Joanna Coles: Why Cosmopolitan Does Sexy and Serious So Well

The British editor of Cosmopolitan says she loves talking about (and having) sex. The key to women succeeding in business? Playing golf, apparently.


Joanna Coles is busily tweaking Cosmopolitan, the planet’s best-read women’s magazine and the Hearst Corp.’s most profitable monthly, by sprinkling ever larger chunks of substance and topicality into the glossy permafroth of relationship coaching, fashion trends, sex positions, and orgasm advice.

The September issue currently on newsstands features a first-person account by a jailed Occupy Wall Street protester who spent two months on Rikers Island, a grim report on successful Republican efforts to restrict abortion rights in Texas, and fired New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson’s first interview on what it was like to be sacked—articles that are unlikely to have appeared in earlier iterations of Cosmo.

“I have more of a journalistic sensibility,” Coles tells me as we sit in her sun-dappled office on the 38th floor of Hearst Tower with its vertiginous view of Midtown Manhattan. “The pieces feel topical. One of my issues with women’s magazines is that you could open them up and you’re not sure what decade they’re from. I want people to understand that this is a magazine about what we’re living through now.”

Coles, who grew up middle class in Yorkshire, the daughter of an English teacher and a social worker, graduated from the University of East Anglia and cut her teeth on Fleet Street.

She was a born writer, publishing her own magazine—actually cobbled-together Xerox pages—even before her teen years. “It was the ramblings of a 10-year-old girl, along with some poems copied out of books,” Coles says, though her ambition was such that she sent a copy to the Queen and received a thank-you note from a lady-in-waiting, who asked for more. “It encouraged me greatly.”

Although she is now an American citizen, Coles has retained an English sense of journalism. “One of the differences between American magazines and English magazines,” she says, “is that American magazine pieces are always supposed to end up positive and upbeat at the end. But I quite like the odd story that doesn’t end up positively, but just sort of leaves you adrift…I’m a very unsentimental editor.”

Still, in some ways, the 52-year-old married mother of two teenage boys sounds—in her clipped Brit cadence, punctuated by a bone-dry, often-wicked sense of humor—like a traditional Cosmo editor in chief.

“I’m incredibly interested in women’s lives and always have been,” says the platinum-bobbed Coles, who is model-slim and outfitted in white jeans, navy silk top and green espadrilles by Celine, and accessorized with bangles and baubles by British jewelry designer Sidney Garber (whose daughter Brooke is a pal). “I love reading about sex and I love talking about sex. I think sex is incredibly interesting.

“And,” she can’t resist adding, “I quite like having sex.”

Coles grins impishly, gazing as if to gauge my reaction. If the ladylike editor of a women’s mag were ever to engage in towel-snapping, this is probably what it would look like.

“Sex,” of course, remains the most ubiquitous word on Cosmo’s covers, as in “Your Best Sex Ever,” “52 Holy [email protected] Sex Moves,” “Crazy Hot Sex,” and “Blow Your Mind Sex!” The word “orgasm”—as in “The New Science of Better Orgasms”—is probably a close second. “‘Orgasm’ is every other cover,” Coles says, deadpan.

Not to mention all the wildly creative energy necessary to produce the “Sex Olympics,” the Cosmo “sex position of the day,” and, recently, a groundbreaking feature on “28 Mind-Blowing Lesbian Sex Positions.”

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“We have the most hilarious meetings,” says Coles, who oversees an editorial staff of 50 or so, including half a dozen men.

Enthroned on a leopard-print chair in her office that features a makeshift desktop attached to a treadmill, along with a power-shelf of photos of herself with George Bush and Barack Obama, among other worthies, and a few of her husband, author and PEN American Center President Peter Godwin, but none of her kids (“I’m a horrible mother,” she quips), Coles seems very much at home, munching on a green apple.

Yet she freely acknowledges that back in the last century, when she was scooping the world with the first extensive post-acquittal interview of O.J. Simpson for The Guardian—he shattered a water glass with his bare hand, she says, in response to one of her more challenging questions—or when she was writing serious political analysis for The Times of London, she could not have imagined editing a magazine that regularly runs cheeky lines like, “No butts about it, anal play is on the rise.”

While Cosmo’s celebrity cover models tend to come from what Coles describes as “an exceptionally beautiful super-race—you meet Heidi Klum and think, ‘How can you and I share the same planet?’”—a certain degree of Photoshopping is frequently de rigueur.

“We tend to Photoshop if the model has a zit, or if she’s sometimes stressed about doing a cover,” Coles says. “Especially when you do celebs on the cover, a lot of them are very anxious about it. Their idea of fun is not being photographed all day. So if they have a cold sore, or get a zit, or they break out before the shoot, I’m quite happy to get rid of that for them.

“Sometimes the light shines obliquely on a body part and looks odd, so I don’t mind making it clear. If there was a rough cellulite dimple, we might take it out. We certainly don’t slim anyone down by 30 pounds. For the most part, we do very little retouching.”

Coles acknowledges that body image is an especially fraught subject among many of Cosmo’s readers, and that her “super-race” cover models could be more intimidating than aspirational. But she points out that Khloe Kardashian and Kelly Osbourne—hardly the ideal of anorexic perfection—have also graced recent Cosmo covers.

Cosmopolitan began 128 years ago as a family-friendly handbook for housewives, quickly morphed into a journal of fiction and true adventure and pretty much stayed that way, with declining circulation, until Helen Gurley Brown reinvented it in 1965 as a sex-positive lifestyle guide for ambitious, free-spirited “single girls” in search of fun, love and career success.

“The core audience has always been the single young woman in her 20s, making her way in the world—the career woman who wants the manicure, the MBA and the man,” says Hearst Magazines President David Carey, who hired Coles two years ago from another Hearst title, Marie Claire, when longtime Cosmo editor Kate White announced her intention to retire after a successful 14-year reign.

“That was the traditional Helen Gurley Brown concept: You can have it all—personal success, career success, and success in relationships. That concept was genius. Joanna has taken that core DNA and updated it.”

Carey adds that, “Joanna, right from the start, had a very compelling plan which we now see in its physical form. It was to focus on relationships, which of course was at the center, but the marketplace has evolved tremendously, and Cosmo should have a stronger political voice, it should connect with some of the great emerging female executives to share their stories and their triumphs, and there was a chance to rethink the mix, based on the contemporary young woman.”

Former Times editor Abramson—whose Cosmo interview landed with a bang in the media world, probably a first for the mag, when it was released in mid-July—says that when she met Coles over lunch, months before her public sacking, “I was really impressed by Joanna. I loved her vision for adding more serious features, including politics, without taking the fun out of Cosmo.”

In an email to The Daily Beast, Abramson writes that she accepted the magazine’s invitation to appear in the September “back to school issue…since I too am going back to school (teaching at Harvard).”

She describes Coles, along with Cosmo Executive Editor Leslie Yazel, as “smart and funny, no nonsense, true to her word.” She adds: “I’m not a regular Cosmo reader. I often grab it if I have a plane trip. I was a big admirer of Helen Gurley Brown [who remained Cosmo’s patron saint after leaving the editorship in 1997 and died, at age 90, in 2012]. What a dynamo. Loved her wearing miniskirts till the end.”

Coles, who is two editors removed from Brown (White and, before her, a brief stint by celebrity impresario Bonnie Fuller), has overseen 20 issues so far. Her first cover model, for the March 2013 issue, was a shirtless Miley Cyrus (pre-Robin Thicke-tongue-hanging VMA flap) in a cleavage-revealing white suit.

“I love Miley,” Coles says, holding up the cover in front of her. “She cover-jacked newsstands across America, which was terrific,” she adds, explaining that the pop star urged her obedient fans to place Cosmo copies in front of all other mags on newsstands—a bit of tomfoolery that provoked bitter complaints (as Coles gleefully recounts) from the sales departments of competing titles.

Coles has increased Cosmo’s coverage of fashion, and the magazine has enjoyed a commensurate uptick in high-end fashion advertising, so she plans to be omnipresent during next month’s New York Fashion Week.

“My Fashion Week will be very busy,” she says. “It’s endless shows and presentations and I try to go to established designers as well as new ones showing for the first time. But I have fun doing it, it’s like back to school after the holidays. A lot of editors complain about it all, but I choose the shows I am excited about and I am always looking for something to surprise me.”

One of Coles’ early moves—in the April 2013 issue with Kim Kardashian on the cover—was to publish the first excerpt of Lean In, the mega best-seller about female execs in the business world by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg.

At the same time she recruited Sandberg and her team to edit Cosmo Careers, the magazine’s first-ever quarterly guide for readers who aspire to the executive trajectory.

Sandberg—“a rock star to young women,” Coles says—is the embodiment of Coles’ goal “to really reintroduce that big idea that Helen had about having it all, and allowing all girls—young women—the dream of having the big life that they want. And that could be having children and having a CEO office or having a chain of florists. It might be doing three academic degrees after each other, or going to Harvard Business School.

“It’s encouraging women to dream big. That has been the consistent message of the magazine. We’re trying to frame it in slightly more modern terms, and Lean In helped us do that.”

Sandberg, for her part, says Coles “has brought Cosmo back to its feminist roots. Not only has she raised substantive discussions on everything from careers to finances to politics for her readers, but she has proved she can do so and still sell magazines.”

Indeed, Cosmo is Hearst Magazines’ most important global cash cow, with a U.S. circulation topping 3 million, including an average 800,000 in newsstand sales and paid subscriptions for tablet and mobile device users, and boasts an estimated 100 million readers in more than 100 countries (notably Mongolia) in 64 international editions published in 35 languages.

At a moment when many magazines are financially strapped, Cosmo’s advertising and subscription revenues are up this year, and the September issue is, according to a Hearst spokeswoman, the biggest moneymaker in the magazine’s history. Carey, however, declines to provide real numbers.

“We could do ‘Ninety-Nine Million Bottles of Beer on the Wall’ and count down until I tell you to stop,” the Hearst Magazines president says, “but I’m not going to play Marco Polo with you.”

So far Coles has shown herself to be pretty good at the women’s mag biz. She has twice been named editor of the year by Adweek, won Cosmo its first-ever National Magazine Award in May for a comprehensive guide to contraception, and is vigorously raising Cosmo’s profile in the media and power centers of New York and Washington with conferences, gala dinners and television appearances. (While at Marie Claire, she was both a judge and mentor on the hit reality show Project Runway.)

As for what’s next for Coles, “I really enjoy Cosmo and I haven’t been here very long, and I like figuring out new things to do with the brand,” she says. “There is so much scope. The only thing I would like to do more of is exercise really seriously. Michael Clinton, president of marketing at Hearst, just ran a marathon in Antarctica. I would like to be fit enough to do that.”

Her biggest regret?

“I do not play golf, and if I could go back and do something different, I would have learned how to play golf in my mid-20s, and I would encourage every young woman to do that,” she says. “I kick myself for not having thought of that, because it’s a really interesting place to talk to other people in the business sphere—to be part of a conversation that otherwise goes on without you. That’s my first advice to young women: Learn golf.”