Cosmo Changed The World—& This Is How Joanna Coles Changed Cosmo

SuperWoman_LandingPage_JoanaColes_FINAL (1)Photographed by Tina Tyrell; Designed by Gabriela Alford.
UPDATE: Just when we thought Coles couldn't get any more impressive, the news broke yesterday that, in addition to her duties as Cosmopolitan's EIC, she'll also be taking on the role of editorial director at Seventeen as part of Hearst's increasing focus on the female, millennial audience. A smart move, if we do say so more about it here!
Two years ago, when Joanna Coles took over at the helm of Cosmo, the wildly successful, globally dominant women's magazine that revolutionized the way we talk about sex, David Carr at The New York Times wondered if she could keep the numbers up (she has, holding circulation steady at 3.1 million and increasing subscriptions, to boot) and if she could find a way to develop a real web presence for the magazine (she hired a former BuzzFeed editor to run and more than doubled its traffic to 30 million uniques). Oh, and New York magazine referred to the title as a "disciplined cash cow of factoid-y female empowerment." Which was thinly veiled condescension at best, aimed toward the world's largest women's magazine.
But, in the days since, those aren't the things you think about when you think about Joanna Coles at Cosmopolitan. Because she's more than proven herself. The British reporter-turned-editor has made good on her promises to bring politics to the magazine, win some very big-deal journalism awards (including the title's first-ever ASME), and secure the most interesting exclusives — from a sit-down with Jill Abramson, post-New York Times to an honest account of what life in prison was like from Cecily McMillan. She also dreamed up Cosmo's first live conference, which will take place in NYC and Miami this November. And, none of that "serious" success has come at the cost of the bottom line — the September 2014 issue of the title was its largest ever, in terms of revenue.
So, you can imagine my delight when in the midst of the chaos of Fashion Week, Coles invited me to her office for an afternoon of storytelling (she told, I listened), tough talk (some of her advice makes you hesitate; all of it makes you think), and idea-sharing (everything from the concept of a "serious woman" to the future of the Republican party) — all prominently featuring her badass, clear-eyed British directness.
Up ahead, our very honest conversation — and proof positive that this Superwoman is unlike any other.
001_8L9B2268_E1_HRPhotographed by Tina Tyrell.
In the world of journalism today, "creating buzz" is such a necessary — and unfortunately, sometimes artificial — thing. How do you find and choose the conversation-starting stories that will run in Cosmo that are truly worthwhile? "In our September issue, there is a interview with Jill Abramson about her being fired. That was a very interesting conversation piece for Cosmo because it raised questions about the issue of women’s and men’s management styles. In particular, do male bosses interpret women’s behavior in a management situation different than they interpret men’s? We sent Leslie Yazel to talk to Jill at her home about a month after she left the Times. They had a very frank, open, and warm conversation about what could have been a career-ending moment in Jill’s life. Of course, that is not what happened, she’s gone on to teach at Harvard. And, that piece sparked a big conversation on social media about something that is real, that women think about.
"In that same issue we had a piece with Cecily McMillian, the Wall Street protestor. That piece asked: What does it mean to protest? How far should you go to stand up for something you believe in?
"We try and do things when they hit a moment [of cultural relevance], but we also try to create some of those moments. It is about paying attention. What do we hear that women are talking about? I love going out and talking to people — that’s where I get a lot of my ideas. And then, we try to reflect that in the magazine."
Balmain jacket, Barneys shirt, The Row pants, Sidney Garber bracelets, Joanna's own earrings.
002_8L9B2185_E1_HRPhotographed by Tina Tyrell.
Is that challenging, when you have a three-month lead? Do you have a sense of fear that a weekly competitor might swoop in and tell your story first? "No, because we have the website — and we have an ability to break news on an hourly level. With the Jill Abramson story, we put it on the web earlier than the magazine came out, so we wouldn't be scooped. But, you can still read it in a more leisurely way in the magazine. And, we had heard from readers that they joined the discussion on Twitter and on our website and then they read and absorbed the piece again in the magazine and got a more in-depth opinion. I think people often look at things twice, and it’s great having the website [for that].
"But, then we did a great piece in our May issue on a 12-year-old girl who committed suicide after being cyber-bullied. That needed to be in the magazine, it’s not something you want to treat quickly on social media. It needed to be a longer piece. It was a solemn story but an extremely interesting story about what happens when people on social media go too far."

That is a daring attitude for an editor of a print title. So many EICs are still afraid of the web, and live in fear of cannibalizing newsstand sales. How have you sidestepped that?
"To be fair, we have a really good team on the web who I feel are really paying attention to what’s going on. In terms of sporting metaphors, they are running the daily sprint while we are running the marathon — and every now and then, we can train together. They require different muscle groups and a different kind of energy, but every now and then, we are on the same track."

003_8L9B2245_E1_HRPhotographed by Tina Tyrell.
You also have an incredible social presence, personally — doing more than just posting Cosmo stories on Twitter. What's your strategy there? "Slightly erratic, actually. I love Facebook and Twitter — I get all of my news from Twitter but I like the energy of Facebook. So, every now and then I will enter a conversation if I think I have something to say. I may have a week when I am tired, or focused on putting the magazine to bed, but then I’ll see something that amuses me and I want to share it. When you are having a bad day it is nice to say, 'Oh my god, I have no shampoo. I’ve only got seven bottles of conditioner.' And, I remember the president of Barnard tweeting back and saying that happens to her, too. Everybody piled in saying they also use more shampoo than conditioner. It was a weird conversation that only women would have.

Do you subscribe to the idea that every editor today needs a social-media presence and brand to be successful?

"I think you want to edit to your strengths and hire to your weakness. I come from a writer’s background so I don’t mind being on Twitter. I’m not worried I’m going to drunk tweet. I feel very comfortable on Twitter and Facebook, but not everybody does. I think you have to work within what you think you are good at."

How does that inform your management style?

"I like having ideas and watching people. I love commissioning great writers to do great stories and then getting out of their way so they can write them. I like listening to bright young women who have ideas about things and then figuring out how to put it in the magazine.

"And, then I let a lot of editors and other people we have on staff make decisions that I think they will make better than I will. It could be a visual thing, or matching a photographer with a cover subject. It might be about a big fashion story. [In those regards,] I would trust Aya Kanai, our fashion director, who is fantastic, or Alix Campbell, our photo director, or Theresa Griggs, our new creative director, because they are stronger in that area than I am. As a team, we are greater than the sum of our parts. Nobody can be great at everything."
004_8L9B2166_E1_HRPhotographed by Tina Tyrell.
Since you took over Cosmo two years ago, what is the one accomplishment you are proudest of? "I increased our coverage of young women’s careers and I’m very proud of the partnership we have with Sheryl Sandberg. I think she is one of the leading business people in America and is a phenomenal editor. I have incredibly interesting conversations with her. We talk a lot about money and have conversations that women are not very good at having — both at work and with each other.
"I am also very proud that we can tackle issues like [abortion and politics]. I feel very strongly that the single most important decision a woman will make in her life is when to have a baby. Women should be able to own that decision. It should not be decided by white guys in Washington who determine if you have access to contraception. In the unfortunate situation where you need an abortion, you should be able to have one, and not have to travel 700 miles to get one or go over the border and pick up a horrible drug that may or may not work."
007_8L9B2179_E1_HRPhotographed by Tina Tyrell.
You’ve brought so many incredible writers to the table here — the Cosmo features well is such an excellent read and it’s award-winning journalism. So, what do you say to the critics who think you can’t write about sex or fashion, and also cover serious issues? “It seems to me that young women are interested in everything. I think it’s weird to say that women are only interested in fashion or sex or their careers. The point of BuzzFeed or Twitter, which is my favorite, is that all these subjects are all smashed up against each other. So, why is it okay for BuzzFeed to have a listicle followed by a report from one from their correspondents from the Middle East, and it’s not okay for a woman’s magazine to do that? That doesn’t make any sense to me.
"Helen Gurley Brown invented the list [format], by the way, so I don’t have any issues with it. But, I think it’s a very old fashioned POV to think that you can’t co-mingle different subjects in a woman’s book.
"For example, I’m constantly impressed by Kirsten Gillibrand, who's one of the smartest people you can come across. You can talk about the banking crisis, the Middle East, or childcare with her. You can also talk about whether she’s wearing Oscar de la Renta. I don’t understand why men are allowed to talk about sports and women aren’t allowed to talk about fashion. And, somehow women who do talk about fashion are taken less seriously than men who drone very boringly on about sports."
006_8L9B2339_E1_HRPhotographed by Tina Tyrell.The real secret to success: A treadmill desk.

Cosmo recently announced that it would be making political endorsements starting this election season. What do you think the most important issues working women need to think about when they cast their votes?

"Well, I think we have two issues. First, equal pay for equal work. And, that becomes very relevant in a place like North Carolina, where you have Kay Hagan in a very tight state senate race, up against Thom Tillis. And, he is someone who actually killed the equal pay bill in North Carolina. He is also a supporter of Personhood, which believes that life begins at conception, which means he would get rid of the IUD, which a lot of couples across America rely on. So, in a battle between Kay Hagan and Thom Tillis, if you are a woman, and assuming you believe in equal pay for equal work and assuming you want the right to use the IUD — you don't have to use it, but assuming you want it in your arsenal of choices as contraception — you need to know that there is a really big different between those two candidates.

"Similarly, Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, brought in a bill saying that women have to have compulsory sonograms if they want to have an abortion. Now, Mary Burke, who is running against him, is an excellent candidate, and is all about bringing jobs to the state, and believes in a woman's right to choose, and to have access to a full range of contraception.
"So, that gives you two very stark contrasts, where those really are important lifestyle choices for women."

But then, what do you say to women who read Cosmo but vote along more conservative party lines. Is it true that Cosmo no longer has a place for them?

"No. Here's what I find really interesting. The older women I know, who are Republicans, want their daughter to have the same opportunities in the workplace as their sons. And, they don't want their daughters to have limited access to contraception. And, the younger Republican women I know feel that the Republican party has abandoned them and doesn't have their best interests at heart, and that it's trying to preserve an old vision of America that no longer exists.

"Many of these people feel that the Republican party has lurched to the right, no longer believes in science, and is not including them anymore. And, they are very puzzled and bewildered by that. But, what I really think is going on is that this is generational. I think that there is a realization happening in the party — we've even heard it from Republican diehards like Karl Rove — that they understand they are not getting the women's vote. But, I do think that the Republican party has a lot of soul-searching to do if it's going to be getting younger women's votes."
Celine top, Balenciaga pants, Manolo Blahnik shoes, Sidney Garber necklace and bracelets; Joanna's own earrings.

What’s the best piece of advice that you never got but wish you had?
“Pay a bit more attention to what you wear, funny enough. I do think it’s oddly important — and I don’t think I cared enough when I was younger. It’s partly because the options weren’t as good as they are now. I think now, readers at R29 or Cosmo are spoiled by choices. You have amazing choices in Zara or H&M, Express, Club Monaco, Ann Taylor…on the lower end of the scale. And, of course, I could spend my life in Barneys or on Net-A-Porter. But, there were fewer great choices when I was growing up. My hair was kind of a mess, and I didn't want to be judged on what I looked like. I didn’t realize that people were doing that anyway, so you might as well pay attention to it.”

Were there specific moments when you felt that held you back?
"I remember one particular incident when I was working in England as a reporter at the Daily Telegraph, and a friend of mine had a fantastic distressed Calvin Klein leather jacket which she allowed me to borrow. I was beside myself. I wore it to work, and looking back, it was a great moment in high fashion, but completely inappropriate for the office. And, the editor of the paper called me in and said, ‘Listen, we think you’re absolutely fantastic, but you’re doing yourself no service by wearing a leather jacket; your hair is all over the place. You need to represent the paper as best as you can.’ I was furious and shocked and irritated and annoyed, but looking back on it, he was completely right.

“Sometimes, people would come in here in flip-flops and bootie shorts, and I would think ‘No, no. I wanted to send you out today to represent the magazine, and you don’t look like a serious person.’ You do have to look as if you take yourself seriously."

Any other advice that you think people aren’t hearing enough today?
"Think really hard about the kind of life you want to lead. Because it was a shock to me when I had my second child and realized that I wasn’t going to be able to travel. I had always wanted a job where I could travel. Then, I got a job where I could travel, and I loved it. But, I had a second baby and suddenly I didn’t want to be on the road for three or four days and not see him — that felt wrong. Also, the work didn't feel worth it.

"So, I think you have to think carefully about the kind of life you want. Do I want to have a lot of money? Or, am I fine actually not earning a lot of money? Do I want to live in a city? Do I want to have children? Do I want to be married? Or, do I want to get some [other things] out of my system before I do those things? I’m so glad I had the opportunities as I did before I had children, because your life really changes. And, I don’t think there’s enough discussion in our culture about that.
"Yes, of course women can have children and run companies, of course they can. And, it’s easier when they do, because you have more support and more money, you have more assistance; you can make your schedule. This is something that Senator Gillibrand talks a lot about. When I say to her ‘Oh my goodness, how can you do all of that [as a mom].’ She says, 'Because I run my own schedule. It’s much less stressful to run your own schedule than to be at beck and call to someone else.’"
008_8L9B2377_E1_HRPhotographed by Tina Tyrell.

You’ve mentioned that in the U.K., junior people are more likely to disagree with their bosses. That they are less likely to take a deferential role. Do you think that’s a good thing?
"The British office is a little bit more like the House of Commons in that everybody argues and shouts across the room. It is a different way to arrive at the conclusion than the American way, which as far as I can see, is a complete gridlock in Washington. In Britain, you grow up arguing. You aren’t afraid to put out a point of view and then change it. The British way is to argue it out in a group of people and through that, you learn to think in public. When I arrived at New York magazine, for the first year or so, I was struck by the fact that the editor made the decisions and everyone else would follow suit. I would argue because that is what I was used to doing. Someone asked why I was always arguing and I thought, ‘Why am I always doing that? It’s exhausting.'

"I try to run things here by getting people’s points of view. I am not always right, and I’d like to hear other people’s opinions if they make a good point I haven’t thought of. If you have something to say that you think is valuable and worth adding, it is worth figuring out how you can be heard. I would always advise someone to speak up — if you know what you are talking about.

I read that you took a 50% pay cut for that New York magazine job so you could stay here in the U.S. Did you ever regret that when you were in it?

"Well, I certainly don’t have any regrets about making the decision. I knew instinctively it was the right one, and I knew I didn’t want to live in Britain again."

Once you were sponsored for your visa, I imagine your instinct was to leave immediately. Did you?
"I stayed at New York for three years. I was very grateful to them because they hired me when I was seven months pregnant and didn’t have a visa. I was thrilled and thought that deserved some loyalty on my behalf.

"And, then Adam Moss was hired a few years later and it was very exciting to work with him and the new owner, Bruce Wasserstein, who really invested in it. It was suddenly having a new job at an old job. I felt that I was really learning how American magazines were being put together. It felt like a sort of business school degree in magazine-making. I did feel like I owed them, and it was also really fun to work there. It was honestly like working in an American sitcom; it was hilarious."
009_8L9B2157_E1_HRPhotographed by Tina Tyrell.

Over the course of your career, you have interviewed everyone from Hillary Clinton to Angelina Jolie to Sheryl Sandberg. Is there one nugget of wisdom that really stands out to you, from those conversations?

"I think Hillary Clinton’s point about learning to take criticism seriously but not personally is a really valid one. Especially when you are asking for advice.

"If you want a mentor, be prepared to take their criticism. Really, you don’t have to take it personally, but take it seriously. Men and women can be very quickly defensive when people give feedback. I know that I’ve been defensive when people have tried to give me feedback. Sometimes I wish I had listened harder, because I think people were trying to help me, and I had my back up because I was irritated; I thought I was being criticized. But often, they were right."
010_8L9B2314_E1_HRPhotographed by Tina Tyrell.Asked about this picture, Coles says, "I dressed up as a guard to stand by the bricks and listen to what people were saying about [this art exhibit at the Tate]. It was a hilarious insight into British cultural conversation. What I didn’t realize is that when they photographed me, there was an enormous naked man behind me!"

And finally, do you ever feel dread looking at the workweek ahead on Sunday nights? What do you do to combat that?

"Sunday nights, I always watch John Oliver's show on HBO, Last Week Tonight. In my perfect world, I end Sunday night with Homeland followed by John Oliver. He's the perfect way to close out the weekend. With a laugh."

What about your morning routine? How do you start each day, to make sure it's as productive as possible?
"Well, I get up around 6ish and I walk the dog. Sometimes on my own and sometimes with my husband. Then, we all have breakfast together. My son goes off to school, and then I go to work.

"I listen to NPR on the way to work. I always look at the BBC app, I look at the Buzzfeed app, I look at what is up to, and then I will read The New York Times, the New York Post, and The Guardian. They cover a lot of the same stories, so I'm interested in the different takes. So, by the time I get to work, I have a rough idea of what's going on. Oh, and thing that I first check, of course, is Twitter."