Elaine Welteroth, the former editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue who spearheaded the magazine’s pivot from fashion- and beauty-focused stories to political, progressive content, is extremely fashionable and committed to empowering young women. In short, her brand is strong, even though, like many people, she finds the idea of having a brand somewhat awkward. While her 402,000 Instagram followers could probably identify the hallmarks of a Welteroth social-media post with little prompting – bright colours, big hair and an empowering message are key – she’s clear that her mission of creating space for young women is bigger than her internet image. In August, Welteroth was in Toronto to promote her memoirs/self-help field guide More Than Enough, and The Globe and Mail sat down with her to talk about online identities, authenticity and whether anyone really needs a personal brand.
Becoming editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue catapulted you from someone who was known in the publishing industry to someone who was just … known. So, what was it like to step away from the role?
Liberating. Extremely liberating. I’m grateful for the massive opportunities, I was mentored by the best, I was lifted up by a community of like-minded women and I really felt so proud of what we were able to do as a team. But I haven’t looked back for a split second.
Now that you’re a bona fide multihyphenate, how do you define your personal brand?
It’s so funny that you ask that, because I kind of cringe at the idea of calling myself a brand. And at the same time, I’m aware that we live in an internet [age]. I don’t think of myself as a brand, but I do think about my mission and that’s woven into everything that I do. I recognize that the audience that I helped galvanize is coming with me on this ride. I left Teen Vogue, but I didn’t leave the reader, so my responsibility is to really align the truth with the internet image, and to make sure that what I’m sharing and what I’m putting into the world is pushing ourselves forward, not pushing ourselves backward.
There are some things you’re known for, though, including your youth. But in More Than Enough, you wrote about doing your best to conceal your real age. Why?
Ageism is real. And I think for women, it works both ways – you never want to be the oldest person in the room, or the youngest person in the room, especially if you are looking to climb the ladder. I never told people how old I was because I always thought it would hinder my career. When I was promoted to positions where I was overseeing work from people who were actually older than me, I worried about that dynamic. So, I just kept my age to myself. I put a lot of pressure on myself to be perfect and professional at all times.
Then I became editor-in-chief and my age was in all the headlines. But there was a sense of relief that I didn’t have to pretend to be something I’m not. I was like, “I guess I can relax into my youth now.” And when I utilized my authentic voice and brought more of myself to the office, that’s what opened me up to being able to do my most transformative work.
All my favourite fashion girls have a hashtag – Instagram’s Eva Chen has the #EvaChenPose and you have the #BackseatBeat, when you apply your makeup in the back seat of a car. How did that become such a thing?
There’s literally nothing that I do on the internet that’s calculated. I just broadcast my real life, in the moments when I remember to do so. I’m always on the go – I have a packed work day and calendar and I’m constantly in the backseat of someone’s car. And I’m very good at doing makeup in any terrain, in any form of transportation. A perfect wing cat liner in a speeding race boat? Literally, I’ve done that before. And I only ever need as much time as it takes to get me from Point A to Point B.
That goes back to what you were saying about authenticity, right?
Yes. When I say I want to make sure we’re pushing ourselves forward, that means creating space for other people to be their most authentic selves and to feel better about who they are. That’s part of why I wrote this book. I felt like I had more to offer them than could ever fit in a pithy little caption on Instagram or in a fun Boomerang or in a backseat beat. There’s so much more to me and there’s just so much more that I want to contribute to our culture in this moment.
So, does everyone need a personal brand?
I think everyone has a personal brand, whether it’s projected into the digital world or not.