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How Moana Luu Went From TV Host to Chief Content and Creative Officer of 'Essence'

"I believe that art is for sharing, and the best way to share was to go through the media."
Moana Luu, chief content and creative officer of Essence. Photo: Courtesy of Moana Luu. 

Moana Luu, chief content and creative officer of Essence. Photo: Courtesy of Moana Luu. 

In our long-running series "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.

To put it as gently as possible, media is in a really weird place right now. Over the past few years, we've seen mastheads shrink and shift, endless strategy pivots and a near-tangible uncertainty surrounding the future of the industry's once most certain roles.

It goes without saying that the individuals put into positions of power in media will be tasked with not only leading significant cultural and financial change, but rewriting the rulebook altogether — and having the worldview to back it up. To that point, there's no better real-time example than Moana Luu, the newly-appointed chief content and creative officer of Essence.

Prior to accepting the role — one the Caribbean-born executive recalls as always being apart of her "American dream" — Luu cut her teeth in the early years of her career working across nearly every medium in the creative world, from media and fashion to art and music. Having done so in some of the most culturally rich corners of the world, like Paris and the Philippines, Luu has gathered a unique understanding of how different people around the world want to consume and communicate.

In her work in media alone, Luu has created and launched television channels and programs, web applications, websites and magazines consumed by millions of people around the globe. What's more, she most recently served as chief creative and brand officer at Trace Media Group, the leading media corporation in Africa, where she led the company's rebranding strategy. 

It's obvious as to why the the newly-independent (and once again fully Black-owned) company has brought Luu on to lead the expansion of the brand's content verticals across all platforms; she has what it takes, and in 2019, that's saying a whole lot. Over the phone from her new office, she took the time to walk us through what her unconventional career path means for her strategy at Essence, why she geeks out over audience data and how to best prepare young women of color entering the world of media today. Read on for highlights from our conversation.

Tell us a little bit about what you studied in school, and if you knew at that point what you wanted to do when you grew up.

I grew up and did all my school in the Caribbean island of Martinique. I studied literature and arts, most specifically cinema. I was one of the top students in the whole department so, from there, I went to an art and visual communications school in Paris. I knew that my whole career would be focused around design. I'm from an artist family, meaning that my father was one of the people in the canyon that was organizing all these big fests — with dance, art and theatre. He's one of the first movie directors from Martinique.

I knew that I wanted to touch art, but in a different way, meaning that I believe that art is for sharing, and the best way to share was to go through the media. I love to say that my job is making things beautiful.

What was your first actual job after college?

My first job was as a production director for a music video at one of the largest music production companies at the time called Focal, based in France. It was very interesting because music videos are a way of mixing cinematography and music. Everybody was trying to do something very, very creative at the time. 

From that, I moved to Asia and was between Manila, the Philippines and Hong Kong. I was doing television hosting and working as a fashion director for magazines. That was my start on the international side of [media]. What actually did change my career was living in Asia, because in Asia, they have this culture of excellence when it comes to art. They have this mix of culture; it's a former Spanish colony, so there's European background, but at the same time, they have the American lifestyle and the Asian culture. How can we bring all these cultures together to create something that's innovative?

I'd been hired by a cosmetics company at that time to redesign their brand in Paris. When I moved to Paris for them, I could bring this new point of view. We were ahead of what was going on; for example, 15 years ago, I was already doing eyelash extensions in Asia. Nobody [in the West] knew about it at the time, but in the Asian culture, every woman was doing it.

Were you hesitant to move to yet another country for a job and be a part of another culture?

Actually, my whole family is all about travel. I love to say that we are citizens of the world. I think it came from my background, because Martinique is a French island but we are part of the Caribbean; we are part of the Americas but, since there is the French part, I'm also European. It's a 15 minute flight to St. Lucia and it's a one hour flight from the Dominican Republic, so we speak Spanish and English. We have all this mix of culture that is normal for us, but brings a difference. I think I would not have my position today if not for this mix of cultures. It's a plus to understand what it is to be a Black woman now in the world.

Moana Luu at the Generous People 5th Anniversary Party during the 70th annual Cannes Film Festival. Photo: Matthias Nareyek/Getty Images

Moana Luu at the Generous People 5th Anniversary Party during the 70th annual Cannes Film Festival. Photo: Matthias Nareyek/Getty Images

Tell us about your time at Trace Media Group and in your own work.

At Trace, I was the chief brand and creative officer with a very unique opportunity because Trace is the leading media corporation in Africa — and the second most watched music channel in France, too — leading on the path of urban music segments with this point of view that is local. 

My role at Trace was very interesting, because it was actually working with all those African cultures together and building a platform where everybody can understand the content and be part of it, too. My last baby before moving on to Essence was a mobile phone called Trace One. That was my first time designing tech, and one of the nicest challenges. The phone is out now, so I'm excited about it. 

I designed a boutique hotel in the Caribbean called Apolline Martinique. When I designed this hotel, I wanted to show to the world what creole modern is, meaning, a luxury lifestyle of what it is to be creole today — from the music to the library, every detail that makes something, some place, special to you in your heart. Now it's one of the highest rated hotels in Martinique. The owner of the place contacted me because he loved everything I was designing.

I really didn't want to create another hotel. I just wanted to create a space where people can come and relax and feel like home. I'm always passionate; everything is my baby.

What was your knowledge of Essence was when you were younger? Had the weight of its impact had reached you in Europe?

Essence is an iconic brand. When I was growing up in the Caribbean or studying in Europe, we know iconic covers from Essence. It's always been a part of the [experience of] a Black woman that I was like, "One day I will be on the cover of [Essence]," or, "One day I will work there." That's always been part of this big American dream — that was part of my American dream. 

I would never have imagined to lead the magazine. I really hope that I will keep this mood of just being so excited and happy about it.

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Now that is happening, why does the role and this specific time feel exciting?

It's an amazing opportunity because it is true that now I have an expertise that is quite specific — how many people do you know that can already rebrand a full media company focused on Afro culture? With this new art culture, it is more video-focused, audio-focused, digital-focused. People know Essence as a magazine, but you know that [our] festival is a very strong brand, too, and I love to see that every experience that we are creating is moving the magazine. The web is the best way to share it with the world, and, like I told you at the beginning of this interview, art is for sharing.

Kiki Layne on the February 2019 cover of "Essence." Photo: Ian Maddox 

Kiki Layne on the February 2019 cover of "Essence." Photo: Ian Maddox 

What do you think is Essence's secret sauce? What does the brand do that others don't?

Even if I think we are recreating a secret sauce for us now to be contemporary, the secret is that it's a 50-year-old magazine, because it's multi-generational, meaning that we're talking to the millennial woman and the 65-year-old woman. This is boring, I know, but I love to work with the data: When I see our reader sheet, it is 26 percent millennials, 26 percent from there to 45 years old, and 36 percent [from there] to 65 years old. It's so rare to have such a large range. Basically, women grew up with Essence and passed the magazine to their young kids. That's a very interesting, and I think that's the secret sauce of Essence, that we are talking to every woman.

Your current role right now is obviously focused on expanding content beyond just traditional print or digital media. What kind of things are you excited to put into place throughout the next year?

Since I come from TV and radio, this multi-platform app culture is actually the new direction for Essence, meaning we're going to create videos for every vertical from fashion to beauty to woman empowerment to life events. Video will be one of the key elements that we have on all of our platforms, from social media to our own website, but also when you go onto Hulu or Netflix. We will create content that is for every woman on all the platforms and reach a global audience. 

The podcast is my baby. We're going to create six new original podcast series, thanks to the success of our podcast 'Yes, Girl," with more than 1.5 million downloads. We know that we have a strong audience listening to our podcast and they want a girlfriend to give advice. We're going to have one on beauty, we're going to have one on love and relationships, we're going to have one on work and money and success stories. We're going to be a big part of the 2020 discussion with women in politics.

Is there anything else that you feel really excited about that maybe isn't as traditional, as far as verticals go?

As you know, I'm a creative and I love beautiful things. We're going to redesign the website and redesign the magazine. We have a new website that's going to be super modern, mobile friendly and sexy for women and add creative features. Basically, the redesign of the magazine is to fit to what Black women want today.

Is there anything that you're doing to make sure that you stay grounded and calm and relaxed? How are you taking care of yourself?

I'm doing my best as far as I can. I will always put the good energy, all my energy, on the project, one step at a time. I also think that it's very important that I always try to be realistic. Right away, when you come to me with an idea, I can say, "We can make it work," or, "We will not make it work. It's impossible. It's a dream." I'm very straightforward and honest with the team so we don't waste any time. The key is authenticity.

Speaking of your team, it's such a tumultuous time in media for a lot of companies. Do you feel a responsibility to keep the energy and momentum high?

Yes, actually. I think this is basically the difference between media and social media: We're supposed to educate the people, we're supposed to lead by example. We try to put this energy in the team and to our readers, to show positive images, diversity, sharing the information to take action. Basically, what we are doing everyday in our office is for our readership, because we are the same.

Since you've had so much experience and perspective from all around the world, I'm interested in what you think about American media diversity and where you think it needs improvement.

When I say that today Essence is going to be more diverse and open, we're talking about inclusion. We want to talk to every woman, including the Black trans-women community. We have to have a big conversation, even inside our own community, about the way we're going to talk about it, because everyone needs to be part of this conversation. This is something that we're going to change for Essence

How do you want to see this industry change in the next two years?

The industry is already changing. With media, people want to be able to pick and create their own content. It's why we can see this big change in social media and all of the influencer [growth], because [readers] want to pick who creates their content for them and consume it when they want. We need to change and disrupt the business model and it's actually what we are doing now at Essence. We're trying to disrupt the model to be more contemporary.

Speaking of influencers, as a leader of a brand, how important do you think it is to make yourself visible — making TV appearances, posting regularly on Instagram and representing your brand to the public? 

I'm a nerd, so basically, I love to work and write. I'm just doing the visible part of it because I have to. I really don't think that people should believe in your work because of your social media and how you share your image. They should believe in your talent and what you're doing, as well as who you can bring with you. 

I'm doing it for the awareness; to lead by example, because I was searching for an example when I was super young. I'm trying to show that you can be yourself, be reserved and not use your private life to actually do your job. You can still be you and not have to sell yourself to get somewhere in your career.

For young Black women, young women of color, who may be reading this and following the work that you're doing, what do you think they should be preparing for if they want to enter media now?

Education is key. It's great to be self-made, but you need to find a way to learn fast. You need to find a way to learn and to be agile, to not be only one piece of the puzzle; you need to have the global view, the whole puzzle, to understand it. Work hard, because the world is hard today. We need you to be realistic, but keep dreaming, because it's what brings you forward.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.