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Joanna Coles, editor in chief of the U.S. edition of Cosmopolitan magazine, is shown in front of the White House. She is visiting Washington more often as she gives women’s political issues more space in Cosmo.

Cosmo editor focuses on minds, not just bodies

“Last night I slept 7 hours, 16 minutes.”

That’s Joanna Coles, editor in chief of the U.S. edition of Cosmopolitan magazine. The 51-year-old Brit is sitting in the middle seat of a black SUV on her way to the White House on a recent afternoon. Slim and muscular with searing eyes, she’s casually chic in a black cashmere T-shirt and tight black-and-white pants, both by designer Reed Krakoff. Céline espadrille wedges and a silver Hermes bracelet round out the look for the New York City-based Coles.

But it’s the blue Jawbone “activity tracker” around her right wrist that really attracts the eye. She taps in her health goals, like getting eight hours of sleep. The Jawbone records how many hours she actually slept, how deeply she slept, how often she woke up and how many minutes passed before she resumed sleeping.

“I fell asleep in 11 minutes last night,” she says, “spent 4 hours and 30 minutes in deep sleep, and woke up twice during the night, once for 37 minutes.”

She carries an iPhone (to make phone calls), a BlackBerry (to get and receive emails) and an iPad Mini to do everything else. But she’s considering the new Samsung Galaxy device: “It has a wrist attachment that allows you to get your texts and emails.”

Known by many as a celebrity judge and mentor for two years on Lifetime’s “Project Runway All Stars,” the mother of two boys (11 and 14) has been in the top Cosmo post for slightly more than a year. Already she has put her mark on the Hearst publication, which according to the Alliance for Audited Media, had a circulation in the first half of this year of roughly 3 million, a slight increase from last year.

Her influence is nowhere more evident than in the magazine’s newfound interest in Washington and the political and policy matters that most directly affect women. While Cosmo still carries (illustrated) hot reads with titles such as “12 Kinky Quickies” and “The Scary Thing 90% of Men Fantasize About,” recent issues have also contained articles about fair compensation, domestic violence and gun control. One recent issue included a 12-page, vividly illustrated description of 12 reliable methods of contraception.

“When you have children is the most important choice affecting your life,” Coles says.

There’s less fluff in the magazine and definitely nothing fluffy about its top woman. Coles wears her politics on her finely tailored sleeve and makes clear that she plans to affect more than just the direction of the magazine.

“I’m very confused,” she says, “how any moderate Republican candidates think they’re going to get women’s votes if they deny affordable, accessible contraception to those women’s daughters.”

She says she would like to meet with GOP politicians but doesn’t encounter them often. “I tend to come across Republicans in business – and they don’t feel allied to the party at the moment, because the party is becoming so extreme.

Smart politics

From the time she left her previous editor’s post at Marie Claire magazine, Coles knew the nation’s capital would be important to making Cosmo not only sexy, but also smart and topical. This particular day in Washington is her “fourth or fifth visit, I can’t remember,” since she joined Cosmo, she says. It starts at 8 a.m. with lemon-curd pancakes and raspberries at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown followed by two planned conversations and an impromptu visit by an unlikely fan.

First to her table is Stephanie Schriock, president of Emily’s List, an organization that supports pro-choice Democratic women running for Congress or governor. There are 101 women in Congress – 20 in the Senate, 81 in the House. It’s a historic high, Schriock tells Coles, but still considerably smaller than it should be. Emily’s List is seeking ways to engage more young women in politics and discover new candidates for office, Schriock says. Could Coles provide names of young people to invite to an Emily’s List luncheon? Of course, says Coles, offering to host the event. Schriock says that if a couple of popular entertainers attended the luncheon, more young women might attend.

“We could help you with that,” says Coles.

Coles is rapidly becoming known as a public-affairs hostess. Adopting a tradition started by Cosmo founder Helen Gurley Brown of bringing together New York’s best and brightest, Coles invites women from the corporate world; the media, fashion and entertainment industries; and nonprofit groups to gather for lunch and talk about issues ranging from student loans and climate change to holding public office.

Being driven

Coles conveys a sense of urgency about almost everything, and apparently she always has. Growing up in a family of four in West Yorkshire, a county in north central England, she was called the “head girl” by her sister because she took the lead in family events. At 17, she was asked to run as a Green Party candidate in a local election. Her dad, a businessman turned teacher, said no, not while she was still in high school.

An early career as a newspaper reporter taught her to move fast, talk to anybody and pay attention to deadlines. After graduating from the University of East Anglia with a degree in English and American literature, she accepted a graduate traineeship at the Spectator, a British weekly focusing on current events. She later moved to the U.S., crisscrossing the country as a bureau chief for the Guardian and other papers and touching on everything from school shootings to economics. It would later inspire her, as a magazine editor, to run stories about the challenges and opportunities for women living and working in the United States. “I had my head under the hood of America,” she says in an interview. “It was an extraordinary experience.”

It would also inform her own decisions. Plentiful financial resources and a broad support network have been instrumental in allowing her to seize on career opportunities. She says she has a good group of female friends who help one another in a pinch. Her younger boy, 11-year-old Hugo, can now walk home from school; the older, 14-year-old Thomas, is in his first year at Andover. While raising their children, she and her husband, author Peter Godwin, have long agreed that if one is out of town, the other stays in New York. That control over her time is a luxury that many working women who read Cosmo probably don’t enjoy.

Guy Cecil III, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, arrives at Coles’s table at the Four Seasons just as Schriock is leaving. Cecil’s job is to manage grass-roots organizing, recruit candidates and provide campaign funds for tight races. Coles has asked him to talk to her about the need to recruit more women to run for office and how to advise women who do run.

Two things hurt women’s chances, Cecil tells her. Sometimes, they try to make themselves seem the toughest candidate in the race, and that doesn’t sit well with voters. Also, voters expect female officeholders to be “relatable.”

Later, she and her assistant climb back into the SUV and head to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

A slew of presidential staff, including President Barack Obama’s senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and Tara McGuinness, a senior communications adviser for the White House, greet Coles warmly. Coles wants to make sure the magazine is explaining to younger Cosmo readers something as complex as the health-care legislation that recently went into effect.

“Coming from a country where health care is taken for granted, I can’t believe what it’s like here,” she tells the group. “I asked my hairdresser, ‘What do you do if you get sick?’ She said, ‘I just cross my fingers.’ ”

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