How do you become one of the most successful women in the world? Ambition. How do you become one of the most influential women in the world? Fearlessness. And Tina Brown – celebrated magazine editor, author, broadcaster and entrepreneur – has it in spades.
It’s the kind of fearlessness that led her to be expelled from three of her secondary schools – once for leading 50 girls in a protest against a school policy that forbade a change of knickers more than three times a week, ‘Chanting, “Knickers out, out, out!”.’
The kind that inspired her as a fledgling journalist to burst into the office of Sir Harold Evans – then editor of The Sunday Times – while he was mid-meeting, ‘determined to get my shot’ (she went on to marry him). The kind that enabled her to turn first Tatler then Vanity Fair and the New Yorker from struggling brands into world-dominating publishing juggernauts – with ground-breaking journalism on AIDS, depression and, of course, some of the most famous and memorable cover images in the world (Demi Moore naked and pregnant, Ronald and Nancy Reagan dancing in The White House) – all before she was 40.
And the kind that – just three minutes and 57 seconds into our interview to promote the launch of her new book, The Vanity Fair Diaries, chronicling her tenure at the magazine – inspires her to launch into a blistering tirade against not just Harvey Weinstein (her one-time boss and a ‘volcanic crazy man’) but other perpetrators of abuse who she feels have gotten away with it for too long.
‘What about Woody Allen?’ She poses, eyebrow arched, elbows edged forward on the table we’re sat at. ‘In the case of Woody Allen, I say boycott his films. I’ve never been able to like them since what happened [when his affair with Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of his then partner, Mia Farrow, came to light and later accusations that he abused adopted daughter Dylan]. Because he’s a paedophile and he never paid the price for it.
‘He was so good at suppressing it. He got every lawyer, he really got it suppressed and put it out that Mia Farrow was “kooky”. Mia Farrow is “a flake”. Mia Farrow is “nuts”. And he basically married his daughter to shut the thing down. He had to, because without that... well, by doing that he could say this was a huge love affair, and it’s all shut down.’
She barely pauses before moving on to her next target.
‘One thing I was very proud of myself was that I was invited once by a publicist to dinner with Woody and Jeffrey Epstein. And I wrote back to the publicist, “What is this, the predators’ ball? Thank you very much, but I’ll pass on this invitation.” And she got very upset with me and she called up and said, “Why are you being so terrible about my friend Jeffrey Epstein?” And I said, “Because I’m the person who, at The Daily Beast, started that whole ball rolling [revealing stories of alleged abuse, sex parties and rape].” Epstein – he was trafficking underage girls. And in the end, he had a sort of minor house arrest [he was convicted of one count of soliciting a minor] and never really paid the price because he had so many rich friends. So many influential people were at the parties he threw, including Donald Trump.’
In 2016, Epstein and Trump denied claims that at one party they raped a 13-year-old girl, and representatives of Trump insist he barely knew Epstein (despite the New York media in the ’90s regularly documenting the opposite). The woman later withdrew the claim. But going up against the current President doesn’t faze Brown. (She predicted Trump’s win and is also tipping him for a second term.) ‘The patriarchy is being challenged, rattled and toppled in many cases. But it might not topple Trump – Trump stands for the resistance.’
She can’t help, as she dubs it in her book, ‘sending a spark’ to those she feels need to heed her words. And she certainly doesn’t mince them. She’s gleeful as she notes ‘the frenzy’, ‘the overdue moment’, ‘the big careers going down left, right and centre’.
Perhaps Brown’s confidence to speak so freely comes from the connections she’s forged from her positions of power over the last 40 years. After the New Yorker she went on to launch the now defunct Talk magazine in 1999 with Weinstein, before setting up online news portal The Daily Beast in 2008. You name a big celeb and chances are they’ve written for or opened up to her. And the way she speaks about them seems to infer those personal relationships. For example, when I ask for her thoughts on rumours of Clooney standing for President, for the first time she slows up, choosing her words carefully.
‘I’m not sure he would want to put himself up there for this absolute, this very harsh, horrible process. I’m not sure he would want to do that to his own wife, or that Amal would want to do it to their life, frankly. He might feel that he’s more influential not doing it, although I’m sure he thinks about it. I’m sure there are other actors who think about it too. I’m sure Tom Hanks thinks about it.’
One of Brown’s most appealing qualities is her frankness. She speaks as openly about big issues as she has expected the celebrities who’ve appeared in her magazines to do. And it’s why her book is such a juicy read. She’s honest about every interaction, no matter how big the star: every success and every mistake.
But it’s also a story of humanity, of a deep love affair with her husband. ‘Harry – I couldn’t have done anything without him,’ she explains. ‘To have a man who’s so brilliant himself, and such a dynamic person, to be also able to support me, encourage me and love me the way that he has. I’ve never been luckier than the day I met him.’ And of unapologetically wanting a family alongside her career. Having her son Georgie in 1986 ‘emotionally deepened me in every way’. (Her daughter Isabel was born in 1990.)
When I ask whether she ever struggled or grappled with balancing the two, she admits, ‘When you have a child, you’re thinking, “I have to overcompensate because now I don’t want it to feel like I’ve lost my drive.”’ But while it ‘never did take my drive away, it was always these two competing centres of gravity in my life’, she established firm boundaries. ‘I used to get very agitated around 4.45pm, thinking, “I can’t have that last meeting because it’s almost 5.30pm and I want to get out of here, I have to get out of here, to get home for Georgie.” You have to be very focused. You have this job you adore and this family you adore and you have to get those two things done.’
But it’s also what isn’t in the book that’s so revealing. In more than 400 pages of diary entries there are few mentions of friendships. Was this deliberate?
‘No. Those relationships do suffer. Of course, two of my best friends lived in the UK, so I didn’t have them. But I do think that a working mother who’s working full- time – the one thing that tends to fall away is the ability to socialise with your friends.
‘You’re going from your job to your home – and women I know who have these jobs and children feel very strongly that it’s a sad thing for them, that they don’t see enough of their friends. It was really painful for me. But actually, one of the good things is that when your kids are older you get your friendships back. Now I see a lot of my friends and that’s very special to me.’
So, what’s next for the unstoppable Tina Brown? There is of course her current venture, Women In The World (its eighth summit included talks from Hillary Clinton, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Scarlett Johansson), which she wants to turn into a live news network led by women.
And she is raging against the lack of proper paid maternity leave in America, ‘one of the greatest scandals of our time’ (although she herself was back working from home within about six weeks).
But her greatest passion? ‘One has to help strengthen other women. I mean, just recently, I’ve helped to strengthen a couple of women, and it was so nice to be able to do that. One of them really was getting stifled by somebody – they weren’t giving her her holiday pay. So I said, you write back, “I’ve sought outside counsel thank you and you’ll be hearing from my lawyers.” She didn’t have one but I said, “Don’t worry about that, just send the text.” And she got paid!
‘It’s so interesting, people think they can bully women, they just do. There are so many horrendous things happening to women all over the world – but there are hero women who are standing up.’ Tina Brown, thankfully, is one of them. And boy, it’s great to have her on our side.
The Vanity Fair Diaries: 1983-1992 by Tina Brown is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£25)