And the Award Goes To...
The Tina and Amy of newsletters is here with an end-of-year feast for the history books. The Spread Awards—aka the Spreadies—start now!
Ryan Seacrest/Giuliana Rancic/Carson Kressley: Well folks, it’s a beautiful night and the stars are o-u-t!… Is that who we think it is? Let me just check my notes…Yep, it’s Rachel Barker and Margie Bullock, the ladies behind the [checks notes] Spread! Which is of course why we’re here. The Spread Awards [checks notes again] will “save journalism and media in general by spotlighting the best women’s stories of the year.” Alrighty then! Let’s get going before these broads turn into pumpkins, shall we? Maggie, We’ll start with you. Who are you wearing?
Maggie: Oh. Ok…these leggings are Athleta, a/w 2018 maybe? And the T-shirt is from my brother-in-law’s world-renowned alt-country band, HorseyCow.
Well isn’t that original! Rachel, how about you?
Rachel: Uh, I think my black sweatshirt is from the Gap. Plus Frame jeans and fuzzy Birkenstocks.
And Rachel, how did you get in such…shape for this evening?
Rachel: Eggnog and pad thai. Oh and Diet Canada Dry. I’ve also been taking the occasional shower lately.
Maggie: Well, Ryan/Guiliana/Carson, since you ask, I went to the dermatologist yesterday and he told me, “just keep doing what you’re doing,” and since I can’t remember the last time anyone in a position of authority said that to me, the answer is…nothing! Nada! Nyet!
Ooook then! I think that’s about it for our red-carpet preshow!!!
Rachel & Maggie, in unison: Dude, read the other card.
Rrrrright! [Digs deep into pocket, pulls out a crumpled note.] OK! Academy Award winners receive the bronze eunuch statuette we all know and love. MTV Movie Award winners get the goldish-brown bucket of popcorn. National Magazine Award winners take home Alexander Calder-designed “Ellies.” The Spreadies will present honorees with [checks notes, wrinkles unwrinklable forehead, squints, sighs]...a hot-pink Jello mold? On that note, without further ado—ladies and gentlemen, the first annual Spread Awards!!!!!
[[Mic still hot: “Someone get my agent on the phone! My contract specifically stated that Bennifer 2.0 would be here.”]]
The Best Women’s Magazine of 2021
Two years ago, it came out that the Atlantic’s editor-in-chief had a women problem of sorts—and by “came out” we mean that rogue thoughts on the inferiority of women writers flew out of his actual mouth. But like magic, the course correction to his faux pas has paid off, and far be it from us to look a redemption story in the mouth. Much as we would love to give this honor to a woman-specific title, there’s no denying that the Atlantic—a giant machine that is, after all, fueled by Laurene Powell Jobs, billionaire philanthropy wo-man—has outdone them, constantly churning out stories and ideas about the lives of women (reminder: we use the term “women” loosely around here!) like never before. What’s with the shift? For so many years—since, well, always—women’s titles were the only ones to go there (shoutout, Katie Couric!) on our interior lives, on reproductive rights and healthcare, on mental health, on career and ambition, on the overwhelming and complex constellation of the politics of being female. But just as their pages began to nosedive, their allotment of space for features dwindling like the hair on J’Biden’s head, the Atlantic began to scale up—way up—and also diversify its staff and subject matter. Now it boasts a murderer’s row of critics and staff writers, both on its daily site and in its monthly print pages, who are women and therefore interested in women! Led, in our hearts at least, by the indomitable culture critic Helen Lewis, that roster now includes religion-and-culture smartypants Elizabeth Bruenig, sports savant Jemele Hill, retail guru Amanda Mull, social-science obsessive Olga Khazan, health badass Sarah Zhang, pop-culture mavens Sophie Gilbert and Hannah Giorgis, tech wiz Megan Garber, and economics virtuoso Annie Lowrey, not to mention OGs Caitlin Flanagan and Lori Gottlieb. The outcome is unrivaled in velocity, depth, and insight. We just have one question for them: May we please join your Slack channel?
The Best Actual Women’s Magazine of the Year
There’s no denying that Vogue has both the personal essay category on lock, and the visual muscle (and budget) to occasionally still pull off old-school fashion-magazine magic. Elle gets snaps for being the only mag in the category that tackles, on occasion, reported stories on ambitious, thorny issues of the day—in the short life of the Spread, we’ve been heartened by articles on women in the military and being trans in Silicon Valley that are in line with the Elle DNA that we Spreaders know and love. But this year’s clear winner, drumroll please, is Harper’s Bazaar, which under new EIC Samira Nasr, who embarrassingly enough is Hearst’s first-ever Black editor-in-chief, has really put the publication’s money where its mouth is on diversity and inclusion. It’s a staff shake-up that you can see reflected, with palpable authenticity and conviction—no lip service here—in the magazine’s subject matter, its lineup of photographers and stylists, and its cover stars, including what we consider the chicest and most fun fashion-magazine cover of the year1. Full disclosure: We both once worked with both Nasr and executive editor Leah Chernikoff, so yes, we are somewhat in the tank on this one. But don’t take our word for it. HB features director Kaitlyn Greenidge’s latest novel, Libertie, is popping up on best-of-2021 lists all over the place, which should give you a sense of the brainpower at hand. And again, look at these covers! If there is one American fashion magazine you should pick up on Earth’s last remaining newsstand, we think Bazaar’s the one.
The Profile of Our Dreams Award
Y’all. In September, we got to hang out with Jennifer Coolidge at her fittingly baroque home and all over her fittingly dynamic home city of New Orleans, and for that we are immensely grateful to E. Alex Jung and New York/Vulture. On the eve of the Coolidge-fever wrought by HBO’s White Lotus, Jung paints the ultimate character actor as brilliant, singular, kind, introspective, hard on herself, and a quiet riot. The whole thing is a blast while also being, to borrow a word from Jane Campion in another great profile of a great woman from this year, tender.
While we’re tooting New York/Vulture’s horn, we’d like to beep-beep an honorable mention toward writer Kathryn VanArendonk, a gifted critic and interviewer whose Q&A with White Lotus creator Mike White is the rare back-and-forth between journalist and artist that feels like an actual, organic conversation about a show both parties truly care about—and that in turn reaps both intimacy and insight. (Also, if you’re catching up on the TV you missed in ’21, this story will be the perfect companion piece to WL.)
Read “The Joke Was Never on Jennifer Coolidge” here.
Read the VanArenonk-White Q&A here.
The Best Edge-of-Your-Seat Read
One of us read “The Lives of Others” while in the grip of 4 a.m. insomnia this week: A dumb move, since this story is un-put-downable. This painstakingly reported, beautifully rendered tale of twins switched at birth by Lindsay Jones for the Atavist is framed by the kind of storytelling that can take a scenario you feel you’ve read about countless times and draw it way, way out into a gripping, cinematic narrative. It’s kind of like if Big Business and Manchester by the Sea had a baby boy and raised him (or is he someone else’s?!) in Newfoundland.
Read it here.
Readers’ Choice Award: Chat Pod
On Everything Is Fine, former Lucky EIC Kim France and writer Jenn Romolini’s weekly chat show for women over 40, conversation ranges from finding creative fulfillment, to dating, to menopause and plastic surgery; Guests range from magazine writer Amanda Fortini to memoirist Ashley C. Ford. Many Spread readers, a number of whom are under 40, don’t miss an episode. Listen here.
The Best Beauty Story
One of us started out her career in the beauty trenches of Vogue, followed by Elle, and thus knows firsthand how smart and engaged a lot of women who write about lip gloss (and a lot else) for a living really are. So when we first saw rave reviews of “The Beauty of 78.5 Million Followers”, Vanessa Grigoriadis’s March feature on the beauty biz in the TikTok era in the New York Times Magazine, our feelings were…mixed. Our knee jerk response: Gah! Why do the “smart kids” publications get so much credit on the rare occasion they deign to slum it in the beauty category—as if this kind of subject matter has never before been considered? Our more considered response: Well, the traditional women’s media that does cover this stuff on a regular basis is constrained by page count, advertiser dollars, editorial budget—the Grigoriadises of this world don’t come cheap—and presumably, what they believe to be their readers’ attention spans. And then we read it. And, well, it’s the best beauty story of 2021 and maybe of the past five years. Shit.
Honorable mentions: Our fave ongoing beauty reads come via a pair of newsletters that you should sign up for, like, yesterday. In the excellently titled How Not to F*ck Up Your Face, former long-serving O, The Oprah Magazine beauty director Val Monroe—Maggie’s own personal how-I-want-to-be-when-I-grow-up idol—waxes poetic on neurotransmitters, particle theory, and various unguents in a way that makes you feel excellent about ordering a $45 Cle de Peau “Lip Glorifier” if you feel called to do so, or ordering nothing at all if you don’t. Over at The Unpublishable, journalist Jessica DeFino publishes, as she puts it, “the beauty-critical content that publications can’t, won’t, or don’t cover”—like stuff the FDA maybe should be regulating, but isn’t, and her hot-ticket (paying subscriber-only) “don’t buy lists.”
Read “The Beauty of 78.5 Million Followers” here.
Readers’ Choice Award: Narrative Pod
Our inboxes and text chains have been lighting up about Lili Anolik’s 14-episode Once Upon a Time…at Bennington College—which digs into the intertwined lives of three culture-shifting Gen X writers: Bret Easton Ellis, Jonathan Lethem, and Donna Tartt—ever since the Spread recommended it back in October. While the final installment dropped early this month, lucky for us the delightfully obsessive Anolik continues to pull at the project’s threads for Vanity Fair. Listen here.
The Best Celebrity Gossip Column
Hunter Harris is sort of like the age of automation for the celebrity gossip industrial complex: You used to think it took four to six dedicated celebrity rags employing hundreds if not thousands of dirt-diggers to cover all the ins and outs of makeups, breakups, bad professional decisions, and public breakdowns—but now you know it only takes ONE woman. And that woman is former Vulture editor turned newsletter queen Harris, of Hung Up fame.
The Feature That Took Our Breath Away
A story we featured in our first-ever issue is still the one that hits the hardest, and that we still regularly recommend. “When Dasani Left Home,” the story of one young girl growing up with the odds stacked against her (despite the best efforts of many) in the Bronx, contains the remarkable kernel of Andrea Elliott’s powerful, Barack-endorsed book, Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival & Hope in an American City. There’s a reason this magazine story rises above the rest: It’s a feat of reporting that could only have come out of a 10-year book-writing research endeavor. Friend-of-Spread Jean Brownell, who runs a program supporting foster parents in Washington state, believes Elliott’s book should be required reading: She gifted one to every member of her team this year.
Read “When Dasani Left Home” here.
The Breakout Star Award
With all the recent chatter around the Sex and the City reboot (our own included)—FWIW we do recommend And Just Like That… as, if nothing else, great background music for a round of late-season holiday present wrapping—we couldn’t help but wonder: Who would be the Carrie Bradshaw (or, better yet, the ’90s-era Candace Bushnell) of 2021? There was only one answer: Brock Colyar, the party skeptic/animal who regularly does drugs and ponies up for spur-of-the-minute tattoos, all in the name of research for their New York mag column/newsletter, Are U Coming?. As far as we—two mothers of young children who experience life mostly via Netflix and prefer to be in bed by sundown—can tell, Colyar’s vivid, funny writing encapsulates the mood and language of a nightlife scene that has survived (like a cockroach, or a virus) an era of rapid social change and a pandemic. Whew. We thank them for sticking it out on the front lines, and keeping us connected, however tenuously, to the cocktail-swilling, pill-popping world of now. Also we wonder what their mother must think!
The One-Stop-Shop Smarts Award
We’ve been pretttty into Tressie McMillan Cottom since her 2019 essay collection, Thick. But even for the always-prolific MacArthur Genius and UNC sociology professor, 2021 has been a banner year, with McMillan Cottom signing on as a contributing opinion writer and newsletter-er for the New York Times and even filling in when Times pod superstar Ezra Klein was on parental leave (to great result). On top of all that, McMillan Cottom maintains a seemingly round-the-clock, must-read Twitter feed that’s our first destination when we’re feeling like we need to catch up on what’s going on in the world. As one Spreader wrote to us, “Tressie is on fire.”
Readers’ Choice Award: Feature Story
Spread readers still can’t stop talking about the lovely Bob Kolker’s explosive New York Times Magazine story “Who Is the Bad Art Friend?” And readers, while we love you for that, we’re not going to retread the year’s most over-trod story again here! For those of you who’d like further reading on and around this new classic, we recommend Slate’s Magdi Semrau on the ethics around kidney donation, the Guardian’s Emma Brockes on the universality of the story’s characters, and best of all, the New Yorker’s Katy Waldman on the actual short story at the center of the magazine story. Read the article that started all this chatter here.
The Our Spawn, Our Selves Award (aka the Best Parenting Column)
Past the droves of sponcon-riddled momfluencers, and around the bend from the internet’s myriad Scary Mommies, lies a glimmering newsletter that speaks a parenting language that makes actual sense, starting with its title: Evil Witches. In it, writer Claire Zulkey and friends tackle modern family life with just the right amount of side-eye via essays and expert Q&As. When we crack open a new edition, we find ourself thinking, These are our people. Which given how highly we think of ourselves, is about the highest praise we’ve got.
Check it out here.
The Bloodthirsty Creeps Award (aka the Best True Crime Stories)
We’re not Murderinos (no judgment if you are, it’s just not our thing) and don’t really consider ourselves to be “true crime people” either. But two stories this year left us craving more, more, more of that homicidal juice, please! For Vanity Fair, Alice Robb’s chronicle of a ballet startup gone sour, “The Last Dance,” is a fantastic, transporting read that we still think should be a movie (Alice, Call us if you hear the director is wanting for casting ideas!). Meanwhile, for Texas Monthly, veteran crime writer Skip Hollandsworth led us into a twisty, twisted time capsule with “The Notorious Mrs. Mossler,” a 1960s-set tale of love, high society, incest, and—yep—murder!!
Read “The Last Dance” here.
Read “The Notorious Mrs. Mossler” here.
The Family Jewels Award (aka the Best Docu-Portrait)
Rachel remembers Val Kilmer as Batman. To Maggie he is, was, and will always be Jim Morrison. Whichever Val is seared into your memory, the genuine article is 61 and, after a serious battle with throat cancer, unable to speak without the help of an AI device that uses archival recordings of his voice. That’s the backdrop for Val (Amazon Prime), a beautiful documentary made up of reams of footage from Kilmer’s childhood and career. The actor’s late mother—from whom Kilmer inherited his penchant for chunky southwestern jewelry so gorgeous it made us rethink our entire accessory philosophy—is a central character. The whole thing adds up to a heart-squeezing meditation on the art we make and the family who makes us.
Watch the movie here.
Readers’ Choice Award: One-Woman Newsletter
Many of the Spread’s readers—especially our twentysomethings (yes, we have twentysomethings!)—stan for the veritable Substack hit written by former professor/ex-Buzzfeed star Anne Helen Petersen. Culture Study tackles pop subjects such as the relationship between pandemic grief and Peloton and, a la her new book with partner Charlie Warzel, the problem with office life2, with a somewhat earnest, Gen Z-skewing eye (at 39, Petersen herself is an elder millennial—and gorgeous…not that it matters?). Paying subscribers get access to community comment threads that feel singular in their warmth and chattiness.
Check it out here.
The Writer-Crush Award
We thought we’d read enough about Emily Ratajkowski to last a lifetime. Enter Andrea Long Chu. We thought we knew how to think about Maggie Nelson and her new book, On Freedom. Oh, hi Andrea! And damn. In the fog of our writer crush—which, apparently, we share with lots of you—we’ve also dug into her oeuvre. You won’t be surprised to hear it contains many a gem. For starters: We recommend her essay about vaginoplasty in 2018 as a companion to this week’s New York cover story by Gabriel Mac about…phalloplasty!
Readers’ Choice Award: Advice Column
Spread readers emphatically agree: E. Jean Carroll has still got it. After being fired from Elle (as she recounts early and often and with the perfect amount of vengeful glee) and going toe to toe with Donald Trump, who raped her in a Bergdorf’s dressing room in 1996 (which she also writes about movingly on the regular), the legendary advice columnist got on the Substack train, which has ultimately meant that we’ve gotten more of her hilarious, excellent advice and at a steadier stream than during her print incarnation. Subscribers to Ask E. Jean also receive updates on her unending battle with the former president/Hideous Man…and did we mention cocktails? There are always cocktails.
Alright, people. That’s a wrap on the 2021 Spreadies! And on 2021! Love the winners? Tell us! Hate ’em? Tell us! Regardless, we’ll see you beautiful suckers in 2022. Happy New Year and to all a good night!
Rachel & Maggie
PS: Still shopping? Don’t forget to grab whatever books your loved ones might like via the Spread’s Bookshop!!
Rachel insists that we pause to pay due attention to Adele’s British Vogue cover, which gets her own personal vote for best cover of the year—though as close Spread readers will know by now, that’s because it's the cover that best encapsulates the Rachel look: big HAIR + lotsa GOLD.
Clearly Ms. Petersen and Mr. Warzel were not present at the rip-roaring office holiday parties of our early adulthood.