After 10 years of following other people’s stories, Elaine Welteroth is finally telling her own.
Since leaving her post as the editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue, Welteroth has written a memoir, “More Than Enough,” that hits shelves this summer and has a new on-air job as one of three judges on the revamped “Project Runway” — along with Karlie Kloss and Christian Siriano, who replaced Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn.
Welteroth is used to breaking ground. At Teen Vogue, she served as the first black beauty editor before being promoted to the top of the masthead, making waves as the youngest and only the second black person to hold the title in Conde Nast history. Welteroth changed the tone of Teen Vogue. She is largely responsible for the publication’s pivot to politics, most notably during the 2016 presidential election. Teen Vogue, under Welteroth’s reign, proved that teen girls were just as interested in reading about gaslighting as they were about fashion trends. Though she’s left print journalism behind, her storytelling skills remain well-honed: She speaks to her more than 300,000 Instagram followers daily and peppers in her #OOTD posts with progressive politics, book recommendations, and behind-the-scenes looks at award shows.
For this week’s Power of Women issue, Variety spoke with Welteroth about being a reality TV show judge, writing a memoir, and the key to a top-notch Instagram Story.
Did you watch the original “Project Runway”?
I was more of an “America’s Next Top Model” fan back in the day. I didn’t watch the Christian Siriano era of “Project Runway” in real time. I’ve since gone back to relive what that was like. I was very aware of Christian Siriano when he exploded onto the scene through that show. I was this girl who loved fashion and dreamed of working in that world, but I was obsessed with it through the lens of modeling and I was obsessed with Tyra Banks.
Did you speak to any of the previous judges?
I came into it eyes wide open and I learned a lot from Nina [Garcia], who has been doing this for, what, 17 seasons now? I learned a lot from being on set — being really decisive, finding a way to really be constructive with your critiques, while not crushing souls.
What’s your philosophy on judging?
I think we all are very conscious of not wanting to contribute to this culture of bullying. People can be really mean, especially on the internet. We approach judging with a light touch, from a place of really wanting to bring out the best in them and not wanting to crush them just for the sake of a funny sound bite. It’s not snarky for the sake of being snarky.
Do you feel guilty if you ever have to give a harsh critique?
I don’t feel guilt for keeping it real. I think that’s why I’m there: to be honest. I can’t help but do it in a way that feels like “big sis” or coming from a place of wanting to see them win.
What happened with the elimination of Frankie Lewis?
I actually was hardcore rallying the team to give some grace to my girl Frankie. Even though her bodysuit fell apart on the runway, I saw the potential in her and what she brought in terms of her vision and creativity and at least she took some risks. But episode 2, it was like: “Listen, there’s only one get out of jail free card.” She spent it on the first episode.
What do you think makes social media so powerful?
Social media has opened up a whole new world of possibilities for young people in terms of dreaming up the kinds of lives they want to lead and it’s done a lot for cultivating new kinds of role models that don’t necessarily need to rely on mainstream media to have an influential voice. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a perfect example of that. A year ago she was a waitress, and now she is in Congress and kicking ass and taking names. That would not have happened, could not have been possible, without this new medium that allows someone like her to break through and reach her audience in a meaningful way without having to politic her way to get there. She’s able to be her authentic self and not compromise on her values and people love and appreciate that about her.
Who is inspiring you right now?
Well, I just wrote a book. I am just extremely inspired by other women writers who have gone through this process before me and who are supportive. It’s kind of crazy how emotional I’ve gotten about some of the support that has been flooding in from women who I’ve looked up to, like Ava DuVernay, who wrote my foreword.
Why do you think people engage with and respond to your Instagram Stories? And how do you incorporate social consciousness into your posts?
I started my Instagram for the same reason I obsessed over my photo albums as a kid. It’s my virtual photo diary of what’s happening in my world. For me, it’s not a business. It’s just a way to connect with other people who inspire me. I think we live in a culture that sometimes does a disservice — we do a disservice to ourselves — when all we share is what you can see in a social media highlight reel or read in headlines. There is so much more to building a successful career than posting the perfect Boomerang and making everything look fun and glamorous. And certainly there are parts of all of our journeys that are worth sharing and glamorous and fun, but I think the next generation of women leaders has a responsibility to say more about what success really looks like behind the scenes and what it takes to break through these glass ceilings.
Why did you feel now was the time to write a book?
As a journalist, my job has been telling other women’s stories for 10 years, and it’s because I believe in the power of female storytellers and storytellers of color. I’ve built this career where I thrive when I’m able to start conversations that matter and now I’m in a stage of my career where I had to be brave enough to tell my own story and to create space for other women. It was a scary thing to do, but one of the most worthwhile projects I’ve ever taken on, certainly the most personal. I can’t wait to see what it does in the world, the friends it finds, the conversation it sparks.
What advice do you have for young women?
What I would say is find your tribe. Find someone or a group of women who will water that seed, put it in the sunshine, and help it grow. And protect the seed of your ideas and your dreams from people and spaces that will crush it early. I would not be where I am if I did not have women who banded around me, affirmed my vision for my career, and said, “Yes, you can do this!”