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2011 September 10

The Double Life of Kate White

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Kate White in her office at Hearst Kate White in her office at Hearst
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(NEW YORK) For this Cosmopolitan editrix, running Hearst’s massive-circulation rainmaker is just a day job. After hours, (actually, before) she puts on her writing cap and churns out mystery novels—seven and counting. BY ALEXANDRA ILYASHOV

When were you bitten by the mag bug?
I made my own magazine as a kid, actually. My mom was a librarian, so we had a ton of magazines in our house and I was always completely captivated by them. Seventeen had such a profound impact on me, and I still remember one of their stories, “When Necking Turns To Petting.” I haven’t heard the word petting since then, except when I’ve taken my kids to the zoo. It was that very article that made me want to open doors for readers, so they walk away with something they hadn’t known before. It was also a bit of a foreshadowing for Cosmo, because we do cover sex pretty candidly in the magazine.

How did you end up at Cosmo, your home since 1998?
I didn’t apply for this job; it just got handed to me. I’d obviously been working my way up in the magazine industry. I was at Redbook before Cosmo, where I had a bit of a crisis over what to do next. I actually went to a career counselor because I wasn’t 100 percent happy, and I had no idea what I should do next. I tried to put myself out there within the company at Hearst, and I volunteered to chair a committee about new magazine ideas. I offered to do the presentation at the magazine conference. I got a thumbs-up, literally, from my boss about the presentation, and right after a lot of higher-ups at Hearst were asking me about my weekend plans—in hindsight, that seems kind of weird.

How did that fateful weekend pan out?
I got a call while I was out in Pennsylvania at our weekend home. My boss asked me to drive into the city for a meeting. On a Sunday, I said to my husband, 'Wow, I’m not the editor of Redbook anymore, but I don’t know what I am.' I had no clothes out there; I didn’t even have a brunch outfit. So I threw on little white Keds and ankle socks; I looked so ridiculous. Weekend Kate! A little downtown and funky. When I heard what the job was, I thought that I’d really picked the wrong outfit: by unanimous choice, I’d been chosen as editor of Cosmo. I hadn’t seen it coming at all; there hadn’t been any rumors. When I told my husband, he said, 'Wait, I’m going to bed tonight with the editor-in-chief of Cosmo!' I think he thought I’d been given the Kama Sutra in the interview and told to learn the entire thing in the next two hours. 

What’s it like coming to Cosmo every morning?
People dress spectacularly—the copy editors look like they're going to cocktail parties. I just want everyone to have fun! There was a phase when I begged this woman on staff to bring her dog to work. They don’t allow dogs in the Hearst building. But if you’re working at Cosmo and you’re not scaring the bejesus out of the management, you’re not doing your job. Rabble-rousers are welcome on this floor! This is a place where you can bring your kids in if the nanny doesn’t show up. One day, we had two sets of twins in the office; I felt like I’d really made it as a boss.

What’s your approach to helming the mag?
After a certain age, there’s no time or energy to be frozen with terror. There are some nights where I tell my husband, 'God, I need a margarita,' but I never go to bed tossing and turning. You learn to deal with everything by this point. Two years ago, the Taliban kidnapped my art director's husband—I’ve seen it all. You learn that you don’t have to be bitchy to get people to give you their best. Coming to this magazine as a more mature editor means I take care of the day-to-day, but I also keep the big picture in mind. I’ve done the same thing with my personal life—that’s why I finally decided to write my own novels, because that was a void.

Tell us about your writerly double life! 
I was always freelance writing while moving up the ranks in the magazine industry. After I had won the Glamour college contest while I was at Union College, I got a job as an editorial assistant there. I did a fair amount of writing on the side, and then I was their first on-staff feature writer. They kind of created the job for me. I did all these funny features, like being a clown in the Ringling Bros. Circus, and going to a sex toy party. As I moved up and became more of an editor, my bosses would allow me to write on the side, and I continued that as much as possible. My first book was nonfiction, Why Good Girls Don’t Get Ahead…But Gutsy Girls Do. It ended up being a bestselling career book.

When did you find time to pen an entire book?
After my kids would go to bed, I would write from 10 p.m. onwards. I’ve always been a night person. I realized at a certain point that if I didn’t just get started writing fiction, it would never, ever, happen. I wrote four or five chapters of my first novel; it got shopped around, and a couple publishing houses bid on it. The problem, I discovered, is that I can’t write fiction at night. There’s something about the brain. So I became a friggin’ morning person. It’s like driving on the other side of the road, but I’ve managed.

What drew you to the mystery genre?
Definitely Nancy Drew. A lot of female mystery writers will say the same thing; I remember seeing copies of my mother and grandmother’s Nancy Drew novels on the bookshelves while growing up. I love looking at crime scene photos—I subscribe to The Forensic Examiner. I keep a red folder of my most pressing Cosmo stuff, and a photo of a really bad wound shot from one of my forensic guys ended up in the folder by accident and fell out in the middle of an editorial meeting. I don’t think they wanted to see that.

Ever thought of transitioning to chick-lit or bitch-lit?
In terms of brand strategy, some would say smartest thing I could have done would be to write sexy chick-lits for women between the ages of 18 and 34. Instead, I write thrillers, which are geared at slightly older women. The fan letter I value the most is from Bill Clinton. He’s a big mystery reader! Bill is a brilliant guy, and he reads tons—he reads lots of mysteries by female authors.

What’s the most satisfying part of penning glam whodunits?
It’s such a rush in being able to do the research about that dark side. On a family trip to London, we went on the Jack the Ripper tour, on which they said stuff like, 'Here’s where the second body was found.' My poor kids! Neither has turned into a serial killer—yet. But I’ve tried to keep the characters in my books within magazine field. More than a few conversations I’ve overheard in the halls of Cosmo have turned up in my books. There’s a guy Robert on our staff—he doesn’t read my books, so he has no idea that he’s this wonderful character named Leo!

Where else do you look for character inspiration?
I’m always getting ideas for characters in my books when I’m on trips. I had this guide on a river trip in Alaska once—and I’m sure he has no idea that he’s a suspect in one of my books. I only saw him for a day, but I knew immediately that I had to find a way to get him in the mix. I once had an idea for an entire murder mystery from a conversation with an editor during Fashion Week.

What’s your writing process like?
I keep a notebook for every book, in which I plot out the books before I start writing. I always want to know who the killer is, why they killed, and then build the suspects from there. I write with a No. 2 pencil and then I type the whole book.

How has your day job helped you moonlight as a mystery novelist?
At a magazine, you can never indulge yourself in writer’s block. It’s all about going big or going home. You might not have the best title for an article, but you don’t want to hold up the copy flow process, so you’ll just slap one on and tweak it a bit when it comes back to you the next day. That’s taught me to keep things moving with my fiction writing. As a writer, one of my weaknesses is that I sometimes pull my punches. Maybe it stems from growing up as a Catholic schoolgirl—you’re encouraged to hold back on a lot of fronts.

Back to your day job: What do you think Cosmo is all about?
It’s a bible for women about fashion, beauty and understanding guys. Also, self-empowerment!

Is the sex advice really editor-tested and approved?
Well, we don’t make staffers try it with each other! I’m still surprised that some people feel uncomfortable with the sexual content in the magazine, since it’s just such a normal, healthy part of life. Gen Y and Gen X don’t understand that discomfort, because they’ve been raised to see sex as the glue of a relationship. We succeed in our careers because we read books about how to be smarter, more nurturing managers. I’m helping women have stronger, healthier and safer sexual relationships through the information they read in Cosmo.

Are most of your readers in relationships?
Some of our readers are women who are single or have never had a boyfriend, but that’s a much smaller percentage—less than 25 percent are single. Most of our readers have boyfriends, and some have husbands—first and foremost, they want to understand what’s going on in his mind by reading our magazine. Back in the ‘80s, women wanted to make their men more like themselves. 'If I just serve him enough Chardonnay, he’ll want to chat more and be more like me' was the mindset. We know men are hardwired differently.

How do you handle criticism?
'If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen,' really applies to writing books and publishing magazines. Both are about meeting consumer needs. You can only grow from knowing which nerves you’ve touched, and which reader needs you've fulfilled—and didn’t fulfill. We see the most mean-spirited stuff in the world with any commentary today—people hide behind their anonymity. There are certain sites that I would never read, like Jezebel. There’s a level of personal meanness that doesn’t fit with how I’ve lived my life.

When did you first cross paths with the original Cosmo girl, Helen Gurley Brown?
I did work for Art Cooper before he was the editor of GQ, and he sent me to interview Helen. Art said he could so see me as editor of Cosmo one day. I said, 'Are you kidding?! No way!' Well…

How’d your interview with Helen go?
What was really funny about it was that we were wearing identical outfits: black drapey pants, white cream-colored blouses and little black ribbons tied around our necks—though hers was probably all designer. One of Helen’s big mantras was that women didn’t have to get married to be happy. You could come to a new city and carve a life out for yourself. Helen was so gifted. I’m just the caretaker of her brand. I’m a good caretaker, but she created something revolutionary that’s resonated around the world. That takes a lot of balls—and she has them.

Did she share any ridiculous tales from the trenches?
Helen told me there were days when she wanted to crawl under her desk in the fetal position. I haven’t had that experience; I just go back to my husband and tell him to get the margarita blender going.

Would you want to be a twentysomething in 2011?
In that galaxy far, far away, when I was in my 20s, a lot of the same rules applied. You wanted to be a success, and you knew you’d be disappointed if you weren’t. Even if you don’t want to marry, you want a romantic partnership with someone who has your back. Heartbreak felt the same when I was a twentysomething as it does today, though women nowadays seem quite resilient. It would be exciting to come into publishing in this era—editors today are producers. My editors at Cosmo today do television; they work on our website—one of them spoke in front of the FDA about skin cancer. You can do a lot more as a young editor than you ever could when I was starting off in the business.

What was it like, by comparison, to start out in this industry when you did?
I once interviewed at Newsweek, and I was told that, as a woman, I would never be more than a researcher, and would never rise through the ranks. It took a lawsuit by women who worked there to change that.

According to one of your oft-quoted soundbites, "bad girls go everywhere." Who are the bad girls of today’s media landscape?
I saw that once on a pillow in Helen Gurley Brown’s office—“good girls go to heaven, and bad girls go everywhere.” I just love that line. I admire Bonnie Fuller so much. She wasn’t afraid to follow her gut in terms of what consumers wanted. Tina Brown has some great bad girl instincts, too.

What else have you checked off your bucket list?
I worked on two political campaigns from 6 to 10 p.m. nightly while I was at Glamour in the ‘70s. I didn’t want to be in politics after those campaigns. I also anchored a cable news show one night a week.

Anything else to add to the list?
This is crazy, but I also modeled—mostly commercial print work. I’d been on the cover of Glamour already as the college contest winner, and a couple modeling industries offered to have me on board—even though I was only 5'5", they were willing to take a chance. I kind of did it under wraps. I did a flyer for a coffee ad that went to half the households in America; when people asked if it was me, I said it was my doppelgänger.

What’s still on your bucket list?
I love to travel, and I haven’t been to Australia yet—that would knock off seven continents for me. My husband and I bought a home in Uruguay a couple years ago, so we could see more of South America. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve had to shorten my list of countries to visit. I’ll probably never get to Finland. But I want to go back to Antarctica; it’s the greatest place I’ve ever been.


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