Amid the great racial reckoning happening this week, no one, not even the most powerful editors in media, is immune. Yesterday, Ginia Bellafante speculated in a New York Times column about whether Vogue editor-in-chief and Condé Nast artistic director Anna Wintour might follow Bon Appétit’s Adam Rapoport out the door, after staff and readers have raised serious concerns about toxic and racist cultures at both magazines.
“Within the Condé Nast framework, autocratic bosses were left to do whatever they pleased — subjugating underlings to hazing rituals with no seeming end point,” she writes, and “no one at Condé Nast has had more of an outsize reputation for imperiousness wed to native talent than Anna Wintour.” In her column, Bellafante describes conversations with employees of color at Condé Nast: “They struggled to be heard or get the resources they needed to do their jobs at the highest levels; they faced ignorance and lazy stereotyping from white bosses when the subject of covering black culture came up; they all said they were exhausted by always having to explain it all.”
The article dropped just a few hours after Anna Wintour apologized for Vogue’s lack of Black representation in her 30-plus-year history with the magazine. “I know Vogue has not found enough ways to elevate or give space to Black editors, writers, photographers, designers, and other creators,” her letter to her staff read. “We have made mistakes too, publishing images or stories that have been hurtful or intolerant. I want to take full responsibility for those mistakes.” She went on to add that “it can’t be easy to be a Black employee at Vogue” and that the company “will do better.”
The statement is fine, insofar as superficial statements about racism and diversity at the most famous fashion magazine can go. But there’s also a kind of strange passivity in the way Wintour addressed the issue. The words “I know Vogue has not found enough ways to elevate or give space” to Black people fall flat, because Anna Wintour is Vogue. It’s not a mystery why the magazine has failed to put more than a handful of Black women on its cover, or why there are so few Black people working there, or why Wintour’s former friend and colleague André Leon Talley has been speaking publicly about how hard it was to work at Vogue. She’s the most powerful woman editor in media and — unlike almost every other working editor — operates beyond professional reproach. She is all-powerful at the expense of many; it’s an aura that she’s worked long and hard to build. Vogue’s failures (along with its successes) are her burden to bear.
At Vogue, Wintour is nothing short of a tyrant. This isn’t even an insult; rather, she has spent decades methodically constructing an environment of fear in her workplace. There are rumors about how unfriendly she is to anyone she deems unworthy and how dismissive she is to fat people (How many plus-size women have been in Vogue, let alone gotten a cover?). When she ran British Vogue from 1985 to 1987, she earned the nickname “Nuclear Wintour.” In The September Issue, the 2009 documentary that followed Wintour and her staff as they prepared the September issue of the magazine, she confirms her reputation. She’s rude with her staff, harsh in editorial meetings, and her team seem to be perpetually on the brink of a mental breakdown because they know how exacting, uncompromising, and often cruel Wintour can be. She even body-shames the camera operator. “I think she enjoys not being completely approachable,” Grace Coddington, Vogue’s creative director from 1988 to 2016, told 60 Minutes in 2010. (But, of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t remind us all of the mammy jars Coddington has in her kitchen.)
In Talley’s recent memoir, The Chiffon Trenches, the stories about Wintour’s cruelty toward one of her very, very few Black employees are practically endless. (This despite the fact that Talley was both famous and influential as a Vogue editor-at-large.) She ignored him at key moments in his career, treated him like an assistant at her own wedding, rode him about his weight gain even after his grandmother had just died, forbade him from bringing a guest to the Met Gala, and paid Talley a paltry (this is Vogue, after all) $500 per episode for a podcast he hosted.
“The Empress Wintour, in her power, has disappointed me in her humanity,” he wrote in his book. “Our friendship has layered with thick rust over the years. … I am no longer of value to her.” Following her apology this week, Talley remains unmoved. “She’s part of an environment of colonialism,” he recently told Sandra Bernhard on her Sirius XM show. “She is entitled and I do not think she will ever let anything get in the way of her white privilege.”
None of Wintour’s elitism, her refusal to feature different body types or skin colors in the magazine, or her harshness with her employees was a secret. After all, it wasn’t until 2018, when Beyoncé graced the September issue of Vogue, that Tyler Mitchell became the first Black person to shoot the cover — a request from Beyoncé herself. (To get a Black person to shoot the cover of Vogue, you apparently have to be one of the most powerful Black women in the world.)
The 2006 movie The Devil Wears Prada, adapted from the novel by the same name, which was based in part on Lauren Weisberger’s experience working for Wintour, earned positive reviews in part because it humanizes a Wintour-type boss — a woman who stomps on everyone, who dismisses those with a different opinion, who needs to win at all costs. She has no friends, but she has her work. And yet, she is admirable, played by American icon Meryl Streep, who even got an Oscar nomination for the role, and whose infamous cerulean speech has been both praised and now thoroughly debunked.
Wintour has built her entire career on the foundation of fetishizing white-woman meanness. This isn’t to say she’s untalented or unworthy of the job, but it does speak to the culture she brings to a brand like Vogue, or frankly, to Condé Nast as a company at large. Wintour’s persona isn’t just of a boss that’s tough to please, but of a woman boss who’s just as awful as a man could be. It’s an earlier, less PR-optimized incarnation of the Nasty Woman/Girl Boss modus operandi: the idea that being authoritarian or contemptuous at work is feminist, because if men get to do it, why can’t women?
Wintour embraces a version of femininity that says you have to be skinny, white, elegant, aloof, and rich. If you don’t have any of those qualities naturally, you have to work hard toward them: eat less if you’re too big, conform to Eurocentric beauty standards if you’re Black, act mean, never crack a smile. There’s a whole generation of young women who watched Sex and the City and thought Carrie Bradshaw’s affection for Vogue and its tenents was something to vie for, instead of creepy and desperate. “Sometimes I would buy Vogue instead of dinner,” she says in one episode. “I felt it fed me more.” (You know what feeds you more than Vogue? All foods.)
Wintour might be unique in how powerful she is, but you can trace her influence across many industries, not just media. The company founded on a singular woman’s cult of personality can be seen in brands as disparate as Thinx, Nasty Gal, Glossier, and the women’s coworking space The Wing, founded by Audrey Gelman. But there is a clear distinction between women like Wintour and those like Gelman: Wintour found power in being icy, while third-wave “feminist” bosses learned to hide their harshness behind public displays of feminist solidarity.
So it’s disingenuous for Wintour to now act like she’s just one cog in a big, anti-Black machine. The allure of Wintour is in her all-encompassing power; if you want something to happen at Vogue, you need Anna’s permission. (Even the creator of The Hills knew that if he wanted Lauren Conrad to get that Teen Vogue internship, he’d have to sell Wintour on it in a closed-door meeting first.) Her entire brand is about her unwillingness to compromise, but with that come questions around how she chooses to wield her power. There is no other reason why Vogue’s culture is apparently so hostile to the Black people who work there or want to work there. Three decades into her tenure, the magazine functions entirely by her design, and the publisher is so heavily influenced by her that it’s nearly impossible to imagine a Condé Nast without her as the artistic director and global content adviser.
Nearly every publication in American media is having to confront its failures when it comes to hiring, promoting, and retaining Black employees. They all require a seismic shift in their office cultures. And Wintour may, publicly, express a desire to see Vogue become a more inclusive magazine and workplace. But it seems that Wintour is not about to sacrifice her own privilege or position in order to further Vogue’s progress. That she only took a 20% pay cut as Condé Nast embarked on drastic cost-cutting measures and layoffs related to the pandemic (meager considering her reportedly $2 million salary), and that even now, per Condé Nast CEO Roger Lynch, she refuses to resign, speaks to her extreme reluctance to relinquish any of her power. A boss like Anna Wintour will have to be dragged from her desk, French Revolution–style.
If her whole brand is being an ice queen, then how reliable is a Wintour apology? Condé Nast and the fashion industry at large have permitted her to be like this, seemingly without any consequences, despite repeatedly failing to make her workplace even remotely comfortable for Black people. Her words are hard to take at face value because she has no record of amending her behavior; in fact, Wintour’s whole bag is doing it her way, critics be damned.
In her half-hearted apology, Wintour implies that she’s merely been a passive participant in a media institution that rarely gives Black people any work, any compensation, or any credit. She’s not fooling anyone and should just admit the truth: Vogue is like this because Wintour designed it to be. If she ever did finally leave the company, it’s unclear how the magazine could ever proceed without Wintour at the helm because so much of it is influenced by her. But maybe that’s the point. Perhaps it’s time for Anna Wintour’s Vogue to finally come to an end, and make way for something new. ●