When she was just starting her career in New York, Clarissa Cruz often had to make do with cocktail olives and canapés for dinner. She’s now fashion features editor of O, the Oprah Magazine, and works on cover shoots with the celebrity host whom she describes as a “hands-on boss and a great collaborator”.
“The biggest adventure you can ever take is to live the life of your dreams.”—Oprah Winfrey
Clarissa Cruz is truly on a huge adventure.
As the fashion features editor of O, The Oprah Magazine, Cruz knows that she is living the life she had always dreamt of, and is determined to savor every moment of it.
But it wasn’t always so. When she was starting on her career, Cruz was grateful just to survive and make it through the next day.
The Miami, Florida native moved to New York City in 1998 because she had always wanted to live in the publishing capital of the world. But she could hardly afford her first Manhattan apartment in the modest Morningside Heights neighborhood.
The apartment was falling apart, but the rent was cheap, she says. “Living in New York is expensive and the only way I could do it was to live with a bunch of people,” she recalls of her three roommates.
All the time though she had her sights trained on a writing career.
Even while she was working on a master’s degree in journalism at NYC’s Columbia University, she strategized on how to land her dream job.
“My favorite magazine was Entertainment Weekly,” says Cruz, who got her bachelor’s degree at Boston College. “So when I was in graduate school, I wrote my assignments in the EW style. I would pitch my professors stories about pop culture, and eventually told one of my professors, Phyl Garland, that my dream job was to work at Entertainment Weekly. She happened to have a friend who was an editor at EW, and he told her they were looking for assistants. Professor Garland recommended me. I was interviewed—seven times!—and I was hired.”
Covering movies, books, TV and music for the magazine may have seemed glamorous, but starting salaries in publishing are notoriously low. Luckily, working at EW offered some perks that made up for the pay.
“They provided dinner and car services for the staff on closing nights and we were allowed to put movies, concert tickets, books—basically anything we were writing about—on our expense account.”
Not to mention that hors d’oeuvres were plentiful at industry events. “Yes, there were a few years when cocktail olives and pigs in a blanket were my dinner,” says Cruz, laughing.
She stayed for eight years at Entertainment Weekly where she eventually edited the weekly Style section and wrote reviews, features and profiles, including cover stories on Jamie Foxx and Russell Crowe.
In 2006, she moved on to People, one of the most popular magazines in the world. Here she was in charge of its weekly StyleWatch and BeautyWatch sections, awards season coverage and the popular Best and Worst Dressed List.
These responsibilities made her a curator of celebrity fashion trends who was always on the lookout for the latest styles, both on and off the red carpet.
In 2011, after a stint as senior editor at InStyle magazine (where she wrote and edited beauty and makeover stories), she landed her current job at O.
In the famous Hearst building on 57th Street in New York City, Cruz collaborates with Adam Glassman—whom she describes as “an incredibly talented creative director”—to shape and package fashion stories. She also writes the fashion copy in the magazine as well as the Behind the Scenes page, and edits the monthly O List.
She loves working at O Magazine, Cruz enthuses. “It’s such a fun environment. And after working for many years at publications that covered celebrity fashion, there’s something really refreshing and satisfying about interpreting fashion for, and doing photo shoots with, real women.”
And since O Magazine is a monthly, its pace is more leisurely than those of weekly rags where she had to deal with breaking news and hectic deadlines. “At O, it’s nice to have time to develop a story at a deeper, more personal level,” she says.
The bonus is, of course, working with celebrity host Oprah Winfrey whom this fashion editor describes as “very hands-on and a great collaborator.”
Cruz says she works with Oprah mainly during cover shoots. “I don’t know if she knows I’m Filipino, but we both agree that it’s hard to find a good red lipstick!”
There’s no typical day at work, she says. “In the last few days, I went to shows for New York Fashion Week, had a shoot with Oprah, closed our November issue, and taste-tested cakes for December. (This job’s) never boring!”
Her daughter’s passion for her job, observes her mother Carmelita, might be attributed to fashion sense being second nature to her. You could call it an instinct or reflex.
Recounts the elder Cruz: “I had just gotten a promotion and had to represent my hospital at a big nursing conference that year.” Her daughter, says this vice president of Nursing at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach, went shopping with her at Marshalls where the young girl proceeded to pick out two suits—one gray, and one black—for her mother and then added blouses, sweaters and accessories.
“Using the suits as a base, she wrote out each combination, like “black blazer, white blouse, gray skirt”—so that I would know what to wear each day. At that time, she was 10!”
The elder Cruz, says her daughter, “was truly ahead of her time, skillfully navigating workplace and gender politics during an era when it was not easy. Her example taught me that it is possible to be a powerful and respected woman in the workplace while still making time for one’s family,” she says of her mother, now 68.
But Cruz’s first fashion inspiration was actually her father, Alfredo, a mechanic from Manila who built his own forklift company in Miami. Her father has always been a stylish man, she says.
“My dad was the first person who taught me about fashion. I remember him always coordinating his belts and shoes and being really conscious about tailoring and fit. And I think fashion is just as much about fit as it is about actual trends. It doesn’t matter if you wear a trendy (outfit) if it doesn’t flatter your body. I definitely learned that from my dad.”
But his contribution wasn’t just sartorial: “He taught me that the direct approach is best. When we were kids and someone did something hurtful to us, he would say ‘Instead of crying or saying something nasty back, just say point blank, ‘Why did you do that?’” Oftentimes people are so thrown off by the direct question, they answer honestly and the situation is diffused.
“I used this technique in so many celebrity interviews, I’ve lost count! Not that celebrities were being hurtful, but sometimes you have to cut through the BS (crap) and just get them to be real. And a blunt question (usually the one everyone is thinking but doesn’t ask) is the best way to do that.”
Cruz also credits several female editors for teaching her everything she knows about working in the publishing industry.
“There is no shortage of strong women at O, and of course there’s Oprah herself. She not only inspires others with the way she lives her life, she actually encourages women to live their own personal best lives, whatever that may be.”
She adds: “It’s very easy in New York to get caught up in your job being your whole life, and I definitely struggled with that in the past.” Cruz, who lives with her fiancé Theodore, a visual effects supervisor, in Brooklyn, is currently planning their February 2014 wedding.
“But it’s important to make time for relationships, friendships, travel and interests that are non-work related. For me, staying healthy is a really important part of living one’s best life. I found through trial and error that the best way for me to deal with stress is through exercise. I love running, spinning and yoga. When you make time to take care of yourself, you have more energy to do other things, including your work, throughout the day.”
So what’s next for this O Magazine fashion editor?
• The next step is like the next issue of O, she says, staying happy and living life as one huge adventure.
Earning Your Fashion Cred
So how do you make it as fashion editor in the Big Apple? Get it from a pro, Clarissa Cruz:
• Don’t forget the “journalism” part of being a fashion journalist—loving fashion and clothes is not enough; you need to hone your skills as a writer and reporter.
• Embracing change is also important—media and the way readers like to get their information is constantly in flux, and you can’t be afraid to use new technologies and platforms to get your message across.
• Get a life-work balance going. “Every woman needs something in her life that is just hers alone: an interest, hobby, activity, so that she stays not only interested, but interesting.”