The classic story about me, which is not entirely flattering, is that at age 8, I decided that I wanted to run a magazine, so I went around and asked for contributions from kids in the neighborhood. Half of them looked at me like I was crazy, but the other half gave me stories. And of those who gave me stories, I ended up probably killing half of the pieces and replacing them with ones I had written myself. It was the beginning of a "control freak editor" situation, absolutely.
I have just always loved, loved, loved magazines. When I was in the sixth and seventh grades, I remember running home, literally running home from school to the mailbox on the days that I thought my Seventeen magazine would arrive — it was the big teen bible of the time. After that, I graduated to Mademoiselle. I read that religiously in high school. I grew up in Virginia and wanted to work at a magazine that was close to home [during summer breaks, before going to college]. There weren't many magazines in the Washington, D.C., area at the time, but I sent letters to every single one of them until I landed an internship at a place called The Saturday Review. It had at one time been a very venerable publication, but when I worked there, it was on its last legs. There was a really talented team trying to keep it afloat, unsuccessfully, it turned out — it folded a couple days after I left. But I had an amazing time — most of it was clerical stuff, but I got to do little bits of writing and editing. I was an 18-year-old intern, and I remember being there, staying late one night to reproof a story that was going to go to the printer. I had that clichéd moment: "I can't believe people get paid to do this."
I took another internship the summer after that at a literary journal, The Paris Review. It was a really, really exciting place to work. It was run at the time basically out of George Plimpton's basement apartment. We all labored away for little pay — but also for the incredible, wonderful opportunities to go up to George's living room and hang out at his cocktail parties [after work] when people like William Styron would stop by. And for an English lit major — I studied at Swarthmore College — I was in seventh heaven. One of the stories that I always tell about that summer is that I sort of learned that sometimes when you're in an entry-level job, you get assigned things that are difficult and you just have to shut up and not complain. That's part of the deal; I can't stress it enough! At the time I remember the magazine was working on a special feature about several Russian poets. My job was to fact-check the names and dates associated with their poetry. This is in 1902, basically, so there's no internet, and I have to go down to the New York Public Library and spend my days looking through microfilm, getting my fingers cut on microfilm checking all their names — many of them, like, 20 consonants. Although I can still spell Marina Tsvetaeva, so I got something out of it.
After college I had a brief moment of thinking I would go to graduate school and continue studying English literature. So I took a job in the magazine industry figuring, you know, maybe I'll do this for a year — that it was going to be fun and not too difficult. I was interested in working at the kind of magazine that my friends and I read, so I applied and got the job as an editorial assistant at Glamour. And from the moment I started, I was completely hooked. I loved the people I was working with — these really engaged, smart women who loved fashion, loved beauty, but also loved covering all these other issues they were interested in: political issues, social issues, cultural issues. I loved the whole magazine process, being in a big office, working with people and just watching the editors put together a whole issue from start to finish. You start with your blank slate and you come up with ideas, you get to assign them and then everything comes in — it's like this candy box and you get to put it all together. I enjoyed that whole process.
I had always loved fashion as a kid — as a girl I remember when I would be driving through Washington, D.C., I'd play this game with myself where I would look at people on the street and try and work out how, if I could take one item of clothing from each person, I could turn it into an outfit. It was like my own little reality show. But I didn't really come to magazines really through fashion so much as through journalism.
I worked a number of different jobs at Glamour. A couple involved writing fashion and top-editing fashion, and that was always the most fun. I loved writing cover lines, figuring out how to sell a story, working out what in that crowded newsstand climate is going to make a woman want to pick up the magazine. It's what we now all think of as that double-click factor. But also I got to work on lots of other parts of the magazine, and I was never really a specialist. I just loved the whole shebang.
I always say Glamour's mission is that we're for a young woman's whole real life. We have a very particular fashion point of view and we're there for her through her fashion obsessions, her beauty obsessions, but we are also interested in all the other parts of her life. Glamour is really meant to feel like the conversation that women have when they're at their brunch table together, when guys aren't around and you're talking about, "Oh my god, look at your shoes," and "Ugh, what should I wear at my job interview tomorrow?" But you're also talking about career aspirations, how to deal with your awkward boss and, of course, all the wicked gossip of your dating life.
In 1999, though, I left to go edit Self magazine. It was a very different kind of world because it was and is a magazine specifically about the body, health, fitness, and well-being. At the time I thought my mission was to focus on those things. I was extremely physically fit while I worked there. It wasn't so much about fashion, or about the broader issues of a woman's life. It helps to be young and stupid — no, really! I felt like I was very sure what I wanted to do as Self's editor-in-chief. And I don't think I knew enough to be intimidated. I remember there was a moment early in my tenure when I got handed the profit and loss statement for that month and I suddenly realized I had no business training and [yet] was in charge of this multimillion dollar business. So I quickly got up to speed and asked a lot of people a lot of questions until I completely understood that part of the business. And I think, yes, there were aspects of it that were scary. All of a sudden I was managing an entire staff that was in some turmoil and they were looking to me for guidance, and that was all very new to me. But I felt like I knew what needed to be done and that helped.
I think this is an important career lesson for women. I'd never thought of myself as an editor-in-chief type early in my career. And I remember when I was Glamour's senior editor, maybe six or seven years out of college — I was certainly very ambitious and had assumed a reasonably senior position relatively quickly, but I definitely didn't think of myself as an editor-in-chief. Then a friend in the business, a former colleague, in fact, emailed me when an editor-in-chief position at another magazine opened up. And she said, "I don't know if you've heard that the job at XYZ magazine is open, but I think that would be a great step for you and I think you could do it. I think you should raise your hand for it." It took this friend of mine saying, "Hey, this could be you," for me to really think about it. In the end, I did put myself in the running for that and, probably thankfully, didn't get it. It was too soon in my career and I wouldn't have known exactly how to run a brand. But I was very grateful that a friend had encouraged me to shift my perception of myself, and I try to do that with people in my own life now.
I really loved being at Self, but part of their mission was to really focus on the magazine's core audience. People were always pitching me these fascinating stories about things that women were doing, focused on other parts of women's lives, and I would have to say, "Oh, that's a great story but you should pitch it to Glamour." So after almost two years at Self, the [Condé Nast] chairman and editorial director at the time, Samuel Newhouse and James Truman, called me to say that they would like me to go back to Glamour, as editor-in-chief. And so I did!
Recent Glamour covers.
[Being back] was a lot of fun. Again, I felt like I knew what I wanted for the magazine. I had gained enough experience running a slightly smaller magazine and a smaller team at Self to feel confident coming back to a really big brand like Glamour. I don't think I could've stepped right into that role without having edited a smaller magazine. It's a very particular thing. And [Glamour] was a big brand, a big magazine — lots of pages, lots of staff, and a lot of dollars on the bottom line. Of course, now the team is larger than it was then because we're multi-platform and we have a web team too.
Like a lot of editors, I think I made a lot of mistakes first getting into the web. For us at Glamour, we really started cooking with gas when we hired a dedicated digital native team. Taking [members of] our existing print staff and putting them in charge of the website was never particularly fruitful for us or anybody else — we needed people who had experience in this area. I decided it was more important for them to know the medium than to know the brand. They could learn Glamour's brand. That made a big, big difference, and then we really took off in terms of traffic growth and audience engagement.
I love talking to our readers. The fact that I can be on my phone in two seconds and have a conversation with a reader about what she just read in Glamour, that's the best. It doesn't get better than that for an editor. We used to, in order to find out what your readers thought, have these expensive focus groups. We'd fly everybody out to Des Moines or wherever it was and sit behind the one-way glass and watch these people eat cold pizza and talk about our brand. Now we have a constant focus group all the time on our website, on our Facebook page, on Twitter. The fact that you can hear what people are saying and respond is amazing. I'm a sucker for it.
We take the responsibility we have to this incredibly digitally connected young female reader very seriously. For women in their twenties and thirties, their lives — not just today but for years now — really are online, but they love their print magazines still. This is a reader who believes in print and loves to buy her magazines, but it's not an either/or. She loves her online life too. So what can we provide her there that's going to excite her and make her want to come back every day? That's the question, and part of learning for us was that forehead-smack moment: The stuff that works well for us in print is not the stuff that will work online. You want the same tone. You want the same spirit. You want the same brand DNA. But not the same material. It may not even be the same writers. Now the site is big enough, though, that even though our digital team is in charge and running the show, you know everybody on the print staff is asked to contribute as well. So people have much more multi-platform roles than they did a couple years ago.
Sometimes we'll do a small piece on our website about a particular singer or actor and see it blow up on social media. We did a little item about the singers Tegan & Sara, and we saw that it just instantly took off on social media. Their fan base was rabid, excited, and thrilled to see them on Glamour.com. So when we did a fashion feature story in the magazine this June about some of the big stars of summer, beautifully photographed, we included them. I'm not sure you get a whole feature idea [from online chatter], but you see people bubbling to the top, and you see the stories and the topics that women have heated conversations about. To me, that moment when you're listening in to women's conversations and you see the volume go up on something — that's a topic that we should be covering. So for instance, on the subject of retouching in women's magazines, we did a big story on that last year with a poll of our readers and an exploration of what women are doing, what magazines are doing, what Glamour does and doesn't do. That all came from just seeing the level of passion with which women were talking about retouching online.
At Glamour we believe that women's bodies come in all shapes and sizes and you should see that in the magazine. We don't believe in changing a woman's body size or type. And we have a written statement going out in all of our photographers' assignments that shares that with them. We don't believe in removing things like freckles, beauty marks, or moles. That said, I don't think our readers expect us to stamp our feet and say we're absolutely not retouching anything ever. If a model comes to a photo shoot and has had a breakout that morning, I'm perfectly fine doing something about that. Do we brighten a sky so a headline will read better? Of course we do. The litmus test that I have is basically this: Could I sit across from a Glamour reader and tell her what we've done to a photo while looking her in the eye? If I think it's something readers would be fine with, I'm comfortable with it.
Hands down, the December 2009 cover of Michelle Obama is [one of my favorites]. We named her a Glamour Woman of the Year her first year in the White House. It was a long negotiation, as these things always are, and I remember I was at my in-laws house for Rosh Hashanah when I got the call from the White House that [the shoot] was going to be a go. I ran upstairs, because my in-laws are observant enough that it was not proper form to be on the phone in the middle of their Rosh Hashanah dinner, and took the call crouched in their bedroom. I was so thrilled; it was a historic year, and I think Michelle Obama is an incredible role model for our readers. Our team traveled to the White House to shoot her — it happened to be on the last day of the Paris fashion shows, so I flew home directly from Paris, changed planes in New York, and went straight to the White House. There was a surreal moment on the plane: I've literally changed in the first-class lounge and am now taking the plane from New York down to D.C. so I can meet our team at the shoot. I realize that there's a little hole in the shoulder of my black Prada cardigan that I had been planning to wear — it's my standby cardigan for flights — and so I'm on the shuttle fixing it, sewing up the hole. Susan Molinari, who's a former U.S. congresswoman and a past Woman of the Year herself, sat down next to me and is like, "What are you doing? Are you sewing? Here?"
Anyway, it was just a wonderful, wonderful day. It was a great shoot. We photographed Mrs. Obama for the cover and also for the inside of the magazine with some of her East Wing interns. She talked about mentoring — mentoring is a big focus for her. So to have her gathered with this group of young women, and one man, if I recall, was just such a warm, wonderful image. I was very happy with the cover and how it turned out, and just so grateful that we were able to make it happen. Every cover is special, but I really love that one. And I will say, also, that it was the first time a First Lady had appeared on the cover of Glamour.
Magazines and the fashion industry are very hard fields to break into right now. Despite all the hand-wringing a few years ago — oh no, woe is us, print is dead — I see far more applicants for every internship spot and for every entry-level position we have going than I would've five years ago. There is a long line of people who want to get into these fields, so you have to work really, really hard. You have to stick with it. I'm always surprised by the number of people who come see me for informational interviews and I tell them keep in touch, send me any clips — a lot of them just get a little disheartened if after three or four months nothing happens. Granted, you know, you need to have a job, you need to be able to support yourself, and I know it's hard to just sit around and wait. But if you have tenacity and you do stick with it, there will be something there for you. It's just not going to happen immediately.
I think [fashion week] is incredibly fun! I mean, sure, there are days when you're like, "My head is spinning and I can't even remember what shows I've seen." Yes, you do sort of start to feel like you're at a convention, albeit an incredibly well-dressed convention. In Paris, I've been loving Chloé; I think it's always a beautiful show and I think Claire [Waight Keller] is really talented. I also always love Stella McCartney. Her clothes are what our reader wants to wear. In New York, I love Marc Jacobs, of course. And Michael Kors is always beloved by our readers.
But who among us is going to be the jerk [whining] about being in London, Milan, and Paris? These are amazing cities full of incredible talent and gorgeous artistry. I do not want to ever be the person who complains about that. Seriously, if you complain about going to a Paris fashion show, you have officially lost all perspective on life as we know it. And I have little kids who are hard to be away from sometimes when school's going back and there are tons of things that you're missing. But you know, there's that great Billie Jean King expression: "Pressure is a privilege." We can all deal.
Glamour's September issue is out now. See more from Jennifer Aniston's cover shoot over at glamour.com.
—As told to Alex Rees.