I hadn’t thought about Teen Vogue for years when I noticed a cover story about Willow Smith, an outspoken teenage singer with brown skin and dreadlocked hair. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen a black girl on the cover of a magazine. I flipped to the article. It was just as effervescent and slightly cheesy as the ones from my youth — ‘‘She may very well be from a distant planet, a foreign place where women are homegrown superheroes, nurtured to become goddesses,’’ went the description of Smith — but it was a far cry from the profiles of racially homogeneous, apolitical teeny-boppers I was used to reading. Welteroth wrote it herself.
At the fashion show, people started to take their seats in front of the runway. I craned my neck, searching for Welteroth, who is difficult to miss. She has tight, springy curls that she herself cuts into a corona around her face, and is perhaps the only person who can wear a pair of oversize aviator glasses without looking as if she wandered out of a 1970s-era most-wanted poster. Just as the first models started down the runway, my phone buzzed: It was Welteroth. They closed the doors early. She didn’t make it in.
Afterward, I met her outside, where she was cheerful but mildly annoyed, commiserating with a group of editors who also missed the show. We started to walk toward her next event when a photographer stopped us. ‘‘I’d love to get some shots,’’ he said, generously gesturing at me and Welteroth. He took one photo of us together, asked if he could get Welteroth alone and then took approximately 10,000 more. All of a sudden, there were three more photographers in a line, waiting to photograph her in her Coach shearling coat and burnt orange slacks. The previous day she appeared on ‘‘The Daily Show’’ about Teen Vogue’s new socially conscious bent. (She still had her TV eyelashes on, she told me.) At the Women’s March a month earlier, someone carried a sign: ‘‘Teen Vogue will save us all.’’ One tenet of the magazine under Welteroth is that a person can be interested in fashion and politics. She already knew how to make a fashion-and-beauty magazine appealing to her readers — and the advertisers who wanted to be inside. But could Elaine Welteroth really lead the #Resistance and make a glossy magazine at the same time?
When I met Welteroth again in her office this spring, perfume bottles littered her desk, next to stacks of old issues of Teen Vogue. A black love seat was decorated with an ‘‘I Woke Up Like This’’ pillow. I half expected someone to start shooting a movie about a hip, sunny editor in chief trying to balance life and love and bags of freebies in the big city. Whenever Welteroth wanted to make a point, she would wave her hands for emphasis, making it hard to miss the emerald-cut pavé ring on her left hand. (Welteroth is engaged to her boyfriend, a musician. They first met in church as preteens.)
Welteroth told me that she took a journalism class at California State University, Sacramento, that ‘‘changed my life.’’ The professor promised that any student who could get published in a national magazine would receive an automatic A: Welteroth pitched a story about plus-size footwear to Figure, a magazine for plus-size women. Her pitch was accepted. ‘‘I would stay up all night and call my mom and read everything to her and make sure it was perfect,’’ Welteroth said. She majored in communication studies and interned at an international advertising agency before her last semester of college. One night, she told a fellow intern that she’d rather be working at a magazine and showed him one of her clips from Figure. He insisted that it wasn’t real journalism. ‘‘I remember staying up for an hour and a half debating this man to the ground, telling him that beauty and fashion journalism is journalism,’’ she told me, still impassioned.
At her office, she told me (and a Condé Nast publicist, one of whom was present for almost all our conversations) that she was a ‘‘magazine junkie’’ as a teenager. ‘‘I read everything,’’ she said, ‘‘but particularly, growing up in a household where my mom was black and my dad was white, I remember really loving Ebony and Essence. Those magazines were the only place where I could see images of women who looked like me or my mom. I loved YM. I read Seventeen. But there was this very clear division between where I could see myself and where I couldn’t.’’
After graduating from college in 2007, Welteroth interned for Harriette Cole, then Ebony’s creative director, whom Welteroth calls the ‘‘original #influencer.’’ Welteroth had written Cole a letter asking for an informational interview, then followed up obsessively — by email, by phone, by mailing her a mock-up of her own magazine. Impressed and slightly terrified, Cole called Welteroth as a courtesy; they ended up talking for an hour. Five months later, she invited Welteroth to assist her on a West Coast photo shoot of Serena Williams.
Cole has had at least 40 interns over the last 33 years. ‘‘Other people have been really good,’’ she told me. ‘‘But no one has been like Elaine.’’ Welteroth persuaded publicists to let her backstage at fashion shows so she could cover beauty for Ebony, something that the magazine had never done. Determined to improve Ebony’s digital presence, Welteroth persuaded a videographer from MTV to shoot video for the magazine free. Cole created a staff position for Welteroth at the magazine; with a majority of the editorial staff in Chicago, Ebony’s New York office was often only the two of them, working 12-to-15-hour days.
In 2011, Welteroth was hired as a beauty editor for Glamour. Just months later, she learned that Teen Vogue needed a new beauty-and-health director. Welteroth interviewed with Amy Astley, then Teen Vogue’s editor in chief; the two women talked about Gabby Douglas, the teenage American gymnast who was being pilloried in the news for her ‘‘unkempt’’ appearance, and how often black hair was read as messy. That was the sort of issue she wanted to cover in her position, she told Astley. She got the job.
Last year, Anna Wintour announced that Welteroth, Phillip Picardi and Marie Suter would take charge of the Teen Vogue brand: Welteroth would oversee the print magazine, Picardi would run the website and Suter would be in charge of the design for both. The teen magazine landscape looked especially bleak: There was only one other mainstream title (Seventeen), and Teen Vogue itself would go to four issues, from nine, later that year. Instead of competing with a horde of other magazines, Teen Vogue now had to fight with online-only publications like Rookie or Lenny Letter and social-media platforms for readers and ad revenue — and for the attention spans of a generation used to reading on a screen. (One of the first major changes under the triumvirate was a redesign where, among other things, the size of the magazine was changed to 11 inches by 6¾ inches, up from 9 inches by 6¾ inches, which sort of made the newly tall, rectangular format seem, Welteroth joked, like an iPhone.)
Welteroth’s guiding instinct was that Teen Vogue needed to widen its scope beyond beauty and fashion. ‘‘I felt like there was an opportunity to go a little deeper and to feature a different type of girl: someone who actually used their platform to be a role model and to be a thought leader. There was something shifting in the zeitgeist.’’ If it was going to continue to exist as a teen magazine, it would have to acknowledge that its readers cared about politics and social activism and sexual identity, topics it had avoided in the past.
Five months later, after the presidential election, Teen Vogue published an online-only article by Lauren Duca titled, ‘‘Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America,’’ and suddenly, adults started paying attention. When Welteroth appeared on ‘‘The Daily Show’’ with Picardi, Trevor Noah asked them a question that, presumably, most of his audience was thinking: How had Teen Vogue established itself as a formidable source of political commentary? ‘‘If you guys have haters who say, ‘What do you guys know about journalism?’ how do you respond?’’ Noah asked. Picardi, who edited Duca’s article, snickered. But Welteroth grew serious. By that point, she had published four issues, including a ‘‘For Girls, by Girls’’ issue, which featured an essay by Hillary Clinton, along with interviews of Loretta Lynch, who was then the attorney general, carried out by the actress Yara Shahidi, and the activist Gloria Steinem, conducted by the actress Amandla Stenberg. Her ‘Smart Girls Speak Up!’’ issue, guest-edited by Shahidi and the actress Rowan Blanchard, suggested Ta-Nahisi Coates’s ‘‘Between the World and Me’’ and ‘‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’’ by Zora Neale Hurston as book-club picks.
Credit Erik Madigan Heck for The New York Times
‘‘I would say,’’ Welteroth responded, ‘‘that Teen Vogue has as much right to be at the table, talking about politics, as every young woman does in America right now.’’
One afternoon this summer, I watched Welteroth take in the sight of her fall issue. We were sitting in a conference room, just across from her new corner office; the magazine’s pages were tacked up on the wall in front of us. Since its inception in 2003, Teen Vogue had published an annual ‘‘Young Hollywood’’ issue, featuring a parade of photogenic actors on the cusp of fame. But Welteroth had decided to remake it into the ‘‘Icons’’ issue, in order to create an experience that reflected the types of people her readers looked up to. The list included full-figured models, an Olympic athlete and a trans media personality. ‘‘Back then,’’ she said, referring to when the Young Hollywood issue was created, ‘‘it was all about big-budget film projects. That meant people cared about you. That meant you were on covers. Now it’s so much more than that.’’ She turned to look at me. ‘‘It’s like, what do you stand for?’’
That embrace of social consciousness is outlined in the feature’s opening essay, which Welteroth has nicknamed ‘‘the manifesto.’’ The essay cites a talent manager, Aleen Keshishian, contending that it’s in a starlet’s best interest to have ‘‘a passion or point of view.’’ And, in a way, in Teen Vogue’s best interest too, because Welteroth is catering to a generation that demands inclusivity and is increasingly sensitive to issues of diversity and representation and expects the same of its influencers. Welteroth has called her readers ‘‘woke.’’ And so the magazine pushes body positivity instead of diet tips and embraces topics like feminism and intersectionality and L.G.B.T. rights and includes diverse people on its covers and in its fashion spreads, because that’s just woke enough in the industry.
In an email to me, Anna Wintour wrote that Welteroth ‘‘has sought — and succeeded — in infusing its editorial with a progressive and outspoken political voice.’’ Teen Vogue’s ad copy describes it as the ‘‘rebellious, outspoken, empowering magazine that you need right now.’’ But in the grand scheme of things, Welteroth’s magazine is only as rebellious as it can be without risking advertising revenue, outspoken about issues that have already been widely agreed upon. In print, Welteroth has to balance serving her readers the socially conscious content that they crave against pleasing advertisers and corporate managers by providing stories that Maybelline won’t mind running a mascara ad next to. The bulk of the unconventional, overtly anti-Trump content that has attracted media attention occurs on the website, which Welteroth has little to do with day to day. It’s impossible to know what Teen Vogue would have looked like under a Hillary Clinton administration, but it’s noteworthy that Welteroth began reimagining the magazine long before the election.
The articles in Teen Vogue are short on substance but fun — lively and breezy, often with a big-sister tone. An article ostensibly about the Syrian refugee crisis culminates with the Syrian teenager finding a boyfriend; an interview about the struggle for Hispanic representation in Hollywood is maybe five questions long. And despite its turn to current affairs, the new Teen Vogue is still full of the meat and potatoes of teen-magazine stories — combating zits, trying out blond hair dye, the hottest fashions from Eastern Europe. It’s easy to feel intellectually superior while reading it, especially as someone who falls just beyond its demographic, until there’s an article on the dangers of MDMA, and you try to remember which drug that is, or there’s a personal essay about improving your financial health by cutting down on frivolous spending and opening a savings account, and you say, ‘‘Hmm, maybe I should try that.’’ You read on despite yourself, because, apparently, you have the same problems as a teenager, and probably the exact same problems from when you were a teenager yourself.
During our last conversation, Welteroth updated me on the next steps for the magazine. ‘‘We’ve come to stand for something, and it has resonated,’’ she said. ‘‘So Phase 2 of Teen Vogue’s evolution is activating this audience that we’ve galvanized. I see that happening through live experiences, products and services.’’ The brand, she said, had already changed so much in the last year. ‘‘You’re woke. O.K. Now what?’’ She then told me about a coming TV integration, a forthcoming reader convention and a line of merchandise, exclusively sold at Urban Outfitters. The answer to her question, then, is just as likely to be found in the mall as in her pages. Like the teen magazines before it, Teen Vogue tells its readers what they should look like and what they should wear. Welteroth’s modest innovation is for the magazine also, in its own way, to help teach its readers how to be people in the world — how to care for others, how to defend their rights, how to see the humanity in us all. Everybody has to start somewhere.
Source: New York Times