Deez Interviews: Meet the journalist whose indie women’s mag was waaay ahead of its time (and who foresaw Lizzo Mania!)
|Delia Cai||Mar 15, 2019|
Happy Friday, Deezers! To those of you new to the Deez Links lifestyle, we publish a Q&A every Friday with a ~real live~ media professional who’s out there killin’ it.
This week’s interview is with Kaylen Ralph, who’s a serious force to watch when it comes to reimagining the next gen of women’s media. Not only is she helping to edit a ~women in journalism~ anthology coming out this year, but a few years ago, she co-founded The Riveter Magazine (now defunct) fresh out of college and put Lizzo AND Ilhan Omar on its covers back in2016, y’all. (Disclosure: ya girl worked for The Riveter during senior year!! It was lit!!)
^^This was the Lizzo issue, which came out in fall 2015. More on this in the Q&A!
We caught up with Kaylen, now a freelance journalist living in Chicago, on lessons learned from running The Riveter, her work contributing to Teen Vogue, and one excellent ~women in journalism~ anthology coming out this year that you can’t miss. Enjoy!
The interviewee: Kaylen Ralph (follow her on IG @kaylenralph)
The gig: Independent journalist, writer, and co-founder of The Riveter (RIP!)
Tell us a little bit about the day-to-day of being a freelance journalist in Chicago!
I’m going to answer this question a la The Cut’s “How I Get It Done” because I read that column obsessively and — second only to being interviewed by you for Deez Links — I literally dream of one day being featured. My day-to-day as a freelancer is 100% percent informed by the fact that I do work a full-time job in addition freelance writing.
I only really started freelancing about two years ago, and most seriously just last May, when we officially folded The Riveter. While running The Riveter, I always worked full-time because I did not take a salary as co-founder or editor. For better or worse, because I have always been used to the balancing act of having two jobs, I did not have the impulse to step away from my full-time job in styling and retail management, even when I started making more money freelancing. Freelance writing is a volatile market, and I write better and with more confidence knowing that my bills are paid and my health insurance is intact no matter where my next byline comes from (I know we’re all feeling conflicted about recent “freelance fuckery” as of late).
Now that we’ve covered that aspect of my dual life, my day goes a little something like this: I wake up, make the coffee, eff around on my phone for a little bit, and then I start writing. I usually start later in the day at BHLDN (where I’m a manager) and time my morning so that I have 2-3 solid hours of writing time before I need to shower and get ready to start my commute downtown to the boutique.
I usually have two weekdays off that I reserve for more big picture work such as pitching, admin stuff (freelance taxes, personal creative writing projects etc. I would absolutely lose my mind if I worked from home alone all day, regardless of how obsessed I am with my home office redesign as of late.
You recently became a contributor to Teen Vogue, where you've been covering breaking news and politics. What drew you to this role?
I started freelancing for Teen Vogue’s News & Politics vertical last summer after responding to one of their editor’s call for contributors on Twitter! Lucy Diavolo was and is amazing to work with, and establishing a semi-regular gig was was really pivotal in my transition to freelance post-Riveter. It was also awesome to brush up on my foundational news reporting skills, as I hadn’t done true breaking news coverage since the gold old days of J2100 at Mizzou.
The stories I cover for Teen Vogue range from news about badass teens (the one about this girl landing her plane with only one wheel was a favorite, as was this love story for the ages, starring a whip smart heroine named Juliette), to politics (everything from the Trump beat to police brutality and foreign policy).
I really like the accessibility that Teen Vogue brings to issues of news and politics that could otherwise be seen as too weedy or nebulous for its core demographic by old farts who don’t understand the younger generation. I hope that the publication’s readers are empowered as informed citizens after reading the coverage I contribute, AND I hope they find power seeing their peers profiled as newsworthy individuals. I definitely derive a lot of inspiration from them. I also write features for the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, so the juxtaposition of those two forms on sometimes overlapping subject matter is really invigorating.
You co-founded The Riveter, a women's longform journalism magazine, after graduating college. What were the biggest lessons that came with creating your own publication?
I wish I would have had a little more industry experience under my belt when we launched The Riveter. Learning on the job, in your first job, as the boss….is….not easy? I think the energy and squeaky clean perspective that Yanna (co-founder Joanna Demkiewicz
) and I brought to The Riveter was creatively fresh and productive, but I wish I wasn’t so green when it came to business management and professional self-advocacy, and I REALLY wish we would have paid ourselves and scaled proportional to that.
The opportunity to collaborate with so many talented women writers and media mavens (such as yourself!!) was the biggest professional pleasure of my life — and I could not be prouder of the journalism careers we had a small role in launching. Post-Riveter, I like to think of myself as a fairly formidable businesswoman with excellent self-discipline and editorial acumen for days...but for now, I am really enjoying writing a ton and taking the time to plot my next big project, whatever that may be.
Okay but can we talk about how you guys put Lizzo on your cover LITERALLY 4 YEARS AGO — aka, waaaay before she became an Allure cover girl?
I absolutely flipped when I saw her on the cover of The Cut last month, and most recently as Allure’s digital cover star. I truly believe Lizzo is one of the hardest working and most talented musicians in the game, and the fact that The Riveter was able to capture an even small window of her early career is something I’m so insanely proud of.
For that feature, I arranged for us to shoot Lizzo inside the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis while they were exhibiting this fantastic pop art show. We ended up having 20 minutes, it was our first ever real photo shoot, and Vic Campbell absolutely nailed it in her first gig as The Riveter’s director of photography.
At that time, Lizzo was still considered a rap artist but was starting to “go pop,” hence the shoot location. Amidst some of the most iconic and recognizable contemporary art that exists in this world, Lizzo stole the show. In addition to being a fantastic musician, she’s pioneeredconversations about body positivity, she’s vocal about issues of racial and political injustice, and she rolls with a super cool girl gang, whom we tapped to “profile” Lizzo through a series of first person vignettes, which I still think was a really funapproach for this type of feature.
Lizzo was the cover star of our third issue, which was the first of the four-part volume we funded via Kickstarter. The rest of that issue was just as prescient, IMO. We published a 13-page DEEP dive on Hillary Clinton’s relationship with black female voters almost a year before the 2016 election, wherein that fraught disconnect really came into play, especially considering all of the legitimate reasons black women had to NOT support Clinton, but overwhelming did so anyway, while the majority of white women voted for Trump (*screams into the abyss*). We had Ilhan Omar on the cover of our sixth (and final issue) when she had just been elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives. The two women behind Of a Kind, who just released a buzzy book about Work Wives were another cover subject.
And how has that experience influenced and informed your current work writing for women's titles like Glamour, Refinery29, and Girlboss?
I still struggle to express how proud I am of The Riveter’s groundbreaking mission and coverage and how hard it was to step away from that project and shelve all of physical and emotional labor that Yanna and I put into building our company. I truly believe we were ahead of our time.
On that note, I am a very hireable individual — if you’re seeking a cultural savant for your editorial team, slide into those DMs (please just email me!! I’m a professional!)
Beyond that, on a day-to-day basis, I am really conscientious of my sourcing when reporting. When possible, I always interview women as experts to further normalize the concept that women’s perspectives should be trusted and elevated. A lot of the business know-how I took away from The Riveter I inject in my freelancing. I usually always try and negotiate my rate and have been pretty successful as of late! You NEVER get what you don’t ask for.
Finally, tell us about your work with the anthology with The Sager Group coming this year! When can we expect it, and where can we find it?
Back in 2015, we were research assistants for the first collection in this series, which focused on newspaper journalists. This volume is a cross-section of contemporary longform from the women whom you’re reading in today’s periodicals — Jia Tolentino, Vanessa Grigoriadis, Pamela Colloff, Nikole Hannah- Jones, etc. We conducted interviews with each of the women included and those resulted in “as told to” first-person essays that precede each piece of the women’s longform.
It’s a killer lineup, and I can’t wait for it to be required reading for every college journalist in America.
Don’t forget to follow Kaylen on IG @kaylenralph, and have an inspired weekend!