News & Runway

How I Got to Be…Features Editor at Teen Vogue with Jessica Pels

image: Belathee Photography

image: Belathee Photography

You know you’re a rockstar writer when you leave a powerhouse publishing company to scratch your start-up itch, kick ass there and then return to same said publishing company to become a top editor at one of its most successful magazines. Oh, and you’re 26.

Meet Jessica Duncan, Features Editor at Teen Vogue. We first met at aforementioned start-up, where she was the Editorial Director and I was contributing in an at-large capacity. It’s rare you work with someone new you immediately trust implicitly, who delivers tenfold on your expectations and who just so happens to be cool, normal and an excellent post-work cocktail buddy. I was only too happy to catch up with her at her new post – and, no surprise, she’s rocking it harder than ever…

Julie Bensman: We've known each other through various projects, but I don't think you've ever told me too much about your career path.

Julie Duncan: I always knew I wanted to do something with words. In college, I managed to land an internship at The New Yorker, a truly heavenly place for a news geek like me, and another one at Vogue the following semester (I got very lucky in the internship department). When I graduated, parent company Conde Nast was looking for an assistant to Cindi Leive, editor-in-chief of Glamour. Of course, I jumped at the chance, and spent the next four years absorbing as much of her smarts as I possibly could. She promoted me to Assistant Editor and eventually Associate Editor, and I tackled all kinds of projects: editing a book, helping to manage the “Women of the Year” event, writing and editing everything from Dos & Don'ts to feature stories. Eventually I wanted to test myself in new ways and expand into web, so I left to launch a magazine at the e-commerce company. Once it was up and running, there was another fateful availability at Conde Nast HQ: a Features Editor spot at Teen Vogue. I know it's cheesy to say the heavens opened up and I heard angels sing—but honestly, that's what it felt like! Everything clicked.

JB: What does a typical workday look like for you?

JD: First up when I get into the office: about an hour of reading to catch up on the news, absorb as much content as possible, and make sure I'm current. It doesn't always happen, but I do my best to protect this time—it's where most of my ideas come from. Then I jump into the day, which is never the same from one to the next but always a recipe for something exciting. The ingredients? Working with writers to craft and polish upcoming stories, writing and editing copy for the issue we're currently shipping, building relationships with potential contributors, strategizing about new web content, editing, and always a dash of something completely unexpected, which keeps me on my toes.

Teen Vogue June/July 2013JB: What's the biggest misconception of working at a magazine?

JD: We don't get to take things from the closet! There's also the belief that this is a job all about glamour. That certainly plays a role (and an important one, at that), but make no mistake: we work hard, and are constantly pushing ourselves to put together the best magazine we possibly can.

JB: Describe your personal sense of style.

JD: I tend to be clean and sophisticated with a little bit of an edge. Some days that means a silk dress with a blazer and studded platforms; other days, it's motorcycle boots with dark-wash jeans and a sheer top. I'm not a huge accessory person, but not for lack of trying—I'm in love with all the gorgeous baubles that come in and out of our office, but I just can't carry them off. For me, it's one statement at a time, be it a bold earring or a bright lip.

JB: Which items do you never leave home without?

JD: I'm one of those people whose bag always weighs 800 pounds—it's stuffed! In addition to the rotating cast of magazines I cart around, I always carry a folder of the stories I'm editing, about 35 pens (I'm a foster mom for writing utensils), my kindle and MAC's RiRi Woo lipstick.

JB: What are you looking forward to most this summer?

JD: My New York is summertime New York. It's when I studied at American Ballet Theater at 14, it's when I moved here as a college freshman, it's when I started my first big job. Maybe it's because I'm from the South, but there's something about the heat that makes me come alive—this whole city come alive. I can't wait for the backyard BBQs and the weekend beach trips, but of course I'm most looking forward to my wedding! We're getting married in Princeton in August. Another cliche I'm too happy to care about using: it's honestly a dream come true.