I’m not going to pull punches on this one, and I don’t really know how to say it politely: “What Happened?” is the most apt cover line I’ve ever seen. I’ve no idea what the f*ck the idea was here. It’s eye-catching on a newsstand, that’s for damn sure, but for the wrong reasons. Sexy Lady Clown Who Is Miserable At The Lingerie Circus is too much for me. And the interior photos feel disjointed as well; there’s one of her clad as a ringmaster, leaning against a tent and holding a cigarette while looking crabby, but then there’s another of her running along a rocky beach and leaping in a diaphanous dress, and a third in which she’s looking Hepburn-esque in a suit. The one I think is the most piercing is of her in all-denim, slouched across the front seat of a classic car, glaring directly into the lens. Not only does that one not make a clumsy carnival joke out of her (“She’s beautiful, and has great abs! But she’s also the court jester! IMAGINE THAT!”), but it also ties into what the cover story became.

Indeed, “What Happened? Kate Happened” as a cover line feels like a meta reference to the interview itself. Kate McKinnon is a presence, but barely present. She barely speaks in it. Her story is told mostly in the writer’s words, or the words of other people, and I can guess why. Here is part of the lede, a winky Here’s How This Whole Interview Thing Usually Goes paragraph:

They are, by their very nature, transactional: the journalist offers the star, usually with a new project or venture to promote, exposure; the star offers the journalist revelation, a couple of juicy details with which to titillate readers. Use and be used, give and take, a mutual hustle and the way of the world. Couldn’t be clearer, right? Where things get murky is in the trappings. The interview is made to look like the opposite of what it is: a friendly social interaction. The star and I always meet at a restaurant—the garden terrace at the Chateau Marmont or the Clement at the Peninsula—almost always for lunch. There’s conversation (one-sided, but still) and an attentive waiter and imported mineral water and a salad of wild arugula, locally grown, and it’s easy to forget that our interests are at odds and that the relationship is, at heart, antagonistic. Only I couldn’t forget with Kate McKinnon.

Tell me that whole thing doesn’t feel like the writer saying, “Okay, so this turned out to be a shitshow.” The best I can interpret from between the lines: Kate McKinnon was a really weird interview — awkward, perhaps unforthcoming, stilted or just difficult to pin down; not out of rudeness but just because it’s not her zone — and the writer had to stitch a quilt out of some pretty shredded fabric. That isn’t Kate’s fault; people are what they are, and honestly, I’ve gotten the impression before that she might not be someone who has an easy time with the process. She became so famous so fast that one forgets she might still be considered new at this (something the writer also brings up).

Unfortunately as a whole, this piece is a mighty weird read even through a professionally sympathetic lens. Similarly to the Meghan Markle piece last month, this one is built around interviews with other people that hope to circle some truths about the subject itself; that one, however, overall painted Meghan as walking around in perpetual slow-motion with her own artful breeze tousling her hair and clothes in all the right ways, like the “after” footage in an ad for prescription drugs that hopes you won’t listen to the list of alarming side effects being rattled off. It had the aura of, She isn’t allowed to answer more than three questions about Harry, but I promise you she’s nice; let’s get back to the salad she made.

This one, while bending over backward to reassure us that Kate is beautiful even though she’s so funny (sigh) and that she isn’t unfriendly, doesn’t entirely conceal that the writer may have been sitting there wondering what the hell she was going to do with their conversation. There are multiple references to topics that Kate appears skittish about discussing, even though she’s gone on-record about them before, and the writer by her own admission backs away in response. There’s a blunt, random aside about the waiter adjusting his crotch between serving their meals — so random that I did in fact laugh with surprise — and the mystery of where they went is perhaps too fetishized because I guess more words were needed to fill space. Amid a discussion of Kate’s Hillary and its unique nuances, which did net one quote from McKinnon, is a pointless and absurdist digression about what it’d be like if Trump resigned, Alec Baldwin became president with Kate’s Hillary as VP, and then Trump played Baldwin on SNL. And also this:

(Question: Were we too freaked out and pissed off to notice that the 2016 presidential election was the greatest battle-of-the-sexes screwball farce of the modern era, the blackest romantic comedy of them all? That Clinton and Trump were a surreal, gonzo version of Hepburn and Tracy?)

In fairness, that’s inspired by an observation she made about the Baldwin-McKinnon versions of them, but it’s written about the actual people, but Hillary Clinton may well tear out that sentence alone just so she can light it on fire. Yes, let’s absolutely cast the historic run of the first female presidential candidate from a major party as a fucking rom-com co-starring a dude who thinks being famous gives him the right to grab people’s vaginas. That doesn’t marginalize the importance and place of women in politics at all. Chicks: They’re just love interests. (I get that within the confines of the SNL stages, and those broad parodies, such a premise might make for a funny premise. But I think the writer drank a bit too much of her own Desperation Kool-Aid on that one and then got stoked to use the word “gonzo.”)

That is not the only press-pause-and-let-me-expound moment, either. We also get a navel-gazing, pseudo-profound, ten-sentence (!) 20-line digression (!!) that begins, “An aside: is the movie-star profile a relic from a sweeter, more innocent time?”, which reads like the writer making an apology for the piece and also an admission that she is totally spinning her wheels to hit a word count.

That’s why I think I’d have gone with the denim photo for the cover. Because in that one, while Kate is staring compellingly into the camera, she’s revealing little; she’s relaxed, but unreachable, and that to me lines up what I’m imagining happened at that lunch. And above all, she doesn’t look ridiculous in it. Which, if you know you’re stuck with a profile that’s not a profile — an interview with no interior life — feels like a better compromise.

[Vanity Fair: The Kate McKinnon Report]