Seventeen’s EIC on Why Gen Z Will Take Over the World

The roster of media mavens, moguls and boldface names spotted today at Michael's.

lunch at michaelsI was really looking forward to today’s lunch with Seventeen’s editor in chief, Michelle Tan. Although we worked together at People many years ago, we’d never met. Let me explain: back in the day the magazine’s correspondents (me) reported the stories and then sent their files to the editors (Michelle) who would then write them up. We worked on separate floors and it was very much a case of the separation of church and state — the system ran like a well-oiled machine.

Michelle Tan and Diane Clehane
Michelle Tan and Diane Clehane

“I thought I’d spend twelve weeks there, but it would end up being twelve years,” joked Michelle of her long tenure at People. She’s one of its most successful alums, and part of the Facebook group, Former People People. “I graduated from Northwestern on Saturday, moved to New York on Sunday and started my internship on Monday at People.” Michelle’s steady rise through the ranks is impressive: she started in 2002 as an editorial assistant, later rising to staff writer from 2004 to 2009, covering human interest and entertainment stories, celebrity cover stories and awards season in Los Angeles and eventually was named special projects editor in 2014, where she was the top editor for double issues for the weekly magazine, subscriber specials and newsstand issues, including Half Their Size, Hollywood’s Hottest Bachelors and my personal favorite, World’s Most Beautiful People. “I like to say I was born and raised professionally at People,” said Michelle just as her salad nicoise arrived.

When Hearst’s Eliot Kaplan (who I Lunched with a few weeks back) called asking if she was interested in coming in to talk about the EIC job at Seventeen, Michelle’s stomach dropped (“In a good way”) and after her interview she thought, “What do I have to do to get this job?” Well, whatever she did, it worked. While she admits it was hard to leave the tight-knit People family (“I was the one crying”), she clearly loves being the confidante-in-chief at Seventeen. She’s coming up on her first anniversary at the top of the masthead, having started at Hearst in December of last year.

When I asked how her tenure at People helped prepare her for her job as Seventeen’s EIC, she told me, “It always comes down to good storytelling — especially with teenage girls. I’m always looking for the heart and emotion of the story and that’s something I learned at People.”

I hadn’t read Seventeen in a long time, but after checking out several issues in anticipation of our lunch, I could tell I had a lot of catching up to do when it comes to plugging into what teen girls are talking about (and, I confess, as result of what I read, I’m a little nervous knowing the teenage years are just around the corner at my house.) The November issue boasts plenty of beauty and fashion tips with model of the moment Bella Hadid on the cover, but also features more topical material including ‘The New Transgeneration” and a reader story “I Made Out With My Girl BFF.” Michelle told me while the issues discussed in the magazine are very much a product of the times, the magazine’s straight talking, empowering tone remains the same. “Girls are definitely developing faster now, but if you go back to the 70s, Seventeen was doing issues on sex. The magazine has a seventy-one year history of talking to readers about important issues.”

When it comes to taking on important issues, Michelle told me, “Our responsibility is making the news relevant to [the readers.]” In talking about transgender issues, Michelle was very clear on just what she wanted convey to the reader. “Most of the stories you see are sad — about not fitting in and about suicide. I wanted to find transgender teens who would share their stories and show readers how to embrace their true selves. When we do stories like this, I always think: what can we do to help the reader?”