By Jamé Jackson
No matter how talented you are, the road to becoming editor-in-chief can be a long one. Essence’s Vanessa K. De Luca knows that firsthand. After going out for the coveted role three times, the Columbia grad is now leading the African-American brand into a new digital age. She chatted with Ed about her changing career roles, what her role as EIC consists of, and what she looks for in a new hire.
How did you get your start in journalism?
I had an unusual journey to magazine publishing. I’m actually a career-changer—I worked in retailing for seven years. I was an English literature major in college and I always had an interest in writing. But when I graduated, I didn’t think there would be a lot of opportunity out there, so I took a route where I thought there would be more opportunity. But it really wasn’t a great fit. Eventually I left the company, moved back in with my parents, and went to NYU’s summer publishing institute, where I learned about books and magazine publishing. At the end of the summer, I went to their job fair where I met a recruiter from Condé Nast, which is how I ended up at Glamour. I was about 30 when I started there as an editorial assistant.
I worked there for about three years. I feel like my learning curve was shorter, because I already knew how to work in a corporate space, I was already self-motivated, and I was eager to take on extra assignments. I was promoted twice in three years, first to assistant writer and then to staff writer.
I was one of the few women of color there. I think that’s part of the reason why my then-boss hired me: she wanted to see more diversity in the newsroom. She was deliberate in ensuring that people of color had the same opportunities as all the Condé Nast trust fund babies. It’s harder without the connections, without the pedigree, and without the things you can leverage. That’s why I work on the Diversity Committee for ASME’s Board of Directors today—to remind the industry that we’re here, we’re available for work, and there are plenty of talented, eager folks who should have an opportunity.
So after three years, you left Glamour to go back to school. Why?
I had come in such an unorthodox way—I didn’t do any of the stuff people tell you to do to get the job. I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed if I didn’t want to write about fashion and beauty for the rest of my life. I wanted the confidence to know I could go into any situation and be able to report a wide variety of things. So I went to the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Education has always helped me get the most out of where I was.
So how did you transition from a writer to an editor?
Even in graduate school, people started telling me I needed to move into editing. I didn’t want to do that—I wanted to write the next great American novel! But they said editors have power, and they decide what you read. And it got me thinking.
I had been working at Life magazine, which was being shut down. Someone from Essence reached out to me about a fashion and beauty features editor position, and I went for it because it was a brand that spoke to me. I had tried a couple times prior to come over to Essence, but either the timing or the salary never paired up. This time, it was an editing job so it was going to show me if I really liked editing.
I started in the fall of 2000 and worked my way up. I went to features, lifestyle, and by 2005, had written for every section of the magazine. Then I was promoted from lifestyles director to executive editor, so I was learning from all the great editors there. Then I decided I wanted to be EIC, but I went out for it twice before I got it.
How did you handle getting passed over for EIC?
The first time, I knew I wasn’t going to get it because they already had two front runners, but at least it would put me on people’s radar if I threw my hat into the ring.
The second time was a bit more painful. I had been here, I had already been executive editor, and I wanted to come back. [Ed Note: De Luca had left Essence in 2008.] I was like “I know this magazine better than anybody else in the running!”
Two years later, they tapped me again for the role, and they weren’t looking at anybody else. They wanted my vision for Essence, which including bringing the magazine back to its core DNA as a touchstone for black women across all categories.
Third time’s the charm! Now as editor-in-chief of the brand, what are some of your duties and responsibilities?
I spend a lot of time in meetings talking about bigger picture initiatives, videos, e-commerce, bringing up unique visitors, and wider events like Essence Fest. I see myself as the moral compass and the gatekeeper, because there’s a lot of blurring of the lines at times, but we need someone who can speak on behalf of the team. Because I’ve been here for almost 15 years, there’s a lot of institutional knowledge that I can just bring to the table.
Then also, working to make sure we’re making smart decisions with our cover subjects—what stories we’re telling, why we’re choosing them, how can we be creative (and not just shamelessly plugging in their latest project) and looking at the magazine as a whole and seeing how it feels for the consumer. I love what I do. There’s always a desire to make sure we’ve done our absolute best.
What do you believe it takes to be an EIC?
I think it takes endless amounts of curiosity and a relentless desire to drive conversation, to be a thought-leader. When I look at candidates, I want to know their ideas and how they’re expressing them in the culture. I want to see their social footprint. I would hope that the person has already demonstrated their curiosity and their desire to be seen as an influencer in the space to make a difference.
And for upward mobility?
As you’re moving through as an editor, I think curiosity is essential. It’s helping you make relationships with people and determining what stories you can tell. If you’re not excited about the content you make, you probably shouldn’t do it.
The thing that has served me the best is learning to listen to the voice inside and trust your gut. You’ll know what works and what doesn’t. You don’t want to get into a place where you’re surrounded by a bunch of “yes people.” You have to spend time working on yourself to know when you’re hearing that voice versus other voices. It requires work and getting to know what makes you tick, what drives you; the more you’re in tune, the more you’ll know when things are not sitting right with you.
Jamé Jackson is a freelance writer in New York City. She loves all things fashion, beauty, and #GirlBoss related. She can be seen spreading her magic on Instagram @Theblondemisfit and her website, Theblondemisfit.com.