At just 32 years old, Elaine Welteroth has already established herself as a trailblazer. The California native launched her career as an intern at Ebony magazine, which ultimately turned into a full-time position. She took her talents to Glamour for a brief stint before landing at Teen Vogue. It was there that Welteroth was named Beauty & Health Director in 2011. She was the first African-American individual to hold the position, and within a few years, at 29, she earned the title of editor in chief. Not only was she the youngest editor in chief in Conde Nast’s 100+ year history, but she was also the second African-American person to ever hold the title in the company.
Welteroth built a loyal following along the way, and since leaving the magazine in 2018 has continued to use her platform to inspire women of all ages. In the first half of 2019 alone, she’s taken on two major new adventures. She stars as a judge on the current season of Project Runway, which airs its finale on June 13, and has penned a book, More Than Enough: Claiming Space for Who You Are (No Matter What They Say). The book, which she describes as her “memoir so far,” is brimming with career and life lessons that she’s learned firsthand. Welteroth hopes that her words will offer valuable insight for young women. “We live in a culture that makes us feel like we’re not enough, and I want this to serve as a reminder that we are,” she tells InStyle. “This book isn’t just about me or my story. Its purpose is to start conversations with women about success — and that includes the messier parts.”
Here, Welteroth opens up about her own journey, messy parts included.
Why was now the right time for you to write a book?
Honestly, I feel like the book wrote itself. I don't make any move in life unless I feel called to do it, and not to be all ‘woo-woo’ about it, but it felt like a calling. It was something that I felt like I had to do now. It's funny because my brother said, “Elaine, you're only 32, why would you write a book about your life?” I was like, “I have a lot to say. Now.” I think we do a disservice to ourselves when we question the value in our story, and I think that's what's kept women small and quiet for so long. This is for a huge community of young women who need this, and it is inclusive of the kind of young woman I was. I would have loved a book like this when I was coming of age — coming into my own, finding my voice, and carving out my career path for myself.
What are some of the stories and life lessons you wanted to include?
I talk about racial identity a lot in the book. It also dives into how to find your voice in this crazy, divisive political climate and how to stop looking externally for validation. I talk about how I found my purpose, cultivated my voice, stopped dating assholes, and learned to be an ally to other women. We're living through really critical times right now and we need each other. We need more women to tell their stories and be brave enough to be honest.
What do you want readers to take away from this book?
I hope that women and people of color see themselves in this come-up story and are inspired to dream bigger. I hope it validates the dreams of young women who are still finding themselves and trying to figure out their purpose in the world. I also hope that it breaks down some of the myths that we tell ourselves and each other about success. We live in a culture that makes us feel like we're not enough; we're not smart enough, successful enough, young enough, old enough, beautiful enough, woke enough. Ultimately, the intention of the book is to provide this reminder that you can experience the feeling of being enough at every stage of your evolution. It's not a destination.
When was the first time in your career that you truly felt successful?
Oh my gosh. I don't know that I ever slowed down and stopped to reflect on success or felt like I've “made it.” I don't know if you ever feel like you've made it. But I will say there’s definitely an inflection point in my life and my career, and that’s when I got my first big job as beauty director at Teen Vogue. Seeing my name in a headline for the first time and learning that I had made history as the first black director in Conde Nast's history reframed my role in a sense. In that moment, it changed how I saw myself — from being a hardworking girl who landed a job she worked hard for, to being a black girl making history. It was no longer about doing whatever it takes to climb the ladder or assimilating and following the rules. I realized I was there to make a difference, and that my being there inherently would make a difference.
How did you go about making that change a reality?
I had to figure out how to use my platform to represent the communities that had never been represented: How do I tell the stories that have never been told? What are the stories that only I can tell? What are the stories that I can help bring to the forefront? It really changed my whole MO and forced me to bring more of my authentic self to work. I was able to find an audience out there that felt underrepresented and reinforce that the work we were doing at Teen Vogue could change the narrative and mattered to them. It created this momentum, and it was really validating for me at an early enough time in my career. I was able to start honing in on what my voice was and what my purpose was in this industry.
In the past few years, you’ve left the magazine world and pivoted to TV and now books. What has it been like for you to follow a new career dream and start over in a completely different industry?
Thrilling. Liberating. I came into my career in magazines knowing that this was only the first step; there was always a longer-term vision of wanting to tell stories that matter across multiple platforms. I learned so much in magazines, because as an editor in chief, you wear so many different hats. When you come out of a career like that, you're well-positioned to take your career wherever you want to go. I didn’t realize it was going to happen as fast as it did! I woke up at 30 and I was like, whoa, I have literally checked off everything from my bucket list, and I still have more to do. But one of the main things I’ve learned since leaving my day job, so to speak, is that I want to move through my career saying “hell yes” to whatever I choose to spend my time on. If I can't get to a “hell yes,” it's a no.
What’s your advice for someone who’s thinking of making a big career move?
At 30, it was difficult to give my myself permission to start dreaming up my next big dream — and it was even harder to give myself permission to go after it. Something I like to tell other women is that your life is a series of dreams realized. We need to give ourselves permission to accomplish a goal and go after the next. We don't need to be defined by one title or one career path for the rest of our lives. We're living in a new world now where there's no shame in having three or four careers, sometimes at the same time. It can be scary to carve a new path or blaze a new trail, but it's also incredibly exciting. I was so proud of what we were able to achieve at Teen Vogue, but at the same time I could see the next dream that I wanted, the next mountain I wanted to climb. Now I'm out here climbing the next mountain.
Why was Project Runway the right next move?
Well, we live in this very chaotic, depressing world where the news headlines can just make you not want to get out of bed, let alone pursue a passion that might be hard to get off the ground. But this show gives America a reason to come together and dream again. I think we need that desperately right now. The contestants are just incredibly inspiring. I feel so invested in their careers and the stories that they want to put out into the world through fashion.
When a young girl learns about your work for the first time, what do you hope she thinks?
I would want her to feel a sense of limitlessness and a pride in owning exactly who she is. I hope she can look at me and see herself and that no matter where she comes from, no matter what college she went to, no matter what family she came from or what her dreams or aspirations are, owning all of it is what is going to propel her into her greatest successes. I’ve learned that just being yourself — which is a cliche that we say a lot — is a lot harder to do in practice when you’re the only one who looks like you in the room. It's scary to own your ideas and to own what makes you different, but you have to practice it every single day. The more that you do it, the more you realize that those things that make you different are actually your superpowers.
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