By Max Berlinger
Photos by Jeff Vallee
As a child, Phillip Picardi’s greatest ambition was to be a member of the all-female British pop group the Spice Girls when he grew up. His first job, at McDonald's, was decidedly less glamorous (and not at all spicy).
He vividly remembers his father dropping him off at the fast food chain when he was 14. “It was, like, make a big spectacle of the fact that, you know, the gay son was going to work at McDonald's,” he said with a slight chuckle one recent spring afternoon. However, the teenager had decidedly higher aspirations when it came to his career. “I remember specifically thinking, ‘This doesn't make sense because I don't enjoy it.' Work isn't about not enjoying your job,” he said emphatically. “I remember being a kid and thinking: ‘That can't be right, that can't be true.’ Your job is a big part of your life, and you should enjoy your life.”
So the precocious adolescent took matters into his own hands. “I ended up finding a job at a local hair salon because I wanted to work in beauty, or do things closer to the fashion and style world.”
He’s channeled that ingenuity into his flourishing career, as chief content officer for Teen Vogue, and the new LGBTQ-focused site Them. At the tender age of 27, he’s been anointed the stylish Pied Piper to a new generation of digital-first readers and is charged with guiding 109-year-old magazine publisher Condé Nast as it navigates the digital era. He proved his mettle early on when, in 2016, as one-third of the trio that shared editor-in-chief duties at Teen Vogue he helped broaden the website’s focus by including politics and hard news as part of its purview. In doing so, traffic to the site skyrocketed, six-fold at one point, proving young people are hungry for stories that address a broad spectrum of topics, and that the juxtaposition of lighthearted articles with more serious ones hardly fazes them.
Teen Vogue’s success led to new responsibilities at Condé Nast, but Picardi found that reinvention wasn’t where his interests end. So, he then made an unexpected move: late last year, the publishing house announced that he would be launching the new standalone website Them, which would focus on important issues facing the LGBTQ community and highlight the kaleidoscopic range of voices and stories that are contained under the broad label of “gay.”
“I wanted to be able to create space in this company specifically for people who have been ignored or underrepresented and queer media,” he said. “What queer media needed was more narratives that were driven by trans folks and non-binary folks. I think we are living through a civil rights frontier that we'll one day read about in history books the same way we read about Stonewall. I think that the next queer icons are living right now.”
For Them, that translates into stories that treat the spectrum of self-identification with respect, but also with a celebratory, winking gusto. Headlines like “Meet the Disabled Trans Model Who’s Here to DOMINATE the Fashion World” and "Legally Nonbinary: What It Means to Change Your Gender Marker from F or M to X" may sound unorthodox or niche to some, but to a younger generation that feels less tied to traditional black-and-white labels like gay or straight (or male or female, even), it sounds like the future.
The official mission statement at Them is to “chronicle and celebrate the stories, people, and voices that are emerging and inspiring all of us, ranging in topics from pop culture and style to politics and news, all through the lens of today’s LGBTQ community.” Picardi says the idea came to him, in part, as a reaction to the dearth of inclusive representation from his own childhood as part of a “big Italian Family” in Massachusetts. “I never was able to really see myself adequately growing up,” he said. “And so even though I have this privilege of being a cisgender white man, I still felt ignored. I always found myself reading books and absorbing stories of people who felt similarly. And I think that if only we could all have more sympathy and compassion … like if all different minorities who are less represented and treated less-than banded together, we would actually be the majority.”
The allure of Them, though, is that it approaches the serious topic of identity politics with a certain joie de vivre, a tonal balance that Picardi may have picked-up from reading good old-fashioned print magazines. A seminal moment from his childhood was a memory of voraciously devouring an infamous Vanity Fair profile of Jennifer Aniston post-Brad Pitt split. “I just remember being on the beach with my aunt, who was chain-smoking next to me, and I wouldn't get up. I wouldn't eat lunch, I couldn't do anything until I got through the article. And it was like a substantively long for a 14-year-old to be reading. It just really stuck with me,” he says. “I still remember that story.”
But Picardi isn’t just interested in telling a juicy story (though he is good at it). His previous ventures prove that he has a knack for building things — things that can sometimes marry the glamour of the fashion world with the more substantive — that are generally always nuanced, surprising, and engaging. Take, for example, the recent Teen Vogue Summit, which included a wide range of speakers, from the drag queen Sasha Velour to actress and New York governor candidate Cynthia Nixon to gun rights activist Emma González. That’s not to say all this has been fairy-tale-easy. “There are always moments I was like, ‘Is this too fast?’ or ‘Do I deserve this?’” he said. “You get caught up and second-guess yourself. So, of course, I've thought that I'm too young I'm not ready for this.” However while some people may let that sort of self-doubt paralyze them, Picardi says instead of shying away from those feelings, he uses them as the fuel for his ambition.
Now, not even 30, Picardi finds himself in charge of multiple teams, constantly juggling different duties for different publications and navigating an ever-shifting to-do list. Recently he’s been making a concerted effort to step back from being enmeshed in the day-to-day minutia of the 24-hour news cycle and instead empowering his senior staff to handle those details so he can focus on bigger picture strategic plans. Still, he admits that the oft-ballyhooed concept of work-life balance eludes him — for now, at least. “I'm constantly attached to my phone, but that’s something I'm working on,” he said bashfully. “My work is my life right now, and that’s OK.”
He counts himself lucky to have had strong female mentors who have helped him get to where he is, including longtime Vogue editor and Condé Nast artistic director Anna Wintour and Instagram guru Eva Chen (who worked with him when she was the beauty director at Teen Vogue). He continues to look to them for inspiration as he readies himself for the next phase of his already-meteoric career. From Ms. Wintour, a magazine world legend who’s been his most vocal advocate, he’s gleaned an especially useful approach to productivity. “I think that the key thing that I always admire and look at about her is that, like, if she can do all the things that she does in a day, I can do it. It’s like that saying that Beyoncé has twenty-four hours a day and so do you. Same thing with Anna,” he said. “If she can get it all done in twenty-four hours, so can I.”
Max Berlinger is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. His work has been seen in The New York Times, GQ, and Bloomberg. He’s currently wasting time on Twitter.