Cosmopolitan editor Farrah Storr on helping women break through the glass ceiling
PUBLISHED: 00:00 21 January 2019
Farrah Storr, who grew up in a mixed race family in Salford, has been named as one of Britain’s most influential women. Now, she wants to help female entrepreneurs break the glass ceiling. Roger Borrell reports
It’s not quite a mirror image of the plot from East is East but there are some striking similarities.
Farrah Storr grew up in Salford, with a Pakistani father and a white English mother. There was no corner chippy but her dad did open a greengrocery store before moving into property and, along with his wife, a schoolteacher from Radcliffe, they wanted the very best for their children.
For Farrah, and her three siblings, that meant becoming a doctor or an engineer or, if all else failed, a solicitor. To reach those heights, her parents put every penny they could into educating their children.
So where did it all go wrong? You suspect that’s a question that rarely crosses Farrah’s mind as she edits one of the world’s most famous women’s magazines from the impressive House of Hearst offices in London’s West End.
Well, that’s not strictly true. She does think about failure, but in a positive way. Not so much as a virtue but as a way of analysing what goes wrong during your working life and how to use that knowledge to avoid falling into the same bear traps.
It’s a philosophy she expounds in a new book and it will, no doubt, form part of a newly-launched initiative to help women in the north west break through the glass ceiling.
Farrah went to St Paul’s Primary in Salford before her parents sent her to Bury Grammar, the independent school for girls. ‘I was an intense child, fairly bright or, perhaps, just a hard worker,’ she says.
Everyone was taken aback, though, when she announced she was doing her A levels at Bury College. ‘The grammar was all girls and I’d see the lads from the boys’ school because it wasn’t far away. When I was 16 I decided I needed to mix with young men if I was to get on in the world.’
Before moving to the mixed sex college her curiosity about boys was only partially satisfied by trips into the town centre. ‘We all fancied the lads who served on the fish counter in Bury Market,’ she laughs. ‘And I still feel sorry for the few male teachers we had at the grammar school because we all lusted after them!’
It was only in her 20s that she learned to celebrate her ethnic background. ‘It was a little like East is East. Mum and dad were a mixed race couple which was quite unusual. Kids at school presumed I was of Spanish or Italian descent and I let them believe that. People still used the word Paki so I shied away from my Asian roots. It was only when I was into my 20s that I embraced being mixed race. Now, I love it.’
Oxford turned her down and she went to university in London, spending every spare moment getting work experience at national magazines.
‘When I was younger I loved getting Just 17 magazine every week but journalism never really crossed my mind as a career. I didn’t think people paid you money to do that. Having said that, I recently found a diary I kept as a 13-year-old and realised that I did write a lot even then.’
Her big sister followed the career path preferred by her dad and became a solicitor. ‘She was miserable but one day she entered a competition in More magazine to have a night out with a male model. She wrote a brilliant piece to win the prize,’ said Farrah.
‘She wasn’t too bothered about the model, but when a job came up at the magazine a year later she got it. She really paved the way for me. Dad was very disappointed but she’d already fought that battle for me.’
After finishing her degree, Farrah joined Women & Home, and seems to have worked her way through the best part of a W.H. Smiths news stand with jobs on Good Housekeeping, Eve, Glamour, Marie Claire and Top Santé. She then launched the UK edition of Women’s Health. Cosmopolitan was next to come knocking and she took the editor’s chair in 2015.
‘It was difficult when I became editor because Cosmo was going through a period of change,’ said Farrah, who is married to author and journalist Will Storr. ‘I had to shepherd a group of people through a great deal of change and there were those who didn’t want it. Overall, something like 80 per cent of the team left which was a shame.
‘When I came here it was a perfectly good magazine but not as good as it could have been. Turning it around involved a lot of hard work, a lot of movement and change. Some find change scary.’
Despite that resistance, the magazine has made substantial circulation gains under her stewardship. More than 300,000 copies of Cosmopolitan are devoured every month so it’s still one of the biggest beasts of the UK industry.
Not everything worked. ‘Being challenged is a good thing and when you fail that can be good too, so long as you take time to look back and find the answers to why it went wrong,’ she says.
‘It’s not that failure is an amazingly good thing to do, certainly not if it’s through carelessness. But if you are trying something new then it’s fine so long as you work our why it wasn’t successful.’
The message is: Don’t be frightened of failure – make it work for you, and that is a central plank of her recently published book, The Discomfort Zone: How To Get What You Want by Living Fearlessly.
Farrah needed to be fearless when she used a portrait of plus-size model Tess Holliday as her cover. Some described it as glorifying obesity and Piers Morgan described it as ‘dangerous and misguided’ on Good Morning Britain. Farrah fought her corner, saying Holliday was picked to ‘explain that there is a different way to look in a culture which venerates being thin.’
She adds: ‘We often feature people who are size 18 or 20 so I never thought it would cause such controversy. In the same issue we had a feature about a woman who had been raped but found the sisterhood had turned on her. I thought that would be the controversial feature.
‘When the issue first hit the news stands we started to get negative comments on social media, people saying they would cancel their subscriptions. But then we started to get phone calls and that’s really unusual. People who hadn’t picked up the magazine for years were congratulating us. The cover went global, it was shown in Times Square and it produced a whole new audience for the magazine. But, believe it or not, I also got death threats.’
It means she is quite wary of certain types of social media. ‘It’s quite a wild place. I like Instagram because that’s more like a magazine but I’m not a massive fan of Twitter. You can’t have a discussion in 280 characters so it simply becomes a repository for people’s anger.’
The real world of national magazines is very different from the Absolutely Fabulous version of life. ‘It’s not nearly as glamorous as it’s made out to be. It’s really not like The Devil Wears Prada.’
Farrah has most fun when she is following her love of writing. ‘I hate small talk, I find public speaking difficult but I do it, of course. But basically, I love writing, telling stories. It’s all about entertainment and starting a debate. And I love magazines. You turn the page and you don’t know what you are going to find.’
Being the editor has meant sacrifices and there is a certain cruel irony in the fact that the magazine that once told women they could have it all, now has an editor who says the opposite. In fact, she describes it as ‘dangerous’ maintaining that you can’t do ‘it all’ properly. Something has to give and that means she and her husband have not started a family. On a lighter note, another sacrifice is that she doesn’t get back to Lancashire as often as she would like. ‘I’d definitely like to go back to Bury Market and see those lads on the fish counter,’ she laughs. ‘They had a certain swagger…’