Essence magazine's beauty editor Mikki Taylor has announced her retirement after 30 years with the magazine. She gave this interview to The Root.
The Root: How did you come to work at Essence magazine?
Mikki Taylor: Well, I first visited Essence as a student in 1971. It was founded in May 1970, and the headquarters was in a brownstone on West 31st Street in New York. I wanted to see this place—this new magazine that was all about women like me. I met Susan Taylor [then-beauty editor], and I was in awe of her. When I finally went to work at Essence in 1980, I was still in awe, and Sue would tell me to "get rid of the nervousness"—and get focused.
We had a small staff, and I worked on the fashion and beauty team. My title was "home sewing and accessories editor." At that time, black women in the fashion world who could not command the same compensation kept up with our white women peers because we made our [own] clothes. I mastered my craft, but I also poked my head into all things beauty. Susan became editor-in-chief in 1981. June 1981 was my first Essence cover, and I believe it was with then-black supermodel Wanakee Pugh.
TR: What were your favorite covers at Essence over the 30 years?
MT: There are two: One was in May 2000 in which we assembled eight of Hollywood's most amazing actresses. And the second was in the Obamas' home in the summer of 2008, very similar to the photo of JFK and his family in 1962. We, as a people, hunger for images of ourselves—there is no other culture that has such a lack of positive images as we do—so an Essence cover is key. In the '60s and '70s, black people sat for portraits. In the '80s and '90s, we let that slip away. We need to capture ourselves [and] that is why we captured the Obamas.
MT: All I can say is "wow!" I have had a very fascinating journey across the spectrum of how black women are viewed from a beauty standpoint. I came of age in the black power/civil rights era. My mother grew up in the Jim Crow era. I grew up when black women in the church, on the street, still wore white gloves. This gave me a fabulous worldview that was rare for a young black girl. So in many ways, I did not have the so-called "black baggage" of what we were supposed to look like. I saw black women as beautiful and elegant long before it was en vogue to do so. I have lived to see the various stages of our blackness—from being called nigger, colored, Negro, to black and African-American … We were the women who had begun to live the dreams of our elders.
TR: You photographed the Obamas twice. Did you ever think you would live to see a black president of the United States and a black first lady?
MT: It was a pinch-my-skin moment. I did not think I would ever live to see it. I knew it would happen but maybe not so soon. Well before we did the cover for Essence after the election [the January 2009 issue] I met the Obamas in their home in June 2008 in Hyde Park, Chicago. It felt familiar. I was so impressed with them. There is a way that they carry themselves that reminds me of those who have come before us. It is in their DNA. They were both put here to take us forward, and they have the capacity and are qualified to take us forward. They have grace [and] clarity.
As for the Obama marriage, I've been married a long time and what impressed me the most is that when Michelle is in the room Barack is taken under by her. He is smitten. She is a lady, and her decorum never slips. She has not lost her mystery. She is genuine. She is the woman he fell in love with. The years have not dulled those qualities.
TR: So what is next for Mikki Taylor?
MT: Well, I will have a new role at Essence as editor-at-large. As for retirement, I plan to spend some time with my family, travel a bit. But MT Enterprises LLC will continue to build on the platform I have been blessed to have all of these years. I want my life's journey to reflect 30 years of passion for black women—as the old preachers used to say when I was a girl, "I am in no ways tired."
Sophia A. Nelson is a regular contributor to The Root.