How Do You Go From Teen Glossy to Revolutionary Read? Ask Elaine Welteroth

In her first-ever article as Teen Vogue’s beauty and health director in February 2013, Elaine Welteroth encouraged readers of all racial backgrounds to embrace their natural hair texture, recommending products and care methods for a range of different hair types. Entitled, “Natural Wonder,” the article stood in stark contrast to the status quo of the fashion industry, one that has long been known for its aspirational exclusivity and largely static standards of beauty.  

“Natural Wonder" was also significant, as it was one of the earliest pushes in what would be a steady stream of efforts by Teen Vogue to publish content specifically marketed towards young women of color (a group that has been sorely overlooked my much of the mainstream fashion and beauty media), and that was just Day 1, so to speak, for Welteroth, who had joined the glossy following a yearlong stint at Glamour.

Fast forward to May 2016. Teen Vogue’s founding editor-in-chief Amy Astley announced that she would move to Architectural Digest, and in light of the impending change in masthead, Welteroth was named Teen Vogue’s editor-in-chief. At just 29 years old, she was the youngest editor-in-chief in Condé Nast’s history; the appointment also bestowed upon her the title of the second-ever African American editor at large for any Condé Nast publication. 

Working alongside creative director Marie Suter and digital director Phillip Picardi, Welteroth helped to create what would soon be known as the “new” Teen Vogue, an inherently inclusive publication for the politically-savvy, forward-thinking teen of today.

Her tenure – first as beauty and health director and ultimately as editor-in-chief – served as a tour de force in diversifying Teen Vogue’s content. Welteroth oversaw the expansion of health and wellness coverage, adding articles about fitness and multicultural content to the magazine’s usual cookie-cutter, fashion-heavy regime. She also acknowledged the increasingly vital role of non-traditional industry forces (i.e., individuals other than editors), such as YouTube stars, for instance, as key players in the beauty industry by way of “Beauty Crisis,” a comedic video series featuring beauty vloggers.

Welteroth and her team – including a slew of new names that she says helped change and expand the depth of the publication's narrative from within, creating a "safe space" to discuss a whole new range of topics – introduced a wellness revolution to the previously squeaky-clean Teen Vogue brand. Overseen by Vera Papisova, the magazine’s first-ever wellness editor, Teen Vogue’s Wellness vertical now features 7 subsections: Health, Mental Health, Fitness, Nutrition, Relationships, Spirituality and finally, Sexual Health and Identity, the latter of which has gained notoriety for articles discussing transgender rights and the basics of safe anal sex.

And under her watch, of course, Teen Vogue “managed to do more than its share of the unexpected in this election year,” as Bloomberg’s Polly Mosendz put it, referring to the publication’s introduction of hard news, including consistent political coverage and commentary. 

On December 20, 2016, for instance, columnist Lauren Duca published a fiery op-ed entitled “Donald Trump is Gaslighting America” on teenvogue.com. The article brought Teen Vogue national attention from the likes of NPR’s All Things Considered, The New York Times and The Atlantic, which noted that "the pivot in editorial strategy has drawn praise on social media, with some writers commenting that Teen Vogue is doing a better job of covering important stories in 2016 than legacy news publications.”

Omnipresent as it was, Duca’s op-ed was not much of an outlier; Teen Vogue had been releasing politicized content regularly since Welteroth took the reins.

Yes, with Welteroth at the top of the masthead, every section of Teen Vogue’s print and digital platforms began highlighting a more diverse array of narratives. In 2016, the Teen Vogue YouTube channel released a video of six young Native women offering their thoughts on Thanksgiving. The magazine’s third issue of 2017 was guest-edited by Hillary Clinton, who was also a keynote speaker at the first-ever Teen Vogue Summit. Last August, they published an open letter penned by Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson in honor of Jordan Edwards, a 15-year-old black boy who was killed by police.

The result – both culturally and technically speaking – has been remarkable. In adding smart, thoughtful content that centered on feminist, LGBTQ, racial, and political issues to its traditional fashion and celebrity-centric offerings, Teen Vogue’s U.S. traffic skyrocketed to 8 million unique visitors as of March 2017, up from 3.5 million in 2016. And all the while, the publication gained steam – thanks, in part, to no shortage of awards and nominations, ranging from Webbys to a GLAAD Media Award nod – as a home of serious and reputable journalism.

Though Welteroth has since exited the publication – she is now signed with the Los Angeles-based talent management company Creative Artists Agency, and was credited with co-writing an episode of the Freeform show “Grown-ish” that aired on January 17, just days after she left Teen Vogue – the publication's new tone and vastly expanded-upon range of content is here to stay, albeit in completely digital form.  

In light of Welteroth's departure, Picardi (who is currently serving as the founding force behind Condé Nast's new LGBTQ publication, Them, as well) has taken over as chief content officer. A farewell Instagram post from Welteroth – in which she writes, "I know for sure is that same spirit of reinvention (rebellion!) that transformed Teen Vogue will live on" – ensures that the "new" Teen Vogue, with its hard-hitting political takes and wildly modern cultural discussions, is here to stay.

TESS GARCIA is a student at the University of Michigan. She is a freelance contributor at Teen Vogue, an intern at V Magazine, and Style Editor of the Michigan Daily.