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In Her Words: Taffy Brodesser-Akner on Getting Inside Subjects’ Heads

She's profiled Gwyneth Paltrow, Bradley Cooper and Tonya Harding.
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Friday, August 2, 2019

Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Profile Writer, on Getting Inside Subjects' Heads
Rebecca Clarke
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"It's as simple as good research, a lot of thinking and the ability to look at a person through the prism of humanity and kindness."
— Taffy Brodesser-Akner, on what makes for a killer profile
One of the perks of working in a place like The Times is that you often find yourself in the elevator with fascinating people: writers, editors, politicians, Jay-Z. Very quickly, though, those elevator rides can result in small talk disaster — as our elevator system is very, very slow.
We decided take advantage of that time to bring you a new summer series, the Elevator Interview, where we'll rapid-fire questions at a few of our favorite Times writers and editors to find out how they get it done.
First up: Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Times Magazine staff writer, celebrity profiler extraordinaire and author of the new book, Fleshman Is in Trouble.
How do you start your mornings?

Taffy: I start and end my day watching television. I wish I could say something more inspiring, but I have a ritual, where I wake up at 5:30 and incentivize my kids that if they do, too, we can watch an episode of something. Then I go through the day knowing I've spent quality time with my children (it's quality no matter what, but you can also choose cultural artifacts like, say, the Rocky movies, that have value currency to them) and I've done something that is just for myself (which is both spend morning time that isn't adversarial with my children and watched something good).
Do you have a secret to getting inside your subjects' heads?
I think it's as simple as good research, a lot of thinking, really surrounding yourself in the person's output, and then the ability to look at a person through the prism of humanity and kindness. I also am a big believer in taking control of a story, meaning not just yielding to the quotes someone gave me and putting them in some kind of order. I think stories have character arcs and beginnings and middles and ends — I learned about how effective those things are in film school. At its core, a good story is a question asked in the beginning that's been satisfied to the end. If you find the essential question of someone's life, you can usually determine the person's answer over the course of an interview. That's all I ever want out of a story.
When you sit down to write a story, do you ever doubt that you've got what you need?
I have a crisis around every single story I write — that I've lost an ability, that I'm just flailing this time. A thing that helps me but that will sound nuts is this: When I was in film school in the 90s, we talked a lot about the hero on his (always his) journey, in the face of adversity. I learned how to write a very fatuous script about what a person does in moments of great stress. I think if you look at every single moment of adversity or self-doubt in your life and imagine yourself as the hero of a 90s movie — a thriller, a rom-com, a satire, whatever — it's easy to answer the question: What does the hero do next? You figure that out and do it. It always amounts to the same thing, which is to rise up and do the hard thing anyway.
Do you have a bedtime ritual?
At the end of the day, I stagger into bed very dramatically and watch something then, as well. I try to remember to take my makeup off. I do not compromise on brushing my teeth and taking my contacts out. If you set the bar of self-care very low, like subterranean, all of it is achievable.
What else is happening
The Playboy team includes, from left, Anna Wilson, photo editor; Erica Loewy, creative director; Anita Little, features editor; Shane Singh, executive editor; and Rachel Webber, marketing chief.

The Playboy team includes, from left, Anna Wilson, photo editor; Erica Loewy, creative director; Anita Little, features editor; Shane Singh, executive editor; and Rachel Webber, marketing chief. Nathan Bajar for The New York Times

Here are five articles from The Times you might have missed.
  • "Can the millennials save Playboy?" The Hefners are gone and so is a short-lived ban on nudity — as well as virtually anyone on staff over 35. [Read the story]
  • "Funky. Fierce. Rowdy." See what it's like to go dancing in Brooklyn, where there are an unprecedented number of women working as D.J.s. [Read the story]
  • "I'm still furious." Among older women, anger has reached a tipping point. The question is: What took them so long? [Read the story]
  • "There are hardly any all-female bands that have even made it this long." After two and a half decades, Sleater-Kinney ventures into a different sound on its upcoming ninth album — and moves onward without its longtime drummer. [Read the story]
  • "She literally fed the movement." Georgia Gilmore prepared and sold meals that helped fund the Montgomery Bus Boycott. A new Overlooked obituary. [Read the story]
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From the Archives: 'Am I hated to the bone or am I the world's most beautiful?'
The success of Gwyneth Paltrow's company Goop depended on no one ever being able to be Gwyneth Paltrow. "Though I guess it also depended on their ability to think they might," Taffy Brodesser-Akner wrote in The New York Times Magazine last year. The minute the phrase "having it all" lost favor among women, wellness came in to pick up the pieces. Hemp. CBD. Reiki. SoulCycle. Meditation. Oat milk. Crystals. The weirder Goop went, the more its readers rejoiced. And then, of course, the more it was criticized.
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