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Jonathan Van Meter and the Age of Celebrity

Debra Scherer speaks to Jonathan Van Meter, a contributing editor at American Vogue, about his professional trajectory and fashion magazines in the age of celebrity.
Jonathan Van Meter | Photo: Debra Scherer
By
  • Debra Scherer

NEW YORK, United States — As the age of celebrity continues to reshape fashion, I thought it would be interesting to sit down with Jonathan Van Meter, who writes the celebrity profiles for American Vogue.

Jonathan began his career back in the 1980s, working at 7 Days, a cult weekly founded by Adam Moss, currently the editor of New York magazine. At the time, a number of incredible magazines were being born and producing a wave of talented editors: Graydon Carter at Spy, Adam Moss at 7 Days, Annie Flanders at Details, Nick Logan at The Face, Terry Jones at i-D, Anna Piaggi at Vanity and Stefano Tonchi at Westuff. Jonathan, who was just a kid in his early 20s, answered a classified ad that said, "Wanted: Associate Style Editor for new Manhattan weekly," along with nothing more than a phone number.

"I was hired immediately and they let me write from the get-go, because like at any start-up, they needed everyone to do everything," he recalls. "It was almost like working on a college newspaper. We worked constantly. We were there on nights and weekends. But it was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me. The very first real profile I did was with Joan Rivers. I will never forget she was wearing a Calvin Klein pea green dress and holding her little dog Spike under her arm and we ran around the city together all day and into the night."

Jonathan went on to profile all of the New York City doyennes of the late 1980s, like Liz Smith, Helen Gurley Brown and Carrie Donovan. They ruled the headlines of the society pages, but around Jonathan they would lose their inhibitions and forget that he was a journalist, which enabled the writer to extract something special for his stories. “I learned how to be a fly on the wall. It’s an incredible thing to be the guy with a tape recorder pretending to be at the party. I learned to roll with it, to sort of put my personality aside, to listen.”

In a way, it’s what he still does today, but Jonathan credits much of his skill as one of the world’s top profile writers to the mentorship of Adam Moss. “Adam Moss truly is a master. One of the things that bores me about so many profiles that I read in magazines today is that they aren’t about anything,” he says. “Adam’s stories were always about at least three things. He really understands great storytelling and subtext.”

Though 7 Days was a cult hit in publishing circles, it folded two years after launch. But Jonathan was offered writing gigs at almost every magazine that mattered. After doing freelance writing for everyone, from Vanity Fair to The New York Times Magazine, he wound up signing a contract with American Vogue, because, as he puts it, "Anna Wintour won the charm offensive through phone calls and flowers."

http://vimeo.com/104024766

He worked at Vogue as a contributor for a year, then took up a staff position at the magazine when James Truman left for Details. “But I always felt like I wasn’t meant to work there somehow,” Jonathan reflects. “I’m not a fashion person and what I didn’t understand, then, was that the priorities of [a fashion magazine] are so different. Suddenly, everything was flipped. A piece would get killed because the pictures weren’t good, whereas at somewhere like New York magazine or 7 Days, they would just say, ‘We will find another picture!’ The written piece was more important. Now, I totally get it. But, then, I didn’t understand the way people talked.”

“I remember one time being in a meeting,” he recalls, “and it was always important to put a number on the cover, something like ‘600 Day Looks for Fall.’ Someone said, ‘We counted all of the looks and there aren’t 600 looks!’ and Anna said, ‘Did you count every pair of shoes?’

‘Yes, we did,’ came the reply.

‘Well did you count every bracelet?’ she countered.

‘Is a bracelet a look?’

And, in a way that only she could, Anna says: ‘Yes, a bracelet is a look.’”

"You know, I remember Donna Karan saying 'The hat is the new shoulder pad' and really meaning it with all of her heart," recalls Jonathan. "I thought about it and realised, 'Yeah, in fact, the hat is the new shoulder pad. I totally know what she's saying!'"

After six months at American Vogue, Jonathan’s career took a surprising turn when he received a call from Time Inc. They told him that music producer Quincy Jones wanted to launch a sort of black Rolling Stone celebrating the world of hip-hop and R&B. Adam Moss had recommended Jonathan, saying: “Jonathan Van Meter has the taste of an 18-year-old black girl.” So, as he puts it, Jonathan became “the gay white editor of a hip-hop magazine” that he named Vibe.

“I got to hire a team and we got to conjur a magazine, to come up with the name. All of that architecture remains at Vibe to this day — the names of the sections, the logo, everything was me. I was the founding editor and created the template,” he recalls. “The first months were amazing, but as soon as it became public, it was nightmare. I mean, hip-hop was all about gangster rap at the time and that world was very homophobic and very misogynistic and it was clear that it was not going to work.”

Using the visual sensibility he picked up working at Vogue, he took the hip-hop world and aimed to elevate it. Rolling Stone used Annie Leibovitz from the beginning, when their offices were still in counterculture San Francisco, and she went on to create some of the most iconic celebrity images of our time. But hip-hop wasn’t represented aesthetically at that kind of level. For Jonathan, this was the key opportunity. “You never saw someone like Queen Latifah elevated to a gorgeous place in the way Vogue does. For me, this new magazine had to have that level of photography. That’s what was missing. We just wanted to change the context, do something beautiful. I felt like we really accomplished that. One of Mario Testino’s first big jobs was shooting for Vibe.”

Jonathan worked on twelve issues of Vibe. But after a scandal involving Madonna and Dennis Rodman, he stepped down, took some time off and contemplated his next move. “Then, one night I went to a big opening in Soho. I got off the elevator and I see Anna Wintour all the way across the room and she waved and said let’s have breakfast and then I went back to Vogue and that’s what I have been doing ever since. I’ve been a contributing editor for the last 17 years. It was funny, after all of the turmoil at Vibe, Anna was like my fairy godmother.”

In recent years, the role of celebrity has transformed the fashion business and Jonathan has been close to the centre of this shift. In the two years that I myself worked at American Vogue (1989-1991), the only celebrities we ever put on the cover were Madonna and Ivana Trump, when she was having the divorce scandal of the century. Andre Leon Talley famously re-did her whole look, so, in a way, it became a fashion story. But it was very unusual; two out of twenty-four issues.

"I felt, like, when I was doing Vibe, it all started to shift," says Jonathan. "Time Inc launched InStyle and the female focused tabloids like US Weekly started blooming," recalls Jonathan. "The culture of female celebrity became this great obsession. I was like, 'Why is this happening?' [Sittings editor] Tonne Goodman and I laugh about this all of the time. Neither one of us intended to work on all of the covers. I don't remember thinking that much about it until other people pointed it out to me and said, 'Wow, Vogue has really changed.' I mean, it's no secret that Grace Coddington was not happy about that, so I would hear her grumble about it."

Apart from spotting Catherine Deneuve at Yves Saint Laurent, my own first recollection of seeing a celebrity filled fashion show was on the set of Robert Altman's fashion industry take-down movie Pret-a-Porter. All of the sudden there was a show within the show and I remember thinking, 'Thank goodness this is just for a movie.' But slowly celebrity started to seep into every aspect of the industry and when Anna Wintour recognised something was happening, she put Jonathan on the case.

“Anna, still, to this day, thinks of me as the guy that will write the big piece about the big thing of the moment. When models became supermodels, I did the big story where Linda Evangelista said, ‘We don’t get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day’ and that quote became the ‘Let them eat cake’ of the 20th century. Once models shifted off the covers, I was riding the wave of the cover becoming about celebrity. And it’s not just actresses and pop stars; it’s been Oprah, it’s been Hillary Clinton. So in a sense, it’s even more exciting because you're never quite sure who’s going to be on the cover.”

Today, being on the cover of American Vogue is a bit like winning an Oscar; it’s a trophy that many celebrities aim to achieve. “No matter how famous [they are], it resonates in such a big way for every single one of them,” says Jonathan. “It’s like being on the cover of Rolling Stone; it was a thing. You could write a song about it, you could write a story about it. It itself became part of the culture. Saying ‘the cover of Rolling Stone’ became a cultural norm.”

“I actually started to feel really good about [putting celebrities on the cover],” he continues. “It’s opening up this one page that happens 12 times a year to a whole new group of contenders. Someone like Adele for instance, who is a working class English girl, a single mom and hardly model-size. The cover of Vogue is a funny thing. Its meaning has changed.”

“When I think about the period when I did dueling covers between Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie, it became clear that these women were using Vogue when they wanted to say something. Like Charlize Theron decided she wanted to talk about Sean Penn and get that out there and have it done right, so I got to be the guy that spent three days hanging out with this really cool person. That’s the part of my job I like the most. But they want to be elevated. They have something that they want to have come out in an elegant environment — and then it can go ahead and get devoured by every blog, by every news outlet. But at least the starting place will have been chic, will have been Vogue.”

And Jonathan will have been there, because, after all, he knows how to be the man at the party with a tape recorder — that a bracelet is a look.

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