What Makes a Good Profile?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the components that lead to a good profile. For me, profiles are one of the most interesting and engaging types of articles to write. We get to be voyeurs into the lives of others because we are journalists. We get to ask questions that you wouldn’t normally ask and we get to pry when we wouldn’t normally pry. There are an infinite number of intriguing, quirky, weird and inspiring people out there that would make good profile subjects.

One of the most challenging parts of a profile is finding an angle. It would be easy to simply write a short biography about a subject, but what makes a profile interesting are the little things like odd mannerisms, styles of speech, physical movements and emotions. Translating these things into words is a challenge because you want the reader to completely understand what a person is like, even though the reader will probably never meet the profile subject.

Why do we like profiles, anyway? I think reading a profile on someone has a slight voyeuristic quality to it. A written profile allows us a small glimpse into a person’s life and personality. Reading profiles is like watching reality television, except much classier and perhaps more honest.

I’ve been reading a lot of profile lately to try to understand the elements of a good profile. As a journalist, what should you add to a profile to make it interesting? How do you write a good profile without making it sound like a biography or a PR piece? I think it is easy when writing profile to only focus about the great things about a person. But, including the darker aspects, the oddities and the eccentricities are what makes a profile really interesting.

I recently read a profile on NYT.com (which was actually from the NYT Magazine) called The Self-Manufacture of Megan Fox written by Lynn Hirschberg. Megan Fox is an actress most famously known for starring in the Transformers movies. She is a regular on the cover of men’s magazines.

I found this profile to be excellent. The element that stands out most in this piece is the honesty. Hirschberg doesn’t hold anything back in this story. She simply writes it as she sees it and obviously doesn’t let Fox’s celebrity get in the way of saying things that are not always flattering.

The article focuses on the celebrity persona that Megan Fox has built for herself and how this persona is not her real self. According to Fox, the real self is something that the public will never see. This celebrity persona is sort of like her defense mechanism against the incredible obsession surrounding her. I thought that Hirschberg did an excellent job conveying how Fox has built a false persona. The profile could also actually be an interesting study in psychology.

I have tried to dissect some parts of the Megan Fox profile to pick out elements that make a good profile.

1) Intense Descriptions

    Hirschberg describes Fox’s physical appearance:Fox is small and narrow, with a tiny waist, and she wears her long, thick dark brown hair parted in the middle, which gives her a vaguely Indian quality. Her most striking feature is her eyes — they’re bright blue and catlike, and they look half-closed even when they’re wide-open.”

2) Honesty

No point in sugar-coating anything. Hirschberg it very blatantly honest about Fox’s career.

“The lack of success of “Jennifer’s Body” highlighted their concern: the outrageousness that made Fox an instant star was not attracting a paying audience, especially among females.”

Another example, again with the brutal honesty. Because Hirschberg is so honest, it makes the profile more interesting:

“And while Fox hasn’t shown Jolie’s acting talent, the rest could be approximated.”

3) Continuity of an immediate scene.

In between descriptions of Fox, anecdotes and quotes from Fox herself, Hirschberg continually breaks the dialouge to make sure we are still present at the scene with the profile subject. For example:

“Fox was interrupted by the doorbell. James and Sloane Zelnick had arrived to take her to Rockefeller Center for an “S.N.L.” rehearsal.”

4) Interjecting random things that are not necessarily relevant but add texture

For example, Hirschberg describes how Fox and some others in her group are fascinated by leggings. Totally random fact, but makes the rhythm of the story more interesting.

5) Humor

Hirschberg writes about a scene dealing with Fox and silicone breast enhancers. This random story adds some humor to that profile:

“We have to go,” Sloane said now. Fox looked over at a pair of silicone breast enhancers lying on a side table next to her phone. They resembled raw, skinless chicken cutlets. “Do I need to bring my boobies to ‘S.N.L.’?” Fox asked.”

So, those are a few of the major elements that I thought made this profile a good one. Post some other good profile elements if you can think of any!

Image from the NYT Magazine story on Megan Fox.

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