the gentlewoman

The Calling

She is best known as the indefatigable British editor-in-chief who transformed the fortunes of Tatler and Vanity Fair in the 1980s, and The New Yorker in the 1990s. But since 2009, Tina Brown, 65, has been applying her heady editorial cocktail of politics, media, celebrity, pop culture and hard-hitting journalism to Women in the World, a non-profit foundation and three-day live extravaganza devoted to building a better life for women around the globe. The platform may have changed, but for this dyed-in-the-wool newshound, it’s still all about getting the story out there.

Tina Brown

Richard: How do you start your day?

Tina: Well, I’m a fierce consumer of news and spend about two and half hours in the morning reading everything. There’s a cafe seven blocks from my house, the Sutton diner on 57th and 1st, and I usually sit there with my coffee, a bundle of newspapers – The New York Times, The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, The New York Post – along with my iPad to read The Guardian and the Daily Beast online, and chomp and chew every single news feature that I can. My husband, Harold, sometimes joins me because we like to do that together. Then afterwards, I’m ready to go.

R: What’s your office like?

T: I’m currently at a WeWork space, which I love. It’s occupied by start-ups that come and go and my young team loves the energy. So sometimes I’m working at the coffee bar booth in the lobby, sometimes in a conference room, but usually it’s from my phone on the way to a meeting at Soho House. Posters from all of our summits cover the office walls, reminding us of how much the company has expanded in scope and reach since its beginnings at a small, Midtown theatre to the Lincoln Centre.

R: Yes, 10 years of Women in the World – could it have gone any better?

T: When we started out in 2009, there were very few women’s summits like it and the issues we were discussing were hardly on the public agenda. One of the things that excited me about launching WITW was the state of American feminism at the time. It was dormant. There was some complacency – a lot of the battles had been fought and things were improving incrementally. But being a feminist wasn’t a thing women wanted to be – that was their mother’s issue, right? Now, because of Trump, #MeToo, Time’s Up, there’s hardly a young woman who isn’t passionately engaged with women’s rights. So I think our mission has met the moment.

R: What then are WITW’s objectives now?

T: I think it’s become more and more about highlighting the world’s problems, but through the eyes and voices of women. We like to say here, where there’s a story, we have a woman. And it’s true. Whether it’s North Korea or Venezuela, Las Vegas or London, we’ve got an amazing woman right there, who’s got a story to tell.

R: How do you think you could have benefited from WITW’s advice in your earlier career?

T: I can be a bit reckless. When I get excited or passionate about something I don’t think about the risks. And you’ve got to take risks, but you’ve also got to take care. So I would say to my younger self, it’s great to leap off the cliff, but make sure there’s a safety net underneath.

R: What makes you a good manager?

T: I know how to find talent and how to put together a team that mixes the hard chargers with thoughtful inside players. Throughout all the things I’ve done, I’ve hired terrific staff, many of who stayed long after I departed. Some of the people I hired on Vanity Fair in the 1980s only just left when Graydon Carter retired. And David Remnick was pretty much my handpicked successor at The New Yorker in 1998.

R: How do you hire?

T: Mostly on instinct. What interests me the most is how someone thinks. Once that’s determined, I ask myself if I’m confident they have the temperament and drive to be part of a high wire team. It’s so important to have a wonderful staff so that when the time comes to move on, you’ve got an heir, somebody who can actually do it, and you’re leaving something really good behind you.

R: What do you miss about working on a magazine?

T: Being able to tell a story urgently and instantly. Especially so in our current political climate – I keep thinking, Oh Dominick Dunne, where are you? But the business model of magazines has basically been blown up and now everyone is spending all their time figuring out how they can survive. That’s a hideous atmosphere to work in and makes me feel less nostalgic about magazines – it wouldn’t be like how it was when I was there. A publisher like Si Newhouse had a great taste and passion for magazines and understood what made an editor and what they needed to survive. I don’t see anyone on the scene right now with that kind of personal passion and the money to match.

R: What would you say has been your biggest achievement?

T: I’m excited at having built WITW. We have thousands of women in its network who are extraordinary leaders, journalists, activists, politicians and entrepreneurs. We’ve taken the summit all over the world and it’s now become a global brand. I’m very proud of it.

R: And your biggest regret?

T: Probably having worked for Harvey Weinstein! It wasn’t the best career move of my life when I went to work with him at Talk magazine.

R: If you hadn’t become an editor, what do you think you would have done?

T: Probably become a theatre producer because I love the live event, and working with music and dance. My father was a film producer and I used to write and produce my own plays when I was a student at Oxford. It was really a coincidence that I chose editing.

R: What are you working on next? I read that the rip-roaring Vanity Fair Diaries is being adapted.

T: Yes, by Bruna Papandrea, the executive producer of Big Little Lies. We’re still working on the script; it’s in its third draft. I read it last weekend, in fact, and it’s very entertaining. I’ve got some notes, but it’s going be fun.

R: Have you thought about your dream cast? Who should play you?

T: Ha! I don’t know… I think Lucy Boynton is wonderful. You know, we all have our fantasies.

April 2019. Interview by Richard O’Mahony. Portrait by Brigitte Lacombe, courtesy of Tina Brown. The Women in the World summit runs 10–12 April in New York City.