When she was about to graduate from college, Elaine Welteroth came up with a life plan: She’d hit the top of a magazine masthead, then move into TV, books, film and beyond.
She wasn’t messing around. The 32-year-old is way ahead of schedule after making firsts at Teen Vogue, both as beauty-health director and top editor, and then checking off “book” on Tuesday with the release of her memoir, “More Than Enough.”
“I think I’ve always been an ambitious person. I had this kind of blueprint in my mind of what success would look like,” Welteroth told The Associated Press ahead of the book’s debut. “The thing what I didn’t predict was just how fast the magazine part would happen.”
In 2016, to fanfare, Welteroth was named editor in chief of Teen Vogue, making her the youngest and only the second person of African American heritage in Condé Nast’s 107-year history to hold such a title. But she was only getting started, transforming the dusty property into an engaging platform for activism, inclusion, politics and social justice, and earning rock star status among young fans as she helped steer Teen Vogue into the digital age.
She developed the Teen Vogue Summit, bringing together young change-makers to soak up the words of elders Hillary Clinton and Maxine Waters, along with peer idols Yara Shahidi, Rowan Blanchard and others.
“We were able to help change the way many adults think about young people, who for too long have been underestimated and thought of as the selfie generation,” Welteroth said. “They are much more concerned about the issues impacting our world and how they can change them than we’ve ever given them credit for.”
The first summit played out amid hard times for the magazine industry. Teen Vogue’s print edition folded in late 2017 and Welteroth resigned soon after. Her frank retelling of those days includes some dark moments of ill health and personal frustrations for the self-avowed perfectionist and workaholic.
“Burnout is real,” said the small-town Northern California native, looking back on her wider-eyed era after 11 years in the media business. That includes a stop at Ebony magazine.
Still struggling with workaholic tendencies, Welteroth remains committed to telling stories of the under-represented, just as she was at Teen Vogue. Only now, she’s doing it not as the youngest or the first, but with friends and acquaintances named Ava (Duvernay), Shonda (Rhymes) and Lena (Waithe), having already earned a farewell hug and blessings from the person who took her career next level when she invited her into the “Condé Castle,” Anna Wintour.
“I have this arsenal of powerful, creative black women who are excelling in their careers, and it’s amazing to be alive right now. There’s never been a better time to be an empowered woman,” Welteroth said.
Duvernay wrote the foreword to the book, published by Viking, concluding that Welteroth’s story, at least thus far, points to the value of “knowing that the bad is our choice and the good is our choice. And to work to choose the good. Every day. In every way.”
Welteroth, also a judge on Bravo’s rejuvenated “Project Runway,” hopes to lift others as she was lifted by her mentors of color. Only now, she’s not struggling to make it to the table, and she’s not the first at the table. She’s building her own table as a free agent.
“There’s so much more to do,” said Welteroth, her signature aviator glasses in place, long curls pulled back as she chatted about the future. “Sometimes when you’re a first, it’s a mixed bag of sorts because it reminds you of so much more progress we have to make.”
Welteroth’s book takes us back to Newark, California, where she grew up working class, one of two children of a white father, Jack, and a black mother, Debra. She said her parents were committed to keeping black culture alive in their home in a predominantly white enclave skirting the southern edge of the San Francisco Bay.
Her parents, Welteroth said, have diametrically opposed backgrounds,
Debra a child of the Baptist church and backwoods Georgia who loves singing gospel and worked as a typist, and Jack a chain-smoking, guitar-playing hippie wild child and ex-carpenter who cussed like a sailor and drank a little too much.
The mixed-race experience, Welteroth said, is an identity that goes underexplored in our culture.
“My mother and my father decided before their children were born that they were going to raise black children because it would just be easier that way, and they wanted to make things simple for us,” said Welteroth, who identifies as a black woman.
“But as children who didn’t understand the nuances of race in America, when that Census card would come around every year, as a little tiny act of rebellion, my brother and I would check both black and white. We didn’t understand why we would have to choose one when we are both.”
Welteroth has come to embrace her biracial status as one of her “superpowers,” along with an ability to empathize with and understand many world views. She also has come to realize, as a mixed-race person, “whether you acknowledge it or not, you have some measure of white privilege and therefore you will have access to certain spaces that you can operate in almost as an undercover change agent.”
Bridging divides is part of her life plan, between black and white, beauty and politics, young and old, and especially among women.
“This book is about lighting torches,” Welteroth said. “This book I hope will inspire young women to dream a little bit bigger and to support other women as you go.”