Editor in Chief, VIBE Magazine
As Editor in Chief at VIBE magazine and a regular pop culture commentator for VH-1, WNYC, and CNN, Danyel Smith knows how to get people talking. Before taking the throne at VIBE, her contributions could be found in the country’s top magazines and newspapers including The New Yorker, Time, Essence, Entertainment Weekly, Spin, Elle, and the New York Times. She switched coasts to join the New York staff at VIBE in 1993. Much as she loved the sexy glossy, she was lured away by other offers that eventually landed her an Editor at Large position at Time, Inc. Then came a critical detour. Smith downshifted, yielded to her creative spirit, and spent several years focusing on her fiction writing. The result: a bestselling novel, More Like Wrestling (Crown). She earned a master of fine arts in creative writing from the New School in New York and her second novel, Bliss (Crown), was published in 2005. Then, VIBE came calling again and lucky for them, she said yes. She saw the magazine through a difficult transition and brought new energy to its pages. We talked to her about the determination, creativity and style required to succeed on and off the publishing superhighway.
What I learned from Danyel: “Do You!” Give them something to talk about. Don’t be afraid to make yourself heard and leave a lasting impression.
Being the Boss Lady
“I love being an EIC. I was really looking forward to bringing together a group of people that I could work with to create a fantastic magazine, something that really serves and excites the readers. Now I have an editorial staff of 21 plus interns. I’ve personally chosen about 60% of them. We sometimes work 50 – 60 hour work weeks so we see each other more than we see our families. It’s important that they buy into the culture – I don’t mean urban music or hip hop culture, but the culture of this building, of this editorial staff and how hard we work.”
“I was looking for people who don’t take no for an answer, who want to kick down every door, except mine [laughing], who think creatively, who are loyal, who aren’t passive aggressive, people who stand up for what they believe in. After all that, it just comes down to a gut feeling.”
Break the Mold
“It always amazes me when women who I think are so dynamic tell me that they don’t think they can make it. I’m like, ‘What are you talking about?! You gotta compete! You gotta let those people know that you are in the room. You better speak up. Don’t go in half way.’ I say buy the red stilettos to go with the blue suit. Don’t half ass it. Don’t always try to fit in. You don’t have to be like the super wild woman in every situation but give them something to talk about. Even if you don’t get the job, give them something to talk about.”
It’s Not About ‘Nice’
“In job interviews don’t try to make yourself sound like everyone else. Speak your truth. People respond to spark. There’s an old fashioned word called moxy. I know I respond to that when I’m interviewing people and hiring people.
I love to see women take advantage of opportunities and keep their promises to themselves. It’s so not impossible and it’s so not as hard as we all make it out to be.”
“Networking is fantastic; it is something that I do not feel women do consciously. It’s corny to think about networking as passing business cards and stating you want to ‘link up’. Women’s intuition makes them able to look at someone in the eyes and know whether or not they are good people.”
And it’s Still Working…
“My first job as music editor began when I met Ann Powers. After we met we made sure we kept in touch regularly on the phone, which I guess you can call a networking move. It wasnt long before Ann went on a sabbatical, and decided to recommend me for her position. When she made her sabbatical permanent she recommended me to stay. I became a music editor at San Francisco Weekly at the age of 24 or 25. Ann and I are still in touch 17 years later. She still recommends me for things, and vice versa. That one network has sprung into a zillion networks years later.”
Finger on the Pulse
“I’m never not in front of a computer. I read nytimes.com probably 80 times a day and all of the alternative news weeklies from around the country at altnewsweekly.com, which brings all the best pieces form the alternative weeklies in one place. I read all the gossip sites, all the fashion sites. I always want to see what’s most blogged about just to see what’s going on in people’s minds. I ask, ‘What are we doing with this? Are we on this? How are we approaching this?'”
Keeping it Real
“I listen to music at home to remember why I got into this whole business to begin with. My favorites are old rap, old soul and a lot of stuff from my mother’s heyday because that’s what I was raised on.
Going home to California to see my family keeps me grounded. It’s so great to eat my mother’s food and sit on the deck and talk smack with my sister. My mother hates it at the end of a weekend when I start looking at the two-way and the cell phone and when I complain because her wireless is all janky.”
“I would not be sitting anywhere close to where I am sitting right now without the help of some really brilliant people who were very generous with their time. I’m from the Bay Area; I started out at as an intern at the alternative news weeklies and since the beginning I had outstanding mentors. I wish I had one now! [laughing].”
Be (and Wear) Your Brand
“The crazy thing for me was, in coming back, I had to buy clothes. Fashion week is next week and I have eight shows to attend and I’m sitting in the front row. And after years of kicking it around Brooklyn and Europe (I had the book tour but basically I was a grad student) I had a lot of baggy jeans and cute t-shirts and nice sneakers. Not exactly what you wear to work. But, it’s like riding a bike. Over the months I fell into what I think is a casual but classy look that reflects culture as it is today with my personal twist on it, which tends to be a bit quirky.
We live in a world now where appearance is mega important, no matter what your job is, whether you’re a custodian or a doorman or a doctor a nurse or an editor-in chief, you could be on TV at any moment and you’re representing your company and yourself. It’s something you have to pay attention to.”
A Strategic Path…
“Life is a path. You get on the corporate train for while, put your pennies where your supposed to, and that enables you to get off for a while.”
Ambition is a Good Thing
“Many moons ago, a human resources person said in passing, ‘Danyel, you’re an ambitious woman…’ and I remember I got so offended. She didn’t even say it in a mean way. She said, ‘Why are you getting so defensive? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the fact that you want to go places. By all means, go places!'”
This Featured Lady was profiled by Noa Jones, a writer based in New York.