get that money

Elaine Welteroth Had to Leave Media to Earn Real Money

Photo-Illustration: by Stevie Remsberg; Photo: Getty

In less than a decade, Elaine Welteroth leaped from her first job at Ebony to beauty editor gigs at Glamour and at Teen Vogue where, at age 29, she was named the youngest editor-in-chief in the history of Condé Nast. But after Welteroth had been at the helm only a year and a half, Condé folded Teen Vogue’s print edition. Welteroth hardly missed a beat. She just finished the finale of her first season as a judge of Project Runway — she’s also a producer — and will spend the summer shooting season two, developing other projects and skipping across the country on a ten-city tour promoting More Than Enough: Claiming Space for Who You Are (No Matter What They Say), her new memoir (out June 11). I spoke to Welteroth from her “favorite place on earth,” the front stoop of the Bed-Stuy brownstone where she and her musician fiancé, Jonathan Singletary, took up residence this past November (“I feel like I’m living on the same block as Claire Huxtable”) to discuss drinking day-old “splurge” coffee, prepping for “terrifying” negotiations in the uppermost reaches of Condé Nast, and why leaving magazines was the best financial thing that ever happened to her.

As someone who came up through magazines, what’s life as a TV person like?
Once an editor, always an editor. It’s not like I’m acting, I’m just being myself, and I’m mentoring young creatives — something I’ve been doing for 10 years. The crazy part is how much time it takes to film TV, versus what you actually see. As an editor, I’m always like, why didn’t they keep that part? But it’s still very weird to see yourself on TV. I still cringe when I hear my voice sometimes, like, Waaah!

Where does talking about money sit on the cringe spectrum for you?
Like any woman, I wasn’t raised to feel comfortable talking about money. And like any woman, I wasn’t socialized to be comfortable making other people uncomfortable — and talking about money is uncomfortable for many people. I think we’re taught to take what you’re given and and do the best you can with it. I am evolving, like everyone else, around this issue.

Are you good at asking for more money? Or are you an apologizer?
I’ve definitely low-balled myself many, many times. And I’ve been low-balled [by others] my entire career. But I try to go through that apologetic cycle in my head now, versus verbally. Always ask for a night to think it over, to do your research, to have your prep conversations behind the scenes, so that you can walk in really clear-headed. I do all that work in my head or with my partner, my girlfriends, my therapist, so that I’m clear on both my floor and my ceiling [amounts] and I feel ready to walk away if we can’t come to something that feels comfortable. That keeps you from apologizing, because there’s nothing to apologize for. You’ve done your research, you’re clear on the value of your time. It’s okay not to say yes to everything. Sometimes that results in a bigger yes down the line.

So, have you actually walked away?
Yes, I have. But I’m in the 2.0 part of my relationship with money. For Elaine 1.0, it was hard to feel comfortable walking away from any amount of money. I was raised to be very frugal. I didn’t come from money. And I entered the industry in 2008, at the very beginning of the recession. I saw friends lose jobs every other day. I remember it feeling like a video game. If you were lucky enough to have a job, let alone a job you love, you had to live as if each paycheck could be your last, because it very well could have been. I think that, on some level, traumatizes you around money. Even if you have a very successful career, you’re always like, but what if it all goes away? Especially for a bootstrapper who has no backup plan, no safety net. And especially as a black woman — we know black women are systemically underpaid and undervalued. Institutionally, you have all of these layers of drama around money and asking for your value. It takes work to undo all of that conditioning.

So what changed for you?
Now that I have saved and built up a certain reservoir — and I know my value now in a way that I never did in my twenties — I’m in a place where I can comfortably say no, and to know that we can still be friends. We can still be in business one day. No doesn’t necessarily mean the end of something.

How did you figure out your value when you went into a new field, switching from print to TV?
This is where all of those relationships you’ve nurtured over time, your network, comes in. This, by the way, requires give and take — not just calling when you need something. Whenever someone comes to me to talk about money, I’m like, ‘Let’s go there, girl! I’m gonna tell you what I know, you tell me what you know, and let’s go get this bag!’ Also, frankly, this is where agents come in. I don’t want to sound all Hollywood, ‘cause I’m not. When agents started to approach me, I was very skeptical, like, only Halle Berry-level actresses need agents, you know? I see myself very much as a businesswoman. I know how to negotiate. I can read a P&L statement. Why do I need a middleman? The paradigm shift that I had around representation is this: I have to think of anyone that’s going to be on my team as an advisor. In my mind they’re my board of directors. They’ve been instrumental in helping me assess my value in these other spaces. And they’re experts at negotiation.

When you take on agents and lawyers, you also take paying them, right?
Definitely a hurdle. When you’re used to pocketing 100 percent — or whatever Uncle Sam doesn’t take — and now you’re sharing it with Tom, Dick, and Harry, it’s a difficult mental and emotional hurdle to clear. But if you’re your own boss, and you’re diversifying the different arms of your business, then you have to think about your business like a CEO. There is overhead that comes with being the boss. Bosses have bills. Bosses have to pay people.

Eleven years ago, you were saving up to come to New York City for your first magazine internship. What has been the most game-changing financial leap along the way: being named editor-in-chief, or getting a TV gig?
No question: Leaving the magazine business and working for myself has been an exponential leap in terms of earnings. And there is limitless earning potential. But I wouldn’t be here without magazines. Ultimately that’s been a platform for me to go off on my own and earn more than I ever could within the confines of a corporate structure or in the media business.

At Condé, how well did you advocate for yourself in a daunting corporate environment in which you were very much the other?
Before my biggest negotiation in corporate America, I was terrified. It was under sort of precarious circumstances, and I didn’t have a lot of time to think about how to go into the negotiation. I actually ended up calling a white male friend the night before, and he coached me. He actually couldn’t really understand why I was panicking; he couldn’t fully empathize with the fear of going into this conversation. To him, and for so many men, particularly white men, it’s an anxiety that they can’t even wrap their head around. It was very linear for him, very clear and unemotional, like, ‘Here’s what you should be getting paid. Here’s how you go in and ask for it.’ I’d be like, ‘What if they say this? What if they say that?’ And he’s like, ‘Don’t worry about what they’ll feel and what they’ll say. Do it anyway. Ask anyway.’

Did you play it the way he advised you to?
I did my best with what I knew at the time. Ultimately I still had to prove myself in the work. Eventually I got what I felt was a more commensurate package. I don’t think that I went into these negotiations with the tools to be able to come out feeling as confident or as amazing as maybe it looked online. Sometimes things are harder than they seem. Certainly the negotiation process around becoming the youngest editor-in-chief of Condé Nast history … was challenging.

These days, you’re feeling good about the money you make, right? Tell us something really fun you do with it.
Listen, I’m still Frugal Franny. I’m like, how is coffee $5? I like oat milk, so sometimes it’s $7. If I splurge on coffee? Girl. I will hold onto that coffee for two days. If I don’t finish it, I’ll put it in the refrigerator and pull it out the next morning and drink it. I do not throw anything away. I have always been a saver. I continue to live beneath my means because I like watching my wealth accrue. I like watching the numbers grow in my account. That gives me a peace of mind and sense of freedom that I’ve never had before. My accountant has a list of A-list celebrity clients. He’s like, ‘Elaine, you might not be my top earner, but in my entire firm you take home the most of your earnings.’ He’s like, ‘Use more Lyfts! Order food more.’ But I want to stay number one. I’m competitive about it.

You love your brownstone. Did you buy it?
I’m looking for a place to buy and I’ve put down offers but none have panned out. After the last bid we put in, somebody outbid us with frickin’ a whole bag of cash — how does anyone have that? — I was like, I’m going to move into this [rental] that I love, that I can afford. And if I have free time, it’s going to go into planning my wedding, because I’ve been engaged for two and a half years and haven’t even started thinking about wedding planning. But right now, I have construction workers in my house building out my dream custom closet in the spare room so that I can live my Black Carrie Bradshaw dream. That’s one splurge.

Another is therapy. I used to think of it as a thing only white people do, which is part of the problem in the black community. But when I got my book deal, the very first check that I wrote was to the therapist. Writing a book is like excavating every formative experience. It’s emotional and it’s draining and it’s also a therapeutic. I wanted to have someone other than my partner to talk that through with.

Okay, so what are the super practical things you do with your money?
This is the year that I got serious about investing my money. My only advice: Start investing sooner. I always wanted to, but I didn’t have the proper education, and I didn’t create the space in my life to educate myself. It’s great that I’m a saver. But I want my money to make money, and it cannot do that sitting in a savings account.

I now work with somebody who has helped me with investing. We left a reasonable cushion in my savings account; everything else, we moved into a high-yield investment account. I also have an IRA retirement fund, which is something I think a lot of people who work for themselves think of as a luxury — it’s not, it’s a necessity. I also set it up so that if anything ever happens to me, I get to dictate who my money goes to. It sounds morbid, but it actually felt really empowering to know that if something happens to me, I can help support people I love. And it felt really emotional, in a good way, to let them know.

Carrie Bradshaws tend to spend quite a bit of money on clothing.
I don’t. That’s the luxury of coming from the fashion magazine world. You have a lot of friends in fashion. But when I got my first big promotion, becoming beauty director at Teen Vogue, I celebrated by buying my first boss-lady bag at Bergdorf Goodman. It was a black leather Tom Ford medicine bag with gold hardware, and I spent more on it than I’ve ever spent before or since: $3,000. Isn’t that insane? But I’ve never regretted it, because it was about so much more than just the label or the bag itself. It was symbolic of stepping into this new part of my journey as a woman in charge. Literally, a physical reminder that I carried around every single day: If you’re bossy enough to carry this boss-lady bag, you better be acting like a boss.

Elaine Welteroth Now Earns More Than She Ever Could in Media