Radhika Jones Q&A On Shaking Up Vanity Fair’s Covers

As an editor, you’re always trying to anticipate the various ways a project will be received. You come to your work with conviction and a desire to tell a story with integrity and fairness, especially in the case of investigative journalism. With September, just given the types of stories we were telling, that obviously felt very important, to be thinking through these decisions in such a way that we could present them with the gravitas and integrity and thoughtfulness they deserved.

I listened to that podcast as well and heard that conversation. It was one we had internally. One thing that I try to do as an editor — and it’s a little hard in the days of Zoom — is to be forthcoming and transparent about my decision-making. We want our staff and people who contribute to the work to feel proud of it. So we talked a lot about how to present the issue and about the cover in particular.

For me, it was a real dream to have Amy Sherald make that painting and to be able to talk to her about that process with it. She came to it with so much intention and so much emotion and a desire to get it right in honor of this young woman whose name, in the ordinary course of things, we would never have known, but whose death brought her before us. So a lot of the decision-making behind that cover had to do with just making sure that we were showing the depth of our work and commitment.

So making a piece of art, having an artist of the caliber of Amy Sherald, having a thinker of the caliber of Ta-Nehisi Coates, having writers like Jesmyn Ward contributing to that issue — that to me represented our commitment. That’s what we have in our power to do, to bring artistry and emotion and a sense of integrity to the work.

Right. There’s a universe where the concept of having Breonna Taylor on a magazine cover just translates into like, enlarging a photograph and calling it a day. But what you said about the symbolism of having Amy Sherald making a painting that becomes the cover and advances the meaning beyond just, here’s this woman’s image, everyone’s talking about her, that’s really interesting.

We actually ran a piece about Amy’s process in that issue and online, partly because we wanted to be transparent about it and because her process is so amazing. The level of thought and detail she put in making every step of that painting is truly phenomenal.

And what I will say is that even for people who didn’t read that story or don’t understand the tradition of Amy’s art, my hope is that when they look at that painting, they feel something. And that was a reaction we heard over and over — that people felt that it stopped them. It was something about the expression, the color palette, the composition. In this day and age, if people have a moment to stop and reflect, I think that’s an achievement.

How early did you start working on the issue?

Right at the end of May. We had been talking with Ta-Nehisi Coates about a different piece that fell through. But in the meantime, after the murder of George Floyd, after the protests began in Minneapolis and beyond, our executive editor Claire [Howorth] said to Ta-Nehisi, “Would you ever consider guest-editing?”

It was exciting and a little scary because I’ve never worked with a guest editor, and he’d never done it. And we knew we would have to do it over Zoom and in a relatively short amount of time. But I think that got us even more excited.

I’m getting a little personal now, but I’m curious how you’ve negotiated evangelizing this vision to make Vanity Fair more diverse and representative along with your own identity.

It’s something you touched on in your first letter from the editor, but I feel like leaders who are women of color have this double bind where you are expected to be this champion and talk about your identity yes, but not too much, right?

It’s one of those things where it’s like, god, we would just never get out of bed if we let this stuff sink us, right? You kind of move through your life and do good work and be true to your values and hope things work out. But the way you describe it, it’s true it would be exhausting to have everything in perfect balance.

I think I came to the job with the sense of what I wanted to do, that I wanted the magazine to reestablish itself as a magazine about the zeitgeist. I wanted it to feel timely and relevant. And one of the ways to accomplish that was to shake up the roster of who our subjects were. Because that’s what happens in the culture at large. That’s just us doing our job. So I felt pretty clear about that.

But the personal part of it is…it’s hard to talk about, not because I’m reluctant to talk about it. But it’s always something that’s evolving. Even as I’m working and absorbing the culture and being one of the people who ideally helps to shape the culture, I feel like I’m on a constant personal project of learning why I like the things I like. Why am I more interested in this actor than this other actor? What is it about the culture I grew up with in the ’80s that sparks my imagination about the culture we’re creating now in 2020?

I don’t want to sound hokey, but there’s a lot of self discovery that comes with being an editor. Or a writer for that matter. You’re writing through the reasons that certain art forms matter to you and certain kinds of expression matter to you. And I’m still discovering and learning all those things. Does that make sense?

It does, and honestly I’ve thought a lot about the inherent weirdness of this kind of question. Because no one went around asking Graydon or Tina, like, “How has your background as a WASP informed your work?”

But when it comes to leaders and artists and thinkers who are Black or people of color, there’s the expectation to have your little thesis that perfectly articulates your worldview and how it ties to your work. When in reality, it’s as you say, a general ongoing process of self-discovery.

One thing that’s kind of fun, which my team has great great tolerance for, is that as an editor, you start to discover your quirks. On any given day, am I making a decision as a person whose father was Thelonious Monk’s road manager, or am I making a decision as a person who is an enormous fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer? I am both of those things. They come together in funny ways.

And I think that it’s a great joy of working at a place like Vanity Fair where we touch all points of the culture. We get to access so many of those different parts of our personality. I feel lucky to be able to explore these things and do it with a community of people every morning in our morning standup and conversations on Slack, to talk to people who also bring those parts of personalities to their jobs. That is a great joy.

A few more questions that are a little less existential. First up: What’s your wish list for next year?

I know you’re talking about work, but of course I’m immediately like, “I would like to take a vacation.”

Oh yeah. Where’s the first place you would go?

Venice! I’ve never been. But also Japan, because I’ve never been to Japan and this year, my son and I became obsessed with Salt Fat Acid Heat. We love the salt episode, where Samin Nosrat goes to Japan and experiences amazing soy sauce. My son is 6, and he and I are like, “We are going to Japan! We are going to meet the soy sauce whisperer!”

He sounds like such a discerning 6-year-old.

He is. You know, cooking shows and food shows are amazing family television. They’re informative, and they double as travel shows. We also watched Taste the Nation, and he loved it. It’s been fun to experience those kinds of shows with a small child who’s just learning his way around the world.

But ah, you were asking about work. I think for 2021, I want things to get easier for my staff, who have worked so hard this year under circumstances that are really challenging, everything from handling childcare and school closures to being trapped in small spaces and going through a really relentless year of election coverage. It’s not that everything in the world is looking rosy now, but I will say again how proud I am. I just want for everyone to be able to reset.

Last question, a fun question. We’ve been talking a lot about magazine covers, so I’m curious: Do you have a favorite magazine cover…of all time?

I’ll give you an answer that’s a little on the nose and Vanity Fair specific, but for me, it’s the cover that represents the possibility of what a magazine can do. It’s the Tina Brown cover of Demi Moore, naked and pregnant.

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