“The Bold Type,” which airs its fifth and final season premiere Wednesday night, might not have ever happened if it weren’t for Katy Perry. Former Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief Joanna Coles recalls the genesis of the series, inspired by her life at the top of the masthead, as stemming from a cover shoot with the pop singer years ago.
“It had gone really well. The one thing we asked her not to do was to Instagram anything from the shoot, because the pictures wouldn’t be out for another six weeks on the cover of Cosmo,” Coles recalls. “She promised she wouldn’t, and we all left feeling very high after the shoot. Within 20 minutes, she had posted the exact picture that we were going to use on the cover. I was beside myself. We couldn’t use the best picture because it had already been out there.”
Annoyed, Coles went to a group dinner with her friend “Funny or Die” editor Mike Farah, where she was seated next to producer David Bernad, and proceeded to regale him with tales of cover shoots past: “He looked at me and said, ‘Your life is a TV show. I’m coming to Cosmo to follow you around.’ He did indeed show up, and that’s how the show was born.”
It’s stories like these that have made women’s lifestyle magazines headquartered in shimmery New York City towers such an appealing backdrop, from “The Devil Wears Prada” to “13 Going on 30” to “Ugly Betty.” “The Bold Type’s” audience of mostly 20- to 40-something women love the fashion closets, glitzy parties and expense accounts, and of course the tight-knit friendship between Jane (Katie Stevens), Kat (Aisha Dee) and Sutton (Meghann Fahy). For women who work in media in particular, the Freeform series hearkens back to the heyday of glossies, when working in publishing seemed glamorous and adventuresome, not steeped in SEO and encircled by private-equity vultures.
“I think there’s a fantasy, but there’s also truth and authenticity, which I think really resonates,” said showrunner Wendy Straker Hauser, who started working on the show in Season 1 as a writer and co-producer. “I’m in my 40s, and I know a lot of women in their 40s who love this show. I think it’s nostalgic for them.”
Straker Hauser knows this world firsthand, having come up in the newspaper and magazine world in the early aughts, freelancing for Cosmo and Cosmo Girl before spending over five years at the New York Post, where she helped with the launch of Page Six Magazine. While the show has always offered a romanticized look at living, loving and working in your 20s, much of its resonance lies in good-natured jabs at the very real daily dramas and audacities of the media world.
That Season 2 storyline where Jane’s apology voicemail over a sensationalized story gets turned into a viral, Auto-Tuned meme? It happened to Straker Hauser in 2009, when her apology email to a source over a Page Six Magazine story — about affluent Manhattan women who sought to have twins — was picked up and mocked by Gawker, that bastion of early-aughts media snark.
“The funny story is that when I pitched the story in the writers room — I wasn’t a showrunner at the time — the network said, ‘This is a great story. But who would do something like this? Who would be so naive to to actually call somebody up or email and apologize? It wouldn’t happen,’” recalls Straker Hauser. “And I said, ‘Well, I would, and I was.”
The episode where Jane gets a yoni egg stuck in her vagina? Inspired by one of Coles’ staffers at Cosmo. The “namaste”-greeting, infuriating head of “the dot com,” Patrick (played by Peter Vack)? A mashup of “some of the absurd things that people on our digital team at the time were saying,” said Coles. (Surely many reporters working in this Very Online era can relate.)
There’s perhaps a temptation to write off shows like “The Bold Type” as mere frothy fun — and what fun it is! — but the show’s roots in the real-world magazine industry are a reminder that stories centered on young women are often dismissed.
“A lot of the great female writers started in magazines, everybody from Nora Ephron to Sylvia Plath, Helen Gurley Brown,” said Coles, who is an executive producer on the show. “Magazines were a place that could tell women’s stories that weren’t being told anywhere else.”
“When I was growing up, for me, obviously pre-smartphone, the magazine was like a finger beckoning us to the future, giving us access to a much more sophisticated world than we were living in. They were magical journeys of discovery,” she said, adding, “I feel sad that magazines are much less important than they used to be. But there is a wonderful mystique about them.”
For Jane, Kat and Sutton, finding love is significant, but not central; the show’s focus on their work at the magazine and their career goals has differentiated it from other stories in the same setting. “To a huge credit [to] Sarah Watson, who created the show, she really was grounded in character,” said Straker Hauser. “And so I think all of our stories really came from character and not what’s been done before.”
And Coles’ TV doppelganger, Scarlet editor-in-chief Jacqueline Carlyle (Melora Hardin), a fantasy editor and mentor — but “much more patient,” says Coles — was a bid to put more supportive, high-ranking women bosses on screen.
“I didn’t see, on television, characters that reflected the senior women that I had in my life,” said Coles. “I felt that there haven’t been very many of them, but the ones that have been in really senior positions, when I was coming up through the ranks, have always been fantastically supportive. I never came across the Miranda Priestly type.”
But the heart of “The Bold Type” is friendship, specifically the kind of bonds that can seemingly only be forged in your 20s, when everything seems so up in the air and you’re hammering out who you’re supposed to be.
“Seeing these women [who are] passionate and struggling and questioning and lifting each other up and working their butts off, and just trying to make it in Manhattan in publishing just felt so personal to me in a great way,” said Straker Hauser.
That has translated behind the scenes. Over the last four seasons, Coles and Hardin have become close friends in real life: Coles would stay with Hardin when filming cameos on the show, they’ve traveled together, and their children have even become friends. (In fact, Hardin’s daughter happened to be staying over at Coles’ place during the time of the interview.)
“The Bold Type” has also helped to keep Freeform in the pop culture chatter-sphere, with network president Tara Duncan calling the series a “brand defining show for Freeform.”
“We strive to capture the spirit of our Gen Z and millennial audience, and Kat, Jane and Sutton have done that effortlessly over the course of the last five seasons,” she said via email to Variety. “From their professional up and downs, to their personal struggles, and most importantly their friendship, our audience has been able to see their own lives reflected authentically through the series’ storylines. It’s one of my favorite shows, and while the ending is bittersweet, I know everyone on the cast and crew as well as Karey [Burke], Simran [Sethi] and Pearlena [Igbokwe] who truly spearheaded the show from its inception, are all immensely proud of it.”
What viewers can expect from last six episodes — yes, Season 5 is a shortie, following a season that was abbreviated by the pandemic, forcing two half-filmed episodes from Season 4 to roll over to this summer — is a “rollercoaster,” said Straker Hauser, including an alternate-reality episode that toys with a “what if” for Kat, Sutton and Jane.
“What we learned quickly was that with that short of an order, we couldn’t create new journeys in the sense of, a fresh new arc,” said the showrunner, who has been at the helm since Season 4. “We were continuing our arcs from last season, and then wrapping them up in a way that felt really rewarding. I have to say, I’m really proud of what we accomplished in such a short amount of time under such wild circumstances.”
While there was a “whole arc” for Kat and her right-wing lover Eva that was re-routed because of the pandemic, viewers will get to see a resolution to the Sutton-Richard storyline, which ended Season 4 on an unhappy note.
“One of the things I really wanted to tackle, which we certainly did, was that I do think your late 20s can be a very messy time. And I wanted to explore that, and unfortunately had to end on that [messiness] last season, but we’ve been able to have our girls push through,” said Straker Hauser. “We’re leaving them in a place where we are going to go off and kick ass and leave their mark in the world. And if we could watch them do that, that would be amazing, but we’ll just watch it in our imagination.”