The Former Editor-in-Chief of French 'Vogue' Is Just As Fabulous and Profound As You'd Hope
The compelling Joan Juliet Buck shares about her time at the helm of 'Vogue' Paris, her new memoir, and that time she interviewed Syria's First Lady.
If you know anything about fashion, you know that Vogue is incomparable. So let's just say you've gotta be pretty damn fabulous to claim the coveted position of Editor-in-Chief at Vogue Paris, like Joan Juliet Buck –– who is the only American woman ever to have edited a French magazine, before or since. You've gotta have that elusive je ne sais quoi and then some.
Now, over ten years since she donned the crown of French fashion, Joan Juliet Buck has once again taken the editorial world by storm with the release of her memoir, The Price of Illusion. At once both dazzling and profound, the prolific writer reveals what unexpectedly insidious forces can lay at the heart of the French fashion world.
Naturally, I was thrilled to chat with her over the phone, as the writer and actress shared candidly about her experiences as Editor-in-Chief of French Vogue, that time the Internet flayed her over her famously controversial interview with the Syrian First Lady, and of course, her star-studded tour de force.
Livingly: While you were at the helm of Vogue Paris, the magazine saw a monumental rise in circulation due to your innovation. What was one of the proudest moments you had as Editor-in-Chief?
JJB: Well, when you’ve never edited a magazine before, and you’re told that the magazine’s sold twenty [or] thirty percent more than the magazine did last year before you arrived –– that really [makes you] proud.
But there were these little proud moments, too, which were to see how people responded. And also to be able to spark the creativity of everyone on the staff.
I made everyone very playful, and I made everyone who made the magazine . . . go toward what amused them the most, what excited them the most. And that was huge. Because I’d never played with other people like that before. The passion came from everyone on the staff, because I listened to them, and if somebody really, really wanted to do something –– great, go ahead!
One day a meeting was derailed because somebody said that they had met Madame Claude, this famous, notorious madame who’d invented the term call girl. And she’d met Madame Claude over the weekend, and I was trying to run the meeting, but people kept saying, “Well, what was she like? What did she say?” and I said, “Okay, it’s really clear everybody’s fascinated by her, we’re going to interview her.”
It was the passions of everyone on the staff, and all the contributors that animated the magazine, and that made me really proud.
You’ve seen great success as an actress, prolific writer, critic, and journalist. What’s your advice for young women looking to establish their voices and stand out in a creative field?
I’m more of a starter actress! [laughing]
Well, what’s interesting with me is that I was a child actress, I was in a Disney movie called Greyfriars Bobby and I thought that’s what I wanted to do. And when my father [the late Hollywood film producer, Jules Buck] said, “You’re not in college to be an actress; do something else,” I said, oh, okay! I can write. And I think a lot of my feelings through my life that writing was a chore came from the fact that I pretended I didn’t want to act.
My advice is, if there’s something you really want to do, and you’re told not to do it, try and persevere with what you really want.
If you had to pick one, what’s the standout personality trait you have that took you to where you are today?
I think it’s a kind of reckless curiosity.
I have that too; definitely agree with you there. And a desire to just push the envelope as much as you can.
Well, just –– what’s that? What’s that about? That sounds interesting.
And it’s also optimism . . . always looking for a better interpretation.
After your profile on Asma al-assad, the wife of the syrian president, there was a major backlash, during which you decided to write your memoir. If you don’t mind sharing, what’s your advice on coming back from a situation like that?
The Internet had a lot to do with it. Because I was hounded on the Internet for a couple years. It was no fun, let me tell you. But when something like that happens, the people who are your real friends stick with you. They gather round. Somebody who lives in Brooklyn –– I lived on the far west side of Hell's Kitchen almost on the Hudson River, and a girlfriend who lives in Brooklyn calls up one day and says, "Oh, I was just in the area and I have two pounds of cherries!" And came over to see me. The real friends find ways to stick with you, and what’s amazing is when you’re in a real shit storm, it actually takes away everything that’s fake.
Because all the people who want to know you because of Vogue –– the people who want to know you for your status vanish. And the people who are your real friends, you really find out.
I'd always heard this expression, but I never had anything quite like that happen, and I don’t wish it on my worst enemy. But when that happened, especially if you’ve been living a kind of life that’s safe within illusions, you find out what’s real.
It was probably like a divorce from a very very long marriage. Women go through terrible divorces all the time. And people lose their jobs, or they lose their money or they lose their status, their reputation. The advice is: The people who love you will show you the way out, and you mustn’t get attached to bitterness. Bitterness and anger sink you.
And you really find out who’s on your side, and most important, you have to put yourself on your side. And the way to put yourself on your side –– don’t be bitter, don’t be angry, don’t be resentful. Keep looking for the good.
I read that in recent years, you’ve been gradually parting with and selling your glamorous old belongings. What’s one thing you would never discard?
There’s a necklace that’s in the book . . . and I now own it, and I would never, ever sell that. The things I sold were the props for the life that I was living. I’m no longer living that life, I don’t need the props. It’s a different story now.
At Livingly, we strive to “live life beautifully.” What does living beautifully mean to you?
It’s allowing the beauty in. When I had my baked potato [at a diner] yesterday, I pulled the foil off the little plastic container that had a butter at in it, and the butter pat had the most beautiful shape. You know, there are beautiful things everywhere.
And in difficult, weird times, what’s interesting is when you think that all the bad stuff is assembling into a force that you can’t do anything against . . . you will see something beautiful. Someone will say something that touches you. You will hear a beautiful piece of music, the light will come from between two buildings and hit a puddle of water in the street and make it shine like something more beautiful than silk.
There’s always beauty everywhere, it’s just waiting for you to notice it. And when you notice it, it helps you.
Then let’s Instagram that butter pat!
And that, dear reader, is when Joan Juliet Buck became my hero.