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Former 'Teen Vogue' Editor Shares Her Memoir — And Her Manifesto

Jun 11, 2019
Originally published on June 11, 2019 6:00 am

At age 32, Elaine Welteroth has become what we now call an "influencer."

She was the first black beauty director at a Condé Nast magazine. It was Teen Vogue; she was 25. She leveraged that to become its editor-in-chief. And under her watch, Teen Vogue became known for taking on really tough topics: civil rights, abortion and lots and lots of politics.

Now she's written a memoir. It's called More Than Enough: Claiming Space for Who You Are (No Matter What They Say). In it, she says getting used to discomfort is a big part of her success. She is a biracial woman.

"Being raised in a predominantly white neighborhood, being one of the only or one of few brown bodies in most spaces in my life, and also being raised in a mixed-race family, where you're sort of at the intersection of two different cultures, two different worlds — and you know how to speak the language of both but you don't fully feel like you belong to either — I think that ultimately helped me serve as a bridge in divides between worlds in my career, and out in the world as a citizen," Welteroth says.

In an interview, she reflected on her tenure at Glamour and Teen Vogue, and offered up some signposts for young people trying to make it in an industry like publishing.


Interview Highlights

On meeting her mentor Harriette Cole, formerly of Ebony magazine

She had figured out a way to carve out space for herself in the media world that was so true to who she is, and that allowed her to use her voice across different mediums. ... She sat at the intersection of black culture, style and spirituality, and it just felt so authentic. And I thought: This is a woman who's like a mini media mogul — she's like a mini Oprah. I have to meet her. I have to talk to her. So I called her office relentlessly, I snail-mailed her, I emailed her until I could get an informational interview with her.

Five months later she called me, this one fateful day. She was running Ebony, and she said she had a shoot in Malibu. She remembered that I lived in California. Her assistant was about to transition off, so she was looking for a new assistant, and thought it would be great if we met on set. She'd pay me $250 for the day. I was like: I would pay you $250 for the day to work for you. Are you kidding? So I packed my bags, went down there, and it turns out it was a cover shoot with Serena Williams — which she never said. So it was an even bigger opportunity than I even thought. But I just felt so in my element; I felt so alive that day. I just thought: This is what I want to do.

On an experience while working at Glamour magazine

One memory that I have of working at Glamour — which, overall, was a very positive experience, by the way; I felt like I was very supported there — but I do recall this one particular experience of being at a wall meeting, which is where the whole staff gathers and ... the pages of the magazine are all pinned up on the wall. And on more than one occasion — there was one other black editor. She was Haitian, dark-skinned, straight hair. She's very reserved and quiet — the opposite of me. ... I have big, curly hair. I have kind of caramel complexion. I wear bright colors. I have a bubbly personality. And the two black editors on staff could not be more different, right? So.

But on more than one occasion we were mistaken for each other. And those moments make you remember that race walks into any room before you do. No one in that situation had bad intention. But the result was that we felt like we were on the outside, and that we weren't really seen for who we were.

On the direction of Teen Vogue under her editorship

Yeah, people weren't expecting that from us. I think that's an extension of the way we tend to underestimate young people. ... Suddenly we were this young media brand that was talking about politics and Black Lives Matter, and who are we to be in these lanes, you know? And we were living in a time where I think — there's a story that went viral coming out of Teen Vogue which is called "[Donald] Trump is Gaslighting America." And it was written by one of our freelance digital writers, Lauren Duca, who's [an] amazing, brilliant feminist writer — but she wrote about everything from Ariana Grande in her ponytails and her thigh-high boots to these really thoughtful political thinkpieces like this one.

And ... we didn't expect for this to blow up the Internet. We didn't expect for people to be paying attention to the work that we were doing. But that singular story ... became the tipping point for the rest of the world to find out about the work that we were doing at Teen Vogue. And so at that point, our traffic had gone from two to 12 million. Our subscriptions were doubling; we sold more magazines that month, the month that story came out, than we had all year. And suddenly we were like the little engine that could — who became this locomotive that couldn't be stopped.

Gabriel Dunatov and Reena Advani produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Our next guest will always remember the historic moment when the media turned the spotlight on her.

ELAINE WELTEROTH: Becoming beauty director at Teen Vogue at 25, as a young black girl, was the first time that I saw my name in headlines next to my race.

MARTIN: That's Elaine Welteroth. At age 32, she is the definition of an influencer. She was the first black beauty director at a Conde Nast magazine. Eventually, Welteroth got the top job as editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue. She's now written a memoir. It's called "More Than Enough." She writes that being biracial helped her understand how to connect people.

WELTEROTH: Being raised in a predominately white neighborhood, being one of the only or one of few brown bodies in most spaces in my life and also, you know, being raised in a mixed-race family, you're sort of at the intersection of two different cultures, two different worlds. And you know how to speak the language of both, but you don't really fully feel like you belong to either. I think that ultimately helped me serve as a bridge in divides between worlds in my career and out in the world as a citizen.

MARTIN: Welteroth talked with Noel last week and offered some guidance for young people trying to make it in tough industries like publishing. One tip - find a mentor. Her career was shaped by a former top editor at Ebony magazine, Harriette Cole.

WELTEROTH: She had figured out a way to carve out space for herself in the media world that was so true to who she is and that allowed her to kind of use her voice across different mediums. And she - and it was like she was - she sat at the intersection of black culture, style and spirituality. And it just felt so authentic. And I thought, this is a woman who's like a mini media mogul. She's like a mini Oprah. I have to meet her. I have to talk to her.

So I called her office relentlessly. I snail-mailed her. I emailed her until I could get an informational interview with her. Five months later, she called me this one fateful day. She was running Ebony. And she said she had a shoot in Malibu. She remembered that I lived in California. Her assistant was about to transition off. So she was looking for a new assistant and thought I - it would be great if we met on set. She'd pay me 250 for the day. I was like, I would pay you 250 for the day...

NOEL KING, HOST:

(Laughter).

WELTEROTH: ...To work for you. Are you kidding? So I packed my bags, went down there. And it turns out it was a cover shoot with Serena Williams, which she never said. So it was a - an even bigger opportunity than I even thought. And - but I just felt so in my element. I felt so alive that day. I just thought, this is what I want to do. This is it.

KING: To the point where you were explicitly told, do not talk to the celebrity.

WELTEROTH: (Laughter).

KING: Do not talk to Serena Williams. And you did.

(LAUGHTER)

WELTEROTH: Well, to be clear, for the record, she talked to me.

KING: Fair enough (laughter).

WELTEROTH: Because I actually - I kind of broke the rule. But, I mean, what was a girl to do? When Serena Williams says hi, you say hi back.

KING: You - fair point - you went on to work as a staffer for Ebony from the internship.

WELTEROTH: Yes.

KING: And then, from there, you transitioned to Glamour magazine.

WELTEROTH: Yes.

KING: That's a magazine with a bigger audience. But it is also a place that is not aimed at black audiences.

WELTEROTH: Correct.

KING: And so it was a different workplace experience. What do you remember?

WELTEROTH: Well, I'll say this. One memory that I have of working at Glamour, which overall was a very positive experience, by the way - I felt like I was very supported there. But I do recall this one particular experience of being at a wall meeting, which is where, you know, the whole staff gathers. And we all look at the pages that are pinned up on the wall for - the pages of the magazine are all pinned up on the wall. And there was one other black editor. She was Haitian - dark skin, straight hair. She was very reserved and quiet, the opposite of me (laughter).

KING: You're known for your curly hair.

WELTEROTH: I...

KING: Like, straight up.

WELTEROTH: Yeah. I have big curly hair. You know, I have, you know, kind of caramel complexion. I wear bright colors. And I'm - you know, I have a bubbly personality. And the two black editors on staff could not be more different, right? So - but on more than one occasion, we were mistaken for each other. And those moments make you remember that race walks into any room before you do. No one in that situation had bad intention. But the result was that we felt like we were on the outside and that we weren't really seen for who we were.

KING: She hadn't been at Glamour all that long when Teen Vogue came to her about an editing job. This is a very big deal in the fashion world. She was scared, and so she turned them down. But eventually, Teen Vogue won her over. And then she won Teen Vogue over. The magazine promoted her to editor-in-chief. Teen Vogue became known for taking on really tough topics like civil rights, abortion and lots and lots of politics.

WELTEROTH: Yeah. People weren't expecting that from us. I think that's an extension of the way we tend to underestimate young people.

KING: Yeah.

WELTEROTH: You know? And suddenly, we were this young media brand that was talking about politics and Black Lives Matter. And who were we to be in these lanes, you know? And we were living in a time where, I think, there's a story that went viral coming out of Teen Vogue, which was called "Trump Is Gaslighting America." And it was written by one of our freelance digital writers, Lauren Duca, who's amazing, brilliant - feminist writer. She wrote about everything from Ariana Grande, you know, and her ponytails and her thigh-high boots to, you know, these really thoughtful political think pieces like this one. And we don't expect for this to, like, blow up the Internet. We didn't expect for people to be paying attention to the work that we were doing.

But that singular story - what became the tipping point for the rest of the world to kind of find out about the work that we were doing at Teen Vogue - and so at that point, like, you know, our traffic had gone from 2 to 12 million. Our subscriptions were doubling. We sold more magazines that month, the month that story came out, than we had all year. And suddenly, we were like, you know, the little engine that could who became this locomotive that couldn't be stopped.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I AM NOT MY HAIR")

INDIA.ARIE: (Singing) I am not my hair. I am not this skin.

MARTIN: That was the former editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue, Elaine Welteroth, talking with Noel King. Her book, "More Than Enough: Claiming Space For Who You Are No Matter What They Say," is out today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.