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.
By the time Radhika Jones took over at Vanity Fair towards the end of 2017, the magazine had a well-established formula: high-gloss, full-octane glamour covers featuring almost exclusively white people, packed with stories pandering to the rich and famous set. A fine formula, if not one that had perhaps lost sight of the cultural moment.
"It had become preoccupied by nostalgia in a way that I think clearly has a lot of appeal but also maybe happened at the expense of looking ahead," Jones says over Zoom. "I felt that vision needed to be invigorated, that it could be modernized, and also start to look ahead a little bit more and project forward as to where the culture was going."
As part of a new guard in media, Jones was ready to act fast, making waves by putting freshly-minted Emmy-winner Lena Waithe on the cover of the April 2018 issue and not letting off the gas since. In 2020 alone, Vanity Fair made headlines with covers featuring Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Viola Davis, the latter notable because it made Dario Calmese the first Black photographer to shoot a Vanity Fair cover in its history; Jones gave the editorial reins of the September issue to Ta-Nehisi Coates, with a portrait of Breonna Taylor on the cover. All of this to say nothing about the strident profiling, feature reporting, photojournalism and sharp commentary happening on both Vanity Fair's glossy pages and its website.
The message is clear: This isn't a Vanity Fair that's interested in rubbing shoulders with those who already hold plenty of power — it's one that wants to lend its platform to those just garnering it. (And with an editor-in-chief unlikely to insert herself on its annual Hollywood issue.) According to figures from Condé Nast, it's resonating with readers, too; Vanity Fair broke its own record high for new monthly subscriptions twice in 2020, and reportedly ended the year with the largest audience of any title at the publisher.
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The strengths of Vanity Fair's current iteration may be partially credited to Jones's own background. She studied English Literature at Harvard University for undergrad, ultimately deciding to pursue a PhD in English and comparative literature from Columbia University. "I was always a reader as a child, always the girl with the book. I majored in English not knowing what career that would bring me. I was not very strategic, forward-looking about that; I think for about three weeks I toyed with physics and then, you know, three weeks of multivariable calculus changed my mind, so I studied English, in particular the 19th and 20th century novel, and I loved it," Jones explains. "I've always been someone who understands the world through stories. That love of storytelling is the throughline in my career."
It was the tug of storytelling that pulled Jones out of academia and into journalism, first through jobs at The Moscow Times, ArtForum and BookForum, up through the ranks at The Paris Review, Time magazine and The New York Times before landing in her current role at Vanity Fair. It's been a fast and furious three years at the helm of the esteemed publication, with nothing but more potential on the horizon.
Read on for Jones's insights on the current challenges facing media, why she only just recently began to use her personal social media again and what being an editor-in-chief has in common with being a professor.
What first interested you about working in media?
After I graduated, I went to Taiwan and I taught English for basically an academic year, and then I moved to Moscow and I worked at The Moscow Times from 1995 to 1997. It was an English-language daily paper in Russia, reporting on a society and a culture in massive transition during that first post-Soviet decade. I think about that time a lot because it was extremely chaotic. It was a time of much possibility, it was a time of charismatic leadership, it was a time of — we would now use the horrible buzzword 'disruption,' but it was truly a time of disruption. You could sense just being there that you were in a place at a crossroads. It's interesting now to look back more than two decades and see what direction that country went in, and I think that's something that is heavy on our minds now, thinking: Are we at a crossroads? What direction will we go in?
You asked about what got me interested in media, and publishing and journalism; that feeling of inhabiting a moment that has so much potential has always stuck with me, and a desire to be a person who's in some way involved in telling the stories of that moment.
And after that job, you pursued your PhD. Was that with the mind of having a media career? Did you think you might also end up in academia?
No, I thought I would primarily be in academia and that the media part of my brain would exercise itself on the side. Instead, things kind of flipped. But you know, I was in Russia in this very tumultuous period and there was a part of me that was like, 'Now I need to get back to my novels and process.' And so I did.
I went to graduate school at Columbia and I ended up stretching it out for a long time, because I actually missed the immediacy of magazine work. I missed the collaboration of it, I missed the deadlines, the pressures of it — all of the things you get when you work with a team at a publication. So I started working at this literary and arts magazine called Grand Street on the side. I was just copyediting. I would say yes to all those things, so I kind of had things on a dual track. There was a period where I was proofreading novels for Harcourt and I ended up reading a whole bunch of really wonderful books and getting paid by the hour in my pajamas. Sounds familiar!
But the point of the PhD was ostensibly to teach, and I think a lot about what overlap exists between that work — PhD work, research, preparation for teaching, teaching undergraduates, which you do do as part of that program — and what we do in day-to-day journalism. There's actually quite a lot of overlap. I never run a meeting without thinking about the challenges of holding everyone's attention in the classroom.
How did you go from there to the New York Times?
I was in a moment in my career where you just say yes to a lot of things, meeting people. I know somebody at one magazine, I know someone at another one, so I ended up working at ArtForum for quite a long time, and at BookForum; I worked at a magazine called Colors, where Kurt Andersen was at the time the editor, and a bunch of other places. I ended up at The Paris Review as a managing editor; I was there for three years and that was when I finished my dissertation.
Then, in 2008, I went to Time magazine. It was just a few months before President Obama was elected, and I was there basically for the Obama administration, for eight years. I went from arts editor when I got there up through the ranks to the role of deputy editor. At Time, I was obviously very involved in a whole range of journalism, from arts criticism to hard news and investigation as well as the sort of tactile practice of magazine making — which I loved and still love, even in our strange circumstances right now. I also became acquainted with the process of making decisions on a larger scale — what are we going to cover, literally what will the cover look like, when we cover this thing, who are the people that represent us, the culture, how are we going to tell these stories, et cetera — so I had become very interested in how all of that decision-making works.
Then I went to the Times at the Books Desk, working on the book reviews and working with the critics there, and also getting to know the Times, as I thought I would be there for many years. But you never know when things are going to happen in our world, and after Graydon Carter announced he was stepping down from Vanity Fair, David Remnick emailed me and and they called me in to talk about that role.
What was appealing to you when they approached you for that job?
Well, as I said, I had become sort of addicted to magazine writing, and when I went to the Times, I knew I was giving that up in a manner of speaking. A lot of the same challenges and opportunities applied, but it's a different beast being at a daily paper. I was intrigued by that.
Of course, Vanity Fair is so iconic among magazines. It feels to me, even more so now, unique in its breadth of interest. Our readership is very sophisticated and very curious, and it's been the provenance of Vanity Fair to write a lot of the kinds of things that we are very, very interested in right now. That runs the gamut from representation in the culture to the art of grift to scandal to the whole concept of privilege, all of those things — and all of those things are very active in the culture right now. It seemed a very, very rare opportunity to me, to be able to be the steward of a publication that could credibly take on all those kinds of stories.
Vanity Fair had a very specific image before you started, and from an outsider's perspective, it feels like you were able to change that image quite quickly, which is remarkable in media. What was your initial vision for Vanity Fair, and how were you able to get everyone on board and excited about that?
I'm trying to think if it felt quick at the time, but I'll take your word for it! I felt pretty clear-sighted about what I wanted to do. To me, the magazine at its various heights was a barometer of our culture. It was a true zeitgeist. I worked to really reposition it that way, as a true cultural barometer, and we made our decisions accordingly. That applied to everything from cover subjects to story selection to the new kinds of writers we were bringing to the fold, photographers new to Vanity Fair — all of it.
How has your idea of Vanity Fair changed since you started and gotten your hands in it?
I came from the outside, and I knew the brand from that perspective; that's a valuable perspective, but it's also very valuable once you become ensconced in the community to really start to commune with the people who have been interacting with Vanity Fair in different ways from different perspectives, whether that's readers or the people who are responsible for publicizing it, or contributors, long-time contributors, new contributors. I've often had conversations with people about what the Vanity Fair story is, how they see it, and every day, it continues to be deeply informative to me to hear when people will get an issue and say, 'Oh, this was a great mix.' And I'm like, 'Why?' I think I know, but what is that perspective, right?
But I think if anything, what has happened is that I'm more able to focus and discern really what is the Vanity Fair story, and it goes back to those themes I was talking about: There's something here about aspiration, about privilege, about cultural impressions, about political power, whether that's hard or soft. Is there something in this story, whatever we're talking about, that makes it right for Vanity Fair? If a pitch comes my way, it's easier for me now than it was three years ago to say, 'That sounds like a great story, but it's not a great story for Vanity Fair. Someone else should do it, maybe, but not us.' I have become much more clear because of three years now of being here: What is it that gets us fired up and also resonates with our readers, brings new readers into the fold? We have all of that information, we've been able to experiment and we're very focused now on how we do it.
It's notoriously difficult in media to incorporate digital and print and have it feel like it's the same brand, but I think Vanity Fair has done an especially good job toeing that line. How have you approached that particular challenge?
I'm Gen X, so I'm not a digital native, but I certainly came of age in media when people were beginning to understand that the cover mattered less for the way it looked on the newsstand than for the way it would look on your phone. And that's a profound shift, right? It's just an example of the larger point you make about having the digital and print identity feel unified.
When I got to Vanity Fair, I thought that the digital voice, in a way, had a little bit more of the edge and the raw factor of the old Vanity Fair of the '80s, and so if anything, I wanted to maintain that and let it migrate back into print. That was always on my mind: How are we going to not just maintain that voice, but make sure that it's pervading across all the platforms? Part of the way that you do that, honestly, is by integrating those cultures and making sure that the people who create the digital product, are the same people who create the print product. It's that simple.
I think for a lot of institutions, those changes happened belatedly. But it was very important for me upon starting that we view our collective project at Vanity Fair as a single project. And in a funny way, as difficult as it has been to work in the past year under these circumstances, it's kind of leveling, because we're all in our morning meeting, we're all talking about the stories of the day and the stories of the month, story arcs of the year. I think if there were any divides that lingered, they're pretty much gone now.
Speaking of the past year, obviously there's been a lot going on. What did that process look like on your end, reacting in real time when you have both digital and print, which is going to come a little bit later, as components?
I think that my background in news and news-driven publications was really helpful. I had spent eight years at Time; I remember the week in 2011 when we published three print issues, because Kate and William got married, we had a regular issue — which the cover profile, if you can believe, was Robert Mueller, who was then head of the FBI — and then Osama Bin Laden was killed and we did a special issue. And we had all that content online as well.
The point is, when you have a news metabolism in your blood as an editor, you don't get it out. There was something energizing to me and my team about the crises that happened last year, because we very quickly realized that our old ways of working — which, particularly for a print long-read monthly magazine, involve a lot of lead time, a lot of planning, very elaborate production, photo production and sets and a lot of travel, all of those things — those things were out the window, and we simply had to be nimble. And truthfully, we were glad to do it, because we felt really lucky to be able to work, first of all, at a moment when so many people were not able to work and so many people were losing their jobs, but we also felt motivated to tell these stories, because this has been a really momentous time to be alive in the world and trying to work out what's going to happen next.
It didn't take us long to shift into high gear and we've remained there for the year. I give so much credit to my top edit team and to the whole staff at Vanity Fair, because it's really hard to maintain that level of productivity and creativity, figuring out workarounds for literally every single part of our process. Everybody did it, and did it again, and we're still doing it. The reward has been that we've connected with audiences at a level greater than we've ever seen for the brand before. Once you know the work is resonating, it makes it easier to get up the next day and keep pushing and keep raising the bar, and I hope that's what we've been doing.
There's always been a sustained media interest in an editor-in-chief at a big publication, especially at Condé Nast, but in the last year or so, there's been a larger public interest — and a certain renewed scrutiny — in who has that role. On top of that, I think about the external expectation that someone in your position should be accessible on social media. I'm curious if you feel that pressure, how you feel it and how it either helps or is a challenge for you in getting your day-to-day done.
When I accepted the job and it was announced, that was the last time I tweeted for a very long time. Because I just thought, 'I'm going to be so busy, I cannot be distracted.' And it's really hard — I mean, my hat is off to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, I don't know how she does it. It's really hard to do your job and then on top of it, run that level of interaction and commentary that social media demands.
That said, this year I dipped a toe back into Twitter. I have been on Instagram. I don't have a grand strategy for it, because I do it myself, and so I do it when I'm authentically moved to do it. I think that maybe the reason I started thinking about it a little differently this year is that all of the circumstances around us changed, and I felt somehow that, to your point, there's increasingly an interest in who has these roles. I do think it's important for us as editors-in-chief, and all of the people who are decision-makers in media, to have a voice in public discourse, whether regularly or from time-to-time, and talk a little bit about the way we make the decisions and why we do what we do.
I try to do that in my editor's letters, which I think have become a little more personal. I hadn't really thought about this, now that you ask this, but I think that I have felt pressed this past year to open up more than I had before because I do feel that work is resonating and it's important to me to be talking about what we do and why.
What would you say are the biggest challenges facing media today?
One of the things I think a lot about is the massive, large-scale extinction event of local media. This is less about Vanity Fair, which has always been a national brand; it's not a pragmatic concern to me in my day-to-day work, but as a member of the profession, and as a citizen of New York, where I have great local, national and international media focused on my city, I realize that's a very privileged position. I think a lot about the kind of media environment that I grew up with, with the local police blotter and the honor roll from high school, and the stories that came from the community and served the community; I think about those losses and I feel very, very anxious about the role of the press in our country. Because I do think its true — and many people have studied this and could give a better answer than I can — that part of the demonization of the media, which has been such a constant drum beat in the past four years and earlier than that, is because people don't see the media as people who are part of their communities, a part of their landscape. That worries me a lot. I fear for the quality of information and opinion, but also I fear for people's safety and that's a strange thing to have to think about.
What would you say you're most proud of, and what do you wish people knew about those accomplishments that maybe they wouldn't see by picking up an issue?
There are so many things that I could say are part of that externally-facing work. I'm really, really proud of all the work that we did in this past year in particular: our photojournalism from New York during the pandemic; we had done a great photo essay from Italy beforehand, which kind of presaged everything that happened; our September issue, which I'm deeply proud of, and I think about so often, just as a reader, what we were able to publish, the ideas we were able to put forward at that time. But those are all things that people can see — and I hope people will see them and read them and talk about them.
But in a way, what I'm proudest of is the team that we've built and the culture that we're creating. It's a work in progress, always, but I came to this job when the #MeToo movement began, and I think all of us in media, maybe particularly women in media, were starting to look back at our own careers and think differently about whether our opinions had been valued, whether we had a seat at the table, how we had been mentored, or not mentored, and what that might have meant, where were the opportunities.
It felt to me at that time that you couldn't assign metrics to these kinds of things, but that a very, very important part of my job as a leader was to create a culture where people could come to the table with ideas and feel respected and feel inclined to put their hands up to try new things and feel supported and encouraged. Those are difficult things even to measure for yourself, because, like with teaching, you never, ever get it exactly right. There are always ways to be better. But I have taken very seriously the idea that it's important not just to not have a toxic culture at work, but to actively work toward a culture that's welcoming and optimized for people to succeed in all sorts of ways. Those are collaborative things, and you need everyone around you to be collaborative and to be on board. And I'm really, really proud and impressed by my colleagues, because I think that that's the kind of culture that we're working to create.
My hope is that that actually shows in the work that we do, because I think those two things are very connected.
I'm so glad you mentioned your team. What do you look for in people who want to come be a part of Vanity Fair?
I look for people who have strong opinions. I look for people who have a sense of humor, because one of our trademark registers is wit — and I think there are plenty of reasons to feel stressed and distressed by the world as we know it, but I also try to have a lot of fun at work because it's Vanity Fair and we should be having fun. I look for people who are ambitious, because that's also part of what Vanity Fair is about. I want people who are nimble in their ability to think and act and react. It probably goes without saying by now, but I look for people who are collaborative and who want to be part of a team, and want to work toward the ideas and the stories and the images that are potentially important.
What's something you wish you had known before starting out in this career?
That's tough. I feel like I'm still learning all the things I don't know! The question makes me laugh, because I didn't even know this was a career. I think there are people who grow up in magazine houses and they know all about the environment, and that wasn't me at all. I wish I could remember when I figured out that being an editor was a thing. But I guess once I figured it out, it's pretty much what I wanted to be. To be honest, Tyler, I still think about what I want to be when I grow up, so....
That leads into my last question really well, which I always like asking: What is your ultimate goal for yourself?
You know, I tried to make a key lime pie yesterday, and it absolutely did not set. It was a humbling experience. No, I'm just kidding.
I don't know. I'm not an easily satisfied person. I don't know what it is that would make me feel that way. I think eventually I'd like to write a book. I don't know what that would be about. There are more things I need to read in my life. I want to be able to carve out space to read and write again. But I don't really have a checklist, per se. I just want to keep growing as an editor and as a leader, and I want our work to keep striking the chord that it's been striking.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.