Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed a quotation to Joanna Coles. It was Adrienne Arsht who said: “Politics is all about money, and women don’t want to ask for money. They ask about social issues."
‘Last night I slept seven hours, sixteen minutes.”
That’s Joanna Coles, editor in chief of the U.S. edition of Cosmopolitan magazine. The 51-year-old Brit is sitting in the middle seat of a black SUV on her way to the White House on a recent afternoon. Slim and muscular with searing eyes, she’s casually chic in a black cashmere T-shirt and tight black-and-white pants, both by designer Reed Krakoff. C
But it’s the blue Jawbone “activity tracker” around her right wrist that really attracts the eye. She taps in her health goals, like getting eight hours of sleep. The Jawbone records how many hours she actually slept, how deeply she slept, how often she woke up and how many minutes passed before she resumed sleeping.
“I fell asleep in 11 minutes last night,” she says, “spent four hours and 30 minutes in deep sleep, and woke up twice during the night, once for 37 minutes.”
She carries an iPhone (to make phone calls), a BlackBerry (to get and receive e-mails) and an iPad Mini to do everything else. But she’s considering the new Samsung Galaxy device: “It has a wrist attachment that allows you to get your texts and e-mails.”
Known by many as a celebrity judge for two years on Lifetime’s “Project Runway All Stars,” the mother of two boys (11 and 14) has been in the top Cosmo post for slightly over a year. Already she has put her mark on the Hearst publication, which according to the Alliance for Audited Media, had a circulation in the first half of this year of roughly 3 million, a slight increase from last year.
Her influence is nowhere more evident than in the magazine’s newfound interest in Washington and the political and policy matters that most directly affect women. While Cosmo still carries (illustrated) hot reads with titles such as “12 Kinky Quickies” and “The Scary Thing 90% of Men Fantasize About,” recent issues have also contained articles about fair compensation, domestic violence and gun control. One recent issue included a 12-page, vividly illustrated description of 12 reliable methods of contraception.
“When you have children is the most important choice affecting your life,” Coles says.
There’s less fluff in the magazine and definitely nothing fluffy about its top woman. Coles wears her politics on her finely tailored sleeve and makes clear that she plans to affect more than just the direction of the magazine.
“I’m very confused,” she says, “how any moderate Republican candidates think they’re going to get women’s votes if they deny affordable, accessible contraception to those women’s daughters.”
She says she would like to meet with GOP politicians but doesn’t encounter them very often. “I tend to come across Republicans in business — and they don’t feel allied to the party at the moment, because the party is becoming so extreme.
“Someone sent me a list of Republicans to watch. Are we going to feature Michele Bachmann in the magazine? No.”
From the time she left her previous editor’s post at Marie Claire magazine, Coles knew the nation’s capital would be important to making Cosmo not only sexy, but also smart and topical. This particular day in the District is her “fourth or fifth visit, I can’t remember,” since she joined Cosmo, she says. It starts at 8 a.m. with lemon-curd pancakes and raspberries at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown followed by two planned conversations and an impromptu visit by an unlikely fan.
First to her table is Stephanie Schriock, president of Emily’s List, an organization that supports pro-choice Democratic women running for Congress or governor. There are currently 101 women in Congress — 20 in the Senate, 81 in the House. It’s a historic high, Schriock tells Coles, but still considerably smaller than it should be. Emily’s List is seeking ways to engage more young women in politics and discover new candidates for office, Schriock says. Could Coles provide names of young people to invite to an Emily’s List luncheon? Of course, says Coles, offering to host the event. Schriock says that if a couple of popular entertainers attended the luncheon, more young women might attend.
“We could help you with that,” says Coles.
Coles is rapidly becoming known as a public-affairs hostess. Adopting a tradition started by Cosmo founder Helen Gurley Brown of bringing together New York’s best and brightest, Coles invites women from the corporate world, the media, fashion and entertainment industries, and nonprofit groups to gather for lunch and talk about issues ranging from student loans and climate change to holding public office. Known as the Cosmo 100 or Cosmo 1,000, depending on how many people are invited, the event highlights topics that her magazine can then expound upon, increasing Cosmo’s visibility and enhancing its reputation.
Schriock is obviously a Coles admirer. “Joanna is bringing more women into the political process by virtue of the magazine’s ability to give them practical information about the critical issues facing our country,” she says after her visit. “We need more women’s voices to run, to win. The starting point is finding that point of involvement. Joanna is speaking about that every day.”
As Schriock leaves the table that morning, Coles — rarely shy about giving advice of any nature — asks her if she watches the HBO drama “The Newsroom.” Schriock doesn’t.
“Life is short,” Coles says. “Watch it.”
Coles conveys a sense of urgency about almost everything, and apparently she always has. Growing up in a family of four in West Yorkshire, a county in north central England, she was called the “head girl” by her sister because she took the lead in family events. At 17, she was asked to run as a Green Party candidate in a local election. Her dad, a businessman turned teacher, said no, not while she was still in high school.
An early career as a newspaper reporter taught her to move fast, talk to anybody and pay attention to deadlines. After graduating from the University of East Anglia with a degree in English and American literature, she accepted a graduate traineeship at the Spectator, a British weekly focusing on current events. She later moved to the United States, crisscrossing the country as a bureau chief for the Guardian and other papers and touching on everything from school shootings to economics.
It would later inspire her, as a magazine editor, to run stories about the challenges and opportunities for women living and working in the United States. “I had my head under the hood of America,” she says in an interview. “It was an extraordinary experience.”
It would also inform her own decisions. Plentiful financial resources and a broad support network have been instrumental in allowing her to seize on career opportunities. She says she has a good group of women friends who help each other in a pinch. Her younger boy, 11-year-old Hugo, can now walk home from school; the older, 14-year-old Thomas, is in his first year at Andover. While raising their children, she and her husband, author Peter Godwin, have long agreed that if one is out of town, the other stays in New York. That control over her time is a luxury that many working women who read Cosmo probably don’t enjoy.
“Because I’m the boss, I run my own scheduler,” she says. “Makes a huge difference.” She adds: “It’s the big, full life that I’ve always wanted. I don’t like the word ‘juggling’ or ‘work-life balance.’ You prioritize.”
Guy Cecil III, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, arrives at Coles’s table at the Four Seasons just as Schriock is leaving. Cecil’s job is to manage grass-roots organizing, recruit candidates, and provide campaign funds for tight races. Coles has asked him to talk to her about the need to recruit more women to run for office and how to advise women who do run.
Two things hurt women’s chances, Cecil tells her. Sometimes, they try to make themselves seem the toughest candidate in the race, and that doesn’t sit well with voters. Also, voters expect female officeholders to be “relatable.” They don’t expect that so much from male candidates, he says.
In the middle of their conversation, an older woman dressed in a navy Armani skirted suit and wine Zanotti heels walks over and stands at their table. Coles and Cecil continue to talk, appearing at first not to notice her. During a break in the conversation, the woman introduces herself as Adrienne Arsht. She tells Coles that she’s a friend of “Morning Joe” TV host Mika Brzezinski, also a friend of Coles.
Coles doesn’t miss a beat. “Where are you on the Miley Cyrus thing?” she asks, referring to Cyrus’s gyrating, oft-criticized performance in August on the MTV Video Music Awards, which Brzezinski blasted on her TV show. The 71-year-old Arsht shrugs. “She’s fine,” Arsht says. “My personal trainer makes moves not that different than that twerking.”
The conversation continues. “Politics is all about money, and women don’t want to ask for money. They ask about social issues,” says Arsht, a multimillionaire arts patron. “Women also ask, ‘Is the candidate going to win?’ ‘What’s in it for me?’ ” She tells Coles she was a faithful reader of Cosmo during the years when Brown ran it. She hadn’t picked it up since then until her 24-year-old assistant gave her a subscription for her birthday about a year ago.
“I learn from the articles in Cosmo,” Arsht says in a later interview. “Young women today stand up for themselves, know what they want, and get that information from Cosmo in a gentle way. Sex is much more their normal interaction. It’s something you can do without so much sneaking around, guilt and worry.”
“Look at ads in TV and Europe. They’ve been having nude people in showers using Ivory soap for years.”
After Arsht leaves, Coles wraps up her meeting with Cecil by moving into the personal, just as she had with Schriock. Cecil tells her he’s getting married to his partner Edward McNulty the coming weekend. Coles congratulates him. Her children, she says, have been going to “predominantly gay weddings” recently. She reminds him to keep her up to date on “women to watch, women who have character, temerity.” Minutes later, she and her assistant climb back into the SUV and head to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
Coles settles into the middle seat again and applies lip gloss. She also starts rubbing her arm. “I had a warm bath last night,” she says. “I can’t imagine how much I’m peeling.” Holly Whidden, who is Cosmo’s director for editorial brand strategy and is traveling with Coles, has just received an e-mail from the Institute for Economic Empowerment of Women wanting Coles to speak. How many days a week is she on the road? I ask Coles. “It goes in fits and starts,” she says.
She reflects briefly on Arscht’s enthusiasm for the early Cosmo. “I’ve been reading the obits of Helen Gurley Brown. She understood the impact it could have. It really is for all generations,” she says.
A slew of presidential staff, including President Obama’s senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and Tara McGuinness, a senior communications adviser for the White House, greet Coles warmly. Coles wants to make sure the magazine is explaining well to younger Cosmo readers something as complex as the health-care legislation that recently went into effect.
“Coming from a country where health care is taken for granted, I can’t believe what it’s like here,” she tells the group. “I asked my hairdresser, ‘What do you do if you get sick?’ She said, ‘I just cross my fingers.’ ”
She hears from a staff person that there has been considerable pushback against the new insurance, especially in Florida and Texas. She grimaces. “It really should be [said] to the politicians: Stay out of the bedroom and help keep us well.”
Coles is briefed on some of the ways the administration is trying to reach 18- to 34-year-olds, including tweets by performers and TV spots during popular shows. Cost is the No. 1 reason young people give for not enrolling in the health plan, the staff tells Coles, even though the plan is cheaper than most private insurance and pays for all recommended forms of contraception without co-pay. In response to the concern about cost, the administration condensed the online application and adjusted it to make sure the tax credit for enrollment would be easy to spot.
“What [young adults] don’t realize,” Coles says to the staff shortly before the meeting comes to a close, “is that they could get appendicitis any time, or the air conditioner could fall on their head as they walked down the street.” She turns to Whidden and says, “Let’s do a live half-hour Twitter conversation on this.” Then to McGuinness: “Assume we’re on the social media part of it.”
The SUV is now headed back to Union Station, and Coles asks Whidden if she’s sure they will make the 3 p.m. train. Coles has told her husband she’ll arrive in New York at 6, in time for dinner with him and their two boys.
Whidden checks her watch and says they have plenty of time. Coles then stops talking politics and reflects on what it means to be a Cosmo girl. The Cosmo girl doesn’t have to be a Miley Cyrus. She can also be the 71-year-old at the Four Seasons who says “darn” and “pooh.” The Cosmo girl — or Cosmo woman if you prefer — “is a psycho-graphic. It’s an attitude,” she says.
For Coles, it is also a very personal blueprint. “I love the idea that you want a great sex life, great friends, great work . . . financial independence,” she says. “It’s a great chaotic mix that will make you feel you made some good choices. I wanted to be part of a sexy, sophisticated world. Now I want to provide that for other women.”
Laura Sessions Stepp is a freelance writer and senior media fellow at the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.