New York - Joanna Coles is perched on an arm of a purple velour sofa in her glass-walled Manhattan office, and talking, without a blush, about sex. “I’ve never met anyone who will tell you, ‘I’m having too much sex’,” she says. “I think we’ve forgotten about the power of sex. That if you have a healthy sex life, you’re likely to live longer, you’re going to be happier, your skin will be better, your hair will be better.
“Most people would like to have more sex but we’re all working really long hours and everybody is connected to work and social media so there is this tremendous pressure to stay engaged all the time.”
Coles, born and brought up in West Yorkshire in a village outside Leeds, is the newly-appointed editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan, the world’s largest women’s magazine and it is one of the most talked-about magazine appointments in America for years.
The magazine is read by millions in the US and Britain and is published in 64 countries around the world.
What it says about sex is hugely influential in shaping the attitudes of a whole generation of young women. Cosmo is already a title infamously, almost comically, associated with sex yet Coles has a mission and it is this: To help women not only have healthier and happier, but also more active, sex lives as well.
Coles continues: “I don’t think sex needs to be fancy, where you have orgasms that are a symphony of glory and musicians appear at the end of the bed playing Beethoven’s Fifth, or where you have to be tied up and wearing the latest Agent Provocateur. I think it’s fine to have 20 or 30 minutes of kissing and hugging and plain, old sex. Sex is this fantastic connector and it’s free. It’s a great way to improve communication. The other thing I’ve realised is that you don’t have to be rich to have great sex, and that’s a good thing in this economy.”
There’s already an App which she looks up on her iPhone. It’s called Cosmopolitan Sex Position Of The Day. “I’m already in shock about the 365 positions. Obviously I’ve got a lot of learning to do,” she says with a poker face. She peers at the diagram on her screen illustrating what appears to be a particularly gymnastic approach to the act of love and starts to laugh. “Today, it’s Chairway to Heaven,” she announces.
In her US size 6 Victoria Beckham dress (a British size 10) and peep-toed Givenchy shoes, Coles at 50, has, as they say, arrived. With sooty eyelashes, polished complexion and a crop of expensive blonde hair, she exudes pared-down chic. From her office on the 38th floor of the Richard Meier-designed glass and steel skyscraper of Hearst Magazines’ headquarters in midtown, her adopted city unfolds majestically beyond her windows.
“This is the view that I came to New York for,” she declares. “It’s taken me a bit of time to earn this view…it’s amazing, isn’t it?”
On her desk is a copy of the feminist Naomi Wolf’s new book Vagina, next to a DVD of the BBC’s political satire The Thick Of It.
There is a shelf crammed with photographs of Coles with America’s great and good including Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Angelina Jolie. “That’s my ego wall,” she laughs. “God, it’s going to sound dreadful in Britain but over here everyone has one. People think it’s strange if you don’t have one.”
Hob-nobbing with presidents and movie stars, Coles, a mother of two and assiduous networker, has come a long way from her Yorkshire upbringing. Her father was a teacher and her mother a medical social worker – who both encouraged her to believe she could do whatever she wanted.
At the age of ten, she had her first piece published in the children’s section of her local newspaper, the Yorkshire Post, for a fee of £2 (about R25) .
Coles went on to graduate from the University of East Anglia with a degree in English and American literature. Since then she has made a determined push for the top. From The Spectator she went to the Daily Telegraph and The Guardian. Four years after arriving in Manhattan in 1997 as The Guardian’s New York correspondent, she had the chance to return to London as a parliamentary sketchwriter for another newspaper. She turned it down. Looking out of her window last week, she surmises that if she had taken the job she would be, “living in Chiswick right now, still working as a sketchwriter and having a really great life. But what’s fun about New York is that it’s so much bigger”.
Last year, after improving both circulation and advertising as editor of Marie Claire, she shrewdly let it be known she was thinking about her next move. When Kate White, editor of Cosmo for 14 years, announced that she was stepping down, Coles was in pole position to replace her.
She now plans to update the fashion coverage and add a campaigning aspect to the magazine.
“I want Cosmo to be right in the middle of the fight that’s going on in America about abortion, birth control and women’s health issues. We’re living in the dark ages in America in terms of women’s access to contraception,” she says.
Career support is important to young women entering the workplace and Cosmo has always encouraged women to be ambitious, she adds. “I had a great time in my 20s,” she remembers. “I had a few boyfriends but mainly, like all my female friends, I was focused on getting my career in the right place so I wasn’t in any hurry to settle down.
“We really did live our version of Sex And The City, only in Notting Hill. It was brunches and trips and shopping and panicking about whether our bosses thought we were doing a good enough job. I knew I would eventually have children, I just wanted to feel financially secure before I did.” She says she wishes she had not been so sensible and had taken more risks.
She met her husband Peter Godwin, a writer and human rights activist, when she was 28 and they have two sons – Thomas, 13, and Hugo, ten. The family lives on the Upper West Side of the city in a large apartment where they entertain a glossy mix of actors, media types and politicians. Martin Amis, Alan Rickman, Oliver Platt, Peter Mandelson and Sir John Sawers are all part of what Coles describes as “her posse”.
Coles tweets and has taken part in reality TV shows such as Project Runway and Running In Heels. She is also making a film with Wendy Finerman, who produced The Devil Wears Prada. “It’s based on an article that appeared in Marie Claire about a man who asked his wife if he could have a threesome for his 40th birthday. She reluctantly agreed as long as she could choose the woman. I think every studio in Hollywood wanted to buy the story.”
Does all this activity leave much time for family? “I don’t feel guilty about working full-time or suffer maternal guilt. I’m there when my kids wake up in the mornings – unless I’m in Paris or Milan,” she says. “I’m not a helicopter parent by nature and managing family and work is easier when you’re the boss because you control your own schedule.”
She is still getting to know her editorial team but has already scolded them for not going out to enough parties. “I want us to fan out like a Cosmo army of sexily clad young women every single evening and bring back intelligence from the social frontlines of Manhattan,” she says. Coles adds that she used to have ‘a truly dreadful fashion sense’ but has learned over the years how to make the best of herself.
“Buy everything a size bigger and get it tailored,” she says. “That’s the best dressing tip I can give anyone.”
Her wider family still lives in Yorkshire and Coles has a sort of Brit grittiness that keeps her grounded. “One of the first people I heard from when I got the job was Barbara Taylor Bradford,” she says. “She’s in her 80s and sent me the nicest letter saying we should have lunch and do some Yorkshire bonding. I was like – fantastic – break out the Hovis and the Yorkshire teabags!”
Coles may be in charge of the world’s biggest women’s magazine but she still baulks at having her own photograph taken. “I like control, I love retouching,” she says.
Yet she looks directly into the camera. “Make me look younger, thinner, richer, blonder!” she tells the photographer as Manhattan glimmers behind her. - Mail On Sunday