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So What Do You Do, Charla Lawhon, Managing Editor, InStyle?

The glossy celeb-mag's ME discusses fame's new face, schmoozing with the stars, and Ugly Betty

By Diane Clehane - March 5, 2008
Long before the supermarket check-out stands were clogged with rows of nearly identical looking tabloids with their fluorescent logos and breathless cover lines boasting the inside scoop on Britney, Lindsay, and Angelina, there was InStyle. When the magazine launched in 1993, it was a haven for celebrities who were assured of receiving the kid glove treatment on its glossy pages and a deliciously frothy treat for those readers whose appetite for all things related to celebrities had barely been whetted.

These days, InStyle's managing editor Charla Lawhon, who was part of the magazine's launch team ("Which was called 'Project X' at the time.") and served as second lieutenant to the magazine's first top editor Martha Nelson, presides over the now iconic title. Lawhon's well-mannered enthusiasm for the job is reflected in the title's polished, dishy (but never gossipy), and "aspirational" tone. The editor, like her faithful readers, has grown more and more at ease being a satellite in a world dominated by celebrities. "When I came to InStyle I knew nothing about celebrity," says Lawhon. "I was amazed at that the other editors were sitting around calling these actresses by their first names." Now, she says with a laugh, "I say 'Jen' and 'Reese.' I'm very comfortable calling them by their first names, too."

Name: Charla Lawhon

Position: Managing editor, InStyle

Resume: Named managing editor of InStyle in April 2002 having previously served as executive editor and deputy editor; part of the original team of editors during its test period in 1993. Started her publishing career at Apartment Life in 1978 (which later morphed into Metropolitan Home). During her tenure at the magazine (which was sold to Hachette in 1992), she "worked in virtually every editorial department" and was named services director for Meredith Design Group in 1990. Remained in the position until she left for InStyle.

Birthdate: December 11, 1956

Hometown: St. Joseph, Missouri

Education: Drake University, BA in journalism

Marital status: Single

First section of The Sunday Times: "The Style section."

Favorite television show: "I'm liking Ugly Betty. I love to see that interpretation of what it is I do every day."

Guilty pleasure: "Spending an entire day reading a 'not really literature' book."

Last book read: "Actually, it was literature. Atonement. I picked it up because one of my dear friends is one of the executive producers on the film. I loved it. I thought, 'The language in here is probably gorgeous' and it is. "

More than any other fashion magazine, InStyle was probably the most affected by the writer's strike. When the Golden Globes didn't happen, did you put a contingency plan in place to deal with the possibility of a shortened or non-existent awards season?
We did. At the end of the summer we made a strike plan that had to do with not only all the awards coverage, but many of our stories for the spring and early summer because the strike would be affecting all of those. Certainly the television season is affected, film release dates just keep changing and the summer series -- we're just not sure what's going to happen to them. Hopefully, they will be able to recover from it. We started back then and identified all the stories where we had exposure and just kept working through them ready to make a change if we needed to.

When the Globes didn't happen, we had our lists of other things that were going on and we were able to nail those things down and use them in those [Globes] pages. They were other red carpet events and some parties that were happening around that time so we let our close go late so that we could add in that very fresh material.

So what did you cover?
The National Board of Review -- which ordinarily would have gone in a later issue because our Globes coverage would have sucked up that space. It had a very nice turnout and great names. There was a Chanel dinner party that we covered plus more of some of the smaller red carpet events that were happening. Actually, we're very pleased with our coverage.

The Screen Actor's Guild did have their awards and I thought the fashion was pretty boring.
A lot of it looked very serious -- more so than in years past. The SAG Awards are generally a little more free-wheeling, but this felt somewhat studied.

So, in the end, the Oscars actually did come off and the fashion was, in my opinion, lackluster to say the least especially since the audience was probably craving a heavy dose of glamour. What was your take on this year's Oscar red carpet?

The fashion did seem a bit quiet. In fact, everyone looked very beautiful, but there weren't those "big statements" -- both stunningly gorgeous and shockingly odd -- that we all look for. While I'm sure there was some pre-planning before the strike settlement was decided, in the end these looks had to be pulled together in a very short amount of time ... an amazing feat on the parts of the actresses, the stylists, and the fashion houses.

Maybe it's me, but I feel like it's been a long time since actresses have truly dazzled at the Oscars. What do you think?
I also wonder if we haven't all become a little more jaded. We know more, the television viewers know a lot more. They're pretty sophisticated and have much more of an opinion about what someone should be wearing because viewers feel they know these women. I think that's part of it. I also think that because of scrutiny, actresses are less likely to give us the 'Bjork moment.' Of course there are some people who would still wear a feathered dress but they're not going to wear some of the crazy or riskier things they had in the past.

Why are there so few blaring fashion faux pas today? Are the stars afraid of being "Worst Dressed?"
Each of us can remember a favorite "ouch" look from past years. After all, a picture says a thousand words, and trying too hard to make a statement is a dangerous strategy. The photos and videos from the Academy Award's red carpet are mined for years to come by all media, and once that image is out there, it's out there. But you do kind of miss them, don't you?

I do. When I talked to Fern Mallis she credited Joan Rivers with creating the 'What are you wearing?' red carpet phenomenon. How do you think the whole thing got started?
I think InStyle has to take a little of the responsibility. It's been a steady build. Was there a tipping point? Do you remember when Nicole Kidman wore that chartreuse Dior? It was such a clear moment and everyone paid attention to that dress.

Interestingly, I remember that year Joan called that dress "the ugliest dress I've ever seen" and Pat Kingsley threatened to not have any PMK clients talk to her ever again.
[Laughs] Joan is nothing if not an entertainer. Who knows how much of it was an actual fashion critique or Joan being her wonderful edgy self. I happened to catch Melissa's critique of the Golden Globes -- let's not forget it was a press conference. [Laughs] Everyone was trying to do commentary asking, "Was the event boring?" Guys, it was a press conference.

I really have to laugh when I see the people doing red carpet fashion commentary for television these days. They make Joan and Melissa look like Woodward and Bernstein. At the SAG Awards Jay Emanuel called America Ferrera Jennifer Ferrera and then got her costar Eric Mabius' name wrong a few minutes later.
I know. There should be a law. [Laughs] Outlets ... should have people who actually understand to whom they're speaking and what they're looking at.

InStyle has served as a template for a whole slew of clones -- many of which have "borrowed" heavily from your formula. How are you distinguishing yourself from the pack? What sort of changes have you made?
Change is absolutely necessary and to date, our changes have been deliberate and fairly subtle. If you look at the magazine and what it looked like six years ago, it looks much different. Our goal now is to consider how celebrity has changed and to consider the way readers' interests have changed. As we were talking about earlier, there is a certain jadedness -- or should I say a sophistication -- on the part of magazine readers, Web site users, and television watchers. They know much more about fashion and beauty now then they did 10 years ago. I think that it's important for InStyle to reflect that knowledge much more clearly.

How do you personally stay current on the constantly changing crop of celebrities and the elastic the definition of who qualifies as a celebrity you have to pay attention to?
The definition of who is a celebrity -- that's a hard one because they come from everywhere now. It's not just film, television, and music. There are celebrities in fashion, in the beauty world, the whole reality thing -- I guess we have to stop talking about the "reality thing" because it's not going anywhere, it's here to stay. The definition has certainly changed. For our purposes, we have to figure out -- and this is an on-going project -- who resonates with the readers or who should resonate with the readers. We keep adapting that and bring those people into the discussion.

Do you have anything that you personally do?
I watch all the new shows that are coming up, the cable things that are happening. Online is a great place to learn more about these people and see who is who. There's people in the business we talk to -- managers, agents, casting directors. All of those folks have a point of view and they're meeting new people all the time. It's about talking to people.

If there was some highly controversial moment happening in someone's life, then they might not be the right person for us at that time.

Were you an entertainment junkie growing up? What magazines did you read?
At that one point it was Seventeen, Esquire, and of course the fashion magazines. I read a lot of fiction of the non-literature type. I've always been a big newspaper reader -- ever since I was a child.

Are you a big movie-goer?
More at certain times in my life. Now, of course I get to think of it as part of my job so that's a good thing.

Sitting where you are today, did you ever expect the culture to become as obsessed as it is with celebrity? For years, people have been saying, "Oh, it can't get any bigger than this," but it just keeps mushrooming.
I remember when we were first launching, a local paper newspaper here asked me a question in an interview "Who is going to be interested in celebrity? Why do you need this magazine?" At that time I think I said something like, "It's like cars. Every now and then you need a new car." I'm amazed really. It's a generation of interest, really, in celebrity. I'm always surprised at the way it just keeps rolling and rolling and rolling. Wave after wave after wave. It's exciting, too.

With the birth of no holds barred sites like TMZ, does InStyle -- which is at the polar opposite of the spectrum -- benefit in some weird way from the existence of the stalkerazzi?
I believe we do because the kind of access that InStyle has is not what other magazines do. That helps with the "unique" problem. The other thing is we're a respite from that type of celebrity coverage. While I know there are a lot of people out there that love the dishiness of the ones that report on gossip, problems, and cellulite. You can't have a steady diet of that. You can't consume that all the time. InStyle is a great alternative. Our news shows up in other ways. Halle Berry pregnant on the cover -- it was the first cover she had done when pregnant -- so that's news in its own right.

When you put a star like Katie Holmes on the cover and there's an elephant in the room -- in her case, all the controversy surrounding Tom's belief in Scientology -- are there ground rules laid down that she not be asked about that? How do you work with people when you're negotiating a cover story and there's something like that happening in their personal life?
That was not a part of any discussions [with Katie]. There are personalities to magazines, and celebrities' representatives -- their publicists, managers, and agents -- have a very good sense of what each magazine can and will do. With InStyle we were specific in the story that we wanted to do. When we were pitching them the story, we were specific and lived up to our end of the bargain and they lived up to theirs which was, "We'll do this fashion story and we'll talk about fashion and Katie's life as a mom and wife." It's not expected that InStyle would go down that path. The story wasn't about Tom, it was about Katie and we were talking about fashion and beauty.

So basically you're saying with her, they know what they're getting when they come to you, so with her there was really no need to bring that up because you would understand and she would understand without saying it, that the issue (of Tom's Scientologist beliefs) would not be brought up.
That it would not be an angle that would be appropriate for InStyle and that's really what it comes down to. Now if there was some highly controversial moment happening in someone's life, then they might not be the right person for us at that time. Because it wouldn't be an angle we'd do -- we might just say, "Now is not the right time, let's put this off for a while." Who doesn't like a nice big quotable item? It's really about what is right for the editorial direction of the magazine.

Consequently, you probably benefited from that leaked Scientology video that broke right after your Katie cover hit the stands because there's that voracious interest in all things Tomkat, right?
The last time we did Katie -- the story had been shipped to the printer on Friday and we got the call on Monday that she was going to be out in public with Tom for the first time. Part of me said, I really would have liked to have had that, but the timing and the swirl around it worked out well. But I would have loved to have had that big life news. [Laughs]

You've had pretty much every female star I can think of on your cover. Who has sold the best for you?
I should know this. I think it was probably Jennifer Aniston. She does well. Sandra Bullock, Michelle Pfeiffer, Reese Witherspoon, Queen Latifah did very, very well for us. That was three years ago.

How about the most disappointing?
[Laughs] None of them are disappointing. Obviously, there are ones that have not done well for us. Is it the celebrity? Is it our execution? It is a combination of the two? There are some that are more of a challenge that just don't strike that chord with readers.

Would you ever put a guy on the cover?
[Laughs] We're talked about it ...

I don't believe it's what our readers want to see.

Even a George Clooney cover?
Well if it was going to be for anybody, it would be for George Clooney. [Laughs]

Paris Hilton and Britney Spears aren't exactly fashion icons but they sell a lot of magazines. Would you ever put them on your cover?
We did Britney in July of 2002 back when she was just Britney before her recent escapades and it did okay. I don't think you think of her as being right for InStyle at this point.

There was so much attention last year paid to the story when the before and after of Redbook's airbrushed cover of Faith Hill was leaked. Where do you stand on the issue of "perfecting" your cover subjects?
The ladies need to look like themselves. [Pauses] I think that it's tricky. It's unfortunate that somebody that had no right to the material felt compelled to take the bounty. That adds a whole new wrinkle in an already difficult area. I think you have to be honest with your readers but then again, there's an aspirational quality to magazines that presenting someone as beautifully as possible is perfectly in line with. The overall thing is they have to look like themselves, but there is this aspirational quality to a magazine cover that I would say most women want when they buy them. If they don't buy them because they're too aspirational, well, that's their right too.

Speaking of unattainable beauty, do you enjoy going out to the Oscars?
I do. There, I've said it. [Laughs] I like getting dressed up and putting on beautiful gown. The Golden Globes, the Oscars -- they are a celebration and the really great thing is I can have a good time because they're not about me. It's about the actors and it's a lot of fun.

What's your schedule like out there?
I usually go out four or five days in advance and we generally have events around it. I'll fly out on the crack of dawn on a Wednesday morning and arrive midday and then unpack and start meetings -- either staff meetings or drinks and dinners with publicists and agents. I actually get together with subjects we cover from time to time. Then, of course, go to any of the parties that are associated with it like with the Golden Globes HBO would usually have a party, which is a lot of fun. Generally we have advertisers out there so I spend some time with them and we've done a charity luncheon the day before the event with one of our advertisers and one charity we support out there.

InStyle doesn't do their big Oscar party anymore. Why not?
February of 2005 was the first time we did not do the party. We did it for nine years with Elton John. Initially, it was to join up with him to get coverage for the Elton John AIDS Foundation. They are so well-established now and we have really shifted our focus to the Golden Globes.

So what do you have at the Oscars?
The night of the Oscars we have what we call our "underground" Hollywood party. It's not a red carpet event -- it is a small viewing party for the celebrities that are going out that night but not going to the awards and headed off to someone else's party later on.

So there's no red carpet?
No, because that night it's all about the Oscars, so we're not trying to compete with that. It's lower key. Most people come in gowns and cocktail dresses.

You don't have a step and repeat or photographers there?
No. It's a small event for 150 people.

Have you ever been approached to do a reality show?
We have. There have been a number of iterations of various reality shows that people have approached us on. A lot of it had to do with being at InStyle behind the scenes on our cover shoots or what's it like to deal with these terrible celebrities. Our point of view is they're not terrible. [Laughs] These are the people we have long-standing relationships with. My grandmother used to say, "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all." It's really not our type of thing.

What would you say your greatest contributions to InStyle have been?
I think we've added more fashion in the last six years. Whether that was me or the general mood of the industry, I do think that has increased. I would say the one thing we talk about a lot around here is "fun" -- which is "What's the fun moment? Where are we finding the fun in this? Let's do something along those lines." So I would say perhaps it's those two things.

What do you consider your greatest professional success?
[Laughs] Longevity. I would say InStyle, in general because I was here at the beginning. It's been an incredible place of learning in terms of fashion and beauty readers and the celebrity market. I'd been at Metropolitan Home so I was familiar with lifestyle. It was a huge new area for me.

What's been your biggest disappointment?
I don't know. I'm looking forward to that. [Laughs]

Anything you learned at your first magazine job at Apartment Life that still applies today?
Think of the reader first. It's really all about them.

So how would you say you've gotten to where you are?
You know, there's a lot to be said for enthusiasm for the work and the ability to work hard. Also being guided by very smart people. I've had great fortune working with very smart editors -- both for whom I've worked and the editors I work with.

Do you have a motto?
I do. I end almost every phone call with the Los Angeles bureau with: "More. Later."

Diane Clehane is a contributing editor to FishbowlNY and TVNewser. She writes the 'Lunch' column.

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