How 7 Narratively Writers Found the Perfect Profile Subject

We spoke to the authors of some of our all-time favorite Narratively profile pieces about their strategies for finding incredible untold stories.

How 7 Narratively Writers Found the Perfect Profile Subject

Finding a profile subject can come from an obvious place — perhaps your next-door neighbor or someone related to you is doing something extremely unexpected and extraordinary. Or maybe it’s much more random, someone from afar who sparks your interest on a whim or an incidental tip from a friend. No matter, the discovery is often a huge part of the fun, but it can also be mysterious, sometimes even to ourselves.

Our first-ever Profile Prize had us thinking: How does one find a great person to profile? With that question in mind, we reached out to the writers of some of our all-time favorite Narratively profile stories to find out how they found their subjects, whether their interest was gradual or immediate and more. Read on for their helpful tips (and then get started!).

For Ivana Rihter, the idea for her story “Meet the Paranormal Moms Society,” came after seeing a clip on Facebook from a local TV interview with the group. This (naturally) led her down “a paranormal investigation rabbit hole” and sent her to the group’s website to learn more. “Something about it really spoke to me and when I looked up the women who ran it,” Rihter says of the suburban mothers who chase ghosts, “I knew it was imperative that I speak to [them].” Rihter has always been drawn to people who are into things off the beaten path, and for her, the appeal of their story was more about the people and their passion for hunting ghosts, rather than a personal inclination toward the paranormal.

“When I heard their stories of loss and family and friendship, I was moved,” she says. “I remember feeling so inspired by their dogged determination to hunt ghosts and make people in their community feel safer. No matter the obstacles of this expensive and intricate hobby, they showed up for each other and for their clients.” Rihter loves that the Paranormal Moms Society’s charm really shines through in the story. “The characters are so vibrant and real,” she says. “I loved being immersed in their investigations and hope readers have, too.”

Joe Henley, who wrote “Meet Ladybeard, the Crown Prince of Japan’s Strangest Music Scene,” had known for a few years that he wanted to write about his main subject, Richard Magarey, a.k.a. Ladybeard — he just needed the space to do it. “Thankfully, Narratively came along,” Henley says. Henley first met Ladybeard, a death metal superstar popular in Tokyo who dresses in schoolgirl outfits, in Hong Kong while on tour, and they struck up a friendship. He was drawn to Ladybeard’s infectious ambition and passion.

“I always thought his story was incredible, even just for the sheer audacity of what he was trying to do,” Henley says. “He’s a force of nature.” Henley was also drawn to the underdog aspect of Ladybeard’s story. “He’s set out to do something that, on the surface of it, makes absolutely no sense, and in most places would have either very limited or zero commercial appeal. And yet, through sheer force of will and determination, he’s made it happen. How can you not love a story like that?” (Spoiler alert: We do.)

Dylan Taylor-Lehman’s interest in the subject of his profile, “America’s Most Flamboyant Private Eye and the 8,000-Mile Manhunt,” was immediate. When he moved to El Paso in 2017, he received a tip from a friend to check out a local legendary investigator with hooks for hands, Jay J. Armes. All it took was seeing Armes’s office, which Taylor-Lehman describes as a “huge white adobe palace with a gold shield out front and [an] enormous billboard with him peering out from between blinds and holding a revolver aloft with his hook” for him to know he had found his subject. “I was drawn to Mr. Armes because he’s a rascally private eye with hooks for hands who’s been at it for 60 years,” Taylor-Lehman says, “probably one of the most unique life stories I’d ever heard!”

But there were other things that attracted him, too, among them the fact that Armes’s son worked alongside him, that he’d had brushes with fame, served some very colorful stints as a city councilor and made enemies with the local sheriffs. “He’s just such a layered, mysterious and complicated person,” Taylor-Lehman says, “and I appreciated the chance to spend some time in his world, however much of it he wanted to share.”

Amanda Bloom, who wrote “Inspired by Black Lives Matter, This Masked Man Patrols Under the Cover of Darkness,” remembers first seeing activist Sabir Abdussabur, her profile subject, on patrol right when she moved to New Haven, Connecticut. “I was sitting on a bench on Crown Street eating a cheeseburger. He rolled by in his mask and armor, music blasting, and pointed at me. It was a mysterious welcome to the city,” she says. The story idea emerged over time as Bloom learned more about him. Five years after writing the profile, Bloom is glad that it still resonates. “Sabir said it was his favorite article about him,” she says. “It’s a feel-good kind of story, and we need more of those.”

As soon as Jordan Daniels saw the call for pitches under Narratively’s Renegades vertical, he “knew that Ady [Del Valle, the subject of Daniels’s story “America’s Next Top Male Model Wears Size XXXXL”] would beautifully fit in that space — pun intended — because they are a renegade in the fashion industry.” Daniels had been following Del Valle and their work, as they were both featured in several plus-size fashion blogs. The plus-size fashion community is pretty small, so “seeing them as one the few fat fashion folx drew me to them,” Daniels says. “They also participated in the incredible Everyman Project, and that was a deeply impactful campaign for me, [so] I just knew that I had to ask if Ady would want to be profiled.”

Del Valle was actively working on getting into shows and collaborating with fashion brands around that time, so when the profile came out and brought Del Valle a lot of attention, Daniels was elated. “For at least a solid year, Ady would tell me how many people reached out to him or discovered them from the profile. I know it is one of Ady’s favorite features to date,” Daniels says. “It was an honor to be trusted to tell this story authentically and with the spirit of this renegade in mind.”

Hallie Lieberman, author of “The Deep South’s Dames of Dildos” was also inspired by a call for pitches that Narratively put out, this one for stories of multigenerational family businesses. But Lieberman didn’t have a story in mind that fit the description — she went out and found one from scratch. So, where do you start when you don’t have anyone particular in mind to profile? “I knew that I’d pitch something about the sex toy industry because there’s a surprisingly large number of families working together in the adult business,” Lieberman, who is a sex and gender historian, says. So, she got to work by posting a query in an industry Facebook group she was a member of, to see if anyone there was part of a multigenerational business. “I got way more replies than I expected,” she says. “There were probably a dozen or so replies that could have been turned into stories.”

She debated between profiling a two-generation and three-generation sex toy industry family, but ultimately decided the more, the better. “The fact that they were working at a sex toy store in Alabama, where sex toys are technically illegal, only enhanced the story,” she says. Lieberman really enjoyed working with her subjects, and loved how the women came across in her story “as family-oriented, multidimensional, smart and funny as they do in real life.”

Sometimes a profile piques your interest because of what it doesn’t have. That was the case for Facundo Iglesia and Sofía Kuan, who wrote “Revolución on the Cookie Factory Floor.” In 2018, when Iglesia was watching the news about all the struggles, fights and corruption taking place as the La Nirva factory was breaking down — a place where the most popular confection in Argentina was made — he felt something was missing. Though there were a lot of short news items about the basics of the story, Iglesia wanted to know more about the workers at the factory and where they stood in the saga. “There were parts of the story beyond the surface that I felt needed to be told,” Iglesia says. It’s around this time that he reached out to Kuan, a journalist friend with whom he’d collaborated before — she was immediately on board. From there, Iglesia tracked down some of the workers’ phone numbers and got in touch to introduce himself and express interest in telling their story. It took a bit of coaxing to get them to speak, but more on that in our next piece. 🙂

Both Iglesia and Kuan like to amplify human stories about resistance, so the fight of the La Nirva workers was a natural fit. “The survival of a staple cultural symbol attracted us,” Kuan says, referring to the popular cookie sandwich, “but we also wanted to know more about this workers’ collective — how they organized, what they talked about during their fight, what they felt and who helped them accomplish something as big as the recovery of a factory.” Another part of the appeal? That it was an intersectional story. “A majority of women workers who were raising families at home, while at the same time, fighting to take over the factory that they worked for seemed like a story that was worth telling about!” Kuan says. We couldn’t agree more.

We hope this serves as inspiration to go out and find your own subject to profile so you can enter our inaugural Profile Prize. To learn more about the specifics — what exactly we’re looking for, what you can win, who the judges are, etc. — head to this page, which has all the details. You have until April 14 to submit, and we can’t wait to see what you’ve got. Happy profiling!