Good morning, friends.
If a reporter was writing a profile on you, what do you think they would choose to focus on?
Here’s why it’s an interesting thought experiment: Most of us don’t find our lives interesting enough to merit a 5,000-word profile. But as a college professor once told me, no one’s inherently boring. They’re only boring because you haven’t asked them the right questions.
The one thing I love about profiles is that no matter who you’re reading about — whether it’s a celebrity or a regular person — the devil’s in the mundane details.
My all-time favorite example of the “it’s-the-boring-that-makes-you-interesting” phenomenon is the mother of all profiles. Gay Talese’s famous 1966 Esquire profile, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” became the gold standard of profile writing even though he never once spoke with Sinatra himself. The story became one of the most celebrated magazine stories ever published, and is often considered one of history’s greatest celebrity profiles. This iconic feature pioneered a form of “new journalism” that paired factual reporting with vivid storytelling that had previously been reserved for fiction.
Talese went to L.A. hoping to score an interview with Sinatra, but the legendary singer was under the weather and unwilling to be interviewed. So Talese spoke with more than 100 people in Sinatra’s orbit—his friends, his associates, his family—and observed the man himself wherever he could. It makes for a ton of mundane moments that conjure up a fascinating, nuanced portrait of Sinatra in his prime.
For example, a simple “Frank Sinatra has a cold” turns into:
“Sinatra with a cold is Picasso without paint, Ferrari without fuel—only worse. For the common cold robs Sinatra of that uninsurable jewel, his voice, cutting into the core of his confidence, and it affects not only his own psyche but also seems to cause a kind of psychosomatic nasal drip within dozens of people who work for him, drink with him, love him, depend on him for their own welfare and stability. A Sinatra with a cold can, in a small way, send vibrations through the entertainment industry and beyond as surely as a President of the United States, suddenly sick, can shake the national economy.”
It’s a brilliant story. You are captivated immediately, and you can’t stop reading. Yet here’s what I love about Talese: The Sinatra piece isn’t his favorite. Rather, Talese points to his first profile for Esquire called “Mr. Bad News,” a story on an obscure obituary writer no one had heard of before Talese dedicated 5,000 words to him. Talese isn’t inspired by celebrities, he says, he’s inspired by the mundane, everyday people like us. “When you’re an obscure person yourself and you identify with obscurity, or you go through life wondering about people, it strikes within me and resonates within me so richly,” he says.
From his Longform podcast episode:
"I want to know how people did what they did. And I want to know how that compares with how I did what I did. That's my whole life. It's not really a life. It's a life of inquiry.
“It's a life of getting off your ass, knocking on a door, walking a few steps or a great distance to pursue a story. That's all it is: a life of boundless curiosity in which you indulge yourself and never miss an opportunity to talk to someone at length."
On to this week’s profiles:
— The millennial astrologers [**HIGHLY RECOMMEND**]
— The burnout of the NBA’s shooting star
— The friendliest robot in town
— The economist who helped invent the proposed wealth tax
— The secretive billionaire buying up the Cayman Islands
— Scientology’s spiritual headquarters
— The zombie media site that just won’t die
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PEOPLE TO KNOW.
The millennial astrologers: The other day I heard a guy on the subway ask a girl what her ‘sign’ was. It was an unfortunate pick up line, but somehow it appeared to work. That’s probably because more than 30% of Americans believe in astrology. They spend $2.2 billion annually on “mystical services.” Venture capitalists have poured $6 million into an astrology app. Why the surge in popularity? We live in a time of uncertainty. And in times of uncertainty, people search for something to believe in. As Theodor Adorno argued in 1953, astrology appeals to “persons who do not any longer feel that they are the self-determining subjects of their fate.” Welcome to 2019! (The New Yorker)
“New spirituality is the new norm.”
The burnout of the NBA’s shooting star:CarmeloAnthony's headlong dive into basketball exile is partly the story of the game's dramatic evolution that placed him on the wrong side of history. But it's also the story about greatness — and how stars often decline as steeply as they rise. "When you're one of the top 10 players in our league for 10 years, you think it's going to be there forever," says one of Anthony's former NBA coaches. "They're always the last ones to know." (ESPN)
“People would like to be able to say that they can go out on their own terms. That’s the whole issue. Not everybody gets the farewell tour.”
The friendliest robot in town: People 65 and older make up the fastest-growing age demographic in the U.S. But the growth of the eldercare workforce is not keeping pace. Enter Stevie, a socially assistive robot design to curb loneliness and depression in elderly care homes. Stevie responds to requests and questions with speech, gestures, and head movements. The robot can recognize voice commands such as “help me,” and could alert staff to a resident in distress. He (it?) even plays Bingo. Here’s what the future of AI means for caretaking our grandparents. (TIME)
“When we went into conversations with people, especially after they met the robot, [and] asked them what are the things you liked most about it, they’d say, ‘it made me laugh,’ or, ‘it made me smile.’”
The economist who helped invent the proposed wealth tax: Gabriel Zucman is a French economist who has studied the effects that accumulated wealth has had on global inequality. According to his calculations, $7.6 trillion of global household wealth was held in tax havens, and it was mostly being diverted to mutual funds incorporated in Luxembourg, the Cayman Islands, and Ireland. Here’s why he’s advocating a progressive wealth tax as a solution to global inequality, one that rethinks both evasion and the goals of taxation. (The New Yorker)
“If you have banks that feel that they are too big to indict then they will continue to commit some form of financial crimes. They will budget costs for fines.”
The secretive billionaire buying up the Cayman Islands: The heir to the Red Solo cup empire is apparently a mysterious billionaire who is widely believed to be the biggest private landholder of the Cayman islands. Yet no one has ever actually seen him. Residents compared him to Batman, Howard Hughes, a Bond villain and both Warren and Jimmy Buffett. Meet the secretive man who has come to define the islands’ future. (The New York Times)
“We need to get one or two more like him, and we’ll be insulated from world shocks.”
COMPANIES TO WATCH.
Scientology’s spiritual headquarters: The Church of Scientology and companies run by its members spent $103 million over the past three years buying up vast sections of Clearwater, Florida. They now own 185 properties that cover 101 acres in the center of downtown, putting the secretive church firmly in control of the area’s future. Here’s how the church of Scientology planted spies in the state attorney’s office, framed the mayor, and spread false rumors — all in the quest to turn Clearwater into its spiritual headquarters. (Tampa Bay Times)
“They’ve got one intention, and one intention only. Buy up as much property as they can for the church — whether they let it sit there and rot — so no one else can be there.”
The zombie media site that just won’t die: Gawker once ran a story about Bustle CEO Bryan Goldberg under the headline “Who Gave This Asshole $6.5 Million To Launch a Bro-Tastic Lady Site?” Little did it know he would buy it for seven figures just two years later. After he bought it and announced big plans, Goldberg abruptly shut it down before he even re-launched it. This story offers a close examination of what happened at the new almost-Gawker, while also revealing a great deal about a man who appears to know what he wants but isn’t exactly sure how to get it. (Esquire)
“The demise of Gawker has been one grotesque irony after another.”
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