NEW YORK — As a preeminent female figure in American popular culture, Oprah Winfrey casts quite a long shadow. Smack in the middle of that shadow is where Amy Gross works.
In a town where top magazine editors are used to receiving movie star treatment (the good kind and the bad), Gross cuts a decidedly low profile. This despite her job as editor in chief of O, The Oprah Magazine, one of the most successful launches of the past decade. While new titles typically take five years to reach the breakeven point, O, with a circulation of 2.15 million and average newsstand sales of about 1 million, is already believed to be one of Hearst’s most profitable titles. It had more ad pages last year (1,590, up 10 percent from 2003) than Marie Claire, Redbook or Harper’s Bazaar, and it even has its own spin-off, O at Home.
This month, as O marks the fifth anniversary of its launch, Gross will receive a Matrix Award from New York Women In Communications Inc. She won’t be the best-known honoree in a group that includes CNN’s Christiane Amanpour and actress Edie Falco, but she will have the most famous presenter: Oprah, of course.
The idea of being forever upstaged would be a deal-breaker for many would-be celebrity editors. Gross says she considers it a perk.
“The best part of my job is, unlike all the other editors, I don’t have to go on television,” she said in an interview. “I get sick at the thought of being on TV. I have a vial of beta-blockers in my drawer just in case I ever have to do it.”
Typical aw-shucks posturing? Jill Seelig, who has worked alongside Gross for the past five years as O’s publisher, said it’s genuine.
“She is one of the most humble, most grounded people I’ve ever met,” she said. “She’s incredibly reserved, and she listens. She’s ego-less. I don’t want to use that word, but she’s focused on the task at hand.”
The abolition of ego is, of course, the ultimate goal of Buddhism, a discipline that Gross has practiced since 1997. “Buddhism, to me, is just code for this body of thinking I find to be very useful,” she said, noting that Buddhist-derived concepts such as mindfulness have wormed their way into the vocabulary of women’s magazines, including O. “For me, it feels like philosophy-slash-psychology rather than religion.”
In fact, Buddhism played a part in bringing Gross to O. After leaving her post as editor in chief of Mirabella, which she held from 1995 to 1997, she began to study Buddhism seriously, alternating freelance work with three-month spiritual retreats. As she was preparing for her third retreat, Hearst asked her to replace Ellen Kunes, O’s founding editor in chief, who departed just two months after the launch.
Her first order of business upon taking over was to tweak the tone. “It felt to me like the first two issues were talking down to the reader, and I didn’t want to do that.”
Gross said she sees her job as essentially no different from those of her counterparts at other Hearst titles, such as Good Housekeeping’s Ellen Levine and Redbook’s Stacy Morrison. “Just as Ellen inherited a title and Stacy inherited a title, I inherited a title, which happens to be the name of a woman,” she said. “We’ve all had to psych out what the voice is or who we’re speaking to.”
Of course, the woman whose name happens to be the title is also the editorial director and has final say over what goes into the magazine. Early reports had Winfrey micromanaging the content of the first few issues, but with Gross in place, Winfrey has felt comfortable allowing a higher degree of autonomy. Gross said she and Winfrey speak on the phone once a month but e-mail considerably more often. Winfrey still approves every page and cover line, and communicates many of her thoughts through her close friend and envoy, Gayle King, who is at O’s offices four days a week.
“She has sensible instincts, which are very much in line with my own,” Winfrey said, via e-mail, of Gross. “I trust her. She taught me everything I know about the magazine business. Five years ago, I actually uttered the words, ‘Why do we need ad pages?’ I also learned from her that you can write about things that are meaningful without being somber.”
“We’re very different women, but the piece that gives me chills I know will give her chills,” Gross said. “I answer to her in the sense that I am really trying to embody what she is. I’m always trying to stretch the envelope of what Oprah can contain. Like Walt Whitman, she contains multitudes.”