By Cher Tushiah
Photos: Jay L.A. Bastien
Speaking to Brande Victorian on the phone is like having a chat with your bestie. It’s early in the morning. I’m sipping coffee and she’s making me giggle. She actually thinks it’s an “honor” to speak with me while I am sitting here secretly fan-girling over the opportunity to speak with her. Sure, we respect each other as colleagues; I’m an editor for a widely read publication as is she. However, her work has appeared in places that I can only dream of seeing my byline: The Huffington Post, Jezebel, Clutch and was featured in a German documentary which translates in English to “The Oprah Winfrey Effect”. Yes, Oprah. The Oprah. I know I can’t take too much of Ms. Victorian’s time. She’s the Editor at Large for Madame Noire Magazine and deadlines loom near (for both of us, actually). One of the most popular magazines that features African American women’s issues, everything from social and cultural controversies and concerns to what to wear and weaves, Madame Noire covers it all with Brande at the helm. I had no idea that when I said, “I only need about thirty minutes of your time”, I was being dishonest with her. As serious as she is about her work, she’s equally as playful and witty, with a laugh that is positively contagious. I admit it. I didn’t want to hang up. I totally wanted to braid each other’s hair, polish our nails and make friendship bracelets with her. And that’s the key to the success of Madame Noire and to Brande Victorian’s appeal. You’re not just getting run of the mill news. You’re getting to talk with your bestie about everything from celebrity to sex, politics to pop culture and women’s wear to women’s rights. Without further ado, meet the marvel that is Brande Victorian as POSE Magazine takes you behind the editor’s desk.
POSE MAGAZINE: What started your love of the written word? When did that begin for you?
BRANDE VICTORIAN: In the fifth grade, I vividly remember English class. We had to do a short story. I still have mine, actually. It was like an eight page, color in the pictures kind of thing. I remember my teacher being impressed. I have no idea what I could have been writing about at 11 years old that would have impressed her so much, but she said it was really good! I really enjoyed it and just started doing it on my own, even when it wasn’t a schoolwork assignment. I was just writing on my own. Interestingly, I wanted to do public relations at first because I had read a magazine, I think it was Seventeen Magazine, about the best up and coming careers at the time. Public relations sounded like it was going to be a highly sought after field. So, I took a class in it but it was much more business oriented. I knew writing was where my talent was, so I ended up switching over to journalism.
PM: Was there a particular person who really helped you to develop your creativity?
BV: I had a lot of good teachers at different points. There was my fifth grade teacher, who I mentioned earlier. In high school, I was in an average English class, but the teacher had pulled me aside after class one day and said that my writing was really good and that I should be in a higher level class. We went through the process of getting me into [advanced placement] classes. I was able to do more of my writing there on a more challenging level. Then in college, after I switched over to journalism, there was this one professor who was really tough. We had done a project and everyone was getting their grades handed back and they were all trash. [laughs] I had gotten a “C” and I was so ready to drop her class. She gave me some really tough critiques and said that she knew I could do better than that. She told me all the things I needed to work on. Next assignment, she got up in front of the class and said that only one person had gotten an “A” and it was me! It was like…wow! This was confirmation for me that this is what I need to be doing. Sometimes you just need someone to be harsh with you and give you good constructive feedback. It made me step my game up. I’m really glad I had those three pivotal teachers who really helped me.
PM: Tell us about your journey to Madame Noire. How did you end up there?
BV: I always wanted to write about black women and our issues. In college, it felt like Essence [Magazine] was the only option. I wanted to write for them, but those positions were limited. I knew I couldn’t write for them. That’s when I took a job doing medical research writing. Someone at my college started a website and I started adding commentary about black people and their issues. I started writing there on the side. People started responding. When you are writing something and no one is really listening, you’re like, alright maybe I’m not cut out for this. But it started forming a strong community of people talking about their issues. They’d remember my name and things I wrote before. People really started to care about what I had to say and the issues I was bringing up. I just kept trying to seek out writing opportunities. There just weren’t that many platforms, even five years ago, for black women. There was nowhere for black women to discuss politics, gender and race issues online. I started freelancing with Clutch, another black women’s publication when I saw that Madame Noir had an opening for freelance writers. It’s probably not the best advice, but I would wake up very early in the morning, get into the office, and write my stuff for Madame Noire before I would start my day job. After a while I wasn’t as happy doing the medical writing. I knew I wanted to pursue a position with Madame Noire full time. About two months of trying to do both, I quit the medical writing job and decided to freelance for Madame Noire full time, which involved my moving back to Ohio where I am from for about seven months. Moving back in with Mom, you know how that goes. [laughs] But I was writing all day long, getting up at 7 am, doing a bunch of news posts until 6 ot 7 o’clock in the evening. It worked out great because eventually, Madame Noire brought me on board full time. I had to do the hustle thing. Financially, I couldn’t afford to live in New York City just by freelancing and doing news posts. Every article was money in my pocket.
PM: I totally understand that life. I think I was writing more free articles with deadlines of less than 24 hours than anything else. Anything just to get your name out there, right?
BV: Oh, absolutely. Exactly. Editors would ask me for last minute work on a Friday night and I was like, yeah, okay. I canceled a lot of plans during those years.
PM: We chose a fan question from Facebook for you. Robin Joy of Long Island, New York wants to know: What are your plans for taking the magazine to the next level? What’s new or next for Madame Noire?
BV: For me, what I really want to focus on is original reporting and original stories. I love XOJane. I probably shouldn’t be plugging a competitor [laughs] but they do those “It Happened to Me” stories and it blows my mind all the time. Things like women who never use protection but never caught an STD. Things like that. There is courage in telling those stories. Black women usually aren’t that open and I understand why. It’s so difficult with all these internet trolls. As a people, we tend to be more conservative when it comes to personal stories. I want to find more black women who are open to sharing those things. We all make mistakes and do things we would consider wild, while to someone else, it’s really not all that wild. I’d like to have more of that variety and that openness. We’re all black women who can identify with a lot of those things and with each other. It doesn’t always have to be about a struggle, or interracial discussion. There are plenty of other things black women unite on. Like, hey, my period is a problem. Well, we can all relate to that, right? I want this to be the place where you can and meet others who can identify with what you are talking about. It’s the same way with reporting. I think we are more than just a blog and we do social commentary, but particularly in these recent incidences of police brutality, it’s important what comes from us. We sent a reporter to Ferguson to interview people about how they felt after the death of Mike Brown. It’s nice to have that voice coming from your own community. It’s hard news and facts. I really want to step our game up in that way while connecting with our readers more. I think people believe Madame Noire is one woman and it’s not. We’re a whole team of editors here. I want to do events where we can come together, do feel good things with each other, talk to each other about things one on one and connect more than in just the comment section. These are all things I am trying to work on in the second half of 2015 and the beginning of 2016.
PM: As an editor at large, you are responsible for wearing many hats and being the leader of your staff as well as an inspiration to many aspiring writers. In your opinion, what makes a great leader?
BV: I think a great leader has to listen before trying to lead. We come into situations where we know what needs to be done, but if you don’t listen and understand how things are already functioning and what the strengths are that your team already has, it’s not going to be well received. You can have your plan, but you also need to have the input of those who are going to be affected by your plan before you implement it. We do have editorial meetings and we talk about the site direction but also about how people are feeling about their position and what they are doing with their work. That helps you to come up with a better plan. Also, leading by example. If I say we need to be here for a meeting at 8 am, I need to be there at 8 am as well. I need to be the one who sets the tone of how we go about our day. I try not to ask anything of my staff that I wouldn’t require of myself. I think they respect that about me.
PM: What is your personal definition of success?
BV: Achieving a goal that you set out to do, but even if you don’t achieve it, sometimes the process you went through to get there can define success. It’s knowing when to pursue something and when to recalculate. We all start out thinking we want a certain goal and as you’re working toward it, you realize that it’s not what you want to do after all. You tweak it and go on to do something even greater than you imagined. It’s about being flexible with your goals, so long as you arrive at your destination that you are happy with. That’s what I would define as success.
PM: How big of a role does faith play in your life and your career?
BV: It plays a big role. It had not played as big of a role until I quit my full time job to freelance. I gave up a lot. I’m a very independent person so having to go back home again was not what I wanted to do at all.
PM: It’s very humbling, isn’t it?
BV: Exactly. I was twenty-seven years old at the time. When I said I wanted to move from Ohio to New York, people were like, yeah, okay. They didn’t think I would do it but I did it right after school, about three months after graduation. So to go back, you feel like people are going to look at you like some kind of failure. It was all so far out of my control that I did have to have faith that it was all going to work out somehow. I’m not a person who doesn’t like to not have control, but I found that there can be peace in not knowing what is going to happen. That alleviates the burden off of you. You just have to have faith that even if it is not the outcome you necessarily want, it’s going to be okay. Once I adapted to that mentality, it really just shifted my approach to things and gave me more peace. I used to be a big worrier. Now, I know it will always work itself out and I can’t stress over the possibility of it not working out.
PM: Do you believe success and spirituality coexist? Typically society tells us we can only develop one or the other. What are your thoughts on that?
BV: I think they can. It’s funny you should ask. I haven’t exactly worked out the secret and I was considering writing a piece about this. Growing up in church and having a Christian background, I was taught to be humble and not to think of your gifts as your own. They are something that God gave you. For me, I interpreted that in a way of not having as much self-esteem and not being allowed to proud of my accomplishments. For example, I suck at self-promotion. Some people would think that is good, but you get overlooked for things if you are not willing to talk about yourself and what you do. That’s hard for me. My spiritual teachings and background kind of cripple me in that way. At the same time, I meet women with similar backgrounds and they managed to find a way to make the two coexist. I think there is a way you can be proud of what you do while understanding that they are gifts from God. There is a way to use your gifts and not just for your own benefit. That’s come into play a lot more with my journey through my weight loss. Some days I don’t care and I want to be done with it. Then, I see comments on articles I write about it where people say I inspire them. At that point, it becomes bigger than me. I’d be letting them down. I think that comes from a spiritual place. There is a way for them to coexist; you just have to figure it out on your own. Don’t let others dictate your spirituality and how you walk your spiritual walk in your professional life.
PM: What do you feel is the biggest challenge facing African American women today?
BV: Oh, goodness. I think it’s a sense of feeling valued. There’s a difference in wanting to be recognized for your positive attributes and seeking validation. So many people get upset and say that black women aren’t represented enough in entertainment. That doesn’t mean we are seeking validation. If you are going to talk about us when we are doing something bad, you have to talk about us when we are doing great things. That trickles down to your self-worth. There was an article in Psychology Today a few years ago that said that black women are the least attractive women. We internalize some of these things. As strong as we are taught to be and to be heads of our households, at the end of the day, you still want to feel beautiful, inside and out. You still want to feel valued. I think there is very hard in society for us to feel that way. It’s really tough. At the same time, I am really excited about the fact that I was editing a business piece that talked about the fact that African American women are the fastest growing segment of entrepreneurs. I love that we our channeling our energy there. When you talk about the wealth gap and that a black woman’s net worth is a single dollar, we’re shifting our focus in that way. We’re building ourselves up in our businesses. Maybe society won’t recognize us as beautiful, but we are smart. We don’t want to be stuck in dealing with corporate America. Maybe we don’t feel valued in the workplace because of our race and our gender. We’re just going to do our own thing. We’re resilient in that way. I feel like better things are to come for us.
PM: What’s one exercise or activity you would recommend women, black women specifically, do to lead a more positive, happy and fulfilled life?
BV: I am all about Zumba. It’s dancing. I love Zumba. It’s amazing. It’s Caribbean music or salsa music or reggae and it’s just fun! I usually take it for about an hour on Sundays. It burns about 600 to 650 calories in that hour. That’s just crazy. I can’t burn that on a treadmill. It’s just fun and you just kind of forget about the things that are going on. When I am dancing, I feel free. You’re moving your hips. It’s kind of sexy. You’re doing something good for your body that doesn’t have to feel painful. I’m totally about Zumba. It’s a lot of front and back steps, very low impact. It’s good for you. It just makes you feel good.
PM: What is the best piece of advice you have received during your career?
BV: My first editor when I was doing the medical publishing. I was on three different publications. I would be working so late and coming in so early. She pulled me aside one day and said, “Work will always be here. You’re never going to necessarily finish it all. You need to make time for yourself and at the same time you’re the only one who knows how much is on your plate. You need to learn how to say that you can’t take on other projects right now.” I’m thinking, no, you three people told me my deadline was today so this is my only option. She told me to just be honest with myself and the people you work with. No one is going to kill you for your honesty. Ever since then, I’ve gotten better. You definitely need to push yourself and put in the extra hours, but there does come a point where you’ve been at work for so long you’re not even being productive any more. You need to start over fresh and recharge. The work will always be there. People have stopped taking vacations because they have so much work to do. You’re always going to have so much work to do. You just kind of have to let that go.
PM: If you had the opportunity to speak to a group of young women, what is the one piece of advice, based on your personal experiences, that you would give them with regard to achieving their dreams?
BV: Always believe that you are enough. This is something I have been thinking about a lot lately. I think if I got more reinforcement as a kid and someone always told me I was enough, regardless of my weight or how I looked physically, I feel if someone had encouraged me a little bit more I would have been in a better space to believe in myself a lot sooner. You need to believe you are enough and that you have something to contribute to this world. You don’t have to fashion yourself after anyone else. Who you offer to the world right now is more than enough.