Cosmopolitan’s Farrah Storr On Empowerment

Leonie Bramwell 15 December 2018
Image Credit: Nordin Ćatić

As Editor-in-Chief of Cosmopolitan magazine, Farrah Storr turned a publication which had lost a good portion of its readership into the best-selling women’s glossy magazine in Britain: a position it had not held for sixteen years. She did this in six months, and lost 80% of the original Cosmo team in the first half of that period. While running Cosmo she has managed – somehow – to write an entire book (‘The Discomfort Zone’), wherein she explores her own experiences in the industry, and she delivered a TEDx Talk in 2016 about “The Leadership Revolution We All Need”. She is, in short, an absolute powerhouse of a woman.

When I’m eventually ushered into the room where myself and two others will steal seven minutes each with the Cosmo Editor, both Farrah and her husband are here: he is standing in a corner and looking every bit the writer a quick Google of his name informs me he is, while Farrah herself looks every bit as sophisticated as you would expect the Editor of Cosmo to look. What is striking about Farrah Storr, though, is her evident kindness. When I interview her, I note that her responses are measured and thoughtful; she is used to being asked difficult questions. To my absolute delight, I don’t get the chance to open with an acknowledgement of our shared northern roots; she does it for me.

There isn’t much time for small talk, because Farrah is set to be on the stage of the Cambridge Union in seven minutes. I launch directly into a question on what I call the “marketability” of feminism: the way that the language of empowerment has been co-opted by brands and influencers over recent years to sell everything from dangerous laxative teas to minor plastic surgery. Farrah, having worked at Women’s Health prior to taking on the Editor-in-Chief position at Cosmo, was fully immersed in the industry of women’s glossies as this strategy took hold. She talks of empowerment as a word “just banded across the ether, particularly on Instagram”, noting that “way before empowerment became ‘the thing to get you lots of likes’, Cosmo built a brand around being the first magazine to really say to women: ‘you can go out and have sex like a man’ or, ‘you can go out and have a career like a man.’” When I articulate my concern that the discourse around empowerment has become little more than an Instagram trend, however, Farrah is quick to assure me that hope is not lost; her team at Cosmo, she says, is about “Empowerment In Action”.

“It’s all very well and good to say: ‘empower women’ – but the question is: ‘how do you do that, exactly?’ Yes, our content empowers women, but the central purpose of our content really is to entertain. It’s the projects we do at Cosmo that are really empowering.” She mentions a scheme to house young creatives in London, four upcoming paid-for scholarships at Cosmo, and a “massive” sex education project as all evidence of this “Empowerment In Action”. She is determined that cynicism about “empowerment” should not detract from the people and groups “doing really good work right now.”

In ‘The Discomfort Zone’ Farrah described Instagram as an “egomaniacal echo chamber of ‘likes’ and sycophantic commentary.” I ask her if she believes the platform is affecting how we view ourselves and each other.

“The thing about Instagram is it channels human nature. A bit like these things [she indicates her phone] – who would’ve thought we’d turn our phone camera on our own faces? The phone by itself is just a piece of technology, but they channel into who we are. I often wonder if there is a slightly narcissistic tendency in all of us.” She tilts her head to one side, and her tone ceases to be pensive and becomes full of conviction. “I think we all have a duty of care, actually – to be very clear about the kinds of pictures we are posting. Putting up curated content – some people are able to see through it, but I don’t really think young girls are, and that’s the danger. So we all have a duty of care: to try and be a bit more real on Instagram, a bit more mindful.”

All this talk about Instagram puts me in mind of Tess Holiday, a woman whose success on the platform and within the associated Body Positivity movement fuelled her personal brand and modelling career. Discussion around her Cosmo cover, however, was much more concerned with her size than with her route to success, and Piers Morgan’s public and vitriolic hatred of Tess led to Farrah appearing on Good Morning Britain to defend her editorial choices. It seemed to me that the more extreme end of this backlash was fuelled by a fear that Cosmopolitan, in giving Tess a platform, established her message of self-love and body positivity as, not something restricted to the hashtag subculture of a vast social media platform, but instead as something openly celebrated by a socially recognised standard-setter.

Though Farrah disagrees with the notion that magazines should set the “norm” for women, she recognises the extent of their influence. “What magazines and the media have a duty to do”, she notes, “is to look at culture and go: this is a really important message and we have our part to play in this.

“Tess was on my cover because of what she embodied to me. She grew up in a trailer, she was 5’3, she had no contacts in the fashion world, and so the world said to her: ‘You are never going to make it’. But she did – and she just so happened to be 300 pounds. The reason she was in Cosmo wasn’t because she was a size 26: that’s irrelevant to me. But the story itself was worth sharing to women. And that story is: if you fight enough, it is possible to succeed.” She pauses, considering for a moment.  “I think that cover really revealed the world to actually be far more fatphobic than it perhaps even realises. Closely held prejudices were challenged. And it ended up as one of our best-selling issues of the year.”

By this point, I have slightly overrun my assigned length of time for interview, but I am curious about something else. In a TED Talk in 2016, Farrah spoke at some length about management styles – about the first woman she hired at Cosmo being “kind”, being “nurturing”, being able to “spot when somebody in the office is struggling.” In ‘The Discomfort Zone’, though, she described her earlier experiences of work culture as pro-individualism, favouring more “aggressive” office styles. I ask Farrah if she recognises in her experiences a genuine cultural shift, wherein perhaps more “coded feminine” traits are increasingly being recognised for their merit.

Farrah is initially unenthusiastic about my phrasing: she responds that she tries “not to think in terms of gender, because everybody is different”. But she pauses, considering. “I think, generally speaking, those more ‘feminine’ attributes: slightly quieter, slightly more empathetic [though, she stresses, there are lots of empathetic men] are becoming increasingly valued.

“In my office at the moment, there are two people who I deliberately promoted at the same time. One of them is exactly what you’d expect a leader to look like: she’s outspoken, she’s very blunt, she’s very driven; the other is a total introvert: she doesn’t speak up in meetings, but she speaks up afterwards. I promoted them at the same time, because both styles have their merits. I do think it is changing, I do. Much for the better.”

With women like Farrah Storr successfully driving such change forward, I fully agree. Much for the better.