Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, the Western cultural world was ruled by glossy magazines. And the glossiest of the glossies were those produced by Condé Nast: thick and heavy with shiny paper, fragrant with interleaved perfume samples. High up in the New York sky, the devil in Prada reigned at Vogue while other titles proclaimed on subjects such as architecture, food, interior design, and men’s fashion.
But everyone knew that the real jewel in the Condé Nast crown, the ne plus ultra, was Vanity Fair. VF, as it was known, had been reinvented in the 1980s by the Valkyrian Tina Brown, who bedazzled it with celebrities and a delicious mix of high and low culture, blending scandal with serious reportage. Its circulation rocketed. When a virtually unknown Canadian editor named Graydon Carter was earmarked for the august New Yorker magazine, a by now bored and hungry Brown had a hissy fit, grabbed the New Yorker for herself, and tossed Carter VF.
Carter was a literary man who edited a satirical magazine, what did he know about celebs? But he settled in for 25 years and what would be the golden age of VF and magazines in general. Movies were booming, a new generation of stars was rising, and, crucially, European fashion houses were going global. That meant advertising. Lots of it. And money. Lots of it. Into this extravagant, excitable world stepped a 21-year-old college dropout named Dana Brown, who worked behind the bar at the restaurant the Condé Nast staffers frequented.