American 'Marie Claire' editor Joanna Coles: The First Lady of the house of Hearst

As editor of American 'Marie Claire', Joanna Coles is the talk of Manhattan, hanging out with the likes of Hillary Clinton and Angelina Jolie. Claire Atkinson meets her

The Yorkshire-bred editor of American Marie Claire is grit and determination wrapped up in Dolce & Gabbana and soled in Christian Louboutin. And if the white-hot centre of the New York media business is looking to crown a new Tina Brown, then Joanna Coles is definitely the name to watch.

She follows a long line of British editorial talent that has taken up residence in New York, including Anna Wintour at US Vogue, Marie Claire predecessor Glenda Bailey at Harper's Bazaar and OK! magazine's Sarah Ivens, to name a few. Coles, 45, is not above a challenge. She once secured an exclusive talk with O.J. Simpson, who shattered a glass at their table in response to her tough questioning. On the same day as this interview with The Independent, she will debate the merits of plastic surgery with the wry Los Angeles-based comedienne Joan Rivers, live on NBC.

While other editors seem happy to remain behind their desks, Coles is aggressively making a name for herself. She's frequently mentioned in the New York Post's gossip column Page Six (once for tongue lashing a security guard at the Gucci show in Milan who'd kept a group of editors out.) She's also co-operating on a TV version of the movie The Devil Wears Prada.

Ensconced in her Manhattan office in the Norman-Foster-designed Hearst Magazines headquarters, she orders up two cups of tea from Sergio, her assistant. "I've had a blessed career," she says, describing her climb from New York correspondent for The Guardian and The Times to editor roles at trend-defining New York magazine and More, a title geared towards women of 40 and upwards. Divine intervention appears to have precious little to do with her success however. Coles famously won the Marie Claire premiership after leaping into a car taking Hearst Magazine's president Cathleen Black to the airport.

"I got a call saying: 'Cathy Black wants to meet you'," she recalls. "The day before I had run a marathon, put my kids on a plane to England and then I had a fire in my fridge. I ran up Park Avenue just as her car was pulling out." Her persistence paid off, and she had the job by the time the car reached Kennedy airport.

Part of her pitch involved tightening up the Marie Claire mission, which is to deliver not just glamour but also global issues to its readers. "It needed refurbishing," she says, describing Marie Claire today as "more psychological, less product-based. It's more about: why do we have a bad hair day? What products make a difference?"

Coles is known for being fearless and direct. One friend, André Bishop, artistic director at the concert venue the Lincoln Center, says there is no subject taboo for the Englishwoman. At a Christmas party at her house, he observed her asking any number of probing questions without her guests really noticing.

"She's quite happy to ask you anything and happy to call anyone up for you. She is used to asking questions without being intimidated or being intimidating."

Another friend, Jami Floyd, a TV reporter for TruTV (formerly Court TV) says she first met Coles at an upscale Manhattan school parents's meeting. While other parents were cowed by the domineering principal, Coles was the sole questioner asking about such things as security arrangements for the kids: "she never ceases to surprise me with what she'll say and she'll get away with it because of her [English] accent and her good looks."

Under Coles's arguably more newsy approach, Marie Claire has tackled subjects such as genital mutilation, "tanorexia," (women addicted to tanning) and landed a bona-fide scoop by interviewing the disgraced US Army Private Lynndie England, who spoke for the first time of her involvement in the Abu Ghraib photo scandal.

For better or worse, Coles has also shaken up conventional wisdom about who should grace the covers of American Marie Claire in age when newsstands are heaving with celebrity cleavage and fly-away tresses. Some choices have had praise, others criticism. Media-industry blogs criticised choices like Maggie Gyllenhaal and Sarah Michelle Gellar as uninspiring, while another cover girl, Ashley Simpson, caused a stir when she told women to love themselves as they are, and then promptly turned around and got a nose job. Coles wrote a stern editor's letter on that turn-about. Grey's Anatomy star Sandra Oh, one of the first actresses of Asian descent to make the cover, raised both eyebrows and interest. The issue helped lift newsstand sales by 22 per cent. Ultimately though, staples such as Angelina Jolie (with whom Coles spent an afternoon) and Ashley Olsen have been the best sellers.

"It was fun to spend an afternoon with Angelina. There were paparazzi hanging off the billboard opposite and my driver was even offered $5,000 just for some information."

On the topic du jour in New York media circles, she says: "I don't see any signs that print is dead." Her magazine is still bought by close to a million people every month and overall paid subscriptions were up 29 per cent at the half-year point in 2007 compared with the previous period. (Figures for the second half of the year aren't yet available.)

Coles is also heavily involved in extending the Marie Claire brand beyond print. She appears – with various staff members – in a popular video podcast, The Masthead, sponsored by Unilever. The podcast, downloaded 1.8 million times in 2007, reveals the action behind the print packages and is aimed at helping ordinary readers make bolder fashion choices. In February, cable channel E! Networks begins a 10-part series featuring the magazine while VH-1 just concluded a reality show, The Shot, about the search for a celebrity photographer which involved Marie Claire editors.

Still, the real headache for Coles is improving Marie Claire's showing on the newsstand, which is a vital sign of health for any title as subscriptions are sold at a heavily discounted rate. Newsstand sales however are down 20 per cent for the first half period and not likely to show much improvement in the second half.

Roberta Garfinkle, senior vice president and director of print strategy at the New York ad agency Targetcast, says declining newsstand sales is something all titles are experiencing.

"I'd be more concerned if subscriptions were down." Garfinkle thinks Coles has done a good job of getting Marie Claire back on mission. "It went a bit heavy into celebrity journalism and walked away from its core reason for being. Joanna is bringing them back."

She admits to having regrets at leaving Britain just as Tony Blair came to power. "I had a lot of friends who where in the government and it would have been interesting to see the first few years of New Labour. I would have liked to have been able to write about it." However, she left for the States because, "I wanted a new, bigger, market."

In gross-revenue terms, Marie Claire seems to be doing alright. The magazine's publisher, Susan Plagemann, praises the increased efforts online adding, "A lot of what has been successful about Joanna is her ability to create ways to extend the brand that are reader centric but have great marketing legs... We're closing our second most profitable ad revenue year." In the period January to September 2007, Marie Claire's revenues were $102,778,813 (£52.5m), an increase of 13.1 per cent over the same period the previous year.

Back in the fashion closet, filled with racks of clothes and accessories, Coles is eyeing a selection of spring trends presented by shopping editor, Zoe Glassner, who holds up safari prints and tribal designs before pronouncing that maxi-dresses will be big this summer.

But Coles, perhaps betraying her Yorkshire roots, asks simply, "Are people going to wear that to work, though?"