Tina Brown has always been a troublemaker. Thrown out of three private high schools as a teenager, she still managed to get into the prestigious Oxford University at the age of 16, becoming a journalist and ruffling the feathers of the British establishment before moving to New York to edit Vanity Fair at the age of 29.
Early in her career, she also married a well-known British journalist 25 years her senior, revamped ailing British society magazine Tatler and broke the news that the marriage between the Prince and Princess of Wales was in trouble.
“At school, I was a real rebel, constantly questioning authority. That was my issue. It wasn't that I was taking drugs or climbing over the walls to date boys or whatever, it was really much more that I just was constantly questioning authority,” Brown told CNBC’s “The Brave Ones.” One such incident saw her lead a demonstration across a lacrosse pitch against wearing a particular type of underwear. “Knickers out, out, out,” was the chant, she recalled. “And of course, it was me that was out.”
This devil-may-care attitude resurfaced again when she was offered a senior role on Vanity Fair, after a stint as a consultant editor. “At the end of my consultancy, (the publisher) Conde Nast said: ‘Will you stay and sort of keep working for the magazine?’ And I said: ‘Not unless I'm the editor.’”
“And I got on a plane and went back to England, which I think was kind of cocky of me, when you consider I was 29 and I had been offered really a great opportunity as sort of the number two at Vanity Fair. But I didn't want to be anything but the editor, because I saw it was either going to have a vision, my vision, or I didn't want to be part of it.”
She’s always had an inquiring mind. “Ever since I was a very small child, I wanted to know what really happened, and that meant probing. It meant asking questions and it meant sometimes doubting what you were being told,” she said. “I have a journalist's temperament of constantly seeing the story behind the story and wanting that real story.”
Actress Meryl Streep, who has appeared on stage at Brown’s Women in the World summits, agrees. “She's curious. And most people are not. Most people have their set of what they believe and she's really permeable. So she’s a listener,” she told “The Brave Ones.”
She’s often ahead of her time, according to International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde. “I think Tina is a mixture of a pioneer, an entrepreneur and somebody who can just feel, breathe, smell, understand what's happening, what's coming. And that's a special sense,” she told “The Brave Ones.”
Brown was born in 1953 Maidenhead, just outside London, into a showbiz life. Her father George was a movie producer and her mother Bettina an assistant to Laurence Olivier. Her upbringing gave her an inquisitive nature. “My father was always looking for material, always looking for stories. And he really taught me to see everything in life as material for a story,” she said.
One day she went on set with The Beatles, who were making the 1965 movie “Help.” “When I was 10, my father came home with the most exciting news any 10-year-old could have had in the '60s, which is: ‘I can take you on the set of The Beatles' film’.” John Lennon was a childhood idol, but it was Paul McCartney who was kind to her. “He was sweet and like, ‘Oh my God, you don’t look 10 … I thought you were 15,’” Brown recalled.
Other childhood heroes were Anne Boleyn, Queen Elizabeth I and Nell Gwyn, the mistress of King Charles II, “who I thought was a fabulous Cockney character … just badass.”
After the school expulsions, it was her time at university that got her noticed. “I could write for the magazine, edit the magazine, put on plays. I produced two plays, did them at the Edinburgh Festival. I could act in the plays. I could go to the Oxford Union and watch (the late Pakistani Prime Minister) Benazir Bhutto debating. The whole canvas of Oxford, for me, was just so incredibly enriching to my life … And I was always doing the things that kind of got you known around campus,” she said.
Before Brown graduated, she had already been commissioned by editors in Fleet Street, London’s newspaper hub at the time. She had befriended Oxford alumnus Auberon Waugh (son of novelist Evelyn Waugh), and interviewed him for university magazine The Isis. Waugh, writer at satirical magazine Private Eye, would take her to lunch with his contacts, often British politicians, “people who would sort of be funny about the establishment.”
“And I was there as his kind of little blonde student, watching all these famous and powerful men do their thing, except that I was always watching and I was always observing. And I went off and I wrote this piece that actually skewered them all.”
“And I did it because I thought they're always skewering everybody else, I'm going to give them a piece about them. And of course, they were all stunned,” she said.
Brown landed a column in British political magazine The New Statesman and got the attention of Harry Evans, then the editor of The Sunday Times, “the biggest, kind of most successful, crusading newspaper in London. He was the kind of the Ben Bradlee of London, if you like,” Brown said.
But when she arrived to meet Evans, he wasn’t interested. “I could see from a distance that there was Harry surrounded by all of these news editors, laying out the front page of the newspaper, and then he looked up at me and he said: ‘Don't bother me now, love.’” But this rejection made him desirable, Brown said.
“Zing, zing, zing went my heart because he had these incredible blue eyes. He had no time for me, which I thought was incredibly sexy. And it was just, for me, love at first sight, yes. It took a little bit of time to bring him round, but you know, we have been together ever since.” That was in 1973, and by 1978 when Brown was 25 and Evans was 50, he split with his longtime wife. They married in 1981.
Brown left the paper due to their affair. “I had only done a few pieces for Harry at The Sunday Times when I decided that I was madly in love with him and I better leave, right, because I don't agree with the idea that you're going to have a big romance with the boss. He actually was married at the time, as well,” she said.
Brown was the turnaround glossy magazine editor of the 1980s and 1990s, first with British Tatler and then with Vanity Fair and The New Yorker.
“What attracts me is seeing the potential in something that other people don't see. It's a bit like walking into a house and seeing it’s a big old crumbling wreck, but you could make it into this beautiful place with a fabulous balcony,” she said.
In 1979, aged just 25, she was hired by entrepreneur Gary Bogard to be editor of the high society magazine he had just bought: Tatler. It was “a sort of ailing, shiny sheet with a 200-year-old pedigree,” and she took it from a circulation of about 10,000 to more than 100,000, according to Evans. Brown and her writers were close to the then Lady Diana Spencer to the extent that Brown was asked to cover her wedding to the Prince of Wales for NBC’s “Today” show in 1981.
She also got an interview with Princess Caroline of Monaco by putting a note in a shoe she was going to try on, a “cunning” nature that helped Tatler recover, Evans said. The magazine was bought by Conde Nast in 1982 but Brown did not continue her editorship. “I enjoyed actually being this scrappy, maverick little magazine, less enjoyed being part of the big American company, and just felt that I should now do something else,” she recalled. So she went back to full-time writing, but was soon lured across the Atlantic by Conde Nast with the relaunch of Vanity Fair, a magazine that had been dormant for nearly 50 years. After being made editor, she put Oscar-winner Daryl Hannah on the cover in April 1984 in a story about the most exciting blondes in Hollywood.
Her Vanity Fair budget meant she could throw money at covers and content, with a “basically bottomless pocketbook,” according to Forrester Senior Analyst Susan Bidel, speaking to CNBC by phone.
Brown and photographer Harry Benson persuaded the then President Ronald Reagan to dance with First Lady Nancy for the June 1985 cover in a piece that also featured them kissing. “And the president just leans in and gives this screen smooch with Nancy. And I'm thinking, ‘the Reagan kiss, the Reagan kiss … You know, this is going to be incredible,’ and it was,” she said.
In October 1985, she wrote a feature on the Princess of Wales, “The mouse that roared.” “It was the piece that broke the news that the marriage of Diana and Charles was in serious trouble,” Brown said. She commissioned a story on Donald and Ivana Trump in 1990: “Wanted to capture their fascinating repositioning now that they are divorcing and Ivana has been upgraded to superstar victim of a brutish, philandering husband, which she is playing to the hilt,” she said in “The Vanity Fair Diaries: 1983 to 1992,” published in 2017.
Later in 1990, a “wonderfully grotesque” Rosanne Barr and husband Tom Arnold mud-wrestling was a Vanity Fair center spread, likely to make advertisers such as Ralph Lauren “have a heart attack,” according to Brown’s diaries, and of course, she put Demi Moore, naked and pregnant, on the cover in 1991, which resulted in a refusal from Walmart to stock the magazine.
Vanity Fair was a success because of its blend of celebrity and seriousness, which Brown curated, says longtime colleague Gabe Doppelt. “Most intellectuals actually really have an affinity for trash as well, but they don't, kind of, admit it. Tina fearlessly embraces both the high and the low and attacks both with, kind of, equal passion,” she told “The Brave Ones.”
In 1992, after nine years of editing Vanity Fair, Brown had an itch. “I had my old restlessness. I'm very restless. I had created the success of Vanity Fair — it was wonderful. But I kind of missed my literary roots,” she said. Conde Naste had bought The New Yorker in 1985 and it was failing. Brown was hired to turn it around.
“It was much more about polishing a jewel and carefully realigning it so that you kept the great things about its pedigree, but you did bring it into the 20th century,” she said. It was redesigned and an entirely new team brought in. “I let go 72 people actually, but I also brought in 45 other people, including my successor, David Remnick, including Malcolm Gladwell, who wrote ‘The Tipping Point,’ including Jeffrey Toobin, who was a young assistant D.A. at the time and who I gave the O.J. Simpson story to, (and) Jane Mayer, who turned out to be an amazing investigative reporter. I had a real raft of great new people, and they're all still there doing their best.”
“It had been in the control of the founding editors for decades and it had lost a sense of the current culture,” confirms analyst Bidel. “She brought that back, she understood the world around her, the world in which The New Yorker should be playing and she made it matter again. She was really brilliant at it,” she told CNBC by phone.
But Brown’s ambitions for the magazine were bigger than those of owner Si Newhouse: she wanted to take the brand into books, TV and a literary festival. “As great as he was, he thought that magazines were enough, and that actually anything beyond the magazine itself was what he used to call a distraction. I thought that magazines had to be more than just the title,” Brown said.
So when the then media giant Harvey Weinstein came calling in 1998, it was music to her ears. “He came to me and said: ‘I love what you’re doing. You should have a magazine that's also movies, books, TV.’ It was everything I had wanted to do. And he said. ‘You know, instead of being an employee, you can be a partner. You can be an entrepreneur.’”
The following year, the two launched Talk magazine — a joint venture between Weinstein’s Miramax and Hearst — with a huge party next to the Statue of Liberty, where Madonna and Henry Kissinger mingled with hundreds of other guests. But after just over two years, it closed. The advertising market had tanked due to 9/11, and Weinstein “hadn’t a clue of what it should be,” according to Evans.
“I thought he was a brash mogul who would be rough-tough, but of course as soon as I went to work for him, I discovered that he was really a charlatan,” Brown says of Weinstein. “He never sexually harassed me, but I got every other kind of belligerence and profanity and, you know, he was a nightmare to work for.”
“It was a very sad thing for me when Talk folded, and having to kind of live with the idea it was, quote, a failure, but actually I always thought it was a creative success … We had … really an amazing group of people assembled at Talk. And I have no regrets about that part of it actually. What I regret, of course, was going into business with Harvey Weinstein.”
After Talk, Brown spent two years writing “The Diana Chronicles,” a biography of the Princess of Wales that became a bestseller, before launching online news website The Daily Beast in 2008 with business magnate and IAC media group chair Barry Diller.
Each morning Brown and Evans spend an hour or two poring over the morning’s headlines at a Manhattan cafe. This has been the couple’s tradition for about 30 years, “reading our news buffet,” as Brown described it.
“We take iPhones and iPads and newspapers and everything, and we're sitting there drowning in news product. And we're just two journalists still who just love the business of journalism and media. And we exchange our views about what’s happening in the world,” Brown said.
They might discuss gun control, Brexit or Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election via Facebook advertising, and when Brown was editor of The Daily Beast, she would also use the time to commission writers.
“’You need to write this piece,’” she would tell a journalist. “’You know, you're a C.I.A. station chief, or were. You know why this jihadist just got whacked. Write me … 700 words and do it before breakfast.’”
“And it was amazing. It used to come pouring in, these great pieces ... We used to sit in the diner … and I'm just assigning. You know, it was like, ‘Do this, do this, do this.’ It was the best time I had.”
Brown is open about the fact that she had little digital news experience. “I went off with Code and Theory, who are an amazing digital design boutique, and I started to understand as I sat with them how exciting it was to create a digital platform. I had never done that before.”
“And I realized it was … commensurate to my own impatience, that you could do something so quickly that the thrill of you have an idea, you assign it, you post it, and it's like having a fish on a hook when you suddenly see the traffic spike. It was just so gratifying.”
The Daily Beast was merged with Newsweek’s website in 2010 (IAC since sold Newsweek to IBT Media) and Brown left in 2013 to set up Tina Brown Live Media, which runs the Women in the World conferences.
But Bidel suggests that Brown did not fully understand digital media. “I’m not sure anybody really understands the nature of the digital environment from an editorial point of view, everybody keeps learning. So you can’t really hold that against her. I think the crucial difference is that with The Daily Beast, she was creating a new brand and that’s much harder than repositioning an old respected brand,” she told CNBC. It is unclear whether Brown quit or was pushed (she has said she resigned), but Bidel suggests a constrained budget did not suit her. “I think that she probably didn’t have a long enough runway to prove the validity of her point of view,” she added.
The first Women in the World summit was held in New York in 2010 after Brown’s experience on the board of women’s mentoring organization Vital Voices. “I kept meeting these incredible women from Africa, India, and the Middle East, who were just firecrackers. Women who had faced down oppression and child marriage and honor killings, and no education … I really wanted to get their voices into the public arena, because nobody was really writing about them,” she said.
Hillary Clinton and Streep spoke at the first summit, and this year it has held events in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and New York City, with the likes of Lagarde, actress Viola Davis, and new Uber Chief Executive Dara Khosrowshahi, who Brown pushed on how he would address the ride-hailing app’s “absolutely unacceptable” sexist culture. Journalist Ronan Farrow, who worked for 10 months on an expose of Weinstein’s behavior for The New Yorker, interviewed two of the movie producer’s first public accusers — model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez and actor Asia Argento — at the New York event this year.
Other speakers have included Liberian activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee and Stoneman Douglas High School shooting survivor Delaney Tarr. “It has every kind of conversation you can imagine from women. And those are voices we didn't hear in the cultural landscape,” Streep said.
Brown’s approach to the events is similar to her strategy with Vanity Fair. “You have to have that sizzle and you have to have a pacing and a mix of things which will keep people hooked, so that you go from intense, powerful narrative one minute to laughter, one of the movie stars or a comedian saying something, to a discussion that has some intellectual challenge in it,” she said.
“Wherever there's a story happening, I have a woman who can tell you what really happened.”
Design and code: Bryn Bache
Editor: Matt Clinch
Executive Producer, The Brave Ones: Betsy Alexander
Producer, The Brave Ones: Kevin Kane
Images: CNBC, Getty Images and Brigitte Lacombe