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There is Beauty in Being Different: Speaking to Black Women Through the Lens of Empowerment. The Mr. Magazine™ Interview with Vanessa Bush, Editor-in-Chief, Essence Magazine.

April 4, 2014

The Essence of Essence Magazine: Empowerment, Edge And Escape Are The Three E’s of Essence – For Its 44th Anniversary Essence Magazine Gets A Facelift and Editor-In-Chief Vanessa Bush Talks About The Magazine’s Past, Present & Future

ENCVR0514_LedisiENCVR0514_ErykahENCVR0514_Solange

Celebrating the differences in African American women and their individual beauty is, was and will continue to be the main focus of Essence Magazine and Editor-in-Chief, Vanessa Bush, approaches that core point through the lens of empowerment and engagement.

Ushering in the “refreshing” look of the new Essence are three electrifying different covers for the May 2014 issue. The magazine as a brand has been going strong for 44 years now and Bush is determined to see it maintain its top spot among African Americans for another 44 years at least.

Returning to Essence after some time away, she is excited and passionate about the magazine’s future and its mission. Ms. Bush practices what she preaches and preaches what she practices. Just engaging with her in a conversation about Essence, print, digital, black women and being a part of Time Inc., was as empowering, edgy and essential as the magazine itself and there was no escape from any discussion or any question.

So sit back and be empowered, feel the edge and then escape into the Mr. Magazine™ conversation with Vanessa Bush, Editor-in-Chief, Essence Magazine…

But first the sound-bites…

Vanessa BushOn the lasting nature of the Essence brand and its mission…

I think it’s fantastic and phenomenal that this brand has endured for 44 years and I’d love to see it endure for 44 more because its mission at the very beginning is the same mission that we have today, which is really to uplift and empower and celebrate black women.

On the need for a black women’s magazine…

There is really a necessity for Essence as a brand, as a magazine, online, in social media because clearly there is still a need and void that black women are seeing.

On black women celebrating being different…
I actually think that that’s a really good thing because I don’t think we want to be homogenous, I don’t think we want to have a world where everything is very monolithic, I think there’s beauty in being different and in embracing our differences.

On how Essence sets itself apart from its competitors…

Well, you know what I think the difference is that Essence has a very specific approach to how we speak to black women and that is always through the lens of empowerment.

On her greatest surprise after returning to Essence…

The greatest surprise I guess is how far we had advanced in our digital space, how great the experience was with our website, more video, definitely more opportunities for people to comment and share things with us.

On her new responsibilities as editor-in-chief…

There are a lot more public-facing responsibilities as an editor-in-chief and it’s great because it allows me to be a brand ambassador for us and introduce people who may not know what we’re doing right now in our 44th year.

On mainly a “white company” owning the major black women’s magazine…
Oh my gosh, I’m sorry I’m laughing, just whenever this question comes up it just blows my mind. Just because we’re part of, let’s be clear, a very successful magazine publishing company does not mean that they have editorial oversight at all and I think that that’s the assumption and that’s where people get it wrong.

On Michelle Obama’s presence in the white house making her job any easier or harder…
I think it provides us with another example of how black women can be really at the top of their game, they can be seen, they can be great moms, they can be great businesswomen.

On what keeps her up at night…

I honestly see this role as a huge privilege to be able to serve an audience of women who I live with, work with and some of the women who I admire. It’s a privilege to have this. So I don’t ever want to take this for granted, that’s what keeps me up at night, making sure that I never take that for granted.

And now the lightly edited transcript of Mr. Magazine’s™ conversation with the empowering and electrifying Vanessa Bush, Editor-in-Chief, Essence Magazine…

Samir Husni: My first question for you is why now — why the changes to the magazine and what’s your vision for Essence?

Vanessa Bush: Well why now is – why not now? A refresh is a way to keep our audience engaged and excited about the brand and it’s really been five years since our last update, our last refresh and I just felt like the 44th anniversary — our May issue is our 44th anniversary issue — was just the perfect time to bring something vibrant and exciting to our audience.

SH: Is this a middle-aged crisis for Essence? Or is 44 now the new 22?

VB: Forty is the new 20 right? I think it’s fantastic and phenomenal that this brand has endured for 44 years and I’d love to see it endure for 44 more because its mission at the very beginning is the same mission that we have today, which is really to uplift and empower and celebrate black women. And that doesn’t have an age, space or time. It really is timeless and that’s the way we think about it.

SH: Some folks will tell you that times have changed in the magazine industry, where you used to actually have a magazine like Essence or a magazine like JET magazine or Ebony to read about African Americans — whether that’s celebrities or other famous people — but you now see African Americans in the mainstream media. Is there still a need for a magazine like Essence?

ENCVR0514_Ledisi VB: That’s a great, interesting point, but there’s one example I want to share with you: When we did an images study with an outside vendor, Value/Cheskin, last year, just to see how black women feel they’re presented in the media and what we found overwhelmingly is that 64 percent of the women believe that we’re not being reflected in the ways that we would like to be seen in media. There’s not enough balance, there’s many extremes to what they’re seeing and the definition of our beauty is narrowly defined. And this was a study that went across all age groups, demographics and classes of black women and non-black women. And to a person, they really felt that overall media is doing a fair to poor to horrible job with portraying black women holistically.

So when you see a study like that it really reinforces and reconfirms what we believe is true, which is that there is really a necessity for Essence as a brand, as a magazine, online, in social media because clearly there is still a need and void that black women are seeing. Black women aren’t reflected or portrayed in media as we see ourselves.

So yes, I still feel that Essence is an extremely relevant brand for that very reason. And I should note that that was even reinforced recently in our Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon, when Lupita Nyong’o, who was one of our honorees, gave an extremely moving speech about how she grew up really tortured by being a dark skinned, or as she described it night-shaded skinned woman and always praying that she could be lighter skinned. And I mean when she said those words — you might have seen it because it went viral, it got more than two million views on YouTube — that when she said those words in the room literally there were people gasping and tears, real tears because people could connect with that message.

Clearly, for someone of her generation this is still an issue that black women are facing every day and to hear her to kind of crystallize for us, I think all of us here at Essence, how important and vital what we do is every day here for this audience.

SH: Don’t you think it’s a shame that here we are in 2014, in the freest, largest country in the world and we’re still talking about skin color. We’re talking about the difference between white women and black women and white men and black men…

ENCVR0514_Erykah VB: No, I mean I think we’re seeing really great advances. Also, in the same study when we asked women how they feel, particularly millennial women, how they feel about their cultural identity, they feel that they are comfortable with multi-cultural, they are comfortable with all different ethnicities and love the idea that we live in a world where we can communicate and relate to each other that way.

But they also very much want to be a part of their own cultural identity, they identify broadly and they identify very specifically with our culture. And I actually think that that’s a really good thing because I don’t think we want to be homogenous, I don’t think we want to have a world where everything is very monolithic, I think there’s beauty in being different and in embracing our differences.

SH: How is Essence different and better than all the magazines aimed at African American women out there?

VB: Well, you know what I think the difference is that Essence has a very specific approach to how we speak to black women and that is always through the lens of empowerment. You can see that through the visuals that we present and making sure that we cover a range of skin tones and textures and shapes and sizes and hair textures. We want to be able to celebrate all of who we are and I think that really does set us apart.

So there are the visuals, but there’s also that content that really speaks to the best of whom she is and the best of who she wants to be. I mean that’s a part of our mission statement that is of huge importance to us, to make sure that we’re showcasing the best of who she is and who she wants to be.

And you’ll see that in the stories that we write from covering health and wellness to our money and power section to the issues that we focus on, things that are of importance to our community, personal growth stories that we feature, every single piece from beginning to end is about empowering this woman to achieve and be her best.

And then the other piece, kind of the bookend of that formula, is that we always want to make sure that we have a little bit of edge and some escape. By edge, I mean talking about those issues that are of vital importance to us. Last year, after the Trayvon Martin verdict, we launched a social media campaign called #heisnotasuspect, which was actually nominated for a MIN best of web and digital award for that campaign because we felt it was really important to make sure that our audience understood that we did have a voice in this conversation and that we wanted to help her express her own feelings around the verdict and how people are very emotional around it and just wanting to showcase that their sons and brothers and uncles and nephews were not suspects. You can go online and look up #heisnotasuspect and see that.

But that’s just one example of how we try to stay edgy by being a part of the conversation. Another example is that every day Monday through Friday on our Twitter we have a twitter feed called Essence Debate and every lunch time we take on a different topic and they’re usually something that’s going on currently, but typically things that are of great importance to people in our community.

So that’s how we kind of maintain our edge and some of those conversations can get really heated. And that’s a good thing. In fact, we even shut down our twitter feed with one conversation that we had last year about HBCUs and if there is a war on HBCUs because a lot of them are struggling in staying open. So that’s one example of edge.

And then the last bookend, after empowerment and edge is escape. Escape is very important to us as well because our audience, black women is a very matriarch-driven society, so we view everything or at least we try to be the best moms, the best leaders in our community, the best partners to our loved ones, the best of everything.

And the last person on that list is usually ourselves. So we try to remind the audience that it’s OK to take a break, it’s OK to do something for yourselves, it’s OK to take care of you and there are a number of ways to do that, if we’re talking about travel, things that you can do in your home to make your home a really comforting space and enjoyable space to just putting ideas out there, like it’s OK to say no. It’s OK not to be perfect, that kind of thing. I think those three elements together, the three E’s, which is what we like to call them, really differentiates us from any other magazine, whether it’s in our competitive set or broadly.

SH: You left Essence for some time — that was sort of like your escape from Essence — and then you came back. What was the most pleasant surprise about coming back to Essence and then what was the major stumbling block that you were able to overcome?

ENCVR0514_Solange VB: The greatest surprise I guess is how far we had advanced in our digital space, how great the experience was with our website, more video, definitely more opportunities for people to comment and share things with us.

And then I think the only stumbling block if you want to call it that is that we really needed to dive deeper into our social media presence with this audience with engagement and that’s something that we’ve done over the past year, really focused on that and as a result we have more than a million likes on Facebook, we have several Twitter feeds, our Instagram presence is great and we’ve had a number of successful campaigns on Instragram just celebrating us and black beauty. And that’s very gratifying to me because we know that this audience is deeply engaged with mobile and technology in general.

So to be able to provide content and opportunities for them to engage with us is fantastic. One of my favorite things to do, and one of my favorite procrastination things to do, is to go on Twitter and see the comments that people are making about what we are doing and go on Facebook and see the comments about what we are doing. Because it gives you that instant feedback and instant gratification and sometimes that instant slap on the wrist — like Essence, hey, you didn’t get that right. And that’s OK too. Anything that allows us to do better for her each and every day is great and we take that responsibility very seriously and we really appreciate it. We’re just as passionate about this brand as she is and we want her to know it.

SH: How did your job change from when you were at Essence before as an executive editor as a deputy editor to now as editor-in-chief?

VB: I have to think about not just what we’re doing in print but what we’re doing online, what we’re doing in social media and what we’re doing with our live events. How are we bringing the content that we have in our pages to life across all of our platforms and that’s not something I was really charged with doing as an executive editor so it is different.

There’s also a lot more public-facing responsibilities as an editor-in-chief and it’s great because it allows me to be a brand ambassador for us and introduce people who may not know what we’re doing right now in our 44th year and just make connections with people and build relationships because obviously as the years change and the decades change the needs of our audience change and it’s important for me to be out and hearing from people what they like, what they don’t like, what they would like to see and how we can help them, how we can make this the best experience for them period across all of our platforms. So yes, that’s very different from what I used to do.

SH: Feel free not to answer this question or tell me I’ll take a pass, but I’ve heard it from some folks: Is it really hypocritical that the major black women’s magazine is owned by white folks?

VB: Oh my gosh, I’m sorry I’m laughing, just whenever this question comes up it just blows my mind just because we’re part of, let’s be clear, a very successful magazine publishing company does not mean that they have editorial oversight at all and I think that that’s the assumption and that’s where people get it wrong.

To the contrary, the reason they brought Essence into the fold is because they have a deep appreciation for the value of this brand as it existed then and as it still exists now. And for them to try to mess with that formula would really be kind of silly on their part and so it’s the exact opposite. What they appreciate about what we bring to the table is that engagement that we have with this audience, the passion that people have with this brand.

It really blows my mind that people would assume, would you ask that question of Anna Wintour just because Vogue is a part of Condè Nast, that that’s going to have some kind of an impact on the way that she conducts what she does for that audience. I don’t understand how people make that leap.

SH: I’m going to ask you a question that one of my students asked when she found out that I was interviewing you: Having Michelle Obama as our first lady; did that make your job easier or harder?

VB: You know what, I don’t even think about it. I don’t know if it makes our job easier or harder. I think it provides us with another example of how black women can be really at the top of their game, they can be seen, they can be great moms, they can be great businesswomen; Michelle Obama was a healthcare professional before she entered into the White House. She’s just an amazing example and having that example to put in front of our audience I think is phenomenal.

You know we did a book with Michelle Obama last year that did extremely well, just kind of showcasing everything that she’s brought to the table, not just since she’s been in the White House, but throughout her life and I think she’s a shining example of the essence woman.

SH: Vanessa, what keeps you up at night?

VB: I knew you were going to ask me this question. What keeps me up at night is just making sure that we really are staying focused on our mission, that we’re not distracted by anything that comes our way like questions about who owns us. And that we really focus on this reader because she needs us and she needs us now than ever. And when we forget that I feel that the magazine just doesn’t serve its best and higher purpose. That keeps me up at night, just making sure that we really are on point with everything that we do across every platform that we have.

I honestly see this role as a huge privilege to be able to serve an audience of women who I live with, work with and some of the women who I admire. It’s a privilege to have this. So I don’t ever want to take this for granted, that’s what keeps me up at night, making sure that I never take that for granted.

SH: Thank you.
© Samir “Mr. Magazine™” Husni, 2014

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