by Deirdre Donahue
September 27, 2012
Kate White, 61, has been editor in chief at five big magazines, including Cosmopolitan, where she spent 14 years before stepping down this fall to concentrate on her career as a best-selling mystery writer. Her new self-help book is I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This: Success Secrets Every Gutsy Girl Should Know (Harper, $24.99). She chatted with USA TODAY.
Q: Why is Sally “you really like me” Fields a bad role model for women in the workplace?
A: The key thing you want is respect. I wouldn’t be a (jerk), but you should do your work and not be so concerned about whether co-workers like you.
Q: You write that “drain the swamp” is the best personal and career advice you’ve ever received. Explain, please!
A: I heard it from a management guru. It’s a variation on an old Southern saying, “When you’re up to your (rear) in gnats and alligators, it’s easy to forget that the initial objective was to drain the swamp.” In other words, you always have to think about where you’re going — the big picture — even when you’re in the thick of things.
Q: How did reading Nancy Drew and the Secret of Red Gate Farm as a 12-year-old in Upstate New York lead to Bailey Weggins? (White has written two stand-alone thrillers and six mysteries starring true crime reporter Bailey Weggins, who works at a celebrity magazine called Buzz.)
A: It hit like a lightning bolt! Nancy Drew was a big role model. I wanted to be like her — so assured, so fearless, the world was her oyster. I started writing the mysteries as a Plan B in a precarious industry. Instead of lying in bed worrying about my job, I’d go off to Bailey world and think about what dead bodies would she stumble into next.
Q: You’ve spent your career digging into women’s psyches for Glamour, Redbook, Cosmo. Share the single most surprising nugget you’ve unearthed.
A: When I got to Cosmopolitan, one of the biggest surprises was how fearless young women are today. They feel they can take on the world. I was a gutsy girl, but I had a lot of good-girl tendencies.
Q: Share the single most annoying stereotype people have about Cosmo and its readers.
A: That it’s all about pleasing guys. It’s about pleasing each other — sometimes teaching him to please you. I was better at my relationship after editing Cosmo. (White has been married for 26 years. She and her husband have two grown children.)
Q: Although magazines are struggling, Cosmopolitan flourished under you. Why leave?
A: A couple of reasons. I wanted to be able to leave before I was asked to leave. I wanted to make a change and still have time for another career for myself as a writer. I was all in as the editor of Cosmopolitan, but I wasn’t all in as an author
Q: You write that men and women are really different. Aren’t you worried about the PC police issuing a warrant for your arrest?
A: Trying to make your guy your best friend isn’t a good idea. There’s a magnetic pull between men and women.
Q: When you were 17, your mom — a school librarian — gave you a copy of Sex and the Single Girl by legendary Cosmo editor Helen Gurley Brown. Were you destined to edit Cosmo?
A: Partly! My mother also gave me a typewriter, because I loved to write. When I was working at another magazine, I interviewed Helen Gurley Brown. I was blown away by her. I’ve thought a lot over the years about what she had done. She had such a pure, clear vision. She was a brand herself, and in those days, very few editors in chief were. She was true to her personal brand as well as her magazine’s brand. It can help to be a brand yourself.
Q: Thriller writer David Baldacci says fans often confuse him with John Grisham. Do people ever mistake you for another glamorous blond magazine editor — Tina Brown?
A: Yes! This woman comes up to me at the bus stop and says, “We’d like to book you to speak on the QE2!”