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Life lessons with magazine editor Justine Cullen

Once upon a time in magazines, gloss was the pinnacle. It was the shiny front cover gleaming from the newsstand (if you could afford a shiny masthead, even better); and it was the intimidatingly shiny hair of so many ambitious women who inhabited this fabulous universe. Gloss was luxury, it was premium, it was the absolute goal.

Slowly but surely - and for numerous reasons (hi Instagram) - that hard, glossy facade of magazine publishing has been dulled. For many who had been at the centre of that world - of fashion shoots, international travel, celebrity, beauty cupboards and cover superstitions - the high-gloss ideal that was often presented, purposefully or not, had always rung a little false.

Justine Cullen wants to tear down that facade. The high-profile magazine editor who launched Elle into the Australian market in 2013 had worked at the same publishing company for 15 years, a childhood dream she had held for many years prior. For many, she was the pinnacle of magazine success - a young editor helming an iconic title, with high-profile media friends, the mother of young children, dream (shiny) hair.

Justine Cullen. Photography / Georges Antoni

Justine had spent 15 years working at 54 Park Street, the famous-in-media-circles Sydney address of publishing house ACP, later Bauer, now Are Media (she was also in the 2011 reality show, Park St). That’s a long time in publishing, especially in the context of 2021. But in 2018 she resigned from her role as editor of Elle (almost a month after her Bauer colleague Kellie Hush had quit as editor of Harper’s Bazaar; in mag land, it was quite the scandal at the time). It was a big decision. “It was the only job I’d ever wanted or expected to have in my life, right up until the day I realised that it wasn’t.”

The delightful Aussie reflects on that and more in Semi-Gloss: Magazines, motherhood and misadventures in having it all, a book that honestly and self-deprecatingly chronicles her journey in magazine land; from “mag hack” to mother of four boys to divorcée to 40-something seemingly starting all over again. The book is, she declares in the intro, not a self help top, not a memoir, not an Australian Devil Wears Prada (although there are plenty of insidery fashion stories).

Rather, it’s a beautifully written and funny book of essays on from being multi-racial in Australia (Justine is Indonesian, Irish and Lebanese); Estée Lauder’s Youth Dew as an anchor to explore her relationship with family and her Nanna; co-parenting; finding love, losing love, then finding it again; and yes, ‘the juggle’.

There are plenty of refreshingly honest truths of working in magazines, like the chapter on being a beauty editor (and feeling like a fraud doing it) in the days when beauty advertising sustained lifestyle magazines.

“…you were a vital cog in the business of publishing,” she jokes. “You were also the genteel overlord of the infamous magazine ‘beauty cupboard’, which is essentially the entire ground floor of David Jones crammed into labelled baskets in a small closet with no air…but who needs air when you have endless Tom Ford? This position of power made you everyone on the magazine’s best friend.”

Despite her cynicism with elements of the industry she had longed to be in for so long, Justine also captures the refreshing, giddy delight at the small moments that made up her career in glossy magazines. She’s grateful for her career, but she is equally clear-eyed about what it was.

Today Justine is head of content of fashion & prestige for leading content agency Medium Rare, and the editor-in-chief of Jones, the brand magazine from David Jones; a custom publishing gig for a well-known luxury brand that many who worked in the old glossy world of magazines would kill for.

Over an old-fashioned phone call, using the new technology of Zoom, Justine talked candidly about redefining success and rediscovering her identity - and the future of fashion media. We also gossiped a little about previous companies… but that’s between us.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Why did you write the book? Had you kept a diary of your time in magazines and prior?

Justine: Gosh, no, absolutely not. And that's probably why none of the book should be trusted [laughs]. I didn't set out to write a memoir; I had set out to write a book of pop culture essays. My editor’s letters had always been very first person, and so I had this idea that I would write about some of the things that are happening in the world around us, but from that perspective - in the same way that I used to write those letters.

I'd signed the book deal and, I don’t know why, I had agreed for the manuscript to be handed in the same week that my fourth child was due. I think in my head I was thinking, ‘I won’t sleep anyway, I’m a bit of an insomniac, I’ll need something to do’.

I was also starting a brand new job, and I quickly realised that being an old dog learning new tricks was going to be a lot trickier than I had imagined. So the manuscript deadline came and went and I hadn't written a single word [laughs].

Time went on and I tried to get out of writing the book many times. I guess, because I had been through so much change. I turned 40 and I'd gotten divorced, remarried, had another baby. The rest of my children were transitioning out of the baby stage into older children, teenagers. I had left what had been my only job and dream for the past 20 something years, and was starting this whole new life.

And so what was coming out of me naturally, in those odd moments where I would actually sit down to write the book, was something much more cathartic, and much more about where I was in my life: a woman at the mid point, looking back and kind of making sense of it all, taking stock of what had been and where I was going next.

I had never intended to be a memoirist in any way. I kept arguing with the publishing house because I was saying, I'm not old enough and I'm, too uninteresting to have done anything for my ‘memoir’.

I'm really interested to talk to you about this idea of ambition, which you write about in the book. It's been really prevalent in the magazine and fashion space - and at a company like Bauer, where there were these super hungry, ambitious young women gunning for the top. And you wrote about how you wanted this one job for so many years - the editor of Elle - but also this feeling once you achieved it. I identify with that and I imagine a lot of other women will too. Can you talk a bit more about that, and also how you processed it once you got to that point?

For me, I’d wanted to be an editor for almost my entire life - ever since I could read. Elle was the first place I ever did work experience. So being the editor of Elle was always my ultimate goal. And when I achieved it, it wasn't so much that the job didn't live up to its expectations - in so many ways, it did; it was everything that I wanted it to be and more. But in many other ways, I was such a different person to who I was when I first started having that dream.

Of course a 14-year-old is in no way a 40-year-old and, and that girl was long gone. And the woman that I had become, who had lots of children who needed me, who was finally, after many attempts, in a really happy marriage, and settled in ways that I had never been before.

That all made me, at one point suddenly, look around and think ‘is this thing that I have wanted forever, is it serving me in the way that I always thought it would or that I need it to now?’ My decision was that ultimately, no, it wasn't.

That, combined with the fact that there were huge cuts going on in my industry and huge change coming - it all came together in this perfect storm that made me eventually leave a job that I genuinely thought they would be wheeling me out from.

I was also very sure that I was a much more grounded editor than many of the editors that I knew. I've always lived in Palm Beach, which is out of the city, and I don’t go to loads of fashion parties. And I thought, this is a decision that I've made for my family and I'll be fine about it.

But when it was gone, all of a sudden I didn't know who I was. And I was really shocked by that because I didn't think that my sense of self was that caught up in it. And it genuinely was; I really had an identity crisis because I couldn't identify myself in a single sentence.

‘Hi, I'm Justin Cullen, I’m the editor in chief of Elle magazine.’ That says a lot; people know what that means. But I didn't have that anymore. And I didn't know what came next.

I had also lived my life with this determination and very clear goals and almost tunnel vision around that job. Once that was out of my life…

It was a little bit like after the US election last year, when I wasn't getting up to check the New York Times three times a night. I joked to a friend, ‘I'm bereft; even though I’m thrilled, I have nothing to do now!’

It was a little bit like that, where I suddenly felt a little empty because I was suddenly the person who was unsure about what was next or what the plan was. I always had a plan. That was a new experience for me, and I don't think I handled it very well. I cried a lot. I felt really insecure. I felt irrelevant.

I think many women at my age start to feel that or wonder if they're becoming irrelevant anyway, particularly when you work in fashion.

This has been bubbling away in the background for a while, but particularly over the past year, there has been a lot of rethinking around ambition and the collapse of ‘girl boss culture’ - and by extension, the ‘woman's interest’ industry, with a lot of title or magazines having this reckoning. That sort of feeds into what you're talking about.

Yeah. I mean, it's a wonderful thing that we are finally talking really honestly about success, happiness, ambition, and how they all merge together. Particularly for women: this idea of how you juggle and ‘do it all’ and the expectations that are put on us.

I'm really fascinated at the moment by this idea of women in my age group in particular - at this point in time that we're living in, particularly after COVID, where we have small children, because we maybe had them a little bit later. I mean, I've actually had children at every age in my life… But our parents are ageing; we should be banging on the glass ceiling, but women have come off harder than anyone through COVID and through the changes in the job market.

We’re really at this critical point of needing to be much more real with each other about what we're able to do and what we're taking on. I've said this before, but I really think that the game is so rigged against women being able to succeed.

When you were at Elle, you produced a lot of innovative covers - the cover shot with an iPhone, putting an influencer on the cover, the mirrored cover, the breastfeeding cover. Looking back, it's amazing that you were able to do those things - but did you feel supported in making those creative decisions?

I did by the end, yeah. When we first launched Elle in Australia, people really questioned whether we were too young or quirky. We had a lot of humour in the magazine and we really played around with design; I was much more inspired by New York magazine or US Esquire. It was important that we felt different, that we weren't just another luxury fashion magazine because Australia already made beautiful versions of that.

And so there was a quirkiness to Elle that was really important to me to come across but the market wasn't quite sure about that at the beginning. And particularly internally at Bauer, the management side was a little unsure whether we were taking it in the right direction.

But as we started to do some of those covers, we had a couple of wins. Some of them were accidental - the breastfeeding cover was just a shot that we happened to capture on the day. I was lucky enough to have a publisher who was supportive; we sort of hedged our bets and made it the subscriber cover because we would never have been able to run it as the newsstand cover that sold in the supermarket.

But because those covers were successful - and because Instagram was enormous by that stage - they got lots of attention globally. So people started to see the value in allowing us to be brave and allowing us to be a bit more on the zeitgeist than some of the other titles could comfortably be. By the end, people would come to me and be like, ‘what are you going to do next?’

I always want to do things that get people talking - that is kicking off a conversation rather than necessarily just being part of it or talking about it later.

It’s interesting because back then maybe it was a newish thing in the local market, but today everyone has to have a story, create a talking point; it has to ‘land’ on Instagram.

Absolutely. But you know, it wasn’t that long ago that I was at Shop Til You Drop or maybe the very early days of Elle, and people were telling me that I wasn't allowed to run Rebel Wilson on the cover. There was still, as you would know, so much mythology and superstition around magazine comes. At that point I was being told, ‘oh, an Asian girl would never sell on the cover’. I had a publisher a long, long time ago who had a weird rule that you had to see someone's eyelashes on the side of their eye.

It wasn't that long ago that we were being told the green masthead would never sell. All of these things are ridiculous and stopped magazine editors, for a really, really long time, from trying to do anything new.

For a long time, I think the luxury brands were probably more brave and ahead of the curve than the media - where everyone was in this sort of weird cycle of confirmation bias.

What's the response been since you've published the book and you've written about some of these magazine truths, like being asked to lighten Beyoncé’s skin - which obviously has huge shock value for those outside of publishing, but for those in it… those kind of conversations happened a lot.

Everybody knew that those things were happening. We're talking and writing about that now and it has had a lot of attention. But everybody knew that was happening at the time and not putting up enough of a fight.

I feel like there's an entire generation of magazine editors who were forced to do things, and were probably in that transitional period of thinking, ‘this is not something that I'm comfortable with it’. When it came to being asked to change body shapes and that's sort of thing, I know that I would lie about it - I would go and pretend that I had done it and then come back and say, ‘yeah I did it’.

But the reaction to the more personal side of the book has been really fascinating. One of the Sunday magazines here in Australia ran an excerpt before the book came out and, of course, they chose the chapter when I realised that I was married to the wrong person and wanted to get divorced.

The first few emails and messages that I got from that were really aggressive. I was freaking out thinking, oh god, this is the reaction I get. Why was I so honest? Why did I put this out there? But then I looked into each of those people - there were six messages - and they were all from men. And you know, I’d go a bit deeper and one was a QAnon  supporter…

…I love that you researched them!

Of course I did! You can find out a lot about someone just from an Instagram [laughs].

But then messages started to come through from women. They responded in a way that I never imagined to that sort of honesty. I guess, they might be feeling that I've articulated their own experience, whether that's about a career readjustment that's needed to happen or about the reality of having children and trying to have a career and what that sometimes looks like, or the more personal stuff about divorce and remarriage, having children, miscarriages, that sort of thing.

That's been so incredibly heartwarming and humbling. I've had this relationship with women my entire career [through magazines], and so to have it again now, but in a much more intimate way, has been incredible.

This is a nerdy question but what's your take on where fashion is right now, in Australia and globally? Because it feels like, ‘post COVID’, we were kind of promised that everything was going to change, but has it?

Yes, we were. I think we all kind of went into COVID thinking, this is the reset that we've all needed. There was this crazy cycle of of newness and excess and markdowns, and people couldn't get off this hamster wheel of newness and a fashion calendar that didn't make sense with how people shop.

I don't know if that change has happened as rapidly as we thought it would. There are some changes - you could never start a fashion business now without a strong sustainability message and really looking at supply chains and production.

In some ways the excess has gone; and that was much needed. But the seasons are still happening. We're still looking for newness. So that adjustment hasn't kicked in completely yet.

There was also a new phase where everybody was talking about the ‘roaring twenties. That was really apparent at fashion week where you’re seeing all these fun party dresses and sequins and minis - there was this sense of, the world is reopening again and we're going to have a great time in it. But sitting there as, as groups of women, looking at each other going, ‘are we ready for that?’ I think there was a lot of pinning of hopes and dreams on this Bacchanalia that’s never coming.

So there is more turmoil probably coming for the fashion industry, as we work that out. We will keep predicting one thing and it may go in that direction or it may not, and that in itself is going to cause quite a bit of angst and uncertainty. That is the only thing that we can be certain of.

But I think that sense of realism coming into fashion is more important than ever.

What do you think the role of a magazine is today? There was this whole thing of ‘magazines are over’ - but now there seems to be almost another resurgence: Harper’s Bazaar Australia is returning after being closed last year, T Magazine has launched locally. And here in New Zealand, there are almost more magazines post COVID. But what’s the role and future?

There are two things that really stand out for me in terms of magazines and where we're heading. The idea of those big international mastheads, that does kind of belong to another time.

The magazines that we all loved, and that I worked on it - they represented something where, you know, it was the Elle lens or the Vogue lens; you brought into that as a customer. Whereas now, everyone is much more aware of who they are and I think it's those niche magazines that can really speak to people. You want to stand for something and you want your readers to see themselves in you, rather than needing your lens as a masthead put onto them.

The information that we get, the places that we look to for entertainment, they're all so targeted and so niche now, and I don't think magazines are any different. That's what I would want to stay as a customer.

Also, brands. Of course I say this as someone who edits magazines for brands - but part of the reason why I made that move is because brands have a big part to play because they have the reach, they have the distribution channels.

That used to frustrate me as an editor all the time - I'm not going to find my readers in a supermarket or in a news agency, they just don't exist there. So looking for dynamic distribution was, I always thought, the only way forward. The magazine I make for David Jones [Jones magazine], that is distributed by direct mail to people who are customers and who are excited by it. It's not a catalog that we're putting together - it’s a magazine made by magazine people with a really strong eye for quality content and still doing that storytelling.

From a fashion perspective, I think that branded content makes so much sense. And I think that audiences really get a sense now of not only getting information in this way, they are also being entertained. Yes they’re aware that they’re being sold to - but they’ve always been aware of that when they read a fashion magazine, no matter where it comes from. So it's about closing the loop, but also making sure that that content is still playing the role that content has always played.

So for me, niche and brand are the two areas that have so much to offer.

• Semi-Gloss: Magazines, Motherhood and Misadventures in Having it All by Justine Cullen, $33 (published by Allen & Unwin). Buy it from Bookety Book Books here.

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Once upon a time in magazines, gloss was the pinnacle. It was the shiny front cover gleaming from the newsstand (if you could afford a shiny masthead, even better); and it was the intimidatingly shiny hair of so many ambitious women who inhabited this fabulous universe. Gloss was luxury, it was premium, it was the absolute goal.

Slowly but surely - and for numerous reasons (hi Instagram) - that hard, glossy facade of magazine publishing has been dulled. For many who had been at the centre of that world - of fashion shoots, international travel, celebrity, beauty cupboards and cover superstitions - the high-gloss ideal that was often presented, purposefully or not, had always rung a little false.

Justine Cullen wants to tear down that facade. The high-profile magazine editor who launched Elle into the Australian market in 2013 had worked at the same publishing company for 15 years, a childhood dream she had held for many years prior. For many, she was the pinnacle of magazine success - a young editor helming an iconic title, with high-profile media friends, the mother of young children, dream (shiny) hair.

Justine Cullen. Photography / Georges Antoni

Justine had spent 15 years working at 54 Park Street, the famous-in-media-circles Sydney address of publishing house ACP, later Bauer, now Are Media (she was also in the 2011 reality show, Park St). That’s a long time in publishing, especially in the context of 2021. But in 2018 she resigned from her role as editor of Elle (almost a month after her Bauer colleague Kellie Hush had quit as editor of Harper’s Bazaar; in mag land, it was quite the scandal at the time). It was a big decision. “It was the only job I’d ever wanted or expected to have in my life, right up until the day I realised that it wasn’t.”

The delightful Aussie reflects on that and more in Semi-Gloss: Magazines, motherhood and misadventures in having it all, a book that honestly and self-deprecatingly chronicles her journey in magazine land; from “mag hack” to mother of four boys to divorcée to 40-something seemingly starting all over again. The book is, she declares in the intro, not a self help top, not a memoir, not an Australian Devil Wears Prada (although there are plenty of insidery fashion stories).

Rather, it’s a beautifully written and funny book of essays on from being multi-racial in Australia (Justine is Indonesian, Irish and Lebanese); Estée Lauder’s Youth Dew as an anchor to explore her relationship with family and her Nanna; co-parenting; finding love, losing love, then finding it again; and yes, ‘the juggle’.

There are plenty of refreshingly honest truths of working in magazines, like the chapter on being a beauty editor (and feeling like a fraud doing it) in the days when beauty advertising sustained lifestyle magazines.

“…you were a vital cog in the business of publishing,” she jokes. “You were also the genteel overlord of the infamous magazine ‘beauty cupboard’, which is essentially the entire ground floor of David Jones crammed into labelled baskets in a small closet with no air…but who needs air when you have endless Tom Ford? This position of power made you everyone on the magazine’s best friend.”

Despite her cynicism with elements of the industry she had longed to be in for so long, Justine also captures the refreshing, giddy delight at the small moments that made up her career in glossy magazines. She’s grateful for her career, but she is equally clear-eyed about what it was.

Today Justine is head of content of fashion & prestige for leading content agency Medium Rare, and the editor-in-chief of Jones, the brand magazine from David Jones; a custom publishing gig for a well-known luxury brand that many who worked in the old glossy world of magazines would kill for.

Over an old-fashioned phone call, using the new technology of Zoom, Justine talked candidly about redefining success and rediscovering her identity - and the future of fashion media. We also gossiped a little about previous companies… but that’s between us.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Why did you write the book? Had you kept a diary of your time in magazines and prior?

Justine: Gosh, no, absolutely not. And that's probably why none of the book should be trusted [laughs]. I didn't set out to write a memoir; I had set out to write a book of pop culture essays. My editor’s letters had always been very first person, and so I had this idea that I would write about some of the things that are happening in the world around us, but from that perspective - in the same way that I used to write those letters.

I'd signed the book deal and, I don’t know why, I had agreed for the manuscript to be handed in the same week that my fourth child was due. I think in my head I was thinking, ‘I won’t sleep anyway, I’m a bit of an insomniac, I’ll need something to do’.

I was also starting a brand new job, and I quickly realised that being an old dog learning new tricks was going to be a lot trickier than I had imagined. So the manuscript deadline came and went and I hadn't written a single word [laughs].

Time went on and I tried to get out of writing the book many times. I guess, because I had been through so much change. I turned 40 and I'd gotten divorced, remarried, had another baby. The rest of my children were transitioning out of the baby stage into older children, teenagers. I had left what had been my only job and dream for the past 20 something years, and was starting this whole new life.

And so what was coming out of me naturally, in those odd moments where I would actually sit down to write the book, was something much more cathartic, and much more about where I was in my life: a woman at the mid point, looking back and kind of making sense of it all, taking stock of what had been and where I was going next.

I had never intended to be a memoirist in any way. I kept arguing with the publishing house because I was saying, I'm not old enough and I'm, too uninteresting to have done anything for my ‘memoir’.

I'm really interested to talk to you about this idea of ambition, which you write about in the book. It's been really prevalent in the magazine and fashion space - and at a company like Bauer, where there were these super hungry, ambitious young women gunning for the top. And you wrote about how you wanted this one job for so many years - the editor of Elle - but also this feeling once you achieved it. I identify with that and I imagine a lot of other women will too. Can you talk a bit more about that, and also how you processed it once you got to that point?

For me, I’d wanted to be an editor for almost my entire life - ever since I could read. Elle was the first place I ever did work experience. So being the editor of Elle was always my ultimate goal. And when I achieved it, it wasn't so much that the job didn't live up to its expectations - in so many ways, it did; it was everything that I wanted it to be and more. But in many other ways, I was such a different person to who I was when I first started having that dream.

Of course a 14-year-old is in no way a 40-year-old and, and that girl was long gone. And the woman that I had become, who had lots of children who needed me, who was finally, after many attempts, in a really happy marriage, and settled in ways that I had never been before.

That all made me, at one point suddenly, look around and think ‘is this thing that I have wanted forever, is it serving me in the way that I always thought it would or that I need it to now?’ My decision was that ultimately, no, it wasn't.

That, combined with the fact that there were huge cuts going on in my industry and huge change coming - it all came together in this perfect storm that made me eventually leave a job that I genuinely thought they would be wheeling me out from.

I was also very sure that I was a much more grounded editor than many of the editors that I knew. I've always lived in Palm Beach, which is out of the city, and I don’t go to loads of fashion parties. And I thought, this is a decision that I've made for my family and I'll be fine about it.

But when it was gone, all of a sudden I didn't know who I was. And I was really shocked by that because I didn't think that my sense of self was that caught up in it. And it genuinely was; I really had an identity crisis because I couldn't identify myself in a single sentence.

‘Hi, I'm Justin Cullen, I’m the editor in chief of Elle magazine.’ That says a lot; people know what that means. But I didn't have that anymore. And I didn't know what came next.

I had also lived my life with this determination and very clear goals and almost tunnel vision around that job. Once that was out of my life…

It was a little bit like after the US election last year, when I wasn't getting up to check the New York Times three times a night. I joked to a friend, ‘I'm bereft; even though I’m thrilled, I have nothing to do now!’

It was a little bit like that, where I suddenly felt a little empty because I was suddenly the person who was unsure about what was next or what the plan was. I always had a plan. That was a new experience for me, and I don't think I handled it very well. I cried a lot. I felt really insecure. I felt irrelevant.

I think many women at my age start to feel that or wonder if they're becoming irrelevant anyway, particularly when you work in fashion.

This has been bubbling away in the background for a while, but particularly over the past year, there has been a lot of rethinking around ambition and the collapse of ‘girl boss culture’ - and by extension, the ‘woman's interest’ industry, with a lot of title or magazines having this reckoning. That sort of feeds into what you're talking about.

Yeah. I mean, it's a wonderful thing that we are finally talking really honestly about success, happiness, ambition, and how they all merge together. Particularly for women: this idea of how you juggle and ‘do it all’ and the expectations that are put on us.

I'm really fascinated at the moment by this idea of women in my age group in particular - at this point in time that we're living in, particularly after COVID, where we have small children, because we maybe had them a little bit later. I mean, I've actually had children at every age in my life… But our parents are ageing; we should be banging on the glass ceiling, but women have come off harder than anyone through COVID and through the changes in the job market.

We’re really at this critical point of needing to be much more real with each other about what we're able to do and what we're taking on. I've said this before, but I really think that the game is so rigged against women being able to succeed.

When you were at Elle, you produced a lot of innovative covers - the cover shot with an iPhone, putting an influencer on the cover, the mirrored cover, the breastfeeding cover. Looking back, it's amazing that you were able to do those things - but did you feel supported in making those creative decisions?

I did by the end, yeah. When we first launched Elle in Australia, people really questioned whether we were too young or quirky. We had a lot of humour in the magazine and we really played around with design; I was much more inspired by New York magazine or US Esquire. It was important that we felt different, that we weren't just another luxury fashion magazine because Australia already made beautiful versions of that.

And so there was a quirkiness to Elle that was really important to me to come across but the market wasn't quite sure about that at the beginning. And particularly internally at Bauer, the management side was a little unsure whether we were taking it in the right direction.

But as we started to do some of those covers, we had a couple of wins. Some of them were accidental - the breastfeeding cover was just a shot that we happened to capture on the day. I was lucky enough to have a publisher who was supportive; we sort of hedged our bets and made it the subscriber cover because we would never have been able to run it as the newsstand cover that sold in the supermarket.

But because those covers were successful - and because Instagram was enormous by that stage - they got lots of attention globally. So people started to see the value in allowing us to be brave and allowing us to be a bit more on the zeitgeist than some of the other titles could comfortably be. By the end, people would come to me and be like, ‘what are you going to do next?’

I always want to do things that get people talking - that is kicking off a conversation rather than necessarily just being part of it or talking about it later.

It’s interesting because back then maybe it was a newish thing in the local market, but today everyone has to have a story, create a talking point; it has to ‘land’ on Instagram.

Absolutely. But you know, it wasn’t that long ago that I was at Shop Til You Drop or maybe the very early days of Elle, and people were telling me that I wasn't allowed to run Rebel Wilson on the cover. There was still, as you would know, so much mythology and superstition around magazine comes. At that point I was being told, ‘oh, an Asian girl would never sell on the cover’. I had a publisher a long, long time ago who had a weird rule that you had to see someone's eyelashes on the side of their eye.

It wasn't that long ago that we were being told the green masthead would never sell. All of these things are ridiculous and stopped magazine editors, for a really, really long time, from trying to do anything new.

For a long time, I think the luxury brands were probably more brave and ahead of the curve than the media - where everyone was in this sort of weird cycle of confirmation bias.

What's the response been since you've published the book and you've written about some of these magazine truths, like being asked to lighten Beyoncé’s skin - which obviously has huge shock value for those outside of publishing, but for those in it… those kind of conversations happened a lot.

Everybody knew that those things were happening. We're talking and writing about that now and it has had a lot of attention. But everybody knew that was happening at the time and not putting up enough of a fight.

I feel like there's an entire generation of magazine editors who were forced to do things, and were probably in that transitional period of thinking, ‘this is not something that I'm comfortable with it’. When it came to being asked to change body shapes and that's sort of thing, I know that I would lie about it - I would go and pretend that I had done it and then come back and say, ‘yeah I did it’.

But the reaction to the more personal side of the book has been really fascinating. One of the Sunday magazines here in Australia ran an excerpt before the book came out and, of course, they chose the chapter when I realised that I was married to the wrong person and wanted to get divorced.

The first few emails and messages that I got from that were really aggressive. I was freaking out thinking, oh god, this is the reaction I get. Why was I so honest? Why did I put this out there? But then I looked into each of those people - there were six messages - and they were all from men. And you know, I’d go a bit deeper and one was a QAnon  supporter…

…I love that you researched them!

Of course I did! You can find out a lot about someone just from an Instagram [laughs].

But then messages started to come through from women. They responded in a way that I never imagined to that sort of honesty. I guess, they might be feeling that I've articulated their own experience, whether that's about a career readjustment that's needed to happen or about the reality of having children and trying to have a career and what that sometimes looks like, or the more personal stuff about divorce and remarriage, having children, miscarriages, that sort of thing.

That's been so incredibly heartwarming and humbling. I've had this relationship with women my entire career [through magazines], and so to have it again now, but in a much more intimate way, has been incredible.

This is a nerdy question but what's your take on where fashion is right now, in Australia and globally? Because it feels like, ‘post COVID’, we were kind of promised that everything was going to change, but has it?

Yes, we were. I think we all kind of went into COVID thinking, this is the reset that we've all needed. There was this crazy cycle of of newness and excess and markdowns, and people couldn't get off this hamster wheel of newness and a fashion calendar that didn't make sense with how people shop.

I don't know if that change has happened as rapidly as we thought it would. There are some changes - you could never start a fashion business now without a strong sustainability message and really looking at supply chains and production.

In some ways the excess has gone; and that was much needed. But the seasons are still happening. We're still looking for newness. So that adjustment hasn't kicked in completely yet.

There was also a new phase where everybody was talking about the ‘roaring twenties. That was really apparent at fashion week where you’re seeing all these fun party dresses and sequins and minis - there was this sense of, the world is reopening again and we're going to have a great time in it. But sitting there as, as groups of women, looking at each other going, ‘are we ready for that?’ I think there was a lot of pinning of hopes and dreams on this Bacchanalia that’s never coming.

So there is more turmoil probably coming for the fashion industry, as we work that out. We will keep predicting one thing and it may go in that direction or it may not, and that in itself is going to cause quite a bit of angst and uncertainty. That is the only thing that we can be certain of.

But I think that sense of realism coming into fashion is more important than ever.

What do you think the role of a magazine is today? There was this whole thing of ‘magazines are over’ - but now there seems to be almost another resurgence: Harper’s Bazaar Australia is returning after being closed last year, T Magazine has launched locally. And here in New Zealand, there are almost more magazines post COVID. But what’s the role and future?

There are two things that really stand out for me in terms of magazines and where we're heading. The idea of those big international mastheads, that does kind of belong to another time.

The magazines that we all loved, and that I worked on it - they represented something where, you know, it was the Elle lens or the Vogue lens; you brought into that as a customer. Whereas now, everyone is much more aware of who they are and I think it's those niche magazines that can really speak to people. You want to stand for something and you want your readers to see themselves in you, rather than needing your lens as a masthead put onto them.

The information that we get, the places that we look to for entertainment, they're all so targeted and so niche now, and I don't think magazines are any different. That's what I would want to stay as a customer.

Also, brands. Of course I say this as someone who edits magazines for brands - but part of the reason why I made that move is because brands have a big part to play because they have the reach, they have the distribution channels.

That used to frustrate me as an editor all the time - I'm not going to find my readers in a supermarket or in a news agency, they just don't exist there. So looking for dynamic distribution was, I always thought, the only way forward. The magazine I make for David Jones [Jones magazine], that is distributed by direct mail to people who are customers and who are excited by it. It's not a catalog that we're putting together - it’s a magazine made by magazine people with a really strong eye for quality content and still doing that storytelling.

From a fashion perspective, I think that branded content makes so much sense. And I think that audiences really get a sense now of not only getting information in this way, they are also being entertained. Yes they’re aware that they’re being sold to - but they’ve always been aware of that when they read a fashion magazine, no matter where it comes from. So it's about closing the loop, but also making sure that that content is still playing the role that content has always played.

So for me, niche and brand are the two areas that have so much to offer.

• Semi-Gloss: Magazines, Motherhood and Misadventures in Having it All by Justine Cullen, $33 (published by Allen & Unwin). Buy it from Bookety Book Books here.

Creativity, evocative visual storytelling and good journalism come at a price. Support our work and join the Ensemble membership program
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Life lessons with magazine editor Justine Cullen

Once upon a time in magazines, gloss was the pinnacle. It was the shiny front cover gleaming from the newsstand (if you could afford a shiny masthead, even better); and it was the intimidatingly shiny hair of so many ambitious women who inhabited this fabulous universe. Gloss was luxury, it was premium, it was the absolute goal.

Slowly but surely - and for numerous reasons (hi Instagram) - that hard, glossy facade of magazine publishing has been dulled. For many who had been at the centre of that world - of fashion shoots, international travel, celebrity, beauty cupboards and cover superstitions - the high-gloss ideal that was often presented, purposefully or not, had always rung a little false.

Justine Cullen wants to tear down that facade. The high-profile magazine editor who launched Elle into the Australian market in 2013 had worked at the same publishing company for 15 years, a childhood dream she had held for many years prior. For many, she was the pinnacle of magazine success - a young editor helming an iconic title, with high-profile media friends, the mother of young children, dream (shiny) hair.

Justine Cullen. Photography / Georges Antoni

Justine had spent 15 years working at 54 Park Street, the famous-in-media-circles Sydney address of publishing house ACP, later Bauer, now Are Media (she was also in the 2011 reality show, Park St). That’s a long time in publishing, especially in the context of 2021. But in 2018 she resigned from her role as editor of Elle (almost a month after her Bauer colleague Kellie Hush had quit as editor of Harper’s Bazaar; in mag land, it was quite the scandal at the time). It was a big decision. “It was the only job I’d ever wanted or expected to have in my life, right up until the day I realised that it wasn’t.”

The delightful Aussie reflects on that and more in Semi-Gloss: Magazines, motherhood and misadventures in having it all, a book that honestly and self-deprecatingly chronicles her journey in magazine land; from “mag hack” to mother of four boys to divorcée to 40-something seemingly starting all over again. The book is, she declares in the intro, not a self help top, not a memoir, not an Australian Devil Wears Prada (although there are plenty of insidery fashion stories).

Rather, it’s a beautifully written and funny book of essays on from being multi-racial in Australia (Justine is Indonesian, Irish and Lebanese); Estée Lauder’s Youth Dew as an anchor to explore her relationship with family and her Nanna; co-parenting; finding love, losing love, then finding it again; and yes, ‘the juggle’.

There are plenty of refreshingly honest truths of working in magazines, like the chapter on being a beauty editor (and feeling like a fraud doing it) in the days when beauty advertising sustained lifestyle magazines.

“…you were a vital cog in the business of publishing,” she jokes. “You were also the genteel overlord of the infamous magazine ‘beauty cupboard’, which is essentially the entire ground floor of David Jones crammed into labelled baskets in a small closet with no air…but who needs air when you have endless Tom Ford? This position of power made you everyone on the magazine’s best friend.”

Despite her cynicism with elements of the industry she had longed to be in for so long, Justine also captures the refreshing, giddy delight at the small moments that made up her career in glossy magazines. She’s grateful for her career, but she is equally clear-eyed about what it was.

Today Justine is head of content of fashion & prestige for leading content agency Medium Rare, and the editor-in-chief of Jones, the brand magazine from David Jones; a custom publishing gig for a well-known luxury brand that many who worked in the old glossy world of magazines would kill for.

Over an old-fashioned phone call, using the new technology of Zoom, Justine talked candidly about redefining success and rediscovering her identity - and the future of fashion media. We also gossiped a little about previous companies… but that’s between us.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Why did you write the book? Had you kept a diary of your time in magazines and prior?

Justine: Gosh, no, absolutely not. And that's probably why none of the book should be trusted [laughs]. I didn't set out to write a memoir; I had set out to write a book of pop culture essays. My editor’s letters had always been very first person, and so I had this idea that I would write about some of the things that are happening in the world around us, but from that perspective - in the same way that I used to write those letters.

I'd signed the book deal and, I don’t know why, I had agreed for the manuscript to be handed in the same week that my fourth child was due. I think in my head I was thinking, ‘I won’t sleep anyway, I’m a bit of an insomniac, I’ll need something to do’.

I was also starting a brand new job, and I quickly realised that being an old dog learning new tricks was going to be a lot trickier than I had imagined. So the manuscript deadline came and went and I hadn't written a single word [laughs].

Time went on and I tried to get out of writing the book many times. I guess, because I had been through so much change. I turned 40 and I'd gotten divorced, remarried, had another baby. The rest of my children were transitioning out of the baby stage into older children, teenagers. I had left what had been my only job and dream for the past 20 something years, and was starting this whole new life.

And so what was coming out of me naturally, in those odd moments where I would actually sit down to write the book, was something much more cathartic, and much more about where I was in my life: a woman at the mid point, looking back and kind of making sense of it all, taking stock of what had been and where I was going next.

I had never intended to be a memoirist in any way. I kept arguing with the publishing house because I was saying, I'm not old enough and I'm, too uninteresting to have done anything for my ‘memoir’.

I'm really interested to talk to you about this idea of ambition, which you write about in the book. It's been really prevalent in the magazine and fashion space - and at a company like Bauer, where there were these super hungry, ambitious young women gunning for the top. And you wrote about how you wanted this one job for so many years - the editor of Elle - but also this feeling once you achieved it. I identify with that and I imagine a lot of other women will too. Can you talk a bit more about that, and also how you processed it once you got to that point?

For me, I’d wanted to be an editor for almost my entire life - ever since I could read. Elle was the first place I ever did work experience. So being the editor of Elle was always my ultimate goal. And when I achieved it, it wasn't so much that the job didn't live up to its expectations - in so many ways, it did; it was everything that I wanted it to be and more. But in many other ways, I was such a different person to who I was when I first started having that dream.

Of course a 14-year-old is in no way a 40-year-old and, and that girl was long gone. And the woman that I had become, who had lots of children who needed me, who was finally, after many attempts, in a really happy marriage, and settled in ways that I had never been before.

That all made me, at one point suddenly, look around and think ‘is this thing that I have wanted forever, is it serving me in the way that I always thought it would or that I need it to now?’ My decision was that ultimately, no, it wasn't.

That, combined with the fact that there were huge cuts going on in my industry and huge change coming - it all came together in this perfect storm that made me eventually leave a job that I genuinely thought they would be wheeling me out from.

I was also very sure that I was a much more grounded editor than many of the editors that I knew. I've always lived in Palm Beach, which is out of the city, and I don’t go to loads of fashion parties. And I thought, this is a decision that I've made for my family and I'll be fine about it.

But when it was gone, all of a sudden I didn't know who I was. And I was really shocked by that because I didn't think that my sense of self was that caught up in it. And it genuinely was; I really had an identity crisis because I couldn't identify myself in a single sentence.

‘Hi, I'm Justin Cullen, I’m the editor in chief of Elle magazine.’ That says a lot; people know what that means. But I didn't have that anymore. And I didn't know what came next.

I had also lived my life with this determination and very clear goals and almost tunnel vision around that job. Once that was out of my life…

It was a little bit like after the US election last year, when I wasn't getting up to check the New York Times three times a night. I joked to a friend, ‘I'm bereft; even though I’m thrilled, I have nothing to do now!’

It was a little bit like that, where I suddenly felt a little empty because I was suddenly the person who was unsure about what was next or what the plan was. I always had a plan. That was a new experience for me, and I don't think I handled it very well. I cried a lot. I felt really insecure. I felt irrelevant.

I think many women at my age start to feel that or wonder if they're becoming irrelevant anyway, particularly when you work in fashion.

This has been bubbling away in the background for a while, but particularly over the past year, there has been a lot of rethinking around ambition and the collapse of ‘girl boss culture’ - and by extension, the ‘woman's interest’ industry, with a lot of title or magazines having this reckoning. That sort of feeds into what you're talking about.

Yeah. I mean, it's a wonderful thing that we are finally talking really honestly about success, happiness, ambition, and how they all merge together. Particularly for women: this idea of how you juggle and ‘do it all’ and the expectations that are put on us.

I'm really fascinated at the moment by this idea of women in my age group in particular - at this point in time that we're living in, particularly after COVID, where we have small children, because we maybe had them a little bit later. I mean, I've actually had children at every age in my life… But our parents are ageing; we should be banging on the glass ceiling, but women have come off harder than anyone through COVID and through the changes in the job market.

We’re really at this critical point of needing to be much more real with each other about what we're able to do and what we're taking on. I've said this before, but I really think that the game is so rigged against women being able to succeed.

When you were at Elle, you produced a lot of innovative covers - the cover shot with an iPhone, putting an influencer on the cover, the mirrored cover, the breastfeeding cover. Looking back, it's amazing that you were able to do those things - but did you feel supported in making those creative decisions?

I did by the end, yeah. When we first launched Elle in Australia, people really questioned whether we were too young or quirky. We had a lot of humour in the magazine and we really played around with design; I was much more inspired by New York magazine or US Esquire. It was important that we felt different, that we weren't just another luxury fashion magazine because Australia already made beautiful versions of that.

And so there was a quirkiness to Elle that was really important to me to come across but the market wasn't quite sure about that at the beginning. And particularly internally at Bauer, the management side was a little unsure whether we were taking it in the right direction.

But as we started to do some of those covers, we had a couple of wins. Some of them were accidental - the breastfeeding cover was just a shot that we happened to capture on the day. I was lucky enough to have a publisher who was supportive; we sort of hedged our bets and made it the subscriber cover because we would never have been able to run it as the newsstand cover that sold in the supermarket.

But because those covers were successful - and because Instagram was enormous by that stage - they got lots of attention globally. So people started to see the value in allowing us to be brave and allowing us to be a bit more on the zeitgeist than some of the other titles could comfortably be. By the end, people would come to me and be like, ‘what are you going to do next?’

I always want to do things that get people talking - that is kicking off a conversation rather than necessarily just being part of it or talking about it later.

It’s interesting because back then maybe it was a newish thing in the local market, but today everyone has to have a story, create a talking point; it has to ‘land’ on Instagram.

Absolutely. But you know, it wasn’t that long ago that I was at Shop Til You Drop or maybe the very early days of Elle, and people were telling me that I wasn't allowed to run Rebel Wilson on the cover. There was still, as you would know, so much mythology and superstition around magazine comes. At that point I was being told, ‘oh, an Asian girl would never sell on the cover’. I had a publisher a long, long time ago who had a weird rule that you had to see someone's eyelashes on the side of their eye.

It wasn't that long ago that we were being told the green masthead would never sell. All of these things are ridiculous and stopped magazine editors, for a really, really long time, from trying to do anything new.

For a long time, I think the luxury brands were probably more brave and ahead of the curve than the media - where everyone was in this sort of weird cycle of confirmation bias.

What's the response been since you've published the book and you've written about some of these magazine truths, like being asked to lighten Beyoncé’s skin - which obviously has huge shock value for those outside of publishing, but for those in it… those kind of conversations happened a lot.

Everybody knew that those things were happening. We're talking and writing about that now and it has had a lot of attention. But everybody knew that was happening at the time and not putting up enough of a fight.

I feel like there's an entire generation of magazine editors who were forced to do things, and were probably in that transitional period of thinking, ‘this is not something that I'm comfortable with it’. When it came to being asked to change body shapes and that's sort of thing, I know that I would lie about it - I would go and pretend that I had done it and then come back and say, ‘yeah I did it’.

But the reaction to the more personal side of the book has been really fascinating. One of the Sunday magazines here in Australia ran an excerpt before the book came out and, of course, they chose the chapter when I realised that I was married to the wrong person and wanted to get divorced.

The first few emails and messages that I got from that were really aggressive. I was freaking out thinking, oh god, this is the reaction I get. Why was I so honest? Why did I put this out there? But then I looked into each of those people - there were six messages - and they were all from men. And you know, I’d go a bit deeper and one was a QAnon  supporter…

…I love that you researched them!

Of course I did! You can find out a lot about someone just from an Instagram [laughs].

But then messages started to come through from women. They responded in a way that I never imagined to that sort of honesty. I guess, they might be feeling that I've articulated their own experience, whether that's about a career readjustment that's needed to happen or about the reality of having children and trying to have a career and what that sometimes looks like, or the more personal stuff about divorce and remarriage, having children, miscarriages, that sort of thing.

That's been so incredibly heartwarming and humbling. I've had this relationship with women my entire career [through magazines], and so to have it again now, but in a much more intimate way, has been incredible.

This is a nerdy question but what's your take on where fashion is right now, in Australia and globally? Because it feels like, ‘post COVID’, we were kind of promised that everything was going to change, but has it?

Yes, we were. I think we all kind of went into COVID thinking, this is the reset that we've all needed. There was this crazy cycle of of newness and excess and markdowns, and people couldn't get off this hamster wheel of newness and a fashion calendar that didn't make sense with how people shop.

I don't know if that change has happened as rapidly as we thought it would. There are some changes - you could never start a fashion business now without a strong sustainability message and really looking at supply chains and production.

In some ways the excess has gone; and that was much needed. But the seasons are still happening. We're still looking for newness. So that adjustment hasn't kicked in completely yet.

There was also a new phase where everybody was talking about the ‘roaring twenties. That was really apparent at fashion week where you’re seeing all these fun party dresses and sequins and minis - there was this sense of, the world is reopening again and we're going to have a great time in it. But sitting there as, as groups of women, looking at each other going, ‘are we ready for that?’ I think there was a lot of pinning of hopes and dreams on this Bacchanalia that’s never coming.

So there is more turmoil probably coming for the fashion industry, as we work that out. We will keep predicting one thing and it may go in that direction or it may not, and that in itself is going to cause quite a bit of angst and uncertainty. That is the only thing that we can be certain of.

But I think that sense of realism coming into fashion is more important than ever.

What do you think the role of a magazine is today? There was this whole thing of ‘magazines are over’ - but now there seems to be almost another resurgence: Harper’s Bazaar Australia is returning after being closed last year, T Magazine has launched locally. And here in New Zealand, there are almost more magazines post COVID. But what’s the role and future?

There are two things that really stand out for me in terms of magazines and where we're heading. The idea of those big international mastheads, that does kind of belong to another time.

The magazines that we all loved, and that I worked on it - they represented something where, you know, it was the Elle lens or the Vogue lens; you brought into that as a customer. Whereas now, everyone is much more aware of who they are and I think it's those niche magazines that can really speak to people. You want to stand for something and you want your readers to see themselves in you, rather than needing your lens as a masthead put onto them.

The information that we get, the places that we look to for entertainment, they're all so targeted and so niche now, and I don't think magazines are any different. That's what I would want to stay as a customer.

Also, brands. Of course I say this as someone who edits magazines for brands - but part of the reason why I made that move is because brands have a big part to play because they have the reach, they have the distribution channels.

That used to frustrate me as an editor all the time - I'm not going to find my readers in a supermarket or in a news agency, they just don't exist there. So looking for dynamic distribution was, I always thought, the only way forward. The magazine I make for David Jones [Jones magazine], that is distributed by direct mail to people who are customers and who are excited by it. It's not a catalog that we're putting together - it’s a magazine made by magazine people with a really strong eye for quality content and still doing that storytelling.

From a fashion perspective, I think that branded content makes so much sense. And I think that audiences really get a sense now of not only getting information in this way, they are also being entertained. Yes they’re aware that they’re being sold to - but they’ve always been aware of that when they read a fashion magazine, no matter where it comes from. So it's about closing the loop, but also making sure that that content is still playing the role that content has always played.

So for me, niche and brand are the two areas that have so much to offer.

• Semi-Gloss: Magazines, Motherhood and Misadventures in Having it All by Justine Cullen, $33 (published by Allen & Unwin). Buy it from Bookety Book Books here.

Creativity, evocative visual storytelling and good journalism come at a price. Support our work and join the Ensemble membership program
No items found.

Life lessons with magazine editor Justine Cullen

Once upon a time in magazines, gloss was the pinnacle. It was the shiny front cover gleaming from the newsstand (if you could afford a shiny masthead, even better); and it was the intimidatingly shiny hair of so many ambitious women who inhabited this fabulous universe. Gloss was luxury, it was premium, it was the absolute goal.

Slowly but surely - and for numerous reasons (hi Instagram) - that hard, glossy facade of magazine publishing has been dulled. For many who had been at the centre of that world - of fashion shoots, international travel, celebrity, beauty cupboards and cover superstitions - the high-gloss ideal that was often presented, purposefully or not, had always rung a little false.

Justine Cullen wants to tear down that facade. The high-profile magazine editor who launched Elle into the Australian market in 2013 had worked at the same publishing company for 15 years, a childhood dream she had held for many years prior. For many, she was the pinnacle of magazine success - a young editor helming an iconic title, with high-profile media friends, the mother of young children, dream (shiny) hair.

Justine Cullen. Photography / Georges Antoni

Justine had spent 15 years working at 54 Park Street, the famous-in-media-circles Sydney address of publishing house ACP, later Bauer, now Are Media (she was also in the 2011 reality show, Park St). That’s a long time in publishing, especially in the context of 2021. But in 2018 she resigned from her role as editor of Elle (almost a month after her Bauer colleague Kellie Hush had quit as editor of Harper’s Bazaar; in mag land, it was quite the scandal at the time). It was a big decision. “It was the only job I’d ever wanted or expected to have in my life, right up until the day I realised that it wasn’t.”

The delightful Aussie reflects on that and more in Semi-Gloss: Magazines, motherhood and misadventures in having it all, a book that honestly and self-deprecatingly chronicles her journey in magazine land; from “mag hack” to mother of four boys to divorcée to 40-something seemingly starting all over again. The book is, she declares in the intro, not a self help top, not a memoir, not an Australian Devil Wears Prada (although there are plenty of insidery fashion stories).

Rather, it’s a beautifully written and funny book of essays on from being multi-racial in Australia (Justine is Indonesian, Irish and Lebanese); Estée Lauder’s Youth Dew as an anchor to explore her relationship with family and her Nanna; co-parenting; finding love, losing love, then finding it again; and yes, ‘the juggle’.

There are plenty of refreshingly honest truths of working in magazines, like the chapter on being a beauty editor (and feeling like a fraud doing it) in the days when beauty advertising sustained lifestyle magazines.

“…you were a vital cog in the business of publishing,” she jokes. “You were also the genteel overlord of the infamous magazine ‘beauty cupboard’, which is essentially the entire ground floor of David Jones crammed into labelled baskets in a small closet with no air…but who needs air when you have endless Tom Ford? This position of power made you everyone on the magazine’s best friend.”

Despite her cynicism with elements of the industry she had longed to be in for so long, Justine also captures the refreshing, giddy delight at the small moments that made up her career in glossy magazines. She’s grateful for her career, but she is equally clear-eyed about what it was.

Today Justine is head of content of fashion & prestige for leading content agency Medium Rare, and the editor-in-chief of Jones, the brand magazine from David Jones; a custom publishing gig for a well-known luxury brand that many who worked in the old glossy world of magazines would kill for.

Over an old-fashioned phone call, using the new technology of Zoom, Justine talked candidly about redefining success and rediscovering her identity - and the future of fashion media. We also gossiped a little about previous companies… but that’s between us.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Why did you write the book? Had you kept a diary of your time in magazines and prior?

Justine: Gosh, no, absolutely not. And that's probably why none of the book should be trusted [laughs]. I didn't set out to write a memoir; I had set out to write a book of pop culture essays. My editor’s letters had always been very first person, and so I had this idea that I would write about some of the things that are happening in the world around us, but from that perspective - in the same way that I used to write those letters.

I'd signed the book deal and, I don’t know why, I had agreed for the manuscript to be handed in the same week that my fourth child was due. I think in my head I was thinking, ‘I won’t sleep anyway, I’m a bit of an insomniac, I’ll need something to do’.

I was also starting a brand new job, and I quickly realised that being an old dog learning new tricks was going to be a lot trickier than I had imagined. So the manuscript deadline came and went and I hadn't written a single word [laughs].

Time went on and I tried to get out of writing the book many times. I guess, because I had been through so much change. I turned 40 and I'd gotten divorced, remarried, had another baby. The rest of my children were transitioning out of the baby stage into older children, teenagers. I had left what had been my only job and dream for the past 20 something years, and was starting this whole new life.

And so what was coming out of me naturally, in those odd moments where I would actually sit down to write the book, was something much more cathartic, and much more about where I was in my life: a woman at the mid point, looking back and kind of making sense of it all, taking stock of what had been and where I was going next.

I had never intended to be a memoirist in any way. I kept arguing with the publishing house because I was saying, I'm not old enough and I'm, too uninteresting to have done anything for my ‘memoir’.

I'm really interested to talk to you about this idea of ambition, which you write about in the book. It's been really prevalent in the magazine and fashion space - and at a company like Bauer, where there were these super hungry, ambitious young women gunning for the top. And you wrote about how you wanted this one job for so many years - the editor of Elle - but also this feeling once you achieved it. I identify with that and I imagine a lot of other women will too. Can you talk a bit more about that, and also how you processed it once you got to that point?

For me, I’d wanted to be an editor for almost my entire life - ever since I could read. Elle was the first place I ever did work experience. So being the editor of Elle was always my ultimate goal. And when I achieved it, it wasn't so much that the job didn't live up to its expectations - in so many ways, it did; it was everything that I wanted it to be and more. But in many other ways, I was such a different person to who I was when I first started having that dream.

Of course a 14-year-old is in no way a 40-year-old and, and that girl was long gone. And the woman that I had become, who had lots of children who needed me, who was finally, after many attempts, in a really happy marriage, and settled in ways that I had never been before.

That all made me, at one point suddenly, look around and think ‘is this thing that I have wanted forever, is it serving me in the way that I always thought it would or that I need it to now?’ My decision was that ultimately, no, it wasn't.

That, combined with the fact that there were huge cuts going on in my industry and huge change coming - it all came together in this perfect storm that made me eventually leave a job that I genuinely thought they would be wheeling me out from.

I was also very sure that I was a much more grounded editor than many of the editors that I knew. I've always lived in Palm Beach, which is out of the city, and I don’t go to loads of fashion parties. And I thought, this is a decision that I've made for my family and I'll be fine about it.

But when it was gone, all of a sudden I didn't know who I was. And I was really shocked by that because I didn't think that my sense of self was that caught up in it. And it genuinely was; I really had an identity crisis because I couldn't identify myself in a single sentence.

‘Hi, I'm Justin Cullen, I’m the editor in chief of Elle magazine.’ That says a lot; people know what that means. But I didn't have that anymore. And I didn't know what came next.

I had also lived my life with this determination and very clear goals and almost tunnel vision around that job. Once that was out of my life…

It was a little bit like after the US election last year, when I wasn't getting up to check the New York Times three times a night. I joked to a friend, ‘I'm bereft; even though I’m thrilled, I have nothing to do now!’

It was a little bit like that, where I suddenly felt a little empty because I was suddenly the person who was unsure about what was next or what the plan was. I always had a plan. That was a new experience for me, and I don't think I handled it very well. I cried a lot. I felt really insecure. I felt irrelevant.

I think many women at my age start to feel that or wonder if they're becoming irrelevant anyway, particularly when you work in fashion.

This has been bubbling away in the background for a while, but particularly over the past year, there has been a lot of rethinking around ambition and the collapse of ‘girl boss culture’ - and by extension, the ‘woman's interest’ industry, with a lot of title or magazines having this reckoning. That sort of feeds into what you're talking about.

Yeah. I mean, it's a wonderful thing that we are finally talking really honestly about success, happiness, ambition, and how they all merge together. Particularly for women: this idea of how you juggle and ‘do it all’ and the expectations that are put on us.

I'm really fascinated at the moment by this idea of women in my age group in particular - at this point in time that we're living in, particularly after COVID, where we have small children, because we maybe had them a little bit later. I mean, I've actually had children at every age in my life… But our parents are ageing; we should be banging on the glass ceiling, but women have come off harder than anyone through COVID and through the changes in the job market.

We’re really at this critical point of needing to be much more real with each other about what we're able to do and what we're taking on. I've said this before, but I really think that the game is so rigged against women being able to succeed.

When you were at Elle, you produced a lot of innovative covers - the cover shot with an iPhone, putting an influencer on the cover, the mirrored cover, the breastfeeding cover. Looking back, it's amazing that you were able to do those things - but did you feel supported in making those creative decisions?

I did by the end, yeah. When we first launched Elle in Australia, people really questioned whether we were too young or quirky. We had a lot of humour in the magazine and we really played around with design; I was much more inspired by New York magazine or US Esquire. It was important that we felt different, that we weren't just another luxury fashion magazine because Australia already made beautiful versions of that.

And so there was a quirkiness to Elle that was really important to me to come across but the market wasn't quite sure about that at the beginning. And particularly internally at Bauer, the management side was a little unsure whether we were taking it in the right direction.

But as we started to do some of those covers, we had a couple of wins. Some of them were accidental - the breastfeeding cover was just a shot that we happened to capture on the day. I was lucky enough to have a publisher who was supportive; we sort of hedged our bets and made it the subscriber cover because we would never have been able to run it as the newsstand cover that sold in the supermarket.

But because those covers were successful - and because Instagram was enormous by that stage - they got lots of attention globally. So people started to see the value in allowing us to be brave and allowing us to be a bit more on the zeitgeist than some of the other titles could comfortably be. By the end, people would come to me and be like, ‘what are you going to do next?’

I always want to do things that get people talking - that is kicking off a conversation rather than necessarily just being part of it or talking about it later.

It’s interesting because back then maybe it was a newish thing in the local market, but today everyone has to have a story, create a talking point; it has to ‘land’ on Instagram.

Absolutely. But you know, it wasn’t that long ago that I was at Shop Til You Drop or maybe the very early days of Elle, and people were telling me that I wasn't allowed to run Rebel Wilson on the cover. There was still, as you would know, so much mythology and superstition around magazine comes. At that point I was being told, ‘oh, an Asian girl would never sell on the cover’. I had a publisher a long, long time ago who had a weird rule that you had to see someone's eyelashes on the side of their eye.

It wasn't that long ago that we were being told the green masthead would never sell. All of these things are ridiculous and stopped magazine editors, for a really, really long time, from trying to do anything new.

For a long time, I think the luxury brands were probably more brave and ahead of the curve than the media - where everyone was in this sort of weird cycle of confirmation bias.

What's the response been since you've published the book and you've written about some of these magazine truths, like being asked to lighten Beyoncé’s skin - which obviously has huge shock value for those outside of publishing, but for those in it… those kind of conversations happened a lot.

Everybody knew that those things were happening. We're talking and writing about that now and it has had a lot of attention. But everybody knew that was happening at the time and not putting up enough of a fight.

I feel like there's an entire generation of magazine editors who were forced to do things, and were probably in that transitional period of thinking, ‘this is not something that I'm comfortable with it’. When it came to being asked to change body shapes and that's sort of thing, I know that I would lie about it - I would go and pretend that I had done it and then come back and say, ‘yeah I did it’.

But the reaction to the more personal side of the book has been really fascinating. One of the Sunday magazines here in Australia ran an excerpt before the book came out and, of course, they chose the chapter when I realised that I was married to the wrong person and wanted to get divorced.

The first few emails and messages that I got from that were really aggressive. I was freaking out thinking, oh god, this is the reaction I get. Why was I so honest? Why did I put this out there? But then I looked into each of those people - there were six messages - and they were all from men. And you know, I’d go a bit deeper and one was a QAnon  supporter…

…I love that you researched them!

Of course I did! You can find out a lot about someone just from an Instagram [laughs].

But then messages started to come through from women. They responded in a way that I never imagined to that sort of honesty. I guess, they might be feeling that I've articulated their own experience, whether that's about a career readjustment that's needed to happen or about the reality of having children and trying to have a career and what that sometimes looks like, or the more personal stuff about divorce and remarriage, having children, miscarriages, that sort of thing.

That's been so incredibly heartwarming and humbling. I've had this relationship with women my entire career [through magazines], and so to have it again now, but in a much more intimate way, has been incredible.

This is a nerdy question but what's your take on where fashion is right now, in Australia and globally? Because it feels like, ‘post COVID’, we were kind of promised that everything was going to change, but has it?

Yes, we were. I think we all kind of went into COVID thinking, this is the reset that we've all needed. There was this crazy cycle of of newness and excess and markdowns, and people couldn't get off this hamster wheel of newness and a fashion calendar that didn't make sense with how people shop.

I don't know if that change has happened as rapidly as we thought it would. There are some changes - you could never start a fashion business now without a strong sustainability message and really looking at supply chains and production.

In some ways the excess has gone; and that was much needed. But the seasons are still happening. We're still looking for newness. So that adjustment hasn't kicked in completely yet.

There was also a new phase where everybody was talking about the ‘roaring twenties. That was really apparent at fashion week where you’re seeing all these fun party dresses and sequins and minis - there was this sense of, the world is reopening again and we're going to have a great time in it. But sitting there as, as groups of women, looking at each other going, ‘are we ready for that?’ I think there was a lot of pinning of hopes and dreams on this Bacchanalia that’s never coming.

So there is more turmoil probably coming for the fashion industry, as we work that out. We will keep predicting one thing and it may go in that direction or it may not, and that in itself is going to cause quite a bit of angst and uncertainty. That is the only thing that we can be certain of.

But I think that sense of realism coming into fashion is more important than ever.

What do you think the role of a magazine is today? There was this whole thing of ‘magazines are over’ - but now there seems to be almost another resurgence: Harper’s Bazaar Australia is returning after being closed last year, T Magazine has launched locally. And here in New Zealand, there are almost more magazines post COVID. But what’s the role and future?

There are two things that really stand out for me in terms of magazines and where we're heading. The idea of those big international mastheads, that does kind of belong to another time.

The magazines that we all loved, and that I worked on it - they represented something where, you know, it was the Elle lens or the Vogue lens; you brought into that as a customer. Whereas now, everyone is much more aware of who they are and I think it's those niche magazines that can really speak to people. You want to stand for something and you want your readers to see themselves in you, rather than needing your lens as a masthead put onto them.

The information that we get, the places that we look to for entertainment, they're all so targeted and so niche now, and I don't think magazines are any different. That's what I would want to stay as a customer.

Also, brands. Of course I say this as someone who edits magazines for brands - but part of the reason why I made that move is because brands have a big part to play because they have the reach, they have the distribution channels.

That used to frustrate me as an editor all the time - I'm not going to find my readers in a supermarket or in a news agency, they just don't exist there. So looking for dynamic distribution was, I always thought, the only way forward. The magazine I make for David Jones [Jones magazine], that is distributed by direct mail to people who are customers and who are excited by it. It's not a catalog that we're putting together - it’s a magazine made by magazine people with a really strong eye for quality content and still doing that storytelling.

From a fashion perspective, I think that branded content makes so much sense. And I think that audiences really get a sense now of not only getting information in this way, they are also being entertained. Yes they’re aware that they’re being sold to - but they’ve always been aware of that when they read a fashion magazine, no matter where it comes from. So it's about closing the loop, but also making sure that that content is still playing the role that content has always played.

So for me, niche and brand are the two areas that have so much to offer.

• Semi-Gloss: Magazines, Motherhood and Misadventures in Having it All by Justine Cullen, $33 (published by Allen & Unwin). Buy it from Bookety Book Books here.

Creativity, evocative visual storytelling and good journalism come at a price. Support our work and join the Ensemble membership program
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Once upon a time in magazines, gloss was the pinnacle. It was the shiny front cover gleaming from the newsstand (if you could afford a shiny masthead, even better); and it was the intimidatingly shiny hair of so many ambitious women who inhabited this fabulous universe. Gloss was luxury, it was premium, it was the absolute goal.

Slowly but surely - and for numerous reasons (hi Instagram) - that hard, glossy facade of magazine publishing has been dulled. For many who had been at the centre of that world - of fashion shoots, international travel, celebrity, beauty cupboards and cover superstitions - the high-gloss ideal that was often presented, purposefully or not, had always rung a little false.

Justine Cullen wants to tear down that facade. The high-profile magazine editor who launched Elle into the Australian market in 2013 had worked at the same publishing company for 15 years, a childhood dream she had held for many years prior. For many, she was the pinnacle of magazine success - a young editor helming an iconic title, with high-profile media friends, the mother of young children, dream (shiny) hair.

Justine Cullen. Photography / Georges Antoni

Justine had spent 15 years working at 54 Park Street, the famous-in-media-circles Sydney address of publishing house ACP, later Bauer, now Are Media (she was also in the 2011 reality show, Park St). That’s a long time in publishing, especially in the context of 2021. But in 2018 she resigned from her role as editor of Elle (almost a month after her Bauer colleague Kellie Hush had quit as editor of Harper’s Bazaar; in mag land, it was quite the scandal at the time). It was a big decision. “It was the only job I’d ever wanted or expected to have in my life, right up until the day I realised that it wasn’t.”

The delightful Aussie reflects on that and more in Semi-Gloss: Magazines, motherhood and misadventures in having it all, a book that honestly and self-deprecatingly chronicles her journey in magazine land; from “mag hack” to mother of four boys to divorcée to 40-something seemingly starting all over again. The book is, she declares in the intro, not a self help top, not a memoir, not an Australian Devil Wears Prada (although there are plenty of insidery fashion stories).

Rather, it’s a beautifully written and funny book of essays on from being multi-racial in Australia (Justine is Indonesian, Irish and Lebanese); Estée Lauder’s Youth Dew as an anchor to explore her relationship with family and her Nanna; co-parenting; finding love, losing love, then finding it again; and yes, ‘the juggle’.

There are plenty of refreshingly honest truths of working in magazines, like the chapter on being a beauty editor (and feeling like a fraud doing it) in the days when beauty advertising sustained lifestyle magazines.

“…you were a vital cog in the business of publishing,” she jokes. “You were also the genteel overlord of the infamous magazine ‘beauty cupboard’, which is essentially the entire ground floor of David Jones crammed into labelled baskets in a small closet with no air…but who needs air when you have endless Tom Ford? This position of power made you everyone on the magazine’s best friend.”

Despite her cynicism with elements of the industry she had longed to be in for so long, Justine also captures the refreshing, giddy delight at the small moments that made up her career in glossy magazines. She’s grateful for her career, but she is equally clear-eyed about what it was.

Today Justine is head of content of fashion & prestige for leading content agency Medium Rare, and the editor-in-chief of Jones, the brand magazine from David Jones; a custom publishing gig for a well-known luxury brand that many who worked in the old glossy world of magazines would kill for.

Over an old-fashioned phone call, using the new technology of Zoom, Justine talked candidly about redefining success and rediscovering her identity - and the future of fashion media. We also gossiped a little about previous companies… but that’s between us.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Why did you write the book? Had you kept a diary of your time in magazines and prior?

Justine: Gosh, no, absolutely not. And that's probably why none of the book should be trusted [laughs]. I didn't set out to write a memoir; I had set out to write a book of pop culture essays. My editor’s letters had always been very first person, and so I had this idea that I would write about some of the things that are happening in the world around us, but from that perspective - in the same way that I used to write those letters.

I'd signed the book deal and, I don’t know why, I had agreed for the manuscript to be handed in the same week that my fourth child was due. I think in my head I was thinking, ‘I won’t sleep anyway, I’m a bit of an insomniac, I’ll need something to do’.

I was also starting a brand new job, and I quickly realised that being an old dog learning new tricks was going to be a lot trickier than I had imagined. So the manuscript deadline came and went and I hadn't written a single word [laughs].

Time went on and I tried to get out of writing the book many times. I guess, because I had been through so much change. I turned 40 and I'd gotten divorced, remarried, had another baby. The rest of my children were transitioning out of the baby stage into older children, teenagers. I had left what had been my only job and dream for the past 20 something years, and was starting this whole new life.

And so what was coming out of me naturally, in those odd moments where I would actually sit down to write the book, was something much more cathartic, and much more about where I was in my life: a woman at the mid point, looking back and kind of making sense of it all, taking stock of what had been and where I was going next.

I had never intended to be a memoirist in any way. I kept arguing with the publishing house because I was saying, I'm not old enough and I'm, too uninteresting to have done anything for my ‘memoir’.

I'm really interested to talk to you about this idea of ambition, which you write about in the book. It's been really prevalent in the magazine and fashion space - and at a company like Bauer, where there were these super hungry, ambitious young women gunning for the top. And you wrote about how you wanted this one job for so many years - the editor of Elle - but also this feeling once you achieved it. I identify with that and I imagine a lot of other women will too. Can you talk a bit more about that, and also how you processed it once you got to that point?

For me, I’d wanted to be an editor for almost my entire life - ever since I could read. Elle was the first place I ever did work experience. So being the editor of Elle was always my ultimate goal. And when I achieved it, it wasn't so much that the job didn't live up to its expectations - in so many ways, it did; it was everything that I wanted it to be and more. But in many other ways, I was such a different person to who I was when I first started having that dream.

Of course a 14-year-old is in no way a 40-year-old and, and that girl was long gone. And the woman that I had become, who had lots of children who needed me, who was finally, after many attempts, in a really happy marriage, and settled in ways that I had never been before.

That all made me, at one point suddenly, look around and think ‘is this thing that I have wanted forever, is it serving me in the way that I always thought it would or that I need it to now?’ My decision was that ultimately, no, it wasn't.

That, combined with the fact that there were huge cuts going on in my industry and huge change coming - it all came together in this perfect storm that made me eventually leave a job that I genuinely thought they would be wheeling me out from.

I was also very sure that I was a much more grounded editor than many of the editors that I knew. I've always lived in Palm Beach, which is out of the city, and I don’t go to loads of fashion parties. And I thought, this is a decision that I've made for my family and I'll be fine about it.

But when it was gone, all of a sudden I didn't know who I was. And I was really shocked by that because I didn't think that my sense of self was that caught up in it. And it genuinely was; I really had an identity crisis because I couldn't identify myself in a single sentence.

‘Hi, I'm Justin Cullen, I’m the editor in chief of Elle magazine.’ That says a lot; people know what that means. But I didn't have that anymore. And I didn't know what came next.

I had also lived my life with this determination and very clear goals and almost tunnel vision around that job. Once that was out of my life…

It was a little bit like after the US election last year, when I wasn't getting up to check the New York Times three times a night. I joked to a friend, ‘I'm bereft; even though I’m thrilled, I have nothing to do now!’

It was a little bit like that, where I suddenly felt a little empty because I was suddenly the person who was unsure about what was next or what the plan was. I always had a plan. That was a new experience for me, and I don't think I handled it very well. I cried a lot. I felt really insecure. I felt irrelevant.

I think many women at my age start to feel that or wonder if they're becoming irrelevant anyway, particularly when you work in fashion.

This has been bubbling away in the background for a while, but particularly over the past year, there has been a lot of rethinking around ambition and the collapse of ‘girl boss culture’ - and by extension, the ‘woman's interest’ industry, with a lot of title or magazines having this reckoning. That sort of feeds into what you're talking about.

Yeah. I mean, it's a wonderful thing that we are finally talking really honestly about success, happiness, ambition, and how they all merge together. Particularly for women: this idea of how you juggle and ‘do it all’ and the expectations that are put on us.

I'm really fascinated at the moment by this idea of women in my age group in particular - at this point in time that we're living in, particularly after COVID, where we have small children, because we maybe had them a little bit later. I mean, I've actually had children at every age in my life… But our parents are ageing; we should be banging on the glass ceiling, but women have come off harder than anyone through COVID and through the changes in the job market.

We’re really at this critical point of needing to be much more real with each other about what we're able to do and what we're taking on. I've said this before, but I really think that the game is so rigged against women being able to succeed.

When you were at Elle, you produced a lot of innovative covers - the cover shot with an iPhone, putting an influencer on the cover, the mirrored cover, the breastfeeding cover. Looking back, it's amazing that you were able to do those things - but did you feel supported in making those creative decisions?

I did by the end, yeah. When we first launched Elle in Australia, people really questioned whether we were too young or quirky. We had a lot of humour in the magazine and we really played around with design; I was much more inspired by New York magazine or US Esquire. It was important that we felt different, that we weren't just another luxury fashion magazine because Australia already made beautiful versions of that.

And so there was a quirkiness to Elle that was really important to me to come across but the market wasn't quite sure about that at the beginning. And particularly internally at Bauer, the management side was a little unsure whether we were taking it in the right direction.

But as we started to do some of those covers, we had a couple of wins. Some of them were accidental - the breastfeeding cover was just a shot that we happened to capture on the day. I was lucky enough to have a publisher who was supportive; we sort of hedged our bets and made it the subscriber cover because we would never have been able to run it as the newsstand cover that sold in the supermarket.

But because those covers were successful - and because Instagram was enormous by that stage - they got lots of attention globally. So people started to see the value in allowing us to be brave and allowing us to be a bit more on the zeitgeist than some of the other titles could comfortably be. By the end, people would come to me and be like, ‘what are you going to do next?’

I always want to do things that get people talking - that is kicking off a conversation rather than necessarily just being part of it or talking about it later.

It’s interesting because back then maybe it was a newish thing in the local market, but today everyone has to have a story, create a talking point; it has to ‘land’ on Instagram.

Absolutely. But you know, it wasn’t that long ago that I was at Shop Til You Drop or maybe the very early days of Elle, and people were telling me that I wasn't allowed to run Rebel Wilson on the cover. There was still, as you would know, so much mythology and superstition around magazine comes. At that point I was being told, ‘oh, an Asian girl would never sell on the cover’. I had a publisher a long, long time ago who had a weird rule that you had to see someone's eyelashes on the side of their eye.

It wasn't that long ago that we were being told the green masthead would never sell. All of these things are ridiculous and stopped magazine editors, for a really, really long time, from trying to do anything new.

For a long time, I think the luxury brands were probably more brave and ahead of the curve than the media - where everyone was in this sort of weird cycle of confirmation bias.

What's the response been since you've published the book and you've written about some of these magazine truths, like being asked to lighten Beyoncé’s skin - which obviously has huge shock value for those outside of publishing, but for those in it… those kind of conversations happened a lot.

Everybody knew that those things were happening. We're talking and writing about that now and it has had a lot of attention. But everybody knew that was happening at the time and not putting up enough of a fight.

I feel like there's an entire generation of magazine editors who were forced to do things, and were probably in that transitional period of thinking, ‘this is not something that I'm comfortable with it’. When it came to being asked to change body shapes and that's sort of thing, I know that I would lie about it - I would go and pretend that I had done it and then come back and say, ‘yeah I did it’.

But the reaction to the more personal side of the book has been really fascinating. One of the Sunday magazines here in Australia ran an excerpt before the book came out and, of course, they chose the chapter when I realised that I was married to the wrong person and wanted to get divorced.

The first few emails and messages that I got from that were really aggressive. I was freaking out thinking, oh god, this is the reaction I get. Why was I so honest? Why did I put this out there? But then I looked into each of those people - there were six messages - and they were all from men. And you know, I’d go a bit deeper and one was a QAnon  supporter…

…I love that you researched them!

Of course I did! You can find out a lot about someone just from an Instagram [laughs].

But then messages started to come through from women. They responded in a way that I never imagined to that sort of honesty. I guess, they might be feeling that I've articulated their own experience, whether that's about a career readjustment that's needed to happen or about the reality of having children and trying to have a career and what that sometimes looks like, or the more personal stuff about divorce and remarriage, having children, miscarriages, that sort of thing.

That's been so incredibly heartwarming and humbling. I've had this relationship with women my entire career [through magazines], and so to have it again now, but in a much more intimate way, has been incredible.

This is a nerdy question but what's your take on where fashion is right now, in Australia and globally? Because it feels like, ‘post COVID’, we were kind of promised that everything was going to change, but has it?

Yes, we were. I think we all kind of went into COVID thinking, this is the reset that we've all needed. There was this crazy cycle of of newness and excess and markdowns, and people couldn't get off this hamster wheel of newness and a fashion calendar that didn't make sense with how people shop.

I don't know if that change has happened as rapidly as we thought it would. There are some changes - you could never start a fashion business now without a strong sustainability message and really looking at supply chains and production.

In some ways the excess has gone; and that was much needed. But the seasons are still happening. We're still looking for newness. So that adjustment hasn't kicked in completely yet.

There was also a new phase where everybody was talking about the ‘roaring twenties. That was really apparent at fashion week where you’re seeing all these fun party dresses and sequins and minis - there was this sense of, the world is reopening again and we're going to have a great time in it. But sitting there as, as groups of women, looking at each other going, ‘are we ready for that?’ I think there was a lot of pinning of hopes and dreams on this Bacchanalia that’s never coming.

So there is more turmoil probably coming for the fashion industry, as we work that out. We will keep predicting one thing and it may go in that direction or it may not, and that in itself is going to cause quite a bit of angst and uncertainty. That is the only thing that we can be certain of.

But I think that sense of realism coming into fashion is more important than ever.

What do you think the role of a magazine is today? There was this whole thing of ‘magazines are over’ - but now there seems to be almost another resurgence: Harper’s Bazaar Australia is returning after being closed last year, T Magazine has launched locally. And here in New Zealand, there are almost more magazines post COVID. But what’s the role and future?

There are two things that really stand out for me in terms of magazines and where we're heading. The idea of those big international mastheads, that does kind of belong to another time.

The magazines that we all loved, and that I worked on it - they represented something where, you know, it was the Elle lens or the Vogue lens; you brought into that as a customer. Whereas now, everyone is much more aware of who they are and I think it's those niche magazines that can really speak to people. You want to stand for something and you want your readers to see themselves in you, rather than needing your lens as a masthead put onto them.

The information that we get, the places that we look to for entertainment, they're all so targeted and so niche now, and I don't think magazines are any different. That's what I would want to stay as a customer.

Also, brands. Of course I say this as someone who edits magazines for brands - but part of the reason why I made that move is because brands have a big part to play because they have the reach, they have the distribution channels.

That used to frustrate me as an editor all the time - I'm not going to find my readers in a supermarket or in a news agency, they just don't exist there. So looking for dynamic distribution was, I always thought, the only way forward. The magazine I make for David Jones [Jones magazine], that is distributed by direct mail to people who are customers and who are excited by it. It's not a catalog that we're putting together - it’s a magazine made by magazine people with a really strong eye for quality content and still doing that storytelling.

From a fashion perspective, I think that branded content makes so much sense. And I think that audiences really get a sense now of not only getting information in this way, they are also being entertained. Yes they’re aware that they’re being sold to - but they’ve always been aware of that when they read a fashion magazine, no matter where it comes from. So it's about closing the loop, but also making sure that that content is still playing the role that content has always played.

So for me, niche and brand are the two areas that have so much to offer.

• Semi-Gloss: Magazines, Motherhood and Misadventures in Having it All by Justine Cullen, $33 (published by Allen & Unwin). Buy it from Bookety Book Books here.

Creativity, evocative visual storytelling and good journalism come at a price. Support our work and join the Ensemble membership program
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Life lessons with magazine editor Justine Cullen

Once upon a time in magazines, gloss was the pinnacle. It was the shiny front cover gleaming from the newsstand (if you could afford a shiny masthead, even better); and it was the intimidatingly shiny hair of so many ambitious women who inhabited this fabulous universe. Gloss was luxury, it was premium, it was the absolute goal.

Slowly but surely - and for numerous reasons (hi Instagram) - that hard, glossy facade of magazine publishing has been dulled. For many who had been at the centre of that world - of fashion shoots, international travel, celebrity, beauty cupboards and cover superstitions - the high-gloss ideal that was often presented, purposefully or not, had always rung a little false.

Justine Cullen wants to tear down that facade. The high-profile magazine editor who launched Elle into the Australian market in 2013 had worked at the same publishing company for 15 years, a childhood dream she had held for many years prior. For many, she was the pinnacle of magazine success - a young editor helming an iconic title, with high-profile media friends, the mother of young children, dream (shiny) hair.

Justine Cullen. Photography / Georges Antoni

Justine had spent 15 years working at 54 Park Street, the famous-in-media-circles Sydney address of publishing house ACP, later Bauer, now Are Media (she was also in the 2011 reality show, Park St). That’s a long time in publishing, especially in the context of 2021. But in 2018 she resigned from her role as editor of Elle (almost a month after her Bauer colleague Kellie Hush had quit as editor of Harper’s Bazaar; in mag land, it was quite the scandal at the time). It was a big decision. “It was the only job I’d ever wanted or expected to have in my life, right up until the day I realised that it wasn’t.”

The delightful Aussie reflects on that and more in Semi-Gloss: Magazines, motherhood and misadventures in having it all, a book that honestly and self-deprecatingly chronicles her journey in magazine land; from “mag hack” to mother of four boys to divorcée to 40-something seemingly starting all over again. The book is, she declares in the intro, not a self help top, not a memoir, not an Australian Devil Wears Prada (although there are plenty of insidery fashion stories).

Rather, it’s a beautifully written and funny book of essays on from being multi-racial in Australia (Justine is Indonesian, Irish and Lebanese); Estée Lauder’s Youth Dew as an anchor to explore her relationship with family and her Nanna; co-parenting; finding love, losing love, then finding it again; and yes, ‘the juggle’.

There are plenty of refreshingly honest truths of working in magazines, like the chapter on being a beauty editor (and feeling like a fraud doing it) in the days when beauty advertising sustained lifestyle magazines.

“…you were a vital cog in the business of publishing,” she jokes. “You were also the genteel overlord of the infamous magazine ‘beauty cupboard’, which is essentially the entire ground floor of David Jones crammed into labelled baskets in a small closet with no air…but who needs air when you have endless Tom Ford? This position of power made you everyone on the magazine’s best friend.”

Despite her cynicism with elements of the industry she had longed to be in for so long, Justine also captures the refreshing, giddy delight at the small moments that made up her career in glossy magazines. She’s grateful for her career, but she is equally clear-eyed about what it was.

Today Justine is head of content of fashion & prestige for leading content agency Medium Rare, and the editor-in-chief of Jones, the brand magazine from David Jones; a custom publishing gig for a well-known luxury brand that many who worked in the old glossy world of magazines would kill for.

Over an old-fashioned phone call, using the new technology of Zoom, Justine talked candidly about redefining success and rediscovering her identity - and the future of fashion media. We also gossiped a little about previous companies… but that’s between us.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Why did you write the book? Had you kept a diary of your time in magazines and prior?

Justine: Gosh, no, absolutely not. And that's probably why none of the book should be trusted [laughs]. I didn't set out to write a memoir; I had set out to write a book of pop culture essays. My editor’s letters had always been very first person, and so I had this idea that I would write about some of the things that are happening in the world around us, but from that perspective - in the same way that I used to write those letters.

I'd signed the book deal and, I don’t know why, I had agreed for the manuscript to be handed in the same week that my fourth child was due. I think in my head I was thinking, ‘I won’t sleep anyway, I’m a bit of an insomniac, I’ll need something to do’.

I was also starting a brand new job, and I quickly realised that being an old dog learning new tricks was going to be a lot trickier than I had imagined. So the manuscript deadline came and went and I hadn't written a single word [laughs].

Time went on and I tried to get out of writing the book many times. I guess, because I had been through so much change. I turned 40 and I'd gotten divorced, remarried, had another baby. The rest of my children were transitioning out of the baby stage into older children, teenagers. I had left what had been my only job and dream for the past 20 something years, and was starting this whole new life.

And so what was coming out of me naturally, in those odd moments where I would actually sit down to write the book, was something much more cathartic, and much more about where I was in my life: a woman at the mid point, looking back and kind of making sense of it all, taking stock of what had been and where I was going next.

I had never intended to be a memoirist in any way. I kept arguing with the publishing house because I was saying, I'm not old enough and I'm, too uninteresting to have done anything for my ‘memoir’.

I'm really interested to talk to you about this idea of ambition, which you write about in the book. It's been really prevalent in the magazine and fashion space - and at a company like Bauer, where there were these super hungry, ambitious young women gunning for the top. And you wrote about how you wanted this one job for so many years - the editor of Elle - but also this feeling once you achieved it. I identify with that and I imagine a lot of other women will too. Can you talk a bit more about that, and also how you processed it once you got to that point?

For me, I’d wanted to be an editor for almost my entire life - ever since I could read. Elle was the first place I ever did work experience. So being the editor of Elle was always my ultimate goal. And when I achieved it, it wasn't so much that the job didn't live up to its expectations - in so many ways, it did; it was everything that I wanted it to be and more. But in many other ways, I was such a different person to who I was when I first started having that dream.

Of course a 14-year-old is in no way a 40-year-old and, and that girl was long gone. And the woman that I had become, who had lots of children who needed me, who was finally, after many attempts, in a really happy marriage, and settled in ways that I had never been before.

That all made me, at one point suddenly, look around and think ‘is this thing that I have wanted forever, is it serving me in the way that I always thought it would or that I need it to now?’ My decision was that ultimately, no, it wasn't.

That, combined with the fact that there were huge cuts going on in my industry and huge change coming - it all came together in this perfect storm that made me eventually leave a job that I genuinely thought they would be wheeling me out from.

I was also very sure that I was a much more grounded editor than many of the editors that I knew. I've always lived in Palm Beach, which is out of the city, and I don’t go to loads of fashion parties. And I thought, this is a decision that I've made for my family and I'll be fine about it.

But when it was gone, all of a sudden I didn't know who I was. And I was really shocked by that because I didn't think that my sense of self was that caught up in it. And it genuinely was; I really had an identity crisis because I couldn't identify myself in a single sentence.

‘Hi, I'm Justin Cullen, I’m the editor in chief of Elle magazine.’ That says a lot; people know what that means. But I didn't have that anymore. And I didn't know what came next.

I had also lived my life with this determination and very clear goals and almost tunnel vision around that job. Once that was out of my life…

It was a little bit like after the US election last year, when I wasn't getting up to check the New York Times three times a night. I joked to a friend, ‘I'm bereft; even though I’m thrilled, I have nothing to do now!’

It was a little bit like that, where I suddenly felt a little empty because I was suddenly the person who was unsure about what was next or what the plan was. I always had a plan. That was a new experience for me, and I don't think I handled it very well. I cried a lot. I felt really insecure. I felt irrelevant.

I think many women at my age start to feel that or wonder if they're becoming irrelevant anyway, particularly when you work in fashion.

This has been bubbling away in the background for a while, but particularly over the past year, there has been a lot of rethinking around ambition and the collapse of ‘girl boss culture’ - and by extension, the ‘woman's interest’ industry, with a lot of title or magazines having this reckoning. That sort of feeds into what you're talking about.

Yeah. I mean, it's a wonderful thing that we are finally talking really honestly about success, happiness, ambition, and how they all merge together. Particularly for women: this idea of how you juggle and ‘do it all’ and the expectations that are put on us.

I'm really fascinated at the moment by this idea of women in my age group in particular - at this point in time that we're living in, particularly after COVID, where we have small children, because we maybe had them a little bit later. I mean, I've actually had children at every age in my life… But our parents are ageing; we should be banging on the glass ceiling, but women have come off harder than anyone through COVID and through the changes in the job market.

We’re really at this critical point of needing to be much more real with each other about what we're able to do and what we're taking on. I've said this before, but I really think that the game is so rigged against women being able to succeed.

When you were at Elle, you produced a lot of innovative covers - the cover shot with an iPhone, putting an influencer on the cover, the mirrored cover, the breastfeeding cover. Looking back, it's amazing that you were able to do those things - but did you feel supported in making those creative decisions?

I did by the end, yeah. When we first launched Elle in Australia, people really questioned whether we were too young or quirky. We had a lot of humour in the magazine and we really played around with design; I was much more inspired by New York magazine or US Esquire. It was important that we felt different, that we weren't just another luxury fashion magazine because Australia already made beautiful versions of that.

And so there was a quirkiness to Elle that was really important to me to come across but the market wasn't quite sure about that at the beginning. And particularly internally at Bauer, the management side was a little unsure whether we were taking it in the right direction.

But as we started to do some of those covers, we had a couple of wins. Some of them were accidental - the breastfeeding cover was just a shot that we happened to capture on the day. I was lucky enough to have a publisher who was supportive; we sort of hedged our bets and made it the subscriber cover because we would never have been able to run it as the newsstand cover that sold in the supermarket.

But because those covers were successful - and because Instagram was enormous by that stage - they got lots of attention globally. So people started to see the value in allowing us to be brave and allowing us to be a bit more on the zeitgeist than some of the other titles could comfortably be. By the end, people would come to me and be like, ‘what are you going to do next?’

I always want to do things that get people talking - that is kicking off a conversation rather than necessarily just being part of it or talking about it later.

It’s interesting because back then maybe it was a newish thing in the local market, but today everyone has to have a story, create a talking point; it has to ‘land’ on Instagram.

Absolutely. But you know, it wasn’t that long ago that I was at Shop Til You Drop or maybe the very early days of Elle, and people were telling me that I wasn't allowed to run Rebel Wilson on the cover. There was still, as you would know, so much mythology and superstition around magazine comes. At that point I was being told, ‘oh, an Asian girl would never sell on the cover’. I had a publisher a long, long time ago who had a weird rule that you had to see someone's eyelashes on the side of their eye.

It wasn't that long ago that we were being told the green masthead would never sell. All of these things are ridiculous and stopped magazine editors, for a really, really long time, from trying to do anything new.

For a long time, I think the luxury brands were probably more brave and ahead of the curve than the media - where everyone was in this sort of weird cycle of confirmation bias.

What's the response been since you've published the book and you've written about some of these magazine truths, like being asked to lighten Beyoncé’s skin - which obviously has huge shock value for those outside of publishing, but for those in it… those kind of conversations happened a lot.

Everybody knew that those things were happening. We're talking and writing about that now and it has had a lot of attention. But everybody knew that was happening at the time and not putting up enough of a fight.

I feel like there's an entire generation of magazine editors who were forced to do things, and were probably in that transitional period of thinking, ‘this is not something that I'm comfortable with it’. When it came to being asked to change body shapes and that's sort of thing, I know that I would lie about it - I would go and pretend that I had done it and then come back and say, ‘yeah I did it’.

But the reaction to the more personal side of the book has been really fascinating. One of the Sunday magazines here in Australia ran an excerpt before the book came out and, of course, they chose the chapter when I realised that I was married to the wrong person and wanted to get divorced.

The first few emails and messages that I got from that were really aggressive. I was freaking out thinking, oh god, this is the reaction I get. Why was I so honest? Why did I put this out there? But then I looked into each of those people - there were six messages - and they were all from men. And you know, I’d go a bit deeper and one was a QAnon  supporter…

…I love that you researched them!

Of course I did! You can find out a lot about someone just from an Instagram [laughs].

But then messages started to come through from women. They responded in a way that I never imagined to that sort of honesty. I guess, they might be feeling that I've articulated their own experience, whether that's about a career readjustment that's needed to happen or about the reality of having children and trying to have a career and what that sometimes looks like, or the more personal stuff about divorce and remarriage, having children, miscarriages, that sort of thing.

That's been so incredibly heartwarming and humbling. I've had this relationship with women my entire career [through magazines], and so to have it again now, but in a much more intimate way, has been incredible.

This is a nerdy question but what's your take on where fashion is right now, in Australia and globally? Because it feels like, ‘post COVID’, we were kind of promised that everything was going to change, but has it?

Yes, we were. I think we all kind of went into COVID thinking, this is the reset that we've all needed. There was this crazy cycle of of newness and excess and markdowns, and people couldn't get off this hamster wheel of newness and a fashion calendar that didn't make sense with how people shop.

I don't know if that change has happened as rapidly as we thought it would. There are some changes - you could never start a fashion business now without a strong sustainability message and really looking at supply chains and production.

In some ways the excess has gone; and that was much needed. But the seasons are still happening. We're still looking for newness. So that adjustment hasn't kicked in completely yet.

There was also a new phase where everybody was talking about the ‘roaring twenties. That was really apparent at fashion week where you’re seeing all these fun party dresses and sequins and minis - there was this sense of, the world is reopening again and we're going to have a great time in it. But sitting there as, as groups of women, looking at each other going, ‘are we ready for that?’ I think there was a lot of pinning of hopes and dreams on this Bacchanalia that’s never coming.

So there is more turmoil probably coming for the fashion industry, as we work that out. We will keep predicting one thing and it may go in that direction or it may not, and that in itself is going to cause quite a bit of angst and uncertainty. That is the only thing that we can be certain of.

But I think that sense of realism coming into fashion is more important than ever.

What do you think the role of a magazine is today? There was this whole thing of ‘magazines are over’ - but now there seems to be almost another resurgence: Harper’s Bazaar Australia is returning after being closed last year, T Magazine has launched locally. And here in New Zealand, there are almost more magazines post COVID. But what’s the role and future?

There are two things that really stand out for me in terms of magazines and where we're heading. The idea of those big international mastheads, that does kind of belong to another time.

The magazines that we all loved, and that I worked on it - they represented something where, you know, it was the Elle lens or the Vogue lens; you brought into that as a customer. Whereas now, everyone is much more aware of who they are and I think it's those niche magazines that can really speak to people. You want to stand for something and you want your readers to see themselves in you, rather than needing your lens as a masthead put onto them.

The information that we get, the places that we look to for entertainment, they're all so targeted and so niche now, and I don't think magazines are any different. That's what I would want to stay as a customer.

Also, brands. Of course I say this as someone who edits magazines for brands - but part of the reason why I made that move is because brands have a big part to play because they have the reach, they have the distribution channels.

That used to frustrate me as an editor all the time - I'm not going to find my readers in a supermarket or in a news agency, they just don't exist there. So looking for dynamic distribution was, I always thought, the only way forward. The magazine I make for David Jones [Jones magazine], that is distributed by direct mail to people who are customers and who are excited by it. It's not a catalog that we're putting together - it’s a magazine made by magazine people with a really strong eye for quality content and still doing that storytelling.

From a fashion perspective, I think that branded content makes so much sense. And I think that audiences really get a sense now of not only getting information in this way, they are also being entertained. Yes they’re aware that they’re being sold to - but they’ve always been aware of that when they read a fashion magazine, no matter where it comes from. So it's about closing the loop, but also making sure that that content is still playing the role that content has always played.

So for me, niche and brand are the two areas that have so much to offer.

• Semi-Gloss: Magazines, Motherhood and Misadventures in Having it All by Justine Cullen, $33 (published by Allen & Unwin). Buy it from Bookety Book Books here.

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