Stella Bugbee is the editorial director of The Cut: the New York Magazine site known for its smart, wry and candid voice. Which makes sense when you meet Stella. With 14 minutes to spare, Stella fires back answers to my questions before running to her next meeting. This is what she had to say about how she got to where she is, why being imbalanced can work in your favor, and why she’s grown into a passionate feminist.
“My life has taken several strange turns, but in hindsight they’ve led me to where I’m at. I majored in communication design at Parsons because I liked typography and telling stories through visuals. Pretty early on, I decided to self-publish things: books, zines and magazines which I would work on with other kids from start to finish. In my senior year I worked for a leading magazine, and quickly realized that it was not a career path I wanted to take. I didn’t want to work my way up from a junior designer to an art director. So I started my own company instead—and I continued with my self-publishing projects where I got to do a lot of editing. Eventually I tried stints in advertising and fashion and ended back in magazines working at Domino. During that time I met one of the editors at New York Magazine and worked with him on a magazine called Topic. I ended up coming to New York Magazine because of him, and changed from a purely visual role to an editorial director position. I was able to apply a lot of the ideas I’d learned both working at Condé Nast and working in fashion as a creative director. If I look back, I’m now using everything I ever learned.
I’ve always had this sense of talking directly to an audience. That was one of the things that appealed to me about design: that you could make people feel things or identify with a scene. A punk poster communicated something completely different than something with preppy type—and you were actually talking to people that way. I think it’s all about tone. It’s been a learning process to come here and apply that idea of tone and communication in a different medium, but it’s a really similar process. If you think about brand building, which is what I did prior, that’s still what I’m doing—creating a community and a voice that people can recognize and enjoy.
But did I ever have self doubt? Totally. I think everyone does—it’s normal.
I’ve always needed to play a part in the end result of what I’m working on—so if I’m unhappy with the end result I only have myself to blame. A non-negotiable for me is working with people who value innovation. I work best with a process where creativity is highly important and where good ideas are developed democratically. I believe good ideas can come from anybody, and believe in a pretty flat hierarchy for most organizations. I don’t have any non-negotiables in terms of lifestyle—I’ve pretty much sacrificed most of those. I don’t exercise as much as I need to, I don’t get enough sleep, and I don’t pay enough attention to what I wear even though I work fashion. I have a lot of friends and I try to make new friends, but those things become very difficult with the addition of a family. I’m not complaining—I just recognize that you die trying to have it all. You have to pick the things that are most important to you, and work is one of the most important things to me, so I prioritize it. Balance is great if that’s what you’re into, but I also think it’s something that can trip you up. It sets another impossible standard. I’m probably really imbalanced, but I’m fine with it. I do my best.
I think that some of the most interesting people are imbalanced. I don’t think you get really good results by trying to do everything.
I think you have to focus on the things you want to get really good results from and that is the only way to get better at those things. Sacrifice is part of that. I think balance is an impossible, aspirational lie.
If you had asked me 20 years ago whether I thought being a woman had impacted me negatively in my life, in terms of choices or opportunities, I probably would have said no. But as I’ve aged and had several jobs and had children, I can definitely tell you it’s the number one thing that has affected my life. So coming into a position where I’m surrounded by women, and thinking about women’s issues all day long, I’m even more keenly aware how being a woman impacts all the choices we make and affects all the success we have or don’t have. And how important it is for women to be in positions of leadership, so we can help others achieve things and be at the table for important decisions. Otherwise we will get left out.
I’ve become a more radical feminist over time.
Through getting older I’ve seen enough ageism—which I think is a function of sexism—and think it’s even more important as I age to be around women fighting for our goals and our ability to prosper.”