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Best of 2021: Profiles

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All "Best of 2021" images by Kjell Reigstad.

Since we started the #longreads hashtag in 2009 to share great reads on Twitter, curation has been the beating heart of Longreads. All year long, we highlight our favorite stories in the weekly Longreads Top 5. At the end of the year, we love to reflect on and share the pieces that stayed with us, a tradition we’ve kept for 10 years! Now it is the turn of the profile — as we highlight the craft of writing about someone else. These five writers are masterful at providing insights into another’s world. 

The Girl in the Kent State Photo, Patricia McCormick, The Washington Post Magazine, April 19, 2021

On May 4, 1970, Kent State University students gathered on campus to peacefully rally against President Richard Nixon’s decision to invade Cambodia, which would expand U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Fourteen-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio, a free-spirited teen who hitchhiked around the country to escape a volatile family life in Florida, found herself on the school’s Ohio grounds, drawn to the protests. National Guard troops shot four students dead that day, including a man, Jeffrey Miller, whom Vecchio had been talking to. She dropped to the ground and knelt beside his body — her arms raised, her face full of anguish and horror. McCormick documents her pleas: “‘Doesn’t anyone see what just happened here?’ she remembers crying. ‘Why is no one helping him?’”

Student photographer John Filo snapped a picture of her at that very moment, capturing what would become an iconic image, one that “fundamentally changed the way we see ourselves and the world around us,” writes Patricia McCormick. Through a dozen phone interviews with Vecchio, who is now 65 and living a quiet retired life, McCormick recounts that fateful day and how the image “hijacked” Vecchio’s life, haunting her even 50 years on. (Her reaction to the video of George Floyd’s last moments shook her to her core.) Affected from “opposite ends of the lens,” Vecchio and Filo are intimately connected to one another through the photo — Vecchio a “human flashpoint” and a symbol of the national conscience, and Filo full of grief and guilt over what the image did to her, despite his winning a Pulitzer for his work. Compassionate and superbly reported, McCormick’s profile hits a nerve, and especially resonates in our time of virality and smartphone-recorded moments of injustice. —Cheri Lucas Rowlands

La Cancion de la Nena, Vanessa Angélica Villarreal, Oxford American, June 1, 2021

In this beautiful piece, Vanessa Angélica Villarreal offers a haunting portrait of her father, Gilberto Villarreal, a virtuoso guitarist and musician, a man who was a “prodigy at the foot of this country, in a place no one ever expects to find someone extraordinary.“ Villarreal recalls the struggles her father endured as a Mexican immigrant trying to be discovered in a music business dominated by white interests and pernicious racism: “What I experienced as poetry came first through the song my father wrote for me when I was two years old, a song whose melody is a turning helix in my blood, another way of speaking my name. It is the rarest gift I have ever received.“ This is a piece steeped in love and admiration for a man and an artist who, despite his many musical skills and achievements, did not consider himself a success. “You might think from my tone that this is a sad story,“ Villarreal writes. “And maybe it is, but it is also a tribute to an unseen life, a long overdue recognition of ordinary genius worn down by circumstance.“ —Krista Stevens

Author Vanessa Angélica Villarreal on the story from 2021 that impacted her most:

Carina del Valle Schorske’s “Dancing Through New York in a Summer of Joy and Grief“ in The New York Times Magazine was an incredibly rich, historical snapshot of embodiment, grief, vitality, and rebellion in the shared ritual of social dance, specific to Black, Latin, queer, and immigrant communities. From Harlem to Brooklyn and everywhere in between, del Valle Schorske writes a history of social dance as a site of healing after mass tragedy that is part personal essay, part performance theory, part history lesson — an erotics of survival and joy at the end of the world.

What Mike Fanone Can’t Forget, Molly Ball, Time, August 5, 2021

Given the state of the celebrity-industrial complex, the vast majority of profiles you read in any given year are about people you already know. The truly special ones, though, tend to buck convention. And that’s exactly the case with Molly Ball’s riveting portrait of Mike Fanone, the Washington D.C. narcotics officer who drove to the Capitol on January 6 to help defend it against insurrectionists. Sure, you may have seen Fanone on cable news in the aftermath of the riots, may have thought he was a hero or a martyr or a turncoat or anything else — but you didn’t know what he’d gone through that day, let alone who he was. Ball’s scene work and deft reconstruction help bring together the splintered shards of a complicated, imperfect man, one who somehow both validates and punctures whatever assumptions you had. “He’s not asking to be called a hero — he just wants us to remember what his sacrifice was for,” she writes. “Fanone believes we can’t keep trying to outrun this thing; we’ve got to turn around and face it, defeat it once and for all. That if all we do is turn away and hope it fades, it will just keep getting stronger until it comes back to kill us all.” Once upon a time, that may have sounded overwrought. Today, it’s all too real. —Peter Rubin 

Stop Hustling Black Death, Imani Perry, New York, May 24, 2021

What happens when the worst day of your life animates a social movement over which you have no control? This question is the engine of Imani Perry’s profile of Samaria Rice, mother of Tamir Rice, killed by police in 2014. Samaria was anguished, and she wanted justice. But she didn’t want to be told how to act, or to see “leaders” she didn’t know speaking for her — much less making money off her son’s death. In Perry’s hands, Samaria’s story is a window into the growing pains of Black Lives Matter. If readers are uncomfortable with what they see, that’s the point: We can’t look away from the truth, Perry says, just because it’s messy. “We have lost a great deal of history by relying upon a neat consensus narrative,” she writes. “If we’re not careful, we run the risk of letting that become the story of today as well.” —Seyward Darby

The opening lines of another profile by Imani Perry, which author Becca Andrews chose as her favorite lede of the year:

“I knew from the beginning that I would not meet Gayl Jones.

Or see a recent photograph of her. Or ask her any questions. What does it feel like, 46 years after the first, to have a new novel coming out? Why did you step out of view? Did it make you a more honest writer? Did it serve your soul? I would not get answers. I would not be able to charm her into laughter. I know she is brilliant, obscure, irascible. I imagine her smile is still wry. But does she still wear her head wrapped in 2021? Is she still adept at putting a nosy questioner in her place?“

“She Changed Black Literature Forever. Then She Disappeared,“ The New York Times Magazine

Benji Is One Down Dog, Madeleine Aggeler, Texas Monthly, June 2, 2021

This piece brought a smile to my face and delight to my heart. For even in the age of the Instagram-famous pet, it’s not often we get a proper pooch profile. Benji the dog is a George Clooney lookalike who “prefers to greet the world au naturel whenever possible,” writes Madeleine Aggeler. He is “confident that wherever he goes, everyone will be thrilled to meet him,” and he is right — they are: Benji is “one of the most famous dogs in America right now.” A worthy profile subject, indeed. His is an interesting story: His owner, the YouTube yoga instructor Adriene Mishler, was the champion of COVID lockdowns, with her online exercise classes becoming incredibly popular. Benji was a part of this, making cameos on camera that brought joy to Adriene’s viewers. Written with great creativity and humor, Aggeler’s article shows us why Benji is such a scene-stealer. — Carolyn Wells

Explore our Best of 2021 collection

Longreads Best of 2020: Profiles

All Best of Longreads illustrations by Kjell Reigstad.

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Visible Men: Black Fathers Talk About Losing Sons to Police Brutality (Mosi Secret, GQ)

At GQ, Mosi Secret offers a moving portrait of Joe Louis Cole, Larry Barbine, Rev. Joey Crutcher, Selwyn Jones, Jacob Blake III, and Michael Brown Sr., who are the fathers and father figures of Michael Brown, Terence Crutcher, Daniel Prude, Rayshard Brooks, George Floyd, and Jacob Blake — all Black men who were killed by police brutality.

Their lives were transformed by the worst kind of news, a blow that left everything that followed so suddenly and painfully different. Not only have they suffered the abrupt and traumatic loss of their loved ones, but often just hours after being stunned by tragedy, they grieve before news cameras. They are transformed from ordinary people into symbols of this country’s injustice, symbols onto which so much meaning other than their own is projected. How easily could that parent have been me, grieving my child, the thinking goes. And yet these fathers endure such moments in uneasy juxtaposition with the mythical assumption that they don’t even exist.

These fathers and father figures, in just being present, fight against a myth of the absent Black father, one that began in 1965, when “Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an assistant secretary of labor, delivered a report to the Johnson White House, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, arguing that the plight of Black American communities was in decline due to a simple factor: the crumbling of the family unit and, in particular, children being raised in fatherless homes.” What Moynihan’s report failed to convey was the way in which social structures meant to assist actually penalized the nuclear Black family.

Just weeks after the study’s release, riots broke out across the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles and critics latched onto the report to blame the ensuing violence on what Moynihan called “the deterioration of the Negro family.” The number of fatherless families, Black and otherwise, would rapidly grow in the following decades—a trend partly driven by the nation’s primary welfare program, in which for a period some states considered families ineligible for benefits if an adult male was a member of the household. The legacy of that policy and Moynihan’s report continues, and the notion of troubled, fatherless Black men has resurfaced after each national reckoning with racial injustice, including in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing.

N.K. Jemisin’s Dream Worlds (Raffi Khatchadourian, The New Yorker)

“John Scalzi, the former president of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, heralded Jemisin as ‘arguably the most important speculative writer of her generation.’” (Edit, mine.) Jemisin’s fiction is imaginative, original, and immersive and I’ll just say it: I’m an unabashed fangirl.

In this portrait by Raffi Khatchadourian at The New Yorker, we learn about the personal dreamscapes that inspire Jemisin’s fiction and the critical influence that Noah, her artist father, had on her development as a writer. We get a glimpse into the systemic racism Jemisin has experienced in her career and into some fantastic writing that offers hope amid the chaos of a failed civilization.

Accepting her third Hugo, Jemisin stood at the lectern, with the rocket-shaped award beside her, and declared, “This is the year in which I get to smile at all of those naysayers, every single mediocre, insecure wannabe who fixes their mouth to suggest that I do not belong on this stage, that people like me could not possibly have earned such an honor, and that when they win it’s ‘meritocracy,’ but when we win it’s ‘identity politics.’ ” Holding up the award, she added, “I get to smile at those people, and lift a massive, shining rocket-shaped finger in their direction.”

“How Long ’til Black Future Month?” includes one of her earliest published stories, “Cloud Dragon Skies” (2005), in which an ecological disaster has caused most of humanity to abandon Earth for a ring-shaped space colony, built from crushed asteroids, beyond Mars. “Old foolishness lay at the root of it,” notes the narrator, a young woman named Nahautu, one of the few who stay. The planet has rebounded, except for the atmosphere. The toxic chemicals it has absorbed combine to form a new kind of life:

One morning we awoke and the sky was a pale, blushing rose. We began to see intention in the slow, ceaseless movements of the clouds. Instead of floating, they swam spirals in the sky. They gathered in knots, trailing wisps like feet and tails. We felt them watching us.

Ozark Life (Terra Fondriest, The Bitter Southerner)

Terra Fondriest’s ode to Ozark life in text and visuals at The Bitter Southerner is firmly set in the before times, when you could safely hold a wedding without masks, and when you could mix with more than members of your household without fear. What I loved most about his piece is how it exalts in simple joys — the best kind. This piece cleanses your mental palate not only with words and images, but with its grace.

Motor down just one dirt road, and you’ll begin to collect moments that are unique to this part of the South we call the Ozark Hills. Up and down hills and across creeks, maybe stopping in the middle to listen to the water flow and then heading back up, you’ll pass vistas of seemingly endless peaks dotted with cattle pastures. You’ll see wild turkeys dash across the road in front of you on their way to the acorns and hickory nuts in the forest on the other side. If your windows are open, you might hear waterfalls cascading down the drainage ways after a hard rain, or the interior might fill with dust and the smell of oak leaves burning during a dry spell. You might meet a truck coming at you on the narrow road and see how it pulls off near the edge of the woods to let you pass.

And if it so happens you decide to put roots down and call these hills home, you might start to develop relationships with certain parts of the creek or different bends in the road. You might start to become familiar with the people nestled in the hills who have been here for generations and those who arrived recently, just like you. You will slowly become part of the cadence of everyday Ozark life.

While Fondriest is new to the area, she understands that the only way to find her place is to get to know her neighbors and to earn their trust.

I am still the same introverted girl who grew up in the suburbs. Getting to know new people makes me more nervous photographing for this project. It’s a challenge that is daunting on most days, but the camaraderie built by pushing through that with my subjects yields the intimacy I strive for in my storytelling. Some of the folks I photograph are friends and neighbors, but others are people I meet through circumstance, whose everyday story I find interesting and a good piece for my Ozark Life story quilt. But I approach them. I might talk to them right away about my project, or I might let it simmer a bit and get to know them over days, months, even years before I bring up my project and my request to photograph them. Building a relationship is important, because it makes the pictures secondary.

Death and the All-American Boy (Kitty Kelley, The Washingtonian)

In 1974, Joe Biden had just lost his first wife Neilia and his daughter in a car crash and as the youngest person in the Senate at age 31, it is the sum of these things that make him “good copy.”

Joseph Robinette Biden, the 31-year-old Democrat from Delaware, is the youngest man in the Senate, which makes him a celebrity of sorts. But there’s something else that makes him good copy: Shortly after his election in November 1972 his wife Neilia and infant daughter were killed in a car accident. Suddenly this handsome, young man struck down in his moment of glory was prey to scores of hungry reporters clamoring to write soul-searching stories.

What intrigued me about this piece at The Washingtonian is the pure swagger Biden displays for reporter Kitty Kelly. Oh 1974, you were a different time, indeed.

In his office in the New Senate Office Building surrounded by more than 35 pictures of his late wife, Biden launched into a three-hour reminiscence. It wasn’t maudlin—he seemed to enjoy remembering aloud. He was the handsome football hero. She was the beautiful homecoming queen. Their marriage was perfect. Their children were beautiful. And they almost lived happily ever after. “Neilia was my very best friend, my greatest ally, my sensuous lover. The longer we lived together the more we enjoyed everything from sex to sports. Most guys don’t really know what I lost because they never knew what I had. Our marriage was sensational. It was exceptional, and now that I look around at my friends and my colleagues, I know more than ever how phenomenal it really was. When you lose something like that, you lose a part of yourself that you never get back again.

“My wife was the brains behind my campaign. I would never have made it here without her. It’s hard to imagine ever going through another campaign without her. She was the most intelligent human being I have ever known. She was absolutely brilliant. I’m smart but Neilia was ten times smarter. And she had the best political sense of anybody in the world. She always knew the right thing to do.

“Let me show you my favorite picture of her,” he says, holding up a snapshot of Neilia in a bikini. “She had the best body of any woman I ever saw. She looks better than a Playboy bunny, doesn’t she?

“My beautiful millionaire wife was a conservative Republican before she met me. But she changed her registration. At first she didn’t want me to run for the Senate—we had such a beautiful thing going, and we knew all those stories about what politics can do to a marriage. She didn’t want that to happen. At first she stayed at home with the kids while I campaigned but that didn’t work out because I’d come back too tired to talk to her. I might satisfy her in bed but I didn’t have much time for anything else. That’s when she started campaigning with me and that’s when I started winning. You know, the people of Delaware really elected her,” he says, “but they got me.”

Some detractors accuse him of shrouding himself in widower’s weeds, of dredging up his late wife in every speech. But Biden prides himself on being candid and honest—”That’s the only way I could be with the wife I had.” He understands the accusations: “I’m not the kind of guy everyone likes. My personality either grabs you or it doesn’t. My sister says I almost lost the campaign because ofmy personality, and my brother-in-law says you either love me or you hate me. I’m not an in-between type.

Feeling Bullish: On My Great-Uncle, Gay Matador and Friend of Hemingway (Rebekah Frumkin, Granta)

Speaking of intriguing men in very different times, at Granta we have Rebekah Frumkin’s portrait of her uncle Sidney Franklin. Discontent with the prospect of a potentially hum-drum existence as a teacher or an accountant, Franklin, armed only with persistence, self-confidence, and a desire for fame, ditched his Brooklyn-based identity in 1922 to fashion himself into a matador on a dare. What’s more, he became very good at it.

On 26 April 1976, after suffering a stroke that robbed him of the ability to walk and speak, the matador Sidney Franklin died in a nursing home in Manhattan, roughly thirteen miles from his native Brooklyn. Fifteen years earlier, on 2 July 1961, Ernest Hemingway donned his ‘emperor’s robe’ and shot himself in the head with a double-barreled shotgun. As young men, the two had split bottles of brandy in Spain, had traveled through the countryside together (a remarked-upon odd couple, one clean and effete and the other greasy and unshaven), had watched bombs explode in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. The New Yorker journalist Lillian Ross had said theirs was a friendship between a great man and a lesser one. I am the grand-niece of the lesser one.

After six years of touring successfully in Mexico, Sidney fought his way to the central stage of the bullfighting world: the Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza in Seville. On 9 June 1929, Sidney would acquit himself expertly in the ring, earning praise from Spanish aficionados and major newspapers. Again, adoring fans would flood from their stadium seats to lift Sidney up on their shoulders. Again, they would tear his traje apart, but these would be Spanish hands tearing, the hands of people who considered their arenas too good for Mexican toreros. Sidney would be carried back to his pension and strangers would crowd him – they would even join him in the shower. ‘I enjoyed and savored what I had done with an intensity almost sexually sensual,’ Sidney wrote, and later: ‘All the sexes seem to throw themselves at you.’ The Brooklyn Eagle, which had been covering Sidney’s story in lavish terms since his debut in Mexico, would publish headlines such as ‘Brooklyn Bullfighter Wins Great Ovation in Brilliant Spanish Debut’ and ‘Ten Thousand in Seville Arena Cheer Him as He Dispatches Bovine Foe with Single Stroke.’

Sidney was more than a novelty, a weird American who’d decided to try his hand at a foreign sport: he was a bullfighter in his own right, el único matador, and to his extreme satisfaction more than a little Spanish. He fashioned himself as a sort of cultural ambassador to Spain, singularly capable of introducing bullfighting to his American countrymen. ‘I shall not return to my hometown, Brooklyn, until I have gained fame throughout Spain,’ he told the Eagle. ‘I am sure that as soon as Americans are able to understand the beauty of this art, they will take to it, the same as they have taken to other sports.’ He joined an elite group of Spanish bullfighters whose company he continued to keep for decades.

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Read all the categories in our Best of 2020 year-end collection.

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.

Longreads Best of 2018: 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.

Sarah Smarsh
Journalist Sarah Smarsh has covered socioeconomic class, politics, and public policy for The Guardian, The New York Times, The Texas Observer, and many other publications.
Smarsh’s first book, Heartland, was long-listed for the National Book Award in nonfiction.

William Barber Takes on Poverty and Race in the Age of Trump (Jelani Cobb, The New Yorker)

The intersection of class, race, and religion — what could be more fraught in these times? Cobb’s rare combination of quiet wisdom and a steady journalistic hand is the perfect guide. He profiles Protestant minister William Barber, the progressive activist and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, with thorough reporting and sensitivity, letting facts speak for themselves but humanizing the subject as no fact alone can do. I’ve been part of the Poor People’s Campaign at the ground level and was heartened to learn here that more than one respected source calls Barber “the real thing.” But, whether or not Barber is your political comrade, you will learn that he believes himself to be your spiritual brother — a refreshing fusion of political and moral force on the sometimes god-averse left.

Taffy Brodesser-Akner
Feature writer for The New York Times.

The mystery of Tucker Carlson (Lyz Lenz, Columbia Journalism Review)

This was a really good year for profiles, despite their death (reported annually). So good that it was very hard to narrow it down, and so I was very grateful that I couldn’t pick any from the New York Times, where I work, which really helped narrow it down. (Though you’ve just got to read this one.)

And how do you choose from the others: Dan Riley on Timothée Chalamet (though exactly which profile/article/photo/table of contents, even, under Jim Nelson wasn’t great?). Allison P. Davis’ Lena Dunham lede-ender of fallopian tubes like outstretched arms? Amanda Fortini opening Michelle Williams’ historically very locked vault. Emily Nussbaum on Ryan Murphy. Paige Williams on Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Wright Thompson on Geno Auriemma. Jessica Pressler on Anna Delvey. (Jessica Pressler on anything.) What a year.

But I finally picked one, and when I did, I realized it was a no-brainer. Lyz Lenz, who has terrifying amounts of talent, pulled off the neatest trick: A profile of screamy Tucker Carlson that walks the line of being way too self-referential, and yet somehow makes that work. It’s perhaps because it’s so funny. It’s perhaps because instead of looking for some fatuous lede scene it goes straight to the most prominent aspect of Carlson (why is he always screaming?). It’s perhaps because she knows that there is no end to the delight of knowing his full name: Tucker McNear Swanson Carlson. Or maybe it’s this section ender: “His publicist calls after our interview to make sure I know that Carlson is not a racist.” Whatever it is, I was very grateful for it.

James Ross Gardner
Editor-in-chief, Seattle Met.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump’s Battering Ram (Paige Williams, The New Yorker)

I lost count of how many times Paige Williams was obliged to deploy terms like “inaccurately,” “falsely,” “erroneous,” and “lie” in this extraordinary portrait of Sarah Huckabee Sanders. What’s remarkable about Trump’s press secretary though is that, at least here, those words are rarely used to describe statements by Sanders herself — but rather of those whose lies she must justify. It’s also what makes Sanders a cipher of our time. How does someone who vehemently claims to possess high moral character rationalize defending the indefensible? Put another way: How does one become that person? Williams’s search for an answer takes her to her subject’s native Arkansas, where in the ’90s the daughter of then governor Mike Huckabee “was given Chelsea Clinton’s former bedroom” in the governor’s mansion, and Little Rock “residents and journalists mocked the Huckabees as rubes.” Later, during a visit with a lifelong friend, we catch a rare glimpse of the press secretary uncoiled and away from the podium, “wearing tropical-print shorts and flip-flops, with a blue blouse and her pearls.” Details like these are certainly humanizing. But Williams isn’t here to vindicate Sanders’s transgressions. In 9,293 words she deftly dismantles the notion that the president’s “battering ram” might walk away from any of this with clean hands. “A press secretary who had an abiding respect for First Amendment freedoms likely would have resigned once it became clear that Trump intended to steamroll his way through the Constitution,” Williams offers early in the piece. “But Sanders stayed.”

Seyward Darby
Editor in Chief, The Atavist.

The mystery of Tucker Carlson (Lyz Lenz, Columbia Journalism Review)

Lyz Lenz’s profile of Tucker Carlson in the Columbia Journalism Review begins and ends with the subject shouting at the writer, but insisting that he’s not. It’s the perfect encapsulation of Carlson’s raison d’être in the Trump era: convincing people to believe lies despite proof of the truth sitting right friggin’ there in the form of scientific studies, sociological data, photographic evidence, and the like. And when gaslighting fails? To Lenz, hardy soul that she is, Carlson again demonstrates his favorite ripostes. He deflects probing questions with glib mockery, by rejecting a query’s value so that he doesn’t have to address it, or — my personal favorite — with pseudo-intellectual incoherence masquerading as the sort of wily argument that wins high-school debaters gleaming trophies. (This is a digression where I beg someone reading this list to pen the definitive essay on how debate is the root of political evil. I will tweet it every day, forever.) Lenz, wholly in control of her craft, injects the profile with her own anxiety and anger about Carlson’s bullshit and with sly reminders that, for too long, respectable media overlooked his bullshit because Carlson was quite good at mimicking Hunter S. Thompson. People keep wondering, wide-eyed, what happened to Tucker Carlson. They don’t want to admit that the answer is, and was always, right friggin’ there.

Krista Stevens
Senior editor, Longreads.

Jerry and Marge Go Large (Jason Fagone, Huffington Post Highline)

To Gerald “Jerry” Selbee, an “intellectually restless” dyslexic cereal box designer from Battle Creek Michigan, everything in the world was a puzzle to be solved. At age 64, Selbee’s mathematical mind discovered a loophole in the Michigan Lottery’s “Winfall” game. He figured he’d test his lottery strategy as something fun to do to in retirement. Jason Fagone wrote 11,000 words about how Jerry and Marge Selbee won $27 million gaming the Michigan Lottery over nine years and this piece has it all in a winning combination. As you root for the working man who finds a way to win against a big government entity, you too savor the thrill of solving a tough puzzle to make your lottery dream come true. This is longform at its finest.

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Read all the categories in our Best of 2018 year-end collection.

Lady Gaga, Celeb Profiles, and the Third Remake of “A Star is Born”

LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 24: Lady Gaga attends the premiere of Warner Bros. Pictures' "A Star Is Born" at The Shrine Auditorium on September 24, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images)

John Caramanica declared the celebrity profile dead a few weeks ago. Yet Rachel Syme’s story on Lady Gaga for New York Times Magazine about her new film, the third remake of A Star is Born, does everything the best profiles are supposed to: It draws the subject as a fascinating main character and gives us a peek into what she does and why. It illuminates a specific moment in time.  It tells the audience what the writer thinks is interesting or compelling about its subject and how that relates to us all. It offers an origin story, not just of the main character, but an origin story of the origin story — revealing the social world the main character inhabits and how it explains something essential about who she is.

For her interviews with Syme, Gaga, possibly one of the last true pop stars, was not very forthcoming:

Now, as we toured her house, Gaga was as opaque as Ally is transparent. She spoke carefully, in a breathy tone, as if she were in an active séance with an old movie star whose press agent advised her to remain enigmatic and demure. She showed me a bizarre bathroom, where she had found a bed over the shower; she gestured delicately at her backyard, announcing: “Some beautiful lemon trees. It’s a nice place to come and just create.” When we got into the studio, she tiptoed through the cavernous live room, pointing out a grand piano in a voice so quiet I could barely hear her. We made our way to a small alcove with whitewashed walls and 20-foot ceilings, which looked like the storage room of an art museum — an echo chamber, she explained. I asked about the acoustics, in part because it seemed the polite thing to do, but in part because I was trying to open any conversational tap I could find. Whether she was feeling legitimately shy or was simply method-acting as a restrained ingénue, she had yet to speak at full volume.

In Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s piece on Gaga’s co-star, Bradley Cooper, also the film’s director, Cooper’s dull aphorisms only make Brodesser-Akner’s insights shine more brightly. “His voice is not yet as good as it would become,” she writes of seeing the first time Cooper and Gaga sing together, in footage from before they made A Star Is Born. Watching Brodesser-Akner watching Cooper tells us more about his journey in making the film than anything he says in the entire piece.

Similarly, I’m not sure whether less reticence from Gaga would have helped us understand more about her first major film role or the mystique and mythology of A Star is Born. Some of the most memorable and probing profiles ever written don’t even include interviews with their subjects. It’s Rachel Syme’s trenchant musings on Gaga’s rise, her performance as Ally, and “the grueling machinations behind celebrity” that are a delight to read.

“A Star Is Born” has never really been a film about an unknown actress shooting across the screen like a rare comet. Instead, from the very beginning, it has always been a film about an already superfamous woman shooting a movie. That’s the real reason the franchise works: It comes with a built-in insurance policy. In 1937, when Janet Gaynor stepped into the role of the farm girl Esther Blodgett in the first version (which was itself a remix of a 1932 drama called “What Price Hollywood?”), she was making a comeback, but she had been a box-office titan of the silent era, the first woman to ever win an Academy Award for acting. Judy Garland, who tackled Esther in 1954 (a studio executive quickly changes her name to Vicki Lester in the film), was a household name at 17, no longer a vaudevillian striver but a minted studio girl, kept on a steady infusion of amphetamines and barbiturates and praise. In 1976, Barbra Streisand, whose character’s name was Esther Hoffman (we have to believe she goes from mieskeit to swan), was already an Oscar winner for playing Fanny Brice, and fresh off another nomination, for “The Way We Were.” These actresses were all at least a decade into their careers, and they used the material less as a coming-out party and more as a victory lap. Of course the Esthers would succeed; their real-life counterparts had already pushed through every obstacle.

This is why the lead role is so alluring to divas who want to explore the boundaries of their fame and what they had to endure to lasso it. These actresses, in drag as younger versions of themselves, get to wrestle with their flaws and air out their darkest fears. But we don’t fear for them, not really, because we know how the story turns out. Garland, who always felt so intimidated by the leggy army of MGM blondes that she spent her life making self-deprecating jokes, fashioned herself into the world’s most beloved brunette. Streisand, whose line “Hello, gorgeous” was soaking in wry irony, turned a prominent bridge into a locus of desire.

Gaga’s innate New York City toughness brings a different flavor to the role than her predecessors. Where Janet Gaynor plays the starlet as pure and cornfed, Garland plays her as a plucky troubadour in pert ribbon bow ties and Streisand plays her as a wisecracking prima donna in colorful ponchos (hey, it was the ’70s), Gaga’s Ally is more world-weary and knowing. She is the kind of woman who gets into fistfights, who alternately sasses and fusses over her father (Andrew Dice Clay), a chauffeur who once had showbiz aspirations himself but never had a lucky break. When Cooper offered Gaga the role, he told her that “this is what it would be like if you were 31 and had never made it,” and she readily embodies the ferocious hunger of the would-be famous. She’s no innocent when she walks onstage to sing. She knows exactly what to do, and exactly what this will mean for her career. She’s ready to go.

Ally’s journey is not about a singer developing her talent — that’s already there. It is about finding her way toward an aesthetic once she has the world’s attention. She dyes her hair Tang orange, begins working with a choreographer and sings springy pop songs about butts, all of which she does without wavering, even when Jackson drunkenly criticizes her for being inauthentic. Some viewers may read a rock-versus-pop hierarchy into Ally’s transformations — that she is more “real” when she is harmonizing with Jackson’s twangy melodies or sitting at her piano — but Gaga’s onscreen mastery over both genres is a pre-emptive rebuttal to what is essentially a gendered bias. What “A Star Is Born” makes clear about Lady Gaga is that she possesses the dexterity to make whatever kind of music she likes.

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At the Place Where Marketing and Art Meet, You Get This Profile of Bradley Cooper

Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Taffy Brodesser-Akner tried to profile actor-director Bradley Cooper for The New York Times. He spoke with her, but he wouldn’t answer her personal questions. He largely stuck to the film’s plot and production and parrotted what he’d told other outlets. That wasn’t the stuff Akner wanted to know. She wanted to better understand Cooper and the connection between him and his story. Readers did, too. “I don’t necessarily see the upside of it,” Cooper told her. “You know?” So she searched for answers elsewhere. The profile she wrote from that is a lively Pirandellian story about a movie that’s about how commerce affects art, about where art comes from, what the best profiles can do, and why people read them.

He told me: “And my hope is that — and that’s the thing about art — in creating this story you did learn a lot about me.” And I took that as a half-assed apology for not really talking to me about his life.

But he wasn’t rebuking me. He wasn’t avoiding me. He definitely wasn’t apologizing to me. He was just telling me that I’m asking the wrong questions. He could tell me about his sobriety. He could tell me about what his father’s death meant. He could tell me about his baby and his relationship. But that’s just information. If you really want to know him, you can’t sit with him and ask him. You have to watch his movie. You have to feel it. You have to be willing to accept answers that are spiritual and not literal.

Here is his movie, Mr. Cooper was telling me. Here is the out-of-the-past character who is a shout-out to a time when an artist could take himself seriously, like the actors he so admired. Here is the allegory of the chokehold of marketing. The not explaining himself to me is the message. The not explaining to me is who he is.

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Bradley Cooper Is Not Really Into This Profile

Longreads Pick

Cooper’s new film is ultimately about the way commerce can ruin art, which is why he won’t answer the personal questions Taffy Brodesser-Akner asked him. It makes this profile kinda meta, you know?

Published: Oct 27, 2018
Length: 20 minutes (5,144 words)

Longreads Best of 2017: Profile Writing

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.

Seyward Darby
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.

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An Oregon Wolf, Profiled

Emma Marris’s Outside story on OR4, the first male wolf to start a pack in Oregon since the 1940s, is a biography of a 21st-century predator told largely through the eyes of Russ Morgan, the field biologist who’d tracked him for more than six years. Marris weaves together uneasy questions about the scientist and his subject: What does preservation mean when, in order to survive, wildlife can’t transgress human definitions of acceptable behavior? What happens to the subjects we observe when we transpose surveillance technology from the human realm into the animal realm? Whose landscape is it, anyway?

The bureaucracy of wildlife management is part oxymoron, part paradox. The tensions are apparent from the moment that Morgan, the stoic biologist, places the first tracking collar around the neck of a tranquilized OR4.

Six months after their first meeting, on February 12, 2010, the black male got a collar and a name. Morgan used the signal from OR2 to track the family by helicopter. When he found the wolves, he had to try and pick the alpha male out of a half-dozen adult-sized wolves coursing through the rocky defiles of Road Canyon in lower Grouse Creek, just a few miles from the elk site. It was easy enough to spot OR2, and she had a companion running beside her, keeping close. Morgan figured he’d found his alpha.

Wolves are so fast — they can do bursts of 38 miles per hour, ten faster than Usain Bolt — that Morgan’s helicopter pilot struggled to keep up, while Morgan, leaning out the door, tried desperately to get a clear shot at the alpha’s rump. Suddenly, the big black wolf tripped over brush and rolled in a somersault. When he righted himself, he sat down and started barking and howling at the chopper, inadvertently concealing his backside.

“When he flipped over, I could see the rotor wash flattening his hair,” Morgan says. “He was frustrated. He gets pretty frustrated when he is being chased.” Finally, the wolf stood and Morgan got a shot off. Darted, the animal slowed, sat, and then went to sleep in the snow. The terrain was too steep to land, so the pilot dipped into the ravine, where Morgan stepped out with his kit. The helicopter took off, and Morgan shared a moment with the unconscious alpha. As he weighed him — 115 pounds, the largest wolf ever recorded in Oregon — took blood samples, and affixed tags and a collar, the black wolf officially became OR4, a wild animal with a name. A wild animal with his DNA on file.

OR2 wasn’t happy about any of it. She stood a couple hundred yards away while Morgan worked, howling continuously.

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Profile of a Demagogue — No, the Other Demagogue

(AP Photo / Bullit Marquez)

Yesterday, the President of the United States invited the President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, to the White House during a routine phone call. Duterte — who has been criticized by international human rights groups for the extrajudicial killings of thousands since his election last year — declined, saying he was “tied up.” Pundits, reporters, and politicians spun over the invitation, voicing the concern that Duterte is not the kind of company an American president should keep.

After reading this 2016 New Yorker profile of Duterte, it’s easy to see why President Trump might think he has something in common with the populist leader across the Pacific.

Duterte thinks out loud, in long, rambling monologues, laced with inscrutable jokes and wild exaggeration. His manner is central to his populist image, but it inevitably leads to misunderstanding, even among Filipino journalists. Ernie Abella, Duterte’s spokesman, recently pleaded with the Presidential press corps to use its “creative imagination” when interpreting Duterte’s comments.

Duterte speaks of drug use as an existential threat, a “contamination” that will destroy the country unless radical action is taken. “They are the living walking dead,” he said of shabu users. “They are of no use to society anymore.” Duterte sees drugs as a symptom of a government’s ineffectiveness, but his animus suggests a personal vendetta. Duterte, who has four children by two women, was asked at a Presidential debate what he would do if he caught his children using drugs. “None of my children are into illegal drugs,” he responded.

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