Lesley Jane Seymour with Dr. Barb
Lesley Jane Seymour made an immediate entry into journalism after graduating Duke University as an English major. She reported for Women's Wear Daily, The Daily News, Harper's Bazaar, Vogue, and Glamour before assuming editorial leadership at Redbook, Marie Claire, and More magazine. She was named Most Powerful Fashion Magazine Editor by Forbes during her tenure at More. In addition to writing (including two books) and editing, she's pursuing a Master's of Science in Sustainability Management and has mentored Brazilian women creating social enterprises through Vital Voices Global Partnership. Her latest venture, Covey Club, is described in this interview (and the second installment that follows).
Barb: Our guest today is Lesley Jane Seymour, an award-winning journalist, editor, author, and entrepreneur. She’s known for her leadership as the editor-in-chief of Redbook, Marie Claire, and especially for us, More magazine. More was a magazine that I really valued. I valued it for the way that it not only validated, but inspired women at a life stage that others are writing off. Her interests are varied and deep, from sustainability, to design, to history, to leadership.
Lesley, welcome. Thanks for being here today!
Lesley: I’m so glad you’re having me!
Barb: I have to say you’ve been someone I’ve admired from afar for a long time, so I feel like it’s a special privilege to get a chance to have a direct discussion and hear more about your life and your influence for many other women. My background, of course, has been in women’s health care for many years, so I feel like we share some of the same passions around women’s issues and....
Lesley: Ohhh yes!
Barb: So you’ve had a front seat to changes in the media over the last 30 years. And my, how they’ve changed over that time. What do you see as maybe the most positive change?
Lesley: Oh! Good question! [laughs] Can I say there’s anything positive today? The positive thing that’s happening is that the miraculous nature of internet and all of this tech stuff has allowed people like me, who the sad part, have been closed out of our old lives in disruption from the print world (which is really collapsing) to recreate that experience as a solopreneur, in a kind of crazy whacked-out nutty way…. And as an example, I’ll give you this project which I’ve been working on since the magazine closed – which is now called Covey Club – it went through a couple of other incarnations. But “covey” means a small group of birds, and I wanted it to be small and cute and cozy kind of thing.
For a year and a half I’ve been working on creating a kind of “digizine”/club for the same More reader who has no place to go, basically. There’s nobody writing for us anywhere. Lo and behold, after a year and a half, my beautiful designers in England working on it, it arrives in my inbox. And it’s like holy moly! This is the night that it arrived; I looked at it and I thought, “Wow, this is the thing I had to go to a job for!” I had to put on my pantyhose, I had to put on my Spanx, I had to put on my lipstick, do my hair… I had to commute through the snow and the sleet… to do this! To contact people and present people with things that are beautiful and intelligent and smart… and here I’m doing it from my own home! It’s crazy!
I explained to a friend of mine who is a Broadway producer who is now retired – he’s living down in New Orleans – I said, “Imagine that you could – from your bedroom – put on a full-fledged Broadway musical by yourself.” That’s the miracle of what’s going on. That’s the insanity of what’s going on because, of course, once you get it going, how the heck do you do it by yourself? It’s crazy!
Barb: Yes it is crazy, and I think the other thing is there’s so much out there that to try to help women discover the avenues they want to discover – for me in health care, we all know what it means to Google a condition.
Lesley: Yes! Oh, my gosh! Don’t do that! [laughs]
Barb: Yes, exactly! So I think for me, it has been overall favorable in my career as well, but also just feeling like so many things get lost in the morass of options.
Lesley: Yes. You can’t stay on target anymore. I mean, these are the things I’m going to write about; I’m just going to learn so much about this. And I’m not ADD at all; I can’t imagine what somebody does today who has ADD. But you end up working on something, a ping comes in, you end up down a rabbit hole fixing something that’s going on with your computer… an hour later you’re coming back trying to finish one thing, the news feed is coming in….
You can’t find anything. You can’t hold on to anything. You can’t organize anything. What’s amazing is everything’s out there, but you can’t find what you want. And that’s kind of what Covey Club is going to be is a platform where you can say, “I want to know anything about women 40-plus.” “I want to find health info.” “I want to find your product that you’re talking about, your books.” I want to be that crossroad where you can just log in there, I’ll be directed... I want beauty resources… I want fashion resources… I want health resources… I’m not going to try and recreate everything that’s out there, but I will try to weed through the good stuff, and talk about and bring people together with the good stuff. There’s a lot of “junk” and a lot of bad information put out by people who really don’t know any better – I don’t think they are trying to put out bad info, but they do. And, that’s what’s hard. Today you need a policeman at the center of all the cross streets so you can get across.
Barb: I will speak personally about this, I think that was the beauty of More magazine. It arrived to me, and every page was information that was helpful and valuable to me, and I was one of those cover-to-cover readers, enjoying the variety of aspects. And I didn’t have to go through 48 different magazines to find the articles I wanted. It was distilled for me in that one magazine. So I have to say, I mourn the loss of the print, but I understand the importance of the changes that are coming, and I hope your future in this endeavor is going to continue to reach all the women you have over the past.
I will just tell you that my own story in healthcare was that about 10 years ago – and again, I’ve been a More magazine consumer for as long as More magazine was out – but, I went back to do a masters in Medical Management, and expand my profession to have a bigger understanding of the business of healthcare. As a result, it inspired me to start the business I have – that’s MiddlesexMD, which is around women’s health and women’s sexual health – and I felt like you were alongside inspiring me. During that time, my sister went back for a doctorate – she’s a bit older than I am, and she’s in nursing – she went back for a doctorate!
Lesley: Yay! All our older school-goers! It’s so great! I’m five classes away from finishing my sustainability degree, but Covey Club is getting in the way. [laughs]
Barb: Yes. Well, my sister actually mocked up an article to send to More magazine. She thought we were newsworthy at the time, I’ll just let you know. [laughs]
Lesley: Yes! It’s a great thing. I mean there’s a wave of older people going back to universities. I think they’ve finally figured this out… I mean Columbia in New York, has certainly figured this out… there’s this giant population of reinventors sitting at their doorstep, and they better figure out how to bring them back in. They’ve done a very good job of it.
Barb: So what do you think are the characteristics of women kind of reinventing or recreating themselves? What is it you would say to somebody as they wonder about what could be next for their lives?
Lesley: I think many women are, first of all, women are great reinventors. They’ve been brought up being reinventors. I mean, the essence of everything we do with our makeup, with our hair, with our bodies, with our “whatever”… we’ve been reinventing ourselves from the first day we, you know, had a consciousness, practically. I mean, that is why my tray is full of all these lipsticks that all look the same is it’s because each single one of them when I put it on, it’s going to make me a new person who’s going to have that perfect life, right? And, that started when I was 13. That’s what we’re being sold. And there’s a nefarious part of it, but there’s also a wonderful part of it which is that, we’re good at that. You know how you feel when you get a new haircut, or you get highlights, or you just feel like a new person. And I think we have to take that idea into the second half of our lives and realize that we may either be forced to reinvent ourselves, asked to reinvent ourselves, or life’s issues may suggest that you may need to reinvent yourself.
And, also as you get older, very frankly – I just turned 60 in January – and it is mortality breathing down your neck… where you say like, “I don’t have all the time in the world now to figure out who the heck I want to be. What do I really want? Who do I really want to be? What do I really want to say to the world? How do I want to impact the world?” And it’s not just about a job. It can be about your body, it can be about your relationships, it can be about everything. You can take segments and work on them, but I think using other women who reinvented themselves is an inspiration and looking at what other people do for themselves.
A new beginning is always great. It’s the thing that used to get me to go to school with my new notebook and my little pencil case, for those who remember that. I think that’s kind of how we have to look at our lives, and now with technology at our door, forcing disruption in our jobs and in our lives, we are forced to reinvent more often.
I go around the country, really talking to women and telling them, “Even if you’ve been at your job for 25 years, and you love it and they love you, you need a reinvention idea in your back pocket. Because reinvention may be forced upon you. When that company is absorbed, or goes out of business, or it’s bought and moved or…” The world is moving and changing, and we need to be prepared.
Barb: Yes, and I think interestingly, some of the research has suggested that women at this age, and I’ll put myself in that as well… my practice is primarily perimenopause and menopausal women’s health, but women at this age are open to learning new things, and establishing new habits. So I find it an interesting opportunity to talk to women at this stage of life, and kind of saying, “Okay, the fork in the road looks like this if you continue doing what you’ve been doing…” and whether it’s joints or weight or whatever their life health thing might be… “…or you can make it different. But It requires that you approach it differently.”
Barb: This is the way you need to think about it, and surprisingly, at this part of my practice in the last few years, women come back… I’ll use weight as an instance. I saw a woman the other day. She came back and had lost 32 pounds since last year!
Barb: And I said, “My goodness, congratulations, how did you do this?” And she said ”You told me I should!”
Barb: Yes… and it doesn’t happen often enough, but I do think it does speak to women’s interests and motivation to try to approach things in a different way. So, I think people like you out there speaking to this, and encouraging women and… because it feels uncomfortable. So many women are in a social situation, whether it’s marriage or job, that they aren’t sure how to take that next step. I wish we could pair women up with mentors a little bit more intentionally to…
Lesley: Well, that’s one of the things that we did at More and I hope to do at Covey Club also, is put a “pu pu platter” out there of potential inspirational ideas and concepts. Because I think that’s how we relate, and that’s how we move forward. You know it’s the old if she can do it, I can do it. Right? I mean look at me: I’m sure I’m the most hilarious part of this whole thing, and I’m going to write about it in the newsletter is that, Hey, I’ve studied reinvention for 8 years, and now I’m starting at the bottom! Boy, is it eye opening! It’s lesson-learning; it’s exhilarating; it’s terrifying; it makes you cry every other day. But, it’s an adventure. You can either decide you’re going to run away and you’re not going to deal with where we are today, or you’re going to face it head-on and tackle it; and you need to look at other people who are doing that. Let me tell you, I look at all these other people who are entrepreneurs, and who have done amazing things, and I’m inspired by them. So, it’s kind of a mutual inspirational society. [laughs]
Barb: Yes, and I think a lot of times we think of mentoring as younger, you know this next generation, pairing them with mentors. But I think sometimes we overlook the value of mentoring another woman at our stage of life.
Lesley: Oh yes!
Barb: Because we do need to see that somebody else has done it, and how did they do it, what were their obstacles, and… I like your sharing your vulnerability of feeling like you want to cry one day and...
Lesley: Oh, it’s horrible! It’s horrible because you’re isolated, Barb. You’re isolated. I’m not an isolation person. I’m like a mega-uber extrovert, so it’s really tough working alone for me. And I recognize that. I call work the second family. The easy thing for me to do and someone like me, and with my personality, is to say, “Okay, the way to solve that need for what I call the second family is to parachute myself into some existing second family that already exists.” I know how to jump in, parachute in, get with the flow, start organizing things, blah, blah, blah.
But at this stage in my life, I don’t want to do that, so when I feel this need (because both my kids are gone – we just dropped my daughter off last week in Boston; she’s living and working Boston now), that’s an enormous transition. You know, I’m all alone – you know, like me, my husband and my two cats! But what I’m trying to do is force myself to use that desire for the second family, that desire for this bigger group that I’m part of and that I can lead or be involved with to drive creation of this project.
Instead of looking for something that is pre-fab, I want to make it myself. Because I don’t want to go back to another situation where I have a guy telling me, “Yah, that sounds interesting… let me check with my wife.” I want to run it. I don’t need to ask permission from a bunch of guys who’ve done less than me. So the key is finding a business method and a way to fund this that actually allows me to do that. And it’s new; no one’s done it, and it’s scary, and you do cry. You cry… you know, you’re waiting for… I just put a little test out in a field of a 100 beta testers, and I’m a big researcher, so I’m always looking at what readers and members say, and I get the surveys not attached, so not many people can see it… Anyway, I get two responses. I go in there and look at the responses, and one of them is like I’m not interested in this… this is a bad blah, blah, blah… whatever, it was all negative… and I’m like crying. I’m like “Oh my God! It’s over! I’m dead. I can’t do this….” [laughs] You know, and then you pick yourself up and you’re like, “That’s two responses!” I need a hundred!
Lesley: But you’re all alone. It’s really hard.
Barb: It is hard. But I liked your comment on a second family because that just feels right to me because family shares, and family is always honest and gives you feedback and encourages you. So, I think that maybe that can replace our old “sisterhood” term. But a second family is a nice way of thinking about it.
Lesley: Well, and you get to make your second family. And also, you need a second family when your first family grows up. It’s very very hard, even if you’ve been a career woman, which I’ve been. But you know we’re very involved with our kids. We’re very attached to them. We’re very close to them, especially because of technology. I mean I talk to my daughter three times a day still, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I’m not telling her what to do or telling her how to lead her life. We just have a really tight relationship, which I think is actually in response to our parents, which were the 50s generation people who were like, “Go outside and play and come back at 5 o’clock. See ya.” And they’d lock the door.
I had one girlfriend who actually told me her mom would do it in the snow, and say “You don’t come back ‘til 5, we don’t even want to see you.” We can’t even imagine that. So we do need a second family. Especially as you get older, there is an isolation that descends on all of us, and no one wants to talk about it. It comes out first as loneliness. You can’t figure out… is it something wrong with my marriage? Is it something wrong with… What the heck is that?
When you really dig around into it, a lot of it has to do with structure and your personality. A lot of women are ashamed to even mention that they’re lonely at this age. And they are lonely because they are going through changes, and the structure is changing. You have to solve that issue. So it’s funny, when I was creating Covey Club, one of the friends who is helping me is from Seattle where they do all this start up, start up, start up, and they have all these words. She kept saying to me, “So what are we solving for? What are we solving for? We’ve got to solve for something.” I’m saying like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about… solving.” I’m not like getting someone a date. I’m not making a car come pick you up. I don’t know, what am I solving for?
I spent about two months thinking about it. I really dug down to the core of it and I said, “You know what I’m solving for? Dislocation and isolation,” which we all feel no one wants to talk about. And underneath it all, I know the majority of women who are 40-plus are starting to feel it and they’re starting to feel it as their kids get older. They’re starting to feel it as they turn around and see that they’re the oldest person in their firm. They start to feel it as their parents get older and they have to take care of them. I mean… I have 8,000 people on Facebook, and I am disconnected.
Barb: Yes. I want to step back into your More magazine days and ask you about what was your most memorable interview?
Lesley: Oh, that’s not fair! [laughs]
Barb: [laughs] You can’t pick a favorite child either, can you? [laughs]
Lesley: Yes, no, but I do. And it’s really the highlight. I have to tell you, I led such a blessed career life, way beyond what I ever thought. I’m ashamed in the feminist world, to say, “I just thought I was going to be a writer.” I never dreamed that I would to do all the things I got to do and run so many magazines and meet so many interesting people and travel the world.
The most interesting interview I did really was with Mrs. Obama, sitting in the dining room in the White House and interviewing her about the photos that she had picked for us for the issue that she did where she guest edited. She’s just such an amazing, amazing, grounded, sensible, intelligent, thoughtful person, that when we finished the interview, I said to her because she went through all the history of the different photos and told me anecdotes, so I put in the magazine afterwards… I just said to her, “God, how do you stay so grounded in this kind of situation when you’re living in a fishbowl?” She said, “You know, this place makes you more of whatever you were when you came in here.” And I’ll tell you, those are words of wisdom that I think are playing out on the national stage today in another way.
It’s just so interesting to see somebody like that and how they maintain themselves and their realness and their authenticity through all this stuff. She was a real… I just became a very big admirer of hers. You know, she didn’t have it so easy, and yet can talk very clearly about it. I’ve traveled around the world with her when she was launching Let Girls Learn, which I thought it was an incredible program. When you really dig in and understand how bringing girls to the table, around the world… but you don’t understand what is the ROI on that… why should I care about a little girl in Cambodia? The reason why you do, is the facts are there. When you bring women into peace process, when you bring women into business, when you bring women into government, when they have a seat at the table… things are less dangerous. They are more stable. They tend to share food, they share resources. I mean, it’s not that we don’t love men. We do. It’s just a different way of looking at the world and our security here is actually bolstered by all that. I thought she had just a really interesting view – expansive view – on how you make us all more secure. So, she was just a rock-star interview.
And then I got to interview her again in front of the whole publishing world, when she came to speak with Lena Dunham and Julianne Moore where we talked about “media with purpose.” Three weeks before they pulled the plug on More magazine [laugh]… that was really fun. But it was an amazing interview. Talk about people who are so jaded, the place was packed with every single person in publishing, and not a peep out of them for an hour. People came up to me afterwards and said that was one of the most amazing interviews we’ve had.
Barb: Thanks for sharing that. I guess I had no idea who you might mention, but after speaking to it, I’m not surprised that she might have been your selection. I think she does represent beauty in just a genuine sense of self that so many women can learn from.
Lesley: Amazing! Amazing! And I’ll tell you the most funny thing about it: I photographed her before she was First Lady. When I first walked into the magazine, which was 2008 in January, I was looking around for somebody who would represent who the More woman was but was not a celebrity. She was out there and people were giving her a hard time because she said some things that people reading as negative about the country, whatever; but she was intelligent, she was smart, she was speaking out. So I reached out to them and said, “Look, can we do a photoshoot with her? I don’t know whether her husband is going to run or not. We don’t know if he’s going to get win any of the primaries or whatever. But I could make a deal where if he doesn’t, we’ll still do the story. We’ll put it inside the magazine, and if he does, we’ll put it on the cover.”
They said fine, and I went to photograph her in Chicago. The hilarious part is I was not planning on taking a photo with her, and my photographer who is a very jaded guy from California comes in, first time I ever saw him wearing a suit. I was hysterical because he’s usually in jeans and sneakers, right? So he dressed up for this interview. So he says to me at the end of the shoot, he says “Do you want a picture with her.” And I was like… I mean I literally had no makeup on, I wasn’t even wearing a bra to be honest with you that day [laughs] and I was like “Oh my God, alright, whatever.” So I stood next to her and she put her arm around me, and literally, I’m in her armpit. I’m so small and she’s so tall. And he’s says to me, “Oh, let me go get a crate to put you on.” He walks away and I feel this rubbing on my back. I turned around and I’m like, “Who is like rubbing my shoulder?” And it’s her! I thought, “Wow, this is like really amazing!” All the way through, the reason why she did three more covers with us is her PR people – she had a couple of them – would always say she would remembered that first shoot.
At the end of all of our encounters, even when she was First Lady, I would go to do a handshake – I’d put my hand out for a handshake, and she would always come in with a hug.
Barb: Nice. Yes, she’s got great style in every sense.
Lesley: Authentic. Authentic.
Barb: That’s a great word for her.
Barb: Our conversation with Lesley was covering so much territory, we let the interview continue to roll. Look for part two of this episode.