Fun, Fearless, Female
Think journalism is a dying profession? Don’t let those pesky headlines fool you. Brooklyn-born Nigerian-American writer Judith Ohikuare could have followed the path of many children of immigrants by becoming a doctor or a lawyer. Instead, she listened to her heart and followed her first love: the written word. In just a few years, Judith has built an impressive resume, honing her craft at leading publications including Seventeen, Marie Claire, Inc, The Atlantic, and now, at Cosmopolitan. Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng spoke to Judith about the state of the industry, reporting on women and people of color, and her journey to becoming the fun, fearless female she is today.
Where do you call home?
Brooklyn, New York.
Your mother is American, and your father’s Nigerian. In the last few years, there’s been a lot of discussions about ethnicity under the umbrella “black.” How do you identify in that spectrum? Growing up, there wasn’t a lot of tension between those two identities. It could have been because it didn’t exist or because my parents didn’t show it. [Laughs.] As I got older and attended college, I’ve thought about it more through a critical lenses. I’ve never been to Nigeria although I’m thinking of going next year. In college, I met a lot of diasporic kids who were my age, but knew their parents’ language and/or had visited their ancestral country many times. For me, it was different.
Although I have Nigerian family who has immigrated to the US, I’ve never been there and my grandparents passed when I was very young. I’m aware of black Americans co-opting a culture that isn’t necessarily their own and I understand why it happens, but I think it’s from a good place. But I also think it can sometimes show ignorance of what it means to be a contemporary African, which I’ve never wanted to do. In recent years, I’ve read a lot more writers, both nonfiction and fiction, and am learning more about my heritage, which I’m proud of and love to explore. I still have a lot to learn.
The inevitable question that arises from anyone with an African parent… were your parents, particularly your father, supportive of your choice to become a journalist?
It was hard and it wasn’t hard. My mom worked in a library when I was really young, and my maternal grandfather was very into books. If I ever had a question about what a word meant, he’d also tell me and my brother to go look it up. We hated it at first, of course, but gradually began to love learning about words and the stories behind words. My dad is a big reader—he still has the James Hadley Chase novels he brought over from Nigeria. Reading is an essential part of my family’s life.
At the same time, as someone who works in the journalism world, I’m also conscious of the difference between being literary and reading a lot, and how it’s professionalized—which can be barrier. Growing up, I didn’t know anyone who worked for magazine or a newspaper and didn’t have exposure to that world, so that hindered my parents’ understanding of the industry. Then, on top of that, there isn’t really a set path in journalism, especially in today’s industry and if you don’t go to journalism school. For my dad, I think he only got over the fact that I wasn’t going to be doctor or a lawyer when I graduated college. [Laughs.] Both of them wanted me to be happy, but they wanted me to be able to pay my bills.
I think it has been harder with my dad than with my mom. When he saw me getting internships that I was enjoying, he could understand that because to him, internships translated into jobs. But the path in journalism often isn’t smooth: people get laid off, people switch publications all the time, etc. After my first job out of college at Inc magazine, I decided to quit and take a fellowship at The Atlantic, which I think was hard for him to understand why I’d leave a paid position with health benefits. It was an amazing position, but I didn’t know what would happen after that because it was just for a year.
Were you scared at all or did you just dive headfirst into the fellowship?
I think I was more scared when I realized I was ready to move on from Inc, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do next. It might sound like false bravado, but it was true. I had been there for two years and had a fantastic experience, but I wasn’t sure how much more I would grow in that role.
I’m from New York, where most major publications are based. I’ve always wanted to live outside of New York, which is hard to do when so many are based here. I decided to only apply for the fellowship, which was based in DC, because I just knew it was what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be. I had decided that I was going to move anyway, even if I didn’t get the fellowship, which, I think, made it a lot less scary.
Cosmopolitan is famous for its tagline of “fun, fearless, female.” In your career, you can clearly see the fearless in how you’ve hustled to get where you are. How did you become not afraid?
From the outside, it might look like I’ve approached my career fearlessly, but I didn’t have a master plan! At first, I didn’t really think of myself as a professional journalist. I just focused on places where I wanted to write. The fearless and decisiveness has come from a lot of agonizing and thought. I’ve learned over time that you have to be okay with uncertainty. Choices made out of desperation or fears aren’t necessarily the best choices, so you have to always also look at what calls you. It sounds trite, but I have never gone wrong when I’ve followed my instincts and interests.
Obviously you’ve mentioned The Atlantic, and you clearly love Cosmopolitan, where you now work, but what are some of your other go-to publications?
Of course, everyone will say they love where they work, but in my case, it’s really true. I respect my co-workers a lot. At Cosmo, I work on print. The website is almost completely separate. I still, of course, read The Atlantic. I love Poets & Writers because I’ve always written creatively and minored in creative writing in college. I subscribe to New York Magazine and Essence, which I think has done a phenomenal job in re-vamping the magazine in recent years. I also find myself reading some great pieces via Buzzfeed, which often has excellent reporting. They’ve heavily invested in the voices of women and people of color, which is something we’re still working on at Cosmo. Bloomberg Businessweek and Fast Company also have great content, which is particularly relevant for the things I cover at Cosmopolitan. Like many people, I find a lot of great content via Twitter, which also makes it easy to find specific writers. I’m always on Twitter. [Laughs.]
It’s no secret that journalism is a majority white profession, and stories of people of color often are under covered. You’ve written some phenomenal pieces in the past on issues like Black Lives Matter and mass incarceration. How have you been able to advocate for stories that represent your community?
Like most publications, there’s work to be done at Cosmo. I would be dishonest if I didn’t admit that. There’s work to be done on both staffing and content. The reputation of Cosmopolitan as a relatively old magazine, however, means that people today don’t see how swiftly Cosmo has changed to become more inclusive in terms of writers and content. When I interviewed for the position, I was honest about the fact that those things matter to me.
Talking about race will always be uncomfortable in a majority white place, but I feel comfortable doing that because my editors champion those issues. Certain places make more of a space for that than others, and I’ve been able to make a space for that and people support that space. Our Editor-in-Chief Joanna Coles is very interested in politics, so we have a lot of difficult conversations in the editorial room and in our pages.
For our 50th anniversary issue, we focused on defining moments in our culture, and I focused on Black Lives Matter, which has changed the discourse on race, sexuality, justice, and inclusivity, so, in many ways, they epitomize what Cosmopolitan is about. I approach stories from that perspective, and luckily, making the case for stories like those, isn’t that difficult.
It’s important for me to reflect the world as I see it, especially because of this idea that Cosmopolitan caters mostly to white women. While it might be true that the majority of our cover stars are white, if you open the pages, you’ll see a great deal of inclusivity. There are amazing women of color doing amazing things, and I feel it’s important to discuss their work.
I read a lot of Cosmopolitan in print. Joanne Coles has been amazing for the magazine in elevating the amount of political coverage, but there’s often a debate about whether women’s magazines can do serious journalism. What do you think of that?
I think about it a lot. When I meet with PR people or other journalists, it still happens—which is ridiculous. It’s clear that people haven’t read Cosmopolitan or other major women’s magazines for quite some time, so they’re coming to you with ignorance masked as a joke. Those people obviously haven’t read Cosmo in a very long time if you think it’s that much of a leap.
The voice is different because Cosmo is a fashion and beauty magazine, but I think the key difference really boils down to the fact that it was a magazine started by women rather than one started by men. It talks to women about women’s issues, which, in today’s culture, often means it’s considered as lesser or less serious, which is untrue. Because we discuss sex at Cosmopolitan, we’re taken less seriously. In reality, sex is an important part of people’s lives—whether you’re having it or not. We don’t just talk about sex from a pleasure perspective, but we discuss the cultural and socio-political impacts of it. It’s disingenuous to pretend that relationships at-large aren’t a political thing. Every interpersonal relationship is political in some way.
Seriousness is not antithetical to women’s magazines. In terms of the DNA of Cosmo, when Helen Gurley Brown took it over and made it what it is today, it was formerly a literary magazine. She turned it into a women’s magazine, and was the first magazine to discuss the pill. In the last issue, we discussed gun violence and inter partner violence. We discuss abortion frequently. When The Atlantic talks about women’s issues, is it any less The Atlantic?
I agree. I think Cosmopolitan is simply a more holistic portrait of women’s lives. I study politics, but I still love fashion. Those things can co-exist. Cosmo represents that woman.
And if you’re not into fashion, you have something to read! And if you like the political stuff, there’s something for you, too.