Cathy Horyn’s “Sunday Styles” profile of Jersey Shore mascot Snooki has been getting attention as an unnecessarily nasty takedown of a somewhat oblivious target. Jezebel’s Hortense Smith calls it “the cruelest profile I’ve seen in the Style section in quite some time.” Mediaite points out that “Horyn’s scorn for Snooki is quite palpable throughout the piece.” Within the 2,000-word profile, Horyn employs her writerly skills in an attempt to capture Snooki for her audience, comparing her at various points to: “a berserk windup toy”; “a turnip turned on its tip”; “a child”; “a rare, unstable gas (she is not likely to last much beyond the moment)”; “Elizabeth Taylor…a short, busty woman with high hair, big jewelry, garish taste in clothes and a complete indifference to the cyclonic effect that all that produced.” Horyn’s descriptions are harsh, for sure, but — and we say this with nothing but love for our little friend Snooks! — completely accurate. Which is a rare quality in a celebrity profile.
A regular celebrity profile goes something like this: The writer has a meal with him or her (carefully orchestrated by the celeb’s publicist), in which the writer is charmed by the relatability/candor/humor of the celebrity. The writer meets with the celebrity one more time, and finally gets to the big reveal: The celebrity probably wants to have kids in the near future/wants to stay single forever/loves having sex. And while there are exceptions to this rule — Lynn Hirschberg on M.I.A., GQ’s famously candid 1996 profile of Mira Sorvino — the majority fit into the overpraising pattern.
So Horyn’s Snooki piece is shocking in that we hardly ever read anything about a famous person that’s less than totally positive. It’s easy to see why Snooki could be afforded full candor: The Times doesn’t have to worry about treating her well. She’s a national punchline, one Times readers can feel comfortable feeling superior to. There will be no ramifications to the piece — no angry publicists to appease, no future access to be cut off — which was why it could afford to be so harshly reflective of the author’s feelings. And yet, it wasn’t quite a breath of fresh celebrity-profile air. The very fact that such candor is only seen when the subject has no real power is what makes it a cheap shot. Can you imagine reading this line about Snooki, “She is really only responsive to her own immediate needs and desires. She is not self-centered, but she is used to acting out and getting away with it,” in regards to, say, Cameron Diaz? Jennifer Aniston? Angelina Jolie? Unlikely, unless it was the very last issue of a magazine, the ones the editors put out right before becoming car mechanics.
The ideal profile lies somewhere in the middle. You don’t have to call someone a turnip, but neither do you have to make them out to be a demigod. Unless, of course, you’re writing about George Clooney, who, from all we can garner, may actually be an angel sent from God to show us the importance of wry smiles.