“My father’s family is from Boston, my mom’s from India, and I grew up in the midwest. I often describe myself as a shy kid, and I was in certain ways, but I was also very gregarious. I was a strong student—math and science when I was younger, and writing and literature as I got older. The latter two eventually became my great loves. Although I still love a good math problem and a spreadsheet, which maybe makes me rare in the ranks of editors-in-chief.
Getting into Harvard meant a lot to me because my father had grown up in Boston. He had been a folk singer in Cambridge in the ’60s at Club 47, which is a famous folk music club two blocks from Harvard’s campus. When I started, I thought I was going to major in physics. Physics can be so romantic, it’s kind of lyrical. The forces you cannot see that govern the world… there’s something literary about it. I think I had taken two months of multivariable calculus before I was like, ‘Yeah, no thank you.’ [Laughs] It just was too much. I was taking English classes as a matter of course, and that became my major. But I did not have any idea what I would do practically with my degree. I knew deep down I would have to earn a living, but I just didn’t…this is very irresponsible and people should not listen to me, but I didn’t really have a plan.
In college, mostly what I did in my extracurricular time was theater. I started out doing lights and sound, and by the end I was producing plays. I grew up with my father producing music festivals, so I kind of had a sense of what it was to be backstage, and how you worked with a team and made something happen, magically. I really loved it. It was literally productive, but also creatively productive. Everything from the posters, the marketing—we did all of that, and it was a lot of fun. And the funny thing is, after college I never did theater again.
I moved to Taipei and taught English for a year after I graduated. Then I moved to Russia and lived in Moscow, and I worked at an English language newspaper called The Moscow Times. That was my first professional experience with journalism. It was a very volatile and newsy time in Russia—it reminds me of our current news cycle. I was the copy editor, and then the Arts editor. As the editor of the Arts section I was also the restaurant critic, so I wrote restaurant reviews, which meant that I ate out every week with a dining companion. That was fun, and I got the journalism bug, and the adrenaline rush of meeting a deadline. But I realized I wasn’t going to stay in Russia forever, so I applied to graduate school and ended up going to Columbia to get a PhD in English. I came to New York in 1997, and I’ve been here ever since.
Grand Street is a literary and arts magazine, and I was freelance editing there for a while. I also worked at Artforum when I was in school. I was doing both things, which made finishing my PhD take quite a while. When I defended my dissertation, which was 11 years after I started the program, I was working at The Paris Review as the managing editor.
After The Paris Review I went to Time magazine, and worked there from 2008 to 2016. The week of Donald Trump’s election was my last week there—next came the Times. I was there when the Harvey Weinstein story broke, and it was really fascinating to be there at a moment of major transition. I saw The Daily launch—there were all of these things incubating that were really inspiring.
The big difference with being an editor-in-chief is that the vision you serve is your own. It’s a bit of a dream. There was so much to admire in Vanity Fair‘s modern reincarnation under Tina Brown, and there’s so much to admire in how Graydon Carter shaped it. My entry marks a generational shift, and with that always comes a shift in perspective. I felt the magazine had looked a little backward looking. It was rooted in a kind of nostalgia, and my feeling is that there’s so much going on in the present, that even when we do nostalgia, it’s got to feel relevant. Our modern culture is dominated by so much dynamism, and I wanted to see different people on the cover of the magazine, and that’s what I’ve been proud of most as editor.
I’m very happy our anthology Women On Women is coming out. It’s an idea I tossed around my first week on the job, where it’s a series of essays about women, by women. There are some really great classic encounters, and also some surprising moments. There’s an Ingrid Sischy profile on Nicole Kidman that is incredibly rich. It’s unflinching, and also manages to be generous and supportive. The book runs the gamut of Vanity Fair, all the way from Tina Brown’s Vanity Fair to mine. So far the early response has been really encouraging.
I read obsessively as a child—The Chronicles of Narnia, Little House on the Prairie books. I read a lot of Enid Blyton. She was an English writer, but I think a lot of people of Indian origin read her books because it must have been widely available there. They’re English boarding school books, and they don’t age well. I also read E.B. White. I still think the first line of Charlotte’s Web is one of the great first lines in all of literature—’Where’s Papa going with that ax?’ There’s a reason kids read that book and then become vegetarian. The way he enters the minds of children and animals is really beautiful.
I’m always reading a book. There’s always a weekend in the winter where there’s a snowstorm, and I will sit in my house and re-read The Long Winter, which is the best snowstorm book ever. I keep certain classics on my phone, just in case of emergencies—Howard’s End, some Anthony Trollope, Jane Austen. My reading is not what it was before I took this job. I don’t want to say it’s fallen off a cliff, but… I read maybe 40, 50 books a year. I will re-read a book sometimes, just because it gives me pleasure. I have this retirement fantasy, which is basically me in a rocking chair with these Graham Greene novels that I bought at Faulkner House Books. But I don’t think we ever retire—I think that’s our destiny.
My mother, who is a very beautiful woman, never wore makeup. She didn’t even really wear jewelry. I remember she used soap from Paris, as well as Mysore Sandal Soap, which is a sandalwood soap that’s very common in India. If she was going out, she would always spray some Chanel Cristalle on. She had lived in Paris for a few years, so that was one of a couple of French things she had. Now, I like to put it on when I’m going out, before I say goodbye to my son. That’s what he’ll remember, right?
My mother had this friend who was very into clothes and makeup, and when I was 11 or 12, she gave me and my sister all this makeup of hers. I remember all her eyeshadows were these very ’80s pastels. My big takeaway was that nails was the only thing I could master. I learned very painstakingly how to give myself a manicure. On Saturdays, I would take three hours and do the whole thing—the bottom coat and let it dry for half an hour, and then the next coat, and the next. But I have not done that in decades—now it’s just so much easier to have someone else do it. I mostly just use a buffer as a way to keep them tidy.
I go to different places for facials. There’s a place in Park Slope called D’mai Urban Spa that I sometimes go to. I also like Cowshed. And since I travel a lot for work, I’ve started using sheet masks because they’re so easy to pack. When you get to where you are going and feel exhausted and depleted, not only are the masks great for your face, but they also force you to lie down for an hour. That is a gift.
When it comes to cleansing, I wash my face every night, and I just splash water on in the morning. I just bought this Ultra Luxe Red Grapefruit Wash from where I get my facials. And I sometimes use this Cherry Blossom Japanese Konjac Sponge, maybe every other day. There’s something about taking the time to massage your skin with something like that, where you start to feel like you’ve actually given yourself a lift. It’s very refreshing. Sometimes I use Farmacy’s New Day, which has exfoliating grains you mix with water to make a sort of paste. In the winter, I’ll use Badger’s Face Cleansing Oil. Badger makes a lot of children’s products, and I find that once you start shopping for your kids, you end up using their stuff.
After I wash my face, I might use Verso’ Super Facial Serum or Beautycounter’s Overnight Resurfacing Peel. Or I’ll use Clark’s Botanicals Rescue Retinol Overnight Cream. If I’m traveling I’ll use Skin Food because I get so dehydrated. In the morning I use Mad Hippie eye cream. My favorite sunscreen is CeraVe. I don’t wear it every day, but I feel like it really works.
Over the summer, I had a makeup artist give me a little lesson. She came over to my house, and we went through all my makeup. She weeded out stuff that wasn’t useful, and then we did a tutorial so I would be more adept. She was so great.
If I’m having a normal day, then it’s either no makeup, or a little blush, a little eyeliner, and a little mascara if I have a couple of meetings. I also use Revision Tinted Moisturizer, which I love. I don’t know where it came from, but I am now buying it, and I bought some for my sister. I put it on and it doesn’t look or feel like I have any makeup on, but it has that overall smoothing effect. There is almost not enough coverage, but I’d much rather have that because you can always add. I also really like Marc Jacobs eyeliner. It goes on really easily and you don’t feel like you’re going to poke your eye out. Oh, and I’ve been using this company called Thrive Cosmetics and I really like them.
I’ve been wearing Proenza’s Arizona lately. My family and I actually went to the Grand Canyon this summer—maybe that’s too literal, but that’s why I like that one. And I really love jasmine and honeysuckle, that family of scents. I also love Red Flower—there’s the Wild Lime Silk one. I wore it on my honeymoon, so it reminds me of that whenever I wear it. And that’s how your whole life becomes your honeymoon [laughs].
I have so much admiration for people who can do their own hair—for mine, I just wash it and let it dry. Then people help me. My hair is very thick, and it gets frizzy, so that’s my challenge. I make attempts with the curling iron, and sometimes I’ll just stick it in a ponytail. I change shampoos a lot because my hair is so thick, and I feel like if I use the same one over and over, I get a lot of buildup. But I love hair oil—especially the ones from Bumble and Bumble and Frederic Fekkai. They smooth my hair and make it shiny.
I have always been a person who puts moisturizer on right away after getting out of the shower—I would peel away if I didn’t do that. I am a big devotee of coconut oil. My son is five, and particularly after I had him, I started thinking differently about what I put on my body, and what I would put on his. I found that any time he had a mysterious rash, usually coconut oil resolved it. Coconut oil is so great—you know exactly what it is, you know you’re not going to have a bad reaction to it. If I’m not using coconut oil, I find that shea butter is just magical. It’s great for scarring. Also, I get really bad mosquito bites, and one of my colleagues told me that CBD is good for them. So I got that CBD Daily Intensive Cream. I don’t know if it’s helping, but it’s like Tiger Balm. I’m into it.”
—as told to ITG
Radhika Jones photographed by Taylor Jewell in New York on October 9, 2019.