Amelia McDonell-Parry, editor-in-chief of the popular women’s lifestyle site TheFrisky.com, is probably the last person you’d expect to find at a men’s magazine like Maxim. And yet, McDonell-Parry’s career path has taken plenty of unexpected twists and turns, from her early days as an intern at Jane to scoring her first gig at Rolling Stone, to her current position heading up TheFrisky.
Here, McDonell-Parry talks about the surprising office culture at Maxim, going up against censorship at Turner and how she finally got past her fear of failure.
Name: Amelia McDonell-Parry
Position: Editor-in-Chief, TheFrisky
Resume: Interned at Jane and Interview during her summers at college, scored her first gig as an editorial assistant at Rolling Stone and parlayed that into a spot at Maxim, where she worked her way up from assistant editor to associate managing editor. Freelanced for about a year after that before becoming founding editor of TheFrisky.com.
Birthday: November 16
Hometown: San Diego, California
Education: BA in journalism from University of California, Santa Cruz
Marital status: Single
Media mentor: “Jane Pratt’s somebody I’ve always admired. She’s had an influence on where my career has gone. I would also say the people who’ve mentored me the most have been the people I worked with here [at TheFrisky]. It’s been really inspiring to see how they approach the [often personal] stuff they’re writing about, and the way they’ve evolved their voices.”
Best career advice received: Learning how to manage up is just as important as learning how to manage down.
Guilty pleasure: “The show that makes me feel the most guilty is Sons of Anarchy. It’s so brutal towards women, but it’s so hard to turn off. So that, and definitely wine and Diet Coke.”
Last book read: “I just finished the Lena Dunham book on tape [Not That Kind of Girl]. I also just read The Fever, by Megan Abbott. ”
Twitter handle: @xoamelia
Tell me about getting your first gig at Rolling Stone.
During college, I interned at Jane twice and then also at Interview. The Rolling Stone job came along because the person who had hired me at Jane was somebody I stayed in touch with after I graduated and someone who was very kind to me and was impressed with my interning skills. About a year after graduating, I got lucky because that same guy had just gotten hired at Rolling Stone, and he recommended me. That’s how I got an interview, and that’s how I got hired. It was amazing because it was a year after graduating and I was like, ‘I’m working at Rolling Stone.’ It was like a dream. Mind you, I was answering phones and mostly doing finance stuff, like making sure all the writers got paid, all the stuff that actually has become incredibly helpful now that I’m running a website.
I was lucky because I was able to write small pieces for [the magazine], like little band reviews. I always really loved music and while I wasn’t getting paid a ton, I was getting free tickets to shows and free CDs, and definitely getting to live this sort of ideal, early 20s life in New York, working at a music magazine. It was awesome.
How did you end up at Maxim?
After about a year and a half [at Rolling Stone] my boss got hired to be the editor-in-chief of Maxim, and he brought me with him. It was interesting. I definitely went into it unsure of what to expect. I was not a Maxim reader. I’m a feminist. I was like, ‘What’s the culture going to be like? What are these guys going to be like?’ As it turned out, the men who actually make the magazine, at least for the time I was there, are so not a reflection of their readership. And so it was actually a really wonderful experience. I will tell you, the amount of pranks that people would pull — it was a really fun office. There was a lot of hard work, but there was a lot of silliness, and I liked that.
It was a really good experience, too, because I was able to move into a couple of different roles. I was an assistant editor for a while, but then I became associate managing editor, which gave me a lot of skills that I use now, in terms of managing a staff and learning how to manage people based on personality types.
What led you to TheFrisky?
After being laid off at Maxim, I was freelancing for 10 months. I did some stuff for Nylon, and I was doing a weekly little thing for Jezebel. I was starting to really get into online stuff and I was also really enjoying doing women’s media. And then, randomly, a guy who I met at Maxim, a guy he used to work with was hired by Turner to staff up and launch this women’s site. And so my friend John had recommended me for it, and I was sort of like, ‘OK, I’ll talk to them.’ I went through the whole process: I interviewed, I took a rigorous edit test. At the time, Turner wanted TheFrisky to be a sex-and-relationship site. So I conceptualized what I thought it would be like. The whole time I was thinking, ‘There’s no way I’m getting this.’
And then I kept getting further and further along in the process, and then they finally were like, ‘We want to fly you down to Atlanta to meet so-and-so.’ That’s when I suddenly realized I actually had a shot at it, and my first instinct was, ‘Oh God, I don’t want it.’ Even though I had come up with this whole concept, and I was feeling good about it, and it certainly seemed like a fun job, I definitely felt like I couldn’t pull it off. I think I was very, very scared of failing at something that big. My boyfriend at the time was like, ‘Are you crazy? Even if you do it and it doesn’t work out, it’s good experience. Do it.’ So I’m grateful to him for pushing me to have the confidence.
What was it like launching a website from scratch?
It took us about six months before we actually launched. It was interesting because Turner’s a Southern company, so it’s still pretty conservative. There were a lot of rules about what we could and couldn’t write about. That was a real challenge given that it was a sex-and-relationship site. Turner was very conscious of us not tackling certain issues. That was very, very frustrating for me. For instance, they didn’t want us to write about abortion because it’s such a hot topic. Over the years of being at Turner I definitely tried to push that boundary as much as possible because I thought it was, frankly, ridiculous.
Before the launch, we quickly realized that we were going to be too limited in doing just sex-and-relationship stuff and that we wouldn’t be able to reach our traffic goals. So we broadened the scope and became much more of a general-interest women’s site. For the first six months that we were test blogging and working our way towards launch, I didn’t think we’d make it. And then we did, and it was a miracle. And then we had really high traffic goals for the first year and I was like, ‘I don’t know if we’re going to be able to do this.’ I was still doubting what I was capable of. And we did it, and we hit our goals and seven years later I’m still here. It’s crazy. We now have a different owner and we’ve definitely had our struggles with ownership and budget cuts and all sorts of things. It’s often felt like an uphill battle to a certain degree, but a very rewarding one.
The site features a lot of deeply personal essays from you and your writers. Was that a conscious choice on your part?
From the beginning, we really wanted to make the site a place where a wide variety of women could share their points of view about their lives, about things they care about, in ways that were very relatable. So to work at TheFrisky, you would need to be someone who is comfortable revealing certain things about yourself. For myself, personally, I have never really had a problem sharing my sh*t online. I sort of forget there are that many people reading it. I don’t think about it, to be honest. I guess I do sometimes, and those are the times that I purposely don’t read the comments. But, for me, writing about my own personal life or things I’m struggling with is a process; it helps me work through those things. That isn’t to say that I write about anything that’s bothering me. It always needs to be something that’s going to be of worth to the readers.
What are your day-to-day duties as editor-in-chief?
Well, we’re kind of small staffed right now. I’m in the middle of trying to hire — so I’m really busy. I still edit every post, which definitely takes up some of my time. I also do as much writing as I feel inclined [to do]. Some days I’m inclined to write a lot because we literally need the posts. And sometimes it’s because I have something I want to write about, so I make time to do it.
I’m also the person who deals with anything that has to do with sales and marketing. So if we have a sponsored deal that includes native content, I’m either assigning that out to somebody on the staff or I have a freelancer who’s doing it. I also work with ad sales and marketing on coming up with ideas for sponsored content. I’m always trying to find time to plan for the future, too, in terms of larger ideas for the site, larger concepts and big plans outside of the day to day.
What’s your advice for up-and-coming writers hoping to work online?
Learn how to nail a pitch. That doesn’t mean sending a super lengthy email with incredible detail about everything your piece is going to cover. I like a paragraph or two at most. If you can, include a couple of links to writing samples. Nothing I have to download. If I have to download it, I get annoyed. Get to the point, really nail your thesis and then be quick about the turnaround.
It’s really important for freelancers to show an understanding of the entirety of a freelance career. And that means not just pitching an article and writing it, but also knowing how to properly invoice for things. I love it when a freelancer has an assigned W-9 on file that they can send. I’m always really impressed with that.
You also need to look deeply at the site you’re pitching. So often people will come up with an idea and then assume it’s great for every site that appeals to women. Has this topic already been covered before? Is your idea different? Is this something that’s super timely?
Also, starting up your own blog is always a good idea. Right away, it’s a place to point people to where your writing is. It also keeps you in the habit of writing every day, which is so important.
If you’re in college, do an internship. I think interning online is awesome because often you get to walk out with clips. So if you’re in college, find a way. It can be really, really valuable. You pick up important life lessons, you make really good connections. I’m very pro-internships.
Aneya Fernando is the associate editor at Mediabistro. Follow her on twitter @aneyafernando.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.