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First Mover: Joanna Coles

Cosmo's new editor on being scolded by HGB and the right to go bare down there (or not)

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Specs
Age 50
New gig Editor in chief, Cosmopolitan
Old gig Editor in chief, Marie Claire

You started as a reporter for The Spectator and later worked for The Guardian and The Times of London. Why did you jump to magazine editing?
Really, it was a pragmatic move. After I had my second child, I realized I couldn’t travel at the drop of a hat, which you have to be able to do as a bureau chief or New York correspondent, so I took an editing job at New York magazine. I was very lucky to work with Adam Moss during the whole rebuilding of it, which was an incredibly exhilarating process.

What attracted you to women’s magazines?
I had never thought about editing a women’s magazine until I got a call from More [where Coles served as executive editor]. I picked up a copy on the newsstand and thought, “This looks absolutely dreadful. I could never work for this magazine.” I went to meet with Peggy Northrop, who was then the editor, having no intention whatsoever to go and work there. And then an hour later Peggy had shown me the redesign she was masterminding. I really responded to her, and the next thing I knew I had signed up to work for a women’s magazine.

Did you grow up reading Cosmo?
Yes. I loved Cosmo. I was precocious, so I began reading Cosmo when I was 12. And I was able to get friends to send U.S. Cosmo, so I understood that Helen Gurley Brown was a force.

Did you ever get to meet Helen Gurley Brown?
I had lunch with her when I took over at Marie Claire, and I found it rather intimidating because she’d been one of my teenage icons. But she couldn’t have been nicer, and she was totally true to who she was. She was hilarious, flirtatious, smart, funny, didn’t eat very much, chastised me for eating the burger and the bun, said I didn’t need both. She was an absolute hoot. When I got the job [as editor of Cosmopolitan], I finished all the paperwork on a Friday and Helen died the following Monday, so I never was able to tell her, which was sad.

Are there any aspects of Helen Gurley Brown’s Cosmopolitan that you’d want to revive?
I want to bring back the psychological climax I would feel having read an issue. I would literally throw it across the room and think, “My life starts now.” It was like this well-manicured, bejeweled finger beckoning me toward the future.

How do you plan to bring that excitement back to Cosmo?
At one point, every brilliant writer in Hollywood was writing for Cosmo, and I would like to reintroduce some more voices. I want Cosmo to expand its coverage of work so that we reclaim a little bit of Helen Gurley Brown’s DNA. I think the frank talk about sex is incredibly important, and I want to reclaim sex from the porn industry. I don’t want women to have to shave all their pubic hair just because that’s what Jenna Jameson does—if they don’t want to look like a 12-year-old, that’s fine. Am I blushing at this point?

One frequent criticism of Cosmo is that the magazine puts too much focus on pleasing men instead of empowering its female readers. Is that something that concerns you?
I think that’s a reasonable criticism, and it’s something that I would be looking to change a bit. Cosmo has got to be a magazine for women, about women, and by women. I think there will be a shift away from specifically “how to feed his fantasies” and toward how to connect more deeply with your partner.

What’s the craziest sex tip you’ve ever read in Cosmo?
Well, I’m English, so none of them seem that crazy to me. In fact, I think it’s possible they might get a little crazier.