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Twenty-five years ago, Hearst Magazines executive Joanna Coles was a reporter at The Guardian, covering a court case in which a young woman was jailed for refusing to give evidence against a boyfriend she feared.
Like all the other reporters there, Coles desperately wanted to interview the woman. Ultimately, she came up with a … creative way to do so, one that’s emblematic of her lifelong gutsiness.
On an episode of Business Insider’s podcast, “Success! How I Did It,” Coles shared the story with Business Insider US editor-in-chief Alyson Shontell:
“I covered the appeal at the high court when she was released, and everybody wanted to interview her, but it turned out, because this was 25 years ago, that I was the only woman actually covering the case. Everybody else was male.
“And she left the high court at top speed in a cab and rushed off to King’s Cross station to get a train up north because she, too, was from Yorkshire – and actually the judge was from Yorkshire, too, Judge Pickles he was called – and of course on getting to the station, what would she naturally do, like every other person, she went to the bathroom, and all I can remember is jumping over the turnstile because you had to put sixpence in, I think, to go through the turnstile into the bathroom, and of course none of the men could follow.
“So then I thought: ‘Christ, I’ve got a scoop. I’m going to get the first interview, but what shall I ask her? And where is she?’ And obviously she was in a bathroom stall. But then I suddenly thought: ‘What if she gets away? What if she gets away?’
“So I kicked open the door as if I was Starsky and Hutch. Poor girl was mid-pee, looked up kind of bleary-eyed at me, and then I thought, ‘What on earth do I ask her?’ And I think I asked one question and then I sort of backed out and waited for her. Got a minor interview because she wasn’t a very interesting girl and then got the story and that sort of taught me my own level of ambition and also that there’s a point in which you’ve gone too far, and that was the point, I think – bursting in on people during mid-pee.”
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Since landing that not-quite-scoop, Coles has transitioned into magazine journalism; she’s served as the editor-in-chief of Marie Claire and the editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan, and she’s currently the first chief content officer at Hearst Magazines. But her willingness to take risks and seize the opportunities in front of her has lasted throughout her career.
Actually, Coles was always bold: In the interview with Business Insider, she said she and a friend put together a magazine when they were 11 years old and sent it to the Queen. In response, they received a letter saying the Queen loved it and was looking forward to another issue.
Coles has said that the riskiest career move she ever made was leaving her job as a foreign correspondent for the Times of London and taking a job in magazine journalism. As she wrote on LeanIn.org, at the time she was pregnant with her second child and didn’t have a visa that would allow her to stay in New York.
“Anxious to push forward and on a time deadline, I decided to accept a role junior to my experience in exchange for the opportunity to get sponsored in the States. Though the employer had no issue telling me I ‘came with a lot of problems,’ they were also dedicated to helping me sort through them. I was immensely grateful for their support and I leaned in, which required a 50% cut in my salary and compensation package.
“I remember feeling like I was staring at a roulette wheel and throwing all of my chips at my best guess, hoping I would magically hit the right number. Though I knew instinctively my investment would pay off in the long-term, there was no way for me to know then just how much.”