Is That So?

 By Johan Liebenberg

Sources: Der Spiegel, New York Times, Wikipedia 

In the late ’90s Tom Kummer, a young Swiss foreign correspondent, caused a stir with interviews he conducted with some famous Hollywood stars. The interviews had his editors in Germany rubbing their hands with glee.

Meanwhile his competitors scratched their heads and wondered, “How the heck does he do it?” The interviews were nothing short of sensational. 

For instance, he had Mike Tyson pontificating on Nietszche, Sean Penn discussing Kierkegaard, and Courtney Love, who is usually very controlling during interviews, opening up to him, surprisingly, and declaring she used her breasts as a political statement. 

Breasts, boxing, philosophy—who cared? Editors shouted: “Hold the press! Here’s another story from Kummer.” 

And the readers happily lapped up the stories and the intimate, never-before-heard-of details of their silver screen idols. But when the bubble burst, as bubbles tend to do, there was mayhem. Two editors of Süddeutsche Zeitung who ran most of Kummer’s stories were forced to resign in one of the biggest scandals to rock the German media. 

The reason? 

Kummer had made up his stories. They were the fabrications of a hyper-active imagination that craved recognition. Or perhaps that of a borderline personality? But before all that happened, Kummer was a ‘wunderkind’, and some of the most important names in the international media ran his articles, including Der Spiegel, Time and Stern. 

“But why, why did no one check the veracity of his facts?” was the question everyone asked. As Der Spiegel put it: “You cannot help but marvel at the poetry on the one hand; on the other hand laugh about the fact that such things could ever have passed for journalism.” 

Well, it did, because they, the editors, were dazzled by the talent and intelligence of their foreign correspondent, who was able to uncover the most intimate secrets of the stars in a most entertaining way. 

In an interview with Der Spiegel, after he was unmasked, Kummer scoffed at questions about authenticity in his articles, saying the truth was “too one-dimensional for me”. Elsewhere he claimed what he did was an art form, and he called it ‘borderline journalism’. 

Katie Roiphe, an American author, wrote: “What eventually betrayed (Kummer) was his inability to be banal, his desire to put ideas into people’s mouths that they would never actually utter.” 

Kummer himself described the run-of-the-mill Hollywood celebrity interviews as dull. He had a point. I came across an interview on the Internet that a certain Anna North conducted with Ryan Gosling, star of, among others, the film “Drive”. (I have included only her comments and questions.)

You are very handsome … Okay! 

What is your favourite part of acting?… Wow! You are ambitious.

 Can you tell me if you are really dating Olivia Wilde?

… Phew! Is it getting hot in here? Just kidding! What was it like to make Blue Valentine? 

Wow, … Okay, last question: what do you do when you are not making movies? 

Nuff said. 

Kummer’s interviews could not be more different. When he got Courtney Love to open up about her breasts, he claimed she said: “I play with my breasts, so as to demonstrate a kind of disgust, not to brag about them.” She also told him she saw herself as “depressed, empty, and stupid”.

Sharon Stone confided how she loved to torment men, especially those belonging to “lower social strata”. And according to Der Spiegel, she even made Kummer look between her legs in a re-enactment of one of the most risqué, and erotic, scenes in cinema history. Kim Basinger revealed to him that she gave Alec Baldwin see-through underwear. Bruce Willis betrayed a particularly stark outlook on life: “I understood pretty early on that we do not advance through morality, but immorality, vices, cynicism.”

Kummer even dished up the unthinkable: granite-faced Charles Bronson skipping between beloved pot plants, claiming plants can communicate. 

But Kummer’s interview with Ivana Trump surely took the cake for sheer outlandishness. Inserting thoughts from “The Philosophy of Andy Warhol” into her mouth, she proceeded to reveal an anxiety about pimples and skin rashes and had this profound remark to make about having to shave her legs: “Hairy legs are nature, art razor blades.” 

While most other foreign journalists in Hollywood grumbled about being last in line for even rigidly controlled 15-minute interviews, Mr Kummer claimed to have befriended the stars and even that he worked out with them in the same gyms. These journalists were hounded by their editors in Germany to produce scoops. One of them, Holger Hoetzel, a journalist with Focus  magazine, complained: “Our editors ring up and say, ‘Why can’t you go fishing with Bruce Willis, ride with Robert Redford or play golf with Kevin Costner?’ If only they realized how rigidly controlled these media interviews are, and the channels you have to go through to get even the most meagre of scraps.”

But it was Kummer’s profile of Courtney Love that did it for Hoetzel, who found it simply too outlandish to be true. He translated Kummer’s profile and sent it to Courtney Love’s publicist, who vehemently denied her client had ever met Kummer. Outraged denials from other publicists followed, all of which eventually spelled the end of Kummer’s career. 

In 2000 a documentary film, Bad Boy Kummer, was made on his journalistic fraud. Kummer himself published a book on his escapades entitled Blow-up—a reference to Antonioni’s film by the same name. Appropriately, the cover featured the iconic scene from the film where David Hemmings thinks he has seen a murder take place. The film, also starring the famous model Veruschka, asked the poignant question: what is truth and what is fantasy? 

Even though they were fake, for a while Kummer lit up the dreary night sky with his fabulous stories. Today, he teaches paddle tennis (whatever that is) somewhere in LA, his adopted city.