Cosmo’s Joanna Coles Wants to Talk Politics, Not Just Sex

Trashy ads out, political coverage in

It’s been just over six months since Joanna Coles took over as editor in chief of Cosmopolitan, bringing with her a long list of goals from reviving the legacy of Helen Gurley Brown to “reclaiming” the conversation around sex to boosting career coverage.

At first glance, the magazine itself doesn’t seem to have changed drastically. The April cover, for instance, features tabloid queen Kim Kardashian surrounded by cover lines like “The Sex Move That Brings You Closer” and “How to Talk Dirty.” But at the bottom is one line you probably wouldn’t have seen a year ago: “Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg on How to Kick Ass at Work.”

Having one of the country’s most powerful female executives—who also appears on the cover of the Cosmo Careers insert—sharing space with a sexy reality star represents the ethos of the “new” Cosmo. “It’s very empowering to have Kim Kardashian and Sheryl Sandberg in the same issue,” said Coles, who wants to make career coverage a priority. “They’re both at the top of their games—very different games, but they’re both at the top.” (Don’t hold your breath for a Sandberg type to make the magazine’s front cover, though: “Do I think we’re going to put Meg Whitman on the cover of Cosmo? Not right now,” said Coles.)

Cosmo is also pushing a political message in a way that few other women’s titles are doing. “It’s a time in women’s history where we do have to stand up for certain things,” said Coles, who described her Cosmo as “unashamedly” pro-choice, pro-contraception and pro-equal pay. In addition, the magazine is tackling sober national issues like gun control: Last month, Coles hosted former Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly for an off-the-record talk about the subject at Hearst Tower and plans to cover the topic in an upcoming issue. (In true Cosmo spirit, however, Coles made sure to mention that Kelly, an astronaut, would be an ideal candidate for the magazine’s Hottest Bachelors list, were he not married to Giffords.) Later this month, expect to see Coles brushing shoulders with more politicos at the White House Correspondents Dinner.

Changes in the magazine’s tone around sex and relationships have been subtler. There’s still plenty of raunch, but Coles has attempted to steer it away from the guy-pleasing tips of Cosmos past. (“The Sexiest Thing You Can Do on a Date,” for example, is actually a column by Anthony Bourdain about enjoying a date at a restaurant.) Meanwhile, the monthly back-of-book ads for sex toys, chat lines and diet pills—not the best examples of female empowerment—have been banished starting with the March issue.

"These changes—more pointed political coverage, less 'please your man'-ing—are really exciting to me, given that Cosmopolitan is the most widely read women's magazine in the country," Jezebel staff writer Katie J.M. Baker emailed Adweek. "I'm impressed with the changes I've noticed so far, like replacing diet tips with articles on how sexy it is to eat with abandon, real talk about the abortion pill, etc." Still, "because Cosmo is so mainstream, I don't think anyone's expecting it to become a radical feminist zine anytime soon," Baker added.

High fashion is also getting a renewed focus, with covers styled by Rachel Zoe and starring Miley Cyrus (plus her edgy new haircut) in Christian Dior and Marc Jacobs. The magazine’s sartorial sensibility will continue to evolve under new fashion director Aya Kanai, who had been the head stylist at popular e-boutique Shopbop until Coles hired her last month. Kanai also had experience in print at Teen Vogue and Nylon, but her background at Shopbop, an online retailer that has built an impressive editorial presence, makes her an interesting choice—especially as magazine brands attempt to source revenue through their own e-commerce platforms. Aya “has great magazine experience, but she also understands how readers actually buy clothes,” said Coles.

It's too soon to say how readers are responding (newsstand sales for the March issue, the most recent available, fell 18 percent year over year, per the Rapid Report service of the Alliance for Audited Media, formerly the Audit Bureau of Circulations). But so far, Coles’ changes seem to be resonating with advertisers. Ad pages are up 14 percent year over year between January and April, according to the Publishers Information Bureau.

Recommended articles