Today is the annual Cuninggim Lecture and this year’s guest of honor is the one and only Elaine Welteroth. At face value, Elaine is the former Editor-in-Chief of Teen Vogue or to some, two-time guest star on hit shows Black-ish and Grown-ish. But under the surface she is so, so much more than that.
“Elaine Welteroth did amazing work at Teen Vogue by helping shift the magazine towards social justice and political issues, where other magazines aimed at teens and young adults weren’t going. Elaine has her pulse on what’s happening in not only the social justice world, but in fashion and trends, all of which are important to our current society,” says Brianna Nesbitt, a program coordinator at the Women’s Center.
She, along with Phillip Picardi (current Editor-in-Chief of Teen Vogue and Them, a new LGBTQIA+ centered platform by Conde Nast) completely changed the way teenage girls are perceived in political and fashion spaces. As people familiar with the lecture series will know, writers and journalists aren’t the sole focus for speakers. The Cuninggim Lecture always brings forward individuals who are relevant to the current cultural and political climate, but Elaine’s impact goes even beyond her role within journalism.
As Nesbitt says, “The Cuninggim Lecture is named after Margaret Cuninggim, the last Dean of Women at Vanderbilt and our building’s namesake. The first lecture was in 1989 and was funded through donations and an endowment that we still pull from today, and the focus on the talks were similar to what we still value today.” All in all, there is a drive to empower and celebrate incredible, accomplished women by giving them a platform to speak at Vandebrilt every year. As one of the most influential “celebrities” throughout my life, I couldn’t think of anyone better than Elaine to embody the spirit of the Cuninggim Lecture for this year’s event.
I’ve watched her accomplish career milestone after milestone and have been in awe of her since her earliest days at Teen Vogue. I picked up my first issue of Teen Vogue when I was in the 7th grade (the February 2010 issue with Jessica Szohr on the pink and red themed cover, to be exact, and I treasured that thing like a Bible), which means I became a reader during the era of Eva Chen as its beloved beauty editor and Amy Astley as editor-in-chief. I remember how shocked I was, in the best way possible, when Eva Chen (whom I loved!) went to Instagram and Elaine took over as a beauty editor. The only acceptable replacement for an editor who I saw so much of myself if — Eva Chen was an Asian-American pre-med college student who ended up entering the fashion and journalism instead of matriculating to med school — was someone who could speak to the parts of myself even Eva couldn’t. Flash forward only a few short years later, and I literally screamed with joy when she became the youngest and first black Editor-in-Chief at Conde Nast when Amy Astley transitioned to Architectural Digest in 2017. Elaine was holding positions at Teen Vogue that I never imagined a black women would ever get the chance to even dream of. She was doing the things that I wished I could do and I somehow was proud of her for it, despite not having a clue that I could do those same things simply because she was making a path for me and my fellow black, female creatives.
Subconsciously, I studied her #blackgirlmagic as she took the beauty world by storm, faux-hawk and all. I longed for a career in the fashion/beauty industry and she was finally my window into that world. I loved her backseat beat Insta stories, my best friend and I gushed over her Man Repeller interview about her relationship with Jonathan, her chemist-turned-musician fiance, and I absolutely freaked when she made an appearance on Black-ish and then again on Grown-ish. Elaine, in part, is the reason I am where I am today—pursuing a creative career in the fashion and beauty world while still holding to my business and STEM roots. Over the past six years, she’s been far more than a magazine editor to me and many of my cohorts. She’s been an exemplary career model, an inspirational Black woman paving the way for many more great black women to follow, and an incredible badass who is changing the game in every corner of fashion, beauty, and entertainment.
[Update: This event has been RESCHEDULED to October 4, 2018 due to inclement weather]