Phillip Picardi: Giving ‘them’ a Seat at the Table

Amanda Burkett
Phillip Picardi (Gallatin ‘12) is the chief content officer for Teen Vogue and them.

Preparing to meet Phillip Picardi features a mix of fangirling, anxiety and stressing over the perfect outfit. Luckily (and unluckily) for me, I never met Picardi in person, due to his busy work schedule. After a series of emails and scheduling discussion, Picardi was able to devote some time to talk with a student from his alma mater over the phone. Although I could show up to our call in pajamas and Picardi would never know, his extensive resume and press coverage intimidated me.

You may already be familiar with him if you’re an in-the-know millennial, or an average Gen Zer, maybe you are even one of his 42,300 Instagram followers or if you’re familiar with the products of his work — Teen Vogue, Allure, Refinery29 or them. Picardi has capitalized on his acute understanding of teenagers in a powerful way — he has even been referred to as a “mind reader” by Fast Company.  Not only is he a friend of Anna Wintour, he’s made the Forbes’ 30 under 30 list and Out Magazine’s OUT100. At 27 years old Picardi’s stock is on the rise with nowhere to go but up.

Picardi introduced himself to the first-year class at the NYU Presidential Welcome this past August. His unforgettable speech made him a household name for Class of 2021 students — sharing his humble beginnings, which included hiding Teen Vogue under his bed. It may seem hard to believe, but only nine years ago Picardi was in our shoes.

“I was fresh from Boston, with a very north-of-Boston bright orange tan and a blow out, that was very reminiscent of Pauly D but like a gay version,” Picardi said.

Fake tan and all, Picardi lived out his aspirations, while living in Goddard Residence Hall — thriving on the hustle. Picardi attended the Gallatin School of Individualized Study with a concentration in “Beauty,” all while working various internships and a part-time retail job at Saks Fifth Avenue. In his free time, he penciled in time to go clubbing with friends.

“I spent most of my academic years off campus interning and working,” Picardi said. “On campus I did a lot of independent studies, and often, I was much more focused on my work and career rather than academics.”

Picardi’s intrinsic confidence was swept out from under him when he found out that people had been bullying him online. While Picardi was at NYU, the now-defunct website CollegeACB hosted sections for hundreds of universities around the United States and users could post anonymously, which lead to students posting about other students. Picardi’s friends logged onto the NYU section on CollegeACB and discovered a thread devoted to his eyebrows.

“People saying my eyebrows made me look like a pedophile, and that they thought I had gotten a facelift, or botox,” Picardi said. “I was so horrified, because I took, and take, so much pride in my appearance, but especially as a college kid.”

That day, Picardi arrived at his Teen Vogue internship in tears. His boss at the time, Eva Chen, assured him of himself — and of his thick brows — and asked him to write about the experience for Teen Vogue. Picardi calls the piece the most formative of his internship years. Once Chen saw his writing, he was promoted from web intern to beauty intern. Following that, he rose to assistant editor, then editor. After leaving briefly to “play with lipsticks” as senior beauty editor of Refinery29, he returned as the digital editorial director of Teen Vogue — at 23 years old. 

“I don’t think I would be as young as I am in my job had I not gone to NYU,” Picardi said.

Picardi often speaks about seeing his age as an advantage, but he did not always feel that way. When he was appointed to digital editorial director, he knew he had a lot to prove. While people tried to undermine him, his network of industry mentors encouraged him to take the high road.

“That taught me so much about leadership and how to lead with grace,” Picardi said. “And not to get caught up in petty nonsense and to lead by example — to prove your worth.”

Despite being proclaimed as a “fearless editor” by Anna Wintour, Picardi is still proving his worth in the office every day. He is aware that the publishing industry is changing at a rapid pace and the future is hard to predict.

“I never feel 100 percent stable or secure,” Picardi said. “But, I thrive on that feeling.”

Picardi identified a gap in Teen Vogue’s content — he had a vision of where the publication could go beyond just beauty. With confidence and clarity, Picardi navigated Teen Vogue through a shift that was deemed surprising — to everyone but him.

“We wanted to cater to a young person’s whole existence, rather than what their appearance was,” Picardi said.

After making this decision, Teen Vogue expanded from fashion, beauty and entertainment, to verticals devoted to wellness, lifestyle and most famously, news and politics. Picardi prides his rebrand on inclusivity, he halted content that discussed “dressing for your body type” and photoshoots began to prioritize diversity. 

With the glossy profiles also came judgement, especially because of his role at Teen Vogue as a cisgender, white man. He is uniquely aware of this and stands up to his critics — feeling that anyone in power should be criticized. Picardi has been receptive to young people’s discussion of gender and continues to engage in conversation.

“Teen Vogue for me represents a generation of young people, not just one gender — especially when this generation is shifting views on gender and representation.” Picardi said.

He filled a blank space in the Condé Nast company this past October, by releasing a new platform – them. Them is an LGBTQ-centric digital publication devoted to shifting discussion of gender among young people. Picardi wanted the platform to be in “true Condé Nast style” which he describes as beautiful, elevated and celebratory of people and their stories. He shared that he would’ve liked something like them growing up, but its online presence in this political climate makes it accessible to teenagers in a way that print could not be.

“Now, queer kids are growing up in a time where confidence in LGBTQ people is actually down, where Donald Trump is our president and is actively lobbying against the trans community,” Picardi said.

One month after starting them, Picardi’s position at Teen Vogue became even more essential, as the magazine ended its print production. Picardi’s job title is now chief content officer at both Teen Vogue and them. 

In his vision of an empowered youth, Picardi has engineered Teen Vogue’s first New York summit with a bluntly political theme, #TurnUp. The focus is the importance of civic engagement and on rallying young people to “turn up” to the polls for the November midterm elections.

“I do think that after a very exhausting year of fighting back, people need a moment to be with each other and to listen to each other and to hear different viewpoints,” Picardi said.

Picardi speaks highly of the politically conscious environment at NYU. From it he learned how to navigate progressive conversations about identity and social justice. 

“I think if I didn’t go to NYU, with so many schools of thought and so many progressive, intelligent thinkers,” Picardi said. “I think my career would’ve been very different than it was today.”

Despite being a success at Teen Vogue for almost 10 years, Picardi doesn’t see his lead as infinite. Picardi refers to them as his baby, as the light of his life, but still asserts that he will not be part of it forever.

“Teen Vogue’s content necessarily shifts with each generational shift,” Picardi said. “I’m excited to take this brand in a new direction […] and I’m really excited to see what comes next.”

Teen Vogue is offering NYU students a $100 discount when they register for this year’s summit using their NYU email and the code “NYU100.”

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 30 print edition. Email Amanda Burkett at [email protected]

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