Art & Photography / Culture Talks

Lynn Barber on her Curious Career

On the release of her second autobiography, we turn the tables on the formidable interviewer Lynn Barber

Lynn Barber
Lynn Barber

Celebrity interviewer Lynn Barber is lauded for her insatiable nosiness, her witty forthrightness and her shrewd judgement on character. Sitting down to devour the gleanings of a Barber interrogation is a delightful experience – when you read an interview with Rafael Nadal, for instance, you don’t really want to know what it feels like to win/lose a Grand Slam tournament, you want to know why he picks at his pants so incessantly and unashamedly in front of millions of viewers. And Demon Barber knows this only too well and sallies forth on behalf of the masses. When she wants her scoop, she gets it and the tougher the act the better: "My idea of a hellishly boring interviewee is one who is obviously nice, sane, polite, who chats pleasantly, is happy to answer your questions and clearly has nothing to hide... Where's the fun in that? Give me a monster every time."

Barber wrote her first autobiography An Education in 2009 – an enthralling tale spanning her resented suburban childhood, the dramatic deception by an older man that punctuated her teenage years and formed the basis of Lone Scherfig’s celebrated film, her ascent from Penthouse reporter on unusual fetishes to a (now six-time) British Press Awarded journalist, right up to the then-recent death of her beloved husband David, and the throes of uncertainty into which she was thrust thereafter. Now she’s back with a similarly brilliant follow-up, A Curious Career, offering a more in-depth consideration of her much admired 50-year career.

"My idea of a hellishly boring interviewee is one who is obviously nice, sane, polite... Where's the fun in that? Give me a monster every time" — Lynn Barber

For fans of Barber’s work, the book could perhaps be compared to a “special features” section on a favourite DVD – a behind-the-scenes look at her most notable interviews, musings on how she got where she is today and her tips for those looking to follow in her footsteps. But equally, it stands alone as a very funny and insightful story of how a young girl, unsure of what she wanted to do with her life and by virtue of her innate curiosity and lack of social embarrassment, became a celebrity journalist at a time when the job simply didn't exist, and the rip-roaring highs and lows (from being put up at the Meurice for a three-day interview with Salvador Dalí aged just 25, to making a pact to rob a bank with Shane MacGowan and having her illusions shattered by Martin Clunes) that have ensued. Here we catch up with Barber, in the wake of her talk at the Hay Festival, to find out which interview she'd do again if she had the chance, who has made her laugh the most, and who would play her in a later cinematic version of her life.

On finding fame herself...
When I was very young I sort of pictured myself as a famous film star, but I never did anything about it and then when I came to, as it were, and was realistic, my ambition was to make a living as a writer which is what I've succeeded in doing. And then from about the 1990s I've been a sort of fairly well known interviewer. I'd say I have probably just about the degree of fame or recognition that I like, which means that other journalists, if I say my name, will say, "Ooh, pleased to meet you," but I can walk down the street without being recognised. But oddly enough, just now, because I've had various photographs left right and centre, someone came up to me in Marks and Spencer and said, "Are you Lynn Barber?" and that always throws me a bit – if I'm in the middle of shopping I'm thinking of my shopping, I'm not going to chat.

On an interview she'd like to do again...
There was an interview with Rudolph Nureyev on a lake in Italy, where I realised... a few years later he came out as having AIDS and then died and when I thought about that interview I realised that I think he was almost trying to tell me that he had AIDS or he was certainly very strongly hinting. And he said things like, "I can't give up dancing, it's the only thing that keeps me alive." And I was so thick! I can't think how I was so thick. I mean, I knew about AIDS, you know, I could think that he was probably at risk – I just didn't think. So if I did that again I would have asked him about that a bit more. There's lots of things like that where you think "ooh, I missed that" but that's the most glaring by a long shot.

On interviews that made her laugh...
Rhys Ifans I had a very good fun time with I remember – he just told good stories. And lots of those old hell raising actors like Peter O'Toole and Richard Harris. And the person who always reliably made me laugh was Michael Winner which is why I was so fond of him and lots of people told me off for being fond of him but you were sure of a good laugh with him. So I value that.

On unexpected revelations...
I've just interviewed Courtney Love. I don't want to spoil my own scoop but she told me something that had happened that I obviously hadn't asked about because I didn't know about it. She'd been saying, "If I ever have a terrible day like yesterday" and making several references to something terrible that had happened before she ever told me what it was. And when she did I was a bit thrown.

On interviewing Salvador Dalí...
It was wonderful. But I was quite young and green and wet behind the ears and I didn’t really realise... but in retrospect that was the most 'god's gift to interviewers interview' that I’ve ever done. Because it was my first one! I thought they were all going to be like that. And nobody's ever been so generous or so exciting.

On who would play her in the film of her later life...
That's a hard one. Carey Mulligan was wonderful. I think Eileen Atkins probably. She's got a dry humour that I like. Although she's very thin and I'm quite corpulent, but anyway!

A Curious Career by Lynn Barber is out now, published by Bloomsbury.