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Bitch at Us: Emilia Ferrara, Author of Mag World

Washington, DC
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We Bitches love brunch, but also girl power, Washington, D.C., and journalism. We were so excited to hear that Emilia Ferrara, a local journalist and brunch aficionado, has published her first book: Mag World, a collection of essays on the downsides of the magazine, beauty and fashion industries. That’s a topic near and dear to our hearts, as both Bitches’ founders, Becca and Cori Sue, studied magazine journalism. Plus, we have mad respect for any lady boss who can overcome writer’s block and navigate the publishing industry.

We sat down with Emilia to talk about why she loves Washington, her Italian roots and love of Italian fashion, and her favorite brunch spots—and her appropriate go-to brunch cocktail: a Bellini.

We’ll be raising a glass to Emilia, to journalism, and to supporting local authors tonight in Georgetown at her book party. Join us—get 15% off your ticket with the code “DCFIFTEEN” here.

Check out our conversation with Emilia, below.

You grew up in Washington, D.C., and went to Georgetown. How has Washington formed who you are?

Every time I leave for the airport, I look back at Memorial Bridge and the picturesque bike trail along the Potomac and I know, each time, that I don’t really want to leave. I’m not only in love with the gracefulness of Washington (or the pearly white columns we all secretly wish were in our living rooms) but with the stories of the people who built it. When I look at the monuments, I see think of glory and of grit. When I walk down 14th Street, and I’m inspired by both the strutting fashionistas and the waiters racing for the bus. Washington has taught me that no beautiful accomplishment can feel really good on the inside without a personal sacrifice laid down first.

How has Washington formed your choice in career?

I grew up in Mass Ave Heights with senators, ambassadors, and other dignitaries as neighbors. Sunday night dinners involved a lot of mansplaining. As an only child, I felt I had every right to not only be curious but precocious. Given the privilege and front row seat I had growing up, I should have ended up the most gullible person on earth. But, I came to value skepticism, forthrightness, transparency, and truth. Having two lawyers as parents helped me think critically, and I might have gone into law if I was comfortable arguing any side. But I chose journalism, because it’s trained me to challenge power and to ask questions in a healthy and productive way.

Tell us about your background in journalism? When did your interest in newspapers and magazines begin?

There’s a funny picture of me reading a newspaper at 5 years-old on my grandparents camper driving through Arizona. It’s funny, because I wasn’t actually reading. My father still reads The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal cover-to-cover every morning, as did my grandfather. I admire my father and grandfather for their steady demeanors and informed perspectives: their opinions were always steady, certain, and well-rounded.  I came to see that newspapers are a quiet, reliable source for getting a broad view of the world.

My interest in magazines, however, started very differently. Because my mother worked, she needed help with the groceries after school. I was never much of a help, though, because I used to stand in front of the magazine rack in awe. All the girls in class had smooth, short, straight hair, and I had long, fluffy, curly hair. They all had sleek athletic figures, and I had Italian curves and hips. The other girls had older sisters who read them in on what was cool or forbidden, and I was an only child with older parents. I wanted to fit in and magazines seemed like the ultimate guide. Soon, I had a makeup drawer the size of a sock drawer and had blowout appointments on my calendar twice a week. It wasn’t until high school, when I read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, that I realized magazines were only telling me how to fit in superficially, not helping me find “my people” or “my tribe.”

After an impressive career in journalism, you came back to Washington. What made you return?

I loved working for T: The New York Times Style Magazine, because I have four generations of family history in the Italian fashion industry and I was finally working at a place with serious fashion criticism. But soon, I discovered the atmosphere was all wrong. My boss only ate bacon for lunch, discussed article pitches over a pack of cigarettes, and usually sent me on errands to fetch her lace lingerie being repaired at the seamstress. I was fortunate, though, to be at The New York Times towards the end of Bill Cunningham’s tenure. I always hoped I’d get lucky with a hallway run-in, but I sadly never got the chance to meet him. Somehow, I began spending all my free time at the Midtown Manhattan Public Library looking up 19th century copies of magazines and original street-style photography. One weekend, on a trip home, my dad (not so) casually laid out some clippings on the kitchen table. One was about Desiree Venn Frederic’s work for Nomad Yard and the other was a style article by Sarah Zlotnick. I was so excited to see young, professional Washingtonians taking on serious fashion issues that I knew it was time to apply what I learned in New York back in my own hometown.

Where did the idea for Mag World come from? Why write this book, and why now?

My senior thesis at Georgetown was a collection of experimental fiction short stories about the beauty industry. I was so proud of the writing, but on presentation day I was frustrated that I didn’t have enough time to come up with an experimental way to display and share the stories (instead of double-spaced Times New Roman). I ended up turning in the thesis with the first page all cut out in the shape of a window and it was awarded honors. I always knew that thesis should have been presented as a parody of a magazine, with glossy pages and a floppy spine. That got me thinking: a true parody of a magazine would not only critique the beauty industry, but the fashion and the magazine industries as well. I took off for grad school and started working full-time in New York, all the while turning parts of my thesis into parody articles that showed how the beauty, fashion, and magazine industries could be healthier in the future, especially as an influence on young girls. While I developed the book at the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, and in my studio apartment in Cathedral Heights, much of the passion in the writing — and indeed the motivation to finish the book — came from my time as a teacher. I taught in lower, middle, and high schools around D.C., learning about girls from ages 5-18, and I knew this book had to be written so they could grow up in a more joyful, pressure-free media environment…instead of the mad, “mag” world I grew up in.

 

What do you want girls to take away from reading Mag World?

Mag World has so much research and analysis that, realistically, the youngest age I can see engrossed in it would be 18-22 year-olds. However, I used the research from the book to create a middle and high school curriculum called “Media Nutrition.” It teaches kids how to identify healthy and unhealthy messages in the media as well as healthy habits while using media and technology. I believe college-age women will put the book down with wider perspective on those nagging pressures to fit in; I believe young professional women working in the beauty, fashion, and magazine industries right now will walk away with conviction and hope that their careers can be spent deconstructing unhealthy standards; and I believe higher level executives from these three industries will appreciate the concise, structured, and grounded lessons I researched so that they might find reasonable ways to change.

Tell us what your process was like writing the book? Any tips for overcoming writer’s block?

The process was miserable. Whether you believe in this or not, I’m a Capricorn and an INTJ… so pouring my passions, hopes, and dreams onto paper was literally like pulling teeth. I was always taught how to write convincingly, but I had to push myself into believing that writing that enacts real change has to come from the heart. I took my big ideas and hard questions to the periodical divisions of my favorite libraries to look at how a century of writers and editors have walked the tightrope between successful publishing and truthful journalism. I read deeply into the lives and works of journalists like Matilde Serao, Nellie Bly, and Diana Vreeland to understand how to report on the female with excellence rather than stereotype. I never had writer’s block (because all my first drafts are profusely flowery, run-on sentences). My challenge was in how to cut it down. “Kill your darlings” is a rule I learned from Professor Jennifer Fink at Georgetown. To me, it means: cut any words, phrases, or sentences that sound amazing but don’t mean anything. I read everything out loud in a slow, purposeful tone (I picture Tom Brokaw) when I need to hear superfluousness. When I write something but then change my mind, I take out scissors and physically cut away what was comfortable, or hyperbole, or not true, and used the scraps to write my new argument. Finally, don’t be afraid to go for humor. Even if it’s dense or dry, someone’s gonna get it.

What were some struggles and challenges you faced?

I was pretty devoted to publishing Mag World as a parody of a magazine. This meant all the chapters had to be written as articles, which made fun of things you would typically see in women’s magazines. I pitched that manuscript to 16 different big, New York names and I got rejected. After enough time, my close family and friends were all saying the same thing: rewrite it as a basic, nonfiction collection of essays and pitch that first before something so experimental. It took me a year to rework the manuscript to read that way cohesively. During that time, my father was nudging me to consider joining the Metropolitan Club. I thought I was too creative and out-of-the-box to stand on my own two feet there, so I resisted, but after I showed up to a slew of events totally on my own, I found myself making all kinds of friends I had lots in common with. One day, a gentleman joined an informal group dinner and sat next to me. He was a former ambassador, army man, and very interested in my manuscript full of critiques on the media. He asked if I would send a copy and I learned later that he owned a boutique publishing house. Within a week, I got a letter from the executive editor saying that he personally would like to work with me on the book. I was dumbfounded, because their books were almost entirely on military and naval history or biography. My first significant struggle was with my own stubbornness because I didn’t want to move the project forward without my perfect artistic vision being realized. But my bigger struggle (and one I still work on to this day) is to be open. Be vulnerable. Be clumsy. Enter rooms where you know you for certain you are not top dog. You’re always going to learn, and people are always going to surprise you. As a journalist, I am reminded pf that every day. But as an author, I tend to forget. There’s no excuse for letting talent and introversion slip into smugness and prejudice.

Where do you think D.C. fashion is headed?

I see two large trends in D.C. fashion right now. Due to certain real estate development, we have been seeing unique and historic neighborhoods not only be acknowledged but be celebrated. Our collective, Washingtonian fashion identity — and indeed, our local retail economy — can only flourish if we embrace diversity from every corner of the city. The other trend is due to the 2016 election. Washingtonians are using fashion to express who they truly are, and can only continue to do so long as they see the Trump family as ornamental players in a temporary stage. I see lines out the door at Argent (in Shaw) or at Take Care (in Georgetown) and I am reminded that the uplifting and healthy messages — and, indeed, the style setters themselves —are not coming from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Brunch in or out?
Out.

Where’s your favorite place to brunch in Washington?
Lupo Verde. It doesn’t matter if it’s drinks, snacks, dinner, lunch, or brunch. I’m there.

Bloody Marys or mimosas?
Bellinis. (Fresh-squeezed juice. No peach Schnapps.)

What’s your favorite brunch dish to eat?
Some combination of eggs, polenta, and spicy Italian sausage.

If you had to invite five people to brunch, who would they be?
Since you didn’t specify living or dead, they would be: Franca Sozzani, Federico Perrella (my great-great grandfather who owned all the concerie on the bay of Naples), Jean Maxwell Newell (my grandmother who was a dress designer in Buffalo), Alessandro Michele, and Mariolina Auletta (my 15 year-old cousin in Rome who I wish was my little sister). Federico would charm Franca. Jean would charm Alessandro. And Mariolina would keep trying to teach me Italian.

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