What It Takes: Composing A Celebrity Profile

I thought I would expand on the advice I gave about composing a celebrity profile. Not all profiles are developed in words, instead they may found in images or even music. Yet I am struck that the exploration of the subject matter is essentially the same.

One must try to capture the essence of a person and hope to uncover something no one else has done before. Like renowned photographer Yousuf Karsh. He revealed, “My chief joy is to photograph the great in heart, in mind, and in spirit, whether they be famous or humble.” In Karsh: American Legends, each photograph of the 50 most influential people of our times is accompanied with two or three lines describing his impression of his subjects. His profiles are masterpieces of revealing brevity, for instance:

  • Stephen Sondheim, Composer — It did not surprise me to learn that he loves intricate games and puzzles. They mirror the subtle complexity of his mind — and his inherent sense of fun.
  • Arthur Miller, Playwright — Everyone has agonies. The difference is that I try to take my agonies home and teach them to sing.
  • Jim Hansen, puppeteer — The Professor of Growing Up. He swooped up our kids in the gentle process of discovery. It was a joy to watch the beguiling creatures of his imagination spring to life at his masterful touch.
  • Milton Glaser, Graphic Designer — His artistic decorations, murals, and posters transcend advertising and design, and have become part of our everyday culture.
  • David Rockefeller, Philanthropist — With aristocratic dignity and grace, he has shouldered the formidable mantle of his family’s ongoing commitment to the welfare of society, through its tradition of philanthropy.
  • Joe Baum, Creator of Restaurants — Part mystic, sensitive intellectual, and innovative prophet of America’s dining out.

Getting Started

Get people talking. Learn to ask questions that will elicit answers about what is most interesting or vivid in their lives. Nothing so animates writing as someone telling what he thinks or what he does — in his own words. His words will always be better than your words, even if you are the most brilliant writer on earth. Because they carry the inflection of his speaking voice and the idiosyncrasies of how he puts a sentence together. They contain the regionalisms of his conversations and the lingo of his trade. They convey his enthusiasms. This is a person talking to the reader directly — not through the filter of a writer.

As soon as a writer steps in, the profile subject’s experience becomes secondhand. The piece will become alive in direct proportion to the number of quotes you can weave into it as you go along. So tread gently.

Choosing a Subject

To get started, choose someone you find interesting — and have a publication in mind. If your chosen person is a dentist, you won’t have much of a shot getting his profile published in Sports Illustrated. Think of someone who readers are likely to be interested in. It doesn’t have to be a famous person, but it does need to be an interesting one.

You will never feel as awkward as the first time you embark on your task. The most important part of the reporter’s work is to do your homework. Nothing is more likely to create an impassible chasm than mispronouncing the prospective profiled person’s name or failing to know that he just won the Nobel Prize or a James Beard Foundation Award. Don’t ask questions the answers to which you could have found out in advance.

A Few Rules

The next thing is to be prepared. Don’t get everything organized and then discover your tape recorder isn’t functioning. You lose not only the taped record but also the confidence of your subject. You’ve just succeeded in giving the impression you are a klutz. You probably will not be given a second chance — and even if you do get one, you will starting off on the wrong foot and the interview will lose its previous spontaneity.

You must gain your subject’s trust and get him to relax and enjoy the interview. A lot of this is instinct: knowing when to listen, when you are on the brink of hearing something central and when to gently press for him to elucidate on the last answer or comment.

Don’t immediately pull out a notepad. Chat first and then allow the pad to make its appearance when you have established some rapport.

Don’t get tangled up in thinking you are imposing on someone’s time. If they don’t want to be interviewed they will tell you. Most people enjoy nothing more than talking about themselves.

Make a list of questions. Even you don’t use any of them, you will feel more comfortable knowing you don’t have to wing it.

Personally I prefer to take notes rather than use a tape recorder. The only difficulty with this technique is that you often find the speaker is talking so fast you haven’t finished the sentence A before sentence B comes roaring out. Suddenly you find you are writing a series of lines that have no ending. One way is to ask him to slow down, but that tends to make the speaker lose his train of thought or suddenly feel self-conscious and clam up. A better way is to develop your own kind of shorthand. Make a symbol to denote words like “like” and “and” and aim to get the important thoughts down as clearly and accurately as possible.

What is your obligation to the person you interviewed? To what extent can you cut or juggle his words? You can call back and verify a point if you need to, but the chances are good that if you feel you are being scrupulously fair, you can trust yourself to have represented what was said without bias.

Your ethical duty to the person being interviewed is to present his position accurately. If you cast your questions fairly, you can reasonable hope neither to antagonize nor “lead” or ambush the subject into saying something he did not intend.

If you are stumped about what to ask, turn to where you get your news and read or listen to the radio program interviewers you admire. Watch how past and present experts do it. Look at CNN, ESPN, UPN, Charlie Rose or the News Hour With Jim Lehrer do it. See how program hosts like Oprah, Rachel Maddow, the ladies of The View and the television anchors conduct an interview.

Among the important things about developing a profile is your obligation not to quote the subject out of context or to knowingly choose a remark that will distort his opinion. His honor is in your hands and you have an obligation to respect it. By doing so, you establish your own integrity.

Your second obligation is to your reader. It is not necessary to write what is said verbatim. Most people go down byways and meander off in irrelevant detail. You are at liberty to cut out the fat, even if it is attractive fat, in order to be concise. So if the subject repeats an earlier point, either link the two thoughts or eliminate the repetition. This may violate the exact sequence of the thoughts, but you will have remained true to the intent.

Often you will find after faithfully writing down every word that was said, a lot of it doesn’t make any sense. You have to patch the problems. You may need to find another person you spoke with to explain the situation more clearly. Quote the other person. Never let anything go out into the world that you don’t fully understand.

On the other hand, don’t make your interview into a monologue. Uninterrupted paragraphs with one person taking center stage, is usually enough to put the reader to sleep. Try to achieve a balance and don’t let yourself become eclipsed. You can comment as he talks by observing “as she flicked her cigarette vaguely in the direction of the ashtray, her right breast frequently peaked through her gown as if to check on the progress of the conversation.”

It’s O.K. to interrupt the narrative as long as you add something interesting.

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