We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in profile writing.
Executive editor, The Atavist
A Most American Terrorist: The Making of Dylann Roof (Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, GQ)
There was no piece of journalism in 2017 more honest or more raw than Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s profile of Dylann Roof for GQ. Its brilliance began with an enviable lede—”Sitting beside the church, drinking from a bottle of Smirnoff Ice, he thought he had to go in and shoot them” — and persisted for the duration of what proved to be an unlikely profile. Unlikely, because Kaadzi Ghansah didn’t set out to write it. She went to Charleston to cover Roof’s murder trial, planning to report on the families of his victims, but found herself drawn to the young man who sat, angry and silent and unfazed, day after day in the courtroom. She decided to profile a black hole, an absence, because she couldn’t not.
The story is unlikely, too, because of its style. Ghansah winds through Roof’s life like a criminal profiler. She collects evidence, data, interviews, and observations, then pieces them together for readers, showing where the connective tissue resides. She is an essential presence in the story, which is no easy feat to pull off, and the result is wholly organic. This is a story about race, class, anger, bewilderment, and division. It is also, as the headline “A Most American Terrorist” attests, a story about the current political moment. You come away from it knowing who Dylann Roof is, who Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah is, and what America is—or, really, what it has always been.
Writer and editor whose work has appeared in Guernica, Eater, The New Yorker, Racked, Saveur, New York, Afar, Polygon, and more.
Gerhard Steidl is Making Books an Art Form (Rebecca Mead, The New Yorker)
I goddamn love a profile, and I’ve spent the past twelve months happily drowning in some magnificent specimens. There were elevations of under-appreciated celebrities (Reggie Ugwu on transgender soul icon Jackie Shane for The New York Times), pull-back-the-curtains on unknowns with staggering influence (Peter Maass on Steve Bannon deputy Julia Hahn for The Intercept), and clever structural riffs on the tired old cover-star puff piece (Anna Peele’s inspired oral history of Jeff Goldblum for GQ).
But I am, always and forever, a sucker for detailed procedural breakdowns of off-the-radar institutions that wield extraordinary soft power — what my friend Matt Buchanan calls “secret economies” — and so, for me, this was the year of Rebecca Mead’s portrait of meticulous, tyrannical art book printer Gerhard Steidl. Every paragraph is an eye-boggling joy, revealing facet after unbelievable facet of Steidl’s existence and operation. The printer is a paper-and-binding obsessive who lives next door to his shop — a monastic-luxe compound in Göttingen, Germany that’s largely financed by Karl Lagerfeld — where, pope-like, he summons the world’s most influential artists and photographers to his workshop for days of emotional terrorism in service of books that are, in the words of photographer Edward Burtynsky, “the haute couture of printing.” Depending on how you read it, it’s an artistic fairy tale, a psychological horror movie, or some kind of thrilling fusion of the two.
Senior editor, GQ.com
Her Eyes Were Watching the Stars (Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Elle)
Celebrity profiles can get shortchanged in these year-end lists, so I have to shout out Elle‘s Missy Elliott profile, written by the superbly confident Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah. She offers vibrant personal context to provide stakes, some sharp descriptions of Missy’s oeuvre, and great scene work of the photo shoot. Access journalism is best when it’s self-aware rather than self-deprecating. You don’t have to read too much between the lines to know time with Missy was limited, but the moments we get with Missy aren’t fleeting — they feel like a gift.
Features director, Hearst Digital Media
Old Woods and Deep (Noah Gallagher Shannon, Oxford American)
The notoriously press-avoidant Cormac McCarthy is usually mapped onto the American West, but his Appalachian childhood deeply informs his earlier works. Shannon explores the Appalachian McCarthy and his connection to Knoxville, Tenessee in a profile that’s as much about a McCarthy-obsessed psychology professor and the cult of McCarthy as it is about the grizzled, mythic, overblown novelist himself.
Feature writer for The New York Times and The New York Times Magazine
The Princess Myth (Hilary Mantel, The Guardian)
It’s hard to pick just one great profile, made only slightly easier by the fact that I wasn’t allowed to pick one from my places of employment, which is good because that excluded GQ (where it would be impossible to pick between any of Caity Weaver‘s alone) and The New York Times Magazine (where I am glad I don’t have to choose between Jazmine Hughes’ Elaine Welteroth profile or Matthew Shaer on Sean Hannity). But I still had to pick between incredible profiles from Emily Nussbaum and Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah (yes, Dylann Roof, but oh my god Missy Elliot) and Jessica Pressler and Jia Tolentino and Alexander Chee and Jada Yuan (x10) and Tom Junod (his story of Muhammad Ali’s funeral felt like a profile to me) and Olivia Nuzzi and Elizabeth Weil and Wright Thompson and the general career barn-storming of Allison P. Davis (whose Cardi B feature got a lot of attention, yes, but I’m thinking more of her encounter with DJ Khaled’s baby, because how did I never think to profile a baby?)
But here’s the one I never shook: Hilary Mantel on Princess Diana for The Guardian, which reads like a Hilary Mantel novel. On a sentence by sentence valuation, it is spun from gold:
When Diana died, a crack appeared in a vial of grief, and released a salt ocean. A nation took to the boats.
A deathbed, once, was a location dense with meaning, a room packed with the invisible presences of angels, devils, ancestors. But now, as many of us don’t believe in an afterlife, we envisage no final justice, no ultimate meaning, and have no support for our sense of loss when “positivity” falters.
The princess we invented to fill a vacancy had little to do with any actual person.
While so many profiles I read are great, most eventually commit the sin of self-consciousness — pulling back from taking their subject seriously, not really committing to loving their subjects even when they so clearly do. Perhaps it’s death that allows Mantel such a serious and adoring rendering of Diana. I hope not, because I think the living deserve this level of treatment. Whatever it is, I read it with one hand over my mouth for the duration, blindsided in equal parts by jealousy and inspiration.
Audience development editor, Longreads
Dwayne Johnson for President! (Caity Weaver, GQ)
Caity Weaver’s May cover story on The Rock is the main reason I will miss net neutrality. It’s the one profile I can drunk-read aloud to my mom with abandon, the only one that can make her laugh so hard she forgets to ask me how audiences develop again. (By getting The Rock to quote tweet us, Mom). Weaver’s the only author who appears twice in all of Our No. 1 Story Picks this year, and once all the political math is done, I’m confident that profiling The Rock will have counted as a public service. If Johnson runs in 2020, I think Weaver’s name should be on the ticket.
Essays editor, Longreads
Gloria Allred’s Crusade (Jia Tolentino, The New Yorker)
In her first print feature for The New Yorker, Tolentino perfectly captures iconic anti-discrimination lawyer Gloria Allred, who is currently litigating major cases against Bill Cosby and President Donald Trump, and who has played a key role in changing attitudes and legislation regarding rape and sexual assault. Tolentino lends insight into Allred’s passion, showing how she came by her conviction for her work very personally, after being raped in the early 1970s, surviving an illegal abortion, and learning that other women she met at the hospital had died there.
Contributing editor, Longreads
Kelela Is Ready For You Now (Lakin Starling, The Fader)
The drama and tension in celebrity profiles often feels manufactured. That’s because journalists have the difficult job of revealing something extraordinary in the performance of the mundane, often within a rigid framework approved by gatekeepers. We get details about dinner plates and Target carts that ultimately reveal very little. Like the best stories in any genre, the most meaningful profiles occur when real life peeks through and everyone involved shows some vulnerability, including the reporter.
I love this profile of electronic R&B artist Kelela for the moments of spontaneous connectivity between interviewer and interviewee. Perhaps because they’re both artists who are black women and close in age, but writer Lakin Starling gives Kelela the space to be “not at her best” while talking about work, and not working, on the brink of an album release.
When Kelela explains why she has chosen a particular spa for a body scrub ( “They don’t touch me in a white way. They aren’t so careful with me.”) a lot about the comfort of their relationship is revealed. Starling includes lots of details about touch and the body in this profile — there’s talk about Kelela’s back pain, and Lakin takes time to marvel at how the light touches Kelela’s brown skin. The profile feels like a warm breeze, treating its subject like a full human being, with a body, inner thoughts, and an important and challenging body of work.
Sometimes the state of publishing demands that black storytellers turn their pens toward subjects that are palatable to white audiences, or to make blatant, overt political statements that keep them on the race beat. Often, the black avant-garde doesn’t get sufficient due until their output is co-opted by someone white or is somehow mainstreamed. This profile quietly dismantles all of that.
Senior editor, Longreads
Pet Project, Megan Greenwell (Esquire)
What has the internet done to keep you sane in 2017? The sweet whisper of ASMR? Calming slime and glitter videos? For me, it’s been the heckin’ pupperinos of We Rate Dogs, served up on Instagram and Twitter daily, speaking the language only we know: of fluffers and boopers, of the affirmation that 15/10 we would pet these dogs forever.
Greenwell writes my favorite kind of profile: the bewildered internet famous. There was never any “we” to We Rate Dogs, just Matt Nelson, a freshman at Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina, who in 2015 “started an absurdist-humor Twitter account dedicated to dogs. ‘Here we have a Japanese Irish Setter. Lost eye in Vietnam (?). Big fan of relaxing on stair. 8/10 would pet.'” It was a particular kind of internet language that could be replicated, with users sending in their photos and Nelson rating them on a sliding scale (with a curve, of course.)
It’s hard to know exactly how or why something catches fire on the internet, but when it does, it can threaten to take over your life. But Nelson keeps a remarkably calm head, part of a generation where internet fame is always a possibility if you’re doing things right. Because on the internet, no one knows you’re a college sophomore rating dogs.