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In Conversation: Tina Brown

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It was just a great brand that stuck, if you know what I mean. Once we got that template, it just seemed to be incredibly robust and resilient. And the talent that we brought in continued for years to be the talent that powered it.

The pedigree of hiring is very important in any company. As we kind of built Vanity Fair from the ground up, pretty much everybody there was really good. It was built to last. And Graydon has done a terrific job of continuing it and building on it, and developing it. It’s a very good magazine. It looks fabulous.

Rightly or not, you are associated with the creation of celebrity culture, which many people think has gone too far. Has it gone too far? Do you feel any responsibility or credit for it?

To the first point: I didn’t create celebrity culture. A good magazine is the mirror of its times. What I did was to recognize celebrity culture and invite it in for scrutiny in our pages. The catnip of Vanity Fair was to treat movie stars like intellectuals and make intellectuals look like movie stars (easier when you have Annie Leibovitz to help). What’s different today is that the celebrities who count are more interested in what they can do with their fame than just getting coverage.

But intellectuals and nonintellectuals alike love juicy stories. I don’t care if you have a Ph.D., at some irrepressible level you still want to read about Petraeus’s extramarital affair more than you want to read a piece that gets into the weeds of his counterinsurgency strategy. You want to know about Paula Broadwell more than you do about David Galula—the French military officer who was Petraeus’s strategic inspiration. The perfect example of that was when I sat next to Henry Kissinger one night in the eighties and he opened the conversation by saying, “I loved that piece about Debra Winger.”

There’s a tedious side to American media criticism that holds that if something is a good read—or a good read that’s accessible to a wider range of readers than a few Upper West Side or campus ­worthies—that it is therefore, somehow, unseemly. I cannot bear that strain in American journalism and have always fought hard against it. And yes, that’s the Brit in me.

To ask a “Do you still beat your husband?” sort of question: Have you lost your touch for sensing what’s “hot”?

You know, this talk of “hot” seems a bit old hat to me. I always have published, and still do, what happens to interest me at any given time. Four years ago, I felt there was a rising, very exciting energy coming from women in emerging countries pushing at the edges of their cultures and decided to make it a focus. Now every day I read about a new women’s conference somewhere. I did it because it was interesting, not because it was “hot.”

But I’m relieved that most of the time, what interests me tends to interest other people too. Celebrity culture has been out of control for a long time, and the more media there is, the more short-lived their staying power. When Vanity Fair began, it was enough to have a movie star on the cover, but Oprah made some psychic scar de rigueur for exposure to get any traction. Now you can’t get on a talk show unless you can brag about being a victim of pedophilia or anorexia. It’s such a bore, all the whining.

Let me ask you about the famous party.

Which party?

Launching Talk. As I remember it, the whole point of it was, this was going to be a modest party. You were saying, “I recognize that I’m not working for Si Newhouse anymore, and everyone who says I can’t do this in any reasonable economic way—I’m going to prove them wrong.” But in retrospect, it seems to have taken on the exact opposite legend.

It was wonderful and hysterically funny, really. The party was scheduled to be that low-key party you talked about, in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. But we did a piece that Giuliani hated—he was running against Hillary Clinton, who was on the cover of the first edition of Talk. And he basically said we could not do it at the Brooklyn Navy Yard—we needed the permission of the city to do it there. That was the pettiness of it.


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