled, “Reba: Oklahoma’s Rose.” I was able to pull in phrases like “McEntire’s career is still in full bloom,” and subtitles included “Everything’s Comin’ Up Roses” (her successes) and “Every Rose Has Its Thorns (her failures)
…Or Unusual Talent
Kerry Robertson, a well-known Oklahoma television personality and news anchor in the 1980s and 90s, recently shared her own “unusual tidbit” story with me. Robertson described that when celebrities came to town, media interviews were often set up in a hotel room. Media was hustled in and out in 10 or 15 minute intervals.
Faced with the same old challenge—“What can I ask this person (don’t know who it was) that all the other news stations haven’t already asked?” Robertson searched for an obscure fact, and found a hidden talent. When she entered the hotel room, she had 3 pieces of fruit in her hand. She said, “I understand you used to juggle when you were younger.” She handed him the fruit. He was surprised, and even though he hadn’t juggled in years, he was able to pick it right back up.
Robertson had her unique angle, and it was a fun walk down memory lane for the celebrity.
…And Make Sure It’s True!
Granted, sometimes those unusual tidbits aren’t well known because they aren’t true! I had this happen with Carrie Underwood. I’d read that she’d gotten her musical ability from her father, who used to sing country music himself.
When I asked her about this, she burst into laughter.
“No! No, my dad honestly has zero musical ability!”
I was a little bit embarrassed, but I explained that I’d read it on the Internet.
“There’s such a strange thirst for celebrity knowledge, and it’s getting ridiculous,” Underwood said. “I read stuff every day that is so blatantly untrue; that someone made up just to make a story interesting.”
We had a good laugh together and it broke the ice for the rest of the interview. Up until that point, she’d sounded fairly rehearsed.
But, yes, try to use reputable sources!
That’s Part 1 on preparing to interviewing celebrities. Check back to read Part 2, which will cover the “order” and “style” of questions to ask.