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So What Do You Do, Kate White, Editor-In-Chief, Cosmopolitan?

Cosmo's editor-in-chief turned novelist-in-demand on conquering the magazine industry and working in the shower

By Diane Clehane - May 31, 2007

One need look no further than at a list of titles of Kate White's nonfiction books to get a glimpse into what makes the perennially perky editor tick. Her 1996 book, Why Good Girls Don't Get Ahead But Gutsy Girls Do, has become something of a mantra for its author. White has climbed many ladders in publishing, and seemingly done so leaving admirers, not gossip, in her wake. When she's not writing Cosmo's "cheeky" cover lines, White seemingly spends every spare moment cranking out bestselling books -- most notably her five novels in which crime journalist Bailey Weggins ferrets out the felonious among Manhattan's glitterati. Her latest, Lethally Blonde, hit stores last week. The prolific author will debut her latest nonfiction work next month -- its Cosmo-inspired title: You On Top. On her Web site, the advice tome is described as offering insight on everything from "when to act like a bitch and when not to" to how to discover "the moan zone on a man's body that most women ignore."

We're all ears.

Name: Kate White
Position: Position: Editor-in-chief, Cosmopolitan
Resumé: Before landing her current gig as editor-in-chief of in 1998, White helmed several other titles: Child, Working Woman, McCall's, and Redbook. She began her editorial career as an editorial assistant at Glamour (White won the magazine's "Top Ten College Women" contest and appeared on its cover) and worked her way up, becoming a feature writer and columnist.
Birthdate: September 3 ("A year far before most Cosmo readers were born!")
Hometown: Glens Falls, New York
Education: BA in English, Union College
Marital status: Married to television syndicated host Brad Holbrook; two kids: Hunter, 19, and Hayley, 17.
First section of the Sunday Times: "Always page one -- I'm a news junkie."
Favorite television show: Law & Order (the original) -- "Being a murder mystery writer and reader, I love the plots and twists."
Guilty pleasure: "Great Bordeaux"
Last book read: The Woman in White by Wilkie Colins. "Nora Ephron recommended it in her book. It's from the 1800s and it's intoxicating."

How would you say you've gotten to where you are?

I definitely think that being a good idea person -- I have my weaknesses -- but of the things I do do well is that I'm a good idea person. I think that's how you get noticed when you're in an articles department and as you're working your way up whether you're an associate editor, junior editor, or a senior editor. People with ideas get noticed.

I also think I've probably been a bit of a rule breaker. I've been fortunate enough to work for bosses like Art Cooper [Family Weekly] who found that engaging. You can work for a boss who doesn't like rule breakers, but if you work for a boss who likes someone like that and let's you push the boundaries, it's actually great. You run with it and the next thing you know, they're rewarding you for that.

A lot of it is putting one foot in front of the next because sometimes you see people on staff -- they may be thinking, "I should shoot that idea to them" but they don't get around to it. I was a little bit of procrastinator early on in my 20s just because I didn't always know how to complete a task. I once did this wonderful study -- "Understanding Reader Response" -- when I was at Glamour and I never handed it in. A couple of years later when I was having lunch with [then editor-in-chief] Ruth Whitney, I told her about it. She said, "God, Kate that is so interesting. Why didn't you ever hand it in?" The notion how to finish projects, take those next steps and bring it to fruition and not procrastinate -- I bet there are a lot of people sitting at their desks in their 20s who have thought of an idea that they want to present or told their boss they'd get them something and haven't. If you can really triumph over that by using time management tricks or whatever, I think you can really make a difference.

What magazines did you read when you were younger?
I read women's magazines like Cosmo, Glamour, and Mademoiselle, but I even as a college girl loved Esquire. Just as men say they read Cosmo to understand how women think, I think it gave me a sense of how guys thought. It's actually interesting -- it was Esquire that led me to be a mystery writer.

They once did a great story -- "Everything a Young Man Should Know." It was all these little things that you needed to know and one of the boxes was the "Ten Best Murder Mysteries Ever Written." I'd always read Nancy Drew, but I hadn't really graduated to other stuff. I thought this is the perfect list to start with. I read those ten, fell in love and became a maniac in terms of mysteries. As I began to read them, I decided one day I'd love to write one.

So you knew early on you wanted to write mysteries?
Oh yeah, definitely. I think it was right around the time I graduated or shortly afterwards. I just always loved the macabre. If you had asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, it was a magazine writer and a private detective.

Who is "Bailey Weggins"? Has she changed over the course of writing the books?
I think she has evolved a little bit in that she had a bad breakup. She had her tail between her legs in the first couple of books. Now she's feeling together, she likes her job -- she covers celebrity crime for Buzz magazine. And, of course, there's a lot of that these days. She'd be out covering Paris Hilton right now!

How much of Bailey comes from your own life?
One of things that I would say is that because she's a freelancer -- and even though I've worked for corporations -- I've got the soul of a freelancer. I get to work that out in a nice way by writing about someone like her. Maybe there are little things about her that are like me. Sometimes people say, "Oh Kate, that sounds like you, you are Bailey," but I see her as different. She's a little bit more ornery in terms of her view of the world. She's more jaded. Partly because she is a freelancer and she has an irreverent take on things because she isn't caught up in having to be part of the system. But like me, she loves New York, she likes to dress cute. So it's not that I'm totally unlike her but I don't necessarily think, "I'm Bailey Weggins." Plus, she will go into an abandoned house with a dead body smell coming out of it, and I'd be like, "Get out! Get out!"

She sounds like the perfect character for Lifetime or TNT. Has there been any talk or interest in developing a television series or movie based on the books?
Lifetime has optioned the books for a series called "Bailey Weggins." They're working a script right now for a pilot.

Who would you like to see play her?
I don't know. I think it would be great if it was someone who wasn't particularly well known but so claimed the role the way Sarah Michelle Gellar claimed Buffy [The Vampire Slayer]. If I could have someone come in and do it the way she did it, that would be great.

You've helmed several women's magazines and have this flourishing second career as a novelist.Hhow do you juggle it all?
I write on the weekends on Saturday and Sunday mornings because my kids don't get up until one and my son is in college part of the year. I think one of the key things when you have some sort of secret dream is to be aware that there may be moments when you are juggling so much that you are going to have to give yourself a pass at that time in terms of doing it.

With my nonfiction, I wrote those books while I watched Law & Order after the kids were in bed because nonfiction just doesn't require the same muscle in your mind. Then, with fiction, I started it when they were a little bit older and what I discovered was I couldn't do it at night. It's impossible. My brain just didn't want to form a sentence. The first couple of years I wrote my mysteries, I'd get up at 6:15 on Saturdays and Sundays. By putting in a few hours of work each weekend day and also trying to aim for a certain number of pages -- I try to get six pages done in a short period of time. If I had the whole day, I'd aim for ten. I try to get six on Saturday and six on Sunday, and one or one and a half every day during the week.

That's pretty ambitious considering your day job.
To get a page of a book done in the mornings isn't so bad. What I try to do is plot it out when I'm taking a shower. See the page and work out the dialogue. If you were to walk into the bathroom, you'd see my lips moving a lot, and I'm not singing "Feelings." As I've gotten to know the character through five books, it's so easy for me to know what phrase she would say. In the early years, I would say, "Would Bailey really say that? I don't know." Now I feel like I have her down pat.

"When it comes down to it, women think of us as 'the Bible.'"

What's a typical day like for you?
The very early part is pretty typical because I take my daughter to school, but once I hit Cosmo, you never know what's coming. I usually get in about 8:15 a.m. It could be anything from Ludacris coming by or one day two friends of mine who are members of [the British] parliament came in for a tour. Now with overseeing Cosmo Radio, our huge Web site relaunch, Cosmo Books -- my days vary so much. Even though I try to get home at a reasonable hour because of the kids, I literally do not stop working -- and this is terrible because I'm not a workaholic. There is rarely a night where I'm not still working at midnight. I try to get home a little after six. I'll eat with my daughter and husband, and while my daughter is doing her homework, I just sit there next to her and grind it out for the next few hours.

So you do most of your editing at home?
Yeah, because of all the brand expansion now, I'm in meetings a huge part of the day. I used to be able to block out a few hours for editing during the day but I do not have that [luxury] any more.

What's the biggest challenge you face as an editor today?
So many things are competing for the attention of the reader. Glamour is no longer a major competitor on the newsstand. Our newsstand sales are significantly more than double theirs now. But there are lots of others vying for our readers: from the celeb magazines to YouTube. If you're not careful, it could be death by a thousand paper cuts. How we compete is by dazzling the reader and making her wonder: What will they do next month?

What's changed at Cosmo since you became its editor?
The big area I've added since I've been here is health. Our reader is really interested in being proactive about her health. She's also interested in stories that deal with social issues involving young women whether it's date rape or the whole notion of partying too hard. But when it comes down to it, women think of us as "the Bible." So it's that mix of fashion, beauty, and entertainment -- even though it shifts a little bit, those components have been there forever.

You also got rid of some features that had been around forever, like the awful sounding "Agony Column."
Irma Kurtz had written that for years and I liked her but it was just too negative sounding. What was funny was that just as we decided not to renew her contract, Glamour picked her up. I never understood why. I don't know. Maybe our reader is just a little hipper than theirs. It was a voice that was left over from another era.

During the era of the Scavullo cover in the '70s and '80s, Cosmo launched the careers of so many models. Will we ever go back to that and move away from the celebrity cover?
One great thing we've done at Cosmo is continue to do model covers every year not what we were doing when I first got here which was five or six. At that point we were still launching careers -- Rebecca Romijn, James King, Molly Sims were all on the covers in my early years and that was before they were out in Hollywood so I feel like we still had that power then. We had an adorable girl on two covers last September and March -- Tori Praver -- but she's had enormous success. I know she got several huge campaigns because of the covers. We'll probably do a model cover in the fall. I was just down the hall looking at portfolios so we are planning to shoot someone for the fall. For us, I hate to be held hostage in having to use celebrity covers every month. The great news is we can still sell two million copies with a model.

For the Cosmo reader, who is the hottest celebrity role model out there right now?
Our reader loves women who are truly fun, fearless females. It doesn't surprise me that Fergie sells over two million copies or that Carmen Electra did. Katie Heigl was a huge seller for us. Beyoncé was huge. They are women that not only have gorgeous faces and bodies to die for, but they also have this great confidence in themselves. They exude that and to the reader, that's what they relate to. You just look at Beyoncé and think, "She just really loves her life." She doesn't seem at all like this neurotic creature who is tortured by fame.

Who is the most over exposed celebrity that needs to go away?
(Long pause) Oh ... I think ... if we didn't hear anything more about Paris Hilton from this day forward I think we would be okay as a civilization.

Did you ever put her on the cover?

Would you ever?
I would say our reader really relates to women who've got real jobs and are doing really incredible things, and have worked hard for it. There might be some point in time where she pulls it all together and has a particular career but until then, she doesn't really fit what we look for in a cover. Even the models we pick are hard working who've come to New York to try to make it as models and actresses.

What do you make of the across the board obsession with her? She's no longer just in the tabloids. Her arrest was the lead story on Joe Scarborough's MSNBC show the other night. Why do we care if she goes to jail?
It's hard to answer because I don't care myself. My guess is our reader doesn't care either. I'm not saying this is Paris, but she doesn't have a lot of patience for someone she can't truly admire.

What's the difference between the Cosmo edited by you and the magazine edited by Helen Gurley Brown?
It's more irreverent. It's more sophisticated. Helen, of course, did a fabulous job.

Helen is famous for sending people notes. Are you in touch with each other?
She's great. She'll often send me a little note saying she likes a particular story or she was impressed with a sale of an issue after getting wind that something sold -- she's very thoughtful that way. She always reads my novels and sends me notes afterwards so I'll be sending her Lethally Blonde, of course.

Do you have a motto?
My motto is "go big or go home." Some girls on the staff use that expression when they're out having fun, but I think it's the perfect motto for working at Cosmo or for life in general. As long as you're going to put in the time, make sure you do as fabulous as possible.

What's your dream job?
This one. It's almost illegally fun to edit Cosmo.

[Diane Clehane is a contributing editor to FishbowlNY and writes the Lunch at Michael's column.]

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