Chris Heath: A mission to do interesting things

Journalist Chris Heath talks to JACK CARRINGTON about seriousness, celebrity and living with Robbie Williams.

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“At Cambridge, I th
oughwe were all on this mission into life to do interesting things,” muses Chris Heath. “I was completely wrong, of course.”

“When I graduated, my friends started going for interviews at Unilever and doing proper jobs. I was a little taken aback. It’s a weird ambition but I thought if I could get one thing from being good at this studying stuff, it was never to do a job like that.”

Chris Heath has made good on his mission against mediocrity. One of the most respected magazine writers in America, the Clare alumnus now spends his time interviewing celebrities and penning powerful features articles. He first made his name at the satirical British pop magazine Smash Hits – a publication notorious, as he puts it, for “deconstructing the conceit” behind celebrity culture. Or, to put it another way, for asking questions like “if you were a domestic appliance, which one would you be?”. He’s since gone on to write for Details and Rolling Stone, before ending up at GQ in America – where he tackles subjects as diverse as earthquake victims and Ben Affleck.

We arrange to meet at his house, which is set at a worrying angle on a leafy hill in North London. (He warns me by email, “it’s the one that looks like it’s falling down”). Carefully setting out a teapot and a packet of digestives, he exudes a slightly dishevelled charm as he sits across from me at the kitchen table.

“People often ask me what’s the best interview question. It’s simply this -”

He takes a sip of tea: a dramatic pause. The best question is an awkward silence?

“Well, sometimes the smartest thing is to sit on your hands and let them carry on talking. When I was at Smash Hits I had to interview Belinda Carlisle. I was asked to interview her at the last minute, so I knew nothing about her. I just listened carefully and asked her the occasional follow-up question. She ended up confiding in me about her secret cocaine addiction.” Duly noted.

One of the striking things about Heath’s career is the way in which he has alternated between writing about famous people and dealing with darker subject matter. One week he’s grappling with the foibles of Robert De Niro – the next he’s in Syria, dealing with the ruined lives of Iraqi refugees. Doesn’t the latter make the former seem trivial and frustrating?

“It often puzzles people that I choose to do both. The simple reason is that I’m still interested in pop culture and creative people. More analytically, I don’t see the two as different. When I say that, it makes people uncomfortable because they think my take on Iraqi refugees who’ve had terrible experiences must be somehow superficial. My point is quite the opposite; when I’m writing about someone famous, I treat them – what they’re doing, how they make sense of their lives, what matters to them – just as seriously as I would treat a refugee.”

Heath visibly prickles at the notion that writing about famous people is somehow less worthy.

“I think there’s an incredible of hatred of celebrity in modern society, especially from those people who consider themselves the smarter parts of society. When it’s an honest hatred, that’s fine. But often I think it’s a hypocritical hatred where people are fascinated, but hate the object of their fascination. They love it when you have a go at the pompous, useless, famous person. It’s very unfashionable to say, but most of the time people are famous because they’ve done something notable. They might have a huge ego or deep character flaws, but actually I find most people who’ve experienced that kind of devotion pretty interesting.”

He is certainly in a good position to judge; the sheer number of hours he spends with his subjects is staggering. He famously lived in Robbie William’s house for nearly a year in order write his 2005 biography, Feel.

It was an amazing opportunity. When I was there, I was with him from dawn ’til dusk.”

But isn’t there a danger in being so close to your subject?

“We are good friends, but Rob’s unusually comfortable with that level of scrutiny. That in itself produces a kind of distance. I wouldn’t have done it if I felt I couldn’t write something honest. He liked the idea of having something unusually real written about him, rather than the fake bullshit which usually populates celebrity books. It was about a year and a half before I showed him what I’d written. It was a real leap of faith for both of us.”

In the early nineties, Heath followed the Pet Shop Boys on tour and produced Pet Shop Boys vs. America, a fine-grained account which he describes as a work of “social anthropology” as much as a piece of journalism. It’s certainly a good place to start if you want to find out what it’s like to inhabit the life of a pop star in all its detail – the exciting and the humdrum, the funny and the weird. I suggest to him that this anthropological approach might have something to with the Social and Political Sciences degree he acquired at Cambridge.

“For a long time I didn’t make any link between my writing and what I studied at Cambridge, but now the connections seem so huge and obvious. Having said that, in the world of journalism, having been to Cambridge is totally irrelevant. People are just interested in whether or not you can write.”

So what advice would you give to aspiring journalists?

“Just listen to what people want from you. At Smash Hits I’d ask someone for 75 words for next Wednesday. I could see them struggling to reinvent the wheel, trying to show that they were the future of journalism. You have your whole life to show that. Don’t put yourself under the wrong kind of pressure.”

Tentatively, I ask him if he has any pet hates when it comes to writing.

“I can’t bear writing that’s insincere or that panders to its audience in a patronising way. I also hate writing that makes pompous claims for itself. You can’t interview someone for half an hour in a hotel room and claim that you’ve diagnosed everything about their life; it’s not like reconstructing a dinosaur from a tooth. We can’t even diagnose everything about the people we spend all our lives with.”

As he draws our chat to a close (he has to rush off to a meeting with Robbie Williams), I daren’t claim to have diagnosed much about the quietly enigmatic man sitting opposite me. But after such a career, what is there left to achieve?

“I’d like to write more books. I want to be able to look back at what I’ve written in twenty years time and see that there’s a common intent there,” he looks at me with a wry smile. “Well, perhaps a broader intent than writing books about people who sing.”

I get a sense that, for Chris Heath, the mission to do interesting things is far from over.