Notorious Interviews With Celebrities: M.I.A. for the New York Times, 2010


Remember last week when we read an infamous profile of Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain? Well, let’s read its companion piece– a profile of indie pop star M.I.A.

The author, Lynn Hirschberg, has a notorious reputation due to these profiles. Love and Cobain accused her of exaggerating, fabricating and falsifying information to create a juicy piece. M.I.A. accused her of the same… and also leaked Hirschberg’s phone number because she was so furious after this article.

M.I.A.’s Agitprop Pop
by Lynn Hirschberg


  • We met in March for drinks at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, in nearby Beverly Hills. Before the Grammys, Maya and [her billionaire fiancé] moved to Los Angeles from New York, buying a house in very white, very wealthy Brentwood, an isolated and bucolic section of the city with a minimal history of trauma and violent uprisings.
  • [M.I.A’s son’s] father is Maya’s fiancé, Ben Bronfman, son of the Warner Music Group chief executive and Seagram’s heir Edgar Bronfman Jr. In one of many contradictions that seem to provide the narrative for Maya’s life and art, Ikhyd was not, as she had repeatedly announced he would be, born at home in a pool of water. As usual, she wanted to transform her personal life into a political statement. “You gotta embrace the pain, embrace the struggle,” she proclaimed weeks before Ikhyd was born. “And my giving birth is nothing when I think about all the people in Sri Lanka that have to give birth in a concentration camp.”
  • As it happened, Maya, who is 34, gave birth in a private room in Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. “Ben’s family insisted,” she told me.

    At the luxury hotel, M.I.A. seems both self-aware and clueless as she discusses global politics:

  • “I live around the corner from Beverly Hills, and I feel semiprotected by Ben and, if anything happens to me, then Ben’s family will not take it… at the end of the day, I don’t see how you can shut up and just enjoy success when other people who don’t have the fame or the luxury to rent security guards are suffering. What the hell do they do? They just die.”
  • Maya’s tirade, typical in the way it moved from the political to the personal and back again, was interrupted by a waiter, who offered her a variety of rolls. She chose the olive bread.

    On M.I.A.’s early life

  • Maya’s political fervor stems from her upbringing. Although she was born in London, her family moved back to Sri Lanka when she was 6 months old, to a country torn by fighting between the Tamil Hindu minority and the Sinhalese Buddhist majority. In the ’70s, her father, Arular and helped found the Tamil militant group EROS (Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students).
  • M.I.A. claims that she rarely saw her father and that he would always be introduced to her as her uncle so that she wouldn’t inadvertently reveal his identity to his enemies. But the producer Diplo inadvertently reveals that this is false: “I met her dad in London with her.”
  • Hirschberg calls out M.I.A. for using imagery of the militant organization the Tamil Tigers in her art and music, even though they were very violent and her father was not associated with them:

  • Maya has used the spotlight to call attention to Tamil grievances… Even though her father was not a Tiger, she also used tigers on her Web site and her album artwork and she favored tiger-striped clothing. This was not an accident. By the time her first album came out, the Tamil cause was mostly synonymous with the cause of the Tamil Tigers. Maya, committed to the cause, allied herself with the group despite its consistent use of terror tactics, which included systematic massacres of Sinhalese villagers.
  • According to one quoted expert on Sri Lankan politics:

  • “Maya took a very simplistic explanation of the problems between Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese government and the Tamils…. M.I.A. had a role in putting the Tigers on the map. She doesn’t seem to know the complexity of what these groups do.”
  • And now, we get to the infamous truffle fries.

  • Unity holds no allure for Maya — she thrives on conflict, real or imagined. “I kind of want to be an outsider,” she said, eating a truffle-flavored French fry. “I don’t want to make the same music, sing about the same stuff, talk about the same things. If that makes me a terrorist, then I’m a terrorist.”
  • Once the interview was published, this portion of the interview jumped out due to M.I.A.’s seeming hypocrisy. But it turns out that M.I.A. had secretly recorded the interview herself and published an excerpt proving that Lynn Hirschberg had ordered the truffle fries, not herself.

  • What Maya wants is nearly impossible to achieve: she wants to balance outrageous political statements with a luxe lifestyle; to be supersuccessful yet remain controversial; for style to merge with substance.
  • Hirschberg also accompanies M.I.A. in a private town car with her publicist and several bodyguards to do a photoshoot with a working-class Sri Lankan photographer:

  • Instead of doing standard publicity photos, Maya had the idea of using a photographer she found in the phone book… “I’ve had my eye on some jewelry from Givenchy forever… It is millions of dollars’ worth of gold jewelry. To wear it for these pictures, Givenchy had to send a bodyguard. I liked the idea of a photographer shooting me in his council flat in all this gold, knowing that the jewelry requires a bodyguard.”
  • She is obsessed with Madonna, yet, two years later, would go on to flip the bird next to Madonna at the Superbowl:

    “Madonna did amazing songs… I’ll fight the fight for Madonna. I think she should send me some chocolates or something to thank me.”

    But she hates Lady Gaga:

    “I can’t talk about Gaga anymore,” she said. “All I’ll say is, it’s upsetting when babies say ga-ga now. It used to be innocent. Now, they’re calling her name.” Maya feels that Gaga is not original, that she mostly borrows from the Abba playbook, and she gets annoyed when Gaga is compared to Madonna.

    Also, yikes, Hirschberg is problematic in more ways than one:

  • Maya has a unique tomboy-meets-ghetto-fabulous-meets-exotic-princess look that, like her music, manages to combine sexy elements (lingerie peeks out from under her see-through tops) with individual flourishes (she designs elaborate patterns for her nails) and ethnic accents (the bright, rich prints of Africa are her wardrobe staple).

Some more choice quotes:

  • “The best sportswear is on Blackwater operatives,” Maya continued, referring to the agents who were clandestine guns for hire in Iraq…“I want to have a uniform like theirs.”
  • Like a trained politician, she stays on message. It’s hard to know if she believes everything she says or if she knows that a loud noise will always attract a crowd.
  • It turns out that Hirschberg also rearranged one of M.I.A.’s statements about Bono and published it out of order. The editors had to follow up with an editor’s note to clarify.

    Needless to say, the profile was very unflattering. M.I.A. promptly tweeted Hirschberg’s personal phone number to her millions of followers once the piece was published.

    Mods, the whole article is 8,500 words, so these are only a few excerpts.


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