Last week on Time Of Essence, we reflected on the inception of what ESSENCE was in the 1970s. The 1980s, however, heralded a new era. There was a surge of Black women graduating from college and taking on the role of breadwinners, characterized by large hairstyles, door-knocker earrings, and neon outfits. It was a new era where Black women were taking up space. Yet, the decade of the 80s was a rollercoaster.
During that decade, Marcia Anne Gillespie played a pivotal role in reflecting the time within the pages of ESSENCE magazine. Her efforts guided the magazine towards a path tailored to the experiences of Black women. Concurrently, the aggressive takeover by ESSENCE’s stockholders was still in progress, as partners Ed Lewis and Clarence Smith engaged in a struggle for control. This added to Gillespie’s already substantial workload.
Keep in mind that the earliest years of ESSENCE were pre-digital, requiring manual handling of editing, contracts, and invoices. Amidst a heavy workload, Gillespie received assurances of becoming a partner in the company. Unfortunately, the promise went unfulfilled, prompting Gillespie to depart, ultimately leaving the magazine in 1980.
Resuming the search for an editor-in-chief, Daryl Royster Alexander steps onto the scene. Having served as deputy editor under Gillespie, she had the most extensive experience. During this period, the nation inaugurated a new president, Ronald Reagan, on January 20, 1981, which popularized the term “welfare queen” for Black women. This label emerged partly due to the crimes committed by Linda Taylor, a Chicago resident who committed welfare fraud amounting to thousands of dollars. In contrast, ESSENCE took a public stance, denouncing the label and empowering Black women through stories of educated individuals who were making a difference. This era marked a renaissance for Black women writers, including notable figures like Toni Morrison, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Nikki Giovanni.
Under Alexander’s guidance, a passage from Morrison’s Tar Baby found its place within the magazine, one of her biggest accomplishments.
Alexander’s time as head at ESSENCE was short-lived, attributed by Lewis to a perceived disconnect with readers. Succeeding Gillespie was a challenging role, and Alexander’s efforts saw a decrease in the magazine’s circulation. However, from Alexander’s perspective, her relationship with Lewis didn’t have a promising start. She served as EIC for a year before being let go by Lewis.
During this transitional phase, Susan L. Taylor, previously the fashion and beauty editor, assumed the position of EIC in 1981. She formed a strong team of Black women writers, retaining numerous women she had previously collaborated with and promoted them to more substantial roles within the company. Audrey Edwards, who held the position of executive editor, served as a cornerstone for the entire publication during that time.
With Taylor at the helm, the magazine would soar. Nevertheless, she found herself facing the challenge of living up to Gillespie’s impactful editor’s letters, something Taylor was initially hesitant to undertake. Despite this, she established her own column called “In The Spirit,” a feature that resonated with numerous Black women, including figures like Halle Berry and Tracee Ellis Ross.
Fast forward to 1984, Vanessa Williams became Miss America. This event marked a milestone not only for America but also for ESSENCE, which featured her on its cover in the same year. However, Williams was required to relinquish her crown due to a series of photos slated for publication in Penthouse Magazine. She complied, stepping down with a month remaining in her reign. Nevertheless, Williams returned to grace the magazine’s cover in September, a edition that performed well on newsstands; yet, the publication experienced a decline in subscriptions that year.
ESSENCE stood firmly in support of Williams, who faced scrutiny over the nude photos. The magazine featured her on the cover at least five times after the incident.
As the magazine continued to grow, Taylor proposed to Ed Lewis the necessity of conducting a survey among the ESSENCE audience. She embarked on a journey across the nation to engage with Black women directly, gathering insights into their desires for the magazine’s content. Under Taylor’s leadership, the visual aesthetic of the magazine experienced a transformation, embracing increased representation across dimensions of body shape, size, and skin color. For Black models, being featured on the cover of ESSENCE became synonymous with achieving recognition and success.
“The agencies were adamant for me to not do ESSENCE,” Iman said. “For them, it was like you do ESSENCE after you do all of the other magazines, not at the beginning of your career. Majoring in political science and coming from Africa, of course that was something not to say to me. So I definitely said that’s what I wanted, to be on the cover of ESSENCE.”
While the magazine extensively celebrated Black beauty and achievements, a somber undertone pervaded the decade due to the prevalence of crack cocaine and widespread homelessness. Amidst the pages of the 80s issues, narratives emerged that shed light on the detrimental impact of crack cocaine on our communities, as well as the challenges faced by Black Vietnam War veterans.
As BET emerged in the 80s, it became an extension of what ESSENCE stood for, with Black representation on the silver screen. ESSENCE expanded their reach in Black media with its own television show, ESSENCE Spotlight, with Taylor as the host. A Black advertiser approached Lewis and Clarence Smith about Taylor wearing braids on camera, to which she replied, “This is who I am, I’m not going without the braids, so you can get somebody else to do it, but WPIX they decided that they wanted me.”
There were still Black success stories to be told in the 80s: Oprah getting a nationally syndicated talk show, sitcoms such as 227 and The Cosby Show, as well as the celebration of Black music, Soul Train. It was a powerful time, and beyond the national landscape, ESSENCE was traveling to African and Caribbean countries for photo shoots and stories to capture the essence of what a Black woman was, and still is.
On October 19, 1987, the infamous Black Monday struck, causing the stock market to plummet by 22.6 percent and ushering in a significant economic downturn. Despite this upheaval, ESSENCE’s circulation saw an increase, owed to Taylor’s forward-thinking approach. She directed her focus on how the economy was impacting the Black community, and proactively educated the readers on vital topics, including building wealth from the ground up and managing taxes.
Amidst the magazine’s flourishing, Revlon was actively promoting its products within its pages. However, the magazine’s president made disparaging remarks about Black hair care, causing a ripple of distress among Black women. In response, ESSENCE once more demonstrated its commitment to its principles by discontinuing Revlon’s advertisements, relinquishing a substantial sum of “at least $400,000 in advertising,” as per Lewis. This choice was made during a period of economic instability that potentially posed a threat to the business.
Next week, as we journey into the 90s, we’ll see the growth of hip-hop music, the inception of ESSENCE Festival, and the growing competition amongst magazines, especially those placing Black women on the cover.
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