‘Fun Fearless Female’: How Cosmopolian’s editor has mastered the digital age

Cosmo editor Jessica Pels is leading the magazine into the future – and having a fantastic time doing it, says Katherine Rosman

Sunday 14 April 2019 11:38
Pels: ‘I am her. I think she’s bold. I think she’s unapologetic about having fun. I think she wants to have an impact, and she should’
Pels: ‘I am her. I think she’s bold. I think she’s unapologetic about having fun. I think she wants to have an impact, and she should’

Bad ideas first!” is how Jessica Pels begins a session brainstorming cover lines for the May issue of Cosmopolitan. She was named editor-in-chief at the Hearst Magazines publication last autumn.

Pels’ legs dangle as she perches on a credenza on one end of the long conference room and reveals to some 40 staff members from various departments, including video and social media, that Yara Shahidi, a star of the sitcom Black-ish, would be appearing on the cover, alongside Charles Melton, who plays Reggie on Riverdale. They are both in the forthcoming movie The Sun is Also a Star.

Cosmopolitan, which has the highest circulation of any Hearst magazine, was taken from a sleepy literary journal to a sensational pro-sex feminist magazine by its longtime editor, Helen Gurley Brown, who worked there from 1965-1997. She stepped down at age 74 and became editor-in-chief of Cosmo’s international editions until her death in 2012 at 90.

Cover lines, long thought to compel buyers to pluck a magazine off a crowded newsstand, were always a main ingredient of Brown’s success. Hers (often written by her husband, Hollywood producer David Brown) were especially breathy and enticing: “World’s Greatest Lover – what it was like to be wooed by him!”

Now, cover lines are mere adornment to the print product – something that may be thought of as a loss leader for a brand aimed at women aged 18-34, possibly the most mobile-phone-obsessed demographic there is. Pels hopes Hearst will come up with a way to easily let readers subscribe by text and pay with Paypal’s Venmo app.

“She opens Instagram 42 times a day,” says Pels of the Cosmo reader. “Anything she can do on her phone, she will.”

Addressing her staff, Pels stresses that the cover-line language shouldn’t be too sexy because Shahidi is just 19 and Melton is nearly a decade older. She wants to avoid doing the film’s marketing by presenting them as a couple with chemistry.

Moreover, in real life Melton is dating Camila Mendes, who plays Veronica on Riverdale. “We don’t want to lean out of that, we want the Cami-stans to want to pick it up,” one editor pipes in. (For those over the age of 40: a “stan” is a kind of superfan.)

The ideas start flying. Many make Pels laugh.

“Win a night out with Yara and Charles. *JK: they’re not dating, you’re not going, it’s not happening.”

Helen Gurley Brown, who put Cosmopolitan on the map during her time as editor-in-chief (Getty)

“Yara Shahidi and Charles Melton: The girl you want to be and the boy you want to ...”

The goal, Pels says, “is to call them the prom king and queen of young Hollywood without calling them the prom king and queen. They’re a new paradigm in Hollywood.”

The cover line she ultimately goes with is “Hollywood just got hotter”.

Hans and stans

Pels herself is representative of a new paradigm. At 32, she is at least 10 years younger than any of her recent predecessors. And although she likely draws a smaller paycheck than those who came before her, she has more digital media experience than most of them combined.

She grew up in East Cobb, Georgia, attended the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University and now lives in Brooklyn with her husband. While she was a student, she had internships at The New Yorker and Vogue, before graduating in 2008 with a degree in film and video production. She was hired by Condé Nast, first at Glamour and then Teen Vogue, before landing at Hearst.

For four years Pels headed MarieClaire.com, starting with a staff of two that grew to about 11 by the time she got the same job at Cosmo.

Pels ran digital platforms there for 10 months before being granted the entire kit and caboodle: the print magazine, the website, all the social channels, video platforms and “branded content” (what used to be known as advertorial).

With Nancy Berger, the new publisher of Cosmo, she is working on licensing, e-commerce, events and partnerships. “Anytime I can raise my hand and lean into something new that the brand is doing, I want to do that,” Pels says. (“Leaning in” and “out” is a big thing at Cosmo.)

Pels accepts an award at the Ellie Awards in New York

She can spout data points as easily as Brown would sex tips. She has a big office with a large glass desk that is nearly bare but for a computer, a notebook and a pair of Apple earbuds. All she really needs are the computer and her phone, which she checks a lot for up-to-the-minute Cosmo analytics.

Sitting at her desk in a plaid suit she got at Macy’s and a pair of high heels impractical for walking, she gazes at a graph showing the previous week’s web traffic. She points to a spike that shows that one day the site had 4.28 million unique visitors. “It’s such a pretty sight,” she says.

By the end of February, Cosmopolitan.com had logged 41 million unique visitors, according to comScore. In February 2018, the month after Pels started as the top editor, there were 15 million.

Digital subscriptions from December 2016 to December 2018 have increased from 85,060 to 242,075, according to the Alliance for Audited Media.

Cosmopolitan has employed a digital-first strategy

E-commerce on the site has doubled in the past year, Hearst says. Cosmo readers like to buy small-ticket items from the site, which takes the tone of a girlfriend making recommendations. Books, streamed movies, bras and vibrators sell particularly well from the site, Pels says. Hearst earns affiliate revenue from items that readers buy via Cosmo.

“Jess is nailing it on digital, and she knows how to connect with the audience in print too,” says Berger, who previously worked as publisher of Marie Claire. “What is happening at Cosmo right now is the new way forward.”

But can Pels save the print edition of Cosmo from the fate of her alma maters Glamour and Teen Vogue, whose regular print editions have been killed? Not to mention Cosmo’s little sister CosmoGirl, which folded in 2008.

Single-copy print sales, a metric that refers mostly to airport and newsstand sales, dropped, between 2016 and 2018, from 274,833 to 123,250, the Alliance for Audited Media reported. (Paid print subscriptions have increased slightly, to 2.67 million from 2.64 million.)

Kate Lewis, the chief content officer at Hearst Magazines and Pels’ biggest booster, says she expects Cosmo to continue as a print-based publication for at least the next five years. And these days overall revenue, which includes advertorial and e-commerce, is more important to the company than newsstand sales.

Pels’ ascendence at Cosmo has come amid a changing of the guard at the magazine company. In July 2018, Troy Young was named president of Hearst Magazines, after more than five years as the company’s head digital executive. (He replaced David Carey, who had served as president for eight years.) Young has provided for the company an internal data analysing product that staffers refer to as Hans (“Hearst answers”). Staffers can enter a question into a Hans Slack channel, asking for sliced-and-diced information as they might a salad at the airy company cafeteria.

Pels, for example, might message the Hans bot asking what is the day’s best-performing e-commerce item or which print magazine story is drawing the highest numbers online at a particular time of day.

“And he will answer, which is really cool,” she says.

For all the meeting time spent on print cover lines, they are now far less important than trying to create a social-media moment that will bring readers to the Cosmo website.

The April cover features the four women who will star in the coming reboot of The Hills, the MTV hit, posed in a vintage metallic powder blue car. To “launch the cover” Pels and her team called upon Spencer Pratt, a love-to-hate-him figure from the original show, who is married to Heidi Montag, a star of the original and the reboot.

In a livestreamed video, Pratt sits in his kitchen trying to read the entire issue of Cosmo, front to back, to his son, who eventually toddles himself out of the situation

For the March cover, actress Lana Condor was photographed grabbing a slice from a heart-shaped pizza. As the issue was being released, Cosmo sent Condor a heart-shaped pizza and tipped off her boyfriend, Anthony De La Torre, so he could record the moment and Condor could share it. (Cosmo also sent the issue and heart pizzas to well-followed “Lana-stan” Instagram accounts.)

Inspired by Instagram

Back in the day, Cosmo covers were known for the wind-machined coifs, contoured cheekbones and plunging cleavage favoured by one signature photographer, Francesco Scavullo. The next era brought fewer models and more actors, standing against a solid-colour backdrop.

Pels, working with the magazine’s new creative director, Andy Turnbull, wanted the covers to look more like Instagram photos.

So she has data pulled that identifies “top-performing Instagrams”, which then inspire Cosmo photo shoots. As it happens, heart-shaped pizza is popular on Insta. As are vintage metallic blue cars. As are bathtubs, which can be seen in the background of Condor’s photo spread. “We’re using Instagram to back into our planning print shoots,” Pels says.

From Hans, Pels and her staff have learnt a lot about what sort of articles website-visitors prefer and what drives them to click. They also collect data through polls, lots of them, couched as simple newsy questions like “Do you think that Kylie is self-made?” and “Do you think the students who were accepted under false pretences should have their admissions revoked?”

The typical reader loves astrology, so there is now a multipage astrology section in every issue. (A regular column is called “Ask your astrolobestie”.) She favours true crime stories and celebrity interviews but also wants to be in the know about issues important to young women, hence substantive features like “Inside the scam of the ‘purity movement’”.

And, obvz, sex, a Cosmo staple for 50 years, is not going anywhere. But Pels’ idea of sex is less “heteronormative”, she says. In March, there was a two-page spread on how to give oral sex headlined “Get in Formation”, with explicit drawings of two entwined figures. One is clearly a woman, the other’s gender is not obvious.

Although the magazine’s staff is not strikingly diverse, it strives for fair representation of models and article subjects; one recent story was “Five disability-friendly sex positions you need in your life”.

Covering web culture is paramount, and recent stories have included “What your go-to selfie face says about you” and a granular analysis of stalking habits. (“I was out at a bar one night going through my Snap feed when I saw this guy who ghosted me in the background of a friend’s story.”)

Cosmo editor Jessica Pels at a Tory Burch fashion show with Lara Condor, star of the Neflix film ‘To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before’ (Getty)

The voice Pels wants, she says, is “your texts with your girlfriends on your funniest day”.

She insists that she is guided not just by data but also by instinct and affinity. “I am her,” she says. “I’m smack-dab in our demo. I think she’s bold. I think she’s unapologetic about having fun. I think she wants to have an impact on the world around her, and that she should.”

The news cycle

Cindi Leive, the former editor of Glamour who was Pels’ boss there, says that her onetime assistant was from the start an overachiever who greatly exceeded expectations.

Cindi Leive who was Pels‘ boss at ‘Glamour’

When Leive asked her to help find authors for a Glamour book of essays, she delivered Maya Angelou. When Leive asked her to round up some motivational quotes for a speech Leive would be delivering, Pels managed to get original material from Jimmy Fallon.

“I would have her edit my editor’s letters not as an act of charity or to make her feel good,” Leive says. “I did it because she made the pieces better.”

At MarieClaire.com, Kate Lewis, a former Condé Nast human resources executive who had recruited Pels to Hearst, was impressed when Pels came to her asking for money to produce an ambitious package about women and guns. “It became clear at that moment that she understood video in a way that was special,” she says.

As Cosmo’s digital director, Pels arranged to get video footage and interviews in Parkland, Florida, the week when students returned to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after the mass shooting in February 2018.

The cover-lines meeting, however, falls on a different kind of news day. The main item is that Khloé Kardashian, the 34-year-old star of reality and talk shows like Khloé & Lamar and Kocktails With Khloé, has broken up with Tristan Thompson, an NBA centre for the Cleveland Cavaliers with whom Khloé had a baby girl last April, named True.

Kardashian, TMZ reported, learned that Thompson had hooked up with Jordyn Woods, 21, who became famous for being Kardashian-adjacent: as followers of Kylie Jenner’s Instagram know, Woods is/was BFFs with Kylie, whose half-sister is Khloé.

The story quickly becomes Cosmo’s Mueller report. As it happens, the magazine has in its current issue a multipage feature on Woods, along with original photographs of her, and Cosmo staffers flood the zone with new articles. One of its best-read stories tracks – with frequent updates and screen-shotted visual evidence – which Kardashians have unfollowed Woods and Thompson on Instagram.

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By the end of the day, nearly 4.3 million readers have come to the site, nearly doubling the traffic from the previous best day (11 February after the Grammy Awards).

As soon as the meeting ends, Pels steps into the hall, checks the data on her phone and kicks one heel insouciantly behind her; a fun fearless female.

“It’s going to be our biggest day ever,” she says.

© New York Times

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