Tina Brown on being a trailblazer and what she learned from working with Harvey Weinstein

Margarette Driscoll
Award-winning journalist and media company founder, Tina Brown. - Andrew Crowley

To call Tina Brown a trailblazer barely does justice to the Supernova-like impact the award-winning journalist, editor and entrepreneur has had on the media world - on both sides of the Atlantic. 

At just 25-years-old, she was made editor of Tatler and turned a tired out, twinset and pearls monthly into a glossy, gossipy, must-read.

In New York, she pulled off the same trick with Vanity Fair, making it the house journal of the 1980s glitterati.

Now 65, Brown runs her own media company and is the founder of Women in the World, an organisation which brings together female leaders and activists. 

She is the embodiment of “having it all”, with an enviable family life – two grown-up children, George and Isabel, with her husband, former Sunday Times editor Harold Evans – and a contacts book to die for. 

She counts Oprah, Anna Wintour and Hillary Clinton as friends and her Women in the World summits have featured pretty much everyone who is anyone, from Queen Rania of Jordan, Nicole Kidman and Scarlett Johansson to Nadia Murad, the Yazidi woman kidnapped by Islamic state who has since won a Nobel prize.

Ask how she does it and the answer is dauntingly simple: endless curiosity, energy, early mornings (she rises at 4.30am) plus a disregard for polite convention.

“I’m a completely unabashed follower-upper, business card hoarder, request-in-person kind of person,” she says. 

“I’ll get up from the audience, go over to the person I want and pitch. Everything about editing, or producing, or business is about getting a ‘yes’. And there’s nothing like making eye contact to get a ‘yes’.”

Brown, who grew up in Buckinghamshire and styles herself as ‘Writer/Editor/Convener/Troublemaker’ on Twitter, will be leading the way again at The Telegraph’s Women Mean Business Live summit, in conversation with columnist Allison Pearson

She may be a sought-after guest at such events today, but she admits that when she first arrived in New York, she felt out of her depth. 

As she sat alone in her hotel room on her first night in the city “my London bravado evaporated” she recalled in her diaries, published in 2017. 

Feeling restless, she had quit her job at Tatler and decided to try her hand as a writer in America. 

But for a Home Counties girl - albeit one an Oxford degree and a successful magazine revamp to her credit - the sassy shark pool of American publishing was a daunting prospect.

Brown wasn’t friendless for long. Invitations to lunches started coming her way, followed by the chance to take on Vanity Fair.  

For an ambitious young woman in the 1980s, America did prove to be the land of opportunity.

Before long, no fashionable party was complete without the upstart editor. Her witty, imaginative magazine covers - Ronald and Nancy Reagan dancing the foxtrot at the White House, Daryl Hannah in a blindfold, photographed by Helmut Newton and a naked, pregnant, Demi Moore – became talking points and made Brown a media star. 

Tina Brown, Lady Evans CBE Credit: Andrew Crowley /The Telegraph

“One of the things that struck me when I got to the US was how good women were at presenting themselves and what I mean by that is speaking in public, pitching a deal, being confident in meetings,” she recalls.

“At Vanity Fair I had to pitch the magazine to an all-male management team – the CEO and chairman and the circulation boss, and all these people - who sat around a board table. 

"I found that very, very intimidating, but gradually I became more American and now I don’t care [about speaking in public] at all.”

It has given her a lifelong affinity with other successful women who often find themselves the only woman in the room; she cites citing Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the US House of Representatives, as one example.

“She’s almost 80, standing alone, speaking truth to power. That’s so inspiring,” says Brown.

But if being a lone woman at the top is sometimes difficult, it isn’t much better being one of two. 

Brown says two women at the same level – like she and Anna Wintour, who became editor of American Vogue while Brown was running Vanity Fair – will always be compared, contrasted and cast as rivals, feeding off a very particular male fantasy.

“They like girl on girl action, right?” she says. “Look at Meghan and Kate. Nobody was satisfied until they ‘hated’ each other.

“There is never allowed to be a cordial amity between two women who might be doing a similar role. 

"Women are pitted against each other because it’s a sexier story. Women have to try to resist. Anna and I are actually very good friends. We competed, but being competitive doesn’t make you enemies.”

One of the most trying episodes in Brown’s career was the three years she spent working for Harvey Weinstein after she left Vanity Fair. 

Tina Brown with Angelina Jolie in New York at the Women in the World Summit 2012 Credit: AP/Evan Agostini 

The movie mogul provided the backing for her to set up Talk magazine, intended to be a new publishing venture that would produce not just a print edition, but books, films, and pieces for radio. 

Even though he had never tried it on with her, when Brown heard the allegations about his sexual misconduct, which sparked the #MeToo movement, she found them instantly believable. 

“I discovered Harvey was a complete raging bull lunatic very shortly after I signed on,” she says. 

“I was subject to incredibly horrible bullying and abuse, which wasn’t sexual but it was bullying and abuse: so the fact that he would have been using those same techniques for sexual gratification did not surprise me at all."

Sexual harassment, she says, was never an issue for her because, having been made an editor at 25, she was always too senior “and it’s about power”. But she thinks the Me Too movement has begun to redress that power balance.

“It’s made men realise they have to clean up their act,” she says. “Men have had power all this time and it’s going to be uncomfortable to lose or to share it, but it’s no longer just a man’s world.”

Tina and her husband Sir Harold Evans, in New York. Credit: Taylor Hill /Getty Images

It was certainly a man’s world as she was trying to balance career and children, despite Evans being “a fantastic father”. 

Brown was responsible for childcare and thinks most women still are, even if their husbands are hands-on. 

“They don’t have the guilt, that’s what blows my mind,” she says. “Here’s an example: I’m a woman and I’m in my job and I’m asked to go and speak at a conference. 

"My immediate thought would have been ‘Oh my gosh, how many nights am I going to be away from the children, who’s going to cover while I’m away, what if…’ Your head starts to race like a cage of rats. 

"Bless him, I’m not sure my husband would ever have thought like that. He’d just say, ‘Oh, sure, I’d be delighted to come’.

"Maybe that is generational, but that would have been my premier thought and I think that’s true of most women even now.”

It’s why she thinks more and more women are starting their own businesses. 

“When women have kids they then have to ask themselves ‘is this worth it?’ They feel they’re not really going to get what they want. 

"I think that’s why women drop out, not because they can’t handle it, it’s about asking themselves ‘if I’m not really going to get the reins of power, is it worth putting myself through all this?' 

"So what you are seeing is an awful lot of women thinking ‘I’m just going to build my own business which will answer to me and to my way of doing things and that enables me to build a structure that works’.”

It’s been “very gratifying” to have her own company. 

Tina Brown Live Media runs the Women in the World summits – which started small in 2009 and have turned into an annual, three-day event at New York’s Lincoln Centre – and produces podcasts of Brown in conversation with well-known writers and thinkers. 

Women in the World also presents one off talks: “We had a great evening recently with Penelope Cruz and another with Christina Mittermeier, a Mexican conservation photographer. 

"I just feel so lucky that I can bring to an audience a woman like this who’s a hero, a real climate change warrior, and woman are at the forefront of that, look at what’s been achieved by little Greta.”

At the weekends, she heads for the her seaside home in Long Island, where city socialising is swapped for early nights and long walks. 

It also provides the occasional moment to reflect: “My career as an editor didn’t feel like trailblazing at the time, it just felt like powering through, trying to solve any particular problem in front of my face,” says Brown. “I didn’t have much time to stand back and think.”

Women Mean Business Live, November 5 2019, will bring together over 500 business leaders and entrepreneurs for a day of action, debate and networking to overcome the barriers that all too often prevent female-led businesses and professionals within the workplace from reaching their full potential. Speakers will include media entrepreneur Tina Brown, Samantha Cameron, founder of Cefinn and Marta Krupinska, head of Google for Startups UK, among many more. For more details click here