Vanessa K. De Luca, Editor-In-Chief of ESSENCE Magazine, on Michelle Obama, Black Lives, Life, and Race

Vanessa K. De Luca, editor-in-chief of ESSENCE Magazine, spoke with Thrive Global contributor J.D. Myall to discuss her AAMBC award nomination, race, politics, and Michelle Obama.

ESSENCE Magazine’s editor-in-chief, Vanessa K. De Luca, took a quick break from running the global magazine to speak with J.D. Myall about her AAMBC award nomination for editor of the year, race, politics, Michelle Obama, and her desire to represent her community well.

You’ve developed into a phenomenal woman and role model, and I’m wondering about your journey. Who was young Vanessa? What were you like as a child and teen?

“As a child I was pretty much a bookworm. Very nerdy. Very geeky. In fact, I remember when we graduated from eighth grade we had autograph books, and almost every person wrote something about me being a brainiac, like, ‘Don’t lose your mind,’ or crazy stuff like that. I was always known as the smart kid. I took a lot of pride in that… I was also very awkward. I was not graceful. I wore thick glasses… I was very self-conscious about the outside. The inside I knew was pretty together. That continued throughout high school…I was very focused on doing well in school and being on the honor society.”

De Luca went on to say that she was an only child who got a lot of focused attention from her parents. She said they spent a lot of time at the kitchen table, talking. Her parents, who were avid readers, would watch the news with her and discuss the events of the time. She said that her parents encouraged her to be a thinker in a way that served her well throughout her life, and she hopes the magazine succeeds in passing this mindset along to its readers.

What was the most meaningful educational experience of your life?

“I honestly think that every day I am living and breathing is an educational experience. Interacting with different types of people, especially in this role, has taught me a great deal, not just about serving this audience, but about life, psychology, management skills, and all of those things you have to learn. If I had to give you one answer, I would say being a parent is the most meaningful educational experience, because everything I thought I knew about parenting went out the window when I actually had children. I learned a lot about balance, negotiation, and training and lessons that kids take from what you do. That has helped me in management as well. I try to help people grow professionally.”

You once said that Essence became more modern and feminine when you took the helm as editor-in-chief. What did you mean by that?

“Maybe I meant more feminist than feminine. I think that every magazine evolves, especially one that has been around as long as we have. [Essence has been around for forty-seven years.] There are different periods of time when different things are important…We have a point of view…We embrace the advocacy part of our DNA that has always been there since our brand’s inception. [We address] what is important to our community. That is a modern way of thinking.”

There was a time in history when people thought journalists should remain neutral on important issues. Essence has defied that thought process by taking a stand for black lives and other issues that mean a lot to the African American community.

“I feel like it’s part of our responsibility [to take a stand on important issues]…In this social and political climate we have to be able to demonstrate where we stand on certain issues, what is important to us, and how we are representing our community.”

Through the years Essence Magazine has proven its dedication to the idea that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, even featuring transgender models on its cover. The magazine strives to serve the community and celebrate non-traditional standards of beauty. Essence pays homage to the past while covering timely issues of concern to the African-American community but ignored by mainstream media.

What was the last thing that frustrated you?

“Invisibility…I get frustrated when people say ‘No one is covering that.’ The latest example is the missing girls in D.C. People were saying, ‘No one is covering that.’ Well, actually, we were covering that for some time. We also discussed hair discrimination and the issues African-American women face at work long before we started #blackwomenatwork. When someone from the mainstream speaks on these issues they get hailed. Sometimes I just want credit where credit is due… We are a niche publication, but we are also national and international.”

You were invited to the White House to moderate a panel of women who play or have played an important part in the civil rights movement now and historically. The event was called Celebrating Women of the Movement. Describe that experience.

“If you have to pick a highlight reel moment that was exceptional in your life, that was an exceptional moment, not just for me but for Essence. To be invited to the White House with women like Sherrilyn Ifill [President of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund] and civil rights heroes. It was a powerful moment.”

You were photographed with Michelle Obama at that event. Can you describe her in one word?

“That’s hard…Michelle Obama is graceful, of course. She has style like none other, and she is very humble and down to earth. She makes everyone feel important. When I got to interview her and Barack it was very clear that they are good people. They are focused on the next generation of leaders. There were even high school students at the Celebrating Women of the Movement event. It meant a lot to Michelle to have young people sit in the room with civil rights legends and hear their stories.”

You have been nominated for editor of the year at the AAMBC awards. What does this nominations mean to you?

“It means a lot. It’s an honor to be recognized… I am very grateful.”

Essence is also nominated for Magazine of the Year. How does Essence continue to stay relevant?

“The four men who founded our magazine were visionaries. They started the Essence Music Festival twenty-five years ago. Our magazine has been around for forty-seven years. I think this is because we have been good at addressing issues that matter to our audiences.”

Has the current political climate had an effect on the magazine?

“Yes. With the current political climate we think it’s important to remind people that they have rights and that those rights should be defended.”

In February 2015, Essence caught the attention of readers worldwide with a bold “blackout cover,” the only cover in over forty-five years that did not feature a photo. Instead it read, “Black Lives Matter,” in bold print. Inside the magazine were words from activists, authors, thought leaders, and cultural icons. The magazine’s goal was to understand the significance of that time in history and figure out the next moves to take going forward.

What prompted Essence to take a stand with the bold blackout cover to support Black Lives Matter?

“It was on all of our minds. We needed answers and understanding, and we needed to take a stand for our readers and for Black Lives. There was some debate at first, on whether we should do it, because some thought that it could have a negative impact and we could lose advertisers or something. Ultimately, we decided this issue was so important that it was worth the risk. We spoke to the women who founded the Black Lives Matter movement and got their permission to use those words on our cover.”

The Trump administration appointed Steve Bannon. A man who has had a negative track record with race relations. Trump once called himself the “law and order candidate,” but many say he has done very little to ease the tensions between minorities and police. Why do you think that is? Do you think he is racist, apathetic, or just out of touch with the concerns of the black community?

“I think you can tell by his policies that we are not the audience that he caters to. That said, it’s important that people stay politically aware, know their rights, and defend them.”

As a mother of two, what is the most significant lesson you taught your kids about race?

“I’ve taught them that they have to be twice as good and work twice as hard for a fraction of the respect.”

When your time on earth has passed, how would you like to be remembered?

“I would just love for people to say, ‘She represented us well.’”

By entertaining 8.5 million readers nationally and internationally, interviewing presidents and first ladies, and standing boldly for Black Lives and other essential issues, Essence has proven itself more than worthy of being honored at the 2017 AAMBC awards. Vanessa K. De Luca is equally deserving as an editor, and an inspiring example of excellence and black girl magic! Thank you, Vanessa, you represent us well.

This year’s AAMBC literary awards will take place in Atlanta, GA on June 10th at 5:30 pm. Tickets are available at aambcawards.com