Six months after quitting an unfulfilling job as a sales and marketing assistant at a trade publication, and spurred on by a girlfriend, Mitzi Miller rolled up on Amy DuBois Barnett—who has served as a multititled editor at such glossies as Honey, Teen People and Ebony—exiting a club on New York City’s Lower East Side one night.
“I introduced myself—being silly, as I always am—and told her, ‘I know you don’t know me, but I’m gonna be a star, so you might as well put me on now so I don’t have to act like I don’t know you later,’” Miller recounts. “She laughed at me, and after that she gave me an editorial internship at Honey magazine.”
It’s this kind of fearlessness that let her intuit when it was time to leave a job to pursue a fresh opportunity—and create one when it wasn’t readily available. And it was this same moxie that has guided her latest career decision: leaving her position as editor-in-chief of Ebony magazine and heading to Los Angeles this week to begin a new career chapter in a yet-to-be-announced position creating stories in television and film.
“I’m really proud of the work that I’ve done here, and I’m proud of how it turned out,” says Miller, who started with Johnson Publishing Co. as editor-in-chief of Jet magazine in May of 2011. Barnett, incidentally, was the one who called Miller about that job when Barnett was editor-in-chief of Ebony. “I really enjoyed working with my team and continuing the legacy of the brand. When you’re in a good place, there’s not much more to say than that.”
Miller counts getting A-lister Pharrell Williams on the cover of Ebony; doing the Selma photo shoot and having Oprah, of all people, ask her where to stand in the shot; doing a package on race; and highlighting up-and-coming influencers like Natasha Eubanks, Bevy Smith and Ericka Pittman among the crown-jewel moments during her time at Ebony, which she was tapped to helm in April of 2014 after Barnett exited to become executive editor of an ESPN website.
“When Maya Angelou called me the day before she passed because she just wanted to tell me that she really liked the work I was doing, when I interviewed Oprah over the phone and felt like her words were coming through the phone and traveling down my spine—those were rock-star moments and opportunities that being in these positions at both Jet and Ebony have afforded me,” Miller says.
There were other colorful moments that working for Johnson afforded her, such as the time she appeared on Real Housewives of Atlanta, representing Jet, and when she reviewed models at Cynthia Bailey’s modeling agency alongside Bailey and then-freshly minted cast member Kenya Moore.
Viewers took up the mantle of cringing for Miller, who was the model of professional decorum, as Moore regaled us all with her incessant, Tourette’s-like “coochie crack” commentary.
“Cynthia was great,” Miller simply says. “They are who they are, so it was just a good time at the end of the day. We’d never done anything like that, so we wanted to make the company look amazing.”
Landing at No. 16 on The Root 100’s 2014 list of most influential African Americans, Miller has been out of the Ebony newsroom for about a month and a half and is closing up shop in Chicago in preparation for her new L.A. digs.
Miller explains that a liver transplant at age 23 had a forever impact on the way she makes decisions: “It really shaped the way I maneuver through the world. While it’s one of those things I wouldn’t wish on [my] worst enemy, it made me really aware of my mortality.
“I didn’t have to wake up today,” she continues. “You hear it from older people and you’re like, ‘OK, church lady, here you go,’ but it’s really true, it’s really a blessing. It’s almost disrespectful to not take opportunities to challenge myself and make the most of this life, and to just be willing to move on when it’s time. Most of us know when it’s time for something to give, but we ignore that voice, chasing safety.”
Her willingness to hop out there and try anything new resulted in assignments of her own design: Learning how to surf in Hawaii and attempting boot camp for 24 hours are just two experiences she had at various positions at Honey and Jane magazines before landing in Chicago at Jet.
Miller and editors she’s met and worked with along the way penned some best-selling books, too, including The Angry Black Woman’s Guide to Life, which was written with Denene Millner and Angela Burt-Murray, and the Hotlanta young-adult series. The Vow, a writing reunion with Millner and Burt-Murray in 2006, resulted in the recently aired Lifetime movie With This Ring after Gabrielle Union optioned the book six years ago and sold it to Sony for Lifetime.
Loosely based on the book, the romantic comedy—which was the most-watched show when it initially aired in January—stars Jill Scott, Regina Hall and Eve and focuses on three women desperate to be married within the year. Visiting the set during the three-week shoot in Cleveland sparked the bug in Miller that would lead to her career change. “I started having different conversations with colleagues, and honestly, I could not pinpoint an exact time that the energy shifted for me,” she says. “When I was on set, I loved the energy and the way that people were busy, but happy and passionate. Be clear that people were grinding, but it wasn’t hard work; the energy was contagious.”
And while Miller recognizes the desire to be in a relationship or married that’s reflected in the movie, she admits that she was essentially married to her job during her time in Chicago, with seven-day workweeks and days that often didn’t end before 9 p.m.
“There are definitely dates, but there isn’t a bae right now,” she says. “For the first year, it was hard to even get home to see family and friends. Our closing schedule was very rigorous. I was in super work mode from the time I got here, and I would never do that again. I would definitely have carved out more time to experience Chicago. It’s a beautiful city with some very kind people.”
The lesson is learned, and Miller has an eye trained on work-life balance, armed with her mantra to “choose happy.” She’ll be road-tripping west on Friday, with her mother riding shotgun, to roll up on yet-to-be-revealed terrain.