In the dazzling and glamourous world of fashion magazines, Radhika Jones made a remarkable debut. After getting the Editor-In-Chief position in 2017 at Harper’s Bazaar, she moved the magazine away from glamorous stylized covers and featured celebrities in regular clothes instead of couture and ball gowns. Jones has moved the online content and magazine to represent all backgrounds and lifestyles and highlight the cultural zeitgeist. Her approach resonates with readers. In 2020, the magazine broke its record for new monthly subscriptions, a staggering feat in the changing world of media.
Radhika Jones’ father, Robert L. Jones was a guitarist and vocalist who pursued a career in the world of folk music in Boston and Cambridge. He eloped with her mother, Marguerite who hails from India. Growing up, Jones’ father’s ‘love of discovery’ created a powerful example for Radhika and her siblings. “A lot of the work of a festival-producer is discovering new talent. That was something that I watched him do over and over,” Jones recalled. She learned early in life to “find something that you love, and then sort of figure out how to go from there.”
Jones studied at Harvard because she felt a familial attachment to Boston, where her father had grown and begun his career. After Harvard, Jones did not have a concrete plan for her career. She moved to Taipei and taught English, and later shifted to Moscow in 1995. She had previously dated Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s son Yermolai Solzhenitsyn in college that captivated her to the country and led her to accept a job at The Moscow Times as a Copyeditor. “It was an amazing time in the history of the world,” she recalled of her two years there. “We worked in the old Pravda building,” the former paper of the Soviet Communist Party.
She loved the city of Moscow, but after three long years abroad, she wanted to go back home. “I felt also that I just wasn’t done with my field,” she explained. She went back and enrolled for an English and Comparative Literature PhD at Columbia in 1997, with interests in Postcolonial Literature and the Victorian Novel.
After working several jobs, Jones was eventually named Deputy Managing Editor at Time. Jones edited the magazine’s ‘Time 100’ and ‘Person of the Year.’ Jones said, “Time 100 Lists get a bad rap. They can be very gimmicky. But they are also an index of cultural change. You kind of see who, at any given moment, was getting our attention,” she added. “You can chart out when technology and Silicon Valley started to overtake Wall Street in terms of influence….You see the rise of the Tea Party, you see the rise of a different kind of charisma in politics.”
Jones started working at The New York Times, and just a year later, Graydon Carter announced his retirement from Vanity Fair. New Yorker Editor David Remnick had been searching for candidates to fill the role, he recounted, and “Radhika’s name came up often as someone who had real journalistic chops and as someone of enormous integrity.” He asked Jones if she would consider trying out for the job.
What intrigued her about the opportunity was her memory of Editor Tina Brown reviving the magazine in 1983 after having gone unpublished for nearly 50 years. “Those covers were iconic,” Jones declared. “They were the kinds of covers that, when you make a magazine, you dream about making. They started conversations. They provoked people. I firmly believe that the Demi Moore cover changed the way we think about motherhood and celebrity,” she said, referring to the 1991 image in which the actress appears naked—and blissfully pregnant. “It hadn’t had quite that energy in a little while, and I wondered if it would be possible to bring that back.”
She tried to recapture that energy for present-day America and has rethought personalities who deserve to be talked about, looked at, or admired in the magazine’s pages. “The way that we think and talk about privilege, now in 2020, is very different from the way we would have talked about it 10 or 20 years ago, and I want the magazine to reflect that,” she said. “What’s been great about it is that we have really found our place. Our audience now is bigger than it was three years ago. It’s younger. It’s more diverse. It’s also more affluent. All of those things go together in ways that are really interesting.”
When she started working on the September issue in 2020, she knew that it couldn’t be a regular Vanity Fair magazine in light of both the pandemic and the summer-long racial-justice uprisings. In the magazine world, she explains that September is a ‘curtain raiser’ for culture: it’s when new exhibitions and plays open, and the fashion industry promotes its contemporary lines. “Usually our pages would be full of people in the culture who have new projects that are opening or debuting on TV, on movie screens, in theatres and museums.”
The September issue was named ‘The Great Fire,’ by Guest Editor Coates that focused on the famous Black Lives Matter campaign, with a cover portraying Breonna Taylor striking a confident pose in a graceful, airy blue gown. Coates’s despairing feature narrated Taylor’s life from her mother’s perspective, Tamika Palmer. It was written and adapted directly from interviews with Palmer; it was, as Jones put it, Breonna Taylor’s story “as only a mother could tell it.”
It was something that Jones was working towards during her three years at the helm of Vanity Fair. And she was euphoric when the issue came out, it made sense to her readers, and they understood the plight of the people of colour in the country. “They understood the project…and that matters a lot to me,” she says. “It started to feel like the whole culture was waking up to something. That was the curtain-raiser that we wanted to capture.”
Jones revealed her thoughts on what her ultimate goal in life is, she said “I’m not an easily satisfied person. I don’t know what it is that would make me feel that way. I think eventually I’d like to write a book. I don’t know what that would be about. There are more things I need to read in my life. I want to be able to carve out space to read and write again. But I don’t really have a checklist, per se. I just want to keep growing as an editor and as a leader, and I want our work to keep striking the chord that it’s been striking.“