Nearly three years ago, Ann Shoket was exiting her job as editor in chief of Hearst’s Seventeen Magazine after seven years at the helm and an eight-year stint at the now defunct CosmoGirl.
Her time in magazine publishing put her in the spotlight as an advocate for young women navigating the early stages of adulthood and the last days of childhood.
Shoket may have left the magazine world, but her desire to explore how women live their lives hasn’t. Here, she talks with WWD about her new book “The Big Life,” why the younger generation is focused on their careers and the volatile teen media space.
WWD: Tell me about your book. How did it come about?
Ann Shoket: “The Big Life” is a continuation of the conversation that I had with young women who grew up with me at Seventeen and at CosmoGirl. I felt like we had these deep, emotional conversations about how you grow up into the woman who you’re meant to be and the woman who you want to be, and yet it seemed like that conversation ended when your subscription to Seventeen ran out. I didn’t understand why — when you’re in your 20s and 30s and the stakes are higher than ever and it’s even more complicated to figure out the territory around you — we weren’t continuing those conversations. That’s where “The Big Life” comes in. When I first started on the book journey, I thought, I say a lot of things, I ran a magazine for the better part of a decade, I’ll put those things in a book.
WWD: How did your dinner parties influence the book?
A.S.: I had one of my “Badass Babes” dinners and invited a couple of women over, and I said, let’s talk about relationships and sex, because that’s a piece of the grown up life that I didn’t get to explore that much when I was at Seventeen. I invited one young woman and I said bring a friend of a friend of a friend, and I made a killer cheese plate, and I opened a lot of bottles of wine, and we had fancy frozen pizza from Fresh Direct and we talked about relationships and sex for about five minutes. The rest of the conversation was so deep and meaningful and powerful. It was about ambition and toxic bosses and sabotaging coworkers. It was about this phenomenal pressure that these young women felt about putting on a perfect all high-fives Instagrammy life on the outside, and particularly at work, but they were privately suffering with eating disorders or cutting or other self-harming behaviors. At the end of the first dinner, I said, “This is the most amazing conversation I ever had and I want to do it again.” And I did, again and again. Over the course of two years of writing the book, I must have more than two-dozen dinners and met hundreds of women around my dining room table. The conversation that was there really helped my advice evolve. It was no longer ‘here I am, magazine editor, delivering all of my advice.’ It was a sisterhood…a community of women helping each other through the trickiest bits of becoming the person you want to be.
WWD: Who was invited?
A.S.: I can’t tell you who they were unless they’ve been in public because I promised as part of the deal of the book to change their names and their identifying details. This is because they were so candid and open and honest with me. They were some women I knew in my life, some who reached out to me. Some were big hot shots, others were just getting started. The dinners all took on a theme. There was a dinner of rock star moms, who all had high-profile jobs, but were first-time moms. There was a dinner of women with side projects they were all incubating. There were entrepreneurs with give-back angles to their startups and I did a dinner of attorneys.
WWD: Why dinners?
A.S.: Dinners are a thing that we do in magazines all the time. I didn’t know that it would become so much of a thing. I didn’t know that it would be so powerful or how much I would learn from the conversations. I didn’t know how desperate these women were to have this conversation because it’s not a conversation you can have with your boss. It’s not a conversation you can have with your mom. She doesn’t understand the territory and the nuances of your day to day. You can’t be that vulnerable with your boss or your coworkers. You don’t want to share that much and when you’re with your friends you just want to have a good time and not endlessly talk about the intersection of your ambition and money and work and sex and relationships. You just want to have a glass of wine and talk about “The Bachelor.” [But] by the end of the dinners, everyone traded cards and tips and tricks…and [some] stayed in touch….It really has become a community. On my web site [annshoket.com], women can have their own dinners and I’ll Skype in and help facilitate the conversation.
WWD: What’s the goal of this for you?
A.S.: You know me, I think of everything as a media platform but what I’ve been so encouraged by is how hungry everyone is for real life human interactions. We’ve seen the success of BeautyCon, Forbes Women’s Summit, Digifest and Digicon — we are so connected and doing so much content creation, yet everybody wants that human connection. I think it’s the beginning of something really fantastic.
WWD: Is this what the essence of being a consumer magazine editor is in the end?
A.S.: When I was at Seventeen, my job was to represent Seventeen and to lead that brand. With “The Big Life,” there’s no separation between me and the brand. I think this is an evolution in my role as an editor, as a guide, as a cheerleader for this generation of women.
WWD: If you went back to magazines now, would you do anything different?
A.S.: I don’t know. I felt like I had a great relationship with my audience and profile.
WWD: The teen magazine space has become smaller in print but there is demand for stories aimed at that demographic. What are young people looking for?
A.S.: I’ve been really happy to see substantive content created for teens and young women. It was such an important part of what I did at Seventeen. Young women are so aware. We should treat them with the most respect and program to the things they are interested in. There’s a phenomenal change in the world — young women are so laser-focused on career and ambition and success. Young women are leading the way for everyone — the way they think about freedom…and transparency and equality.
WWD: Why is that true for this generation more than others?
A.S.: It’s because this generation was shaped by the recession. They were just coming into their own when we had the economic crash. They assumed they would be successful. Rather than seeing their horizons get smaller, this generation of women got hungry and motivated. They wanted to be in charge of their own destiny. All of the guidebooks and the rules that the previous generations have mapped out and relied on, those rules don’t apply anymore.
WWD: Why don’t you hear about such advice and empowerment books for men?
A.S.: Well, I don’t know. I only talk to the women.
WWD: Maybe that’s the sequel.
A.S. Maybe. I did a dinner with some men. There’s a huge gulf of misunderstanding between men and women especially when it comes to relationships, but I haven’t begun to scratch the surface.