The National Interview: The Unsinkable Tina Brown
Trailblazing former editor of Vanity Fair, New Yorker offers insight into today's top newsmakers
Take any name in the news these days and chances are they have a connection to Tina Brown.
The legendary and trailblazing editor is regarded as one of the greats of magazine publishing, brought over from London to New York in the mid-80s to turn around a flailing publication called Vanity Fair. Brown melded serious journalism and celebrity culture into a must-read magazine for anyone who wanted to be plugged into the zeitgeist.
Under Brown's editorship Vanity Fair also produced some of the boldest covers in magazine history, like the iconic image of a heavily pregnant Demi Moore.
Now Brown is looking back at her seminal work re-inventing Vanity Fair with her new book, The Vanity Fair Diaries. She sat down with The National's co-host, Adrienne Arsenault, to talk about her views on everything from Trump, to Prince Harry's royal engagement, to the sexual assault scandals sweeping the entertainment industry.
Here are excerpts from their conversation.
The Vanity Fair life
A: I am a woman of the arena, right? So I like to be where the action is.
I'm also a compulsive chronicler and I feel that an editor gets their best stories when they're out getting leads. So for me, going out into these black tie events of that time in the '80s was where the action was and where I was getting leads.
You know, a lot of what I was doing was feeding the cover stories feeding the narratives. I would hear something and think that's interesting, we ought to be on that story because clearly something is rumbling in this business arena or this celebrity arena or this emotional content trend that's happening. We need to be there.
Vanity Fair was [at the] cutting edge of the culture and that's where I needed to live.
A: I always have antenna for what for what's happening, I think.
I used to go out and I would see the excess of the '80s. I went to the White House, I saw Reagan and Nancy up close. I would go to to Hollywood.
I met Michael Jackson and found him so different from how I expected. He was in fact very reclusive and shy and strange, and reading New Yorker short stories of all things, which was the most unexpected thing you could possibly imagine from someone like Michael Jackson.
Q: What do you make of the MeToo movement?
A: Well, that's I think a watershed thing that has happened.
I started the Women in the World Summit in 2009, which convenes extraordinary women to tell their stories, and it's now annual. I felt that the most incredible things were happening to women overseas in Africa, India Middle East fighting these great repressions, and yet they were making a difference.
Q: Do you do you draw a line between the women's march [in January 2017] and the MeToo movement?
A: No, I think it's a natural arc. I think that march in 2017 was a stunned pushback to what had just happened in the election, and a sense of outrage and regret and grief that women hadn't woken up in time to stop a macro aggression descending on them in the face of the Trump presidency.
II's gone on, the boiling, the fury about that. But also I think there's a sense that women have played nice for too long.
They feel that [they're] still kept out of big jobs. If you look at the Fortune 500 companies and those tiny percentage of women who are running them. And in Congress in the United States it's 19 per cent still, we're stuck with 19 per cent [representation]. It doesn't seem to change.
So I think it's a very exciting time, actually, that women have so kind of joined together to say enough is enough.
Q: What determines if the MeToo movement endures. Where's the risk for this movement?
A: I think we are seeing a revolution. And revolutions get bloody and revolutions often get off the rails. So you're going to see corollary damage. You're going to see some decent men who are falsely accused. You are going to see some unfair reprisals. You will see some of that.
But I think that the larger picture is going to be a healthy one, in that the revolution needed to happen. And it is happening.
Q: You referred to Harvey Weinstein as a pig, and that's not just you looking at him from afar. This is a man you knew quite well.
A: I worked with him for two years when I left the New Yorker to edit Talk magazine. And yeah, he was a volcano — volcanic and abusive and a profane individual. Although I didn't see the sexual predations, I did see an extremely bombastic and an unattractive person at work. A big bully.
But you know, what he did has let loose this extraordinary cultural moment. It's ironic that he of all people should have ended up causing a sort of referendum on masculinity, and a lot of soul searching on the part of very decent men.
I mean, let's face it, there are tons of men who were just as appalled by this as women. And many of them asking themselves how can we make sure that can never happen to a woman again.
Q: And perhaps you thought you were talking to one of those decent men about a month or so ago when you sat down with Charlie Rose to talk about Harvey Weinstein. When you look at that interview in hindsight now, I wonder what that feels like?
A: Well, it's pretty stunning. It's distressing when a friend, as he is … you suddenly find this whole other side of him that you didn't know about.
But at the same time, these penalties have to happen. Because without the big penalties, it's going to go on — unless people look at themselves and think, 'My God, you know, if I don't stop doing this this could be me. I could be totally wiped out, my whole career, my whole legacy wiped out.'
Which is the most extraordinary thing we're seeing. I mean, the whole Charlie Rose legacy appears to be in complete jeopardy now, as does Louis C.K. or Kevin Spacey, the man who made the most amazing movies.
But at the same time, tragic though the death of talent might be, the fact is that this revolution had to happen.
Q: Fair price to pay?
Being a woman and a boss
Q: You talked about soul searching … but there's nothing in [your book] about you being sexually harassed.
A: I was a boss from the age of 25, when I was editor of Tatler magazine in London. So I always had a certain amount of control over my own life. I certainly think that sexual harassment is only really completely bonafide when you are a person who does not have as much power as your harasser.
That wasn't the case with me because from a very young age I was the boss so I couldn't be harassed in that sense.
What I did suffer from was a sense of having to all the time try harder and harder and prove myself more, and be even more of a striver than I was by nature, in order to get the same or less consideration, in the sense, than my male media counterparts.
Q: I have to ask you about Donald Trump. It seems to me from reading that you saw the hold he had, or the fascination Americans had with him. How do you explain that?
A: The first time I met him was at an event shortly after [Vanity Fair ran] a serial extract from The Art Of The Deal. And I bought the book because I liked it a lot. I read it over the weekend and I thought … it's total B.S., this book, but it's authentic B.S. and it's a refreshing voice. Like it or not, it's a real voice and I always look for a voice when I'm in editing.
Shortly after that I met him and again I found him very refreshing. I thought he was funny.
Later on he got much less funny, and I started to realize that he's a kind of toxic individual, is the truth, and that his company, it's all nonsense that he's talked about ... And the B.S. becomes far less appealing.
He did change, because there's no doubt that at the beginning he was an appealing and funny guy, and somehow got less so.
Q: Is he a two-term president?
A: I think he could well be.
The economy's howling along. And he has 43 million Twitter followers, whereas The New York Times has three million subscribers, which just shows in a sense the … desire to hear that voice, if you like. Even if people are following him because they don't like him, they're still following him.
And I don't think that things like the Russia investigation really stick. I think they're the kind of things that people don't really find disturbing enough to want to get rid of him.
The royal engagement
A: think it's wonderful news for Prince Harry, for the U.K., for the world. It's been such a horrible year, and now we have Megan and Harry. Wonderfully positive statement.
Q: What does this do for the monarchy?
A: What it brings is a whole other gust of renewal and reformation. The fact that Meghan is a biracial divorcee is really remarkable … it shows how far the monarchy has traveled. And how now the inclusiveness of the monarchy is paramount. The fact that Harry can do this and the fact that Megan is 36 — you know, the incredible thing is she is the age that Diana was when she died — it's a whole different ballgame now in the monarchy.
It is also easier now that William has a family and Harry's not going to get [the throne] unless something really strange happens. There's a sense as well of 'let Harry be Harry, let Harry have his pick.' You know that they're done with trying to force their sons to marry people they don't want to marry.
Q: Will the queen go to this wedding?
A: Oh, she will. I mean, she's going to love it.
Q: How connected are you to your device?
A: 100 per cent. You know, my navel [is] attached to my iPhone. I've always been a news junkie and now that I have news alerts on my phone it's 24/7.
Q: Do you sleep with your phone?
A: I do, as a matter of fact. It's next to my bed.
Let's put it this way: it's never really off. I can't help myself. I think if you are in love with news, it's a hard habit to crack.
Q: If you could, for one more month, get your hands on Vanity Fair, who would be on the cover right now? What is the most important story?
A: The three generals at the White House. I'd like to do [a story on] Mattis, McMaster and Kelly. I'd call it Star Wars, because all these guys have stars but they're actually in different hierarchies from what their actual ranks are. I think the question is are they running the country or is Trump?
What is really going on between these three generals. They are supposed to be in harness together, but are they? Or are they competitive? Who's really in charge?
It's pretty fascinating to me and we're not really seeing much emphasis on that.