Radhika Jones: Vanity Fair

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Radhika Jones Photo by Ashlin Dolan/Vanity Fair.

This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes Radhika Jones, editor in chief of Vanity Fair, whose famed Hollywood issue is now on newsstands. Jones has helmed the magazine since 2017, and she tells Mitchell that part of what she has tried to do is expand the notions of glamour and possibility. Jones says this year’s Hollywood issue really aimed to spotlight stars who are also creators in front of and behind the camera, and she says there will be a Vanity Fair Oscars celebration this year, albeit in a modified, pandemic-safe form.

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment. I'm Elvis Mitchell, with the home edition. My guest is Radhika Jones, editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair, now about to debut her third Hollywood issue. Looking at the Hollywood issue, and just thinking about where we are in the world, I couldn't help but think of the first line of "Vanity Fair" by Thackeray.

Radhika Jones: Wow, you know what? I had not thought of that. Since you brought it up, can I tell you a little nugget about the cover that I love?  So Maya Rudolph is on the cover, one of 10 people, and she's reading a book, and the book she's reading is “Vanity Fair” by Thackeray, and it's actually my own copy that we had photographed. So I can't go and get it and check the line, because I haven't got it back yet from the production team. 

KCRW: Your iteration of Vanity Fair is about glamour and its dangers, but also, the perspective I thought you bring to the magazine is the exclusionary aspect of fame and how women and people of color navigate that.

Jones: As the editor of Vanity Fair, but also as a scholar of literature, and someone who's worked in media and publishing for a long time, I think that there are ways in which our cultural perceptions of things like glamour, of celebrity and fame, even of talent have been narrower than they needed to be. And I think that it's so interesting and necessary at this moment in time to be able to widen the aperture on all of those concepts.

KCRW: I was thinking about the Kendrick Lamar cover and that idea of glamour has kind of been turned on its head by hip hop. I've had this discussion here with Will Welsh. It's just been a fear of contemporary Black culture, which is exorcised so often through music. For Kendrick, who really creates his own glamour for himself, and by virtue of that, opens up the ideal of glamour to everybody because I always thought that's what hip hop does is to say, This belongs to everybody; do with it as you will.

Jones: I'm so glad you brought up that Kendrick Lamar cover because I love that cover. For me, there's this very deep emotional connection that it makes. For anyone who's not familiar with it, it's a very straightforward portrait close up, really just of his face, the eye contact and the connection that you get from him. He's wearing, I think, a T-shirt and a hoodie. But really the glamour of that cover for me is in his eyes; it's in his expression. And I think that there's something really powerful about that. It's in his personality and in his talent, and you can see that in the picture. 

KCRW: I thought it  was really daring, your first couple of covers having Black people on and not doing what we expect from Vanity Fair. Those covers are almost like '60s album covers where there's this visual environment that's there to suggest that something has been created that we're not really a part of; we can only sort of gaze upon it longingly. Putting Lena Waithe on the cover and Kendrick Lamar and just have us regard those faces, and the impact of those faces, but also the impact of those faces in portrait on the cover of that magazine. There's a lot going on I think in social context terms in doing something like that. Are you surprised at the way people responded to those covers?

Jones: The response to the Lena Waithe cover, which was about three years ago and was my first cover, sort of soup to nuts at Vanity Fair, was tremendous, and it was profound. And I think there were a lot of people who were thrilled to see the magazine embracing rising talent, someone from the queer community, someone Black, someone who herself had so beautifully spoken at the Emmys about the idea of having aspirations and letting your differences be your superpowers. So a lot of people noticed. 

But listen, I think there was also some hate mail. It's sadly not surprising in our country to know that there are people who have very racist ideas about who should be held up in the culture as worthy of recognition. But I think it was very clear to me coming into the role that our job was to continue to put forward the people we thought were the most interesting artists and figures in our culture. And not only our existing audience has appreciated that, but our audience has grown. So I never really worried about that part of the reaction. What I noticed was that people seemed excited that Vanity Fair, which is a magazine that is maybe broadly speaking about possibility, was embracing possibility in a more expansive way.

KCRW: One of the things I've noticed in these Hollywood issues is how they're both about looking back and forth at the same time. And I was thinking about last year's cover with the group of veterans of Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Lopez and Renee Zellweger. 

Jones: I do think the Hollywood issue, which is our big annual tentpole, to me, it really does represent the possibility to take stock of where the industry is and where it's going. And it's truly in a state of disruption right now. It does feel like we're at a crossroads in a lot of different ways. One of the great arcs of this moment, which has been hastened, of course, by the events of 2020 and the pandemic and the shutdowns that have happened, is the rise of streaming services, which have just altered so dramatically the dominance of the traditional studios. 

We try very hard to stake out a place in terms of being able to observe not only the changes that are happening, but the people and the personalities who are driving them, whether it's the talent on screen, and the way that the boundaries between film and television have becomes so porous, or the people behind the scenes who are running Amazon Studios and Netflix and Hulu, and Disney and Disney plus. We don't have a crystal ball. We don't necessarily know how it's going to end. But I think anyone with a sense of history or an appreciation for great moments of technological change, can appreciate how fascinating this moment is, because it's almost like we're at the tipping point in a number of different ways. 

One of the things that I loved about last year's cover with Eddie Murphy and J. Lo and Renee Zellweger was: here were three people who had already reached career heights that anyone else would have dreamed of, but who were still reinventing themselves, presenting new sides of themselves, to great acclaim. And that to me, perhaps as someone who's getting older myself, that was very interesting to capture.

KCRW: Do you get a bit of a charge of being able to move back and forth like that from the getting the monthlies out to then marshalling all your forces for the Hollywood issue?

Jones: I do. It's part of the great joy of the job is that we can cover all of this terrain. It's so interesting to me the power of someone like Billie Eilish, who has such great talent at such a young age, such a sense of self possession, and so many years, decades in front of her to continue to create art. To be able to shine a light on her through the Vanity Fair lens, and then turn to Hollywood where, with this cover, we're able to look at talents as diverse as Spike Lee and Dan Levy and Zendaya and Charlize Theron, all of whom are bringing particular unique kind of energy to the whole endeavor of moviemaking and television, there is a charge there.

I guess for me, it's ultimately about the unending range of creativity that's expressed in our culture right now. And I don't know that it always used to be that way. I don't want to be accused of present-ism. But it does feel a little bit like we're in a moment when there are so many different venues and ways to express artistic creativity. And that's something that we do try to think about and capture.

Cover photos by Maurizio Cattelan and Pierpaolo Ferrari/Vanity Fair

KCRW: People on that cover between Zendaya and Michael B. Jordan and Sacha Baron Cohen, and Spike Lee and Awkwafina and Michaela Coel and Dan Levy are people who control their own destinies. They are people who producing or writing or shaping this material for themselves. They're active in a way that we haven't seen before. And I was wondering if that was one of the things you were thinking about in selecting that group of people.

Jones: I'm so happy right now, because yes, you got it. That's it. I think it's so interesting to think these days about star power, and how it exerts itself, not just in front of the camera, which really is where it used to live, but also in production houses and writing, and even just developing different kinds of stories and advocating for different kinds of stories. And that was absolutely what we were thinking about. We were thinking about the versatility of all of these stars and the sheer amount of energy and creativity that they're bringing to their work, which, just as you say, is expressing itself in ways that we do think are sort of different from eras past. It's exciting to watch.

After a year that was really hard on the film industry, where there was effectively not very much box office, not very much of a theatrical experience, all of the things that we think about when we think about going to the movies, or we think about Hollywood, a lot of those things were really compromised in this past year, for good reasons, for reasons of safety and caution. And so we wanted to really champion the artists who found their way in that landscape to make new work, to entertain in ways that did feel authentic and exciting. 

KCRW: As much as we're talking about these people that you are spotlighting with changing that world, that world has still been, in a lot of ways, resistant to change.

Jones: Right. It's kind of a reflection and microcosm of the world at large, where you can have progress, for example, in the form of a President Obama, but it doesn't mean that issues of racism in America are solved.  I do think progress exists in tension with a pull toward conservatism, not political conservatism, necessarily, but just the desire on the part of the people who already have power not to relinquish it. 

I've been thinking a lot about obsolescence, and the idea that, when new technologies come along, it doesn't necessarily mean that the old technologies disappear, and the old ways don't disappear; they're still there. But they start to play different roles. We're writing and thinking at Vanity Fair, a lot about change. And some of it, I think, is change that we're trying to make and help make and influence, and I think that's very much our role as a tastemaker. Some of it is inevitable, and we chronicle it, and we try to illuminate it and clarify it. But I think as much as certain eras come to an end, and you can see that easily in hindsight, when you're in the middle of it all, it's not nearly so clear. And I feel the way the world is right now, we're sort of in the middle of something and trying to work it out. 

KCRW: This, again, takes us back to Thackeray, asking that question: can you be entertained by something, but still keep enough of a distance to struggle to get your arms around it?

Jones: Right. And to take it a little bit further, what function can entertainment perform in this kind of environment? What is it for? I don't think it's purely to distract us. I think it's partly to channel us. Certainly, I think because I am a person who believes so firmly that culture influences the way that we live and the way that we are more even than the way that we live, the way that we behave toward each other and the people who we become. I think that looking at the culture and really examining it, and examining the contributions of people like Sasha Baron Cohen, and Michael B. Jordan, and Zendaya, LaKeith Stanfield is also on our cover, Awkwafina, to be able to look at what they do is to help us figure out what kind of a world we want to be in and who we want to be in it. There's something that's so crystallizing about art and creativity. And I feel like all of that also got heightened in this past year because it does feel to me like a way forward.

KCRW: Well, that's my hope. I have to ask the question, what's going to happen to the Vanity Fair Oscar party this year?

Jones: Well, it is always our tradition to celebrate on Oscar night, and we will figure out how to do that. And we'll figure out how to do it in a way that is safe and respectful. It's going to be an interesting year for the Oscars, because there is a lot of fantastic work to celebrate. And that's what the Oscars are about.

 Earlier in the year, there was some concern that this Oscars season might feel kind of like it has an asterix on it, like there was something missing from the experience of last year. But the truth is, if you look at the wealth of films that were released and watched and written about and talked about, it feels like it might be a fascinating year for the Oscars, and it might even be an exemplary year for the Oscars because there's been a kind of purity to the experience of watching films. At least I've felt that way.



Rebecca Mooney