Meet Vanessa Grall, the Woman Who Teaches Travelers Not to Be Tourists
Vanessa Grall changed the focus of travel writing on the internet. Now she wants to shift how readers interact with the cities they visit.
Heroines celebrates women across a variety of fields who are breaking barriers and creating change. This is the third profile in a five-part series in celebration of International Women's Day.
To say that online journalism is a tough business these days would be as profound as a joke about Trump’s skin color. We’re all aware, thank you very much, and there’s nothing clever about it. Layoffs at Buzzfeed and Vice. Media columnists gleefully tearing down other news outlets. And of course a political and social climate that puts journalists under a relentless magnifying glass and female ones in particular under constant harassment.
So when I was asked to write about a female I admire in my industry (travel), my first thought was Vanessa Grall, the founder and showrunner of Messy Nessy Chic, one of my favorite travel websites. It’s simultaneously adventurous and whimsical, and pretty much guaranteed to give you some obscure yet captivating place you simply must see for yourself—even though it will likely blow up your whole itinerary. While it’s not hitting you over the head à la The Washington Post’s The Lily, there is also something unapologetically, refreshingly feminine about the site.
In a saturated travel market (and long before the star-making power of Instagram) Grall, at 33, has made herself into a major industry player based on her own insatiable curiosity. Years before many travel sections were devoted wholesale to abandoned and quirky destinations, she moved the needle in that direction by showing how successful one could be at it.
Over wine at her neighborhood haunt on the Right Bank of Paris, Grall and I discussed her journey. Not only has she survived the past decade nearly single-handedly running a super-popular website, but now with her new line of books she is ensuring a lengthier impact for a vision of travel I endorse wholeheartedly—how to not be a typical tourist.
June 2010 marked the sort of ignominious beginnings of the blog Messy Nessy Chic.
“When I started it I had no idea what a blog was. My brother I think helped set it up,” she confesses, as the clamor and buzz picks up in the cafe during aperitif hour. And when it came time to name it?
“My friends and I were in the kitchen, and not sober, and my friend was like you should call it Messy Nessy Chic. Because my dad calls me Nessy. I’m messy. So much clutter in my life. I’m clumsy.”
Grall’s accent is one of those odd, hard-to-place transatlantic ones. There is something reserved about her. The laugh is precise; she never goes for more than a few “ha’s” (which also may be a result of me not being very funny). Her reactions in our rambling, far-ranging conversation tend to be skepticism at first, a quick purse of her lips. I’m also a bit nervous, because as anybody who follows her Instagram knows, she loves the Parisian sport of people-watching and will latch on to some tic or attribute of a passerby.
Looking across at her, given the messy and chic in the name, I imagine her as an adult version of many of the girls I went to boarding school with. In the dining hall and classroom they were immaculately dressed and coiffed, but if you went into their dorm room it would look like Horace Slughorn was hiding from Voldemort in there.
So I ask her, “Do you think you’re chic?”
“I would say sometimes I manage to put myself together and look chic. And that one time you’ll make sure somebody takes a photograph of you,” she says.
Today, her website has roughly two million unique readers a month. (Facebook’s changes after the 2016 election have hit lifestyle traffic numbers hard, she previously had three million a month.) She has one full-time writer who moved to New York, and a host of freelancers. And while she admits she was pretty late in the game with newsletters, they have roughly 70,000 newsletter subscribers, which is impressive for a standalone travel site.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m out in my own island,” she laments, as we talk about the challenges she faces running the site. But given how she got there, it makes sense.
Grall, whose mother is American but who was born and raised in London, went to an American school from 8th grade onwards. (Thus the accent.)
“I didn’t like school. I was always a B student,” she admits. Still, after graduating high school in 2002 she got into and enrolled at NYU.
“I did a year in Italy at the NYU villa,” she continues, but then dropped out because “I didn’t actually want to go to New York. I wasn’t ready to leave Europe.”
Plus, her first foray into writing was pulling her back.
“That summer I’d taken a job at a magazine in Notting Hill called Matchbox Magazine. It was just two guys and an 18-year-old girl,” she says. “They had started this magazine but only had freelance writers. I went and just took over sections of it I liked and then ended up writing the whole thing, and I had pseudonyms.”
She continued, “In the beginning it was cool because I had completely free rein.” And so the first inklings of the kinds of stories that would fill Messy Nessy Chic appeared. Stories such as one about the Trellick Tower.
“Super-brutalist. Super-ugly. But had a fascinating history in Notting Hill,” she tells me. “Or I would write about a forgotten place. There was this anarchist community in Notting Hill.” But then the magazine headed in a different direction (into more of an advertorial, she says) and so she left.
And then it’s a blur in the years right after the financial crisis, perfect for a ’90s rom-com montage. She was a retail girl for a couple of years, including a stint at Ralph Lauren’s Bond Street location in London. She was fired. “I was really bad at retail,” she confesses. She was singing, going to studios to make recordings.
Then, in 2010, her parents moved to Paris because London had become too expensive.
“At that time I was sort of like, wait, what am I doing in London?” she explains. “They told me to come to Paris. I said ‘I don’t want to marry a Frenchman so I don’t want to come to Paris.’ I ended up coming for a month experiment in September and ended up meeting my partner who I’m still with the first weekend I arrived.”
“…is he French?” I inquire.
“Yes, [Alex] is French. I really stuck to my guns there,” she says.
And a few weeks before she left, she launched the site.
What I’ve loved about Messy Nessy Chic is that Grall taps into what really is discovery for our generation. The world, for the intrepid but average traveler, has been largely explored. And since we’re not going into the Mariana Trench or to lost cities in the Honduras jungle with flesh-eating parasites, what’s actually left to discover are things that have been forgotten. Few are as good as her at finding them and write about them in such a personal way as Grall.
“I think the chic in the name is kind of what differentiates me from the average geeky explorer’s website,” she argues. “My competitors, I love them and I’ve learned so much from them over the years, like Atlas Obscura, which is a site we’re often compared to. But it was founded by two boys. It’s very much boys, explorers, rugged, L.L. Bean all that stuff.”
But having something reflect one person so thoroughly (she is a self-admitted micro-manager) can be tough.
“At the beginning, when I first started trying to outsource, we had no budget,” she recalls. And while she’s taken on a private equity firm that invests in niche markets and businesses (Grall declined to name the firm), she is cognizant that she doesn’t have the staff and worker firepower of her rivals.
As we talk about how the stories have changed, she grimaces and says, “I’ve stopped doing abandoned stuff. There was a year I was obsessed with abandoned stuff. Now I’m more particular. I wouldn’t cover an abandoned sanatorium, for instance.”
Historical pieces have also come under scrutiny.
“Sometimes I feel I want get away from being too history. Are we just rehashing another old person who has been forgotten? No that doesn’t fly. It has to be that they’re relevant,” she declares. “It can’t just be let’s talk about this dead person who looked cool.”
So many other writers I know love the site, an anecdotal reference backed up when she tells me that she signed up for Fohr, which handles campaign marketing for influencers.
“They did a better job of actually mining my stats and finding out who my audience is, better than Google Analytics, what their jobs are,” she claims. “It’s something like 75 percent of them are journalists.”
Which may also be a source of a bit of the tapering off in traffic.
“Whereas before I would be the first one on an obscure topic, nobody would copy it. So an article would go viral for a long time. Now, today, six or seven other places will have something on it not long after,” she notes bitterly. “The long-term traffic gets watered down. So you have to find other ways to get your bread and butter.”
And so Grall and her team, like all of us, are looking at ways to make the website sustainable in the future. Right now, the big success story and what she thinks thinks will be the future of Messy Nessy Chic is a book.
A year and a half ago, the site published a book with Roads Publishing titled, Don’t Be a Tourist in Paris: The Messy Nessy Chic Guide. It was such a success that Grall and team were able to buy the rights back so they could self-publish the next edition: New York.
“Right now all my energy is on the New York one,” she declares. “My obsession is all about writing the New York book and writing or developing this brand, the Don’t Be a Tourist brand (I hate the word brand).”
“This is something that could exist without me,” she elaborates about her long-term book plans. “Almost like a ‘chic’ version of Lonely Planet, or, more realistically, the Paper guides.”
Nearly 10 years into the daily grind of running a website, I have to ask: do you still love it?
“Yea, I’m still loving it,” she says, a rare full smile breaking through. “I would hate any other 9-to-5 job. I’ve never been good at having a boss, at working on anything that’s not my own thing.”
So let’s just hope the world doesn’t run out of obscure places.