Tina Brown is an award-winning journalist, editor, author, and event producer. She turned around Tatler, Vanity Fair, and The New Yorker as Editor-in-Chief. She wrote a bestselling biography of Princess Diana. She launched The Daily Beast news site and Women in the World summits. And she’s our Women of Influence Luncheon speaker.

 

 

By Stephania Varalli

 

 


 

“I’ve always had a bit of a tension in me — am I an executive, am I a writer, am I an editor, or am I somebody who just wants to do her own books?”

As I’m speaking with Tina Brown, I can understand her challenge in applying a label. She has had success in all these endeavors. Discovered for her writing talent, she was tapped to take on an ailing Tatler magazine at the age of 25, turned it into a success, and then did the same thing on a much grander scale at Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. She’s written four books, most famously a bestselling bio of Diana, Princess of Wales (or Di, as Tina calls her, having known her for years). She co-founded online news magazine The Daily Beast, which quietly launched just before the 2008 US Presidential election, and was “seeing traffic over a million within a week or two.” During her tenure there she founded Women in the World as a passion project; ten years later, the summits have grown in size and expanded to cities around the world.

 

“I’ve always had a bit of a tension in me — am I an executive, am I a writer, am I an editor, or am I somebody who just wants to do her own books?”

 

Is it any wonder she’s musing about who she is?

As our talk continues, though, I notice there’s a pattern in the way she speaks about her many endeavors. A self-professed “magazine junky,” as a child she says she was always etching layouts and creating stories. In her career she spent over thirty years with an editor-in-chief title. When discussing The Daily Beast, she notes, “I loved the idea of creating a digital property that would have some of the visual appeal of a glossy magazine.” And she likens the Women in the World Summits to ”putting out a fabulous global magazine.” She programs them, she says, very much like she would an issue of Vanity Fair — a combination of hot topic panels, relatively unknown women with amazing stories to tell, and the required celebrity.

“You have to have a cover star,” she says, “And then inside you have a really good journalistic investigation, and you’re going to have a fascinating, unexpected, narrative about somebody. And the pagination, the pacing of it, goes on like that throughout the day.”

She sees the world through the lens of a magazine editor. Her content mix in my head, I wonder: what would Tina Brown’s life look like in a glossy?

 

Cover Star: The Fixer

When Tina was called in to take over Vanity Fair in 1983, ads were dwindling, losses were mounting, and readership was low. The magazine, which had spent over twenty years in circulation before the Great Depression, had just been revived by Condé Nast a year prior, and it was already on its second editor. As Tina says, “when that went hopelessly wrong, they thought about me.”

It’s no surprise she came to mind; she had just turned around Tatler in the UK, bringing it to a level of success that led Condé Nast to purchase it. Tina’s vision for Vanity Fair included a new mix of content, with celebrity profiles sitting alongside journalistic reporting, presented to the reader with “a visual panache” — that might mean a naked and pregnant Demi Moore on the cover, with a profile of Saddam Hussein inside.

Regardless of the subject, writing standards were high. One of Tina’s great skills is finding and fostering talent, and in the same way she seems to have a sixth sense for knowing what stories need to be told, she can also pinpoint who should be penning them.

“I know how to talk to writers because I am a writer,” she says. “And I have a very good sense of what a writer should be doing. And that’s part of the fun for me, being able to do that casting of writer with story.”

The mix worked. Sales of Vanity Fair rose from 200,000 to 1.2 million, advertisers flocked, and awards came in. Tina had masterfully elevated the reputation of the magazine (and hers along with it) to its own sort of celebrity status. Vanity Fair was a success, and after 9 years, she was ready for her next challenge.

Her move to The New Yorker in many ways mimicked her career thus far: it was an ailing magazine with a solid pedigree in need of a fresh vision. Despite her past successes, her appointment as editor-in-chief was controversial.

 

“I have a very good sense of what a writer should be doing. And that’s part of the fun for me, being able to do that casting of writer with story.”

 

“I understood why there was anxiety about me coming in,” says Tina. “At Vanity Fair I had just done Demi Moore stark naked on the cover. There were a lot of Old Guard people at The New Yorker thinking, who is this person that’s going to come into this literary jewel and make it into something incredibly disrespectful of its tradition? But that’s really because they didn’t know my own pedigree, which is as a much more literary writer and editor than I was showing.”

There might have been some cause for the Old Guard to be alarmed. She replaced over 40 writers, hired the publication’s first staff photographer, and went about creating a magazine that both honoured its literary traditions and that people actually wanted to read.

Circulation grew, advertisers flocked, and awards came in, once again. Tina began to have bigger ideas — she saw the value in expanding the brand beyond the magazine, and approached publisher Si Newhouse about doing live events, a radio show, a book imprint, TV, and movie production.

“Frankly, everything I wanted to do is exactly what people are doing now, 25 years later,” says Tina. “Sam Newhouse just didn’t get it. He would say, ‘go back downstairs and manage a magazine, you’re not supposed to be talking about brand extensions.’”

 

Hot Topic: The Scandal of a Woman’s Success

It was 1998, and Tina Brown was still editing The New Yorker with big ideas of brand expansion brewing in her head. “Miramax then came at me to do exactly that with them, and of course, enter Harvey Weinstein, which wasn’t exactly the best career move I ever made.”

Tina still considers Talk magazine — the result of her departure from The New Yorker and subsequent partnership with Miramax — to be some of her best work. After a splashy launch, Tina says it simply couldn’t survive the destabilizing force of Weinstein. “He never sexually harassed me,” she explains, “but he was volcanic, he was abusive, he was just a terrible, terrible person to work with.”

Add to that the tragedy of 9-11, and the advertising drought that followed. “He had no idea how to keep it going as it got through that period,” says Tina. “It was just a very devastating experience.”

Despite having reached a circulation of 670,000, the publication was abruptly shut down in January of 2002. It was Tina’s first high-profile failure, after three unquestionable successes.

The scandal is not that she failed, or even that she did so in partnership with a man that would become the poster boy of the #MeToo movement. What you’ll find in the endless commentary on Tina’s nearly fifty-year career is that her wins are criticized just as heavily as her failure, if not more. And there’s a common thread in all that noise: unable to deny her accomplishments, she was successful in the wrong way. Too much celebration of celebrity, too much focus on building buzz, too direct in her requests, too decisive. If you listen to her critics, the scandal is that she was able to succeed.

 

“I still don’t think we’re even halfway up the mountain with it. This is going to go on, and it’s going to gather more and more steam, and it has got real energy now, and I think it’s exciting.”

 

It begs the question: would a man in her position be viewed in the same way, or lauded for his leadership?

Tina is open in saying that “gender played a role with not being taken seriously in the ways that I should have.” From her early days, when the managing director of Condé Nast in London attributed her success at Tatler to “your looks and your lifestyle,” to the pushback she received when coming on board at The New Yorker.

It goes without saying that she hasn’t let it stop her. And with Women in the World, Tina is contributing to the solution. She was inspired to launch the program after meeting a group of extraordinary women through her work on the board of Vital Voices, an NGO that mentors women in emerging countries.

“I just thought they really ought to be telling their stories in a wider setting. Broadcast journalism doesn’t seem to be interested in them ever.”

Now entering its tenth year, Women in the World has broached topics from rape as a weapon of war to sexual harassment, has introduced the fascinating narratives of individual women from around the globe, and featured every A-lister you can think of, from politics, entertainment, and business. Tina says she’s seen a change in receptivity since #MeToo, but the journey towards action has only begun.

“I still don’t think we’re even halfway up the mountain with it,” she says, referring to the impact #MeToo is having. “This is going to go on, and it’s going to gather more and more steam, and it has got real energy now, and I think it’s exciting.”

 

A Fascinating Personal Narrative: Blonde Ambition

As a teenager, Tina Brown was kicked out of three private high schools. The reasons are less a demonstration of delinquency and more a tribute to her creativity, humour, and bravery in the face of authority. At one school, she led a protest against a rule that girls couldn’t change their underwear more than three times per week; at another, she referred to the headmistress’ bosoms and “unidentified flying objects” in a personal diary (which the headmistress really had no right to be reading, anyway).

The traits served her well in her chosen career, she says. “I’m impatient and always very skeptical about rules and authority. It’s one of those things that’s made me an inquiring journalist, I think. My ears prick and I think to myself, oh, that didn’t sound right.”

Despite the rocky times in high school she managed to get into Oxford at 16, where she worked on the student magazine. After graduation, she contribute to Punch, The Sunday Times and The Sunday Telegraph before being tapped at the age of 25 to take on the role of editor-in-chief of Tatler magazine.

“I had a strong sense of what I wanted to do with Tatler,” says Tina. “I was very excited by its pedigree. It was a 270-year-old magazine, and it had been around in the days of Jonathan Swift and Gulliver’s Travels. At the same time, it then morphed into a magazine which I could describe as a weekly must-read of the Downton Abbey set. I really wanted to combine those two genres in a magazine. I wanted it to be as literary as the first magazine, but at the same time fun, irreverent, and social.”

In addition to guiding the content and voice, Tina wrote content for every issue — including semi-satirical profiles of upper society’s eligible bachelors, under the pen-name Rosie Boot.

 

“I’m impatient and always very skeptical about rules and authority. It’s one of those things that’s made me an inquiring journalist, I think.”

 

“The social magazine of the 50s that Tatler was took society as society wanted to be seen. What I brought to it was a modern twist,” she says. “We had fun headlines and captions. Today we would call that attitude.”

The “attitude” quadrupled circulation numbers, and caught the eye of Condé Nast. Si Newhouse purchased it in 1983, and shortly after, Tina quit. “I was very flattered when Condé Nast bought it, but then I quickly found it stifling. Condé Nast had its ways of doing things and I was much scrappier than that.”

The pull of Vanity Fair, New York City — and the pure ambition that’s evident in everything she does — was ultimately enough to bring her back into the Condé Nast fold. And from the outside, she was every bit the glamorous celebrity editor. Ask Tina, and she’ll say the parties were a journalistic venture; a way to be in the action and get leads. In the The Vanity Fair Diaries, she refers to this time as living as “a spectator and a foreigner.”

I ask her if she now feels she’s living a life that’s authentically her. It’s the only time in our interview that she takes a long pause.

“The great joy of becoming older is that you become less and less concerned about what other people think of you,” she says. “I just launched the podcast, which has been enormously fun.
It’s just me and a pair of headphones talking to somebody interesting, and that I’m enjoying a lot. I can really do what I want to do, which is somewhat go back to my literary roots.”

Does that mean that Tina Brown is ready to settle in? Unlikely.

“I am a reckless spirit. What I love to do is have a mission, a turnaround, a crusade — to go at something with tremendous passion. I’m not as interested in being a steward as being an innovator.”

 

Join us on May 21st, 2019, to be inspired by one of the most iconic media moguls of all time and discover what it takes to build a legacy career. Tickets are available here.


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