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NEW YORK — Glenda Bailey sipped an iced coffee at the Mandarin Oriental hotel bar during a recent afternoon and talked about how famous she used to be. Indeed, years before becoming the editor in chief of Harper’s Bazaar, Bailey — known these days for avoiding the limelight — was glaringly lit by it and couldn’t leave the house without being recognized.
That was back in London in the Nineties, when Bailey made Marie Claire UK one of the hottest magazines in town, so much so that she was featured in an American Express commercial. Her spot was shown repeatedly on TV and her face was plastered all over the city. She was Queen of the Newsstand.
“I had to leave the country,” Bailey said with typically British droll humor. “I became an editor because I love the editing process. I didn’t want to be a celebrity.”
Her wish was granted when Hearst asked Bailey to come to New York to take over the U.S. edition of Marie Claire, where she once again drove the numbers up. Besides, American magazine publishing already had a star: Anna Wintour. It didn’t need another one.
Marie Claire became a fixture on Adweek’s hot list four years in a row and the trade publication named Bailey editor of the year in March 2001. But insiders thought she would eventually want more. Around this time, it became clear to Hearst brass that a change was needed at Harper’s Bazaar. The upscale fashion title was struggling at the newsstand and the buzz was gone.
In May 2001, Bailey succeeded Kate Betts as editor in chief of Bazaar. “It had lost its identity,” Bailey said, looking back on her 10 years at the helm. “It was time to help save an institution and that’s what happened.”
Whether Bailey has “saved” Bazaar is open for debate. Its circulation has been relatively stable during her tenure at around 700,000, but Bazaar remains ranked at best number three in the fashion magazine stakes and most often number four. Then there are the continual rumors that Bailey would be replaced, which have been going on for at least five of the 10 years she’s been at the magazine’s helm.
She’s still around, though. And she clearly engenders respect from the fashion world, if not downright affection. People were only too willing — indeed, eager — to sing her praises — from Demi Moore to François-Henri Pinault of PPR, Alber Elbaz to Diego Della Valle. Most of the comments focused on Bailey’s no-nonsense honesty and almost everyone talked about her via telephone, not e-mail. No assistants, no go-betweens — all the calls came straight to this reporter’s cell or office phone.
“Glenda’s quite a force,” said Kristina O’Neill, executive editor who has been with Bailey since the beginning. “She has very, very big ideas and wants us to make them happen. I will say that professionally there is never any ambiguity with Glenda. You always know where you stand.”
Stephen Gan, creative director, added, “She’s very deliberate and always knows what she wants.”
Another former Bazaar editor put it more bluntly: “You’re either doing it right or wrong when it comes to Glenda. There is no in between. She’s black and white. She’s an extreme perfectionist and if something didn’t work out, she would read every e-mail off my computer to see what went wrong. She would follow up herself.”
Some allude to behavior that can border on the obsessive, a controlling personality and sometimes a very hot temper. However, the top of Bazaar’s masthead has been extremely stable during her tenure. One thing they all know: she’s very hands-on. Bailey will call photographers, writers and actors on behalf of the title. She phoned Moore to discuss a cover idea. She wanted the actress to pose on a floating staircase next to a giraffe. It’s a stunt that probably wouldn’t be featured in any other fashion magazine. Bailey maintains that it shows her sense of whimsy when it comes to clothes. “When she called me and told me, I wasn’t sure at first,” Moore recalled. “But she was really into it and convinced me.”
She’s talked Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana into dressing as Batman and Robin for a photo shoot and also persuaded her good friend and Lanvin designer Elbaz to wade into the water in Central Park wearing a suit for a portrait. “I didn’t have time after the shoot to go home and change so afterward, I headed to the CFDA Awards [where he was honored as best international designer] and I’m soaking wet — my pants and my shoes,” Elbaz said. His shoes were so wet they went squish, squish, squish each time he took a step.
Pinault said Bailey prides and distinguishes the magazine by taking bold risks. He called her a maverick and iconoclast. “The landscape of fashion today is driven by Glenda’s determined spirit and her insistence on challenging and inspiring her reader,” he said.