This designer you’ve never heard of was the go-to designer of the midcentury freakum dress, and made sure every Playboy Bunny’s seam was pressed to perfection.
Love it or hate it, the infamous Playboy bunny suit — iconic strapless corset, bunny ears, pantyhose, bow tie, collar, cuffs, and fluffy cottontail — will forever be immortalized in popular culture as a symbol of female seduction and allure.
But what you probably didn’t know was that Zelda Wynn Valdes, a black woman, sewed the original costumes — and that the late Hugh Hefner personally commissioned her to do it.
But of course, there’s so much more to this incredible woman’s legacy than Hefner’s vision and Playboy lifestyle. The eldest of seven children, Valdes (born as Zelda Christian Barbour) was raised in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, where she learned to sew from watching her grandmother’s seamstress. Her first attempt at design came when she offered to create a dress for her grandmother. “She said, ‘Daughter, you can’t sew for me. I’m too tall and too big,'” Valdes recalled in a 1994 interview with The New York Times, but the dress she created was a perfect fit. After graduating from Chambersburg High School in 1923, her immediate family moved to White Plains, New York, where Valdes worked at her uncle’s tailoring shop. In the 1930s, she worked as a stock girl at an upscale boutique, where she eventually became the first black sales clerk and tailor. In 1948, Valdes opened her own boutique, called Chez Zelda, making her the first black person to own a store on Broadway in Manhattan.
In her store, Valdes sold her signature low-cut, body hugging gowns, which unapologetically extenuated a woman’s curves. Valdes’ sexy-but-sophisticated dresses were worn and adored by Josephine Baker, Diahann Carroll, Dorothy Dandridge, Ruby Dee, Eartha Kitt, Marlene Dietrich, and Mae West, to name a few. She even designed Maria Ellington’s “Blue Ice” wedding dress when she walked down the aisle and tied the knot with jazz singer Nat King Cole in 1948.
Read more of my latest piece for Shondaland [here].
For the June issue of EBONY magazine, I interviewed lifestyle blogger Ashlei C. Turner about why naturalistas love twists as an alternative to box braids and locs as summer gets underway. We broke down the differences between Marley, Senegalese, Havana and Mali twists. Oh, and I see you Solange!
For the April/June issue of EBONY magazine, I dove into the history of hair ornaments and how the look came back strong, from what beaded braids signify in South Africa to the role celebrities such as Miriam Makeba and Solange played in modernizing beaded braids in popular culture. In this particular piece, I spoke with Tanisha C. Ford, author of Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul.
After years of grinding (and plenty of daydreaming), I finally landed my very first byline in EBONY magazine, and I have to say there’s nothing like seeing your name and words in a publication as legendary as EBONY.
On page 43, I dive into the rich yet unknown history of headwraps and why Black women continue to wear them today. Going back to the summer of 2012, I can recall those afternoons when all I did was study the magazine from front to back, dreaming of the day when I would see my words grace its pages. Major shout out to Marielle Bobo, the magazine’s fashion and beauty director, for asking me to take on this piece after noticing some of my online work with EBONY.com’s “Detangling Our Roots” series.
The March issue with the gorgeous Jurnee Smollett-Bell slaying the cover is on newsstands now. And yep, that’s my face there on the Contributors page.
Last summer, I landed my first job out of college. The pay is good, but I continue to freelance. Why? Because I believe in hustling hard. However, in the past few months, I faced some difficult decisions. I let go a client because 1) I wasn’t getting paid enough and 2) The work was no longer fulfilling or challenging. I felt stifled. My decision to leave paid off because I can now focus my attention on stories I’m most passionate about.
When 2016 rolled around, I set some clear guidelines for myself: 1) Pitch better-paying publications, 2) Do not write for anything less than three digits, and 3) Do not write for free—period. I’m at a place in my career where I want to write smarter. Why write 20 stories a month for $30 each when you can write a fraction of stories for more money?
Since I started writing professionally, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve provided my services for free. Luckily, most of those writing gigs turned into paid ones, but it’s not a chance I’d take today. My time and words are too valuable.
Today I’m spilling all the secrets (and some tea) when it comes to getting that fetti as a freelancer. Get comfy and grab a notepad because like Bey said, “Best revenge is yo paper.”
Don’t beat around the bush.
An editor with good intentions will tell you the moment after accepting your pitch whether you will be paid, but don’t count on it. Don’t make the mistake of letting too many emails go by without asking. After reaching an agreement about the story’s details, you can say something along the lines of, “I look forward to writing a great story that you and your readers will enjoy. What is your budget for this story?” Tasteful, but you still get your point across. A legitimate publication will throw out an exact amount. Can’t get a straight answer? Take that as a sign and move on to the next.
Do your research.
One of my favorite websites is Who Pays Writers? because freelance writers can anonymously post what publications pay writers and if so, how much. Type in the publication you want to write for and watch the results pour in. Not only can you see how much that publication pays its writers, but you can also find out how long it took to receive payment, the length of the piece, platform (online, print, etc.), the extent of reporting involved, etc.
The publication you pitch pays $250 per article, but you’re offered $125? Instead of accepting the first number thrown your way, you can bargain. Who Pays Writers is great because it levels out the playing field between editors and the writers who pitch them.
Whenever the New Year rolls around, I renegotiate my rates. Lots of folks shy away from asking for a raise. Just do it! The worst your editor can say is no. Not sure how to ask for one? Here’s an example that worked for me:
As a contributor for XXX, I’ve taken on the in-depth features that tackle the tough topics, including A, B, C, D, and my most-recent story that focused on E. There is more reporting and investigative work required to complete these types of pieces from researching the topic to conducting and transcribing multiple interviews. As you know, I am currently being paid XXX per article, but I’m asking for an increase that XXX’s budget will allow. I’d like to earn XXX per story. Is this possible? Thank you so much for your consideration. I’ve enjoyed writing for XXX and working with you these past few years and look forward to contributing to XXX in the coming years.
Establish a contract.
Many publications prefer to make verbal agreements rather than writing up an actual contract. Why are contracts important? They protect you and the publication you’re writing for. If months go by and you haven’t been paid, you can feel secure knowing you’ve got a contract. Emails are nice, but how well do they hold up in court? I don’t know.
If your editor doesn’t mention a contract, ask for one. It doesn’t have to be long. Most of the contracts I’ve signed tend to be around two pages. Or, draw up your own for a publication you don’t already have a formal contract with using Contractually.
Look at the bigger picture.
Getting checks in the mail doesn’t mean you’re getting ahead. Hear me out: I once wrote for a publication that provided a monthly $50 stipend. I produced around eight pieces per month and each post was anywhere from 800 to 1,500 words. When you break it down, I was being taken advantage of, but you live and learn, right? Always ask yourself: “Is the amount of time I spent writing and researching this story reflective in my paycheck?” If the answer is no, rethink your situation.
With headlines like “5 Sex Positions to Maximize His Size” and “4 Women Get Real About How They Orgasm,” it’s not surprising that people have come to associate Cosmopolitan with mind-blowing sex tips and tricks.
Cosmo‘s Special Projects Director Laura Brounstein was well aware of that when she accepted the position nearly three years ago. Long before her days at Cosmo, Laura spent the first five years of her 21-year-long career (Seventeen, Ladies’ Home Journal, Self, etc.) producing segments for some of America’s favorite television shows. Think The View and Extra. And because everything in life comes full circle, Laura’s television background proved to be helpful when it came time for Cosmo‘s first-ever Fun Fearless Life weekend, a new live event series jam-packed with distinguished panelists aimed to inspire women to live fearlessly.
In case you’re wondering, part of Cosmo‘s revitalization a couple years ago – a significant increase in the amount of substantial, in-depth, well-reported stories – was made possible largely through Laura’s efforts. So yes, while Cosmo may always be associated with its sexier content, Laura and her colleagues are working nonstop to make sure their readers don’t sleep on everything else the 50-year-old publication has to offer.
While Laura has what many consider to be a dream job in an industry that can be incredibly tough to crack, she sees her latest gig as a way to help women everywhere (Cosmo prints in 35 languages and is available in more than 100 countries) realize and accomplish their dreams and take control of their lives while having a blast, which is Cosmo‘s mission in a nutshell.
Here, we pick the brain of the woman who Folio magazine named as one of its “Thirty under 30” back in 2000. Nearly 16 years later, Laura’s still making waves in the media world. In a nearly 40-minute conversation with Laura, the self-proclaimed pop culture and political junkie dishes on why she traded in television for magazines and what it’s like reporting to Cosmo‘s Editor-in-Chief Joanna Coles.
A Royal Point of View: You worked as a producer for many well-known television shows, such as Good Morning America, Extra and The View. What made you switch from producing segments for television to writing and editing stories for magazines?
Laura Brounstein: My last job in television was for a magazine show that had gotten really tabloidy. I spent two years there and learned how to produce and track down any stories and get comfortable with interviewing anybody. It was amazing, but again, it had gotten really tabloidly. More and more, I found myself spending my days standing outside places that somebody might walk out of because we had to grab them for an interview. I was just like, “I don’t want to be doing this. These are not the kind of stories I want to tell and this is not how I want to be engaging with people. This is the not the kind of journalism I want to be doing.” It didn’t feel like a good thing. For people who do that kind of journalism successfully and find a way to tell good stories and find it satisfying, that is great and I respect that, but it wasn’t what felt comfortable for me at that time.
So, I kind of stepped back and asked myself, “What kind of change do I want to make?” and I thought there was something attractive in that moment about going from a nightly show to a monthly publication, where you had a little more time to tell a story. I started looking at media that I thought had a positive voice. Right at that time, I heard that Seventeen Magazine was looking for a new entertainment editor and I thought, “I can’t think of anything that feels more positive and that I have more memories and connections to than Seventeen Magazine.”
A Royal Point of View: You’ve been at Cosmo for nearly three years now. How do most people react when you tell them you work at Cosmo?
Laura Brounstein: I think it depends on who it is. Those who haven’t picked up the magazine in a while associate Cosmo with its sexier content, so I get some fun responses regarding that. A lot of people do know about the legacy and how Helen Gurley Brown changed the media world and the possibilities for modern women’s magazines. It was one of the first magazines to talk about all the avenues of possibilities for women in an unapologetic way and in a way that nobody else was really doing it.
Today, I think people, especially in the media world, know that in addition to our sexy content, Cosmo has some really strong work in terms of women empowerment, career, money and health and we are unapologetically feminist. It’s the first magazine I’ve ever worked at that takes a strong stance on things and I love that. Most magazines are very set on, “Well, let’s look at both sides of the argument,” whereas Cosmo is like, “Of course, we’re pro-choice. Of course, we need access to affordable birth control and medicine and of course, women need to be paid the same as men.” That’s exciting and I think people in the media world know that.
A Royal Point of View: You are Cosmo’s special project director – how is that different than being an editor?
Laura Brounstein: One of the great things about working at Cosmo and working with Joanna Coles is that you can be really entrepreneurial in your job and find lots of different places to contribute. One of the central parts of my job as special projects director is creating the programming and concepts for our editorial events. The biggest one is, of course, Cosmo‘s Fun Fearless Life and that is a live-reader event. We just announced that this year’s Fun Fearless Life event will be on Nov. 20 and it will be at the Hearst Tower. So, I get to come up with the programming and that means finding speakers that I think will be most interesting, inspiring and helpful to women in their 20s, who want to spend their weekend with us and walk away feeling better equipped and inspired to achieve what they are dreaming of. I love that I get to draw on my past as a producer and think about what’s going to make a great show and what’s going to have the most impact. That’s a big part of what I do. Additionally, I edit and write stories for the magazine that are like projects in and of themselves.
A Royal Point of View: Is there a memorable experience that stands out during your time at Cosmo so far?
Laura Brounstein: Definitely. Last year, after all the work of creating Fun Fearless Life out of nothing, there was a moment when Joanna Coles first came out on the stage at Lincoln Center and I looked out and the audience was filled with about 2,000 people cheering and just so happy to be there. That was a huge thrill because it took months of work trying to figure out what this was supposed to be and how to make it valuable and how to make it something people wanted to attend. Seeing everyone enjoying it and getting out of it what we all hoped they would was an incredible moment.
Another one is being able to meet Hillary Clinton and work with her team at the No Ceilings initiative for a story last year. That was amazing.
A Royal Point of View: What advice do you have for up-and-coming journalists who still have the desire to write and work for print when the industry is constantly moving toward the digital side?
Laura Brounstein: People still love magazines. There is a moment in your day where sitting down with a magazine or a newspaper is fantastic and then there are times when you just want to look at Twitter and click through stories. I think a lot of people enjoy getting information and engaging with media both ways. I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive.
There are lot of ways to get to the job or career you’re dreaming of and for me, it was television and PR. More now than ever, especially because we’re so multi-platform, the more different experiences in different areas you have, the richer you’re experience will be and the more you’ll bring to the table. I think worrying too much about taking a straight path to your goals distracts from you great opportunities and moments.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Follow Laura Brounstein on Twitter and be sure to pick up Cosmo’s current issue on newsstands now! Subscribe here.
Anyone who really knows me knows that one of my favorite movies of all time is Selena, and one of the most memorable scenes is when Selena makes a trip to the amusement park and decides to go bungee jumping. Just before taking the big leap, Selena finds herself frozen by fear. The bungee jump attendant notices and says to her, “Come on, the hardest part is letting go.”
Now, you’re probably thinking, “This has nothing to do with Nicole Marie Cato quitting her job at ESSENCE.com and starting her own company,” but that’s where you’d be wrong because it has everything to do with it. When it comes to chasing our dreams, we’re often paralyzed by the fear to fail.
“What if it doesn’t work out?”
“What if I fall flat on my face?”
“What if I’m not good enough?”
These sort of questions bombard our brains but do nothing except hold us back from reaching our full potential. More often than not, it isn’t until months (or years) later that we look back at our accomplishments and realize that the hardest part was letting go.
When Nicole decided to launch her company, Melton Digital, earlier this year – March 1st to be exact – she had no idea just how quickly her business would take off. In fact, the same week that Nicole kicked off Melton Digital, 33 people emailed her, inquiring about the company’s services. For those who don’t know, Melton Digital works to build websites for beauty and health companies so they can grow and thrive.
Was Nicole’s decision to leave her job to start her own company a risky one? Sure. Is it paying off? Absolutely! But, if Nicole had never taken that leap eight months ago, she would’ve missed out so many amazing opportunities like the time she stayed at this breath-taking hotel while on a work trip. It goes without saying that Nicole is living out her dreams.
Here, Nicole reveals exactly what inspired her to launch her own company, as well as some of the biggest challenges she’s faced so far.
A Royal Point of View: Before you landed a job in editorial, you worked in corporate America for five years. What sorts of things did you learn there that ended up serving you well when you finally landed that magazine job?
Nicole: I think I learned a lot about protocol and communication with people – I think that was very helpful, whether it was just following up with someone via email or making sure that emails are answered and phone calls are answered. That was very much something I learned in corporate America that I’m grateful for today. I would say the second thing I learned was analytical skills so I learned how to use Microsoft Excel, how to do analytics on my numbers, crunching data, and making sure that things like that were in order. That has been helpful for me still to this day, so those are skills I definitely don’t take for granted from my corporate experience. I actually encourage students who are able to go into a corporate environment, even if it’s just for the first year or so out of college to do so. You can always get some valuable lessons and also the contacts – I’m still close with some of my mentors from my first internship in college, so that’s always very helpful. You need those skills, you need to be able to present yourself professionally, and that’s something I definitely learned in that environment.
A Royal Point of View: What advice would you give to recent college grads, particularly journalism majors, who are really struggling to find their first job?
Nicole: Keep looking. Start a blog. You can absolutely get so far with having a really nice website and they don’t cost anything to set up, except for maybe $12 for a domain name through GoDaddy.com. Make it pretty and just write. You have to keep writing because we all have a story to tell, and your unique story and the way you present it and the time you take to build your blog – employers will notice that.
A Royal Point of View: After enrolling in graduate school, you were offered an internship at ESSENCE.com, which eventually lead to a permanent job. What made you decide to leave a position that took so long for you to land?
Nicole: I knew that I did not want to live in New York. This is such a strong word, but I just hated New York City. After a while, I just couldn’t take it anymore. I loved living in the D.C. area – that’s where I went to college. And so I just said, “Hey, I’m gonna do it,” so to be honest, it was just New York City. I didn’t like the hustle and bustle. I was having a really hard time dating. I just – I hated it. I didn’t have any family there – I was just over it.
A Royal Point of View: For those people who might not know, would you mind telling everyone what you’re up to now?
Nicole: Sure! I love, love, love my work. It’s just the highlight of my – well it’s not the highlight. My family and God is the highlight, but my job is definitely something that’s so, so, so fun and real for me every single day. It’s hard, but I love it. I build websites, so there are two pieces to what I do – well, I would say three pieces to what I do. I have to break it down. The first part is I build websites. You need a website? You call me and I help you set it up. The second part is advising bloggers on how to grow their beauty blog or working with brands on how to connect with bloggers, and also, building editorial programs for brands and things like that. The third part is I’m a social media designer, and so what that means is that I design strategies for beauty brands who want to connect with bloggers on social media, whether that’s Instagram videos, whether that’s ID Digital Strategy, ID artwork design – we design the whole social media plan.
A Royal Point of View: What inspired you to launch Melton Digital?
Nicole: Well, Melton Digital was always the plan to be completely honest. I started my company in 2012, so when I left in 2013, I was doing that on the side all along. And the demand was just so great. I mean, when I launched my company, I had 33 people email the first week and so the demand is there. Even now, I’m turning clients away – I can’t take any more clients until February. I’m really trying to bring on team members – you know with that, you have to set legal perimeters in place, financial perimeters in place. I mean, running a business is just so much from taxes to accounting. It is a lot. And I understand why a lot of people are afraid to take that leap because the truth of the matter is that you don’t know what you’re doing when you first start – you just don’t! You have no idea – every day I’m presented with something new and I’m like, “Oh, OK, I guess I’ve got to do that,” so I just call my attorney, call my accountant – I just figure it out, but Melton Digital was always the plan. I wanted something flexible, where I could work from home and where I could travel because my family is in Michigan, and I got tired of staying in the office to be honest.
A Royal Point of View: What’s been the best part about taking that leap of faith so far?
Nicole: The best part is being able to help people. I felt like when I was at ESSENCE.com and actually all of my career, I did a lot of the behind-the-scenes stuff, and I was working with huge beauty brands that wanted to be featured on ESSENCE.com. Most of them were large, established brands who could afford expensive publicists who could come to our office and push their products for them. But when you’re just starting your brand, or just starting your beauty blog, or just starting your hair salon – these are all clients of mine – you don’t have those resources, so it’s been really great to share what I learned when I was ESSENCE.com on how a brand gets to a level, where they land a placement in a major magazine.
Also, helping people connect on social media. I think a lot of people are intimidated by technology and intimidated by, “Oh my god, you mean I have to have an Instagram, I have to have a Facebook, I have to have a Twitter, I have to have a YouTube account, I have to have a Vine? I can’t do all this. I’m trying to get clients in my salon – I’m not trying to do all that.” And so I’m their virtual assistant – I take care of all that for them and help them present their business in the best light using social media and for me, it’s fun! It combines everything that I love. I love photography, I love social media, I love lighting, I love graphic design, I love making things pretty, I love beauty – and it’s been a dream come true.
A Royal Point of View: And what challenges have you faced?
Nicole: Oh my God. My number one challenge has been biting off more than I chew. Because the demand has been so great and I love it so much, I’ve been wanting to do this and this and this and this, but there’s power in staying small and keeping track of what you can do good and what you can do great. Do you know what I mean? Because everyone will want to work with you, especially being a Black female, I’ve attracted a lot of other Black females who don’t know a web designer or don’t know someone in the technology field who can help them with their website or their blog, so I’ve definitely been saying yes since I have such a big heart and I want to do so much for everybody. But then, I’m working seven days a week from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. and that wasn’t healthy at all. You get behind and then you also don’t have any room for – you don’t have any margins in your schedule, where you can accommodate when something goes wrong.
I was just approached by a major beauty brand earlier this week, and I don’t want to say the name, but you would absolutely recognize it, and I said no. I said, “I’m at capacity right now.” The plan is to hire – to put together a freelance team to help me with some of those things. I also have to turn down clients who are not in the beauty industry. What happens is that I’ve done things for non-beauty brands, and I didn’t love it as much. So that just goes back to saying no and not biting off more than you can chew.
A Royal Point of View: How do you plan on expanding and growing Melton Digital in the upcoming years?
Nicole: Well, I definitely want to stay small. I don’t ever want to have some big agency where the office is downtown somewhere – no. I would rather have a home-based business, where I can manage things, help people, and build a community of women that I care about, who can also be resources for each other in the digital space. You know like, “Hey, Nicole worked on my website last year, and here’s what I’ve been able to do with my website. Let me help someone who may just have gotten their website up and running.” I want it to be a community, so I absolutely want to stay small. It will always be run out of my house.
Wherever me and my husband move, we have to make sure there is a room for me to have a home office. That’s something that we’ve bargained already and have agreed to because I want to have kids – I want to have a lot of kids, so it will always have to be something, where I don’t have to compromise my time to – I don’t want to have to say, “Oh, I can’t make it to the softball game or whatever.” I want to be able to do work when I need to because I’m sure that as time goes on, things will only get crazier with me being a busy wife and mom. So I want to stay small and like I said, hire a group of freelancers who I can delegate things to, and that’s how we’ll grow.
A Royal Point of View: What advice would you give someone who’s thinking about making a major career change?
Nicole: Pray and just do it. Don’t worry about not knowing enough, don’t worry about resources. When you take the leap, the resources, the people, the financial means will come. You have to make that step though because God won’t know – God won’t be able to provide those things and blessings for you until He can trust you to trust Him, so you have to take that step. So many things out of the blue just happened to me when I decided to start my company.
Melton Digital launched officially on March 1st and 33 people emailed me, but not only that – I had an opportunity to have an ongoing relationship with Cream of Nature, a huge haircare brand that’s sold in every CVS, Wal-Mart, and Rite Aid. That was very humbling for me because I was just a little, tiny person, and my first major client was this a national haircare brand. I’ve traveled with them, and I’m signed on to do another year with them. I feel that had I not set my mind to quitting my job and going for it, that opportunity would’ve been given to someone else. What will happen is going to happen, but you have to move forward, whether you have $5 or five minutes, you have to move forward. You have to just do what you can with what you have. That would be my first piece of advice.
My second piece of advice is a quote that I always say: “You can do it all, just not today.” Like I said, I wanted to do so much. I saw all this potential, and my clients were needing all these different things, and I said, “OK, Yes, I can do it!” And the reality was I could do it, whether it was taking photos of their beauty products, or whether it was designing graphic artwork for their Facebook pages. I can do all those things, but should I have been doing all those things? Probably not. That’s why delegating is so important and keeping your focus narrow when you start out is so important because you want to make sure you’re doing things great and not just doing them good.
You have trust to God and take that leap and once that happens, He’s like, “Oh, OK, now you’re ready my child. Here’s that client you always wanted to work with. Here’s that business grant that will help you pay your bills. Here’s that connection I’ve been waiting to introduce you to, but now you’re ready.” Just go for it.