I’m not sure what Proust would have to say about Vogue magazine’s “73 Questions” video series, but I’m pretty sure that, like millions of others today, he would feel the need to know what kind of faucets Kim Kardashian West has in her bathroom, and how she “keeps it real,” in her words, in a world where there are “no real situations.”
These videos are not only a rare glimpse into the homes of the world’s biggest celebrities, but also into their brilliant, twisted, unfiltered minds. Sometimes they display true vulnerability, like when Donatella Versace said she would be having a “nervous breakdown” if she didn’t work in fashion. Other times, they make you gasp, like when Gisele Bündchen did a Boston accent, or when Nicole Kidman said, “I tawt I saw a puddy tat,” like Tweety Bird. And some just make you happy you’re not a celebrity, like when Kendall Jenner said her “spirit animal” was Tupac Shakur.
The owner of the mysterious voice behind all these videos is a man who’s seen a lot, visiting a total of 56 intimate celebrity spaces over the course of five years. His name is Joe Sabia — that’s him in the photo — and he’s currently the VP of creative development at Condé Nast Entertainment.
One afternoon this summer, we turned the tables on him.
I recognize your voice, but I don’t know anything about you. What were you doing before you started at Condé Nast?
I was really just on my own as an internet video artist. I did that for years, and then for some reason, [Condé] reached out to me to be one of the ten directors for Vanity Fair’s “The Decades Series.” I didn’t even know what Condé Nast was.
What year was that?
Back in 2013. Six months later, they remembered working with me on that project. They said, “Hey, what would you do if you had some time with Sarah Jessica Parker?” I’d never worked with a celebrity in my life. I’d never talked to a celebrity. Actually, T-Pain. I’d had a nice conversation with T-Pain once.
So, what did you do with Sarah Jessica Parker?
The origin story is that they said to think about [a pitch] over the weekend. So, I went on a fishing and whaling trip with my friend George from Georgia. On the boat, I had the idea to just do this insane interview where we asked her as many questions as possible. It would be comedic, with rapid-fire questions, and she’d have to answer quickly, almost unnaturally. That’s the reason why 1 of the 73 questions is “Bird watching or whale watching?” My friend, Vince Peone, who shot the episode, suggested her looking at the camera, as if it were me. I remember getting on the phone with [Sarah Jessica Parker] and there were 23 people on the call. She said, “I’d love to do this at my home.” We were shocked. This was the first time that cameras had ever been in her home.
How did you come up with the questions?
At first, it was supposed to be 100. But I wanted to do it in one take — that was so important to me. Looking at the choreography, because it’s also really important to have movement, it seemed really scary and impractical to try to do that many questions. I went through them and deleted a bunch, and we landed on 73. It’s a weird number. It’s great for search-engine optimization. It’s a prime number. But the types of questions have always been really, really light. What’s funny, and I realized this years later, is that this entire experience — this format, this concept — is designed for Sarah Jessica Parker. It’s cool how it’s a catchall for all these different celebrities with different talents. But you can tell that the best versions of “73” always go back to the first person it was designed for. That magnetism she has is incredible.
Why is Sarah Jessica Parker the perfect “73 Questions” subject? In the first episode of Sex and the City, she talks to the camera.
I didn’t even realize that! I already feel so guilty that I didn’t know what Condé Nast was in 2013, but I didn’t watch Sex and the City, either! I think the fact that I was an outsider helped. I wouldn’t have been drawn to asking insider questions. I kept it more universal. I think that’s a little bit of the secret sauce to this: Everyone’s watching these videos and imagining themselves in this experience.
Have you adapted the questions over the years?
I remember charging back to Condé Nast because it got a million views in a day, and they were like: You have to do it again. There were conversations about keeping the same questions, and I thought that would be way too stagy and weird. We wanted to tailor it to the different people. Like, Blake Lively wanted to be baking cupcakes. So, of course, the questions will be tailored to things about cooking. And her relationship, if I can get that out of her.
Does Anna Wintour approve the questions?
Anna is an extremely busy woman, but Vogue definitely signs off. Mainly Sally Singer. And the publicists take a look at everything.
Were you always going to be the voice behind it?
Again, I never imagined the longevity of this thing. All I wanted to do was ask Sarah Jessica Parker a bunch of questions in one take.
Do people comment on your voice when you meet them for the first time?
There are two types of recognition. One, when they find out that I’m the guy from “73 Questions,” and they go, “Oh my God, your voice! Yeah, of course.” But the creepiest have been, like, three times, strangers without any context hear my voice and go, “Hold on, I know that voice.” It’s happened with an Uber driver and when I was shopping for clothes somewhere. I’m like, “That is creepy!”
How much prep goes into each video?
It’s funny seeing in the comments section: “So scripted! So staged!” We laugh because it’s like, to imagine that we would just knock on a door and have perfect lighting, perfect choreography, perfect pacing … If only people knew just how hard these shoots were. The amount of choreography that we need for this small herd of people is pretty wild.
So how much time do you give yourself before shooting?
I’m giving all my secrets away! Basically, we scout the day before. If we’re in someone’s home, we look at the different rooms. When talent arrives, they’ve usually given us a four-hour block, which is really generous. I introduce myself and we do a walk-through so that they’re familiar with it. They look through the questions while they’re doing hair and makeup. And then, when we do our first take, it’s very much holding them by the hand. All that gets smoothed out when we do it a second time, third time, fourth time, fifth time … We’re tweaking and finessing. Elements are added on the fly, spontaneously. And then at the end of two hours, we cross our fingers and do one more take. On average, we’ll probably do it five, six, seven times.
What’s the least number of takes you’ve done? And the most?
Live on the Today show, we only had one shot. We did Matt Lauer. We had no time to rehearse and it was the scariest thing. The most: I think we did Olivia Munn ten times. Recently, we did Phoebe Waller-Bridge a lot because we were outside. You hear a car alarm go off and she stops and looks. It’s funny, people always say, “Wow, it must be so hard to remember the answers to all those questions.” But if I ask you what your favorite movie is … Okay, what is it?
When Harry Met Sally.
And your favorite television show?
Favorite ice-cream flavor?
Advice you’d give yourself at a younger age?
Uh … Don’t try so hard.
What’s your favorite movie?
When Harry Met Sally. Oh … I see what you’re doing.
Easier, isn’t it?
We do it multiple times, and it comes out extremely naturally.
Are you doing research before you write these questions?
A lot of research. We have an amazing team, including Marina Cukeric. Vince Peone, the DP, is also an integral part of the process.
You’ve been in so many incredible homes. Any standouts?
Off the top of my head: Diddy’s mansion was the craziest. Kim and Kanye — to have their entire family there. Their home was also one of the most impressive. I was like, There’s nothing in here! But it’s the most beautiful. Neil Patrick Harris’s [house] was like a magician’s museum. Nicole Kidman has a farm attached to her home … So many homes.
What’s the farthest you’ve traveled?
Nicole Kidman’s house in Sydney, Australia.
Are there any moments that were completely unplanned?
For Gisele [Bündchen’s] video, the idea was to start in her guest house, which is like a football field’s length away from her gorgeous main home, and then walk into her kitchen, where she offers me maté, and then Tom [Brady] was going to come in. We had one shot with him. His assistant was like, “He’s gotta get to the airport.” So, we’re in the kitchen, she offers me maté, and then suddenly, out of nowhere, you hear: “MOMMY!” We were not expecting her kid to just run out. Off camera, I’m like, “Keep going, Gisele.” [Her daughter] starts climbing her like a tree and screaming. She pulled it off, and then we go outside, Tom gives me a fist bump, and we do the interview. I was like … Phew.
Why do you think these videos have caught on so much with viewers?
I don’t think people have ever seen celebrities like this before. It’s raw; it’s real; it’s not just putting a microphone in their face and asking them what they’re wearing on a red carpet, or what crazy thing is happening to them. It’s deeply personal because we’re in their space. They’re looking into the camera. To see them in the wild for seven continuous minutes makes you feel like you know them better. What do you think?
I think I like to imagine what answers I would give. I also feel like there’s a bit of awkwardness that I enjoy. I’m kind of on the edge of my seat waiting for something bad to happen.
I’ve never heard that before!
Do you not think there’s an awkwardness? Are you not cultivating that?
I’ll be honest, I think this comes easier for some people more than others. But over the years, we’ve gotten better at creating an environment that brings out the most naturalness in someone, while also moving around. We’re not just sitting in a chair. Except for when there’s a special request, like Lady Gaga. This is supposed to be performance art. It’s a little bit surreal.
One of the moments I’m thinking of is when Nicole Kidman quacks like a duck on camera.
Was not expecting that, by the way. At the end of that interview, I say, “So, how are you doing these days?” And she says something like, “I’m feeling pretty raw right now.” I just wasn’t expecting that. Or when Donatella Versace’s face contorts a little bit when I bring up Gianni.
Has anyone ever cried?
Donatella felt like it. There’s so much love for her brother, and it’s so powerful. We did it a couple times, and it still felt touch-and-go whether or not she was going to cry when talking about her brother. People don’t realize that it was the fourth take.
Are there particular questions that always evoke a great answer?
I can never ever plan that someone like Taylor Swift is going to comment on slut-shaming. I could never ever plan that Gisele is going to say how Tom Brady proposed to her. You just ask the questions. Some people go deep, and some people give you something the world’s never heard before. You can’t plan it. What you can do is say, “Hey, you have a trampoline at your house, can you jump on it?” And Reese [Witherspoon] is like, “Sure, want me to do a backflip?” And you’re like, “Great.”
Have you ever messed up your part?
Definitely. In the recent one with Margot Robbie, I played the Australian National anthem on the piano and messed it up. She was like, “That didn’t sound good.” I was like, “We can’t keep that take.”
Okay, what’s your favorite movie?
Good Will Hunting.
Favorite ice-cream flavor?
Advice you’d give yourself at a younger age?
Shit! I know what you’re going to do after this. Um … Just … Don’t stop being as excited as you are.
What’s your favorite movie?
Good Will Hunting. Cookie dough. Breaking Bad. Don’t stop being as excited as you are.
This interview has been edited and condensed.