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Elizabeth Wellington: 5 lessons I learned from 'Project Runway' judge Elaine Welteroth

By Elizabeth Wellington, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Fashion Daily News

PHILADELPHIA - It's a rare opportunity to have the chance to introduce two women who you truly admire.

That's exactly what happened at the Free Library last week when I welcomed editor, agitator and author Elaine Welteroth and Rakia Reynolds, moderator and founder of Skai Blue Media, to the stage. Welteroth was here as part of her tour promoting her new book, "More than Enough: Claiming Space for Who You Are (No Matter What they Say)."

When Welteroth became editor of Teen Vogue in 2016, she became the youngest person in Conde Nast's 107-year-history to lead one of its major publication, and she was only the second black person to snag such a plum gig. She left in 2018, and since then she's become a sought-out public speaker. This year Welteroth she joined Elle editor-in-chief Nina Garcia and designer Brandon Maxwell as a judge on Bravo's revamped "Project Runway."

"More than Enough" is part memoir, part advice guide for any person who has big dreams, yet has felt "under estimated, under valued, under whelmed or overlooked and still overcome." Ultimately Welteroth writes about the process of getting to the point where deep deep down in your core you believe that big things - gigantic things - can happen in your life.

During the candid conversation that was full of laughter and testifyin', I took away these life affirming nuggets.

Women have a tendency of being afraid of our authentic selves. As children, we may have been teased and as adults, we have definitely been judged, especially when our down home personality escapes through our neatly buttoned-up suits. As a result, we walk around with stories buried deeply that reveal our true selves, ones that might free us and inspire other women. "There is a universal truth locked up in the stories women never tell," Welteroth said.

We do a disservice to ourselves and each other when we live and die by social media feeds that put the glossiest parts of our lives - the awards, the great vacations, the perfect partners - front and center and ignore the sacrifice, tears, heartache and hard work that that got us there. The reality is, Welteroth said, is that it's "95% hustle, 4% highlight reel and 1% sleep."


After Welteroth graduated from California State University in Sacramento in 2008, she landed an internship at Essence magazine. But before Welteroth took the summer gig, she got a call from her idol, then-Ebony powerhouse Harriette Cole to assist her on a fashion shoot with then burgeoning tennis great Serena Williams. She did such a good job - Welteroth picked the blue bathing suit that was featured on the magazine's July 2008 cover - that Cole hired her as an assistant.

Welteroth was passionate about working with Cole, so turned the Essence gig down. And when Essence didn't hire any of its interns that year because of the economic downturn, Welteroth still had a job.

One of Welteroth's proudest moments was styling actress Amandla Stenberg for the cover of Teen Vogue in 2016. But getting the teen actor onto the cover in the most authentic way possible wasn't easy. Once it was clear that Stenberg was going to participate in a shoot, Welteroth proposed Stenberg be photographed with an amazing, full Afro.

But Welteroth was dismayed when the stylist chosen to do Stenberg's hair was white. Determined not to be a part of an editorial process that would "commercialize the message and disrespect it at the same time," Welteroth insisted that a hair stylist of color get the gig. African American hair stylist Lacy Redway was hired to do the work. Examples like this, Welteroth said, are ways she was able to "open up more seats at the table," shift the power and change the storytellers so more equitable stories can be told.

Fear often shows up when we are doing the things we are put here to do. It lets us know we are on the right path. That is why, Welteroth says, we need to reframe this narrative that fear shouldn't be a part of the process and that fear is something we have to overcome. "The goal is to become friends with fear and saying to fear I will do it anyway."

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