So, how do I introduce these amazing two young women?
The Vagenda is an online magazine, which, in all honesty, is one of the greatest succes stories in publishing. The main editorials the two co- founder’s, Holly and Rhiannon, publish are based round the representation of women in the media. With this also, they have published a book, available May 1st, which we are looking at in this interview:
As the two founders of The Vagenda Magazine, how did you come up with the idea?
Holly: We were living together in a damp garret above a pub in London, and we were both avid readers of women’s magazines. Many a Friday night was spent with a bottle of cheap Chardonnay and a stack of Cosmos and Grazias – and eventually, we found ourselves getting really bored and jaded. Holly used to read out columns to Rhiannon in a sarcastic voice because it made them funnier. Eventually, we realised that there might be a wider appeal to making fun of this repetitive content with its silly sex tips and its back pages packed with cosmetic surgery advertorial. When we got our act together and thought about it, the Vagenda was born.
Rhiannon: Yes, it was after Holly had to move into my airing cupboard because of homelessness that we really got the site off the ground, but we’d had the idea ever since sharing that horrible flat together almost a year previously.
How did you physically put The Vagenda online,in terms of design and coding?
Holly: We made the site through Blogger for free originally, so there was never any money involved. We used a free template and Rhiannon designed around it using Photoshop, which was brilliant. Then, later on, we bought a proper domain name and did a Kickstarter campaign that helped us pay a proper designer to put together a similar but more individualised website.
Rhiannon: We always had a very clear idea of what the website would look like and our amazing web designer Kate was able to pay tribute to that, so we’re really happy with the new site.
Could you describe for us your day to day routine?
Holly: We both work other jobs in journalism on top of the Vagenda, because the Vagenda is an ad-free, non-monetised labour of love. But most days we’ll both go through a few of the pitches that come to the Vagenda email in between freelance journalism work, and if we find something we particularly love, we’ll edit it and then put it up on the site. We also keep a constant eye on Twitter, and scan the news first thing to make sure there isn’t something big in the headlines that we need to cover on the site. In the evening, one or both of us might buy a magazine and take it home to write a deconstruct in a piss-takey manner for the blog the next morning!
Rhiannon: Working from home means that you can stay in your pyjamas until 5pm but it also means that you can binge watch Girls if you get bored, so it can be bad for productivity. I usually get out of my pyjamas at about 5pm and will go to meet a friend, just to keep me from going insane. Twitter is great but it’s no replacement for a human face.
What is the purpose of The Vagenda?
Holly: At the beginning, the purpose was to make people laugh and to challenge some latent misogyny which had become so entrenched in the media. Now that we have so many pitches and articles from other writers, we also see its purpose as giving women and girl writers a platform for their views and their experiences. We cover candid anecdotes about genital warts and abortions, as well as serious political writing and fun pieces about fashion. So we hope the Vagenda can be an accessible magazine for women that is interesting to read and doesn’t stereotype or advertise in the way that other print mags on the shelves do.
Rhiannon: We intended it as a funny media watchdog with a feminist slant, but it’s grown so much since then. Some of the first person stories that our contributors have sent in have been amazing, and I hope they help others feel less alone. It’s still a media satire blog but we like to think we cover other things too, perhaps things that traditional magazines aren’t all that interested in.
Does the website have anything to do with feminism?
Holly: The website is undoubtedly feminist, although we didn’t set out to explicitly create ‘a feminist site’. We set out to challenge the media and to write interesting content for women. It does attack sexist stereotypes, and it does question the way in which women are portrayed – so yes, it is a feminist pursuit in that way.
Rhiannon: We didn’t really know that ‘internet feminism’ existed so were somewhat surprised when we started being seen in those terms, but the website was always intended as a counter-point to media sexism
Are you both feminists?
Holly: We both identify as feminists, believing as we do in complete gender equality.
Rhiannon: Hell yeah!
How do you source contributions?
Holly: We’re lucky enough to get a number of pitches and articles a day from interesting and engaged women and girls, ranging in age from 13 right up to – at one point – 85! But if we think there’s a particular issue that needs covering which people have mentioned to us, but we lack expertise or personal experience with (for instance, in the case of the Vagenda piece on the weave), then we usually use Twitter to try and find a willing and more appropriate writer.
Rhiannon: We also have a submissions section on our website that gives some helpful tips for pitching
In terms of online presence, how did you make yourselves so well known?
Holly: The Vagenda became a literal overnight success, much to our surprise! We had no social media presence for the magazine or strategy; we just started the blog because we thought of it as an interesting project for ourselves. People sharing the content were responsible for its success, so we owe everything to our readership. Obviously, once we saw how many people were reading and sharing the articles, we did set up our Twitter account and kept regularly updating the site.
Rhiannon: It was a total surprise. We only thought our mums would read it. People were sharing articles on Twitter and I think that’s how the momentum started. Then a stock image post I made called ‘Women Looking Remorseful After Sexual Encounters’ went viral.
How did the idea for your new book The Vagenda start out?
Holly: Within a week or so of the blog being profiled in the media after its initial internet success, we were approached by a number of literary agents willing to help us compile a book. After meeting a few, we chose our excellent agent Diana and she helped us to prepare a blueprint for the book we wanted to write. After that, we sent our proposal to publishers and chose a supportive publisher who wanted to give us complete creative control – we knew we wanted to take the central themes from the blog and do deeper media research than we’d been able to do before, and we kept adding things in right up until publication because the media moves so fast.
Rhiannon: We chose the topics that we felt had resonated with readers and went into more depth. We felt that there was room for that to exist in book format, as everything on the internet is much more ‘rapid response’ to such and such story. It gave us a chance to have a broader scope
For our readers who may not have read it, could you tell us a little bit about what the book is about?
Holly: The book is divided into chapters that discuss broad themes – sex, beauty, body problems, lad culture, the fashion industry – and explores how those are presented by women’s media. We take examples from the 1920s right up to the present day, and pepper those with our own (sometimes completely embarrassing) personal anecdotes about growing up reading these mags in the nineties. We then explore what it means to be a woman today, in reality and in the words of the Daily Mail’s sidebar of shame, and hope to equip readers with the critical tools to cut through some of the most insidious bullshit.
Why did you choose such a distinctive picture for the front of the book?
Holly: The Vagenda is all about satire, and the book cover is distinctly satirical. We chose to take an image that looks like your traditionally thin, airbrushed, white woman, with ‘the Vagenda’ ripped out of that with shreds of magazine editorial around it. It’s subvertising, and we hope it shows how, in the book, we’re taking the conventions of the media and turning them on their head.
Rhiannon: This is going to sound really pretentious, but I wrote my thesis on an art group called the Situationists. They were really into subverting existing images, and also since doing the Vagenda people had sent us lots of funny pictures of sexist billboards that had been disrupted by feminists, so I was inspired by that.
Will we ever see a sequel?
Holly: Who knows? At the moment, we just want to be able to take some time out and maybe enjoy a chilled glass of wine as friends together, rather than diving straight back in to another demanding project. We love and are proud of the book we’ve produced, and are very much concentrating on that right now.
Rhiannon: Wine sounds good.
Would you ever co- produce a book with another organization, such as Everyday Sexism?
Holly: Again, it’s far too early to tell. We are friends and great admirers of Laura Bates, as well as so many other admirable women in innumerable feminist organisations. But whether that would ever translate into joint books or projects is something we’re just not in a position to consider at the moment.
Rhiannon: Laura is brilliant and tireless and a friend of ours, but I think we’ll probably all need a holiday first and foremost!
What are your handbag essentials?
Holly: House keys, credit card, phone, music. Who needs anything more than that? Maybe a black eyeliner, which covers up so many sins and makes bags under your eyes look intentional.
Rhiannon: Credit card, e-cig (am trying to give up real fags), a book, and yes, black eyeliner. Sorry it’s boring but I’m of the Nora Ephron school of thought – a massive bag just impedes your movement, not to mention that you can never bloody find anything in there
Do you have a mantra?
Holly: ‘Shy bairns get nowt.’ That’s a Geordie phrase that roughly translates into, ‘If you don’t ask, you never get.’ Over the last few months, the phrase ‘If you’re not being criticised, you’re probably not doing anything’ has become increasingly important as well!
Rhiannon: “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.”
― Dorothy Parker
For anyone, do you have any tips?
Holly: Let go of the classic pressure women feel to get everyone to like them. It is a universal truth that you will never get everyone to like you, personally or professionally – and attempting to make it true is a massive waste of your time and emotional energy. Accept that you’ll piss some people off, accept fair criticism from people you respect, and ignore everyone else in favour of having fun.
Rhiannon: That’s good advice actually, Holly. I should probably take it.
One final random question: Do you have any guilty pleasures?
Holly: We try to steer away from the term ‘guilty pleasures’ in general, because pleasures aren’t really pleasures if you’re expected to feel guilt about them, and the term is almost always only applied to women. Having said that, I would have possibly said my One Direction onesie if pushed – although, on second thoughts, I feel no guilt about that.
Rhiannon: Sex and the City. Most feminists seem to hate it, perhaps understandably. I know being sent an unsolicited Oscar de La Renta dress by a wealthy Russian is not the meaning of true and everlasting love, but the programme spoke to a younger, shallower me and I can never bring myself to furnish upon it the disdain it deserves. I see myself as a bit of a Carrie, I think.*
* This is a joke. I am Samantha.
You can order the book here.