The fifth and final episode of Time Of Essence culminates with the highlights of the tragedy and triumph the legacy brand faced since its inception in 1970—problems amongst the founding members, changes in editorial leadership, and even a buyout from Time Inc. Despite this, if there’s anything viewers have learned watching each episode of this series, ESSENCE prevailed.
The 2010s was an era of Black woman glam—Beyonce announced her pregnancy of her first child, Blue Ivy Carter at the VMAs in 2011, Bravo’s Real Housewives Of Atlanta was the shining star amongst all the franchises, and the digital age marked a rise in memes. Black stars were taking center stage.
“The 2010s, going into 2020, while there was a lot of progress, it outlined a lot more disparity,” said ESSENCE Ventures President and CEO Caroline Wanga. “This wasn’t going to be a decade where we were just going to sit.”
At the start of the decade, the magazine was purchased by Time Inc., and former ESSENCE Editor-In-Chief Susan L. Taylor was out, and Mikki Taylor would soon follow. Angela Burt-Murray would take the reins and become the new EIC, but of course not without a few hiccups along the way. In ESSENCE’s long and storied history, the magazine has always highlighted Black love in the February issue. However, Burt-Murray, wanted to shake things up—instead of a couple, she placed then-NFL hotshot Reggie Bush on the cover. Nonetheless, his burgeoning career at the time made it difficult to get a photoshoot with the former New Orleans Saints running back, so Burt-Murray opted for stock photos.
The magazine received backlash for the cover, considering that Bush was dating socialite and reality star Kim Kardashian at the time. “This man is not a representative of Black love,” said former ESSENCE writer Jamilah Lemiuex. “He’s in a relationship with a white woman. Not only is he in a relationship with a white woman, but Kim’s fame in great part is because of her proximity to Black womanhood.”
Under Burt-Murray’s leadership more issues would come. Later that year, she would hire a white woman, Elliana Placas, as the fashion director for the magazine. “Not that a white woman can’t be a fashion director,” explained former ESSENCE fashion editor Darlene Gillard Jones, “but ESSENCE was always for the culture, by the culture. So I think seeing this woman represent the magazine wasn’t the best decision.”
Placas held the role for just two years, but many blunders would come while she occupied the role of fashion director, such as being perplexed about who Regina King was. Burt-Murray left in 2010, and ESSENCE was in need of a new EIC. Enter Constance White, who worked at WWD, and joined the magazine in March 2011. Fashion enthusiasts at the magazine were excited to have some sharp like White in the seat at EIC, however her tenure was short lived and White left ESSENCE in 2013.
“There was a difference between the corporate point of view that was Time [Inc.] versus the cultural point of view that was ESSENCE,” said Wanga. “That’s the difference.”
Despite the ups and downs, ESSENCE was still making an undeniable impact for Black women. The brand initiated its annual Black Women In Hollywood Awards to recognize Black women who had been neglected by major award ceremonies. Suzanne Di Passe was among its earliest honorees.
In 2012, the world would be shaken up by the death of Trayvon Martin, with a handful of Black deaths at the hands of police violence to follow. ESSENCE entered the chat on social justice as the killings of Black men and women at the hands of police were running rampant across the nation. In 2015, ESSENCE devoted a cover to Black Lives Matter, the first issue without a celebrity cover. The issue would go on to be one of the most iconic issues to date.
“On one level we could say that the Civil Rights Movement never stopped,” said former ESSENCE Editor-In-Chief Marcia Anne Gillespie. “What is Black Lives Matter but at 21st century iteration? We’re not done.”
However, much like the magazine’s reluctance to accept hip-hop, the magazine would again be a late adopter of the internet. Writers didn’t want to write for the internet, and Time Inc., wasn’t investing in the resources to build a digital presence online. Yet, the transition came when advertisers stepped into the conversation.
“Every business built on a mission comes to moments in its existence where it’s at the crossroads of purpose and profitability,” said Wanga. “While people knew that ESSENCE was a business, they never wanted you to tell them that…Time Inc., didn’t give two craps. What had been true was ESSENCE was a business that was losing tens of millions of dollars a year. You couldn’t spell the word profit, let alone believe it was possible. It was bleeding.”
At this juncture, Time Inc. was in the process of being bought by Meredith Corporation in a $2.8 billion dollar deal, and Meredith didn’t want ESSENCE in that purchase. So in these talks, everyone was talking about who was going to purchase the magazine. Here’s where Shea Moisture owner Richelieu Dennis enters the conversation.
In reading up on Time Inc., being sold, Dennis felt like it was an opportune time to buy back Black media. Shea Moisture’s parent company, Sundial, purchased ESSENCE in 2018, giving it Black ownership once again. Yet, the company’s infrastructure was still struggling. By the time the new regime came in, ESSENCE was down to a skeleton crew of the editorial team, with no sales and marketing departments.
Elsewhere in 2017, ESSENCE would make waves alongside Will Packer, for his comedy film Girls Trip, centered around four friends (Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Tiffany Haddish, and Jada Pinkett Smith) taking a trip to New Orleans for a girls trip during ESSENCE Festival. To mark the momentous occasion, the magazine featured the leading ladies on the cover of the magazine.
Entering 2020, the culture of the company was mixed—and an anonymous letter published online dubbed “The Truth About Essence,” exposed negative workplace culture at the company. ESSENCE was in a fragile place, and it led to Dennis stepping down, and Wanga stepping up to forge a new path ahead for the legacy brand.
Nonetheless, ESSENCE wasn’t out of the woods yet. As the company was turning 50, the coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc globally, putting life on hold. How do you publish a magazine during a nationwide shutdown? You pivot. Supermodel Naomi Campbell shot a photo of herself in her apartment for the May/June 2020 issue of the magazine, celebrating ESSENCE’s 50th anniversary.
The shutdown also affected the festival that year, the first year the festival went completely digital. The innovation that came with taking the festival online garnered 45 million views in 2020, and 65 million views the following year. To add to the momentum that ESSENCE already had, in 2020, President Trump is voted out of office, and Joe Biden is elected as the 46th president, also marking the very first Black woman vice president, Kamala Harris.
In October 2020, Harris would be the digital cover star of the magazine, setting yet another precedent that ESSENCE would always be ahead of the curve. “Kamala Harris said to me, at the last festival, ‘Ed if it had not been for ESSENCE, and the role that Black women played, I would not be here,” said Ed Lewis.
To keep up with the times, the magazine would create more digital covers, with the likes of Method Man and Lori Harvey being cover stars. It helped the magazine reach a younger, online audience. “What I love about ESSENCE in this era is that I feel like I see it taking risks again,” said Author Gabby Cudjoe Wilkes.
The magazine has been a beacon for Black women, sharing stories about topics such as AIDS, gang violence, and miscarriages to portray the diverse experiences of Black women. Its legacy spans 50 years of showcasing Black beauty, love, and culture on its covers, with plans to continue for another 50 years.