Joanna Coles has made her career by proving that women aren’t one-dimensional. The editorial director of Seventeen and editor in chief of Cosmopolitan understands that women are interested in fashion, beauty, and love as well as weightier, more intellectual topics. At Cosmo, Joanna incorporated smart pieces on politics, gun control, race, and feminism along with the magazine’s signature love and sex focus. Last year, she earned industry raves, winning the magazine’s first ever National Magazine Award. It’s no surprise that the British-born editor with a fierce sense of style and a quick, dry sense of humor is the inspiration for a new TV pilot based on Cosmopolitan. I recently talked to Joanna about the beauty products and fashion designers she loves and why she’s made it her mission to empower young girls.
Bobbi Brown: I love that you knew what you wanted to do from the start. At 10 years old you made a magazine for the queen. How did you think to do that?
Joanna Coles: If you grow up in England, the queen is like the big celebrity, so I just thought, “I need her to enjoy this product and tell me that she likes my magazines.” Even more amazing than the fact that I wrote to her was the fact that her lady in waiting wrote back and said how much she’d enjoyed it and that Buckingham Palace was looking forward to more editions.
BB: You’ve had quite the career. Is it true that when you interviewed O.J. Simpson, he shattered a water glass with his bare hands?
JC: It’s true. It was his first real interview after being found not guilty. He came to talk to the Oxford Union, and I was invited to have dinner with him. He was saying that he was completely innocent, that this was a terrible miscarriage of justice. So I asked him why Nicole Brown had put photos of herself, from when she had been previously beaten up by him, into a safety deposit box with a note saying, “If anything happens, know that I think it will be O.J. that did it.” And he was holding this very heavy-bottomed glass with water in it, and it just shattered in a thousand pieces. Really dramatic.
BB: Oh, my God. Then what did he say? Did he apologize?
JC: No, no, no. He didn’t apologize. And the weird thing was, up until then he’d been drinking from this glass, but he kept missing his mouth. So the water would just run down his shirt. And each time, he would say, “How can I miss my lips? They’re so prominent.” You could not make the evening up. It was just crazy.
BB: I read there is a new fictional TV show in the works about you and Cosmo.
JC: It’s loosely based on Cosmo. We live at the junction of celebrity, beauty, fashion, and entertainment, and we thought, “Why not pull that together in a sitcom?” It’s written by Leslye Headland, who did the movie Bachelorette. It’s just a fun romp. It’s a bit like a version of Entourage, except with women.
BB: Besides being the editor of Cosmopolitan, you’re also overseeing Seventeen. I love that you are empowering all the young girls.
JC: Up until the age of 13, girls are confident, and they feel like they can conquer the world. Then adolescence sets in, and girls lose their confidence. And Seventeen is really about them taking an hour out of their month, unplugging, lying on their bed, and reading a magazine that believes in them. We want them to enjoy fashion and beauty, but as a means to enjoy a bigger life. Here’s the next great mascara to give you bigger eyes to see the world. Here’s a fabulous pair of jeans to climb a mountain in. We want to encourage them to do great things. We’re doing a partnership with Girls Who Code. We have a lot of inspirational women who’ve been through these awkward teenage years to say, “It’s OK. You’ll get through it. This is what I’m doing now.” We want to open the world up to teenage girls.
BB: Well, when I was 13, I remember how difficult it was to read the fashion magazines because all the models were so skinny and so tall and so blonde.
JC: None of them looked like any of the readers.
BB: Right. How do you think real body image is going to get into Seventeen? Because I think we have to teach the girls that, yes, some girls are tall and skinny, but not everyone.
JC: I think part of it is about embracing the body that you have. Making sure thatyou have a healthy body, that you’re doing exercise, that you’re eating good food. Also, Michelle Tan, our editor, is very conscious of embracing all ethnicities in the magazine. We want to reflect the modern American girl. If we’re not doing that, it’s an awful loss. So you will find yourself represented in Seventeen. We have a very interesting piece in our March issue about a girl whose boyfriend was embarrassed about her size and wouldn’t take her to school events and always at the last minute would cancel. When she realized what it meant, she got rid of him! It was sort of an empowering story about how she embraced who she was, and she dumped the person that wasn’t appreciating her.
BB: When did you discover your own beauty style, because you have such a cool look. I saw a picture of you the other day with your fierce cut and pale lips and noticed you look a little like Cate Blanchett.
JC: [laughs] In my dreams I look like Cate Blanchett! I just came back from Sundance, and people kept coming up to me thinking I was Tilda Swinton. They got really disappointed when I said, “I’m afraid I’m not Tilda Swinton, but I’m still happy to give an autograph.” With beauty, I think one never finishes it. I’m always exploring. I like the concept of change. I would be very depressed if I was looking the same as I did 15 years ago. Also, it’s so much fun. The beauty products themselves are coming up with new technologies, and so I love getting in there and trying different things.
BB: That’s the advantage of being an editor — you get to sample everything. What did you try today?
JC: Your Hot Nudes, actually. They arrived in our beauty closet, and I was messing around with the eyeshadows. It’s amazing how many different shades of nudes there are. I have green eyes, which are actually quite difficult to find makeup for. A lot of people say, “You must try purple!” It looks terrible on me. I look like a sort of geisha doll, which is not the look I’m going for. I just opened anew mascara, Diorshow. I’ve been using Chanel mascara all my life. It’s time for change.
BB: Beyond products, how do you feel about the trend of injectables, plastic surgery, and Botox?
JC: I’m very unjudgmental about it. I think you have to do what makes you feel OK. As long as they’re safe and they’ve been tested well and you have a good doctor, I think, you know, whatever makes you feel good. When I moved to America, I had my teeth done because I have had horrible British dentistry, and I was very struck by how nice everybody’s teeth were in America. It was the best thing I could have done.
BB: Have you tried any lasers?
JC: I’ve tried a couple of lasers. They seem to me sort of fine. You’re never going to wake up looking 20 years younger, but I think there are amazing products out there now that help you keep your skin healthy. I feel like I want to look well. I don’t want to look 20 years younger. I do think you have to educate yourself on the latest techniques.
BB: I also love your style because you dress as fabulous as I wish I did. I also see you a lot in a great blazer, a white T-shirt, and maybe some pants or jeans.
JC: My favorite blazer is probably a tuxedo blazer I have from Céline, which I just love. I have two or three blazers from Balmain, which I also really like because they also have that thin arm and high armhole. I like the tuxedo shape of a particular jacket ’cause it’s straight and not too tailored. But actually feels a little mannish.
BB: Of course you love Céline, as do I.
JC: Phoebe Philo is English, so I feel like I understand her references. She makes stuff out of things I wore for school. For 18 years I wore a school uniform, and I feel like she sort of re-created it in a much more fun way.
BB: There’s a similar aesthetic and definitely a similar confidence I see between the two of you. Almost like, “I don’t care.”
JC: I think at a certain point, you reach an age where you’re like, “I really don’t give a shit at this point.” I’m thrilled that you think that.
BB: And talk to me about health. Whatever you are eating is working.
JC: God, I love you, Bobbi. I want you on speed dial every day. I’m pretty good on eating quite a lot of protein. My favorite meal would be a big piece of steak with salad and then Brussels sprouts and Jerusalem artichokes.
BB: And a martini.
JC: Obviously a martini. I would have the martini first. Then I’d settle into the meal with a little bit of wine. But I’m not excessive! Like, if I have one big meal, I’ll probably skip supper. And my favorite diet is the champagne diet, which I invented. It means that three nights in a row, you don’t have dinner. You just have three glasses of champagne.
JC: It’s really strangely effective. If you need to lose five pounds, you can do that.
I’m sure it’s not good for you, but I don’t do it very often.
BB: It was really fun talking to you, and one of these days maybe we will do something that’s not involving work, involving a martini.
JC: I would love that. Yes.
BB: I cannot wait to see all the great things you’re going to come up with next. Thanks again.