Teen Vogue’s First Indian American Editor-In-Chief Versha Sharma is the Newest Role Model for Young South Asians Around the World

versha sharma

On May 10, 2021, the South Asian diaspora exploded with joy as Teen Vogue announced Versha Sharma, previously a managing editor at the news outlet NowThis, would become its new editor-in-chief, taking over from Lindsay Peoples Wagner. Sharma’s new role adds even more diverse representation to the journalism industry, which is still predominantly white, and represents hope for millions of young South Asians hoping to pursue careers in media.

Brown Girl Magazine’s youth editor Shriya Bhattacharya caught up with Sharma in person at the Teen Vogue offices in New York City, deserted except for Sharma who says that she likes to occasionally come in because it’s peaceful.

“Anna (Wintour) is just a few doors down, so that’s convenient,” she said.

Her office, a bright, colorful space that Sharma decorated herself, is filled with framed Teen Vogue covers over the last 20 years — from early 2000s covers with Ashanti and Adam Brody to “Never Have I Ever StarMaitreyi Ramakrishnan, the cover star for Sharma’s first issue as editor in chief in August 2021.

“I thought it would be really meaningful to profile someone from the South Asian community for my first cover,” Sharma said.

 

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She explained that because season two was set to drop that summer, Teen Vogue had already scheduled a shoot with 20-year-old Ramakrishnan. It was Sharma’s idea, however, to put her on the cover. The shoot for the August issue took place in July, and it was where Sharma met Ramakrishnan and her family in person for the first time.

“She was delightful, and I feel like I’m legitimately friends with her mom,” Sharma said, smiling. 

Putting Ramakrishnan on August’s cover was just the start — one of Sharma’s priorities as editor-in-chief is to make Teen Vogue more diverse; not just in the kinds of stories covered, but the staff.

“The Teen Vogue staff is small but mighty – we’ve hired four people since I started and three of them are women of color. Now that I’m in this role and I have the chance to give these opportunities to others, especially people of color, that’s all I want to do,” she explained.

Diversity is so important to her because she rarely saw people who looked like her when she was a young girl. 

“When I was growing up in Louisiana, there was almost no South Asian representation, we didn’t have people like Mindy Kaling or anyone outside of Bollywood,” she said.

That lack of diversity continued when she first became a journalist. Sharma started her writing career at TPM Media LLC as a news writer, and then went on to report for outlets like MSNBC, Vocativ, and NowThis before coming to Teen Vogue

“When I started my career there were many times where I was the only person of color in the room, or the only woman, or the only woman of color. It’s still overwhelmingly white and we need to better reflect what America looks like.” 

Even though Sharma knew what her hiring would mean to South Asians around the world, she never expected the overwhelming response when the news first broke last May.

“Having gotten to this position, I feel this incredible validation, but it’s that much more meaningful because of the response around the globe,” she said.

 

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Sharma was especially surprised by how many people noticed that her mangalsutra in the headshot, a necklace that she usually wears and says is a part of her identity.

“The reaction showed me why representation is so important – it’s not just about the color of your skin or your name. It’s that actual, physical connection to culture, especially in a role like this where fashion is such an important part.”

Fashion is something that Sharma is still getting used to; in fact, when she was applying for the position, she didn’t know that the editor-in-chief got to attend the infamous Met Gala.

“It wasn’t in the job description!” she laughed. When she first got the position, prominent Indian designers Prabal Gurung and Bibhu Mohapatra reached out to her with congratulations even though they had never met.

“That was so meaningful to me because I have a decade-long career in journalism and politics and culture and feel confident in that work, but not so much in fashion. So for the top designers in fashion to see this brown girl coming into the industry and welcoming me with open arms, I wanted to lift them up in turn by wearing one of their dresses,” she explained.

 

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Sharma ended up reaching out to Prabhal Gurung to design a dress, and later got to meet the designer at the event. 

Community building is very important to Sharma, and it’s one of the reasons why she admires Brown Girl Magazine so much.

“It’s the first publication I’ve seen in this space that has accurately reflected the diaspora in that we all have very different perspectives on things,” she explained.

She loves how the publication caters to South Asian representation, hoping that in the future there will be many outlets that similarly cater to marginalized communities.

“No one can tell our stories better than we can. You want to be as reflective of the community as possible, and you can only do that by staffing and assigning stories to the right storytellers.”

According to Sharma, young people are not just the future, but the present. Her message to young South Asians everywhere is to understand what makes them unique.

“Understand that your voice is incredibly important, and as we enter this next phase of having even more South Asian representation, don’t ever think the table is too crowded; there’s room for all of us,” she said.

 

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She encourages young people to keep their eyes focused on Teen Vogue, which has some exciting new projects coming up with South Asians. Not able to reveal details but highlights that shows like Bridgerton, South Asian politicians, and South Asian designers, are on the docket.

“I’m honored to play a small part of this representation, showing young people that you can be in these roles. We still have a lot to do, but it feels like we’ve made so much progress,” she said with a smile.

By Shriya Bhattacharya

Shriya Bhattacharya is the Youth Editor at Brown Girl Magazine, leading a team of six writers to amplify young South … Read more ›

Meet Fashion Blogger and Media Star Dolly Singh

Dolly Singh
Dolly Singh

Dolly Singh is a content creator who is from South Delhi. She earned a bachelor’s in political science from Delhi University. Singh then attended The National Institute of Fashion and Technology. She even had her own blog called “Spill the Sass.” Fashion is a true passion for Singh as she made her outfit of the day debut on Netflix’s Bhaag Beanie Bhaagon. She has even appeared on Modern Love Mumbai Edition! Singh was awarded Cosmopolitan Blogger Award in 2021 and IWM Social Media Star in 2022. Continue to learn more about Dolly Singh’s journey!

[Read Related: Fashion Influencer Ritvi Shah on how to Nail Content Creation]

 

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What parts of your childhood pushed you into the world of content creation?

I have always been an introverted-extrovert kind of person. During my early teens I wouldn’t speak much at home but in school I was quite the talkative showgirl. When I look back it seems so paradoxical, almost as if I suffer from a split personality. Somehow my earliest childhood memories are of my loving to be on stage. I remember when I was in the 12th grade, I cajoled my teacher to include me in a singing competition since I had never ever sung live on stage and I was persistent in my effort for over 4-5 years and eventually she gave up and she said ‘okay its your last year why don’t you go do it ‘and of course in the process I realized what a bad singer I was. But just the sheer joy of being on stage, performing to a live audience and entertaining people is what stirred me at a deeper level. I think on the other hand my reserved side allows me to study people and their nuances and store all those observations in my memory data bank which helps me create great content. I wouldn’t speak much at home, but you know when I did, it was just 2 punch lines and everybody would either laugh or get awkward. I think I always knew that I was born to entertain, and it was my destiny’s calling. I would always get jealous seeing child actors on newspapers and television and I was like ‘oh my God, I am a child, and I could be an actor, living my dream life but I’m still stuck here’.

Do you feel what you do can inspire and impact the world? Please elaborate.

Of course, I think anybody with a decent following on social media has the potential to positively impact the community. Content creators enjoy a certain reach and it’s so important to handle that responsibility meticulously and the kind of message that you’re putting out needs to be respectful of certain socially expected parameters and mindful of the basic laws of the universe. It’s better to say nothing, then to say something stupid something that is going to just bring out the worst in people or send out misleading signals. I feel like the amount of content that audiences are consuming these days can trigger positive change if it’s done in the right manner. I feel strongly about a lot of topics, and I make sure that my platform is a reflection of that in some way. With content creators as opposed to film stars and celebrities, there is a direct engagement with audiences and a more one-on-one connection and hence content creators stand at a more leveraged position to influence audiences positively. I love body positivity as a topic.

Who were your fashion icons growing up?

Any fashion events that you envisage yourself at in the future to represent the brown renaissance? I think a lot of my inspiration came from the indie pop movement of the 1900s and the 2000’s. I started watching Hollywood movies and a lot of my inspiration started coming from the Bollywood Hollywood section in glossies and I made cutouts of the media, the models, the people. Then came Disney Channel and FTV and I used to watch those when my mom was away at work. I would love to represent India at the Paris, New York and London runways and walk for Indian designers who are using sustainable fabrics and indigenous designs and helping skilled artisans make a living in India. I love Madhu Sapre, Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks, Cindy Crawford.

As you started a style blog in college, what were some of your favorite pieces of clothing in your early years?

Yeah, it was called Spill The Sass. I love blogging on T-shirts because there are so many ways that you could style a basic white T-shirt. Another blog I enjoyed back in the day was 5 ways to style maxi skirts. If I had to choose two pieces of clothing it would be a T-shirt and jeans!

How has your style evolved over the years?

It’s evolved from minimalistic and pocket friendly to being experimental and qualitative. The more I visited fashion weeks and events, the greater I experimented with outfit ideas that I curated personally. Over the years, I’ve started leaning more towards keeping it classy, chic and comfortable.

Tell us about your favorite online character since you make a bunch of them?

My favorite online character of mine would be Raju Ki Mummy because it’s based on my own mother.

If you could collaborate with anyone in the world, who would it be and why?

I would love to collaborate with Jenna Marbles. I love her to death. I discovered her few years ago and I would love to meet her in person. I mean she’s just a person who if I meet, I will just start sobbing like a child.

[Read Related: Malvika Sitlani on Content Creation, Entrepreneurship and Womanhood]

 

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Have you faced adversity in your field? How have you risen from it?

Adversities are just an everyday fact of life but I like to believe my dreams and goals are bigger than my fears and setbacks. I know at the end of the day I want to be something; I want to give back and quitting isn’t the solution. Every time I face a creative block, I just tell myself this ‘get up and get to work, there are many who look up to you, you can’t disappoint them’. Also, the support from family, friends is nothing less than therapeutic especially when you’re having that typical bad day. I run towards therapy when I hit rock bottom, which happens quite often. We often feel burnt out, exhausted, tired, and just sad. I’ve been taking therapy for the last two years. It’s been beneficial. I’m not saying all my problems have vanished; that’s not how it works. It’s a continuous journey and a continuous process, but I think therapy is my mantra.

You recently turned into an entrepreneur with your own line of candles. Tell us more on what drove this decision and are there any other lifestyle products you will be launching?

As a creator I think it’s just natural to want to extend your brand trajectory to newer realms and not be stagnant in your growth path. It’s hard to gauge the shelf life of any creator considering there is stiff competition and there will be a sense of redundancy that seeps into the algorithm at some point. It’s always beneficial to expand your forte and explore multiple revenue streams is what I’ve gathered from so many interactions I’ve had with my industry peers over the past few years. There were many opportunities where people wanted to create merchandise of mine or partner on a fashion and accessory line but I wasn’t very mentally ready given my hectic schedules. I was a customer of Rad Living and after the pandemic I went into this zone of binge buying so much self-care stuff and you know candles was one of them. So when this came about I think I was ready to experiment and expand and was looking for an avenue to invest my energies on something enjoyable. I had already made a content piece on candles before this offer came my way so I had a list of quirky candle names, taglines for fragrances, matching the fragrance notes with the names. I think with this inning the whole ‘Creator’ part to me really came to use here as well and that’s what was exciting about this and it was funny because it was such ‘a life comes to a full circle’ moment for me. My mom was into candle making because Nainital at that point was known for its candles and she used to make such variety of candles, 100s of types of candles and all my life I mean the first 16-17 years of my life I’ve just seen my mom make candles at home and our house were full of wax and everything was just candles. My father used to sell candles and it was my family business. Let’s just say that I’m taking forward the family legacy and I’m very excited to go home and to my father’s shop in Nainital and put my candles there and sell them!

Will there be any lifestyle products you’ll be launching?

I was so nervous about this candle launch as I never wanted to mislead my audiences and have them indulge in something that’s mediocre. I really invested my heart and soul in this venture, and thankfully the response has been beyond phenomenal. Courtesy all the good word of mouth publicity, I’m thinking of maybe launching my own beauty and fashion line in about 2 years!

What have been your favorite content pieces that have you worked on this far?

I love most of my content pieces as I’m very particular about each one of them so it’s hard to pick a favorite. One of them is a mini film called Aunty Prem Hai and it’s about an orthodox lady finding out that her nephew is queer from his ex-boyfriend, and this is a first time reveal since the nephew has never come out of the closet. There’s also this series called How Aunties Talk About Sex, and I’ve given a twist to how old-timer desi Indians broach the topic of sex based on how I’ve seen my mother interact with her friends, post dinner conversations amongst relatives, and how it’s more like a taboo.

What are your favorite social media trends?

Anything that emits positivity and gratitude. It’s important that social media trends invoke a sense of intellectual enhancement. Anything that kind of teaches you something that enriches your existence or makes you want to live life more wholesomely. I also enjoy throwback trends, something to do with special memories and nostalgia, because I feel old school is always timeless.

Do you feel people are so trapped in social media that they forget about the world around them outside of their laptops, phones, and tablets?

Yes. Personally it’s been a task for me to get detached from technology and balance the real and the reel. In the last couple of years, I have consciously cut down on my screen time, even though it’s all work and no play for me. Social media is so omnipresent and it’s sometimes scary to see this crazy social media obsession where people forget there’s a real world out there with real people and you need to forge real connections that are deeply rooted in authentic exchanges. It’s scarier to see how social media trends have now become rules to live by for a more meaningful existence for many when on the contrary that shouldn’t be the case.

[Read Related: Filmi Nights: A Love Letter to Vintage Bollywood]

How do you feel about the term content creator?

It’s a word that invokes a sense of pride in me because for me it’s all about being innovative, authentic and self-made. Influencer on the other hand is something that doesn’t resonate with me because there’s no real job description. I’ve always maintained my stand of not being an influencer as I create content and make a living out of being creative and curating an audience for myself over the years.

As you’ve worked with Priyanka Chopra, Kareena Kapoor Khan, Aayushmann Khurrana, and others do you hope to be more involved in Bollywood? Tell us about your acting projects.

Of course, I would love to be more involved in the film industry not just in India but globally too. I think there is so much scope for the South Asian community to make a mark in world cinema and it’s time we pick up more Oscars and Grammy’s in the coming times. Anyone who is a creator is also a film star at heart. 90% of creators who make sketches and skits are facing the camera 24×7, making original content, improvising on scripts and all of that stems from that innate ability to be great performers who can keep an audience engaged. I would love to someday have my own podcast where I interview film personalities and get into their skin. I love the dance and song sequences in Bollywood films, and I think I’d be great doing that as well! I’d love to see how I can get out of my comfort zone and do something that doesn’t directly relate to my online alias in the future. I got a lot of offers during the lockdown and shot for a film in 2022 which sees me in a leading role and I’m excited for it to launch later this year. I’m working on some writing projects as I would love to script a documentary or a short film.

Lastly, what do you hope to take away from this interview with Brown Girl Magazine?

I think the questions have been great. The questions have been answered in a way that I feel so confident about myself right now, and I feel so proud about myself and that says a lot. I would like to thank Brown Girl Magazine for taking time out to interview me. I hope this inspires the brown community across the world!

Photo Courtesy of Dolly Singh

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By Brown Girl Magazine

Born out of the lack of minority representation in mainstream media, Brown Girl Magazine was created by and for South … Read more ›