Gabrielle Korn Knows Her Most Marginalized Identities Are Invisible

A conversation with the lesbian Jewish writer on everything from inherited trauma to Coco Chanel.

When she was 28, Gabrielle Korn was promoted to editor-in-chief of Nylon magazine, the same day the print edition of the magazine folded. She served as EIC for two years, being the first out lesbian woman on the top of the masthead, and was “younger and gayer than all the female EICs at competing publications in New York City.”

Prior to Nylon, Gabrielle was the beauty editor at Refinery29, overseeing the site’s beauty content, and she got her start in digital media at Autostraddle, a queer feminist site. She has since left the world of media and fashion, joining Netflix as the editorial and publishing manager of Most, Netflix’s home for LGBTQ+ storytelling.

Her memoir, Everybody (Else) Is Perfect: How I Survived Hypocrisy, Beauty, Clicks, and Likes, is the story of her journey in media, but also of her own journey to find herself as a person. Throughout the book, she opens up about her struggles with disordered eating and how the body positivity movement isn’t always so positive.

In December, I chatted with Gabrielle about preparing for the release of her vulnerable memoir, being the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, and why people keep choosing to ignore the fact Coco Chanel was a Nazi sympathizer.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

How has the pandemic been for you? What are some ways you’ve been staying calm ahead of your book release? That’s a big question.

That’s assuming that I am staying calm. [laughs]

I have never been so nervous about anything in my life. I feel ultimately very, very fortunate that my life has been what it has been this year. I was able to get a new job and stay safe. The book was supposed to come out in June [2020], and Atria made the decision to push it to January. At the time that felt really upsetting. In hindsight, it is the best outcome I could’ve hoped for, because obviously June was not the time for a book like this.

In the book you describe the two “major styles” of being a Jewish teen on Long Island: JAP-y or emo. You write that you fell into a 50-50 hybrid. How would you describe your style now? What early 2000s styles do you want to return (if any)?

I’m so glad you asked me that. I resisted self-identifying as a JAP for a really long time, because I wanted so badly to be alt. In adulthood, it feels a lot easier to embrace that — and to be okay being someone who likes luxury. My style will always be a little bit punk, I hope. I’m not ready to be fully basic — but I am currently wearing flared leggings, which I did not think would ever come back. And then last year, when I was still at Refinery, someone sent me these like cashmere flared leggings and I was like, “You mean yoga pants?” So that feels funny.

Do you remember the brand Solow?

Of course.

I still have a pair of mine from middle school or high school that I genuinely still live in.

You’re so lucky. I so regret throwing mine out! I also recently started wearing my Tiffany’s necklace again — the really chunky one. That with a t-shirt? Perfect.

What would you tell your 13-year-old self now? What advice would you give her?

I would tell her that the most important thing she can do is be honest with herself about what she feels and what she wants. I was very concerned with how other people were perceiving me and of doing the things that I was supposed to do, instead of thinking about what actually feels good and authentic to me.

What was it like growing up Jewish for you?

I actually grew up in Providence, Rhode Island, and then we moved to Long Island when I was going into sixth grade. In Providence, my sisters and I had been the only Jews in our classes — there were maybe one or two other Jewish kids. And we really felt like minorities. My grandparents are Holocaust survivors; being Jewish felt like something that made us really different. When we moved to Long Island, it was… Long Island! So many Jewish people live there. And so all of the sudden, for the first time in my life, I was not part of a minority. But you never lose that feeling once you’ve had it. I felt really culturally Jewish, but organized religion in general has never really spoken to me. I had a bat mitzvah and then basically never went to temple again.

That actually brings me to my next question. You write early on in your memoir “As a white Jewish lesbian, the parts of my identity that might marginalize me were largely invisible; I was benefiting from the system while being tokenized by it.” Can you talk about this? 

No one wants to think of themselves as privileged. When you are part of minority groups, in some way, it’s hard to reconcile what you know about the way those groups of people are treated versus how you’re treated. People don’t read me as Jewish, they don’t read me as gay. They read me as just some blonde girl. And that has allowed me access to a lot of spaces that I don’t know if I would have gotten. I know that I felt really different from my co-workers, but in hindsight I looked a lot like them. It’s this feeling of being the only one — but still being in the room.

What was it like growing up with Holocaust survivor grandparents? How did that shape your understanding of what it means to be Jewish in America?

It shaped my identity in so many ways, and in ways that I don’t even fully understand. There’s so much to be said for inherited trauma, and generational trauma. And they did talk about it a lot; it was very much a present narrative in spending time with them.

Some people come out of trauma with greater empathy for people who are different than them, and other people double down on what they know. My grandparents did the latter. They were very much of the mindset that heterosexual white Jews are somehow superior to other kinds of people. And so, I didn’t come out to them. My sister ended up telling my grandfather that I’m gay in the last year of his life, because the one thing he always wanted to know was, “Why doesn’t Gabrielle have a boyfriend?” And she was really close with him, so she ended up just telling him. He and I never spoke about it. His response ended up being like, “Well, as long as she’s happy.” But that’s not something that I think he could have arrived at in periods of time when he had more mental clarity.

There’s also stuff around food in my family that I think stems from a scarcity mindset. My grandparents were very, very food oriented. I almost feel like I had an adverse reaction to that. I remember the insistence that we eat more, and eat everything, and I just remember feeling repulsed by that. It’s this feeling of impending doom, an understanding that it’s not a question of if the Holocaust will happen again, it’s a question of when the Holocaust will happen again. I think that really shapes how you navigate the world, and how you teach your children to navigate the world.

I can only imagine like how difficult it was to be vulnerable in this memoir about your history with disordered eating. Why did you like that was important to include in the book?

I felt like I couldn’t talk about the issues I wanted to talk about without including my own experience. It’s a different story if you take yourself out of it. I couldn’t just observe what was happening for other people and still have a compelling argument. In hindsight, I’m like, Oh, God, what did I do? But I do think that it was important. And my literary agent, actually, when I was having a really hard time with it, said to me, “This is not about you anymore. This is about the people who will read it and who will be helped by it.” What I took was, it doesn’t matter how scared I am, because the benefits for other people outweigh that.

What struck me the most about that section is when you write about the trend of body positivity, and how “the blame is once again placed on women — but this time, it’s not our bodies that are wrong; it’s our feelings about our bodies.” How do you think this messaging needs to shift?

I mean, I was very impacted by it. It kept me silent, in a lot of ways. I was so afraid to talk to anybody about the feelings I was having about my body because I wanted so badly to be that picture perfect millennial who has self-love and looks in the mirror and sings a Lizzo song. And, I wasn’t. And I don’t think any of us are.

I think it’s this trap: There’s actually no right way to be a woman. And there’s no right way to feel about your body. And any way you go, there’s some forks telling you that it’s the wrong way. For me, that made me become completely disconnected to what I was doing to myself.

There was the narrative of body positivity — and then there was the reality of the fact that I wasn’t taking care of myself at all, and that I hated what I saw in the mirror, and really dreaded having to be looked at in any way. The intentions are there with body positivity, especially the origins of it in true fat activism. That’s all great and amazing. I think it’s in co-opting it, when people who were actually skinny and actually not oppressed in any way for the way they looked, started adopting the language of the movement. I feel like that’s when it broke.

Switching gears here, what does the world of queer media mean to you? How do you think Autostraddle shaped you as a writer, starting out?

I really learned how to write for the internet at Autostraddle; I’d been working for a very academic feminist journal before I went there, and it was just a total 180 in terms of what people wanted. It gave me a real sense of online community, because it was a group of writers, but really a group of readers who would reliably comment and share and engage with what we were doing. It really made me feel part of something — which professionally, I had never felt before. The other side of it was that we were held to a really, really high standard by those people. I think queer media continues to do this, which is look at every single thing that comes out of it with a microscope. And that’s great! But it was also really stressful, because it felt like a lot of people waiting for you to mess up and say something wrong. But, obviously, that’s a good thing. I think we have to hold each other accountable for pushing the narrative forward.

It’s so funny, Jewish media is exactly the same way. It can feel like people are just waiting for us to make a mistake and call us out. And it can be really stressful, because there’s so few exclusively Jewish sites out there. So I totally get that. What advice would you tell someone starting out in digital media in this landscape?

[Laughs]

Don’t do it!

I would honestly say: Have a backup plan. And think about if there are ways you can continue to write while also having a stable, lucrative career. Because writing will not be that. Sorry.

No, that’s great advice. Okay last, but very much not least, I love that you write about Coco Chanel being a Nazi sympathizer, and Karl Lagerfeld’s misogyny. Why was it important to include this in your memoir?

I feel like it’s the best example of a time when people just absolutely put their values on hold in the service of something that they think is pretty and that they think is cool. Everybody in fashion knows that she was a Nazi sympathizer. And it has been very much removed from the narrative of the brand. It’s not only that — it’s that Karl Lagerfeld was very open about his distaste for women who weren’t thin and conventionally attractive. That is also not a secret. All of these people who do work year round about improving body positivity in fashion, diversity in fashion — all of those people show up for the shows, and Instagram the guests, and like, die for it. And I just find it so insane. Especially because I found myself doing it, too! I was thrilled to get an invite to the Chanel show. I was thrilled one year when they gave me a bag. Then you think about what the brand is, and it’s so hard to participate in. And it’s also so hard not to participate in.

How do you navigate that personally? 

I don’t know. I did my best. When Karl Lagerfeld passed away, I asked one of my writers to write about his complicated legacy. This is was when I was at Nylon, and I published it. It was like a really fantastic, really critical look at the era of fashion that he shepherded, which upheld really oppressive things, and continues to exist, despite the “woke”-ining of fashion. I was really proud that that was our take on some of his legacy. Because all of — not all of, but many of our competitors — were just running slideshows of his best moments and talking about his positive impact. I don’t think I would have done this while he was alive because advertising is a real thing that keeps publications alive. But, it felt like a good moment to make a big statement.

And, I’m sure I could have done more. But ultimately, what I did was: I left fashion.

Just left! Do you feel good about about leaving fashion? 

Soooo good. Oh man, it is such a relief.

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