Writing Great Profiles: How Lisa DePaulo Does It

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Lisa DePaulo once said she marries them in the interviews and divorces them at the keyboard.

Before I start on a profile—before I do a bloody thing—I want to know if my editor wants the piece only if the subject cooperates. Most times the answer is yes we need cooperation (editors all want “access”; if I hear that word access one more time…).

Getting cooperation (groveling, begging, agonizing) on profiles sometimes takes more time than the reporting. But yeah, it’s usually worth it. For a really rich profile, you want to live in your subject’s world. I far prefer a hang-out piece—more fun, more material, more in tune to what I think I do best. But there are times when it’s a better piece without cooperation. Totally depends on the subject.

One of my favorite profiles ever was the first piece I wrote for The Washingtonian—on James Carville (who was just becoming Bill Clinton’s Carville). No way that would have worked without his cooperation. The first day I showed up to interview him, in his “Bat Cave” basement apartment on Capitol Hill, he was on the couch in his underwear watching Andy Griffith reruns with a framed picture of Barney Fife by his Murphy bed and empty Jack Daniels bottles on the floor. You just can’t get that second-hand.

Years later, when I was at George, John Kennedy Jr. wanted a big profile of Maureen Dowd. Well, no one expected her to cooperate but to her credit she did not shut down her friends and family (not even ex-boyfriends), all of whom had insightful stories (some hilarious) to tell about her. Her mother said that when Maureen got hired by the NYT, she gushed that it was “the Tiffany’s of newspapers.” (God, I loved her mother.) I really think if Maureen had cooperated it might have been a lame-ass piece.

As to method: I always like to email the subject first. A chatty email just saying what I want to do and why. If it’s a piece I am going to do regardless of cooperation, I don’t say “I’m thinking of doing this….” I say, “I’m doing this.” Even if they say no in the beginning, they often come around later, after they hear from their friends who have talked. The subject is either appreciating your questions or is enraged by them. Either way, the subject usually ends up saying something.

This happened when I did a piece for Philly Mag on Larry King’s divorce from Julie Alexander, a Philly girl and maybe his eighth or ninth wife. (I suspect my biggest contribution to journalism was coining the term “serial husband.”) Anyway when Larry got wind that I had computed the divorce settlement based on the nights they actually spent together (I think Julie got $52,000 a night) he agreed to talk. Then she talked. If they had both cooperated from the start, it wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun.

If you’re doing the story only if the subject cooperates, there’s the seduction dance. It often requires lots of detailed emails and phone calls. To a reluctant subject, I always first offer an off-the-record chat. And they usually take me up on it. And I keep my word about it being off the record. The idea is: Give me an hour of your time, off the record. If you feel comfortable, we’ll proceed. If you don’t, we won’t. It’s not only fair but it works: I have never gotten to a in-person sitdown and had the subject say no. (Okay, there was one, but I can’t name the person because it was off the record.)

Do not promise anything you can’t or won’t or shouldn’t deliver. (Especially in writing.) Basically never promise anything but fairness. Always offer to talk to anyone they think you should talk to—but never promise to not talk to people they might not want you to talk to. And try to get them to really let you into their world. Or close to it.

I try to spend a day or two with a subject before sitting down and asking them questions. Some of the best stuff happens in unexpected places. Like on airplanes. Airplanes are great. If they say they are too busy traveling, travel with them. You’ll have their undivided attention and will see things like Nancy Grace making the sign of the cross before takeoff. Or Bobby Kennedy falling asleep and suddenly his head is on your shoulder. I always tell profile subjects: The more time you give me, the less time I’ll spend calling everyone you ever knew.

When a subject cooperates, the piece is more empathetic. I have never totally trashed someone who cooperated. That is something publicists don’t get. And on the topic of publicists, put your foot down early and often. A celebrity is always badly served when a publicist insists on sitting in on the interview (if they don’t trust what comes out of the person’s mouth, how can you?). I have made this argument frequently and rarely successfully.

One other important thing: I am far more flexible with a profile subject who is not media-savvy—i.e. not a politician or a celebrity. This goes not only for profile subjects but sources (especially when doing crime stories that require good reporting about the victim at a time when the family is distraught). I always tell those people from the get-go that I am reasonable. If they tell me something that they later feel queasy about, just tell me and tell me why. Sometimes I take it out. Sometimes I don’t, but always with an understanding between us of why it’s important to include.

I guess the bottom line is: Be honest with your subjects and they likely will be honest with you.
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The profiles I’m proudest of (besides Carville): Don Rumsfeld (GQ), Ed Rendell (Philly Mag), David Petraeus (GQ), a few celeb cover stories for GQ that actually weren’t bad (Jamie Foxx, Matt Damon). But mostly I like real characters, like the late great Bobby Simone (huge mob lawyer in Philly; Rem Reider used that profile in his classes for years) and the late great multiple-married Leonard Tose (former Philly Eagles owner who lost the team at the blackjack tables in Atlantic City). The point being, the less nationally known the person is, the more interesting they usually are.

Oh, and the Teresa Heinz Kerry profile (for Elle). I asked her everything I really wanted to know and she answered honestly—much to the chagrin of her Kerry campaign operatives. Do you have a pre-nup?” Of course!” What if he cheated on you? “I wouldn’t kill him, I’d maim him.”

You also can say I’ve been a magazine writer for more than 30 years and I sometimes wish I had gone to law school or opened a dog-friendly cafe instead.
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A note on the picture caption: Lisa posted on Facebook that she first heard the married-interview-divorced-keyboard line from fellow writer Stephanie Mansfield, who then posted: “Credit goes to Sarah Booth Conroy, who said, ‘I fall in love in the interview and get a divorce at the typewriter.'”

Comments

  1. Eliot Kaplan says:

    Nobody is better than Lisa. Give us more.

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