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Cosmopolitan’s Editor In Chief, Michele Promaulayko, To Samir “Mr. Magazine™” Husni: “It’s Great To Have A Brand That Lives Across Every Platform In Such A Robust Way.” The Mr. Magazine™ Interview…

October 4, 2017

“But when Cosmo came calling, it was a combination of things. It was the most iconic, global, young women’s brand, and only four other people had sat in that seat, so of course I wanted it. I had so much affection for the brand, having spent years there. And yes, I did miss print, to be honest. I missed the ability to have the deeper storytelling, to have the lush visuals, to have time to digest things and to think about how you want to execute them.” Michele Promaulayko

When you’re THE magazine for women when they want to get an authoritative and unequivocal voice on sex, relationships, work, and anything else that has to do with their overall wellbeing and get that advice with a twinge of humor and sass, and you’ve been doing it since the mid-sixties when your editor in chief was the inimitable Helen Gurley Brown, why would you want to refresh that page of success?

Why? Well, because your current editor in chief is the inimitable Michele Promaulayko and while she totally agrees that nothing about Cosmopolitan is “broken,” there’s also nothing wrong with infusing a healthy dose of “newness, novelty, excitement, and more visuals” into the already extraordinary pot of deliciousness.

Cosmopolitan has always been a trendsetter, going back to the days of the spunky Ms. HGB. And nothing about that character trait has changed in the years since Helen. The magazine has evolved of course, but never changed from its cutting edge content that always pushes the envelope and provides its audience with the most current and captivating information.

Today, Cosmo is helmed by Michele Promaulayko, who knows a thing or two about the magazine, having been executive editor for eight years before joining Women’s Health as VP/editor in chief. She also served as the editor in chief of Yahoo Health, a digital-only entity, before coming back home to Cosmo.

I spoke with Michele recently and we talked about the retooling and refreshing of the highly successful and popular brand. Michele is excited about the refresh, because she believes disruption can be good when it comes to infusing a new energy into the magazine’s pages, bringing old friends new life and introducing new neighbors into the community so they can begin to add their own positivity and clarity to the equation. And finding innovative and creative ways to bring the print and digital components together communally is another faction that is proving to be successful for the magazine. With the November issue, readers will find new friends and old ones living in harmony between the magazine’s covers and enjoy the same humor and sauciness that has always been a part of its DNA.

So, sit back, grab your favorite beverage of choice (Rosé, if you’re anything like Cosmo’s delightful editor in chief) and enjoy the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Michele Promaulayko, editor in chief, Cosmopolitan.

But first the sound-bites:

On why she felt the need for a refresh of Cosmopolitan in this day and age: In today’s world novelty and newness are rewarded, so I felt like it was time for a design refresh. I’m not calling it a redesign, because there are definitely some things that are carryovers from the former design; nothing was really broken. It was really just about infusing it with newness, novelty, excitement, and more visuals.

On why she believes Cosmo hasn’t faded like some of the other trendsetting magazines have over the years: I think it’s because Cosmo has a very honest relationship with its readers. From Helen’s day (Helen Gurley Brown), to my day, we talk openly with them about anything and everything. So, it’s a place where they can come for real talk, frank information on the things that matter to them most, and that’s never going to go out of style. The packaging, yes; we stay on trends; we tap into the zeitgeist, talking about current things. But at our core, our foundation is to help young women navigate in an increasingly confusing world, whether that’s their work-world or their relationship-world. And they know that we’re going to give it to them straight.

On whether she thinks that foundational concept is still as valid as ever or even more so today: I think it’s always been valid in certain conversations, be they about sex or women’s advancement in the workplace. Decades ago those were taboo topics that weren’t talked about openly, so it was important for Cosmo to do that then. And I think it’s just as, or more important, to have those conversations now.

On whether she feels more balanced working for a publication that has both a print and digital platform, rather than when she was editor of the digital-only Yahoo Health: That’s a great question. I left Women’s Health to go to Yahoo, because I really wanted to immerse myself in digital. Obviously, I was seeing consumer media habits. My own habits were becoming more and more digital and I really wanted to learn the ropes there, and it was a tremendous experience. Previously, I’d had 20 years of print experience. But when Cosmo came calling, it was a combination of things. It was the most iconic, global, young women’s brand, and only four other people had sat in that seat, so of course I wanted it. I had so much affection for the brand, having spent years there.

On who the magazine would turn into if struck with a magic wand that made it human: I’m not sure there’s just one person who would personify all of the strengths of Cosmopolitan. That would be a pretty amazing person and I’d like to meet them, because I sort of think of us as counselor, cheerleader, protector, and best friend. We have all of those roles in different areas of the magazine.

On the reaction she’s hoping for from the audience once they see the retooled and refreshed November issue of Cosmopolitan: I don’t have any hard and fast expectations. I solicited their feedback and I hope I get that. And I think it takes time for people to adjust to change and sometimes to even notice it. Some of the changes are extremely noticeable, but hopefully I will hear specific things back from readers.

On whether there is anything in Cosmo that ever makes her blush: No, it’s funny, it’s like a party game with my friends, let’s see if you can make Michele blush, because after all of the years I spent at Cosmo as the executive editor, and then coming back, it’s almost impossible. But now that I’ve said that, it’s like I’ve issued a challenge. (Laughs) Somebody is going to try really hard to embarrass me. But when it comes to these topics, not really.

On anything she’d like to add: Just that we’re all about the humor and the joy and the surprise. We live in a very serious world right now, politically serious, and serious in that we’re dealing with one natural disaster after another. And Cosmo is a place where, yes, we talk about issues, absolutely, but it’s also a place where we can provide levity and joy. And that’s very intentional on our part, and I am very proud of that.

On what she would have tattooed upon her brain that would be there forever and no one could ever forget about her: Maybe two X’s on a globe. (Laughs) Hugs to the world. The world could use more hugs, right? More love and more hugs. Cosmo is really about harmony. Harmony between the sexes; harmony and self-peace; feeling confident, and that’s one of the things that we try and instill in our readers. Maybe it’s just the word harmony.

On what someone would find her doing if they showed up unexpectedly one evening at her home: Well, one, you probably won’t catch me at home, because I go out a lot a night. I have a lot of dinners outside of my place. You’d be lucky if you tried to just stop by, an impromptu visit, and I was there. But if I was there, I probably wouldn’t be drinking, because I rarely drink alone. But I do like to drink with other people. And I might be binging on the latest Netflix thing, because I’m a big binger. And it doesn’t have to be Netflix, it can be anything. Right now, I’m binging Jessica Biel’s USA show called “The Sinner.”

On what keeps her up at night: What keeps me up at night isn’t one thing. And honestly, I’m a pretty good sleeper, so not too much keeps me up. I really love my life; I love all of the interesting things that I get to do and the places that I get to go, and the place that I live; just all of that. I think it’s just the challenges of maintaining that awesome level of experience, because it takes a lot. It takes a lot of work and a lot of energy. So, just knowing that I’m tending to everything well enough to keep it all going at the same level, or at an increased level.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Michele Promaulayko, editor in chief, Cosmopolitan.

Samir Husni: Why did you feel the need to retool and reengineer Cosmo in this day and age?

Michele Promaulayko: In today’s world novelty and newness are rewarded, so I felt like it was time for a design refresh. I’m not calling it a redesign, because there are definitely some things that are carryovers from the former design; nothing was really broken. It was really just about infusing it with newness, novelty, excitement, and more visuals. As our readers’ needs change and as trends change; as we spend more time with the audience; as we get tired of looking at the same pages ourselves (Laughs), it tells you that it’s time to put a sheen on it. So, that’s what we did and we had a lot of fun doing it.

And in doing it, we disrupted some long-held magazine tenants; for instance, having a TOC. We now have a one-page table of contents called “Get Into It,” and it really has all of the information a reader needs. It has the cover lines, so if you’re pulled in by a cover line, you can go to the page and find it. It has the section heads; you can find the wellness section; you can find the beauty section, so it provides the navigation a reader might want without seeing three pages of cute captions that nobody reads. I felt like that was an old carryover that we editors reflexively use in our magazine and I just didn’t feel like we needed it anymore.

Samir Husni: One of my recent class lectures was on the six magazines that in the last decade have been trendsetters: Cosmopolitan, Playboy, MS., The Advocate, Ebony, and Rolling Stone. Why do you think Cosmo over the years never faded like the other five have?

Michele Promaulayko: Great question, and thank you for including Cosmopolitan in that short-list. I think it’s because Cosmo has a very honest relationship with its readers. From Helen’s day (Helen Gurley Brown), to my day, we talk openly with them about anything and everything. So, it’s a place where they can come for real talk, frank information on the things that matter to them most, and that’s never going to go out of style. The packaging, yes; we stay on trends; we tap into the zeitgeist, talking about current things. But at our core, our foundation is to help young women navigate in an increasingly confusing world, whether that’s their work-world or their relationship-world. And they know that we’re going to give it to them straight. It’s not going to be a bunch of platitudes about how wonderful everything is all of the time.

We obviously have a lot of fun in the magazine and that’s another part of the brand’s DNA that I wanted to sort of reinstitute a little bit, but the primary thing is that we have this really candid conversation with readers. And they know that they can’t get that anywhere else.

Samir Husni: Do you feel that foundational concept is still valid today or even more so than it was in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s?

Michele Promaulayko: I think it’s always been valid in certain conversations, be they about sex or women’s advancement in the workplace. Decades ago those were taboo topics that weren’t talked about openly, so it was important for Cosmo to do that then. And I think it’s just as, or more important, to have those conversations now.

Young women have a much more confusing set of circumstances to deal with, even if you just distill the dating scene. It’s so different now than it used to be. It’s so confusing. We live in this app-driven dating world, which has really depersonalized the process. We hear from young women all of the time about these pen pal relationships with guys that they meet online and they have conversations with them, but then they never actually meet up. And there’s so much frustration and confusion, and when they do meet up, they’re so used to having these digital conversations, they just sort of look at each other and ask, “What do we do now?” (Laughs)

That’s the extreme version of it, but something as simple as dating has gotten so confusing and complex. So, I think our ability to have that kind of straight talk with them about that or anything else is critical now.

Samir Husni: I coined a phrase for what you’re describing, I call it “Isolated Connectivity.” We feel we’re so connected, yet we’re more isolated than ever.

Michele Promaulayko: Exactly. And that’s the sad reality; we have more ability to connect and more channels to connect through, however, we are more isolated. And I’ll tell you a funny anecdote.

This summer I went to Greece with a friend; we visited a couple of islands. And I was on this tiny satellite island called Antiparos, and I was at this bar/restaurant, beach club and I looked over and saw a guy that lives two doors down from me in my apartment building in Manhattan. And I had never really spoken to him; I recognized him, but I had never had a conversation with him and we live two doors down from each other. And now I’m on this little Greek island and I thought I was seeing things, but I hadn’t had that much Rosé; I’d had a little, but not that much. (Laughs) I wasn’t hallucinating.

So, I walked over to him and introduced myself. He was like me, he couldn’t believe we’d ran into each other there, it was weird. We get back to New York and he slips a note under my door that simply read, “Wow, that was weird. Let’s grab a drink; hope you had a great trip.” I posted the note on my Instagram and Facebook, and it blew up. It broke the Internet. I got more engagement, more comments, and more likes that on anything else I had posted.

And it was simply because people saw that; and by the way, it’s not a romantic storyline, he’s gay, we’re not going to get married, but the people who were seeing this note and hearing the story of how I met my now-neighbor on a little island in Greece, were so enthralled with the idea of this meet-cute story, this romantic storyline, because we’re so devoid of that. I actually write about this in my next editor’s letter in the November issue, because we have a lot of dating content and I wanted to make a point about how illuminating that was for me. It shows how desperate and hungry people are for a sort of retrograde meeting. To your point, that just goes to show that the isolated connectivity is there.

Samir Husni: How are you utilizing the print Cosmo and the digital Cosmo? You have both in your background; you were the editor in chief of Women’s Health and then you were editor in chief of Yahoo Health, which was digital-only. Are you more balanced within yourself now, having a print brand that’s also digital, rather than just digital only?

Michele Promaulayko: That’s a great question. I left Women’s Health to go to Yahoo, because I really wanted to immerse myself in digital. Obviously, I was seeing consumer media habits. My own habits were becoming more and more digital and I really wanted to learn the ropes there, and it was a tremendous experience. Previously, I’d had 20 years of print experience.

But when Cosmo came calling, it was a combination of things. It was the most iconic, global, young women’s brand, and only four other people had sat in that seat, so of course I wanted it. I had so much affection for the brand, having spent years there. And yes, I did miss print, to be honest. I missed the ability to have the deeper storytelling, to have the lush visuals, to have time to digest things and to think about how you want to execute them.

So, of course, it’s great to have a brand that lives across every platform in such a robust way. All of the social platforms; all of the digital platforms; live events; TV shows, and a super-healthy print brand. All things considered, yes, it was the dream job.

The difference being that as a monthly magazine, we have to think about how we play to those strengths. And we clearly can’t capitalize on news the way Cosmopolitan.com can, but what we can do is take a timely story, because we still try to be timely, we don’t want to be evergreen. We’re not looking to do things this year that could appear in the magazine next year, or could have appeared last year, we want it to be timely.

So, we take something that’s happening in the zeitgeist and we try and assess whether it’s going to have a long enough shelf life for us to talk and write about it, and then also exploit some aspect of the story that a digital site isn’t going to take the time to get into. So, really, using newsy things as a hook to get into what it might mean for the reader. And how it applies to their life in a way that’s not just reporting on the news, but going deeper.

Samir Husni: One of Cosmo’s attributes since its founding has been the magazine’s ability to create a friendly relationship with its audience. That being said, if you had a magic wand that could instantaneously turn the magazine into a human being with one strike, who would that person be?

Michele Promaulayko: (Laughs) I’m not sure there’s just one person who would personify all of the strengths of Cosmopolitan. That would be a pretty amazing person and I’d like to meet them, because I sort of think of us as counselor, cheerleader, protector, and best friend. We have all of those roles in different areas of the magazine.

We’re like a best friend, you can talk honestly with us and we’re going to give it to you straight, and we’re going to make you laugh. We’re going to warn you if there’s things out there in the world, whether it’s health wise or potential dating pitfalls, or even bigger dangers; we’re going to protect you from that and warn you so that you’re going into everything with eyes open. And we’re going to champion the things that you do that are so great, and bolster you and tell you that you can do it. And we’re going to give you the authoritative advice that we have the ability to give, that your best friend can’t because they don’t have the expertise at their fingertips.
So, I don’t really think one person could possibly embody that, which is why you need a magazine like Cosmopolitan, because even if you have a village at your disposal, you may not have all of those things.

Samir Husni: Looking at the November issue, I read your letter from the editor, and I saw your signature, the two X’s and Michele. And then when I flipped to page 154, I see a list of symbols and what they are supposed to mean.

Michele Promaulayko: (Laughs) Oh no, are you dissecting my scribbles?

Samir Husni: And it read that two X-crosses means pent-up frustration about something. What are you frustrated about, Michele? (Laughs)

Michele Promaulayko: (Laughs again) No, Samir, those are crosses and mine were X’s; they’re not the same thing. Mine just means hugs. Hugs, Michele, that’s really what it means.

Samir Husni: Once your audience sees this retooling, this fresh look with the November issue, the double covers; what is the reaction you hope to get?

Michele Promaulayko: I don’t have any hard and fast expectations. I solicited their feedback and I hope I get that. And I think it takes time for people to adjust to change and sometimes to even notice it. Some of the changes are extremely noticeable, but hopefully I will hear specific things back from readers. But the decisions we made to change things were made based on what’s happening in the world and on things we were hearing anyway. So, it’s not like we just pulled them out of thin air. They’re grounded in what we know to be the most useful and exciting execution.

To that point, readers tell us that they want order and organization. They want a clear architecture, so they know where they are in the magazine. And we did that. But at the same time they want to be surprised, so they want to know where they are and they want some kind of formula to that, but they also want those moments of serendipity; wow, I can’t believe they did that! So, we’ve allowed room for that.

And with the TOC, I just felt like it was two extra pages that weren’t working as hard as they needed to work and that we could dedicate those to something more exciting. So, we boiled that down to one page that gives them everything that they need to find the stories that they want to find.

Another thing that we did was change the health section to wellness. I have a background in that, and wellness really speaks to the 360 approach that we take to health. So, it’s mental health, nutrition, fitness, sexual health, emotional health; it’s the whole thing that contributes to your wellbeing. And we wanted to reflect that in the name. And we also did this “One-Move Workout,” which is a great workout in only one move, and who wouldn’t want that?

And that’s the point. They’re not coming to Cosmo for a full workout, they’re going to other brands or they’re going to Cosmopolitan.com, but what we can do is provide this really graphic visual that they can then take a picture of or tear it out and bring it to the gym or the hotel and have something healthy and useful. And that’s what we want to be.

We also started our “Gyno Report” because Cosmo should own sexual health. Again, it’s a place where we can be authoritative and honest, so I wanted to provide a place where we could talk about the latest and most important sexual and reproductive health issues.

And we have some really strong, bold visual pages; some of the beauty pages; one of the workouts that I just talked about, and also “Cosmo Bites,” and that’s because we’re dealing with a readership that’s addicted to images. And we wanted to give them these really grabby, bold images, that in some cases also contain service, like the beauty photos that still have service, but they’re not text heavy. And I think you need that kind of difference in pacing. You need some longer reads, some really visual things, things that are easy to digest.

And we also wanted to strengthen the companionship between different factions of the brand. We wanted to have things in common with Cosmopolitan.com, so they’re doing the Workout as well. Cosmo Bites is something that they do; Cheap Thrills, the sort of budget beauty page is something that we’re both going to be doing.

We’re increasing that relationship between the digital and the print sides of the brand. And we’re also deepening the companionship between your device and the print version. In other words, you might snap a picture of your One-Move Workout, so you’re using your device at the same time you’re reading the print version.

Those are some of the changes. And then we added a section called “Too Funny.” We absolutely know that humor is a huge reason that people come to Cosmo; it’s always been a part of the brand’s DNA. There have always been Laugh Out Loud cover lines and the Confessions and the Dates From Hell, and those are some of our readers’ favorite things. They love it. So, we corralled them all into one section called “Too Funny.”

Samir Husni: The entire refreshing of the book is extremely well-packaged.

Michele Promaulayko: Thank you.

Samir Husni: Is there anything in Cosmo that makes you blush?

Michele Promaulayko: No, it’s funny, it’s like a party game with my friends, let’s see if you can make Michele blush, because after all of the years I spent at Cosmo as the executive editor, and then coming back, it’s almost impossible. But now that I’ve said that, it’s like I’ve issued a challenge. (Laughs) Somebody is going to try really hard to embarrass me. But when it comes to these topics, not really.

In fact, I don’t know if you’ve heard of the Grub Street Diet, but New York Magazine gets different people, authors and actresses, writers and editors, to do sort of a food diary. And they asked me to do it and it came out recently. In there, you talk about what you’re eating all day, but you also talk about other things. And I was saying that I grabbed a certain food and went to a cover line meeting with my creative director and we always decide that we’re not done until we’re laughing or one of us is blushing. And I said it’s usually not me. It’s usually my creative director. (Laughs)

Samir Husni: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Michele Promaulayko: Just that we’re all about the humor and the joy and the surprise. We live in a very serious world right now, politically serious, and serious in that we’re dealing with one natural disaster after another. And Cosmo is a place where, yes, we talk about issues, absolutely, but it’s also a place where we can provide levity and joy. And that’s very intentional on our part, and I am very proud of that.

And also, just talking about the climate politically. There’s such a division between the sexes and I really feel like Cosmo has always appreciated men who appreciate women, in that we have an opportunity to unify the sexes, and that’s another mission of mine. We all have to be in this together, so those are important things.

Samir Husni: If you could have one thing tattooed upon your brain that no one would ever forget about you, what would it be?

Michele Promaulayko: Maybe two X’s on a globe. (Laughs) Hugs to the world. The world could use more hugs, right? More love and more hugs. Cosmo is really about harmony. Harmony between the sexes; harmony and self-peace; feeling confident, and that’s one of the things that we try and instill in our readers. Maybe it’s just the word harmony.

Samir Husni: If I showed up unexpectedly at your home one evening after work, what would I find you doing? Having a glass of Rosé, and I’ll be specific since I know you like Rosé; reading a magazine; cooking; watching TV; or something else?

Michele Promaulayko: Well, one, you probably won’t catch me at home, because I go out a lot a night. I have a lot of dinners outside of my place. You’d be lucky if you tried to just stop by, an impromptu visit, and I was there. But if I was there, I probably wouldn’t be drinking, because I rarely drink alone. But I do like to drink with other people.

And I might be binging on the latest Netflix thing, because I’m a big binger. And it doesn’t have to be Netflix, it can be anything. Right now, I’m binging Jessica Biel’s USA show called “The Sinner.” And I don’t know if I can ever go back to waiting for one episode after another to come out, because I like watching them back-to-back. I go into a feeding frenzy. So, if you happen to catch me at home, when I’m not out to dinner, I’ll probably be chilling on my couch, binging on the latest show that I’m obsessed with.

Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?

Michele Promaulayko: The sirens that roar down my street in New York. Truthfully, the only thing that could keep me up is just worrying about the wellbeing of my family. That’s the only thing. I have parents who are getting older. But if it’s a question aimed at the challenges of the industry, that would be a different answer.

What keeps me up at night isn’t one thing. And honestly, I’m a pretty good sleeper, so not too much keeps me up. I really love my life; I love all of the interesting things that I get to do and the places that I get to go, and the place that I live; just all of that. I think it’s just the challenges of maintaining that awesome level of experience, because it takes a lot. It takes a lot of work and a lot of energy. So, just knowing that I’m tending to everything well enough to keep it all going at the same level, or at an increased level.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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