Good to see you. Let me see you out
Last April, Mark Dapin was unceremoniously ejected from the home of British celebrity chef Gordan Ramsay after fifteen minutes of what was meant to be an hour-long interview for the Good Weekend. The encounter brought to light his discomfort with the form of the celebrity feature and the unique tension between the story, the interviewer and the interviewee. Dapin, who will be a guest at the upcoming Byron Bay Writers’ Festival, writes about the perils and pitfalls of lifestyle journalism in the June edition of Meanjin. A brief extract is below. You can access the full essay on our editions page.
I interview people and write about them for Good Weekend magazine and, each time the process is over, I feel both cheating and cheated, and wonder if I should ever do it again. My disquiet came to a head in April 2008, when I was ejected from ‘celebrity chef’ Gordon Ramsay’s house in Wandsworth, South London, at about 8.20 a.m., a quarter of an hour into what was supposed to be an hour-long interview. The third time I tried to ask him a question about his drunken, violent father, Ramsay replied:
Out of respect for you and your magazine, I’ll call my publicist in Australia and call it a day … I’m not here to talk about my father … Everything that you’ve got on there [he pointed to my digital recorder] for the last, 17 [sic] minutes is about, you know, ‘How do you see in yourself your father …’ I’ll talk to the magazine. It’s all on tape. We’re just gonna switch to food. Total respect. Your position … Good to see you. Let me see you out.
He was measured, polite and smiling. On the doorstep of his home, he asked if I was a freelancer or a staff writer. I thought he was trying to make small talk.
I had arrived at the house an hour and a half earlier, met by Ramsay’s wife, Tana, who said there had been scheduling error—but Ramsay’s publicist or assistant had called me only the day before to move the interview forward. I had flown from Sydney to London only to interview Ramsay. To be sure of getting to Wandsworth at 6.45 a.m. (the interview was to begin at 7 a.m., but Ramsay, like the Queen, expects his visitors to arrive early), I had to catch a minicab from the other side of London at 6 a.m. At 5.30 a.m., I checked that my fingernails were clean, because I had read in Ramsay’s autobiography, Humble Pie, that he ‘hates’ dirty fingernails. He also hates dirty trousers and dirty hair, lies in the kitchen, clockwatching, mummy’s boys, fat chefs and chefs with names on their jackets. I hoped I would be sufficiently clean, honest, independent, dedicated, slim and modest for him.
Despite my precautions, I was out on the street after exactly 15 minutes and 31 seconds of the interview. I had never been to Wandsworth before, and I felt like the guilty survivor of a one-night stand, pacing the walk of shame. There was a bus stop across the park from Ramsay’s house, and I stepped onto the first bus that came along. I asked for the station. What station? Any station.
Of course, I thought of Janet Malcolm who famously—too famously—wrote:
Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.
Malcolm’s is a brawny, confident, confrontational polemic. It affects a snarling, robust point of view. It is rhythmic, lyrical and concise, but in the guise of being self-revealing, even self-loathing, it is self-regarding and self-dramatising. It places the writer at the centre of the world, standing for—or against—every colleague who is not blinded by ignorance or conceit. It leaves the interviewee powerless, vein, credulous or pathetic. But The Journalist and the Murderer is a reference point where coordinates are hard to come by: lecturers tend not to teach practical interviewing skills at journalism schools, but they do teach Janet Malcolm’s knowing denunciation.
I called the editor of Good Weekend. She was concerned and sympathetic, and asked how I felt. How did I feel? I wanted a cigarette; I wished I’d had some more breakfast; I was worried she might be reluctant to pay my expenses; but beyond that, I did not feel anything much. Even if an interview is seduction, it is not rape, and the other party has every right to back out.
I had not been warned that some subjects were off limits with Gordon Ramsay, but if I had checked the files, I would have come across Stephanie Bunbury’s Ramsay profile in a 2003 issue of Good Weekend. Before the interview, Bunbury wrote, she was given a list of six ‘forbidden topics’ which, if mentioned, would cause Ramsay to ‘get up and leave’. These included ‘his father’.
In September 2008 I interviewed US Vanity Fair writer Dominick Dunne. I told him about Ramsay, and he said:
I would’ve killed him if I were in your position. I would’ve written so bad about him … I mean, how were you supposed to know that there’s six things he doesn’t discuss, then ‘Get out of my house’? You know what, I always hated his restaurant, now I know why. He’s so full of himself. It makes me annoyed to hear that.
But I was not angry towards Gordon Ramsay as a man, because Gordon Ramsay was not a man to me, he was a job. I did not consider I’d had a personal interaction with him, much less an argument. I suppose I saw the aborted interview as the equivalent of a carpenter accidentally hammering his thumb: it would not make him feel like a particularly good woodworker, but he would be a fool to blame the nail.
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03 Aug 09 at 9:07
I am glad Mr Dapin didn't blame Ramsey because in reality it was his own fault he got ejected from the house. He was doing something I see far too often in Australian journalism: Pushing too hard. He didn't get the hint Ramsey wouldn't talk about the subject the first TWO times he asked? What happened to softening up the interview subject with lots of non-contoversial questions and developing a rapport, before going for the hard stuff?
This is something I see on TV a fair bit. By the time you have asked a question the third time to someone who is stonewalling or refusing to answer, you stop looking like a tough interviewer asking the hard questions and start looking like a dill who can't figure out what to most is obvious: You aren't going to get an answer to that question.
Try moving on to another subject and coming back to it, try another approach, ask questions that are tangential to the subject and see if you can get an idea about what you want to know from them. Just do not ask the same question again and again and again!...
03 Aug 09 at 12:38
Agreed. The third time he asked the question? Is there any more appalling spectacle in modern Australian interviews that the Dentonesque picking at scabs to make someone cry?
This is a whinge, plain and simple.. And Janet Malcolm was right. There's more to her book than that sentence....
07 Aug 09 at 12:05
Actually, in his (full) article, Dapin explains that he was re-asking the question over and over because he was trying to get a complete sentence out of Ramsey.
As far as pushing too hard, I think the problem with most Australian journalism is that it doesn't push hard enough. I for one am tired of reading ridiculous PR-generated puff pieces on 'celebrities' - kudos to the journalists who challenge their interviewees and try to deliver something more interesting for the reader....
07 Aug 09 at 14:36
I've read the full article. It contains precisely the level of insight and self-examination I would expect from the ex-editor of "Ralph"....
11 Aug 09 at 11:21
I actually use this article in my magazine writing class because it's a great example of how an interview should be a journalistic joust. Without 'pushing too hard' you end up with press release journalism and Ramsay gets to tell us dull anecdotes that he furnishes us with in his show/books. A good interview should be a challenge and the greatest compliment you can get from an interviewee is the confused look and a huff of "You've done your research." I agree there could have been a few other approaches attempted, but Dapin has been a lot of things since editor of Ralph and (as the rest of the article shows) he's a very canny interviewer. Kudos also to Meanjin for publishing this piece just before the Tracey Grimshaw interview....