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A Decade in Digital: Fashion Happened to Amy Odell By Accident

"I was really interested in making content for women. That was my goal: To make things for women that were good."
Writer and editor Amy Odell. Photo: Courtesy

Writer and editor Amy Odell. Photo: Courtesy

This year, Fashionista turned 10, and we celebrated by looking back at how we started. Now, we're chatting with the people in the industry who were right alongside us forging the path for fashion on the internet in our series, "A Decade in Digital." Today, Amy Odell tells us how she went from starting The Cut to running Cosmopolitan's digital empire.

Not long after Fashionista graced the internet with its presence in 2007, New York magazine launched its own online fashion vertical dubbed "The Cut." At the helm was Amy Odell, who would ultimately set the tone for the website which took a sharp, critical and yes, sometimes snarky, look at the ins and outs of the fashion industry — a dream job for the former freelancer.

"Fashion almost happened to me by accident," she says. "I was a party reporter for [New York], and I ended up going to all of the fashion events and covering those, so that was how I got into it. I liked it a lot — I thought it was fun!"

That job would carry Odell from covering "Project Runway" events and late-night parties to attending fashion shows and interviewing with Anna Wintour, a journey she hilariously chronicles in her book, "Tales from the Back Row." But The Cut was just the beginning for her: After a brief stint launching BuzzFeed's fashion vertical, Odell took the reins at Cosmopolitan's website in August 2013, where she famously tripled the Hearst property's traffic. 

Along the way, she's racked up an impressive list of accolades, but Odell is far from being done; in addition to her work at Cosmo, she has a second book in the works. Thankfully, she had time between projects to tell us how she established the voice for The Cut and why she doesn't miss blogging.

What first interested you about fashion?

I don't know — that's like, how far do you go back in your life? Because I think I was always interested in fashion; from the time I was old enough to read magazines that were not Highlights, I was interested in fashion. I went to journalism school at NYU, and I don't know that when I was there I was fixated on fashion specifically. I wanted to be a writer and a journalist, and maybe one day an editor, and I was really interested in making content for women. That was my goal: To make things for women that were good.

Then I ended up at The Cut, [which was] a fashion news blog at the time that I was there. I was the first full time writer on it; other people worked on it, too, so it wasn't like I was in a vacuum. But I was the first blogger on it who launched it and kicked it off.

What was that experience like, launching a blog for an existing print property?

New York magazine had, and they still do, such a good site; it's such a good magazine and they had a voice. I guess we don't really call them "blogs" anymore, but they had great blogs already, and they wanted to do one about fashion and fashion news. Coming into it, I looked at what they had going on already; they had Vulture up, they had Daily Intelligencer up, and I loved the writers I had crossed with already, so I studied what their other writers were already doing and did my best to fit my voice into the overall [tone] of the site. 

They had made some decisions before I came on; they had decided to call it The Cut. I was just so fucking excited to get that job. It was my dream job, and it was a great, great job. For me, my job was to figure out what kind of things we would be writing about every day and how were we going to do that.

You've written about this before, but what was it like to work in digital at that time?

It's so funny thinking back on it, because I guess it was a while ago and it's really different now. At the time, I think Bryanboy was just becoming popular and starting to appear in New York Observer articles. People were so scandalized by the idea of — I hate to sound jargon-y — digital natives appearing at fashion shows. Bryanboy [and others] sat front row at Dolce & Gabbana with laptops — which was kind of a stunt on their part but, I would argue, a smart one — and people just couldn't believe that these people, seemingly coming out of nowhere, were getting to sit front row at fashion shows and being treated with importance. The industry was scandalized by it. It has changed a lot.

When did you feel what you were doing at The Cut was reaching an audience?

I think once I got the pace down, once I learned how to be fast without making mistakes and I got my voice down, that probably took six months. And then, maybe six months to a year into doing it, I felt like it started to become something that people in the industry were reading regularly.

You can see your traffic, so I'd see that our traffic was good, that it was going up. It takes time to get going; you can't just put something up and have it be an instant, huge success. But it's also good because you have to have time to figure out what it is you're going to be.

How did you establish the tone of the site?

As I said, I think that New York magazine has such a delightful site and they've always had such great writers. Chris Rovzar and Jessica Pressler were writing Daily Intelligencer at the time, and I thought they were hysterical. When I got there, I would read everything that they did and think about how I could be as funny as them. Being around those kinds of brains and those great writers and reporters would help so much. 

I wrote a book, and I'm working on a second one, and I'm personally writing in the same way now. I read people who I think are great and I try to figure out why I think they are great, and I try to apply that to what I'm doing.

When did you know that it was time to leave The Cut?

Leaving was not an easy decision, but I had been there for four years, which felt like a long time. Cosmo came along, and they seemed to be doing so many great things. I was excited by the direction they were going in, and I was excited by the opportunity to expand the scope of what I was doing to be beyond fashion, because, as I said, I sort of stumbled into fashion. It wasn't my one and only thing that I always wanted to do. I was always interested in a lot of things that appeal to women. 

It was hard to compare the jobs, because this is a really big job. At BuzzFeed, I was managing a small team — a handful of people — and now I have a team that's about 40 people. I think BuzzFeed was great, and they're doing great journalism, but Cosmo is such an iconic brand, and it needs no introduction. It was really exciting to think about working at a brand that I grew up with, that everybody knows, and think about how you take the site and turn it into a thriving digital property.

How has social media changed how you approach your job?

It has changed it so much, because now we're creating content for distribution in certain places; [we ask] if this is an audio story, or if this is a Facebook story or this is a Snapchat story, whatever it is. It's the same for video, too — this is a YouTube video, this a Facebook video. Before social media was a place that people consumed news, that wasn't really something you had to think about; you were thinking about people coming back to your site.

We're [also] thinking about mobile, and mobile and social are really the same thing, especially in the world that the popular reader lives in; she is looking at her phone all day, and she's consuming content on [it].

Do you feel like you personally need to be on it more as well?

It's funny, because I feel like I should be on it as much as I can, but as a manager and an editor, I feel like I have less time to do that. Twitter dovetails nicely with blogging because you need to keep up with the news, and that's probably your RSS feed. Editing, I'm reading a feature or I'm in a meeting or I'm dealing with managing people; I don't have to look at Twitter to do those things, so I have to remind myself to do it. 

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Odell's first book, 'Tales from the Back Row.' Photo: Courtesy

Odell's first book, 'Tales from the Back Row.' Photo: Courtesy

Why did you want to write "Tales from the Back Row?"

I wanted to write the book because I thought it would be a good book. No one had done it, and I thought it would be fun; I had the stories, I love writing and I always wanted to write a book so that seemed like a good thing to write a book about. It was optioned by Sony for film and television, which is really exciting. I'm going to try to do everything I can to see something happen with that. 

Were you nervous to put that stuff out there?

Yeah, I was super-nervous. But I think I would have been nervous with anything, because writing a book is like you're in a vacuum for a year working on the book, and then all of a sudden it's going to go out into the world. Even if you've published thousands of articles on the internet and you're used to getting your stuff read, it's a different kind of pressure, and it's a very long gestational period.

I was nervous about writing true stories about people in the industry, but nothing in the book is mean. It's a positive book — I stand by it, and I'm proud of it. 

Do you miss writing every day?

I don't miss blogging, because it's really hard and stressful in its own way, and I think that most people can do that. At the pace that I was doing, I was pushing a lot every day, and it's really taxing and hard, especially when you're trying to be funny. You might have a really bad day, you might have broken up with someone the night before or something, and you have to go to work the next day and be funny and be fast and be honest, and it's just really unrelenting.

Now with social media, if you make a mistake, you're picked apart for it. Even if you don't make a mistake, you're constantly presenting yourself and your work to be picked apart by the masses. I don't miss the pace and stress of it. Now I have a different kind of stress, but it's like the kind of stress that I want at this point in my life and career. I don't really want to be blogging all day, every day. 

How has the digital landscape changed since you started?

I think that what we're seeing now is like what I was talking about earlier, which is distributing content on platforms versus on your site, and that is something that the publishing industry is wrestling with. We all have to figure out how to adapt. But a lot of people are reading news on Apple News, on Facebook instant articles, on Snapchat Discover, so that's a huge adjustment. Then you have to really think about the platform that people are going to be consuming on and optimizing your stories and your videos toward that platform. 

You've made Forbes's 30 Under 30 list and Business of Fashion's 500; what has that kind of success meant to you?

I am really honored by all of those things; I'm so flattered anytime anybody wants to feature me or reaches out about anything. I have to say, my mom and my husband get really excited by those things and for me, while I get excited about them, it's not like I feel like I've "made it." I don't feel like I've made it at all! I feel like I could be doing so much more, and be so much better at what I'm doing. 

Those things are all so incredibly nice, but it doesn't change how I approach my work. I'm not phoning it in, I'm working really hard. I just don't think that you can ever rest on your laurels, especially in media right now. Your work is never done.

An interview with Kellyanne Conway that ran on Photo: Screenshot

An interview with Kellyanne Conway that ran on Photo: Screenshot

What advice would you give somebody looking to follow your career path?

It's really cliché, but I would say you have to work really, really hard. You have to work your ass off. This is not an easy business. The people who make it work really, really hard; the people that make it to the level that I'm at work beyond hard. 

The other thing I would say is that opportunities will not fall into your lap. If you are starting out, you can't expect an editor to just reach out to you and be like, "Will you do this job for me?" or, "Will you interview Miley Cyrus for me?" That does not happen. My book deal didn't fall into my lap. It took me a long time to get anyone interested in publishing the book I wanted to write. I'm doing a second book, and it's not like that's falling into my lap, either. It's not like someone is like, "Will you please write a fucking book?" 

You can't just expect that things are going to happen to you; you have to make them happen.

What do you look for in the people you hire?

I look for people who, like me, are kind of animals. They will work really hard and they are unrelenting in doing the job and making everything as good as it can possibly be. I also look for people who want to work at Cosmo and who have a connection to the brand. I have to say, the people who work here are not working here for their vanity. People who work at Cosmo [do so] because they believe in something. They believe in feminism. They believe in making amazing content for young women. You can tell when you're talking to people right away if they feel that connection to Cosmo and to the audience and if they don't.

What are you doing at Cosmo that makes you the most proud?

One is the journalism that we do on a daily basis, especially around politics. Lori Fradkin, who is our executive editor, oversees all of our political coverage and does a fantastic job. We have done some great pieces that have gotten a lot of pick up. Our interview with Ivanka Trump last year was huge; we also did a piece about Kellyanne Conway that made major news. I'm really proud of stories like that.

We are doing a lot of reporting now around healthcare and how it affects our audience of young women. We have some pieces coming up that I'm really excited about that I think are great and powerful. We have had a video team here for almost a year, and we are trying to do the things that we tried to do with our content a long time ago: Increase the number of videos that we're making, start to do feature things in addition to the shorter, lighter videos. Working on that has been exciting.

When do you think you'll feel like you've made it?

I don't think that'll ever happen. I feel like I'll always feel like there is something else to do. 

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Update, 8/14/2017, 10:15 a.m.: This post has been updated to note that Odell tripled Cosmopolitan's digital traffic, not doubled as was originally referenced.