Interview: Linda Wells on the evolution of beauty journalism


This often happened at Seduce too. We lost advertising. And [then Condé Nast chairman] If Newhouse, who has been such a great supporter throughout the birth and creation of Seduce, was just like, “You show these advertisers that you’re independent and you make these decisions.” And the advertisers kept coming back.

Seduce: Who brought you to edit Seduce?

Well: Alex Liberman [then Condé Nast editorial director] wanted to have lunch at La Grenouille, which was like, “Oh, okay. Why don’t we just advertise in the TimesI was like, “Maybe we should just have lunch in an office somewhere?” When I got to Alex’s office, Si [Newhouse] was there too. They just said something so simple: “We want to start a beauty magazine. Will you be the editor?” I said, “I have to think about it,” because I couldn’t even imagine. My only request of them was that, if it was going to be journalistic, we should be freed from advertising constraints. We need to be able to really challenge what advertisers are doing and saying. And they said absolutely fine.

I wanted to use beauty as a way to examine our culture, to think of beauty as something more than superficial, to think of the emotional aspect of beauty. I wanted there to be a kind of literary quality as well. So we had these amazing writers. It was a kind of childhood fantasy. I mean, we also had a lot of money to spend on these things. It was the 90s. We could ask almost anyone to write for us. I was reading something I liked and we called the writer. We had Edna O’Brien, Jhumpa Lahiri, Mary Karr, Dorothy Allison, Edwidge Danticat, Arthur Miller. Frank McCourt, who wrote Angela’s ashes – I read it in a galley, and I said to myself: “He must write for us.” We went out for a three hour lunch, gave him a whole bunch of produce for his wife, and that was it.

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Mary Turner, editor of Seduce, and I wanted John Updike to write for the magazine, and we would send him letters, real letters in the mail, with story ideas. He always answered us with a typed note, on those postage-paid cards you bought at the post office, saying politely but a little humiliatingly, no. Mary and I would back off for a moment and move on. I once read somewhere that he had psoriasis and was treating it by spending hours in the sun. So Mary wrote to him and asked if he would write an article about it. A few weeks later, a manila envelope arrived with a manuscript. We didn’t have a contract, we didn’t give him any fees. It just arrived at the office as a gift. We called the piece “The Prodigal Sun”.


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