The Celebrity Interview Book is the first volume of selected ‚greatest hit’ interviews by arts and entertainment journalist Nadja Sayej from the past seven years. It’s a collection of 21 unedited interviews—taken from the source material for feature articles published in Forbes, Paper Magazine, V, i-D, New York Times, Vogue Italia, vice and Whitehot Magazine—to name a few. The book is so gorgeously raw, offering privy access to sit-downs and phone conversations; mixed in with Sayej’s own accounts of meeting the celebrities in person alongside the actual interview; She then ties everything together withnever-seen-before photos of the stars from Sayej‘s personal archive, making the reader feel like they were in the room with them, sipping the proverbial ‚tea‚.
This is Sayej’s first-ever print book, and it’s amazing, because—despite all the big names—this book has so much content. No surprise to me since I’ve been flowing her über-wonderful interview skills since I first saw ArtStars* around 2009. She’s someone who I’m honored to know, I respect a lot, and makes me smile really big when I see her; and it was so great to finally sit down and talk to her more formally about it all…..
FM: So Tell me about the new book….
Well, it’s my first book ever. It’s 21 interviews—my favorite people I’ve ever interviewed over the past seven years, basically done in Berlin. It’s funny because I live in Berlin, which is really an anti-celebrity city, and I think when it comes to the cultural realm, Germany has two celebrities: Heidi Klum and Claudia Schiffer. Then here I am, a celebrity journalist, because that’s what I’ve become… Out of doing this thing called ArtStars*, which is a YouTube Show, to moving into the mainstream. I knew that if I wanted to become a full-time journalist that I would have to go into the entertainment realm and that’s what I’m doing, so that’s why I’ve expanded to include people like Richie Hawtin or Jarvis Cocker or Dita von Tease or Bill Nye or Auma Obama.
It’s interesting to see how it has developed from ArtStars* into that. I’ve been following your work since even before we really knew each other– I remember watching ArtStars* around 2009 and being impressed with the interviews you did and WHO you interviewed. It wasn’t…. I mean, nowadays you’re posting a lot of selfies with these super-famous people you’ve just interviewed, sort of as a teaser that the interview will be coming out…(smiles)
In the book, I’ve actually printed the selfies.
Yeah, and it’s funny how it’s actually become this form of currency. (Both laugh)
It’s true, but this point about how it’s become currency—selfies with the ‘right people’ are a commodity these days, but we shouldn’t forget about the great amount of true content there is in what you do. That’s what I wanted to say about ArtStars* in the beginning– since the very first one. I think the first one I watched—it was the one with the Finnish artist Timo Behn—you were at his studio in Finland. And then there was Leipzig with Kristina Schuldt, when she was still studying, and you all spent the night hanging out at that one crazy bar—what was that called? (Smiles) I used to go there, too. It was this old strip club that they took over….
Oh, my God, I loved that bar! That was an incredible place! Is it still there?
No, no. I don’t think so, at least.
Yeah, I went there to interview (the Leipzig Painter) Michael Riedel, I think. He was one of the big painters and having a museum show at the time… So, ArtStars* started in May 2009, in Toronto. It was just an idea, because I went to a friend’s art show named Jack Bride, and I realized I loved the story of him talking about his art; but I realized I couldn’t translate everything to paper, so that’s when I just flirted with the idea of doing video. Then, a good friend of mine from high school Ryan Edwards was a video editor and then I had a friend—Jeremy Bailey, a video artist—who became the camera guy. So, we just tried it and we found a format, and we just kept doing it and it became funnier and funnier. And I’m glad I did ArtStars* because it lead me to start doing standup comedy
That’s so cool how it started so simply. One reason why I love doing just the sound recordings of interviews is that I feel that when you just listen to the sound, more comes out than when you see the video with it. At the same time, though, there’s this thing about being live (and sort of raw)—I mean, obviously you’re editing a little bit, but you really do have to be on point about how you hold yourself and what you say.
Depends a lot if it’s live TV or it’s edited. (Laughs)
But you can’t really edit too much on a flowing conversation, unless you have two cameras where it’s the ‘interviewee’ and ‘interviewer’.
Yeah, we would always record thirty minutes with ArtStars* and then cut it down to three minutes. But it’s something that Bill Nye says in this book, is that if you’re writing a book, it’s gotta be good—you know, like, a good read. So, it’s really content over style. But if you want to do a good TV show, it’s gotta be entertaining first. Otherwise, people will turn the channel and they won’t watch it. So, after doing ArtStars* or taking a bit of a break, because the more ArtStars* episodes I’ve done (I’ve done, like, seventy episodes). That’s a lot. That’s, like, six or seven years.
Is there any place to find them all together?
Yes. They’re all on the YouTube channel. The last one I did was with Nina Hagen, and the one before that was Ai WeiWei. But, in any case, after seventy episodes, I just thought I should take a break, and I kind of wanted to interview more mainstream film and TV personalities and it’s becoming more about the psychology of the person, and I love one-on-ones.
For me, they’re like, less meaty. You have these ‘emerging artists’ or up-and-coming celebrities, and they are calling you, like fifty million times and asking you a million times, “What’s going on with the interview?” That’s why I actually started to do more celebrity interviews, because they, like, leave you alone. (Smiles)
They’re way more relaxed. Yeah, because they’re used to it in the industry—they’re kind of more experienced. That said, I’m not saying that you can’t support younger artists or people who are less established, because you could take the name off of an interview and just read it and see if that person has anything to say. But the ones in the book are the ones where I felt like people did have something to say. And in an unconventional way. Like Dita von Tease talking about people who imitate her style so well that they’re better at doing her than she is, which is incredible because she’s a Midwestern blonde who just had this fantasy of being a film noir brunette, and she even dies her pubic hair black.
Yeah. So, learning about that whole process of her going against the grain of everybody telling her about her own natural beauty is wearing lip gloss and really light make up, and her saying, “No, no, it’s the opposite,” and her doing a drag version of a woman—that’s why I included her in the book.
How many interviews did you sort through to select these ones?
I’d say about forty. It was really tough.
You know, my favorite interviews from the ones I do are always changing (I guess I maybe always have three favorite interviews at a time)….
Yeah. My favorite thing about these interviews—and I’m doing this as a volume—so this book is going to be volume one– and The Celebrity Interview Book is something new—nobody’s done a book called that before. So, this is volume one, and I’ll do volumes two, three, four, five, and I’d like to keep going with it, just to see how it turns out. And they are from my press interviews, but press articles are rather short these days, and when I talk to these people we talk sometimes for a long time and a lot of the good stuff gets cut out. But I still think that everything they say should be published because they are just sooo interesting.
So the interviews are unabridged versions of what you’ve already published?
Yes, they’re unedited transcripts.
That’s awesome—I really love that!
Right? (Smiles) Or it’s Q and A’s that just go on and on and on and on. I mean, they’re obviously edited in a certain way, but they’re not really that edited.
It looks like your side of the talking is edited down a bit.
Yes, but then there’s also other stories, like the one of Marina Abramovic… Or the one of Christo, where I talk about going to St. Moritz— a pimped out ski town– me going there in sneakers and jeans and showing up at Christo’s opening because I was invited, because I knew I could get him for an interview—I was interviewing him for Vogue Italia. (Laughs) And then, people looking at me because I didn’t belong, because I wasn’t wearing fur, and I was talking to Christo’s assistant (his personal photographer who follows him around everywhere). And he says that if you’re not famous, he won’t pose for a selfie with you and look at the camera.
That’s why he never looks at the camera?
(Nods) I even told him, “Look at the camera,” and he refused. He refused to look at the camera. But you know, he’s also an older guy– I couldn’t imagine being in my late seventies/early eighties and going to an art opening and talking to journalists and things like that—it’s incredible. But I talked to him about that as a quirk of a celebrity, to show that they’re not all perfect. But I got a photo of him and Norman Foster (who’s a famous architect) who came to the opening, I said, “Norman, could I get a photo of you?” and He said “Yes, let’s get Christo, too,” and that time Christo looked into the camera. (Both Laugh)
I use the selfie as a form of experiment—it’s a social experiment.
Where did your connection to the art world come from?
I was a painter! When I was in high school (I went to Catholic high school) and I was really into the art class, and I was really into the English literature class—those were the two things that I got As in, everything else I was a C student. So, I took it as a sign. Then I graduated from high school and I didn’t know what to do, so I asked my mom and she said, “You should be a writer, that’s just my feeling,” and I was like, “Naaa, I’m going to go to art school.” (Both laugh)
So I went to art school, and I got a BFA in painting from a school called the OCAD University (Ontario College of Art and Design)—it was in Toronto. Then, when I graduated from art school, then I was like, “Maybe my mom was right.” I learned that in my last year of painting. I was doing really conceptual, minimalist paintings, and I would sit back and I would write, like, two-thousand words about what my painting meant. So I would spend more time writing about the art I was making, rather than making it. That’s when I thought, “Maybe I should be a writer.” So I applied to journalism school at Ryerson University in Toronto. And I got into two different programs—there was the night school version and there was the ‘BJourn’ (Bachelor of Journalism). So I did the night school first, because I had to keep working. I was freelancing at the time and I interned at two art magazines—Canadian Art and C Magazine, so I had sort of like a job-ish freelancing. I was also working at the Globe and Mail while I was studying journalism. I would go into class with all these people (you know with night school, it’s ‘continuing education’) so I would be there with people who had day jobs and went to the school to basically further their own careers (and I was one of those peopleThey took it really seriously: there was no bullshit, there was no pussyfooting around, there was no theory, and there was no dogma. And I just learned the basics of how to fact-check, how to edit, how to copyright, how to write headlines, magazine-style journalism versus newspaper, what a nut graf is, what a kicker is—things like that. I got so into it that I felt like I found my calling, which was great, and I wanted to get a full-time job as a reporter because I love newspaper reporting, it’s where my heart is. (I just love newspaper so much). But I’m not a politics journalist—I’m a culture journalist. (Laughs) That’s what people don’t necessarily understand, and that’s why I didn’t end up finishing the Bachelor of Journalism program at Ryerson, after night school because I tried to continue doing this ideology, “Maybe if I get a degree in it then it would matter more.” I felt they just wanted to produce news reporters, and I was different because I wanted to interview celebrities and I wanted to write about art.
I think you can really write well as a news journalist—you know, writing under pressure and when it’s time-sensitive—but with a lot of your interviews, especially the ones presented in the book, I feel like it’s a lot more about timelessness: going back to an interview later on and having it still make sense. (Also taking the interview from something fleeting, like a newspaper story, to something that acts as a reference for the times to come). For instance, “Who is Christo?”
“What’s he like?” He’s not going to be alive for the next while, so that’s was probably the only time I ever would have the chance to meet him, so I try to make the most of it and really understand his personality. And he was introducing me to his friends by the end of it—by the end, he was all right. (Both laugh)
But I guess it’s also important to keep in mind with Christo, that he’s been wrapping major landmarks as acts of art for such a long time, he probably gets some pretty dumb questions about it.
Yeah. So the book is dedicated to Ross Teague, a Canadian newspaper journalist and editor at the Montreal Gazette. And, as I explain in the introduction, while I was at Ryerson in 2007, they were advertising the opportunity of getting an internship at a newspaper at a job fair, and I had a job interview with him to be a reporter for the Montreal Gazette. He told me that my portfolio looked good, and asked me to speak to him in French. I tried (because in Canada we all have to learn French in school because it’s a bilingual country). My French was terrible, so he told me to go back and study French. And I did, I studied French for a year in the university—literally, only for this job to be a news reporter for the Montreal Gazette—I went and studied French for a year in night school. Then I went back to him the year after and said, “I can speak French, can you give me the job now?”– because he gave me an interview again– and then his answer was, “I hate to tell you this, but your writing only really sings when you write about art. You’re an arts journalist—I can’t give you a newspaper reporter job.” That woke me up. It was like dropping me in cold water, but then I realized that he was really helpful because he put me on my path of saying that maybe I should only write about art. That lead me—after being an art reviewer or an arts reporter for ten years, because I started in 2003, to make me start interviewing celebrities! So now, it’s sort of a challenge, just to see whom I can get!
I get that. For me, it’s a cool ‘high’ to be able to ask questions to pretty much whomever I want. It’s the access to ask anything you are curious about…
Like when I was talking to Faith Evans, who was the wife of Notorious B.I.G., that was one of the ones where I was more nervous. Usually, you don’t get nervous once you get into doing interviews all the time. You get used to the cycle of it and it doesn’t really matter ‘who’ you are interviewing—you’re just trying to stay on point with your questions and have your research, and just be alert. But with her, I was just…
Was she cool? What was she like? She’s somebody I’d really love to talk to, too, but more for her music…
Yeah. I love her first album so much. It recently celebrated its twentieth anniversary. (It’s unbelievable to know the 90s were twenty years ago…) You know, she started as a back-up vocalist for Mary J. Blige.
Yeah. I had an interview slotted with her for a certain evening in LA (that’s where she lives now—she’s no longer in New York), and she cancelled on me twice. Then the third time. And so I was sitting here in Berlin—in a completely different time zone, on skype, waiting for her at ten-o’clock at night, wondering if she was going to cancel on me a third time… (Laughs) And she finally pulled through. I was so happy. (I was so happy). So, a lot of the interviews—because I’ve lived in Germany for the past seven years—have been done on skype. So, I’m in my apartment, sitting at my desk, skyping with famous people. (Smiles) I also like telephone interviews—one of my favorite telephone interviews was with Bill Nye. (Laughs)
What was he like? Was he easy to talk to?
It was a bit hard because he’s a scientist (or rather, he has a degree in mechanical engineering): He worked as an engineer for an airline company for a number of years before he got into television. He is a technical speaker, and he’s the President of the Planetary Society, so I just kind of thought, “How can I connect with him?” And the point is, is that he started off moonlighting as a comedian. So he was a stand-up comedian, I found his first-ever stand-up on live TV, and it was hilarious, so I used that as a starting point, because I felt like it was something the both of us could connect over, because we had both done stand-up. And that helped open up the conversation and he’s still a really funny guy. But he just has become the poster boy (or the spokesperson) for climate change. That’s a significantly different field. He uses his comedy to simplify a message and get it across to the most amount of people as possible, which I think is great. I definitely think he is an artist. An entertainer (he definitely knows he has to be entertaining on his new Netflix show).
I think so, too. I think it’s interesting when you look at the book because you sort of forget that all these interviews were published in a whole spectrum of different types of journalistic outpoints. You are working for a bunch of different magazines and publications now. It’s really cool to look at this body of work together (that’s just a selection of an even bigger body) because I really feel like you’re somebody who has such a strong personality that you definitely transcend the periodicals you are working for; you’ve always been an individual, but you really see it in this book. (No offence to the periodicals). With the interviews in the book, it becomes about you and that person, and the rest is shut out.
Yeah, I definitely agree. It is just about two people talking and wherever the interview ends up—great. But writers are so much more than just their bylines. Its also about what your focus is and how you brand yourself.
What is it about for you?
I think that I am definitely an arts and culture journalist. I think I always will be. I don’t know, it’s entertaining. It’s fun. I want to know what’s being shown in museums. I want to talk to these people whose work I think is interesting, but I would love to be a full-time celebrity journalist– so we’ll see how that goes.
Book Publish Date 26. October 2017.
Nadja Sayej — The Celebrity Interview Book (Volume I)
Interviews with: Susan Sarandon, Patti Smith, Yoko Ono, Marina Abramovic, Robert Crumb, James Franco, Dita von Teese, Olafur Eliasson, Jarvis Cocker, Jean Paul Gaultier, Isabella Rossellini, Swizz Beatz, Faith Evans, Christo, Bill Nye, Mario Testino, Wyclef Jean, Anton Corbijn, Richie Hawtin, Ai Weiwei, and Auma Obama
published by ArtStars* Books / 6 x 9 in. / 116 pages / introduction by Nadja Sayej / softcover and ebook / ca. 23 black-and-white photographic portraits / english-language / price: €25 / €10 / ISBN: 978-13-895-777-65
Images: © + kind courtesy of Lena Kunz.