How Shall I Begin?

The Magazine Writer’s Most Soul-Searching Dilemma

'My penis is made of birdseed.' No, not mine, Elizabeth Gilbert's. She's the 'GQ' writer who bought several pairs of Dockers, stopped washing her hair, and acquired a soul patch in order to pass herself off as a man. The cross-dressing experiment is not a new idea. But Gilbert delivered a funny remake for the August issue of 'GQ' and took advantage of the opportunity to flash her schlong in the lead sentence. "Allow me to be more precise," she went on. "My penis is a common unlubricated, unribbed, latex Trojan condom, stuffed with birdseed."

As every magazine writer knows, rule No. 1 is to grab the reader's attention in the lead paragraph, if not the lead sentence. Gilbert managed to pull off a reference to genitalia, but sometimes that trick can seem gratuitous. Consider Jennifer Senior's profile of designer Marc Jacobs in the September issue of Harper's Bazaar. Senior opens the story with Jacobs and his partner "staring at a photograph of Stephanie Seymour. It's a breezy, innocent shot (simple black dress, big smile, legs flipped over her head) save for one tiny detail: Stephanie's not wearing any undies."

Hmm. If you must use sex to get the reader's attention, at least do it cleverly, so it doesn't feel like we're being used. Same goes for the personal anecdote. Consider the lead for Vanity Fair's September cover story, by veteran celebrity profiler Kevin Sessums.

"Sitting on a brocade sofa in a spacious suite at the Hotel Villa Magna in Madrid, Penélope Cruz, the 27-year-old Spanish actress, recalls growing up in Alcobendas, a working-class suburb 15 minutes from the Spanish capital, where her father, Eduardo, was an auto mechanic, and her mother, Encarna, was a beautician. 'I used to go to the salon and observe the women and the different behaviors they had with my mother—the ones that wore the masks and the ones that were more real. . . . It was like one of my best schools.' "

The paragraph isn't even over, and Sessums has already inserted all the crucial details: Cruz's age, where she grew up, her parents' social class, and a quote that reveals how her childhood planted the seeds for her acting career. Nice, but it could not feel more manufactured or utilitarian.

Compare that with the Tom Daschle profile in the September issue of Talk. For the lead, Salon's Jake Tapper also chooses a character-defining moment from childhood.

"As a child, Tom Daschle was afraid of heights, so he set up a stepladder in his dad's garage and forced himself to climb it." A few sentences later, Daschle has become a certified pilot, and Tapper notes that it's just the kind of personal anecdote you would expect to read in a "politician's hagiography." Is it cheesy to start a story this way? Sure, Tapper seems to be saying, but what the heck, this is Talk. He checks himself and continues, "It's pure Daschle, a story about resilience and persistence, his own."

Matt Tyrnauer's profile of Martha Stewart in the September VF is unapologetic hagiography, too. But in the course of hanging out with Martha, Tyrnauer learns that contrary to image, the $700 million woman is "wickedly funny" in person, and he surprises us with that in the lead.

" 'Do you know what this is?' asks Martha Stewart, lifting an ornate sterling-silver implement from a felt-lined drawer in her Connecticut kitchen. . . . 'When you drink absinthe, you rest this on the edge of the glass like that, and your sugar cube goes on top of it . . . and you pour the absinthe . . . and then you sip it and GO NUTS!' " Martha Stewart's guide to altered consciousness? Who knew?

Of course, when you're under contract with certain magazines, you follow the house style. Just as most Vanity Fair profiles open with the personal anecdote, the subtext for most Esquire features is How to Be a Man (wink, wink).

Thus, Esquire's September cover story on Tom Hanks gives the star the hands-on heroic treatment. "Oh, landy," writes Bill Zehme. "Look at this Hanks. Look at what he has done. He has shown us the way. He has shown us our best selves, replete with flaws. He has worked to make men of us. He has made us understand what men once were and still can be. He wasn't always like this. He used to show us our worst selves. He used to be not exemplary at all. Actually, I first thought he was sort of a dick."

Also in the September issue, Esquire fetishizes the masculinity of Vikings offensive lineman Korey Stringer, who died after the magazine went to press. "First we have the bull," writes Jeanne Marie Laskas in her profile of Stringer. "Yeah, that was his first piece. He's stretching his V-neck down to provide a view of that bull depicted on his splendid left breast. Yeah, he knows. It's the size of a pasta bowl, that breast. Yeah, it's a dark-brown hunk of human worthy of fear and awe and God's glory. It's a rock-solid, bulbous slab of man-flesh commanding adoration. Yeah. But what about the bull?"

Do not expect to be introduced to any awesome breasts in Brill's Content. Because the magazine's mission is to cover powerful media, the staffers seem doomed to narrate stories that take place in sterile environments. So it's not fair to blame the contributors to the fall issue for dull leads that take place in, respectively, a hotel convention room, a network TV studio, and the reception area of an ad agency. But PJ Mark finds a way around the white noise in the lead to his profile of two agents at William Morris.

"If Suzanne Gluck and Jennifer Rudolph Walsh were actually one person instead of two," Mark writes, "she would have four kids and two husbands, earn more than $1 million a year in salary, and be responsible for 24 books spending more than 13 years on the bestseller list." As is often the case, the funny lead here is a signal of an entertaining story to come.

A surefire way to spruce up a lead is to put yourself into it, preferably revealing the lengths you had to go to get the story. Thus, in the August Esquire, Mike Sager lets us know right away that the privilege of meeting Roseanne Barr at her mountain retreat will be followed by "a long, dark, treacherous ride home." Beginning his profile of a band-for-hire in the August 20-27 issue of The New Yorker, Mark Singer tells us he's spending the afternoon with the musician "idling in hair-tearing Hamptons-bound stop-and-barely-go Long Island Expressway traffic." And in the lead to his Talk story on Nepal's self-destructing crown prince, Patrick French recalls how, when he flew into Kathmandu, "apart from the nervous flight attendants and a couple of dejected Nepalese, I had the Boeing 767 all to myself."

The best leads arise when the entire piece is autobiographical. Consider how Jennifer Senior begins her account of breaking up with her analyst, in the August 20 issue of New York: "Recently I was lying on my analyst's couch, wishing I were wearing a wire." Or this first sentence from the fall issue of Brill's Content, in which Geoff Lewis deconstructs the language of high tech: "I confess. I did it. I am responsible for the dotcom meltdown." With leads like that, it's obvious Senior and Lewis have stories to tell.

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