Joanna Coles: The Cosmo Woman

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In the back of a cab heading up Central Park West, Joanna Coles, the editor of Cosmopolitan, was telling the story of her first meeting in Rome with the designer Valentino Garavani.

It took place in 2007, when she was the editor of Marie Claire. Mr. Garavani’s staff had lent Ms. Coles a gown for a gala to be held in the designer’s honor at the Galleria Borghese, and a handler escorted her to his private chamber before the party began.

“As I’m about to meet him,” Ms. Coles said as the taxi drew closer to her Upper West Side apartment, “I was told, ‘Joanna, please do not mention the war in Iraq.’”

Ms. Coles asked why.

“‘He doesn’t know about it,’” she said she was told. “‘Mr. Valentino does not read the newspapers, only good news. Mr. Valentino is a man of beauty and must remain in a world of beauty.’”

Ms. Coles was dumbfounded. While she has long worked in the realm of fashion and beauty, she has yet to shake the formative experiences she had as a young reporter in 1980s London in the company of cigar-chewing Fleet Street editors.

One of her first assignments concerned a woman jailed for refusing to share details about her boyfriend, a criminal suspect. After the woman was released, a pack of male reporters, with Ms. Coles in tow, went after her. When she slipped into a women’s room, Ms. Coles saw her chance.

“I hopped over the turnstile and burst the door down,” she later said. “Poor girl was in mid-pee and I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing?’”

The actual oversight of a print publication and website is an increasingly small part of the job for 21st-century editors in chief. Joanna Coles, 54, who calls herself a “brand steward,” is expanding Cosmopolitan’s reach while also elevating her personal profile.

In this she is the literal and spiritual successor to Helen Gurley Brown, the larger-than-life editor who ran Cosmopolitan for 32 years while also making a name for herself through freewheeling talk-show appearances and best-selling books.

Ms. Coles also fits the mold of star Condé Nast editors, former and current, such as Tina Brown, Anna Wintour, Graydon Carter and David Remnick, who became known beyond the narrow world of Manhattan media while bringing attention to their publications.

This year, Ms. Coles is involved in the making of an E! reality show, “Cosmo Life,” based on the working lives of Cosmopolitan editors, as well as a scripted series, “Issues,” inspired by her own life for the ABC-owned Freeform network.

She is also a lively presence on Instagram and Twitter and has recently joined Snapchat’s board. In whatever downtime she has, Ms. Coles is working on a book for HarperCollins about sex and intimacy in the digital age.

Ms. Coles has so much on her plate that, along with an assistant who manages her schedule, she has her own de facto chief of staff, Holly Whidden, who worked in marketing at Gucci and Paramount Pictures.

“I think people who don’t know Joanna Coles think of her as a British glossy-magazine type,” said a friend, Andre Bishop, the artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater. “But she isn’t that type at all.”

In January, Ms. Coles was among a group of 20 or so media people at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas who boarded five helicopters that whisked them to the floor of the Grand Canyon for a luncheon. (The junket was paid for by Vox Media.)

In April, she hitched a ride on the private jet of her friend Michael R. Bloomberg to attend the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in Washington. In June, she was on a stage in Cannes, France, interviewing Brian Chesky, the chief executive of Airbnb, at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.

“She is always running for mayor,” said her husband, Peter Godwin, a former human rights lawyer and the author of a memoir, “Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa,” among other books. “She doesn’t have to. But she feeds off it.”

As a girl in Leeds, England, Ms. Coles wanted to be a politician. At 12, she produced a magazine with a friend and sent a copy to Queen Elizabeth. Acknowledgment for her effort came in the form of a thank-you note from the Queen’s lady in waiting.

At 17, she won a national writing contest for an essay warning that the polar ice cap would begin to melt by the year 2000. Later, as a reporter, she became known as a forceful competitor, tracking down politicians and court judges for The Guardian in London.

“Before I met Joanna, I was told she was the rudest woman in London,” Mr. Godwin said.

The couple moved to New York in 1997. She was writing for The Guardian and The Times of London, and he was working on a novel. They chronicled their months of Ms. Coles’s pregnancy with her older son, Thomas, now 17, in a co-written, diarylike memoir published by HarperCollins in 2000, “The Three of Us: A New Life in New York.”

Along came a second child, Hugo, and a new job as senior editor at New York magazine for Ms. Coles. In the aftermath of 9/11, she and Mr. Godwin were married.

“We felt we needed to make things official because we weren’t yet citizens, and yet the kids were American,” Ms. Coles said. “There was talk of throwing foreigners out, and we wanted to have everything in order. Just in case something else happened. Went down to City Hall, got married, had a quick glass of champagne at Bubby’s on North Moore Street, gave each other a quick nod, and I was back at work before lunchtime. I am deeply unsentimental.”

In 2012, she moved within Hearst, to Cosmopolitan from Marie Claire. Under Ms. Coles, Cosmopolitan’s cover lines and web heads are as frothy as ever, from fashion (“Your Perfect Swimsuit Is Inside”) to beauty (“Look Hotter Naked!”) and relationships (“He Kissed Me Like He Was Eating a Sandwich”). But she has also used the publication to explore genital mutilation, abortion restrictions and politics.

On her watch, according to the Magazine Media 360 Brand Audience Report, which tallies print, digital and video audiences, Cosmopolitan’s reach has increased to 32 million last year, from 24 million two years earlier. And its Snapchat Discover platform reaches three million viewers per day, according to Hearst.

On Feb. 17, Ms. Coles arrived at the Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel in Dana Point, Calif., for a conference. Kara Swisher, a founder of Recode, the technology news company acquired by Vox Media last year, was going to interview her onstage.

Ms. Swisher sat on a couch in the green room, staring at her laptop. Ms. Coles, who had just arrived from Los Angeles, plopped into a makeup chair for a dab of blush. The conversation turned to a media executive they both knew who was purportedly making $5 million a year.

“She got $5 million?” Ms. Coles said.

“You and I are cheap, Joanna,” Ms. Swisher replied.

Off camera, Ms. Coles homes in on the interests of acquaintances, liberally dishing out advice. But in front of the camera, a sometimes bawdy persona emerges. In her chat onstage with Ms. Swisher, Ms. Coles defended magazines (“They make a huge amount of money still,” she said) before delving into America’s puritanical approach to sexuality.

Interactive Feature | NYT Living Newsletter Get lifestyle news from the Style, Travel and Food sections, from the latest trends to news you can use.

“I love talking about that, yeah,” she said, adding, “I’m thinking there should be a Cosmo sex position called ‘the Swisher,’” referring to Ms. Swisher. “And I’m just wondering what it would involve.”

The mostly male crowd of 300 or so laughed.

Ms. Coles mentioned that Cosmopolitan readers were interested in Antonin Scalia, the recently deceased conservative Supreme Court justice, and his impact on women’s rights. “Sometime we sneak in something like, you know, Antonin Scalia dying,” Ms. Coles said.

“So it’s like orgasms and then Antonin Scalia is dead,” Ms. Swisher replied, deadpan.

“Well, actually, Antonin Scalia would have preferred if none of us would have orgasms,” Ms. Coles said. More laughs from the crowd.

After her talk, one guest commented on how much Ms. Coles looked like the British actress Tilda Swinton. She nodded politely. When asked later whether she thought Ms. Swinton had copied her mannerisms for her role as a British magazine editor in the movie “Trainwreck,” Ms. Coles said she knew the director, Judd Apatow.

“I told him I would have played the role for free,” she said.

Perhaps one of Ms. Coles’s most useful talents is her ability to connect people from disparate worlds. She seems to know everybody, from the White House adviser Valerie B. Jarrett to the Snapchat chief executive, Evan Spiegel. In fact, Ms. Coles introduced Mr. Spiegel to Ms. Jarrett and had them over to her apartment for a dinner party afterward.

“When she calls and says, ‘This is someone you should know,’ I listen,” Ms. Jarrett said.

On a spring night, Ms. Coles went solo to the Broadway premiere of “Fully Committed,” which starred another friend, Jesse Tyler Ferguson. Mr. Godwin stayed home because one of the boys wasn’t feeling well.

Ms. Coles posed on the red carpet, wearing a pair of high heels designed by Sarah Jessica Parker, which the actress had called the Joanna.

In the crowd, Ms. Coles spotted Cynthia Erivo, the star of “The Color Purple.” “You have to meet her,” she told a guest. “She is going to be nominated for a Tony award.” (Ms. Erivo was not only nominated for best leading actress in a musical, she won.) Ms. Erivo hugged her friend and said Ms. Coles took her under her wing after she moved to New York.

Ms. Coles didn’t stay long at the after-party. She hailed a taxi and, as it moved past Columbus Circle, she mentioned Donald J. Trump. If he is elected president, she said, “That would be a terrible thing for women and human rights.”

She sighed. “Maybe Valentino had it right,” she said, recalling her visit to the designer’s atelier. “Maybe we need to shelter ourselves so we see the beautiful.”

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