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'To me, the ultimate celebrities are people with a brain'

There are few A-listers Tina Brown hasn't met, but there's more to her new podcast than gossip, she tells Samuel Fishwick

The zeitgeist right now isn't celebrities, it's news," says Tina Brown (65), former editor of both Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, founder of The Daily Beast and owner of a contact book the envy of those on both sides of the Atlantic.

"The fact is that in America right now it doesn't matter what you're talking about, it's always going to come back to politics."

It's quite the claim, given that Brown made a career booking the great and the good of Hollywood for glossy magazine covers.

She hosts a podcast, TBD with Tina Brown, that is built on bookings, yet her latest project is the antithesis of celebrity tittle-tattle. It's a series of hour-long meditations on the state of the world with A-list guests.

Some are celebrities: actors Michael Douglas, Felicity Jones and Margot Robbie and West Wing writer Aaron Sorkin have all made the cut. But we also hear from American historian Stephen Greenblatt on the rise of modern tyrants, and from Topeka K Sam, a former drug-runner for a Mexican cartel who now runs recovery centres for women released from prison in New York. Brown met her at the Women in the World conferences, designed to provide a platform for women, which the former editor curates.

"I like to think of the podcast as brain food," says Brown. "To me, the ultimate celebrities are people with a brain. It's much more exciting for me to talk to Stephen Greenblatt about how Shakespeare viewed tyrants and compare that to the way Trump has risen in the US."

Times have changed. "The fact is that magazines don't even know who to put on the covers, and they're kind of irrelevant anyway," says Brown.

This month's Golden Globes, for instance, were "so 20th century - it had the lowest ratings ever".

"People are much more obsessed with where this country's going, where it's heading," Brown adds. "There's so much anxiety and so much division."

She's not the only person to think of success in terms of ratings. Donald Trump, who features heavily in her Vanity Fair Diaries in his erstwhile capacity as a New York socialite, weighs on her mind.

"He gamed the system and he won. The great question of our time is, has he changed it for ever?

"Joe Biden (former vice-president under Barack Obama), who is very likely to run (for US President), is betting on the idea that people want to breathe a sigh of relief and go back. I don't know that they do.

"The Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the hottest new congresswoman, exciting to absolutely everybody, and she's tweeting every two minutes. When she makes mistakes, she's just annoyed she's been caught.

"You wonder if he (Trump) has changed something profoundly for ever."

It's all good "brain food" to chew on with her guests, of course. When she spoke to Sorkin, whose controversial adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird is running on Broadway, they drew a line between the endemic racism portrayed in Harper Lee's novel and today.

"He told me he had to create this racist character who accuses the innocent black man of murder, and he said he got all the inspiration for it from reading the comment sections on Breitbart News, a conservative website," says Brown.

Referring to the pre-civil rights time of segregation in America's Deep South, she adds: "It's horrible listening to the spitting venom on stage of someone in the Jim Crow South, period. But his point was that people are still saying those things - they're saying them online, anonymously. He said mobs are where people got to hide, and that's what internet comments are. They're like a mob, but a virtual mob."

She's worked with unpleasant characters herself: after nine years at Vanity Fair, Brown edited The New Yorker for six years, and in 1999 left Conde Nast to set up Talk magazine - the title co-owned and after three years abandoned by Harvey Weinstein.

Can she envisage Weinstein being rehabilitated? Brown has been part of American high society for 30 years. She knows how it works.

"People used to say, 'I'm just going to rehabilitate myself and come back'. I don't think that's possible with the #MeToo movement.

"In the era of social media, people don't get the luxury of having their histories forgotten. People who have had these major falls are going to have to figure out what else they can do that is not just a comeback."

She loves the "intimacy" of podcasts. "Everybody's exhausted with excitability. Simply sitting with somebody in a dark studio, free of all that encumbrance or interruption, is a great luxury. But the first time I did it, I didn't realise what a long time it is to talk to someone."

So what next for Brown?

"My concern right now is that the Democrats are going to blow themselves up by fielding too many candidates in 2020, and that Trump will squeak by again. It's a profound possibility.

"But it's an interesting time, and a good one to do a podcast."

© EVENING STANDARD

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