Joanna Coles: 'I always wanted children and the real sadness would be not having them - not the challenge of being a mum'
As a new fly-on-the-wall documentary series in the offices of US Cosmopolitan comes to television screens next week - filmed while Joanna Coles was at the helm - the UK-born editor shares some no-nonsense advice for getting ahead at work.
From The Devil Wears Prada, starring a fearsome Meryl Streep, to the ensuing documentary The September Issue, with real-life Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, there's something undeniably enthralling about life within the glamorous world of glossy magazines - and Joanna Coles (55), former editor-in-chief of America's Cosmopolitan, totally gets it.
"If you've ever been in a workplace, there's a drama for you, because there are so many characters you'll recognise," she says. "What makes our office different to other people's, and perhaps more interesting to watch, is that we have celebrities coming in, we have fashion advisers, we have world-class singers coming in.
"So we live at the junction of celebrity, fashion, beauty, sex, love, journalism, and that's an intoxicating mix."
Before UK-born Coles was appointed chief content officer of Hearst Magazines last year, she and her team at Cosmopolitan were filmed for a new docu-series called So Cosmo, which follows the 'work hard, play hard' lifestyles of the young staff, whose real-life experiences inspire the pages of the mag.
Married to Peter Godwin in 2001, Joanna has two sons, Thomas (18) and Hugo (16).
Ahead of its premiere on E!, Coles shares her tips on making it to the top.
Joanna says: "The biggest change for me was probably moving to New York 20 years ago for a UK newspaper.
"It was super exciting to have to learn about a different culture, and I think that woke my brain up, because everything was different.
"It felt as if it should be the same because we were working in the same language, but, in fact, the systems of government were different, people dealt with the press in a different way, and it was exhilarating.
"The size of the American market was just thrilling."
And, surprisingly, this magazine chief says not to take life too seriously.
"Humour's essential. When Americans ask me where I'm from, I always say, 'I'm from Yorkshire, which is like the Texas of Britain'. You have a lot of grit and sense of humour. There are a lot of great Brits out in New York. It's not that we hang out relentlessly together but we have a lot of respect for each other.
"And there are a lot of Brits in the entertainment industry, in media, and we recognise in each other the thing that made us move to America, which was a freedom and a classlessness.
"It allows you to get on with what you want to do, and values you on what you do, not where you come from."
She advises that hard work pays off too, adding: "There was a prevalence of (the old boys' club)in the late-Eighties when I moved into the British media, and it was curious to me.
"I didn't feel part of it and I didn't feel excluded from it, but it did feel different. I just put my head down and worked as hard as I could. In the end, all of this is about really hard work, and nobody sees a lot of the hard work that people put in.
"We live in a culture, particularly with reality television and social media, where it's easy to create an illusion of perfection, and that can be, at first glance, both convincing and a little depressing for the observer.
"But what I loved about the So Cosmo show was the opportunity to show how incredibly hard people work, and how stressful their jobs are, and how seriously they take them."
She says it's no bad thing that others don't recognise your ability straight away. "It's a great thing to be underestimated because it puts off your rival or enemy - they're not on their full game if they underestimate you," Joanna points out.
"It makes things much easier for you. It's a much, much better thing to be underestimated. I love to be underestimated.
"We did the first interview with the fired first female editor of the New York Times, and we did the first interview with Chelsea Manning.
"The stories that got written about the fact we had done this was the sort of incredulous, 'Can you believe that these pieces were in Cosmopolitan?'
"So it gives you a freedom, to be underestimated, it's slightly less pressure, and it gives you a freedom to pursue things other people wouldn't realise you were doing."
And even in the glossy world of magazines, experience counts, according to Joanna.
"I think everybody's always faking it," she says.
"With experience, you suddenly realise you know how to do things, or that you've done something like this before. And I think as you get more confident, you can sit back and try and weigh up the options of doing something or not doing something. Sometimes the hardest decision is to say no to something, and I think when you're less confident, or when you're younger, you say yes to everything, and as you get older you realise you don't need to.
"I'm not looking to be perfect by any means. I'm packed with flaws, but then I look around and I think, 'Well, I'm not that bad'."
As a career woman, Joanna believes juggling work with the demands of home are difficult.
"I feel like women's careers are always discussed in terms of balance, and I feel if we were honest, there is no balance," she adds. "If your child is ill, you go spend time with your child.
"If you have a huge deadline, that's clearly going to be the object of your focus, and you need a really big family, social group, to make sure you can all help each other. I always wanted children so, for me, the sadness would have been not having them, not the challenge of having them, so I'm not someone who's particularly interested in balance. I like extremes."
But one area where she feels women should be like men is when asking for a bigger pay cheque.
"The advice I would give on negotiating is it's always fine to ask. Not every time will you be rewarded, but just because someone says no, it doesn't mean you can't ask again in three months or six months - and always do your research before you ask something, to make sure that you're asking for something that makes sense.
"I think women tend to take it very personally, whereas men don't. If men ask for something and you say no, they say, 'fine', and then three months later they're back in your office asking for it again.
"Whereas women tend to go away and think, 'Oh God, that's it, I've got to leave. I'm a disaster, or I'm not worth anything'. That's not true."
- So Cosmo is on E! from Wednesday, March 8 at 8pm. New episodes are available to stream and download every Thursday on hayu