At age 32, Elaine Welteroth has become what we now call an “influencer.”
She was the first black beauty director at a Condé Nast magazine. It was Teen Vogue; she was 25. She leveraged that to become its editor-in-chief. And under her watch, Teen Vogue became known for taking on really tough topics: civil rights, abortion and lots and lots of politics.
Now she’s written a memoir. It’s called More Than Enough: Claiming Space for Who You Are (No Matter What They Say). In it, she says getting used to discomfort is a big part of her success. She is a biracial woman.
“Being raised in a predominantly white neighborhood, being one of the only or one of few brown bodies in most spaces in my life, and also being raised in a mixed-race family, where you’re sort of at the intersection of two different cultures, two different worlds — and you know how to speak the language of both but you don’t fully feel like you belong to either — I think that ultimately helped me serve as a bridge in divides between worlds in my career, and out in the world as a citizen,” Welteroth says.
In an interview, she reflected on her tenure at Glamour and Teen Vogue, and offered up some signposts for young people trying to make it in an industry like publishing.
On meeting her mentor Harriette Cole, formerly of Ebony magazine
She had figured out a way to carve out space for herself in the media world that was so true to who she is, and that allowed her to use her voice across different mediums. … She sat at the intersection of black culture, style and spirituality, and it just felt so authentic. And I thought: This is a woman who’s like a mini media mogul — she’s like a mini Oprah. I have to meet her. I have to talk to her. So I called her office relentlessly, I snail-mailed her, I emailed her until I could get an informational interview with her.
Five months later she called me, this one fateful day. She was running Ebony, and she said she had a shoot in Malibu. She remembered that I lived in California. Her assistant was about to transition off, so she was looking for a new assistant, and thought it would be great if we met on set. She’d pay me $250 for the day. I was like: I would pay you $250 for the day to work for you. Are you kidding? So I packed my bags, went down there, and it turns out it was a cover shoot with Serena Williams — which she never said. So it was an even bigger opportunity than I even thought. But I just felt so in my element; I felt so alive that day. I just thought: This is what I want to do.
On an experience while working at Glamour magazine
One memory that I have of working at Glamour — which, overall, was a very positive experience, by the way; I felt like I was very supported there — but I do recall this one particular experience of being at a wall meeting, which is where the whole staff gathers and … the pages of the magazine are all pinned up on the wall. And on more than one occasion — there was one other black editor. She was Haitian, dark-skinned, straight hair. She’s very reserved and quiet — the opposite of me. … I have big, curly hair. I have kind of caramel complexion. I wear bright colors. I have a bubbly personality. And the two black editors on staff could not be more different, right? So.
But on more than one occasion we were mistaken for each other. And those moments make you remember that race walks into any room before you do. No one in that situation had bad intention. But the result was that we felt like we were on the outside, and that we weren’t really seen for who we were.
On the direction of Teen Vogue under her editorship
Yeah, people weren’t expecting that from us. I think that’s an extension of the way we tend to underestimate young people. … Suddenly we were this young media brand that was talking about politics and Black Lives Matter, and who are we to be in these lanes, you know? And we were living in a time where I think — there’s a story that went viral coming out of Teen Vogue which is called “[Donald] Trump is Gaslighting America.” And it was written by one of our freelance digital writers, Lauren Duca, who’s [an] amazing, brilliant feminist writer — but she wrote about everything from Ariana Grande in her ponytails and her thigh-high boots to these really thoughtful political thinkpieces like this one.
And … we didn’t expect for this to blow up the Internet. We didn’t expect for people to be paying attention to the work that we were doing. But that singular story … became the tipping point for the rest of the world to find out about the work that we were doing at Teen Vogue. And so at that point, our traffic had gone from two to 12 million. Our subscriptions were doubling; we sold more magazines that month, the month that story came out, than we had all year. And suddenly we were like the little engine that could — who became this locomotive that couldn’t be stopped.
Gabriel Dunatov and Reena Advani produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.