Glamour editor Samantha Barry coming back to her Cork roots

Samantha Barry, Editor-in- Chief of Conde Nast’s ‘Glamour’ Magazine pictured with her award at the UCC Alumni Achievement Awards. Picture Clare Keogh

Glamour editor Samantha Barry is settled in New York, but there’s no place like home, the Cork native tells Marjorie Brennan.

As I wait to meet Samantha Barry at her alma mater of UCC, I take the opportunity to survey the impressive array of Ogham stones which line the corridor of the North Wing of the university Quad. 

The collection of ancient gravestones feature carved notches representing an early coded form of the Irish language from the period 300-600 AD. Outside in the twilight, students move around the campus, their faces lit by the glow of their smartphones. 

The juxtaposition between ancient and modern is particularly striking when I think of the remark made by legendary Vogue editor Anna Wintour when Cork native Barry was appointed to the prestigious role of editor-in-chief at the Condé Nast title Glamour last January: “Sam is Glamour’s first digital-native editor, which is to say she arrives from the future rather than the past.” 

Barry is at UCC to receive an alumni achievement award and when I meet her ahead of the ceremony, she is resplendent in a bronze sequin dress and brimming with energy, despite a hectic schedule of media engagements in previous days and an event in Áras an Uachtaráin the night before. Barry is a generous and engaging interviewee, and one can easily see the ability and fluency in communication that has seen her rise through the media ranks, from the University Examiner in UCC, to working in RTÉ, the BBC and CNN before being given the job of steering Glamour into a digital future. But she can still clearly remember a not so distant past when social media and streaming were still futuristic concepts and having your own email address was a novelty.

“In my first week of college I got two things which have had such an influence on my life. I got my first email address — it was 1999 — and I got my first phone, a free Nokia flip phone, from Bank of Ireland, which signed me up for life,” she laughs. “Now some days I’ll go for a run, pay for my coffee, call an Uber if I’ve gone too far — and I will have nothing with me but my Apple watch.” Barry’s focus in her work may be very much on the future, but much of this trip home has been about the past, including an emotional visit to her old primary school, Scoil Barra in Ballincollig.

“I was back visiting Scoil Barra today... I remembered I had a teacher called Mr O’Callaghan, it was in second or third class, he told my parents I was very good at English and that I should do more with it. I remember being so excited that somebody thought I was good at English. That kind of thing stays with you. Being back here, at UCC, being back at Scoil Barra, you remember all the things that put you on the path to where you are going.” Barry had an appetite for all kinds of news from an early age, recalling how she loved watching Anne Doyle on the RTÉ Six O’Clock news as a child and reading the newspaper voraciously.

“My dad would get the Examiner and read it from front to back, I would be trying to grab it off him to read,” she laughs. “For the 1990 World Cup, I was about eight or nine, I would write match reports and then read them out to my parents. I don’t think there was any time where I didn’t want to be involved in the media.” When she went to UCC, where she studied English and psychology, she embraced all the opportunities that college life had to offer.

“While I was here I threw myself into every media thing I could — I was entertainments editor of the university paper, I did three radio shows a week on campus radio, a morning show, a cinema review show and book reviews as well.”

Barry recently hit the headlines herself when she made the decision to dispense with the monthly print edition of Glamour and focus on the brand’s digital platform. I like to use the term ‘digital-led’, because we are going to do print editions a couple of times a year, such as for our recent Women of the Year event. We’re not doing it monthly but I’m confident digital is right because I know how women in America are consuming stories and watching more video — and where there’s potential in not just advertising but revenue and audience. Of course there are people who are nostalgic about the monthly print edition, but as an editor who loves really good storytelling, whether it’s in video or on social media or doing something like a big event, bringing amazing people together for the real-life version of your magazine, I know it’s the right decision. There’s no point in pretending that’s not where we’re headed.” 

While Glamour has a long-established reputation as a fashion and beauty title, Barry says while women are still interested in this kind of content, they also want to read about issues that impact on their lives, as well as economics and politics. The reality is what’s happening in the world intersects with our coverage of fashion and beauty. We’ve done loads this year on politics — we’ve had exclusives with people like Cynthia Nixon [the former Sex and the City actor who ran for New York mayor], we have talked to Democrats, Republicans, independents, on why they were voting the way they were. We also spoke to women about why they wanted to hang onto gun ownership in America.” 

Barry says the the current political climate in the US has been good for feminist activism, something she and Glamour are keen to promote. “The way that women are voting is a big story, as is the huge number of women who are going to put their hats in the ring for 2020. Women are getting actively involved, they’re out in the streets protesting, they’re running, they’re lobbying, nobody has seen this level of activity in recent times, not since the 60s anyway.” 

The most recent digital cover of Glamour features plus-size model Ashley Graham, who represents the brand’s ideals when it comes to beauty.

“We’re also very clear with the message that our fashion is inclusive, size-diverse, accessible, sustainable — all the things people are talking about in the world… On Instagram, I follow people who promote body positivity and people who make me laugh, who make me feel good about myself. I’d like to think that everything I put in the pages of the magazine, or on digital, has a positive spin. I would hate to think that the message anyone would take away from Glamour is ‘I don’t feel good about myself’. And that’s something that the editors before me would have felt strongly about too. Glamour is definitely a brand that’s amplified women rather than make them feel bad about themselves.”

While Barry is one of the many media chiefs facing the challenge of how to successfully monetise digital content, she’s certainly not short on ideas on how to do it.

“A lot of people have asked me this question — what can you get consumers to pay for? One thing I find consumers want to pay for is experiences, so that’s been interesting. For example, we had huge success selling tickets to our Women of the Year event. I think people will also pay for quality content on certain subject areas, for example, money/negotiations/career, I’m passionate about that. I’m interested also in micropayments — for example, 99 cent to go on a virtual red carpet with Kim Kardashian. There’s a generation of consumers coming up in that world, where if you ask them for 99 cents they’ll pay if it’s a video they won’t see anywhere else or they get to talk to the editor, or something different. In digital, you have opportunities for branded content, subscriptions or pre-roll [online ad that plays before the start of a video that has been selected for viewing] — it’s a bigger landscape and it’s continuing to evolve.”

However, Barry hasn’t lost sight of the fact that at the core of all the discussion about revenue and platforms is the journalism itself. “I just love good stories and I really love telling good stories. I have a heart for editorial and a head for business because I want to keep telling the stories of women. That’s what drives me so knowing the revenue stuff and digging into it, it’s a means to an end — so I can have a bucket of money to go and tell the stories of women.” While Barry leads a hectic life in New York, I say that it seems that this trip home hasn’t allowed for much relaxation. She assures me that the next day is pegged for some of her favourite pursuits in her native city.

“I love going shopping then into the Mutton Lane for a cheeky drink. My sister is here tomorrow and we usually go to Rearden’s and Havana’s, act like we’re 19, basically,” she laughs.

Just one quick question before we go, does Anna Wintour ever take her trademark sunglasses off?

“She’s my boss, so we meet all the time. Yes, she does take them off,” she laughs.

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