- Lifestyle & Sports
- 24 Oct 18
The first time Laura Whitmore met Samantha Barry was over a decade ago. Since then, both have made their names in the media in London and further afield, with Samantha going from the BBC to CNN, before taking on the coveted mantle of Editor-in-Chief at the US-based Glamour magazine. In this Hot Press exclusive, these old Newstalk buddies discuss Samantha’s role – and being a journalist in these extraordinarily volatile times. Oh, and catch up on a bit of gossip too… Photos: Erica Bergsmeds
Samantha Barry is the newly appointed Editor-in-Chief of Conde Nast’s US publication Glamour. Hailing from Ballincollig in Co. Cork, with an extraordinary journalistic career already to her credit, she now finds herself in a massive corner office of One World Trade Center in New York, and counts Anna Wintour and Amal Clooney as pals.
When we meet it’s slap bang in the middle of London Fashion Week and she has just flown in from New York. Next week it’s Paris, but she’s missing Milan, because she has a friend’s wedding to attend back in Ireland. Samantha is all about balance. And she is so real. There may be a New York twang overlaying the Corkonian brogue, but Sam is very much an Irish girl at heart. She is well aware both of the privileged position she finds herself in – and the great responsibility that comes with it. The Sam I know, my good friend, is most at ease sharing a bottle of white wine or Prosecco over her favourite Irish smokies (creamy fish pie with soda bread). Sadly, it’s early morning in the Mayfair Hotel, so on this occasion we’re content with a cup of tea and some chocolate…
Laura: Okay Samantha. I just want to describe where we are…
Samantha: Nice green curtains.
Nice green curtains: it’s like the Vonn Trapp children isn’t it? We’ll come out wearing the same clothes. The wall is green. Couch is green. It’s very Irish.
British TV in the background, which is my fave. It’s so different to American TV, which I love but is often very over-produced. Breakfast TV is great here, although I was watching Piers Morgan and what’s her face (Susannah Reid) on Good Morning Britain. Do they hate each other?
I don’t think they do. I just think that’s their thing: they’re trying to be American. How’s London Fashion Week going?
Well, yesterday I was at 10 Downing Street and there was a massive elephant in the room (I refuse to insert joke here, I will not stoop to that level)… which was Brexit. On catwalks, we are now seeing the collections that will potentially be the first directly affected by Brexit. We’re still trying to figure out what this will mean for designers and brands. And honestly we just don’t know.
You were at number 10 Downing Street, you’re going to all these Fashion Week shows. That’s all very different to when you were living in London a few years ago.
Yeah! I worked at the BBC World News and it’s a nice 360° because I’m actually going back in there to talk about Fashion Week. I lived in West Hampstead. I love London. There’s still a big part of my heart that’s completely attached to London.
I think both of us fell in love with the big smoke here, two young Irish girls following their dreams – but then you went off to New York and left me. It was just over ten years ago when we met first. You walked into the Newstalk radio newsroom – we were both working on Eamon Keane’s lunchtime news show. Do you remember our little corner in that newsroom?
How could I forget?
You walked in and I remember thinking, ‘Oh my god she’s so glamorous’.
Stop it! You didn’t!
I did! I think you had red lipstick on. I was a researcher at the time, so it didn’t matter what I looked like. But I remember Niamh Lyons, who’s now a very successful political correspondent, was always very glamorous. And when she left and you walked in, I was like ‘Oh my GOD! This is part of the job’. I remember thinking you were so bubbly and confident and such a go-getter.
I was trying to explain to people in America that I was a lunch-time reporter – and what that meant. Because Ireland is so small, I’d get a text from the producer at maybe 6am and no matter where the story was, I was in a car, I had got there by midday, I had recorded a little package and I was doing a live report on my phone back. When I started you were going through the MTV process. We were all cheering you on.
Maybe it’s an Irish thing that we travel well. Love an adventure.
I also think we just go head first into things.
We’re not sensible.
I think we just take that attitude of like, ‘Ah fuck it we’ll give it a go.’
That’s the best attitude you can have in life: just ‘fuck it I’ll give it a go.’ That’s the headline for this article right there. Were you ambitious as a child?
I liked school.
I liked school! I’m embarrassed to say that.
I just wrote my editor’s letter for the October Glamour issue and it’s all about TV and how important it was seeing young women on TV and seeing all these complex characters – not just perfect girls but these troubled characters – on TV now. I talked about Jessie Spano (on Saved By The Bell) who was this unapologetic nerd and a massive feminist. So I loved school. Loved English, I wasn’t a Billy Barry kid, but I didn’t mind throwing myself out in front of the class and giving a speech or doing a debate.
Did you grow up in a household that encouraged that?
My sister and brother are quite introverted. But my parents were always very supportive. I’ve always been someone for a tight deadline – I love, love, love leaving everything to the last minute – and in my first year of college I remember sending my dad out constantly, even the two weeks before finals, to get me a Red Bull. He was constantly going on these Red Bull runs for me and I’d be studying all night. And at one stage he came in and I asked Dad, ‘Do you want one?’ And he said I couldn’t, I’m driving. He thought he was buying me alcohol!
Whatever you need (laughs). Just the vodka, please! He’s a good man is your dad. That dreaded CAO form you had to fill in when you’re 16 or 17. How did you decide what you wanted to do for the rest of your life?
I always wanted to be a journalist. During the 1990 World Cup, when I was 8 or 9, I’d watch the match – with my parents and brother and sister – with a pad and a pen in hand, and take notes. When the match would end, I’d go upstairs and write a report and I’d come down to my parents and give them the full report. I was always fascinated with the news. The appetite for news in Ireland is amazing. The amount of role models I had growing up, in terms of female journalists, was spectacular – from the women you watched on the 6 o’clock or 9 o’clock news, to Veronica Guerin. And then throw in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and April O’Neal in that yellow jumpsuit…
Lois Lane for me.
Exactly. So how could you not want to be a journalist?
You’ve worked in 25 different countries, and as a news journalist you’ve travelled to places that aren’t always safe.
My parents think I’m in the safest city in the world in New York. They’re like: thank god she’s somewhere safe!
How did they feel when you went to places like Pakistan and Iraq?
I spent a year in Papua New Guinea – not the safest place in the world. I spent months at a time in Pakistan, Nigeria and Iraq. It was between the age of 27 to around 32. Looking back it really pushed me in terms of storytelling, but I’m a bit more reluctant to take those risks as I get older.
What was happening in Papua New Guinea?
When I first moved to Papua New Guinea, they didn’t even have internet in my parents’ house. My dad bought my mom a laptop and got hi-speed wi-fi to Bantry. She started Googling the places I was going to and she was like: ‘Wait a second I thought Papua New Guinea was like a tropical place’…
Travelling made me appreciate a different type of storytelling. There were female journalists in Nigeria, and these other places where they can barely pay for meals, but they’re so dedicated to what they’re doing and they put their lives at risk, really pushing boundaries. Some of the most inspiring people I’ve met are not the big names, but maybe a local journalist in Nigeria who just runs into a bomb scene to tell the story to a local paper that 500 people read.
You moved from the BBC to become the Head of Social Media at CNN HQ in New York. That was 2014. At the time horrific videos were being released of beheadings by ISIL. You had to watch those videos and decide what you felt you should or shouldn’t show. You had people like Daniel Pearl, a journalist for the Wall Street Journal, being killed in the most appalling way. How do you deal with that?
I ran social media at CNN and people would say – ‘Oh you do their Twitter?’ But social media has become such an essential tool for any newsroom in the world – like the Ariana Grande Manchester attack or the Vegas shooting.
I was doing a play in a theatre in Manchester, around the corner from where the Ariana Grande concert was, the night of the Manchester attack, and we saw people running from the stadium, and didn’t know what was happening. The first thing I did was look on Twitter and I hash-tagged Manchester, I hash-tagged attack, to see what I could find. I saw tweets from people who were actually there.
Even in the last four years, the newsroom has evolved. First, you have to see where those videos are coming from, because often now, if there’s an attack, or there’s a moment, and you’re trying to gather news from social media, you will get bad agents who try to put something fake in there, hoping people will run with it. Our job at CNN, or of one of the teams at least, is to take something in, look at it, verify it and make sure we’re confident in the source and then make a decision whether we would broadcast it. A lot of the things that came in, we didn’t put them on air because they were too gruesome.
What was that psychological effect on you?
I was very open and honest with my team at CNN. When we would go through those big moments, we would offer them counselling. It’s almost like frontline reporting but back at a desk. One of the things that stood out for me was when the Barcelona attack happened and we were getting videos that we verified, and it was just… that and the Vegas shooting, they were two huge ones for me because they were just too gruesome for us to put on air. But you still have to look at it, you have to verify it, you have to make an editorial call about whether we would put this on air – or put it on air with a warning. Also what should that warning look like on social? What does that warning look like on digital? You’re making a lot of editorial calls. Some videos we thought were important for the story, we would air them once an hour; we’d put a warning on it; and in digital we’d take it off auto-play…
So you have created your own rule book.
The great thing about CNN is that there was a great machine of people to trust. I had the amazing Editor-in-chief Meredith Artley. I had the head of Standards and Practice who’d been there for 40 years. We’d often get on a quick phone call and be like, ‘What are we going to do?’ And there’d be three or four people on that call and I’d give my opinion and they’d give theirs.
Since you left there’s been huge progress in Ireland, with the Gay Marriage referendum and Repealing the 8th. Meanwhile, with Donald Trump as President, America is moving towards being a much more closed, conservative culture.
Before I get to Trump, I should say I feel there’s a disconnect between the new Irish immigrants and second, third and fourth generation Irish-Americans.
We grew up in an Ireland that’s way more progressive than the one their grandparents left and they’re holding onto that old Ireland. It’s nostalgia. They’re mostly more conservatively religious than newer Irish immigrants. There are some that didn’t want to let gay people march in the Saint Patrick’s Day parade. A lot of the older generation didn’t celebrate Repealing the 8th.
You were with CNN and had a front-row seat for the 2016 US Presidential election. You interviewed Trump outside of a toilet.
Actually in a toilet. CNN are always pushing the boundaries of innovation and storytelling, so – lots of debates happen in an election cycle, and for the first one in Vegas, we got a beautiful Instagram portrait of Republicans and Democrats. And then in the second set of debates I was like, ‘Let’s do something for Snapchat’. So we went to Flint, Michigan and we got all of the Dems. And then we went to Miami to snapchat the Republicans. But they wouldn’t let us film backstage. We talked to the secret service who said, ‘Ok, let us see what we can do’. And 5-10 minutes later they were like, ‘We think we’ve found a place’. So they walked me 5 minutes from the stage and they pointed at the men’s toilet and said, ‘You can do it in there’. And I didn’t even blink. I said, ‘Ok, I need a black curtain, I need the cameraman, and I need to set up right now’. We had decided we were going to get the Republicans before they went on stage, and we got every single one of them except Donald Trump because he didn’t do a walkthrough. And so literally, physically, one of the producers, what I can only describe as ‘manhandled’ Donald Trump from the stage and brought him into a toilet to be interviewed. When I showed my mam the photo, she thought I was at Madame Tussauds!
How is Trump in person? People say he’s ‘charismatic’.
He’s got a presence. But I didn’t get that much time. It wasn’t a sit-down interview.
A few years ago I got an email from you asking, ‘Are you still doing quite a lot of DJing?’ and I replied ‘yeah’ – which I was while in MTV. You asked, ‘Do you DJ weddings?’ and I was like ‘Eh…not really Sam’. Then you said, ‘It’s gonna be a big fancy one, would you be up for DJing it?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know if I wanna DJ a wedding’ (laughs). And you’re like, ‘I’ll be there, it’ll be fun’. You ended up saying, ‘It’s for my friend, they’re kind of high profile, I’ll give her your email’. Then I get an email from Amal Alamuddin – now Amal Clooney…
I was kind of devastated that didn’t work out!
... saying ‘I’ve actually just booked someone but thank you so much’. I was like: ‘FOR FUCK’S SAKE! It’s George and Amal’s wedding’.
Nobody knew I was going, so I was being low key.
Tell me about your friendship with Amal.
I met her in London at a dinner party and we just got on really well. She’s amazing and one of the hardest working people I know. It was Alec Ross, who worked with the State Department for Hillary Clinton, who threw this dinner. Amal and I just got on like a house on fire. We went dancing until 3 o’clock in the morning, and then we decided, ‘Let’s not finish, let’s go for more glasses of champagne’ back at her house. It was one of those lovely London friendships. She’s one of the nicest people you could meet. When they were getting married, obviously I didn’t tell anyone. I told my bosses I was leaving to go to an event and then on the Sunday one of them sent me a link to pictures of me and Bill Murray on a boat and I thought, ‘I suppose I’ve been caught here’!
I do friendship dates. Even when I was in L.A my friends would be like, ‘You’d get on really well with her’, so I’d go on these dates with other women. I’ve met people through you, you’ve met people through me.
I found my local in New York thanks to you.
Yeah, The Hudson Hound run by my mate, Jason O’Brien! It was at Amal’s wedding that you first met Anna Wintour.
We got on really well. She took my name card from the wedding, and I was laughing ‘cause I got to my table and they had put me next to Bill Murray and I was like, ‘Oh there’s Bill Murray’s name card and there’s mine’, and in my head I was obviously gonna take Bill’s. I’d had a chat with Anna beforehand. Her father was the editor of the Evening Standard and her brother was a journalist at The Guardian. It would be very easy for someone in her position to be old school in their thinking, but she’s the opposite. You couldn’t get a better guide in the world of publishing. When the job came up and Cindi Leive (former Editor of US Glamour) was leaving after 16 years, she was among the people who told me to put my hat in the ring. Once I was asked I was like, ‘I absolutely 100 percent want to get this job’.
It’s called Glamour magazine. Are you limited by that title?
People must have perceptions: ‘You’ve gone from CNN to Glamour’.
Glamour has always done spectacular things. Glamour was the magazine, in the 1940s, that had the tagline ‘for the woman with a job’. It covered sexual harassment, it covered Anita Hill in a massive way. It was always at the forefront of conversations in relation to women’s reproductive rights. It’s always had great journalism about women. Now, can I as Editor-In-Chief do a better job at shouting about it? Absolutely. And we’ve gotten a lot of accolades recently around our coverage of politics and women in politics. I think for some people, the word ‘glamour’ might come with assumptions but if you dig into the brand – yeah, we do fashion and beauty but we do some hard-hitting journalism.
There’s a great quote from Meghan Markle that says, ‘You can be a woman who wants to look good, and still stand up for the equality of women’.
Exactly. The fashion and beauty part of it is fun. We are multi-dimensional people, shock horror.
This is the first time you’ve worked in fashion and lifestyle.
In terms of fashion and beauty, I’ve just doubled down what Glamour have been doing before, and been kind of bigger and shouting about it more. It’s about diversity. It’s about size inclusiveness. And I say that pointedly, because a lot of fashion coverage is not.
Bono was Man of the Year two years ago, at the Glamour ‘Woman of the Year’ Awards?
I was talking to him about that recently actually.
How did he feel about it?
He loved it!
Do you think something like ‘Women of the Year’ is outdated? I was at the GQ awards and there were as many female winners as men. Should we be having awards dividing sexes?
I’m okay with it, because if there was ever a year to celebrate women it was this year. ‘Women of the Year’ will include a lot of men – not necessarily the people who get the awards, but we’ve made ‘Women of the Year’ a three-day event now and people are going to do lots of things. I also think it’s okay to celebrate women, after many decades of celebrating men in all walks of life.
Recently you said. ‘In Ireland, we don’t date, we just sort of smash into each other in Whelan’s’. You’re single now, so what is dating like in New York compared to Ireland?
It’s different to Dublin and to London. New York is like a jungle when it comes to dating. I sometimes feel like Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. It can be so fun dating in New York because in terms of setting and location you are literally in a movie, but it’s probably a bigger job weeding out people who are dating lots of other people, getting someone whose sense of humour aligns with yours. I tend to date a lot of Europeans.
You’re very ambitious and very successful. I know from my own experience that can be hard for some men to handle.
That’s probably one of my biggest criteria for guys that I am dating, having someone that is a supporter of successful women.
There’s this thing of people in small towns getting married young because there’s less choice. In London or New York, you can always find someone better…
There are a lot of Peter Pans. And there is a lot of choice for everybody, men and women, in New York – but I like to date one person. Maybe I should open a Whelan’s in New York and smash into somebody. Actually, that was a pretty graphic description (laughs).
What’s your view on beauty pageants and competitions like the Rose of Tralee?
I haven’t watched The Rose of Tralee in years. We have had a lot of discussion in the office about Miss America – they took the swimsuit pageant out of it. One of the things I liked about it this year was that Miss Michigan used her one minute at the start, rather than to introduce herself, to talk about how the Flint water crisis is still going on. So there is a place for the right type of pageant. There is an opportunity for women to get scholarships. They get more confident in their own voices, getting up in front of that audience. Would you ever do a pageant?
I remember years ago there was a Bray one – Face of Bray – I got asked to enter… but I didn’t do it.
I did the Lisdoonvarna one once (laughs). It was literally you wore a nice dress. I think I did a Kavanagh poem, because I have no talent other than reading. I didn’t win, but I remember it fondly! There was a local one in Ballincollig and I remember looking at the girls and thinking they were amazing!
What’s the toughest decision you’ve had to make as editor of Glamour?
I made some staff changes at the start. That wasn’t necessarily a hard decision, but it wasn’t easy to do. Hardest decision? That’s a good question. I think I’m always confident in the voice and where I want to take it – so that backs up whatever you want to do.
It’s not a great time for print journalism. You’re asked by Anna Wintour to go for this job – and she knows your background.
I come from broadcasting and social and digital.
It looks like there is a plan here…
Glamour, for me, is not just a magazine, it is a brand. That’s why events and digital and social and, yes, print are all important.
Is there still a place for print?
Absolutely. I see Glamour as one of the few 360° brands that are out there. We have the ‘Women Of The Year’ Covers coming up. But I really think the onus is on me to keep innovating with how they make their money, how they reach their audience. Is Hot Press more digital or is it more print now?
I buy Hot Press like I buy CDs – the magazines are iconic and you’ll have them forever. I still have copies that I have kept from years ago. I think if you write an article you get more hits online, but there is more prestige to having something in print. Tell me who inspires you?
Oh god, I don’t know, who inspires you? You can’t say your mum!
People around me.
My girlfriends inspire me; my girlfriends in London; you inspire me – anybody that works hard and is creative and has passion. There is a group of women that I go to, if I’m trying to make a hard decision – in Dublin, London and New York. It’s those women that inspire me, like my friend that worked on the Hillary Clinton campaign in New York.
Have you met Hillary?
I interviewed Hillary, briefly, before the 50th Anniversary of Ralph Lauren. It was the most ridiculous night ever. You can’t imagine. It was like: ‘Oh, there’s Steven Spielberg, there’s Oprah Winfrey, there’s Hillary Clinton’. So I met and chatted to Hilary for the first time, about how much the Irish love the Clintons and she was like, ‘Bill’s there at the moment’. We talked about the Peace Process. I think I just went up to her and said, ‘The Irish love ya!”
How often do you talk to Anna (Wintour)?
I see her day to day, week to week. I run the magazine through her.
So she’s like your Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Absolutely. We’ll go to Paris and talk about the December issue which we’re working on now. We’ll go through the pages and she’ll give me some advice.
Do you ever go out of your body and look at yourself and think WTF?
I think I did at that Ralph Lauren show. I floated out of my body as Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey passed by.
When I went to visit you in your New York office earlier this year when you started at Glamour a lot of people thought of you as the scary big editor, but you were like, ‘Look at my massive windows and the view! Look at the toilet I have in my office!’ It’s important not to lose that down to earth quality.
I’ve had the most ridiculously fantastic four years in New York, working at CNN and being editor at Glamour. I have had so many ridiculous moments and I don’t think I’ll ever be blasé about them. I don’t think it’s in me.
Amal Clooney has a family and she has a successful career. Is that something you want in your life?
I have to work on the dating first, otherwise it’s going to be the immaculate conception. I honestly don’t know. I don’t have an answer to that question. I love being an aunt.
I know myself when I saw that Rihanna show with Slick (Woods) walking the runway even though she was heavily pregnant I felt happy. My mum was a single parent and she worked. But there is a lot of pressure to do it all in your thirties.
There is so much! I think it has become a thing to ask women: “When are you having the baby?”
I’ve been getting that for ten years.
Some women can’t have babies and some women don’t want to have babies – and they shouldn’t feel bad about saying that out loud. For me personally I don’t know the answer. All I know is I’m loving what I’m doing now.
And with that Sam is straight out of the hotel room and ready to jump into a car to take her to BBC Studios. I’m regretting not having at least one glass of bubbly as we hug goodbye. When I check my email, three different Glamour people have emailed to check how the interview has gone. For me it’s a chat with my mate, but Sam is a big deal and part of a big machine. I definitely didn’t stick to their guidelines in terms of questions, but Sam doesn’t stick to the guidelines either. She creates her own rule book – and isn’t that so much more exciting?
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