Curator of American Culture
Vanity Fair's savvy taste-maker
Photograph by Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times/Contour RA/Getty Images
Photograph by Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times/Contour RA/Getty Images
On the eve of Election Day last fall, Vanity Fair editor-in-chief Radhika Jones ’94 unveiled the magazine’s newest cover. A half-smiling Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez posed in a bright white suit against a wall of roses: a century-old symbol of socialism cast as Vanity Fair glamour.
In the summer, Jones recalls, “We were having conversations about who we would want to see on the cover of the magazine literally in the days after the presidential election. Not knowing who will win, but knowing that everybody desperately in America wants to look forward.” The U.S. representative from New York’s 14th congressional district immediately came to mind, an icon of the continuing, seismic shifts in America’s political culture. “You want to be seeing around the corner and giving your readers a sense of what’s next,” Jones says. “That’s what they’re coming to Vanity Fair to figure out.”
That decision reflects Jones’s larger goals for Vanity Fair, the celebrity-society magazine that had been overseen for 25 years by editor Graydon Carter before she succeeded him in late 2017. Jones took over at a moment when the very things that Vanity Fair stands for—power, privilege, celebrity—are being questioned, even repudiated. And Condé Nast, like all magazine publishers, has been struggling to adapt to a business model deprived of much of its advertising revenue. Jones has added to the magazine’s signature preoccupation with personality and aspiration a focus on this new era in American culture: one that has finally admitted the ideas and creativity of people of color into the mainstream.
Jones herself was the first woman of color to become editor of Vanity Fair. Its covers have since spotlighted producer-writer Lena Waithe, musician and actress Janelle Monáe, and actresses Lupita Nyong’o and Viola Davis, whose portrait was the first Vanity Fair cover taken by a black photographer. Last September’s issue featured a portrait of Breonna Taylor, the Louisville medical worker who had been killed by police that March, painted by Amy Sherald, Michelle Obama’s portraitist. “Radhika had put at the core of what she was trying to do a desire to have a more diverse writing team,” says journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, who guest-edited that issue and wrote its lead story. “I knew that this issue of Vanity Fair was not a one-off....I really, really trusted her.”
Given her background in academe (a literature doctorate from Columbia) and arts criticism, not everyone understood why Jones got the job. When Condé Nast announced that she would succeed Carter, outlets from National Public Radio to The New York Times called her a surprising pick. Her name went viral online after one Condé Nast editor reportedly scoffed at her fashion sense. “I was perhaps surprised by the surprise, because I had worked in magazines for a long time,” Jones remembers. “There was this sort of collective perception that I had come out of nowhere....I felt like that was a little bit of a put-on.” She had joined the magazine, after all, from a position as editorial director of The New York Times books department, and before that had worked at Time and The Paris Review. For the even-keeled Jones, the reports were mostly “a curiosity,” she says. “The coverage didn’t throw me off at all about my ability to do the job.”
Urbane and unrushed, Jones has the air of a cool young professor more than a magazine executive. Her bookish proclivity has helped her not only succeed in the magazine industry, but also shape coverage toward the literary and offbeat. “The principles of literary and cultural theory are not a typical topic of conversation at photo shoots or on red carpets, but they shaped my thinking about the power of cultural gatekeepers,” she wrote to Vanity Fair readers in an editor's letter last summer. At Time, one of her proudest accomplishments was helping put novelist Jonathan Franzen on a cover, showing that literature can still shape the national conversation. “That was maybe the earliest moment at Time when I was able to figure out what kind of power a cover could have to spark dialogue,” she says. But Jones isn’t snobby about what readers should be interested in. Her rise from arts pages to the Vanity Fair editorship has depended on her instinct for finding stories and writers of wide-ranging appeal. “She has a very, very deep literary sense...but she also knows so much about everything,” explains her former colleague, New York Times book critic Parul Sehgal. “Her range of references and curiosities is enormous.” In that regard, Vanity Fair’s blend of culture coverage, both high and low, was a perfect fit.
Jones’s influential father, Bob Jones, was a folk singer at Harvard Square’s Club 47 (“a great interpreter of Woody Guthrie songs,” she says), and later a tour manager and producer of jazz and folk festivals. The family lived in Cincinnati before moving to Ridgefield, Connecticut, when Jones was 12. They’d spend a month almost every winter at her grandparents’ home in Mumbai, where her mother grew up. Bob Jones’s “love of discovery” created a powerful example for Radhika and her siblings (her older sister is author Nalini Jones, and her brother, Chris Jones, teaches history at Andover). “A lot of the work of a festival-producer is discovering new talent. That was something that I watched him do over and over,” Jones recalls. She learned to “find something that you love, and then sort of figure out how to go from there.”
The shy, high-achieving Jones chose Harvard in part because of a “familial attachment to Boston,” where her father had grown up and started his career. She had excelled at all subjects in high school, and at first thought she’d study physics. “And then I took three weeks of multivariable calculus and, yeah, no,” she says. “I ended up concentrating in English, which was and still is my great love.” Unlike many eminent names in journalism, Jones didn’t have training as a college reporter. Her extracurricular passion was theater. “Not performing, but like my father, backstage work,” she says. She staged lights and sound, and eventually produced plays. “It was just incredibly creative and exhilarating and often very time-consuming….The capacity for theatrical invention was amazing.”
After Harvard, Jones didn’t have a long-term plan. She taught English in Taipei, and then in 1995 moved to Moscow, four years after the breakup of the Soviet Union. She dated Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s son Yermolai Solzhenitsyn ’92 in college, so she had taken, and ended up loving, first-year Russian as a senior. That interest led her to a job as a copyeditor for The Moscow Times, an English-language paper. “It was an amazing time in the history of the world,” she recalls of her two years there. “We worked in the old Pravda building,” the former paper of the Soviet Communist Party. She eventually became the paper’s arts editor and its restaurant critic, reviewing Moscow’s takes on Mexican, Indian, and Taiwanese cuisine. “El Rancho is a new Latin restaurant, but their musical repertoire is as old as the hills,” one review quipped. “‘Do we really need to hear “Guantanamera” again?’ sighed one of my dining companions.”
“I had absolutely no business critiquing restaurants,” Jones says now, with a laugh. “It was a moment when people actually were opening restaurants, clubs, and cafés, and there was a kind of liveliness....It was an interesting time to observe that nascent post-communist culture.”
She loved Moscow, but after three years abroad, wanted a way back to the United States. “I felt also that I just wasn’t done with my field,” she explains. She started an English and comparative literature Ph.D. at Columbia in 1997, with interests in post-colonial literature and the Victorian novel (she’s remained in New York ever since, now living in Brooklyn with her husband and son). One of her professors, the late George Stade, approached her to write introductions to a series of classic novels—Great Expectations, David Copperfield, and A Room with a View—that he was editing for Barnes & Noble. “It made me start to think about, outside the seminar room, how do we talk about novels and what they mean to us?” Jones recalls. “And I still care deeply about doing that.”
In Moscow, Jones says, she’d “gotten very addicted to deadline-oriented, collaborative journalism.” Missing that in graduate school, she started editing for Grand Street and Artforum magazines: “There was a period when I was running all over the city editing at places and studying for my oral exams.” By 2005, when she was hired as managing editor of The Paris Review, she knew her career would be in magazines. She almost dropped her dissertation, but ultimately wrote it while at the Review, working in small chunks every morning. The year she finished, in 2008, she became arts editor at Time. At The Paris Review she had reached an influential but narrow audience; now she was eager to curate coverage for a mass audience. The Time editorship “was very appealing to me because it’s a taste-making job,” Jones says. “You can move the needle on a novel or a film or a TV show….You can make the readership aware of something in the culture that they weren’t aware of.”
Image courtesy of Radhika Jones.
Eventually named Time’s deputy managing editor, Jones edited the magazine’s “Person of the Year” issue and the “Time 100.” “Lists get a bad rap,” she says. “They can be very gimmicky.” But they are also an index of cultural change. “You kind of see who, at any given moment, was getting our attention,” she adds. “You can chart out when technology and Silicon Valley started to overtake Wall Street in terms of influence….You see the rise of the Tea Party, you see the rise of a different kind of charisma in politics.”
After eight years at Time, Jones had been at The New York Times for only a year when Graydon Carter announced his retirement. New Yorker editor David Remnick, LL.D. ’19, had been helping search for candidates to fill the role, he recounts, and “Radhika’s name came up often as someone who had real journalistic chops and as someone of enormous integrity.” He asked Jones if she’d consider trying out for the job.
What thrilled her about the opportunity, she explains, is that she remembered Vanity Fair from her childhood: how it was revived by editor Tina Brown in 1983 after going unpublished for 50 years, and became once again a premier magazine with portraits that dazzle. “Those covers were iconic,” Jones declares. “They were the kinds of covers that, when you make a magazine, you dream about making. They started conversations. They provoked people. I firmly believe that the Demi Moore cover changed the way we think about motherhood and celebrity,” she says, referring to the 1991 image in which the actress appears naked—and very pregnant. “It hadn’t had quite that energy in a little while, and I wondered if it would be possible to bring that back.”
Recapturing that energy for today’s America has meant rethinking who deserves to be looked at, talked about, or admired in Vanity Fair’s pages. “The way that we think and talk about privilege, now in 2020, is very different from the way we would have talked about it 10 or 20 years ago, and I want the magazine to reflect that,” she says. “What’s been great about it is that we have really found our place. Our audience now is bigger than it was three years ago. It’s younger. It’s more diverse. It’s also more affluent. All of those things go together in ways that are really interesting.”
When she was planning last September’s issue, Jones knew that it couldn’t be a traditional one, in light of both the pandemic and the summer-long racial-justice uprisings. In the magazine world, she explains, September is a “curtain raiser” for culture: it’s when new exhibitions and plays open, and when the fashion industry promotes its new lines. “Usually our pages would be full of people in the culture who have new projects that are opening or debuting on TV, on movie screens, in theaters and museums.” Instead, the issue, which guest editor Coates named “The Great Fire,” focused on Black Lives Matter, with a cover portraying Breonna Taylor striking a confident pose in a graceful, airy blue gown (“It kind of reminds me of Lady Justice,” artist Amy Sherald told readers). Coates’s sorrowful feature narrated Taylor’s life from the perspective of her mother, Tamika Palmer. Adapted directly from interviews with Palmer, it was, as Jones put it, Breonna Taylor’s story “as only a mother could tell it.”
It was a moment that Jones had been building toward during her three years at the helm of Vanity Fair. And she was gratified that when the issue came out, it made sense to her readers. “They understood the project...and that matters a lot to me,” she says. “It started to feel like the whole culture was waking up to something. That was the curtain-raiser that we wanted to capture.”