Graydon Carter announced yesterday that after 25 years, he’s stepping down in December as the editor of Vanity Fair. Of his decision, Graydon told The New York Times that, “I want to leave while the magazine is on top”. Now, of course, everyone’s wondering about his successor, who that might be:
Mr. Carter’s departure is likely to set off a steeplechase of sorts in elite journalism circles. The editorship of Vanity Fair is among the industry’s most coveted positions — Mr. Carter’s predecessor was Tina Brown, who went on to run The New Yorker — and speculation about Mr. Carter’s heir has long simmered.
Frequently mentioned contenders are Adam Moss of New York magazine, Janice Min of The Hollywood Reporter and Joanna Coles of Hearst Magazines. “There will be some great candidates both inside and outside the company,” said Steven O. Newhouse, a top executive at Vanity Fair’s parent company, Advance Publications. He added, “We’re in no rush.”
Mr. Carter said he had an idea for who might succeed him — he would not name names — and that he would offer suggestions to Vanity Fair’s publisher, Condé Nast. “I want to make it really easy for the next person,” he said. “I care about this magazine. I don’t want it to go anywhere other than up.”
What will Vanity Fair look like if Graydon Carter chooses his successor …and if he doesn’t? Graydon tried to modestly downplay the importance of an editor during his discussion with the NYT. “Editors, you know, we don’t really do anything. To the owner, you’re sort of like a patch of mold on the kitchen ceiling. You’re not quite sure about it, but as long as it doesn’t start dripping, you can just let it be.”
That’s obviously not true. During their tenures, legacy editors like Graydon Carter define the era of the publications they oversee. So if Graydon’s making recommendations to Conde Nast about who should take his place, does that mean he’s forwarding a candidate who will maintain the tone that he established? Or is it someone capable of beginning an entirely new footprint, so that in another 25 years, there will be a clear distinction between Graydon and whoever comes after?
You can’t separate Graydon Carter’s stewardship of Vanity Fair from his Importance Index and Seven Rooms theories of fame. As I wrote back in 2013, when he was tussling with Gwyneth Paltrow (we’ll come back to that in a minute), the Importance Index is based on how celebrities rank each other. Like, if Robert Downey Jr gets a call from Jude Law and from Mel Gibson, who he calls back first determines their standing. As for the Seven Rooms, every celebrity thinks they’ve reached the last room, the room that they all aspire to, but, really, there’s always another room, or two rooms, except for maybe one or two people, but seventh room residents are rare. And they can’t stay in there forever.
These are astute perspectives on the nature and psychology of celebrity. Celebrity is both interior and exterior. Fame is determined not only by the audience but it is also governed from within – fans can elevate a celebrity to a certain status but celebrities also legislate among themselves to establish worth parameters and maintain hierarchies. Remember when Gwyneth once allegedly referred to Jennifer Aniston as “that TV girl”? It’s an example of how celebrities themselves have set the standards of fame while continuously seeking more of it. Which is what the Seven Rooms analogy is all about. There’s always more fame to be had, more doors to more fame. And the famous are often both gatekeepers and guests hoping to get to the next rooms.
What’s changed for Graydon Carter is that the person he once called a “short-fingered vulgarian”, someone he never imagined would have breached the Seventh Room, may have actually reached that Seventh Room. Because, in these times, the rules about who gets to pass through the rooms have changed. Celebrity has evolved – or, you might say, mutated. Reality television and social media have disrupted the Seven Rooms. There may now be more than Seven Rooms. Or those rooms have been forced to get bigger, to make way for people who, 25 years ago, when Graydon first started at Vanity Fair, would never have been allowed to approach the first door, let alone get inside of it. Graydon Carter tells the NYT that he’s “by nature a very wistful person”. Wistful for many things, probably. And, maybe, wistful about how fame used to be – more exclusive, less democratic.
To go back to Gwyneth though, in 2013, Vanity Fair wanted to do a profile on her and why people hate her. For whatever reason she decided she wasn’t into it and sent an email to all her friends telling them to boycott the magazine. Which resulted in all kinds of rumours that Graydon then decided to turn the article into a hit-piece. Eventually they made up and Graydon revealed that G called him to call a truce and ended up asking for advice about what to do about the haters. He told her that people hate her because she’s so thin. And then she told him that he got fat. Which, as I noted at the time, basically meant she won. Because for Graydon Carter, who has always considered himself a Hollywood outsider, Gwyneth Paltrow was exactly the kind of celebrity who met his criteria for fame and the Seven Room track. It’s getting harder and harder now though to adhere to the narrowness of that criteria. And whoever succeeds him will have to navigate celebrity by criteria that depends so much on Twitter and Instagram.
Will that person be as petty as Graydon can be about how he wielded his influence? Gwyneth picked a fight with him that, for instance, a magazine like PEOPLE would have walked away from. Graydon met her challenge until she came to him. The year before he hissed at Gwyneth, after Katie Holmes left Tom Cruise, he approved the infamous Scientology deep-dive article with details about Tom auditioning girlfriends and his weird friendship with David Miscavige, effectively ensuring that Tom, still a pretty big movie star, would never talk to Vanity Fair again. Last month Vanity Fair clapped back at Angelina Jolie when she claimed the magazine misrepresented the controversial audition process during First They Killed My Father. So while, for the most part, Graydon Carter’s Vanity Fair played nice with celebrities, it was willing to take on big targets from time to time – and often won, which made Vanity Fair good for gossip. Graydon Carter has been good for gossip. Will the new editor of Vanity Fair be good for gossip?
Click here to read Vanity Fair’s tribute to Graydon published yesterday following the news of his imminent departure.
Have a great weekend!
Yours in gossip,