May 24, 2019
NYU alumna and Editor-in-Chief of Cosmopolitan, Jessica Pels (TSOA ’09), shares how storytelling shaped her journey from prima ballerina to film production to publishing powerhouse.
Once surrounded by the snipping of film strips at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Jessica Pels (TSOA ’09), the new Editor-in-Chief of Cosmopolitan, now moves to the orchestra of her clicking keyboard as she punches out the magazine’s latest headlines. The youngest person to hold this coveted Hearst title, Pels has come a long way from her childhood roots as a ballerina, yet, the two passions share a common thread: storytelling.
Earning her BFA in film production with a minor in writing from NYU, Pels immersed herself in the creative community, from participating in NYU’s Sight & Sound Showcase to directing plays for the English and Dramatic Literature Organization. While the stage was her first love, the glossy pages behind magazine stories were calling and after working her way up the publishing ladder at Glamour and Teen Vogue, Pels was hired at Cosmo to lead their digital initiatives.
Now, the magazine that has long empowered women is on the forefront of data insights with traffic and subscriptions nearly doubling since Pels took her role last October. No matter what form of storytelling she chooses, from celebrity web features to covering the latest beauty products on social media, Jessica Pels knows her audience.
When you were 10 years old, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I had been training as a ballet dancer for seven years by then, so I was hellbent on hitting the stage as a prima ballerina. Then, as someone who loved to write, I wanted to be a novelist. Then, as someone who loved movies, I wanted to be a film director. All those things—and what I did end up becoming when I grew up (have I grown up, though?)—share a common thread: They’re about storytelling, above all else.
What inspired you to pursue a career in publishing?
Reading was always my window to the world. I’ll never forget when I first stumbled upon The New Yorker as an early teen, how my mind sort of exploded with excitement over how much they knew that I didn’t, and how compellingly they could share it with me.
What advice would you give to NYU students aspiring to break into the magazine or media business?
Don’t marry a platform. This business shifts and evolves constantly as our culture’s content consumption habits change, so you have to be flexible. Don’t think about becoming a magazine editor or a newspaper writer or a video editor—think about becoming a storyteller, and actively build skills to enable you to do that no matter where you go.
As a student, did you have a favorite study or hangout spot on NYU’s campus?
I love, love, love the Steenbeck editing labs in the Tisch building, which are likely all digital now, but back when I was a film student in Sight & Sound, we edited actual film by actually cutting it and actually taping it together. My classmates and I would camp out in that room—headphones and good music were key—and hunker down for 8-hour stretches, in the dark, making movies with our hands, and it was BLISS.
What is your fondest memory from your time at NYU?
As a freshman I directed a play for the English and Dramatic Literature Organization called Three Days of Rain—I’d never done anything like it and had to teach myself on the fly, but it was a blast and honestly, the show was pretty good!
Did any professor or mentor at NYU influence your decision to go for your dreams?
My writing professor Dave King was—and still is—an influence. He took such a thoughtful approach to teasing the best writing out of his students and, in the way the best professors do, invested heavily in their success.
What was your favorite class at NYU? Did it impact your career in any way?
Directing the Actor was a thrill, and I’ve found it immensely useful in working with writers as an editor. The psychology is the same—getting the best performance out of an actor is so much about creating a sense of trust and fostering creativity.
You’ve had tremendous success at this stage in your career! What accomplishments are you most proud of? What do you hope to achieve next?
I’m most proud that the growth and success that my brands have achieved did not come at the expense of the people doing the work—my teams have been as invested as I am, as passionate about the work, and as proud of the results. Finding and nurturing talent in others is one of the greatest satisfactions of my career.
You’ve been hailed as a digital-savvy person who understands the importance of data. How do you use this to connect with your audience?
Data is just another way of saying: understanding my audience. It’s paramount. I like to say that I’m not really even the boss of my brand—the reader is. That’s why we’re able to reach such big audiences and get such great engagement from them at the same time—we know exactly who they are and what their lives are like and what will excite them.
Cosmo has long been championed as an empowering platform for women. What challenges and/or rewards do you see for women in media?
I chose to work in this industry because I was awed, in my early days as a magazine intern, at seeing how women (and particularly young women) were given a seat at the table and really, actually listened to. It occurred to me that when you’re at the helm of a brand whose mission is to reach young women, and you are a young woman, the people in charge will respect your expertise. I wish that were more common across all industries, but I’m happy to see it’s increasingly moreso.
What has been your greatest success, personally and/or professionally?
My greatest success is simple: it’s the fact that my passion for the work is a renewable resource. No matter how frenetic or busy, no matter how hard, no matter how late, I always want to do more, because I love it and it’s FUN.
What has been the biggest surprise, personally and/or professionally?
I’m a type-A Virgo who’s spent my entire life trying to be perfect, and my biggest shock came recently when I realized that perfection isn’t actually the end-all be-all. In fact, it can hold you back.