Taking a Stand with DeDe Lahman, Magazine Editor Turned Restaurateur and Activist
Julia Bluhm and Izzy Labbe, two 14-year-old SPARK Summit bloggers, recently created quite a media stir when they showed great determination and social media skill in petitioning teen media giant Seventeen magazine to include at least one unedited photo spread per issue in the magazine’s contents. It didn’t take long for DeDe Lahman, former editor of Seventeen, to jump in and publicly back Bluhm and Labbe’s petition. Lahman became not only a supporter, but a resource for the girls. She offered words of wisdom and used her journalistic connections to try to help them reach a realistic goal.
Nowadays, Lahman has moved beyond her days at Seventeen and works as the co-owner of two successful Manhattan-based restaurants. She’s also the author of a cookbook that compiles the recipes of one of her restaurants.
Lahman spoke with Teen Voices editorial intern Kate Szumita about her time at Seventeen, her thoughts on Bluhm and Labbe’s petition, and how her seemingly different career paths intersect.
Teen Voices (TV): What was your first reaction upon hearing about the SPARK campaign and the petition to Seventeen magazine?
DeDe Lahman (DL): I was psyched! I ran right to my desk to fire off a letter to the reporter, because I had to make it known that Julia wasn’t alone and that I, as a former editor, had done exactly the same thing while I worked at Seventeen, and that was 12 or 13 years ago.
TV: What made you decide to become involved with the SPARK campaign?
DL: Well, I’m just on the edges of involvement. I’m totally supportive, but I’m brand new to SPARK. I was so excited by the idea that girls were challenging Seventeen that I started to call everybody who seemed to be reporting on the issue. I wanted to lend a hand wherever applicable.
TV: When you were with Seventeen, what did working as an editor there entail?
DL: It entailed editing the written journalism copy, writing titles and headings for stories, brainstorming cover lines, which are the titles on the front cover, producing photo shoots, hiring writers, and working with fellow editors to create stories and come up with ideas, among other things. I also wrote a lot of articles myself. The list goes on and on.
TV: What did you like about working at Seventeen?
DL: I really loved writing to an audience of teenagers. I loved getting letters from our readers, I loved helping shape the focus of the magazine and having a big say in the tone of the magazine.
TV: What did you dislike about your job at Seventeen?
DL: I didn’t like the deadlines. I didn’t like that after work was over and I had already worked a really long day, I had to go home and often work all night on stories, whether editing or writing them. And I didn’t like the images that we were putting out in the magazine. I thought we were being very hypocritical, and that bothered me. I didn’t like debating the attractiveness level of a celebrity that we were thinking of putting on the cover. I didn’t like talking about whether or not the space between that celebrity’s teeth would affect the cover sales. I felt it was hypocritical because I was the last person who could be on the cover of a magazine, and there I was, debating whether or not somebody else is attractive enough.
TV: After five years of working with Seventeen, what made you decide to leave? Was it a difficult decision to make?
DL: I was so sick of seeing the same stuff. I felt like I might be doing more harm than good, and I felt like my voice had been heard just enough that I probably wasn’t going to get any more mileage from it. It was a difficult change to make because I was very comfortable and I was doing well. But it was also easy to do because I kept feeling like every day I was going to work, I was miserable.
TV: Do you think convincing Seventeen to print one unedited photo spread per issue is an attainable goal?
DL: No, I don’t think that’s a realistic goal. I think that everyone needs to realize that Seventeen and all its fellow magazines are magazines that are being printed to make money. It’s not Seventeen’s job to depict real life.
I think what is realistic is to ask Seventeen to reveal a little bit more about what goes on behind the scenes, so that when you read the magazine for fun and folly, you can look and say, “Oh, that’s kind of cool. Even though I can’t stand the way they made that girl look, and I see there are like eight people working on that one photo shoot to make that girl look like that, I might actually want to work as a stylist. That seems like a cool job.” It’s a little more inspirational to see what it takes to put [the whole] product together.
TV: SPARK is actually doing a second ask that would accomplish exactly that. If Seventeen agrees, what do you hope will come out of that experience?
DL: Here’s what happens in a magazine. They may print two million copies, so you’ve got two million girls reading this magazine. And everybody turns to page 64 and sees this girl in a bathing suit and thinks, “Oh my God, she looks so perfect.” But you need to realize that the way that she looks, and the way she was dressed up and made up, and photographed, and designed on that page, and possibly Photoshopped—that all of those decisions came from two or three people. And those people are not fellow teenagers. Those people are grown-ups. Those grown-ups may not be people who share the same values as you. They may not share the same style philosophy as you. They may not share the same morals and ideals. But yet, that person is influencing two million girls with their creative choices. So it’s really important for girls to realize when you look at Seventeen, whatever you’re seeing is only the vision and the product of a couple of people. A couple of grown-ups. That’s why I think it’d be really cool if they could show what happens behind the scenes, because if you could see what the stylist looks like who made the choice for the bikini that that girl is wearing, I think it would really open your eyes a lot. I know it did for me when I worked there.
TV: What do you hope young media consumers learn about the way girls are portrayed by the media?
DL: I want girls to realize that the images that they’re seeing and possibly not liking are images created by just a handful of people—again, people that you don’t know, that you may not agree with. Maybe this 40-year-old guy is the art director of a magazine and he decides that this is how a girl your age should look. Does that mean that now you should compare yourself to the way that that girl looks, as decided by a 40-year-old art director? No. It’s just like all the girls in movies. They all look so hot and beautiful with big boobs and perfect bikini bodies, and they’re perfectly dressed, and you realize, why do they look that way? Seventy-five percent of the way the girls look is decided by guys who made the movie.
TV: Do you have any advice for girl activists looking to join the campaign?
DL: Get people to sign because there’s power in numbers, and remember that magazines are meant to be fun and folly. If you take it too seriously, and you don’t look behind to think about how they’re really being made, then you can get duped. But if you figure out how magazines are made and you really understand why they’re being marketed to you, why they want you to spend your money on it, what they want you to buy, and why they want you to look at the advertising, then you can become totally on top of it. I think getting some perspective is helpful.
TV: Since your time at Seventeen, you’ve become a successful business owner and now co-own two restaurants. What was the transition from magazine editor to restaurant management like?
DL: It was really easy, actually—and fun, and slow. I edited a lot of the food stories at Seventeen, and I was always very interested in food and nutrition. But it was a five to six year process, and a lot of the things that I learned at Seventeen, like marketing, I applied to the restaurant business. And I have learned that working in restaurants is even more fun for me because I don’t sit at my desk all day. I’m always moving around. I’m meeting a lot of different types of people instead of just people who know about fashion and beauty and magazine stuff. It’s opened up my world a bit, and it’s made it more exciting. And it’s also made me very savvy about understanding about business and why it’s important to understand, for instance, why Seventeen is a money-making venture and that you’ve got to look at it that way.
TV: How did you decide that the restaurant business was right for you?
DL: It just felt really right. It was my passion, and I was just always gravitating toward it. I was going to cooking classes. I had been running my own business that was actually a yoga clothing business so I knew I liked business, but I didn’t actually like the clothes business. And it all came together sort of naturally. I married a chef who was opening a restaurant, and I bought out his partner and I became his partner. And everything just fell in line, which is what happens when things are right. You work hard to put yourself in a good position and then things work out.
TV: What advice can you offer teens and young women who find themselves in a job or career path that they aren’t happy with?
DL: I think you need to listen to what you really want, deep down, whether it’s scary or not, and realize that what you’re doing right now may not be exactly what you want to do forever, but it could lead you somewhere else. For instance, I’m always a writer first and foremost. When I went into the restaurant business, I was a little nervous that I was leaving behind my identity as an editor and writer. But it turned out that two years ago, I published a cookbook for my restaurant. And every single thing that I ever learned in my whole career as a journalist and editor all came into play when I wrote that cookbook. You need a little bit of patience, and you need to understand that things sometimes lead to the next level.
I think you also have to have a back-up plan. You can have a plan, and the plan might backfire, so it’s nice to have a back-up plan to get out of something. For instance, when I wanted to leave Seventeen, it was scary for me. I was thinking to myself every day for six months, “If I weren’t here, where would I be?” Visualizing where you want to end up and imagining how you would make it work is good practice. Rehearsal is a really good way to change your career situation if you’re unhappy with it. Rehearsing where you want to go next really works until you’re actually ready to put that rehearsal into action.
On Tuesday, July 3, 2012, Seventeen magazine agreed to go above and beyond what they were asked to do in the petition started by Bluhm and Labbe. With more than 84,500 people signed to the cause, Seventeen has agreed to do the following, published in an updated “Body Peace Treaty” to be featured in their August issue:
- leave the natural proportions of their models’ faces and bodies unaltered,
- promote a sense of confidence and self-esteem,
- embrace all types of real, healthy beauty, and
- publish behind-the-scenes pictures of their photo shoots on the magazine’s Tumblr page.
In addition, Seventeen has aligned themselves with the National Eating Disorders Association, Healthy MEdia: Commission for Positive Images of Women and Girls, and self-esteem “actionist” Jess Weiner. The hard work of Julia Bluhm, Izzy Labbe, DeDe Lahman, and the thousands of petition supporters has paid off! The satisfied team has moved on to a new petition, hoping to sway Teen Vogue to follow in the footsteps of Seventeen. Read and sign the new petition here.
DeDe's Photo by Belathee Photography.
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