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Longreads Best of 2019: Profiles

We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in profiles.

Lisa Whittington-Hill

Lisa Whittington-Hill is the publisher of This Magazine. Her writing about arts, pop culture, feminism, mental health, and why we should all be nicer to Lindsay Lohan has appeared in a variety of Canadian magazines. She is currently working on a book about the band Cub to be published by Invisible Publishing.

Celine Dion is Everywhere (Suzannah Showler, The Walrus)

Alanis Morissette Isn’t Angry Anymore (Rachel Syme, New York Times Magazine)

Building a Mystery: An Oral History of Lilith Fair (Jessica Hopper with Sasha Geffen and Jenn Pelly,Vanity Fair and Epic Magazine)

I didn’t set out to consciously have a theme for my picks, but these three stories all feature female musical pioneers from Celine Dion to Alanis Morissette to Sarah McLachlan. They are also all, like me, Canadian. Who knew I was so patriotic? These women have been mocked and misunderstood at many points in their careers so it is nice to see them celebrated in these great pieces. Today’s Taylors and Selenas could definitely learn a thing or two from them (these are serious #squadgoals to have, ladies).

“Celine Dion is Everywhere” by Suzannah Showler examines Celine Dion, the Celinassance, and why it took the world so long to catch on to Dion’s cool. The Canadian singer has released 12 studio albums in English (27 in total), sold over 200 million albums, and has been performing for over 39 years. While she’s always been known for her good pipes, being cool, well, not so much. Showler travels to Las Vegas to not only see the singer in concert during the final days of her Celine residency, but also to interview Celine Dion impersonators whose hearts went on for her long before the internet’s did. Showler tells the fascinating history of Dion, tracing the Canadian singer’s rise from Québec to her recent Las Vegas residency, something Showler credits Dion with making cool again (think less Barry Manilow and more Britney Spears). Dion’s first Vegas stint was the highest grossing concert residency ever, earning the equivalent of $610 million (Canadian), and her recent Vegas concerts were the second highest grossing residency. Showler makes the case that Celine has always been cool and along the way brings up questions of identity, impersonation, illusion, and just what it means to be a fan. Also, the story about the bronze replica of Dion’s husband’s hand will haunt your dreams.

In “Alanis Morissette Isn’t Angry Anymore. But Jagged Little Pill Rages On” writer Rachel Syme uses both the 25th anniversary of the album and its recent Broadway adaptation as an opportunity to talk about its influence and the Canadian singer’s place in pop culture. Syme takes us back to 1995 when the album was released and Morissette was both celebrated and criticized. She topped the charts, but male critics and journalists never trusted that she got there on her own talent. For some Jagged Little Pill is the most feminist album of the ’90s, for others it’s an album that may have resonated with them at a particular point in their lives, but now just seems dated and not actually that good (these people should have rain on their wedding day always).

Syme’s piece travels back and forth between the past and the present, telling both the history of the album and how the songs are being adapted by writer Diablo Cody for a modern theater-going audience. Syme reminds us of all the obstacles Morissette dealt with when Jagged Little Pill was released. Initially manufactured as the next mall sensation a la Tiffany and Debbie Gibson, this album changed all that. But the backlash was cruel and Morissette was portrayed by the media as the angry female singer, criticized by other female performers and mocked for what many perceived to be manufactured angst. A piece about authenticity and acceptance, Syme also reminds us of the important role Morissette has had in making it okay for women to write about the difficulties and struggles in their lives, and to play four different versions of themselves in a really great video.

My last pick is technically an oral history and not a long form piece of writing, but I can’t even imagine how many interviews this piece required so I am going to include it. Also, it is a fascinating read. “Building a Mystery: An Oral History of Lilith Fair” tells the story of Lilith Fair, the travelling music festival started by Canadian signer Sarah McLachlan in 1997. At a time when radio station staff and record label execs couldn’t wrap their sexist little brains around having more than one woman on their rosters (We already have Sheryl Crow, take a lady hike!), McLachlan launched an ambitious festival that eventually went on to make over 130 stops during its three-year run. Lilith Fair was the opposite of the popular dudecentric festivals of the mid-to-late ’90s where the line ups tended to be over 90 percent male performers (Ladapalooza, anyone?). This history chronicles the challenges of getting female performers and sponsors to sign on, the skeptics who doubted the festival could sell tickets, and the criticism over the festival’s lack of diversity. This is a great look at both the festival’s beginnings and the many performers who played on its stages. Fun fact: Christina Aguilera played the side stage in 1999. (I did not know that until this piece).

While these three pieces really stood out, I must also give an honourable mention to two others. There was no shortage of writing this year devoted to the HBO television show Succession. No more cousin Greg think pieces please, I beg of you. He is like the Park Coke of Succession characters for me. These two stories didn’t mention the words “prestige television” or make a 1500-word case for why Succession is the best show on television. Instead, they focussed on two things I hadn’t paid much attention to while watching the show: impressive sweater collections and food. Carrie Wittmer’s ranking of the best sweaters on Succession for Vulture was funnier than Kendall Roy’s rap (We were supposed to laugh at that, right?) and was also refreshing because it was a fashion piece about the show that didn’t focus on Shiv Roy’s butt in pants. Jenny G. Zhang’s ranking of the show’s dinners by food, ambiance, and power plays illustrates how meals for the Roy family function as “battlefields on which to negotiate power, money and daddy Logan’s love.” Less dusting off of your college copy of King Lear to sound smart when you write about Succession and more of these pieces in 2020 please!


Alexis Okeowo
Alexis Okeowo is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa.

The End of Straight (Gabriel Mac, GQ)

When Longreads asked me to recommend my favorite profile of this year, my mind immediately went to a piece I had read a couple of months prior that had left me devastated and hopeful for weeks afterward. And then I remembered that it actually isn’t a profile. “The End of Straight” in GQ magazine is a personal essay that, as its author Gabriel Mac, a trans man, wrote, began as a reported piece before he realized that the truth of it lay in his own experiences with the subject: gender and queerness and the performance of femininity. I opened the essay at the tail end of a summer in which I had been examining my own experiences of gender, and deciding that I was no longer satisfied with how I had settled for a limited expression of it. Mac is a fellow foreign correspondent, one who has covered similar conflict and human rights stories in an arena still dominated by men, and I was impressed with his honesty about his feelings over losing a certain kind of female-identified attractiveness and privilege. The essay is a startling and moving.meditation on what it can mean to reckon with trauma and fear of the unknown and finally choose yourself. For days and weeks after I read it, I texted friends the link to the essay with my exhilarated conclusion: it is never too late to radically change your life.

Seyward Darby
Editor in Chief, The Atavist.

Bong Joon-ho’s Dystopia Is Already Here (E. Alex Jung, Vulture)

If there were an award for best opening anecdote, this story would take it. It’s wild, guffaw-inducing, and impossible to forget. It also perfectly sets the tone and terms of E. Alex Jung’s profile of Bong Joon-Ho, director of the celebrated 2019 movie PARASITE. (If you haven’t seen it, run don’t walk.) Bong’s encounter with Harvey Weinstein’s bullying and small-mindedness is a portal into his identity as an artist: What matters to him, why, and how he brings it to bear on his films, all of which are scathing critiques of inequality, capitalism, and power. The rest of Jung’s incisive, rollicking profile situates Bong’s identity in contemporary culture as both vital and iconoclastic. Jung writes: “The hope in Bong’s movies often springs from this longing: to find a little patch of sunlight to call your own, if only for a moment.” The profile leaves readers wishing mightily for Bong to keep finding patches of his own, because the world is richer each time he does.

Danielle A. Jackson
Danielle A. Jackson is a contributing editor at Longreads.

At 82, Glenda Jackson Commands the Most Powerful Role in Theater (Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Magazine)

I enjoy Parul Sehgal’s criticism, so much so that it would be more accurate to say I’m a student of it. The work of my favorite writers and critics has a generous, teaching spirit. Beyond offering context, it allows the reader to participate, to bring her own experiences to bear, to look on a subject anew. It teaches her how to look. Sehgal’s profile of actress Glenda Jackson on the occasion of a Broadway revival of King Lear appealed to me for its layers upon layers of study — on, among many things, aging, Shakespeare, Brexit, Britain’s intra-War years. Of course, it also works beautifully as character study, illuminating the subject with intricate details of her physicality as a performer, (“You could make a study of the movement of Jackson’s right hand alone,” Sehgal writes), and on the mood and tenor of the subject-reporter relationship. I was taken with the spaces of refusal, where Jackson draws borders around herself.  Sehgal’s deft rendering of the words unsaid between the two reminded me how negative space is as essential to a portrait as its main image.

Zaina Arafat
Zaina Arafat is a Palestinian-American writer. Her debut novel YOU EXIST TOO MUCH is forthcoming from Catapult in 2020.

Constance Wu’s Hollywood Destiny (Jiayang Fan, The New Yorker)

I haven’t stopped thinking about Jiayang Fan’s profile of Constance Wu since first I read it in September, along with the larger ideas about representation, assimilation and cross-cultural identity that percolate throughout the piece. Wu’s story is inspiring; she entered acting later in life and worked as a waitress with $40,000 of debt; at the same time, she seems an incredibly challenging person to render on the page, a woman who defies Hollywood norms (Fan describes her as “refreshingly uncircumspect for a celebrity”) and is full of contradictions. she’s a vocal critic of the lack of Asian representation in film and television yet resists the burden of being a representative, not out of a desire to resist stereotypes — “if someone just so happens to fall into stereotypical traits,” says Wu, “it doesn’t mean that we should try to take that part of her away and hide it from the light” — but because artists shouldn’t have to be role models.  Her response to success has been rather unconventional; she laments Fresh Off the Boat being renewed for another season, and missing the opportunity to take on a new challenge. Fan brings Wu to life with impeccable physical details — “her face, smooth as the inside of a seashell,” as well as quotes that reveal her rebellious character, including the first one we get in the opening scene, when speaking to her makeup artist: “I feel like you’re making me too pretty.” In Fan’s sharp observations and her fresh and funny descriptions, she brings entire characters to life on the page, including Wu’s acting coach, who Fan describes as having “the soothing voice of a mindfulness-app guide.”

Fan interrupts the piece in delightful ways; at one point she describes an instance of Wu admonishing her for texting during the interview, then speaking directly to Fan’s phone “as if recording an audiobook.” Fan even manages to capture a few rare moments of vulnerability from her subject, observing that Wu speaks of herself in third person when describing her parents’ divorce. In describing Wu’s exploration of her Asian identity through her roles, Fan reflects on her own, seamlessly and quietly entering the piece in integral ways, like mentioning that she recognizes her own mother in Wu’s Fresh Off the Boat character, feels a connection to the “band of outsiders” in Hustlers, and remembers the many occasions of being accused of sounding white and labeled a “banana,” yellow on the outside and white inside. Throughout, Fan asks the question of whether it’s possible to achieve Americanness as a child of immigrants, and if assimilation is the prerequisite.

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Read all the categories in our Best of 2019 year-end collection.