On an early summer morning in Manhattan, Eva Chen walks into the W Hotel. Tall and slender, with barely noticeable makeup and a short, minimalist hairdo, she looks exactly how you would picture a Teen Vogue editor to be— effortlessly chic, with an astute attentiveness. Despite any ill-preconceived notions of intimidating editors due to my obsession with The Devil Wears Prada, I was immediately at ease with Eva and her endearing banter—especially after she started gulping down her order of breakfast and quickly apologized, “Sorry you have to watch me eat. I have to eat. I can’t not eat.”
In her candid and down-to-earth nature, the beauty and health director points out that the magazine industry isn’t all fun and play like the media often portrays. “99.9 percent of the time, you’re in the office at work,” said Chen. Work for her, however, includes being bombarded with at least 100 beauty products per day, attending fashion shows, backstage interviews and going to industry events.
For Chen, her job encompasses what she loves to do most—writing and helping others. As she unashamedly admitted, “I have a problem. People don’t even ask me for advice and I just give it.” Through the Teen Vogue brand and its magazine, website and blog—she was the first beauty editor at Condé Nast to start a blog—plus her personal Twitter, she’s been able to engage with teens in a whole new personal way. She’s the cool, smart sister you wish you always had around to ask for advice—and now only a Twitter @reply away.
“I’m open to giving [advice] probably because I remember being a teen and how hard it was to ask for help,” said Chen. “My whole life, I always wanted an older sister. I feel there’s a lot of value in having female friends, whether you’re a boy or girl, so I think that’s another reason why I love my job—because I grew up without having someone to turn to.”
As Chen opened up about her childhood, it became immediately apparent why many Asian girls reach out to her for advice and can identify with her easily. “I think Asian culture is very specific in that you’re told not to ask for help,” said Chen. “Even as Asian culture becomes more integrated into Western or American society, I still think, culturally, there are a few things that will probably hold true—the notion of ‘keeping face,’ the notion of ‘don’t go to others with your problems,’ like ‘figure it out yourself.’ I don’t know [if] that will change, so I think it’s really important for people to feel like they have someone to turn to. And I don’t mind being that person. Like I said, I can relate.”
From age 13 to 20, Eva spent every summer vacation taking summer school classes at Hunter College or Columbia University. Her parents, whom she described are “like many other Asian American parents [who] put a premium on my education,” wanted her to pursue business, law or medicine, and she enrolled in Johns Hopkins on a pre-med path with plans of becoming a doctor.
Anxious to take a break and do something different and fun, Chen applied for internships in the creative field between the summer of her junior and senior college years, landing a coveted full-time, paid internship at Harper’s Bazaar, which ultimately jump-started her magazine career. Chen recalled, “My first day of work [at Harper’s Bazaar] was kind of really an eye-opening experience. It was just that light-bulb-going-off-over-your-head moment. I just kind of realized that there was more out there. There were people who loved words and loved to write and loved to craft these stories and tell stories to people as their career.”
In retrospect, Chen admits there were clues all along, such as her love of reading and how English classes and the written word came really naturally to her as opposed to learning organic chemistry. “I think there are clues in everyone’s lives, whether or not they choose to tap into that,” said Chen. “So if you love movies and all you want to do is go to movies, you could probably make a career out of it. The world is so much bigger than doctor, banker, lawyer, accountant—all these ‘stable jobs.’ So generally, whatever your hobby is, there’s probably a way to make it into a career. That’s a lesson that I learned way, way later that I wish I’d known when I was 15.”
Besides the benefits of her internship experiences, Chen’s unexpected shift from medicine to magazines eventually ended up affecting her job today. “It’s funny because every experience I’ve had, from pre-med even, has translated into my writing and beauty career,” said Chen. “I’m also the health director at Teen Vogue, so my interest in science, nutrition, health and wellness has translated over into what I do now. It’s been really interesting to see how it all ties together. There’s no such thing as coincidences.”
Chen’s prowess in making the most of every opportunity, whether expected or not, and embracing changes in her life draws back to her roots and backbone—her Taiwanese parents who immigrated to the U.S. in the late ‘70s and her childhood in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Of her parents, Chen said, “I see how hard they’ve worked to be able to send my brother and me to good schools—to provide us with everything we’ve ever wanted. I’ve been incredibly blessed to have the best kind of parents that are out there.” Though an obvious answer, Eva immediately said her parents are the most influential people in her life. “My parents gave me the foundation upon which everything else is built. They gave me the education that instilled within me the confidence to do what I can do.”
In relation to her job as beauty and health director, Chen’s mom has perpetuated her love for skincare. “I feel like I grew up with a different perception of beauty because I saw my mom slather these creams on,” said Chen. “When we go out in the sun, she basically put so much sunscreen on that she would look like a ghost. She wears hats that are like umbrellas and would sit in the shade. I think the level of attention she paid to her skin definitely had an impact on me growing up.” And the same goes with her attention to wellness: “We didn’t grow up drinking much soda. We didn’t grow up eating much meat. We drank tea with everything and dessert was fruit.”
Though her cultural background has played a considerable role in her career as a magazine editor today, she doesn’t let her ethnicity strictly define her. Rather, Chen draws the most inspiration from the multi-ethnic, diverse city of New York where she grew up and currently resides. “It’s not one person or thing for me, but I derive such incredible energy from living in New York. I love living in New York. When people are like ‘You should move to…,’ I’m like ‘No. I’m staying in New York.’”
The New York City magazine editor lifestyle is one to be envied, but as Eva demonstrates, it’s a job for the passionate, giving individuals who love to express themselves through the written word and converse with their readers. Though there was more than could fit in this tiny space from our conversation, that Eva Chen has and will continue to impart in substantial dialogues with the teen audience and happily share her beauty and health advice—or any advice at all, whether you ask for it or not—is evident.
Photo Header: Eva Chen