The National·Q&A

The National Interview: The Unsinkable Tina Brown

Tina Brown, trailblazing former editor of publications such as Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, offers insight on everything from Trump, to Prince Harry's royal engagement, to the sexual assault scandals sweeping the entertainment industry.

Trailblazing former editor of Vanity Fair, New Yorker offers insight into today's top newsmakers

Tina Brown has blazed a journalistic trail as the editor of iconic publications ranging from Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, to Newsweek and The Daily Beast. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

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.

Vanity Fair's controversial Demi Moore cover from 1991. (Tina Brown)
She went on to re-boot the New Yorker and became one of first of the traditional media's old guard to leap into the digital world as a co-founder of the Daily Beast.  

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

"I've always got my observer eye going and I'm never sucked in personally," Brown says of covering the antics of the rich and famous. "I'm experiencing it, but I'm experiencing it as a writer and as an observer and as an editor." (Evan Mitsui/CBC)
Q: Reading the book, going through what was expected of you at the time, I'm trying to imagine what it's like to live it. And when you talk about the parties, the language to me almost feels like … you really didn't want to go to all of these events all the time but you felt you had to. Why?

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.

Vanity Fair magazine was struggling in the mid-1980s, and Brown was brought in and given the job of turning it around. (Tina Brown)
I would come back with … tips and story leads and details that I'd seen, and give them to my writers and they would appear in the pages Vanity Fair.

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.

Brown with actor Sylvester Stallone and his girlfriend Jennifer Flavin at a Versace cocktail reception in 1990 in New York City. "I think the reason that Vanity Fair was as good as it was then was because I was so wired into the world that I was reporting on," she says. (Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage/Getty)
Q: There's this really expansive phrase in the book that talks about you having "your fingertips on the arrhythmia of the '80s."

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.

Vanity Fair's 1989 cover feature on Michael Jackson. (Tina Brown)
Whenever I went out I always found that the experience was worth it, because I would see up close something that was quite different from everything I'd heard.

Sexual harassment

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.

Brown speaks on stage during the Women In The World Summit in 2015 in New York City. (Andrew Toth/Getty Images)
And oddly enough, I now feel that the whole kind of centre of that global women's movement has come back to the United States. Not since the '60s have we seen such a volcano of women saying enough is enough.

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.

Melinda French Gates, left, Charlie Rose and Tina Brown attend the 2011 Women In The World Conference at The Hudson Theatre in New York City. (Marc Bryan-Brown/WireImage/Getty)
And that's what I think the fury has been about, and it's led to this kind of outrage after the sexual harassment horrendous charges of Harvey Weinstein. It really just led women to think this just cannot stand. I mean, we know that it's not just this guy. This guy's a horrendous egregious pig, but there are so many more guys who are getting off and we're just not going to have it anymore.

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.

The staff at Vanity Fair discusses the layout of an edition of the magazine. (Tina Brown)

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.

Charlie Rose and Tina Brown at the book party for The Vanity Fair Diaries. (Twitter)

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?

A: Probably.

Being a woman and a boss

The staff of Tatler magazine in 1979 in their Mayfair office when Brown, centre, was editor. (Graham Morris/Evening Standard/Getty)

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.

Brown, centre, with her staff at Vanity Fair in the mid-1980s. (Tina Brown)
There could have been, of course, if one of my own bosses had been like that, but they weren't. I mean, I had amazing bosses for 25 years.

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.  

President Trump

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.

Donald and Ivana Trump attend a Vanity Fair Party in February 1988 in New York City. (Ron Galella/WireImage/Getty)
We published a piece that he really hated, in which the author Marie Brenner wrote that she had noticed that on his desk he had Hitler's speeches. And he went ballistic. And in fact, at a benefit six months later he passed behind Marie Brenner at the dinner party and he emptied white wine down the back of her dress. And that in a sense was a little flash of the Trump we know today.

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

The royals have become much less rigid when it comes to marriages and who gets welcomed into the family, according to Brown. "There really is a great easiness about it all in the royal family." (Evan Mitsui/CBC)
Q: What do you make of this 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.

Being connected

A self-professed news junkie all her life, Brown co-founded The Daily Beast and was also editor of Newsweek. (Tina Brown)

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?

The media needs to figure out a business model that can support solid, fact-checked journalism, Brown says. "At the moment the advertising revenue is being gobbled up by Facebook and Google, which has drained the lifeblood, literally, from the real media, and it has to stop. Otherwise we're going to be left with fake news." (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

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.


Tarannum Kamlani is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared on the fifth estate and The National. She has also worked on a spectrum of shows on CBC Radio and Television, including Q and Power and Politics, and holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.