HANG TEN: Julia Roberts

Julia Roberts photographed by Alexi Lubomirski for Harper’s Bazaar UK


Tina Brown was responsible for the relaunched Vanity Fair  reaching its tenth anniversary with its October 1993 issue, but Graydon Carter had recently arrived as its Editor in Chief to preside over it.  I was the one chosen to write its cover story once Julia Roberts and her publicist at the time, Nancy Seltzer, decided that it was time for Roberts to emerge from hiding and hold forth in the way the famous hold forth: slyly, sillily, putting their likability on display with a lacquered vulnerability.   Yet her holding forth was coming with editorial demands.  She wanted to do the story in the Q and A format which Vanity Fair did not do.  But Graydon agreed to do it as a one-off.   Fine with me.  Since I was comfortable in the form from my Interview days working for Andy Warhol and my having done a much-talked-about Playboy interview with Barry Diller, I was even looking forward to putting the form to use in the pages of VF

Jane Sarkin, Vanity Fair’s Features Editor, was tasked by Graydon to tell me of other bargains he had struck to secure Julia for the cover.   Jane informed me that Graydon had also given Roberts quote approval.  In all my years working with both Andy Warhol and Tina Brown neither had done that, as far as I knew.  I was at first shocked by Graydon’s having done it, but then asked if there would be an introduction to the Q and A.  I was told there would be.  “Okay.  She can fiddle with her answers.  I’m fine with that as long as I can use everything she says on-the-record.  There can be no taking things off-the-record afterwards.  And since I get to write my intro, I’ll get to say what I want to say as the writer,” I said, making it clear to Jane while convincing  myself everything would be okay and I wasn’t really curbing my ethics.  

 “Oh!” Jane called to me  as I was walking out of her office after she broke the news of the bargains that had been struck.  “Also, Nancy Seltzer is sitting in on the interview.”

“Fuck,” I said, but swallowed my pride a bit more because I wanted my byline on that tenth anniversary cover story.  My public ambition won out over my private principles. 

Graydon – who hated confrontation of any kind although he could be aggressively passive aggressive – never even discussed with me his agreeing to those stipulations before I headed down to Washington, D.C. to conduct the interview with Julia on one of her days off from filming The Pelican Brief, the Alan J. Pakula movie she was making with Denzel Washington, which was based on the John Grisham novel.   And I – who hated confrontation of any kind although I could be aggressively passive aggressive – never discussed the bargains with Graydon since I had made them with myself based on the ones he had already made.

I met Julia in her suite at The Jefferson Hotel.  Sure enough, Nancy Seltzer stayed in the suite with us.  “Don’t mind me,” she told me.  “I’m actually exhausted and I’m just going to lie over here on the sofa.  I might even take a nap while you two talk.” 

I waited for Nancy to take her prone position on the hotel sofa before turning on my tape recorder.  Julia and I began tentatively, the tentativeness even a bit terse, each testing the other.   I had never conducted an interview with a publicist present.  Every interview is a kind of conversation as performance art, a feint toward intimacy.  But with Nancy present – who gave a shit if her eyes were closed, her ears were certainly pricked – the whole thing took on an added performance aspect.  I thought to myself that if Nancy wanted to listen in on the conversation then I’d really give her something to hear.  Julia was looking especially radiant sitting in the window of the hotel, the D.C. light descending gently upon the planes of her famous face, the light itself tentative it seemed to touch such beauty.  I wrote in the introduction later that “though it was early in the morning and she had no makeup on and her hair was unkempt, she was still extraordinarily beautiful. At one point we took a break from the interview so we each could go to the bathroom, and when I returned she was applying lip balm to that amazing mouth of hers.”

What I didn’t write in the intro is what I said next, as much for Nancy Seltzer’s benefit as for Julia’s. “Has anyone ever told you,” I asked Roberts, “that you have the best blowjob lips since Mccaulay Culkin?”


I looked over and Seltzer had fallen off the sofa.  Just what I wanted.  Julia – all jaw and joy – let loose with one of her larger-than-life laughs and the rest of the conversation  was a breeze even though the writing of the article and the editing process turned out not to be one at all.  After I finished it, the Q and A was not the only part of the story sent to her to approve; my introduction was sent to her as well.   Julia had fiddled with her answers, as I had expected her to do,  but she (or Seltzer, in her stead)  had also edited the intro, cutting parts that displeased her and even rewriting sections of it.  Whoever did it had not mattered.  It was the fact that it had be done that had.  I had not agreed to my intro having to be approved.  I was livid – so livid, in fact,  that once I was told that the changes made to my intro would stay in, per Graydon’s instructions, I decided to quit.   I had also decided to write a letter of resignation to Graydon and copy S.I. Newhouse, who owned Conde Nast, Vanity Fair‘s parent company.   I was going to  leave the letter  on S.I.’s secretary’s desk on my way out of the building.  I was considering calling Page Six at the New York Post.

I knew S.I. and his wife Victoria slightly in a sociable way.  We once all breakfasted with our mutual friend David Geffen when he had first moved into the old Jack Warner estate in Beverly Hills and refurbished it with his exquisite taste and remarkable art collection.  After breakfast, David gave us all a tour of the grounds.  I’ve always known one thing above all others – my place in the greater scheme of things   so l let S.I. and David stroll together without inserting myself into their private conversation and Victoria and I walked with her beloved pugs which she had brought along.  It was during Oscar weekend and I told her, as she entwined her arm with mine,  that I had planned to head to my pied-a-terre in New Orleans on Gov. Nichols and Royal Streets after the VF Oscar party.  “Oh, S.I. and I adore New Orleans,” she told me.  “One of our favorite properties is there.” 

“In the French Quarter or the Garden District?” I asked. 

She patted my arm.  “No, dear,” she said.  The Times Picayune.”

Back on Madison Avenue, those narrow corridors and cordoned-off cubicles of Newhouse’s Conde Nast empire were abuzz with the contretemps brewing over Vanity Fair’s tenth anniversary issue.  Graydon was out at his Connecticut home and wasn’t deigning to deal with my decision to quit. Even though I have always known my place, even a bald trailer park homo-with-a-hitch knows when to pull out of the drive with his balder tires screeching in order to churn up some gravel in his wake.  Graydon, who had been told that I was about to churn up some of that media gravel on the way out the door, left dealing with me to Chris Garrett, VF‘s proper, classy-without-being-cloying British managing editor, who had always been my champion, or so I thought.  She called me into her office and told me that she had gotten wind of my plans.  She reminded me quite sternly that I had a contract and that I would be sued if I went through with what I was about to do.  I told her to go ahead and sue me if that is what they wanted to do and make it an even bigger story. 

I left her office in a huff, more gravel in my wake.  People were wide-eyed as I headed down the hallways at what I was about to do – both appalled, no doubt by my arrogance, and kind of pleased that someone had the courage to do such a thing.   I look back on it now and think I was also kind of foolish and certainly not “right-sized,” which is what we learn to be in the fellowship to which I belong now.   Yet I had a hard enough time having any self-respect at Vanity Fair while writing the stories there that were considered by the serious editors and their serious writers a kind of necessary, deeply unserious evil that gave them the needed leeway for their seriousness.  I was the tacky marquee fare that enabled the the art films and respected documentaries found inside.  I was certain in my “wronged-size” way that what was being done to me in such a dismissive manner would have never been done to those other more serious editors and writers.  But to me, an editorial line had been crossed and it did not matter the type of story involved in it having been.  Fuck their seriousness.  I was taking a stand for every other writer and editor there and in doing it was proving, in my mind, to be the most serious person on the premises.   The first thing you learn in the south inside a trailer park – other than how to drink a Coke for breakfast and cock a gun – is how to talk back to the sheriff when he shows off his badge before he’s about to bully you.  Bully the bully first.

Another kind of South – a friend of mine named Hamilton –  was the P.R. maven there at the magazine at the time.  I not only liked Hamilton South, but respected him.  I admired the way he could navigate any situation and how he did it with an assertive circumspection, the gift I’d observed in Manhattan that certain sort of machers had for self-effacement as they self-advanced. Hamilton knew the harm my leaving in such a way and for such a reason would do to the magazine and, ducking the flying gravel, came into my office to try to talk me down.  But I wasn’t having it.  I had made up my mind.  The letter was written.  I was ready to head up to S.I.’s office and drop it off and then stride out the door.  “Give me fifteen minutes before you do anything rash,” he said, always the voice of reason.  “Let me talk to Graydon and explain to him that his tenth anniversary issue is about to be blown up in the press if any of this gets out.  This can’t happen.”

“Fifteen minutes,” I agreed, but started to clean out my desk drawers of things I wanted to keep before Chris could have me escorted out.

In fourteen minutes and thirty seconds – I was sitting watching the clock –  the phone rang in my office.  I picked it up.  It was Graydon calling from Connecticut.  “What is going on?” he asked, a bit too cheerily.  He’d never quite been cheery with me.  Boisterously bemused, yes.  Even pleased, pleasantly so, to be repulsed a bit by me and, by being so, proving his own more refined sense of aesthetics.  But cheery?  No.    “I hear you’re causing quite a stir,” he continued.

I told him how upset I was that Julia and Nancy had been sent my intro – something I had not agreed to – and that I had to draw a line on principle.  “I lived a long time on jars of Jif peanut butter,” I told him.  “So this is what you have to understand, Graydon.  I am capable of living like that again.  I can live off peanut butter.  I am willing to.  In fact, after I drop off my resignation letter at S.I.’s office, I’m walking out the door and the first thing I’m doing is heading straight to Gristedes to buy a jar of Jif.”

His laugh was nothing like big-jawed Julia’s.  There was no joy in it.  Neither was there bemusement now.  A giggle – boyish and goyish and guttural – was gurgled up in what sounded like a mixture of disgust and a baffled respect.  Then silence from him.  More silence.   I remained silent, too.  We waited each other out for those many seconds in the way that such seconds seem to have the gall to be elongated into more than moments, and yet less.  Time loses its meaning in such scary seconds; the hurried heart is all that seems to tick.  “What can I do to make you stay?” he finally asked.

“Run my intro the way I wrote it.”


And so I stayed.

Graydon Carter forgave me my writerly rage and assigned me many more cover stories before he finally soured on me and slowly eased me out the door without my having to drop any letter off at S.I. Newhouse’s office.  I was traded to Allure magazine where I actually did some great work. Linda Wells, Allure’s Editor-in-Chief when I was there, even allowed me to write a story about Jennifer Connelly based on a poem by Wallace Stevens, the poet I was drawn to when doing research on her.  I called the story, Thirteen Ways of Looking at Jennifer Connelly in tribute to Stevens’ Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.  Linda too, at one point, tired of me and my poetic takes on movie stars and was ready to put me out to pasture where I’ve been grazing ever since in imaginary gardens.  But I’ll always be grateful to Graydon for using me as much as he did after our contretemps.  It proved to me that he was not only a gentleman, but also a decent guy. 

I think I’ve always been a decent guy myself even when I used “indecency” – i.e. sexual innuendo and a kind of prurient impertinence – to engage with my subjects and to throw them off their game in a lewd and low and overly familiar way.   I actually cringed at this part of my interviewing technique when I listened to the tape of my interview with Julia Roberts for that tenth anniversary issue of the relaunched Vanity Fair.  But Julia, bless her, sat patiently within my impertinence and was so cogent and eloquent about her own celebrity and all that it involved within the context of such conversations – both on-the-record pryingly “private” ones with the likes of me and the larger cultural one that Vanity Fair  helped to quicken and boost and serve up buffed and beautified. 

Listen to Julia hold forth here beautifully about her part – all our parts – in such an overarching cultural conversation we were just beginning to have about celebrity itself in 1993.   She was about to turn 26 when we talked in that hotel room.  Realizing that now – she is turning 51 in October – I am even more impressed with her keen take on it all, her unflappability, the sheen of her assurance.  Some movie stars rely on their vulnerability – a sly lack of assurance – to add to their silver screen sheen.  She didn’t.  Never did.  Still doesn’t.  Julie Roberts has lived in the reality of stardom for a very long time.  In the last quarter of a century, she has recreated the very concept of a movie star.  Here she sets out the outlines of her concept of being one and its boundaries.

  • Kevin Sessums is the author of two New York Times bestselling memoirs, Mississippi Sissy and I Left It on the Mountain.

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