Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Zoe Williams

‘What a ridiculous question!’ How fawning, lechery and sheer inanity ruined the red carpet

Paul Mescal and Andrew Scott on the red carpet at the Baftas last month.
Paul Mescal and Andrew Scott at the Baftas last month. Photograph: Kate Green/BAFTA/Getty Images for BAFTA

“What are you excited to see tonight?” the model and TV presenter Ashley Graham asked Hugh Grant on the red carpet of last year’s Oscars. “To see?” Grant replied, his voice a splice of scorn and disbelief, as if she’d just said something so stupid that he needed to give her the benefit of the doubt and check that she had really said it. Graham became flustered, and her next question was even baggier. Did he have his hopes up for anyone? “No one in particular.”

The conversation disintegrated fast. “What are you wearing tonight?” “Just my suit,” he overenunciated, to underline his caustic disregard. The whole exchange makes you want to die for her, but also kill him, but also die for him, and – OK – kill her. From every angle, it is terrible to behold. As this year’s ceremony approaches, those of a sensitive disposition will be weighing up whether they can bear to watch. It’s just become so awkward.

Reporters’ questions are inane by definition – they have 15 seconds to discuss some things that have not yet happened – and celebrities have historically met and indulged that with inane cliches of their own. They are all professionals; they all recognise that the hardest way to use language is when you need to make noise but you don’t have anything to say. But gradually, the rules of red carpet engagement are breaking down.

There’s often an atmosphere of low-octane lechery. One of my favourite examples comes from a red carpet interview at the Grammys in 2015. American entertainment reporter Mark Steines turns to Taylor Swift and says: “Everyone’s going to be watching you dancing in the front row – you know that’s going to be quite the thing?” What even is that? It’s like listening to the internal monologue of a horny rabbit. Yet Swift nodded and smiled, because those were the rules.

At the Oscars two years later, Scarlett Johansson shot down in flames a hapless Ryan Seacrest (American Idol host) when he asked her whether she wore the same shoes to the rehearsal that she was wearing that night. “What a ridiculous question,” she said, and sure, it was; more a kind of nervous babbling than a real inquiry. But on the other hand – “This whole thing is ridiculous! Your shoes are ridiculous! You’re not playing by the rules, lady,” Seacrest could have replied, but did not.

Reese Witherspoon voiced the frustration of many female actors when she launched the #askhermore hashtag in 2015. “This is a movement to say we’re more than just our dresses,” she wrote, and OK, valid point. It is belittling to be treated like a mannequin who can speak. And yet at the same time, it’s the red carpet, and everyone on it is but a bauble on the tree of self-congratulation.

It’s not only stars who have stopped playing the game. Reporters are allowed to be inane, but they’re supposed to be well informed – as in, know who everyone is and what show they’re in. But that has broken down, too, memorably last week at the Screen Actors Guild (Sag) awards, when presenter Loni Love mistook the royal roles played by every cast member of The Crown she mentioned, except for Elizabeth Debicki as Diana. That’s less impressive even than it sounds: Debicki was the only woman in the group.

Actors now retaliate to the cliched questions with irony, which sometimes works for them, but makes the reporter look stupid. At last year’s Emmys, The Bear’s Ayo Edebiri answered a dog-dumb question about what she’d say to her younger self with a deadpan peroration on the so-called bootstrap paradox of time travel, replying that obviously she’d say nothing to her younger self, since she never met her when she was younger.

Reporters are starting to be more provocative, and sometimes that works for them, but other times it really, really doesn’t. There was a moment at this year’s Baftas that is making me squirm to even describe: a BBC journalist, Colin Paterson, asked Andrew Scott what he thought of Barry Keoghan’s penis at the end of Saltburn, a film Scott had nothing to do with (he was at the Baftas for All of Us Strangers). Paterson went on to say: “There’s been a lot of talk about prosthetics. How well do you know him?” It’s random, puerile, but never mind all that, guys, it’s just so awkward.

To figure out why the rules-based order is disintegrating, we need to go back to how it all started. The red carpet is there so we can admire the pretty clothes. While the Oscars began in 1929, it wasn’t a public event until the 40s, and nobody filmed the stars arriving until 1964. Over time, it went from a print media event to a real-time broadcast event, which necessitated chatting. For a good three decades, this amounted to: “You look nice”; “What are you wearing? It looks nice”; and “How come you look so nice?” This intricate yet repetitive fawning, as dignified as it attempted to be, almost worked against the glamour. So much depth is projected on to beauty, and so much excitement on to stardom, that when it starts to speak, and all the words are tedious, it’s a bit deflating.

Then Joan and Melissa Rivers, mother and daughter, came along. Memorably, Rivers Sr told Nicole Kidman that the colour of her John Galliano dress was making her want to hurl, and then she made very audible vomiting noises. It was 1997. We all had to look up how to spell “chartreuse”. Everything felt as if it was on the brink of getting torn down, including the sheer accretion of bullshit around Hollywood. The style writer Merle Ginsberg wrote later that Rivers had “democratised” the Oscars, but really the spirit she’d inserted was not democracy so much as energy and humour; she had unleashed the spirit that would ultimately rob the red carpet of its mystique.

The bracing impertinence that Rivers introduced soon turned into something more like bullying, as Kate Winslet described in a podcast in 2022: the relentless body-shaming of her early career, much of it focused on her red-carpet appearances. Whatever they called her, from “curvy” to “toned” or “svelte”, it all added up to measuring her value by the hundredweight. “Don’t even say it,” she said. “We don’t say that about the men.” (That much is completely indisputable.) “It’s such an irresponsible thing to do and it feeds directly into young women aspiring to ideas of perfection that don’t exist.”

For democracy, you had to wait for the internet, which came along shortly after. It meant a lot of guerrilla journalism – pranksters on the red carpet – but also more provocative behaviour from bona fide reporters wanting to go viral. It was the 00s, so #MeToo hadn’t yet happened, but you shouldn’t need a movement to know not to grope someone while you’re interviewing them. Isaac Mizrahi was interviewing for E! at the Golden Globes in 2006, when Scarlett Johansson arrived wearing Valentino and he grabbed her breast, to make some point about, I don’t know, her breast. The same night, he asked Teri Hatcher and Keira Knightley about their underwear, and Eva Longoria whether she shaved “down there”. A lot of people said it was fine, and he couldn’t have meant anything predatory by it because he’s gay. A lot of other people said it was not fine, because it was deliberate humiliation on a global stage. Johansson said: “What is going on?” which I think was the right question to ask of the entire decade.

By the 2010s, the professional reporters had learned some self-control, but pranksters were still often out in force. In fact the Chris Rock/Will Smith slap debacle of the 2022 Oscars was prefigured a decade earlier, when scofflaw media prankster Vitalii Sediuk hugged Smith at the premiere of Men in Black 3 and tried to kiss him, and Smith slapped him round the head.

If reporters are trying to go viral, celebrities probably aren’t, being already famous. But they can no longer control whether or not a meme is coming for them; they just have to hope they come out of it the hero not the fool. Zac Efron did wonders for his reputation when a condom flipped out of his pocket on the red carpet for the premiere of The Lorax in 2012. Melanie Griffith and Dakota Johnson, meanwhile, turned into a classic mother-daughter meme on the 2015 Oscars red carpet. When Griffith was quizzed about whether she had seen Fifty Shades of Grey, she waffled until Johnson, exasperated, finally said: “It’s fine – you don’t have to see it.” They couldn’t have set that up; it was very important for the moment that they were genuinely getting on each other’s nerves. Since memes are essentially built from flashes of particularly vivid humanness, this has had the paradoxical effect of making celebrities more guarded and less relatable, as they navigate the risk of coming off as the wrong kind of human.

And then TikTok arrived, and stamped its rebellious brevity over everything: why watch a baggy 10 seconds when you could learn everything you want to learn – what a person wore, whether it worked – in one? The Met Gala initially embraced influencers, perplexing the traditional onlooker by inviting Addison Rae, Dixie D’Amelio and Avani Gregg – characters created by TikTok – in 2022. That was the year of “slay” or “nay”, judgment passed in a syllable. And maybe it skirted a little too close to red-carpet civilisational collapse, because TikTok was not invited the following year.

Plainly, if the world isn’t ready to say goodbye to the red carpet, we need a re-establishment of the rules so that everyone can play nicely again – presided over by a Solomon figure, to adjudicate a few test cases. And I’d like to volunteer. Here is my definitive ruling on who was in the wrong, in some classically awkward exchanges.

Tiffany Haddish v Lauren Zima, 2022 Vanity Fair Oscars party

Reporting for Entertainment Tonight, Zima asks Haddish about her “costume change”. “I’m not wearing a costume – this is Dolce & Gabbana. It’s custom. No one’s paying for this. I paid for it,” Haddish replies, going on to explain: “This is what fame looks like. This is what success looks like. This is what money looks like.” I rule for Zima: performative offence-taking is fun and all, but the opener wasn’t offensive enough.

Mayim Bialik v unnamed reporter, 2014 Sag awards

He asks: “Being on The Big Bang Theory, how many people think you can solve calculus at the drop of a hat?” Bialik shoots back: “I was trained in calculus for several years. I’m a neuroscientist – you may not have known that?”

Bialik is a bit unkind, but the reporter should actually have known she was a neuroscientist and some people on the internet think he should also have known that calculus is not that hard: rule in her favour.

Nancy O’Dell v Taylor Swift, 2015 Grammys

“You’re going to walk home with more than a trophy tonight,” O’Dell says to Swift. “I think, lots of men.” Where to start? Well, for one, it’s not a question. For two, no serious consideration has been given to how Swift could reasonably respond (perhaps: “No, Nancy, even if I do pull, I’m not sure I want to have sex with multiple men after what has already been quite a busy evening; I am, after all, a regular human, not just an agglomeration of other people’s fantasies”). For three, the sexual politics are all over the place, as O’Dell appears to be trying to laud Swift’s beauty as an achievement (that elision between a trophy and a conquest), while at the same time slut-shaming her without any clear evidence base. Resounding victory to Swift, here, just for keeping a civil tongue in her head. “I’m not going to walk home with any men tonight,” she says. “I’m going to hang out with my friends, and then I go home to the cats.” But it’s actually the death stare that people really loved about that exchange.

Andrew Scott v Colin Paterson, 2024 Baftas

I can’t describe this red carpet encounter again – it was painful enough the first time. Suffice it to say that Paterson asks Scott about Barry Keoghan’s genitals, and while the motive is plain – he just wants to create a “moment” – the reasoning is either not plain at all, or so painful as to make your skin crawl (“You’re gay, right? So that means you like men’s genitals. Well, now, how’s about those genitals?”). Rule for Scott, exceptional mention for his red tux.

Lil Uzi Vert v Giuliana Rancic, 2018 Grammys

Rancic is a wellspring of awkward moments, sometimes chalking up a number on a single evening (in the 2018 Golden Globes, for instance, she asked Issa Rae what she’d call her memoir, when in fact the actor had already written a memoir, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl). But when she says to Lil Uzi Vert: “How are you feeling?” and they reply: “I’m feeling normal,” they are basically setting fire to all of small talk. If you can’t ask someone how they’re feeling without being made a fool of, what can you ask? But actually, maybe they are right. Maybe we need a scorched earth policy on small talk, to make way for better, slightly larger talk. Rule for Lil Uzi Vert.

• Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a response of up to 300 words by email to be considered for publication in our letters section, please click here.

• This article was amended on 7 March 2024 to correct Lil Uzi Vert’s pronouns.

Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Already a member? Sign in here
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.