As the youngest-ever editor-in-chief (of Teen Vogue) in Conde Nast’s history, the publisher’s second-ever Black EIC, a current star of Project Runway and a newly-minted memoirist at age 32, Elaine Welteroth strikes most as self-assured, a woman certain of both her goals and her purpose. But (surprise!) it wasn’t always so, and her journey to her current success began with lots of humility, seeking, and a downright spiritual experience. As she tells Refinery29’s global editor-in-chief and co-founder Christene Barberich, Elaine “hit a true existential crisis, where I felt real anxiety about what the hell I was going to do with my life,” she says. “No one prepares you for that.”
“Everything is up to you, suddenly, and you feel like you're on the edge of the world, this big black abyss below — that reality hit me really hard.” To cope, Elaine embarked on a “soul-searching mission to figure out why I’m here, what is the path I’m supposed to be on,” she explains. That meant, naturally a “Google rabbit hole,” and a quest to land a magazine internship —specifically, Essence, which she calls “the magazine that raised me, that gave me examples of the kind of woman I could be.”
Enterprising even then, Elaine put together a pre-YouTube video application with “India.Arie replaying in the background. I was so extra. That video is a hot mess.” She then spent more time Googling — over 12 hours, she says — and came upon an Essence cover story interview with Alicia Keys, written by Harriet Cole, then the magazine’s Fashion Director, “who I’d never heard of,” she points out. “Something in that moment, after three months of praying desperately for some sign ...I almost audibly hear and feel, reach out to her! Email her! I was raised in the church. I was raised to be a faith driven person, but it isn't until you have a real experience with God that you know that you know God is real. This was my first experience with God.”
After Googling Harriet some more, and learning of her tenure at Essence, her syndicated radio show, and her bestselling books, Elaine deduced why this woman resonated so deeply. “What she had figured out how to do is how to be her authentic self, which put her at the intersection, of style, spirituality, and Black culture, which was a lane she had carved out for herself...She was able to create her own value and tell stories across multiple mediums. I knew this is the woman I want to be like.”
And Elaine did reach out to Harriet. And she did eventually land that internship. And many years later, that a-ha moment alone at her computer still astonishes her. “There was no other reason that I would hear and feel that so strongly, for that to ultimately lead to my big break into an industry that I've had the opportunity to thrive in. At rate and pace that I could have never even dreamed for myself.”
For much more of Elaine and Christene’s chat —her early experience as the “token black friend,” navigating red carpet interviews in 2019 and much more — listen to this week’s UnStyled and subscribe via Apple Podcasts today.