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Jezebel Founding Editor Anna Holmes On Her New Book -- And How She Changed Women's Media

10/18/2013 11:37 am ET | Updated Mar 03, 2014
Anna Wolf

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When Anna Holmes launched Jezebel, an unapologetically political (though never earnest) news and culture site for women, in May 2007, she hoped it would be an “antidote to the superficiality and irrelevance of women's media properties.” Not only would it cover a broader range of topics for a more diverse group of women, Holmes wanted to politicize her readers by covering issues like abortion rights, talking about feminism and calling out the fashion and media industries for making women feel bad about themselves.

Jezebel’s envelope-pushing, often hilarious content turned out to be exactly what a lot of women were yearning for, and six years later the site is one of the most beloved and influential websites for women. Now Holmes has released “The Book of Jezebel: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Lady Things,” a coffee table book which encapsulates the subjects and spirit of the site and has the same biting wit -- with lots of amazing graphics, photos and drawings thrown in.

The book was edited by Holmes, written by several Jezebel contributors and includes entries on everything from the Immaculate Conception to Angela Merkel to the Rhythm Method.

Holmes recently visited the HuffPost offices to talk about blogger burnout, why she doesn’t have a mentor and how Twitter is like a bar.

Why did you put together this book?

I was burnt out from running the site. Yet I wasn’t able to let go entirely. There’d been some discussion of extending the site’s brand to other mediums like books and TV. I like sitting and reading the dictionary so I got the idea to do a reference book, a sort of encyclopedia of the world according to the sensibilities of the site.

How did you decide which topics to cover? How did it all come together?

It was a lot of work for me and a lot of work for other people. I want to stress that because the people who worked on the book should get a lot of credit. A lot of it was just brainstorming.

Brainstorming with yourself or with the group?

With myself. Then I sent those files to people to ask what was missing. Then I sat down and read Webster’s dictionary. I didn’t want to miss any words. Then I would kind of just be living my life, think of something and make notes on my phone or a piece of paper and add them too. At some point, I had to stop adding things and start assigning entries. The book took about two and half years. If that was all that I had done, it would’ve been done quicker. But I was also freelancing and I didn’t want to have a crazy, burnout job because I had just come from that.

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Let’s talk about burnout. What kind of life were you leading when you were running Jezebel -- and how have your life and your health changed since you left?

When I was running Jezebel, I didn’t have a work/life balance -- I just had work. There are a couple of reasons for that: 1) The Internet never shuts down. 2) I was starting something new, and I felt that I could not fail. 3) It was received very well, and a lot of people identified with what we were doing which made me very happy but also contributed to my feeling that there could be no slacking off. There was a feeling of “they’re counting on us.” You would think that the more successful the site got, I would have relaxed a little bit. But I didn’t relax because it was getting to be a big site. I worked at 150 percent capacity and I got a certain result, so I thought, “What if I work at 300 percent capacity? I’ll get a better result!”

What were your hours like?

I usually got up at 6-6:15 a.m. The first post didn’t go up until about 9, but I had to prepare for the morning by looking for stories for the writers. I would be going through a massive RSS feed of about 3,000 unread things. The thing is, I didn’t have to do that. So many bloggers on the other sites that I knew of were also in charge of finding their own stories, but I thought that slowed them down. So if I could at least take that part of process out of it, the writers could focus more on writing. If I didn’t do that constant monitoring of RSS feeds and sending out emails to writers with links, the job would’ve been considerably easier. I would refresh the feed every 30 minutes. When I finally finished looking through it, the next refresh would start up again. But doing this also meant that we heard about stuff before other sites did. Some sites were competitors, but other sites were not, like Gawker -- we would get stuff up faster than Gawker!

Was it just the newsroom mentality of “we have to be first”?

I feel like it was in my own head. I don’t know if the writers felt that way. I’m sure they felt it coming from me. I felt very competitive. It’s not a bad thing, but that’s sort of what drove me bananas. I felt particularly competitive with Gawker because Nick Denton loved Gawker. I wanted to prove that a women’s site in the same network could be just as good, if not better, than Gawker. There was a period of time when it looked like we were going to surpass Gawker in page views. We had just started, and Gawker had been around for four years at this point, so that was a big deal. It fueled my ambition. They were one of the many sites I felt competitive with -- and they weren’t even a direct competitor. They were more like a family competitor because they would cross-post stuff to us and we would cross-post stuff to them, but I still felt competitive.

How much of that was fueled by the fact that you were the lady blog and you felt you needed to prove something?

A lot of it was. In fact, a lot of their commenters -- not the staffers, not the editors, but the commenters on Gawker -- would make fun of the Jezebel commenters. Sometimes for legitimate reasons, but that fueled it. There was a certain patronizing tone from some of their commenters about us, like, “Oh, the little ladies have their own little lady blog.” I felt that -- and I wasn’t the only one -- our commenters were far superior to theirs. They may have been more earnest than the Gawker commenters, who were all about one-upping each other with their snark. They were by and large incredibly intelligent, knowledgeable and funny. They had created this community, and that seemed to be threatening to not just Gawker commenters but people around the Internet.

What was your mission when you started?

I thought that mainstream women’s media at that time -- in late 2006-early 2007 -- was patronizing. It spoke down to women, and it was all about insecurity or the consumption of material goods. It seemed to be communicating that for young women, the most important thing was to get a man, keep a man or please a man, and that women should value themselves for their sexuality and/or fertility above all else. The driving force was that I was really angry about that. I had worked at women’s magazines, which only made me more angry. At the time, I was 34. I might have felt immune to some of these messages, but I was well aware that there were 18- to 24-year-old women who had grown up in this environment, where all that was being fed to them was Cosmo and PerezHilton.com, where they were constantly being bombarded by messages like “you’re ugly” or “she’s ugly.” It’s just sort of a sexist way and a one-note way of portraying womanhood. Those young people were more susceptible to buying into this. Certainly, this stuff existed when I was a teenager, but definitely not to this degree.

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When we were growing up, there was no Internet. There was just Seventeen.

But even print magazines like Us Weekly didn’t exist when I was growing up. It’s definitely gotten more intense. I was really pissed about it. So I hired people that I felt were also pissed about it. I think that the reason it worked was because I suspected that if I felt this way, there were a lot of other women who were sick of conventional women’s magazines and of being told and instructed on what to buy, what diet to embark upon, etc., etc.

Why do you do the work you do?

One of the things I’ve personally found frustrating for most of my life is that my female peers shied away from the word feminism or feminist. It had been made to seem toxic and I never bought into that. My mother was a second-wave feminist. That shaped the way she explained the world to me. I did not grow up feeling like feminism was a concept or a word to be ashamed of. With Jezebel, I felt there had to be a way to acknowledge women’s interest in more superficial things like beauty or fashion but in a way that wasn’t telling them what to do. I wanted to be smart about it. There were gender critiques to be made about everything. We talked about feminism in a very matter-of-fact way, without apology, and hoped that the readers who were kind of like “eh” about it would come to regard it as a un-scary thing.

I just felt like if we just repeated the same themes or words in our posts over and over and over again, they would have less of a negative connotation.

Like what words?

Like feminism or racism. I didn’t have a list of words, but we just kept talking about the same subjects over and over. We wanted to lead by example. One of my writers could speak intelligently about the 2008 presidential race and, an hour later, post about an article in Vogue about plastic surgery. That would give an example to young women that we are multifaceted.

The commenters proved this because you would see them on every single post -- different kinds of posts -- comment very intelligently and in funny ways. So part of the work is politicizing people, which was what I was trying to do. That wasn’t number one on my list of things to do. Number one on my list was to create a good website that got traffic. But I don’t think that goal was in conflict with politicizing people.

What do you think you would do if you were not doing this?

I have a few fantasy occupations. One of them is being a wildlife veterinarian or a backup singer. Then I could sing for someone like Stevie Wonder. There were other things I used to like to do as a teenager that I didn’t really take seriously. Well, I took them seriously, but I didn’t think they were very smart choices. I danced, but I wasn’t going to move to New York to become a dancer.

Why not?

Because their careers are over by the time they’re 30, and that’s if you make it. I came from a lower-middle-class background. I didn’t have the luxury of not making money. I didn’t want the anxiety of living paycheck to paycheck.

Do you have a role model?

Like a person? I don’t think that I have a role model, but I’m not a person who would say they have a best friend either.

Have you ever had a mentor?

No. I’ve never had a mentor, and I’m sad about it. The women I worked with were just not in a position to be mentors to me.

What about men?

The men I’ve worked for have always been very supportive. I wouldn’t call them mentors, but I’ve learned things from everyone I’ve worked for. I never had the nice boss who teaches you things and turns into your mentor. I’ve never gone to anyone older or more experienced than me for career advice. I usually just go to my friends, or I keep it inside and chew it over. A certain part of me is hesitant to ask for help. It’s a pride issue. Now that I think about it, it’s sort of depressing.

When I was in my 20s, I remember being terrified all the time and surrounded by other 20-somethings who didn’t show or outwardly admit that they were terrified. There was this sort of pressure to act like you didn’t need any help. That might have been part of why I didn’t seek out mentors out of a certain kind of fear that that would make me look weak.

It was also tough because I didn’t grow up on the East Coast. I wasn’t from New York, and I went into this industry where there were people who had gone to Ivy League schools or whose parents worked in media. There was a lot of … I don’t want to say nepotism, but more like, “Oh, David Remnick is a family friend” or “I went to Harvard.” I found it really intimidating, but I saw that people were rewarded for those connections. I think that’s less of a case now because the Internet has leveled things a little bit, which is great.

What were you doing when you were 25, and what advice would you give your 25-year-old self?

When I was 25, I was working at Entertainment Weekly as an editorial assistant. It was a great magazine. Everyone was really excited to work there, and we were all obsessed with pop culture. It was very political, and that was not the healthiest thing for me. I didn’t know how to navigate that stuff. If I were to give advice to my 25-year-old self, I would say this is just one job and this is not the beginning of the rest of my life and the rest of my life won’t mirror what was going on here. At that job I felt like too much enthusiasm was looked down upon. I always had tons of ideas and brought them to my boss, but instead of encouraging that or seeing it as a positive attribute, she communicated to me subtly that it was annoying. I would tell my 25-year-old self to believe in myself more. I questioned myself a lot because of the response -- or lack of response -- I got from her. At the time I vowed that if I was ever a boss or manager, I would not blanch at an employee’s enthusiasm and willingness to work. I would not try to snuff that out.

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How would you define success?

As the security and the knowledge that you are giving life your all. You can’t give life your all at every moment, but you are doing the best that you can do.

Under that definition, do you feel successful?

Sometimes. Not always. I feel more successful with my family and friends than I used to be. I’m not working all the time so I have more energy to give to them. I think that when you take care of yourself, then you can take care of other people better. When I was running the site, I was not taking care of myself in a number of ways

How so?

I never left my apartment. I worked from home in a second bedroom. I wouldn’t have lunch with my friends. I didn’t exercise. I sat at a computer desk the whole day. I’d get up to go to the bathroom or get up to answer the door because I ordered food. The only times I ever took a break was when I had to go to the doctor. Then that would upset the whole day because I’d be gone for two hours and then I had to catch up. I hated taking breaks because it would stress me out more. It was totally unsustainable. Nobody was making me do this. I was doing it to myself.

What’s changed? How do you take care of yourself now?

I don’t always order in food. I leave my apartment. I take a lot of yoga classes. I walk a lot. I try to be healthier in physical ways because I think it helps me be healthier in mental ways. I still can’t get off the Internet sometimes, but it felt necessary with that job. If I spend too much time on the Internet now, that’s my own fault.

Do you ever unplug?

Never.

I guess it’s obvious by looking at your Twitter feed…

There will be days I won’t tweet at all because I’m busy or I’m annoyed with Twitter. Then there are times when I’m more active. Usually I’ll sit in bed [at night] with my iPhone and read Twitter. People are usually making jokes at that hour and there’s no news happening, so it’s kind of like being in a bar. It’s a little bit rowdy, but people are relaxed and winding down for the day. The last thing I do at night is read the Internet and Twitter. Then the first I do when I wake up is pet the cat, use the bathroom, check my email, make coffee, look at Twitter and then whatever.

Would you say that you have a work persona and a non-work persona?

No, but sometimes I think I should.

What would you title your autobiography?

I would title it the same title as my Tumblr, which I never post to -- so don’t send people to it! It’s a line from my favorite book, “Harriet the Spy,” when she yells at her parents, “I’ll be damned if I go to dancing school!” What she was saying was that they were trying to feminize her. They were trying to tame their wild child by enrolling her in dancing school. Her parents were rich, Upper East Siders and kind of uptight. It wasn’t about the dancing-school part of the phrase. It’s more like I will not be tamed so don’t tell me what to do. It’s an expression of independence.

Define the word happiness.

I would say it’s having curiosity, indulging in your curiosity and having the ability to find joy or beauty in very simple things. I have to remind myself to do that sometimes.

For example?

Birds. I’m not talking about pigeons, but there’s a lot of really fascinating stuff going on all the time that we are totally blind to.

The times when I am happiest, I am overcome with amazement. When I see a spiderweb or walk by a skyscraper and look up and see how big it is or when I see a great dance performance or hear a piece of music that I’ve heard a million times or a vista. The ability to be amazed is directly tied to the ability to be curious. I know people who exhibit no curiosity about anything beyond their own little world. I think that’s the lowest form of misery. I don’t think they feel miserable, but that’s my definition of being miserable.

According to that definition, would you consider yourself happy?

I think I’m in a transitional phase, which means I’m happy and scared. I think those things can coexist. I don’t know what I’m going to do next so I am both optimistic and a little cautious. It all depends on the day. One day I get up and I feel incredibly unhappy. Then after a few hours, I feel better. I don’t think happiness is a continuous state of being.


This interview has been edited and condensed.

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