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Amelia Abraham

POSITION
Managing Editor
LOCATION
London

After beginning her career at Vice, Amelia helped launch Refinery29 in the UK and wrote her first book, before becoming the Managing Editor at Dazed Beauty. Her curiosity coupled with intellect, compassion, and killer storytelling skills has made her a well-known figure in journalism for covering the LGBTQ+ community. In her own words, she describes what it means to be an ally in her current position, "I commission as many trans writers as possible. I guess it’s not about talking for people, but where possible, elevating their voices."

This interview took place over the phone between Tate in New York and Amelia in London
Editor: Makena Gera; Photography Undine Markus

TVPS: Can you give a bit of an overview of how you got here?

AA: I didn't come from a background in beauty or fashion, so Dazed Beauty has been a bit of a new step.

I went to King’s College and studied English and literature. My first proper job out of university was at Vice in the PR department, I'd done some events in my spare time, like programming film festivals and stuff like that when I was at university. Coincidentally, I had quite a lot of friends who worked as journalists, so therefore I had connections that were valuable for a PR role. At the time, Vice was much closer to how we think of old-school Vice; it was kind of disorganized, but also super fun. A big part of the job was putting on parties, otherwise it was trying to get the company good press.

About a year and a half into that job, Vice entirely changed. They had bought i-D, but then they launched Vice News, and they'd gotten some big investments. So the culture of the company changed and the job changed as well. It became more about selling Vice News footage to media outlets and trying to get coverage in newspapers about all of the big news stories that Vice News was breaking, from the war in Ukraine to anti gay propaganda laws in Russia.

That entire time I was doing PR I didn’t really feel satisfied, so I started using the connections I was making through the PR job to pitch articles as a freelance writer. First, it was for great independent magazines like Beat Magazine or the Mushpit. Then I wrote a couple of bigger things and got published in The Guardian.

A job came up on Vice Editorial, and the editor-in-chief came to me and was like, “Do you know any young female journalists?” And I was like, “Oh yeah. Me.” Which was ballsy. But then I applied for it and got it.

So I moved into editorial. I did a year and a half as a junior editor on Vice.com, and I was very lucky in the amount of freedom that they gave me. Since they value having young people working on things, you get a lot more freedom there than you would in a more bureaucratic company. I was 22 or 23 and I was actually commissioning for Vice.com, and that was great. The main bulk of my experience as a writer came from them, and the guys that were my bosses taught me a lot.

I look back now and I cringe at some of the stuff that we would write at Vice Ed. I definitely wrote some silly things that were very fun to write, but had no journalistic integrity whatsoever. But the main thing I learned about being an editor was that you can keep all the fun jobs for yourself; you can use the name of the platform to interview your favorite people. So in that time, I interviewed Patti Smith, John Waters, Gregg Araki; a lot of people that I love, and then people who I didn't, but were still so interesting, like Jeff Koons. It was really an amazing time to work there.

Eventually though, I got itchy feet. I could see that people were getting quite embedded there, and I feel like when you're a bit earlier on in your career, you need to move around to see what you like. Someone from Refinery29 emailed me and was like, “Oh hey, when can we go for a drink?” but she didn’t say what it was for. I looked her up, but I ended up looking up the wrong person with the same name. So I go to this meeting and I didn't understand that it was a job interview, I was drinking a beer, smoking, and I also thought the person was someone else for the first 15 minutes. Then she said, “Hey, I'm launching Refinery29 in the UK and this is a job interview.” I think they were endeared by my behaviour because it was probably the cliche of what you would expect from someone who works at Vice. They offered me the job and I decided to take it to get some different experience.

“I would always negotiate into contracts that I'd be allowed to freelance - as long as it's not for a competing publication.”

For Refinery, how did you know what the UK audience would respond to?

I guess we didn’t know, we just kind of decided together. I was really lucky in that one of my best friends, Sarah Raphael, who was working as acting editor at i-D, was hired as the editor at large at Refinery, too. We got to decide together how to turn this US brand into one that would work for a UK market.

We were like, "What news stories should we be covering?" or “How can we cover the refugee crisis or female genital mutilation or sexual assault in a way that's digestible and isn't trying to mimic a hard news outlet?” I think it ended up really working because Refinery didn't try to mimic any existing platforms, and has since built an amazing brand in the UK. Although I no longer work there, I know that they are doing really well now.

It was also interesting working for somewhere like Refinery where I wouldn't say that I was the typical reader. In a way, that's good, because I would say that I was much closer to the content at Vice. However, when you get a bit of distance, you start to think about it from a more critical perspective. You think about the editorial or the brand as a product. I loved it.

What was great was that, the whole time I was working at Refinery and at Vice, I was able to freelance on the side, and those publications were extremely hospitable about that. I would always negotiate into contracts that I'd be allowed to freelance - as long as it's not for a competing publication. That gives you an opportunity to not put all of your eggs in one basket. You can grow your profile with other audiences and also make money on the side.

When I left Refinery it was because I wanted to leave the UK for a while. But I was lucky in that Refinery put me on a retainer. Which I guess was just a happy outcome of having really good relationships with my senior staff and they really did it as a kindness. Also, maybe to make sure I could write for them because I was one of their most regular contributors. So that was like training wheels to go freelance. It meant that I had a certain amount of work locked in per month, and a certain amount of income as well. One of the first things that came up as a job when I moved back, was a Vice documentary. So that was a great thing to be able to work on. I also had wanted to write a book for a while, so I told my boss at Refinery about the idea for it. I summed it up in a sentence, and I was like, "Oh, Jon Ronson or Louis Theroux explores queer culture.” Which is a very, very, very simplified version of what it is; it's basically about assimilation politics. But she literally texted that sentence to her friend who's a book agent, then they met up with me and we got on really well… so about three years after I started working as an editor, I was able to shift my focus on writing the book.

“I wanted to create something accessible, that drew from queer theory, but touched on what was going on in the real world, now.”

What was the process like to get a book deal?

Firstly you need to have an idea. I read a lot of queer theory, and I think that a lot of the ideas I read about are super interesting, but the way they're conveyed in the writing is not always very accessible. Ideas about what constitutes heteronormativity or queerness. I also think that we're in quite an interesting moment in terms of the mainstreaming of queer culture, like the popularization of drag, the corporatization of pride, and the visibility of trans people in the media. I wanted to create something accessible, that drew from queer theory, but touched on what was going on in the real world, now. So, I guess you need an idea, but it also has to feel relevant. I suppose that third thing is that you have to demonstrate why you're the right person to write it. I was lucky in that sense that I had a previous body of work as a journalist, but also I specialized in writing on LGBTQ+ politics and culture.

Then, if you get an agent, they will help you workshop the book proposal, which is a three-page-long document that has a blurb, a break down of the chapters, and a bio of who you are that also explains your access. Then they take it to publishers and shop it around for you. Hopefully you get offers, and people hopefully counter-offer. Then eventually you can choose.

Sometimes the publishers will change it a bit; for me, they definitely tried to make it a little bit more contemporary and commercial than my first proposal. I decided that that was actually a really good suggestion. It meant more people would read it, because it meant taking out some of the more academic language or the history. I decided to go with a publisher called Picador. The book is called, Queer Intentions: A (Personal) Journey Through LGBTQ+ Culture, and it’s coming out in May 2019.

“...you have to know who your audience is, who they're interested in, and then find representatives that reflect that back at them.”

Big congratulations!

Okay, so then Dazed Beauty came up?

Yeah. I wasn't actually looking for a job, I was just coming to the end of writing the book, and I was excited about the prospect of being able to freelance properly. When you're writing a book, any articles you write on the side are kind of an afterthought. I was thinking, "When I actually hand this bloody book in, I can hopefully try and write bigger, more difficult, more interesting pieces.” But I have to say I was feeling a little bit frustrated with never getting paid on time as a freelancer.

Then Dazed got in touch. I knew Bunny Kinney, who is the editor-in-chief, and Tish Weinstock, who they hired as commissioning editor. I worked at Vice when they were both working at i-D (they were in the same building) and also I’ve contributed to i-D for a really long time. So I went in for a meeting and I thought it sounded exciting what they were doing.

One, from a business perspective, because nothing quite like that existed yet. On one end you have publications like Beauty Papers, which is quite high-end and industry-facing. Maybe it's not super widely read, but it is a thing of beauty in itself. Then on the other end, you have more commercial beauty publications. But there wasn’t really anything in this in-between space.

Two, because we've seen the beauty industry become much more democratized, and more people feel like it's a space that welcomes them. It’s an area people are articulating their identity, as you might through fashion, and beauty is more than make-up, it’s talking about identity, that’s something we’re getting better at culturally.

So I could definitely see Dazed Beauty working from both a commercial standpoint and from an audience standpoint, which are two things you need to have for a publication to be successful, although they are of course connected.

“When I started working for myself, I never really went out in the week like I used to, because I knew that it was only on my time and money that I would be hungover the next day.”

When you were freelance, I'm assuming you were working from home and creating your own schedule. Now, at Dazed Beauty, you work out of an office. Do you find that the different space that you're working from affects your work?

Oh yeah, totally. It was really a dramatic shift to go from writing a book at home, which is very insular, to working in an office with other people every single day.

I'm in a position where I'm the connection between Dazed Beauty and a lot of the other departments in Dazed Media. I was so overwhelmed in my first few weeks by having to talk to people all day. It sounds dramatic, but I was honestly losing my voice by 3:00 PM most days in the first few weeks.

On the other end, being freelance can be quite lonely, and it is really hard to self-motivate. I would deliberately meet up with friends two days a week who were also freelancers and try to work with them as a way to make sure that I wasn't always alone.

However, I'm quite a self-motivated person. When I started working for myself, I never really went out in the week like I used to, because I knew that it was only on my time and money that I would be hungover the next day. You have to become a lot stricter with yourself, which is a great growing-up experience.

Of course, you can procrastinate when you're at home, so it is good to be in an office. But, the office is also equally distracting because it can be so hectic and people are constantly asking you questions. I find that if I actually have to get something done, or if I have to write something, the best thing to do is to find a space for a couple of hours where I can be alone.

You joined Dazed Beauty a few months prior to when they launched, right?

Yeah, maybe three months.

So when you first joined, what was your role pre-launch, and how did that role change after you all launched?

It has changed quite dramatically. In the lead-up to the launch, we didn’t have a daily website to run, so the pace of work was slightly different. A lot of the meetings were like, “What should our plan be for this?” They were more strategic and talking about the broader picture. Specifically, because my role is very operational, I was figuring out workflows: how people should work, trying to get people into good habits of ways of working, supporting them, and figuring out how people should work together. It was all quite new, but I've been in office environments before, so I've seen what works and what doesn't.

It was also a lot of looking at rollout plans, publishing schedules, and behind-the-scenes stuff. In that position you're not actually really creating anything, you're just supporting other people in creating the content. So that felt really strange to me after purely writing for so long.

“I just try and follow the people that are at the forefront of certain conversations, for example I learn about transgender rights from trans people.”

Did you like that?

Well, I started to feel like, "wow, this isn't super creative." But since the site’s launched, it has started to feel like it is again. Now it's completely different because there are articles every single day that need sub-editing and the website needs updating, plus we’re working on print. So I’ve started doing more commissioning. A digital website is always there and it never sleeps. When I worked at Vice and I had to change the website around and publish stuff on weekends, I described it like having a tamagotchi; you constantly have to feed it or it dies, and it's hard to stop thinking about it. Its creative but it’s tiring.

Because I was freelancing and writing the book, it had been two years since I’d actually worked on a living, breathing website. I forgot that that is quite a demanding thing. But also, I realized very quickly that if I wanted the job to be creative, I have to make it so. I have to be like, "Okay, I want to help commission." Or like, "Okay, I'm going to write one article a week so that I make sure I'm still writing." I guess that it was only up to me to make it like that.

If you had to summarize your current role, what would you say?

I’d say it is mostly planning, organising and managing. A managing editor looks at the long term plan but also makes sure everything gets done day to day. It’s also a lot of talent reach outs, forcing people to have meetings and share what they’re up to, chasing deadlines, subbing articles, assisting with production of photo and video, and trying to make sure everyone - print, digital, photo, video, social, commercial - work together

You recently announced your contributors, what was the process of selecting them like?

There are quite a few different types of contributing editors to Dazed Beauty. We have about eight contributing beauty editors who work in the industry, such as makeup artists Daniel Sallstrom and Cyndia Harvey. The thinking behind that is we want them to be contributing behind the scenes when they do fashion shows. We also want to elevate what they're doing and give them the opportunity to use the platform - to create shoots or videos, share their products, or talk about what matters to them. A good example of that is Athena Paginton, who is a makeup artist but she's really interested in environmentalism and sustainability and is shooting some great stuff for us. They’re all friends and collaborators of our creative director Isamaya Ffrench, so they’re natural fits, but they also are people who work in the industry and want to be having conversations about the industry.

We also have some editorial contributors. Such as Tom Rasmussen who’s one of my best friends, is an amazing drag queen, and has a column with us about non-binary beauty. With the bigger ones, like Munroe Bergdorf, it was just the way she's moved conversations forward about race and trans issues, which are extremely important.

For contributing arts editor Lil Miquela, we were looking at what's happening in beauty now, and one of the things is the rise of CGI and avatar models. It's creating a huge conversation surrounding, “What is a model?” and “What is beauty?” These CGI models reflect what we think is beautiful back at us, in quite an interesting way.

With Aquaria, we were thinking, “Who are our readers and who do they care about?” Aquaria was just a name that came up very quickly from a lot of the people on the team. She just signed to IMG, and fortuitously, I was having a meeting with someone at IMG and they said, "Oh, I look after Aquaria." I was like, "Oh my God. We all really want Aquaria to be a contributing editor." Aquaria was up for it, so she's now entertainment editor.

For publications, one is Ladybeard and they put out an incredible beauty issue that we were all just in awe of. We wanted to invite them to come and make more of that content in collaboration with Dazed Beauty. Novembre Magazine will also be commissioning photo shoots as well. Then there's also Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, from gal-dem, who comes and works in the office every week. I think it can be a reciprocal relationship if people have their own independent magazines. They're always getting to have that in their byline, and they're also getting paid to work for Dazed, which hopefully supports their other work.

If I could sum up everything I just said, it's that you have to know who your audience is, who they're interested in, and then find representatives that reflect that back at them. But hopefully also give those people the autonomy to feel like they can get creative with our platform.

“...the biggest upshot of the job is to use it as a way to meet your heroes, or become part of the conversation for the things you care about.”

When you're writing for different publications, obviously Vice, Refinery29, Dazed, and The Guardian, all have different voices. How do you keep your own voice while still taking on the voice of the publications that you're writing for?

It's definitely a challenge, isn't it? My first boss at Vice, who was the editor at the time, was really great in that sense. If he ever thought you wrote in a writing style cliche, he would take it out or tell you off for it. Then you end up getting closer to the way you talk in your writing. Once you get close to that, you're close to having quite a recognizable writing voice, or being able to put your personality into it. Of course, sometimes you fail at that, or you can't, or it gets edited out. But, I guess that's how you try and do it.

What advice would you give to journalists who want to cover the LGBTQ+ community, but are concerned about learning in the digital space where comments sections can be a bit harsh?

That’s a good question because the biggest upshot of the job is to use it as a way to meet your heroes, or become part of the conversation for the things you care about. But there are challenges for sure.

My first piece of advice is to listen and learn from others. Obviously, the conversation is always moving really fast. So I just try and follow the people that are at the forefront of certain conversations, for example I learn about transgender rights from trans people. Also, as someone who is trying to be an ally on that front, I commission as many trans writers as possible. I guess it’s not about talking for people, but where possible, elevating their voices.

Secondly, you still need to be prepared that not everyone will agree with you. That's just a natural outcome of being a journalist. You know, you can only do your best by people, and there might be moments where you don't succeed.

What advice would you give to someone who looks up to you?

Be nice to yourself and take time out of your busy life to congratulate yourself when you’ve achieved something. I’m very self-critical, so I have to try and remember that.