“This is what print can do. Print is so different. Print is something that lives on forever. It’s not a commercial; it’s not a webpage; it’s not a posting; it lives on and it’s a document. And I think that’s what’s so lovely about it.” Lesley Jane Seymour (on Michelle Obama guest editing an issue of More magazine)
“Print is not dead; it’s very much alive and if someone hasn’t gotten that message from the recent ink on paper wonders that we’ve had, then they must have been hiding under a rock. (Laughs)” Lesley Jane Seymour
For the first time in the history of the White House and American magazines a first lady guest-edits an issue of a magazine and not just any magazine either, but one that reflects the style and substance of the first lady herself. There are a lot of “firsts’ in that sentence, but each and every one of them are well-deserved and true.
More magazine has obtained the coup of a magazine’s lifetime in guest editor Michelle Obama. For the July/August issue, the first lady moves in and takes over the reins, proving that the American magazine dream can be realized. I recently spoke with the editor-in-chief who wove this magical chimera, who tossed the golden glitter into the air and watched it materialize into reality, Lesley Jane Seymour.
Lesley, who was in Italy when we spoke, was amazed, overjoyed and quite stunned truthfully when the first lady and her team accepted her offer of becoming guest-editor for the July/August issue of More. More than a coup to Lesley, this achievement not only provides a wonderful surprise for her readers, it also showcases who she believes the “More” woman is; one of style and substance, such as the lovely Michelle Obama.
We talked about the behind-the-scenes actions that led up to the historic issue and we also hit on many of the interesting and fun things that happened along the way. Our interview was nothing short of amazing itself.
So, I hope you enjoy this Mr. Magazine™ exclusive on the play-by-play of the first lady’s debut as editor-in-chief of More, because it’s a given you’ll definitely discover “more” than you ever knew before about our first lady in the White House and our first lady of More magazine, Lesley Jane Seymour.
But first the sound-bites:
On the coup of a lifetime, having Michelle Obama guest-edit an issue of More magazine: I said, OK, what’s the craziest thing that I could ask Mrs. Obama to do? What would be crazy? Ask her to edit the issue, right? So, I did. And I thought, of course, they’re going to say no, she’s the first lady. But they said yes.
On whether Michelle Obama knew that she would be the first matriarch of the White House to ever guest-edit a magazine: That was not why she did it. She did it because they were starting to think about legacy. The reason why and one of the points that nobody has made yet is this is what print can do. Print is so different. Print is something that lives on forever. It’s not a commercial; it’s not a webpage; it’s not a posting; it lives on and it’s a document. And I think that’s what’s so lovely about it.
On the power of print and what it will take to prove that strength to the critics: I’m here in Italy and I look at books from the Florentine ages which are preserved in churches and I’m constantly reminded of the fact that print really does matter. It’s an extraordinary medium that cannot be surpassed. And as trendy as all the other stuff gets, there are things that print can do that nothing else can. Recently, it’s been incredible. We’ve been showing the world what print can do.
On the power of print and what she believes it will take to finally prove that point to critics: There are certain things, as we know; I’m here in Italy and I look at books from the Florentine ages which are preserved in churches and I’m constantly reminded of the fact that print really does matter. It’s an extraordinary medium that cannot be surpassed. And as trendy as all the other stuff gets, there are things that print can do that nothing else can. Recently, it’s been incredible. We’ve been showing the world what print can do.
On the process of the reinvention of More magazine: Again, as I said, you have to keep evolving, especially in print. And the speed with which we have to evolve has increased. In the old days, you could evolve your print product once every five or ten years, or whatever, and we’ve all watched as it began to move faster and faster.
On broadening the demographics of More from just the over 40 group: And that was terrifying. To take More out of that box that it was born in, those are the words that make editors cry. When your management comes to you and says take the baby out of the box that it was born in, that’s when you take out your tissues and start crying and begging them to not make you do that. (Laughs)
On the major stumbling block that she’s had to face in her seven years at More:
The major stumbling block has been the general contraction in print. It’s a tough time. This is not like editing back in the 90s; it’s not. Every day it’s scary out there. I think the thing that you really have to do is you have to be creative; you have to keep moving forward no matter what happens and no matter what cuts people make, no matter what’s going on around you; you just have to keep moving forward.
On whether she believes Mrs. Obama captured the readers with her guest-editing debut: Yes, I mean, you’ll see. She brought in so many of her own ideas. She wrote two editor’s letters, she wasn’t happy with just one, she wrote an end letter also. You’ll have to see all the great stuff that it’s in there. It is very, very her.
On whether she could see Michelle Obama launching her own “Michelle” magazine after she leaves the White House: What’s funny is I don’t think she would, but I have to tell you, it crossed my mind because I thought what is she going to do after the White House? I don’t know what she’s going to do; I can’t guess.
On her most pleasant moment: Traveling with her (the first lady) and learning everything, I’d have to say was the most amazing time at More so far.
On what keeps her up at night: What keeps me up at night? Well, we have the event; we have a whole social commerce thing that’s going to be launched at the event, which will be on the 29th. So, I have to make sure that goes well. And a lot of the funds are going to go to the “Let’s Ensure That Every Girl Can Learn” program which is very, very needed.
And before you read the lightly edited Mr. Magazine™ exclusive behind-the-scenes conversation with Lesley Jane Seymour, Editor-In-Chief, More magazine, click below on the video to watch the making of the July/August cover of More magazine.
Samir Husni: Tell me about this coup. This is the first time in the history of American magazines and the White House that a first lady has ever guest-edited a magazine.
Lesley Jane Seymour: I know, isn’t it exciting? This is how it went, Samir. When I first came to More, I was looking around for a woman who was not necessarily a Hollywood celebrity who would embody what the More woman would be.
And Michelle Obama was sort of on the scene, in the background of her husband running for office and she just seemed like the exact person of who the More woman would be in my mind when I took over the job seven years ago, which was somebody incredibly accomplished, very intelligent and intellectual, stylish and who was going to have or was already having some kind of major impact on the world.
I asked her then if she would do the cover and at that point she was just the senator’s wife and luckily they agreed. My deal was if her husband received the nomination, she would go on the cover, if not, she would be inside anyway. We hired a wonderful writer from the Wall Street Journal and it was a fabulous piece. It was very serious and it looked at both sides of who she was.
So, we went and we photographed her in Chicago in a hotel room and I have to tell you, from that day-one, she was a big hugger. It was really funny because at the last minute my photographer asked did I want to have a picture taken with her and I hadn’t planned on it. I’m about 5ft. 3in. and I just sort of ran in to the photo and stood there and I was literally in her armpit. (Laughs)
Samir Husni: (Laughs too).
Lesley Jane Seymour: So the photographer ran to get a box for me to stand on and I felt this rubbing on my back. And I looked around to see who was rubbing my back and it was her. She’s just an incredibly warm and down-to-earth person.
The funny thing is that happened again after our interview in the White House for this issue; we finished our interview, finished going through all her photos and I got up to shake her hand and she gave me this big hug. She’s just a warm and interesting person and she is so More. She’s just exactly who this woman is.
And then the second time, she of course went on to become first lady. But I ran her before she was first lady. I gave her that first national magazine cover. Then when she became first lady, everybody put her on the cover.
The cover we did two years later, when she was first lady, was a knockout bestseller. So, what do you do when you have a bestseller? You look at all the ratings from consumers about the first lady. And in one poll that centers on the most admired women in the world, she’s been the number two the entire time she’s been in the White House. People really, really love her and all the things she does.
So I had this bestseller, what was I going to do? I couldn’t go back and repeat what I just did which was a story all about her mentoring in the White House. You need a scoop, right? We’re journalists, you can’t just go back and put a pretty face on the cover and hope somebody is going to buy the magazine.
I’m kind of a kooky person and always have been. When I was at Marie Claire and Redbook, I used to have these meetings which I called “Crazy Idea Meetings” and the idea was: bring your biggest and most fantastic, crazy idea that you think a consumer would want to see or read. Don’t worry about the expense; don’t worry about whether it’s logical or not. And I used to give them the example of, let’s say, an idea about putting someone on an airplane and sending them to China to do something; we’ll talk about it and if it’s a great idea I’ll figure out a way to sell it somehow.
So, along with those crazy ideas come my own ideas. And I said, OK, what’s the craziest thing that I could ask Mrs. Obama to do? What would be crazy? Ask her to edit the issue, right? So, I did. And I thought, of course, they’re going to say no, she’s the first lady. But they said yes.
And I remember, I came back from having lunch with her team and I called Jeannine Shao Collins, who was my publisher, and I told her, don’t say anything, but I think we have the scoop of a lifetime, but it can’t be true. They’re going to go back to their offices, they’re going to think about it and they’re going to say, oh no, we can’t do this.
And I made her sit on it for three months. Of course, she’s a great partner and she was excited and saying, I want to call everybody; I want to get everything set. And lo and behold, no one changed their minds and once we got started on it, it was a reality.
The hilarious part is Tina Tchen, who is Mrs. Obama’s chief of staff, as we were doing the photography in the White House, originally they give you a half hour to shoot a cover, we usually take a day, but she was enjoying herself so much it went on for like a whole hour, and Tina was in the background and we were talking and watching it go on and she turned to me and said, you know, if we’d had any idea how hard this was going to be, we wouldn’t have done it. (Laughs) And I was thinking, I know and that’s why I’m glad you had no idea. (Laughs again)
Samir Husni: (Laughs too).
Lesley Jane Seymour: And when I would see her at parties, month after month, she’d keep saying to me, so much detail, so much detail. (Laughs) And I was like, you thought I had a hard job; I do have a hard job. (Laughs again) So, it’s really become a running joke between us.
But here we are and it’s all worked out. The hardest part was we were going to release it a week earlier and then we had to sit on it for another week and we were afraid everything was going to pop out. That’s a really interesting managerial thing when you’ve got a magazine shipping and you’re trying to sit on something really big.
They were incredible to work with. I backed up the production of the issue by four months because I thought this would be crazy, everything we do will have to be seen by 25,000 people and it’s going to take forever. But we were done a month early. And we worked with their staff; we didn’t bring in any extra help. It was really incredible; they run such a tight ship. And we also run a really tight ship.
I have to say, I’m here in Italy and I forgot, after waiting and waiting all year practically; I forgot that it was releasing finally and then all of these emails started coming in and I said, oh right, that’s why I’m Italy; I’m fried, completely fried. (Laughs)
Samir Husni: Did she know that she would be the first of the first ladies ever to guest-edit a magazine?
Lesley Jane Seymour: That was not why she did it. She did it because they were starting to think about legacy. The reason why and one of the points that nobody has made yet is this is what print can do. Print is so different. Print is something that lives on forever. It’s not a commercial; it’s not a webpage; it’s not a posting; it lives on and it’s a document. And I think that’s what’s so lovely about it.
She didn’t know and I didn’t know; none of us knew that this was a first really until the very end and we started talking about PR and somebody said, I don’t even remember who it was, but I believe it was somebody on my team, and they said this is the first time a first lady has ever done this before. And I remember responding, what, really? And then we started researching and they researched and indeed, it turned out to be true. But none of us went into it thinking that.
The way my team and I look at magazines, and I’ve done this for so many years with so many teams, is I’m always looking to surprise my reader. I feel very much like it’s a marriage, especially with the people who subscribe. And what I always say to my team is every now and then you have to show up at the front door naked except for the Saran Wrap, just to keep it sexy. And you always have to look for something that is interesting and different. And how do you surprise them?
So, I was really looking to surprise and they were looking for new things that she could do that would be fun, interesting and would fit with who she is. She remembered very well our first cover together, which she loved. And she loved the second cover. And then they dove in. Obviously, way before they understood what they were getting into. (Laughs)
Samir Husni: (Laughs too).
Lesley Jane Seymour: But they are so happy. In fact, everyone is very happy with it. She Tweeted it out. I don’t know if you saw it on her Instagram? We didn’t go into this thinking that we were doing a “first.” If you sit down as an editor and try to come up with something historic; you’re never going to do it. You have to back into it. (Laughs) That’s the lesson I guess. Sometimes you back into these things; you can’t plan it.
Samir Husni: Obviously, you’ve hit the jackpot. When you mentioned the power of print, recently with Vanity Fair’s cover of Caitlyn Jenner and now the first lady guest-editing More; what more do you think, no pun intended, it’s going to take to get this message that if you really want to be permanent; if you really want to be a “document,” print is the only way?
Lesley Jane Seymour: We didn’t know about the Caitlyn release, of course, hilariously, right? And so the two, I think, go together in an amazing way for all of us in the print industry to say you cannot do this without print. There are certain things you cannot do. You cannot create history, and in a way, Caitlyn is history too; you just can’t create history without print. The closest thing you have is a documentary film, but you have to run it every time you want to see it. You can’t just pick it up and leave it on your coffee table.
There are certain things, as we know; I’m here in Italy and I look at books from the Florentine ages which are preserved in churches and I’m constantly reminded of the fact that print really does matter. It’s an extraordinary medium that cannot be surpassed. And as trendy as all the other stuff gets, there are things that print can do that nothing else can.
Recently, it’s been incredible. We’ve been showing the world what print can do.
And the first lady can have this and that’s what I said to them. She’ll have this fabulous document and they have something that goes back and talks about all of their programs and there’s fun stuff in there, and in a way, it is part of the legacy. It’s something that they can look back at. It can be passed down to their children.
Print is not dead; it’s very much alive and if someone hasn’t gotten that message from the recent ink on paper wonders that we’ve had, then they must have been hiding under a rock. (Laughs) I think it’s been an amazing time for magazines. If you look at our recent weeks; it’s been amazing for print journalism and for showing how muscular and how relevant we are.
Samir Husni: You’ve been at More now for seven years and this year you’ve reinvented More. Tell me about the process that took the magazine from what it was to what it is today. And by the way, it was a good magazine then, but you’ve created a better magazine now; tell me about that process.
Lesley Jane Seymour: Again, as I said, you have to keep evolving, especially in print. And the speed with which we have to evolve has increased. In the old days, you could evolve your print product once every five or ten years, or whatever, and we’ve all watched as it began to move faster and faster.
The irony is, and the weirdest thing for me is, to get to seven years and you can clearly see what this product needs to be and because of who the consumer is, I mean it could have always been this thing, but nobody was ready and it wasn’t the right timing for jumping forward and just going for that very upscale, luxury consumer.
We have a very high-household income; we have the highest household income of any woman’s magazine out there period. But the way that the magazine fit into the Meredith constellation; it had to be a part of the Meredith sisterhood, so it had to be a service magazine and it always was. It was always a better service magazine.
What’s wonderful is that now we’re allowed to walk away from the old heritage, partly because of Jeannine Shao Collins, who’s my new publisher, she came on in May 2014, and we can say we’ve tried all the other things and the evolution of the woman that we own and nobody else owns is this highly-educated, high-household income, high-influencer person, if you look at all the MRI, and it’s time to give her the package that she wants. So, let’s try it.
And the wonderful thing is Meredith was game. It’s seven years later and in many ways, it was a lesson in hanging in there. You never know what your product can be in the end. It can keep evolving. And we’re not trained to do that as editors; we’re trained to think when we walk in that first day we’re going to make our changes, we’re going to have an imprint and that’s it. And I think it has to do with our time and what’s happening in print. I think that there’s an interesting message in that things keep evolving and if you are an intelligent, forward-looking editor and you keep pushing ahead, people will follow you.
And so we finally got a broader format; we got better paper and better advertisers and hopefully Michelle Obama will catapult us right to where we want to be, which is with our own kind of little signet in many ways. Does that make sense?
Samir Husni: Oh yes, it makes a lot of sense. I am really amazed with the revival of More. Rather than focusing on women who are over 40, you have broadened that style and substance demographic.
Lesley Jane Seymour: And that was terrifying. To take More out of that box that it was born in, those are the words that make editors cry. When your management comes to you and says take the baby out of the box that it was born in, that’s when you take out your tissues and start crying and begging them to not make you do that. (Laughs)
And the really interesting thing is, I think we’ve done it. There are some women who miss the over-40 box, but the subtext of the magazine from day-one has always been a smarter, more intelligent magazine for women who cared about the world. That was always there and became a layer for women over 40. Now, if we’d had no substance other than the 40 moniker, we would have been dead. But because we always had that, it was terrifying, I won’t say that it wasn’t, but because of our substance we were able to tear away the top layer and be left with the subtext, which is a smarter, more intelligent magazine for women 30, 40, 50-plus.
If you look at the magazine as really all of me in there, because as someone pointed out to me, who only did the redesign, I had forgotten that it has my Women’s Wear memory in there, which was we used our best of the best opening pages, which are just beautiful photos, but they have deep captions and serious merchandising research from the industry. We talk to retailers and people like that, and the designer said oh, that’s a Women’s Wear Daily thing and I had forgotten.
But that’s what’s great; you can take all of your history and you can apply it, once you know who the consumer is. And my consumer has said to me since we went with the style and substance; I’ve had people who write in and say I picked up the magazine because I’m a woman of style and substance. And it grabbed them.
Samir Husni: I love the style and substance tagline, it’s wonderful. Lesley, tell me, what has been the major stumbling block through these seven years that you’ve had to face and how did you overcome it?
Lesley Jane Seymour: The major stumbling block has been the general contraction in print. It’s a tough time. This is not like editing back in the 90s; it’s not. Every day it’s scary out there. I think the thing that you really have to do is you have to be creative; you have to keep moving forward no matter what happens and no matter what cuts people make, no matter what’s going on around you; you just have to keep moving forward. And your vision has to be really strong. If you waver at all right now; if your focus is mushy or bounces back and forth or bounces all around, you just can’t do that.
I can tell you one thing through the whole seven years, even when we did our first small renovation, the voice that I started with is the same voice. And I’ve always spoken to my reader as if she was me and I have never spoken down to her at all. I always speak to her as if she were intelligent and as if she gets everything. We use big words and we use long articles when we want to, when it’s the right item. I have never looked down on my consumer and I think that’s why she’s stayed with me. I respect her intelligence and I respect her hard work. She doesn’t have to agree with me, but we talk to her like that woman who we respect.
And we also don’t fall for a lot of the stuff. One of the hardest things for new people coming to the magazine to realize, and it’s funny because I have someone as a beauty director now that I’ve hired for the fourth time and she came from Real Simple. And she was being so nicey-nice, everything was just nicey-nice and she was always telling nice things about the products that we were reviewing. And I was like no-no; you have to tell them what you think about the product too. She said really? And I was like yes, you have to tell them both sides or they’re not going to believe you. We have to be frank with our audience and tell them the truth. The BS meter is so high and you can’t try and pull the wool over their eyes. You have to be really honest.
And if you read my editor’s letter which is the best-read thing in the magazine; the reason why they like it is I don’t talk about what’s in the magazine, I talk about my life and what’s going on with me. I might hook it into something that’s going on in the magazine. The only times that I do is like with the Michelle Obama issue; I talked about following her to Asia and how that all worked in.
My whole thing has always been brutal honesty, even when I started at YM. You have to be brutally honest and if you can’t tell the reader the truth about your life and if you can’t reflect the truth about your life with her, you’re not going to connect. Just recapping the table of contents there; who needs it?
Samir Husni: Do you feel Mrs. Obama, the first lady, was able to capture that channeling and conversation with the readers in this issue?
Lesley Jane Seymour: Yes, I mean, you’ll see. She brought in so many of her own ideas. She wrote two editor’s letters, she wasn’t happy with just one, she wrote an end letter also. You’ll have to see all the great stuff that it’s in there. It is very, very her.
And that’s what is cool about it too. The other two issues we did with her were about her, this is from her point of view. That’s part of the surprise, Samir, is that it’s not just about her. She does a lot of magazines and it’s an interview with her. This is from her point of view; what’s important and interesting to her. Who are interesting writers and storytellers; who are the people on her staff that she cares about when she wants to talk. It’s interesting and different.
She and I sat down and did a long conversation about her favorite photos from her time in the White House and when her husband was running for office and it was phenomenal. You may have seen some of these photos, but you don’t know the real stories. And that was what was so interesting. At the end of that conversation I said to her, you have to explain this to me, how do you live in this house, because we were in the White House; how do you stay so grounded? She is the most grounded person. I know people in the fashion business that don’t live in the White House, but have so many airs, just because they’re working for some fancy designer or something like that.
And she is so, so much herself. And she said to me, living here makes you more of whoever you were in the first place. And that was a very interesting thing. And that is really the core of who my reader is and that’s in many ways the core of More, in view of its audience. It’s real women doing amazing things. We do one celebrity; we don’t focus only on celebrities and it’s really about real women doing amazing things in real life. And it has fashion and beauty and all that. We want to be a full lifestyle magazine for our reader.
Samir Husni: This may be a crazy question…
Lesley Jane Seymour: Go ahead. I’ve asked crazy and people have said yes.
Lesley Jane Seymour: What’s funny is I don’t think she would, but I have to tell you, it crossed my mind because I thought what is she going to do after the White House? I don’t know what she’s going to do; I can’t guess. But I wouldn’t be surprised to find her doing something with the “Let Girls Learn” initiative that I know is very important to her and why I followed her to Asia when she launched “Let Girls Learn” and to watch her in action and in how she related to the kids and how they related to her. Or maybe something in the fashion industry; the fashion industry loves her.
She is very much my consumer, Samir. She is really a woman of substance and style because when you watch her get off a plane, I have to tell you that was such an extraordinary experience. You really see because she is so stylish, attractive, and smart and she does so much; when she comes down those stairs, there is pixie dust in the air. It’s a little Disney. She has something that not everyone has. So, I’m going to be really interested to see what she does.
Samir Husni: What has been your most pleasant moment in these seven years at More?
Lesley Jane Seymour: It doesn’t get any better than this. I have to say traveling with her was amazing. I didn’t travel on her plane; I had to chase her around, which was even more fun. I love getting out of my skin and I love learning.
Traveling with her and learning everything, I’d have to say was the most amazing time at More so far.
Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?
Lesley Jane Seymour: What keeps me up at night? Well, we have the event; we have a whole social commerce thing that’s going to be launched at the event, which will be on the 29th. So, I have to make sure that goes well.
And a lot of the funds are going to go to the “Let Girls Learn” program which is very, very needed. If you have access to my editor’s letter that I wrote; you’ll see that the program is all about putting girls into school so that they can get an education and don’t end up in young marriages or violent marriages or sex trafficking, any of that stuff.
The day after we were done traveling, I had a day for myself in Cambodia and so I jumped in a Tuk-Tuk to go to what’s called the floating market. And I went to see this school and I write about it in my editor’s letter, and this was right after watching Mrs. Obama and the first lady of Cambodia talk to these young girls who wanted to get an education and were at a government boarding school. And I was taken by the kids who drive the boats to the school and they want you to pay money and give to the school as a charity.
This young little girl, maybe five-years-old, grabbed my finger, my pinky, and she was wearing a nightgown, this beautiful young child, and it’s a floating school, it’s on pontoons. She walked me around to the back and like in America, you thought she was going to show you a pet or her bedroom or her books, something like that.
Instead, she turned to me when we got to a private spot and pointed to the ground and said, for a dollar I give love. At which point I nearly fell apart and I said excuse me. And she said it again. She’d been trained. I guess if she was five, she didn’t see the difference between a woman and a man or maybe it didn’t matter.
And you went really just said oh my God, this is why we need this program. Those kinds of things to me are important. The fact that I get to do that being an editor is so amazing. I mean, who gets to do that? That’s pretty amazing.
And then to go out there and to help raise funds to change that. The power of words, as you know, there is nothing like the power of words. It changes worlds.
Samir Husni: Thank you.
Photos and video courtesy of More magazine.