- Girlboss Radio is a podcast hosted by Sophia Amoruso and Girlboss COO and editor-in-chief Neha Gandhi.
- In a candid conversation, excerpted here with permission, Gandhi interviews legendary editor Tina Brown, the first female editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair magazine.
- Brown took over Tatler Magazine when she was only 25 and is the only woman to have ever edited The New Yorker. But she left that position to create a new magazine for Harvey Weinstein — and says working with his “raging” personality was jarring.
- Brown believes failure happens in a good career, and she likes when people own up to it.
- To hear their full conversation, listen to the episode here.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Neha: Hi there. I’m Neha Gandhi, COO of Girlboss. I’ve been working in media for about 15 years, and I have to tell you today the industry looks nothing like it did when I graduated from college in 2004. It’s a little less shiny, it’s harder to stay relevant, and it’s much harder to hold people’s attention and really make an impact through all the noise. So if you’ve managed to do all of that consistently, for many years, across many different publications, well, that really says something.
Tina Brown has done exactly that. She led Vanity Fair magazine as its first female editor-in-chief, bringing the magazine back from near extinction and turning it into something glossy that mixed celebrities and glamour with news and politics, in a way that nobody had really done before. She’s also the only woman to have ever edited The New Yorker … Here’s our conversation.
Neha: I’d like to start this conversation with something that’s core to Girlboss, which is your definition of success. What does that word mean to you in your life, in your skin today?
Tina: I think success is about feeling much more, about feeling fulfilled in every dimension than it is about simply one mountain that you happened to climb yesterday. It is as important for me to feel successful in my private life as in my career life. I’m also just really enjoying now that my kids are offhand and in their own lives and happy. Just having this time with my husband as a kind of back to being a couple, it’s a good time for me.
Neha: How has your idea of what success means evolved for you over time?
Tina: I think that the idea of success does very much evolve, actually. When I was younger, in my 30s, success was all about climbing the absolute mountain in front of my face.
You know, it’s like turning around Tatler magazine when I took over as a young editor at the age of 25 in London. A failing magazine, I had to turn it around. Coming to the US, turning around Vanity Fair when Vanity Fair had launched. It was a disaster. My role was to come in and save it and grow it, which I did. By the time I left, it was at a million circulation and a very strong magazine. Then it was about rescuing The New Yorker. I had to come in and turn it around. So it’s always been for me, I’ve always been thrown into these kind of sink-or-swim challenges, and so you really just think about that challenge.
On ambition and taking risks when you’re young
Neha: You were 25 years old when you took over at Tatler, and I believe you were 30 when you took over Vanity Fair. I mean, that’s pretty young to be editor-in-chief of publications that now feel really shiny and fancy.
Tina: I think when you’re young, the important thing is to take things on, which maybe don’t look as if they have some huge place in the world. But you can own it and make it your place and make it an exciting place to be. And that is in a way the best kind of success to have, because you were responsible for that turnaround and you can build it in the way that you wish.
Neha: So take bigger risks when you are young?
Tina: Yes. And also identify things that might look a little bit un-shiny. You know, I think people tend to be obsessed with “I want to go to work at this hot thing.” Actually, go work for something that isn’t hot yet and make it hot, and then you really will start to get attention.
Neha: Right, that’s the reputation I feel like you’ve had and built for so long, this idea that you turn around things that feel on the brink of demise and you turn them into the hottest thing in town.
Tina: Well, thank you. But, you know, sometimes … It doesn’t always work. As you know, I started something, Talk magazine, that I couldn’t make work. And I think setbacks are part of that growth learning that I just mentioned.
On working with Harvey Weinstein
Neha: I want to talk a little bit about that project because we like to talk about failure a lot here at Girlboss. It’s a huge part of Sophia’s story, which she’s been really open and vulnerable about. But we also just believe that if you’re not failing, it’s probably because you’re not taking big-enough swings … In the moment where you realized it wasn’t going to work, but you hadn’t made it public, what did that feel like for you?
Tina: Well, it was a devastating thing because I’d had three big successes, and then I left The New Yorker and went to work for Harvey Weinstein, which, when you look back, was not the smartest thing anyone could do in life.
I guess I thought, I know I thought, that I could actually sort of grow a brand that was beyond a magazine. In fact, I was ahead of my time in that because I felt I didn’t just want to do a magazine. I wanted to do something that would be a magazine plus movies, plus books, plus radio, or today it would be podcast. And so that’s what Harvey wanted to do and so he asked me to come and do it. It seemed like a fantastic opportunity.
But of course, working with him was really, really not an experience I would ever want to repeat. And it threw me off my game so much, having to deal with this raging, crazy personality looming over me all the time. It was very, very difficult to keep focus.
And the magazine was a really good magazine, I have to say. It has some of the best material I think I’ve ever published in it.
But the combination of the ownership with Harvey, which was so difficult and problematic, and the fact that then 9/11 happened and all the advertising disappeared, and then it wasn’t a viable thing to continue doing. And you know, it was very distressing, because of course everybody danced upon my grave. Women failing is like, “Oh my God, a fall is just the juiciest thing.” Everyone just loves that. So I’m the front page of the New York Post.
And it was very tough, but mostly because I loved my work so much, you know? I felt I was in mourning for my child, which was this magazine that I loved as much as I loved Vanity Fair or The New Yorker or Tatler … and so it was very, very painful. And it took me a couple of years, really, to get over it. And what I did was I just sort of went off and decided to go back to my first love, which was writing. And I basically holed up in my house at the beach, and I wrote my biography of Princess Diana that became a bestseller, which kind of solved the wound somewhat, to have gone from doing something that had not worked to something that did work.
On how to handle failure
Neha: Do you have any advice for women who are going through something similar? Maybe at a smaller scale and maybe their face isn’t plastered on the cover of the New York Post, but they’re feeling that real mourning and that loss for something that has failed and maybe they don’t have a book in them. How would you recommend they sort of get through it?
Tina: Well, I think firstly you have to sort of confront why it went wrong and fully own the places where you made mistakes of judgment or didn’t see it coming. I just think you have to take the tools that you have and the wisdom that you have and sort of reinvent yourself perhaps in a different category. And not be ashamed of it at all. I mean, I’m not ashamed of having had a setback like that. I’m not ashamed of it at all. I think that it’s very, very important in the course of any good career. If you take any risks, some of them aren’t going to work out.
And actually, when it comes to hiring people, I never mind somebody who’s got a failure on their resume at all. In fact, I think, Hey, this is good. They’re not going to fail on my watch. They learned something. They’re more likely to be people with a bit more wisdom. You know, a little bit of hubris gets knocked out of you when that happens, and I think that’s actually a pretty useful thing to have happen. And I think that the people who’ve had a setback are often more reflective.
So the only thing that would concern me is if they’re trying to kind of talk their way past it. If they’re trying to say, “Everything about what I’ve done has worked,” and then try to kind of spin. If somebody says to me, “Look, I did all these things. These worked. This one didn’t.” That I respect.
On being a working mother — and a boss of working mothers
Neha: I’ve read a little bit about how you think about how you’ve hired a lot of working mothers and you really made what feels like a concerted effort to hire working mothers into senior editor roles, particularly when you are at The New Yorker. I’d love to hear more about how your own experience as a mother but also as a boss sort of shaped you and shaped that newsroom. How did you lead differently?
Tina: What is very interesting, I had my two children when I was at Vanity Fair, and then went to The New Yorker when my daughter was about three and my son was about seven or eight. And you know, then I had all of these women who had children sort of the same age. And we were like the secret society in a way because all of the women there, and I think there were four senior editors who had children the same age that mine were all around about. And so everybody had the same concerns.
And so we all kind of worked out this way of working where we would just really accelerate our sort of work speed in the last hour of the day between sort of 4:30 and 5:30. We’d be all like … You could just tell the focus amongst us women. We want to get it back to our kids. I would then rush out the office and be home for dinner. And then I’d resume again when our kids were in bed, so between the hours of about 10 and 1 o’clock in the morning, frankly.
In those days it was fax machines. The fax machines would be whirring between all of these women who had kids. We would do so much work deep in the night or first thing in the morning early. And it was like we’d never slept, I think. I mean, the casualty was sleep. But we got it all done. We just got it all done. And everybody had their own improvised way of doing stuff.
And I’m not sure it’s changed, really. For all the talk about work-life balance, there really isn’t any one solution for all of this, you know? I would always be imagining that there was another woman out there who had got it figured out, you know? If I could just meet that one woman, she would tell me the answer to the magic question. So once I said to this woman who was a very high-powered publisher, and I discovered she had three kids, and I said to her, “How do you do it?” It’s always the question, “How do you do it?” And she just looked at me and she said, “I was tired for 17 years.” And that is kind of the answer to the question.
On dealing with the ‘boy’s club’
Neha: It feels a little bit like we’re having this conversation through this beautiful lens of a village of women raising their kids together and coming together and working together. But there is another sort of piece of the story, which is this boys’ club that you talk about a lot. Do you have any examples of ways in which people have underestimated you or pushed back on you?
Tina: All the time. You know, the thing that was really frustrating to me throughout both Vanity Fair and The New Yorker is the sort of belittling language that’s used about women, which somehow is just very subtle but it’s a way of sort of minimizing your achievement.
Like when I get Magazine Editor of the Year, it’s like, “She puts out a frisky, lively magazine that has plenty of buzz.” And all the words used about it are just belittling words, you know? I would be publishing really gritty journalism, fantastically sort of accomplish foreign journalism very often, and also of course, great celebrity covers. But the journalism was really strong, and that’s what I was winning journalism prizes for. But the citations always made it sound as if it was some kind of a little, buzzy, fun thing, you know? … And they always referred to me as sort of the queen of buzz, as if somehow I’m out there like shilly-shallying around in a pair of high heels, which I certainly did wear because I like wearing high heels, but that’s so what? You know, I was the most successful editor at Condé Nast. It was completely appropriate.
Neha: Do you just swallow your rage?
Tina: Well, sometimes I swallow it. Sometimes I … I mean, I just, you know, I realize it’s a no-win, unfortunately, to complain about it. You just don’t want to look like you’re whining. That is always the big weapon against you.
Tina: I mean, one New York Magazine profile of me about seven or eight years ago began, “Tina Brown has always got ahead by being nice to old Jewish men.”
Tina: It’s like, what? I mean, I’m sorry, but those were the people who own the magazines that I work with. It’s not how I got the jobs, guys. I got the job because I knew how to do it and did very well at them … The other thing that’s very interesting about women is that when they fall, there’s no safety net for women in terms of things being offered. I mean, I’ve noticed again and again that men in jobs who fail swiftly get a board position, or they’re offered a big think-tank to run, or they get picked up and they’re given a very similar job in a different town. …All the women I know who’ve lost jobs that were at the top as it were, they’re not offered other jobs. They have to kind of go off and figure out something themselves.
I think it’s something women need to do for each other much more, which is to create the kind of network of sort of support and bounce-back that men seem to have cultivated so well for themselves.
Neha: We need our own version of a boys’ club.
Tina: We do.
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