Tony Earnshaw: The art of the celebrity strop

Jean-Claude Van Damme walked out of a press conference recently claiming the questions were boring.
Jean-Claude Van Damme walked out of a press conference recently claiming the questions were boring.
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Was Jean-Claude Van Damme acting the diva last week when he walked off a live satellite interview with an Australian TV channel, claiming the questions were boring?

Or was the 55-year-old martial artist turned action star merely channelling a quarter century of weariness at the treadmill of press conferences, intimate one-on-one chats, podcasts and sundry other varieties of Q&A that he’s endured since his 1990s heyday?

Believe it or not, I have sympathy for the man dubbed ‘the Muscles from Brussels’. I’ve seen it from the other side, having been one of the Press corps on these interminable conveyor belts of reporters covering the same ground and, inevitably, asking the same questions.

Van Damme’s reaction isn’t new, nor is it particularly shocking. His back-up team talked of him being cooped up in a pokey studio in Bangkok, surrounded by observers, uncomfortable and sweating in a windowless box with no air conditioning. It’s enough to push anyone towards the edge.

The tipping point appears to have been a question about Aussie pop princess Kylie Minogue, Van Damme’s co-star in 1994’s Street Fighter, and someone with whom he has previously claimed to have had a brief affair.

It’s natural for a show like Channel 7’s Sunrise to pick up on the Kylie connection. It’s called focusing on the local question.

Van Damme should know better than to behave in the way he did. But the conditions – and the years – were against him. The trick for any celebrity is to answer a question for the thousandth time as if they’re hearing it for the very first time. Many can, and do. Some cannot. Others tear off their microphone and storm out of the studio.

There is a trick to conducting a viable interview. My approach is to embrace the four Ps: be punctual, be prepared, be professional and be polite. I treat celebrities like strangers. In other words whilst I may know them, in all likelihood they don’t know me from a hole in the wall.

So I introduce myself, thus giving them the chance to do the same. Some do, some don’t. And, of course, they don’t have to. Many work on the basis that you know who they are; that’s why you’re there. But it’s a courtesy.

The real skill in interviewing famous folk is to take them by surprise. That generally leads to more interesting content. It can be disastrous, too. But that goes with the territory. I was once given ten minutes to interview Roger Moore. I pushed it to 18 minutes. And managed to avoid 007. Moreover Sir Rog stayed on the line and didn’t throw a wobbly…