Profile: Amy Keller Laird, Editor-in-Chief of Women's Health Magazine

When Amy Keller Laird, 41, said she was moving to New York to make a name for herself in the magazine industry almost two decades ago, she meant it. She’s now the editor-in-chief of Women’s Health magazine, but it took years of work to get there.

Keller-Laird was born and raised in Columbia, Missouri, where her interest in journalism took off during her senior year at Hickman High School. As a member of both the cross country team and the newspaper staff, she decided to write an op-ed about how the team was running in worn-out, dysfunctional “rags” while the basketball team was getting new uniforms “every five minutes.” Her coach wasn’t ecstatic about this journalistic vigilantism, but a few weeks later, the cross country team just so happened to get new uniforms. That’s when Keller-Laird saw firsthand what the power of the press can do.

She wasn’t instantly set on Mizzou when the time to choose which college to attend rolled around that year. She was accepted into Northwestern University and Notre Dame and played with the idea of possibly going to one of those schools. Then, she realized that the first and best school of journalism was right in her backyard.

In the fall of 1993, she was fully enrolled as a student at the Zou. She joined the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority and tried to get experience early on with journalism by applying to be a columnist for the Maneater, only to be turned down.

She instead became one of the founders of Greek Net, a newspaper dedicated to sharing events and topics related to Greek life. Her first column for the paper involved something related to Goober Grape Jelly.

“Not sure what my bigger point or metaphor was, but at the time I thought I was very, very clever,” she says, reminiscing.

Naturally, the Goober Grape Jelly enthusiast evolved throughout her years in the Missouri School of Journalism. She went from writing about condiments in a column to creating a mini magazine during her senior year in a magazine production class, taught by Danita Allen, the current editor-in-chief/co-owner of Missouri Life magazine. She also remembers developing a love for graphic design in a class where she created a logo that stayed on her resume for many years afterward.

Keller-Laird graduated from MU in 1997 and became the copy editor for a local newspaper in Columbia. The following year, she felt ready to leave and break into the magazine industry in New York. Despite the unknown future that lay ahead of her, she found morsels of motivation that pushed her a little closer toward making the move.

The first morsel was the desire to start anew.

“I’m embarrassed to admit it, but my boyfriend and I had broken up,” she says. “So, I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to go off and move to New York.’”

The second was having difficulty finding a job when she wasn’t in the city.

“Don’t contact us until you live here and until you have a resume that says ‘New York, New York,’ on it. There’s 10 other people who can come in for an interview right now,” she was told.

Perhaps the most convincing morsel was knowing that so many people had doubts about making such a big move. One of her bosses poked a little fun saying, “I hope you don’t end up working at Hardee’s.”

It was just partially witticism. Anyone who knew Keller-Laird knew that she was a gifted writer and editor, but they also wondered if a girl from the Midwest, of all places, could make it in the Big Apple.

“If you overthink it and you don’t do it or you wait until it’s the ‘perfect time,’ it’s never going to come. You just have to do it,” she says.

Her announcement came as a surprise to her parents. Her father, James Keller, still vividly remembers when she told them.

“I had thick, brown hair back then,” he says, laughing and waving his hands around his gray locks. Keller-Laird opted to fly to New York and later, her parents drove furniture and other belongings over 1,000 miles in a U-Haul truck from Columbia to her new humble abode. James Keller couldn’t help but to wonder why he was doing it. Amy didn’t have a job, a definite plan or any idea where she would end up. But, he didn’t have any doubts in her capabilities and skills.

“She’s always been very responsible and able to take on many challenges,” he says. “She’s always been good at copy writing and networking, so I wasn’t worried about how well she’d do.”

Among the many papers, awards and decorations that fill the walls of his office, one particular framed paper stands out. It’s a copy of a “Letter from the Editor” written by Amy last year about him. She gave it to him as a gift for Father's’ Day.

“He’s one of the most honest and ethical people I know, but also one of the most fun,” one section reads. “Happy Father’s Day to all the great dads out there, starting with mine.”

A black and white photo of James and Amy smiling during the Father-Daughter dance at Amy’s wedding is embedded right about the letter. His eyes beam just as brightly when he looks at the photo, remembering that moment, as they do in that very picture.

Hello, New York

It was a 16-hour drive from Missouri to Manhattan. Keller-Laird moved with two other friends, which made it easier because she wasn’t alone. They first lived in an apartment with another Mizzou graduate. Two weeks later, they were able to get a place of their own in the upper, east side of Manhattan.

There was no air conditioner. It was a two-person apartment, which meant every four months, someone would have to sleep on pullout couch in the living room. It was far from glamorous, but close to the city.

Keller-Laird was able to get a job at Redbook as a copy editor that same year. It wasn’t the ideal job, but she was good at it. The beauty director was particularly impressed with the comments Keller-Laird made on her proofs.

For four years Keller-Laird stayed at Redbook, then held another editorial position for another two years at Good Housekeeping. A defining moment in her career was when she became the beauty features editor for Allure magazine in 2004. Her eyes were opened to a more in-depth aspect of beauty editing. She was researching and exploring the science behind beauty products, speaking with dermatologists and editing every single word to a tee to ensure that the right verbs and phrases were used. She even called the Harvard Divinity School to confirm that the right Catholic terminology was used when writing about a beauty product created by Nuns.

Keller-Laird also met Meirav Devash, now one of her dearest friends, at Allure. They started on the exact same day and met at orientation. Devash specifically remembers Keller-Laird having toffee colored bangs and long hair. “I can be friends with her,” Devash thought.

Keller-Laird and Devash soon developed a well-oiled writer-editor relationship and friendship. Devash recalls their time spent creating outlines for stories, discussing the details of an article and trying on beauty products. They even remember some of the “arguments” that they had during after hours at the old Conde Nast building. One of the most intense was fighting over what color they should use to describe a palette of beige/taupe/buff eye shadows. They held the shadows under different light sources to figure out the proper hue. They now refer to this as “The Taupe Wars of 2005.”

Devash attributes the success of their teamwork to trust. They each wanted what was best for the story and were willing to put in the time and effort to make the story the best it could be. She especially appreciated how much time Keller-Laird, who had a jam-packed schedule as beauty editor, was willing to spend working with her. Not only was she generous with her time, but she was also generous with the free beauty products, Devash added.

The Missouri School of Journalism got a sneak peek of this dynamic duo last year when they came to campus and spoke at the Writers & Editors Conference. They discussed 10 ways writers and editors can boost their “mojo.”

They were the last to speak at the conference and were nervous because the reporters before them were describing their jobs that included going into war zones and covering dangerous situations. Keller-Laird and Devash were just going to talk about what it takes to cover beauty products.

Keller-Laird started off their discussion with a disclaimer: “We were not in a war zone. We did not save a boy’s life, but we can write about a red lipstick and make people go out and buy it.” She then changed the slide on their powerpoint that outlined the first way editors and writers can develop a better relationship. “Give a shit,” it read.

Devash now does some freelance work for Women’s Health. As editor-in-chief, Keller-Laird doesn’t have as much time to go over the nuts and bolts of every detail, but at this point, Devash has developed a sixth sense for what she’s looking for and expects.

“What I'm saying is, editors like writers who are psychic,” Devash says. “Kidding! But, not.”

Moving On Up

Keller-Laird was with Devash and Allure for a year before working at Shop, Etc. as beauty editor. She stayed there until 2006 when she returned to Allure as the deputy editor/beauty director. She remained at Allure for five more years, but began to crave something more. The beauty industry played an important role in her editorial career, but she wanted to branch out beyond that and cover more aspects of a woman’s life. That’s when she vied for and earned the position of executive editor at Women’s Health magazine in 2011.

Her efforts and contributions to the magazine were recognized when Women's Health was nominated for the General Excellence award from the American Society of Magazine Editors twice while she was the executive editor. Within almost three years, she used her background in beauty and her editorial skills to help transform the magazine into a broader lifestyle brand.

She served as interim editor-in-chief in August of 2014 before Scott Schulman, president of the magazine’s publisher, Rodale Inc., officially named her editor-in-chief the following month. Keller-Laird stepped into a new role that meant greater responsibility and greater involvement in the editorial decisions across all of the magazine’s platforms.

She’s using her influence to further strengthen the relationship between the publication and their audience. Last January, they did a survey called “What Don’t You Like About Us” and asked their readers what words and phrases they don’t like. They found that a lot of people didn’t want to see the phrase “bikini body” anymore, so they cut it from their content. She’s also working to bring more awareness to social issues surrounding mental health. Keller-Laird was diagnosed with OCD and aims to be very candid about it. The magazine ran a story in May that discussed the stigmas surrounding women who suffer from mental disorders.

“Despite common misconceptions, they're not violent. Or ‘crazy.’ And, no, they can't just ‘get over it,’” the article begins. “They're your mothers, daughters, sisters, best friends, work wives, celebs, and Instagram stars.”

The article continued to describe how difficult it was to get women to open up about their personal battles with mental health because they feared judgment and falling into the stereotypes of people with mental disorders. Through her own story, Keller-Laird wants to encourage women to speak up, seek help and know that they’re not alone, which is a message she reiterates in an appearance on the TODAY show in May.

She also launched a #PaidLeavePays campaign, advocating for paid federal maternity leave — a topic that she’s familiar with as a mother of two boys. The magazine also featured a series on sexual assault in the 2016 October and November issues. Being able to connect with the magazine’s stories resonates with readers and is something she emphasizes as editor-in-chief, Keller-Laird says.

Another important part of her job that she highlights is establishing a good relationship with the staff. She’s done just that, especially with her assistant and 2014 MU graduate, Jamie Hergenrader. There’s no “Devil Wear Prada” element anywhere in their partnership. “She’s very personable and friendly,” says Hergenrader. “She’s hands-on with everything we work on throughout all the stages, which is amazing.”

Hergenrader is in charge of scheduling Keller-Laird’s meetings, managing her calendar, taking care of her expense reports for all the traveling she does and even does some research for story ideas. If there’s anyone knows how crazy Keller-Laird’s day-to-day schedule is, it’s her. “I don’t know how she works as hard as she does,” she adds. “I know she gets stressed, but she handles it very productively.”

The Other Side of Amy

Keller-Laird’s ability to handle editorial duties only reflects one side of her, however. There’s Amy Keller Laird the editor, then there’s Amy Keller Laird the wife and mother. Back when she was still the beauty director of Allure in 2007, she married Grayson Laird, another graduate from the Missouri School of Journalism. At the time, Laird was a production director for Men’s Vogue magazine, but he decided to quit the magazine industry to start a brewing business. Keller-Laird was right there with him as he tested different formulas and recipes for coffee in their apartment. He then founded Grady’s Cold Brew, which has grown to be a widely recognized coffee company in Brooklyn.

It’s evident, especially by looking at her social media accounts, that Keller-Laird loves her sons, Mack and Jones, but being in charge of a major magazine does mean making some sacrifices in her home life. Long work hours during the week means getting home around 7 p.m. every night and having about an hour to spend with her sons. “I often feel guilty about that,” she admits. “It’s hard to be able to do everything. You just have to accept that sometimes you’re going to be prioritizing one thing over the other and you’re not going to be perfect.”

Over the years, she and her husband, who both hold high-power positions, have continued to work collectively to balance their work and home lives. They also have a nanny who helps them and has become a part of the family. Still, Keller-Laird makes sacrifices at work for her family, like rearranging her schedule to go to an event at her son’s school. On the weekends, they all enjoy staying in and relaxing, hiking or exploring the city together.

Amy Keller Laird has come a long way since writing about the cross country team’s right to new uniforms at Hickman High School. She’s come a long way since writing about Goober Grape Jelly and flying to New York to pursue her dreams. Eighteen years later, as editor-in-chief of Women’s Health magazine, she’s made appearances on The Doctors, Good Morning America, Dr. Oz and other shows, talking about sexual assault, mental health reform, beauty and healthy living.

On paper, her upward movement throughout the magazine industry looks seamless, but she put in the work to get to where she is now. She attributes a lot of that to her grit and grind Midwestern attitude that drove her to take risks, work hard and, above all, work smart.