Alana House has edited and directed some of the highest circulating magazines in Australia, including Woman’s Day, NW and New Woman.
On the international circuit, she launched Singapore Harper’s Bazaar and transformed Cleo magazine into a cultural icon following a very successful tenure at Cosmopolitan magazine Australia.
Here, Alana shares her incredible career journey from newspapers to women’s magazines and explains how blogging helped her cope with one of the most emotionally traumatic experiences of her life.
How did your career in journalism begin?
“I wanted to be a journalist from age 15. Prior to that I wanted to be a pharmacist, but I realised it wasn’t about mixing the drugs yourself, it was mainly dispensing pills … oh and I was hopeless at science and maths!
“So I decided I wanted to be the editor of Dolly instead, but I was incredibly shy – Mum and Dad thought I was crazy. Then I was accepted into Mitchell College in Bathurst, which was the journalism school at the time.
“I decided to defer my degree and work in a bank for a year to save some money to support myself, then I landed a three-year cadetship at the Newcastle Herald. The only problem was I couldn’t master shorthand! The newspaper wouldn’t grade me as a journalist until I did, so I got a job as a features writer at Studio magazine instead. A year later, the recession hit and I was retrenched. After nine months of occasional freelance jobs, I went to House Design magazine as a subeditor, which was always funny to say to people when I phoned to fact-check stories – ‘Hi, I’m Alana House from House Design!’”
How did you score the job at Cosmopolitan magazine?
“I heard that Cosmo were looking for a subeditor and was very excited – it was like a grown-up Dolly to me! I was at Cosmo for nine years, starting as a sub-editor and then leaving as the Deputy Editor in 2000. I moved to Singapore to edit Cleo there, and stayed for two years.”
Tell us about some of those ‘memorable’ Cosmo stories?
“I got to be a ‘dyke on a bike’ at Mardi Gras and wrote a story about the experience! I was also covering a story on Miss Nude Australia when a judge dropped out at the last minute, so I was asked to fill in. So, there I was, judging women on how well they poured milk over their surgically enhanced breasts. That was interesting!
“Another memorable Cosmo story was covering the red carpet arrivals at the Planet Hollywood opening in Sydney. Kate Ceberano was walking past the media scramble and dropped her VIP pass. I picked it up… I ended up gate-crashing the event with Bruce Willis, Cindy Crawford and Sylvester Stallone all in close company!”
Did you have any big wins at Cosmo?
“I was one of the first people to suggest to the women’s lifestyle market that they replace models with celebrities on magazine covers. I was obsessed with celebs and desperately wanted to go to Hollywood – I’d always ask my boss to send me overseas to do interviews and photoshoots! I wanted to be the female ‘Molly Meldrum’ – Molly for TV, and Alana House for print! But it turned out I was hopeless at interviewing people – when I’d play back my tape recordings it would be just me talking the whole time! Reportage was my thing – writing about the detail and fascinating moments, rather than doing straight interviews.”
Portia de Rossi was a mega star when you interviewed her for Cosmo. What was she like?
“She was starring in Ally Mc Beal and, while I didn’t realise it at the time, was battling an eating disorder. She was quite paranoid, convinced everyone was staring at her. I can see now that she was really struggling. But she was very kind to me, showing me her house in Santa Monica, taking me out to dinner and driving me back to my hotel afterwards.”
How were Christina Applegate and Kylie Minogue to interview?
“Christina Applegate freaked me out! She was disgusted by the lyrics of a Fat Boy Slim song that was popular at the time and screamed at me to turn it off. The photographer at the shoot, Steve Shaw, was dating Lucy Lui at the time, and Kylie Minogue was staying with him as a house guest. We were invited to have dinner with Kylie Minogue and Lucy Lui! Lucy was too tired but Kylie came along. So we had dinner with Kylie, but all she ate was a crème brulee.
“I remember standing in the toilet queue at the restaurant and the publicist for Roma Downey (Touched by an Angle actress) invited us partying in a limo with Roma – while poor Kylie was left to follow us alone in her rental car!
“We tried to have a drink at the Chateau Marmont, but it was hosting the after party for Kate Winslet’s movie premier, Holy Smoke. Kylie couldn’t get in because she wasn’t ‘famous enough’. So we went to a bar. Kylie had called her boyfriend at the time, a male model named ‘Slick’ and invited him to come, but he said he was too tired. So we arrived at a bar and there was ‘Slick’ propping up the bar with a blonde woman. Kylie freaked out and Ken, the Cosmo Fashion Director, spent the whole night consoling her.”
You edited Cleo Singapore after Cosmo. What was that like?
“I left Cosmo in 2000 to become the editor of Cleo Singapore. I saw it as a unique opportunity to create a women’s magazine for a city rather than a huge country like Australia. I literally put Singapore in the magazine. I got the staff to hang out in Singapore’s nightclubs and bars and eat at the local hawker stalls and report on it all! The Cleo Bachelor awards were huge because every reader in the city could interact with the local guys on the list. I also put Asian models on the cover rather than the Western brunettes who were previously covergirls.
“Readers really responded to the magazine we created and we saw a 50% circulation increase within a year.
“Two years later, I launched Singapore Harper’s BAZAAR. But, literally, the day after the launch party I was asked to return to Australia to be the editor of Woman’s Day magazine.”
Woman’s Day was one of the highest circulating magazines in Australia. Were you nervous?
“Yes, it was one of the biggest magazines in Australia! I approached it with trepidation, but I felt it was a move I needed to make. I’d been awed by Nene King and the idea of following in her footsteps was pretty mindblowing.
The Woman’s Day publisher knew I’d initiated the move to include celebrities in Cosmo magazine and felt I had the right sensibility for a weekly magazine. But it’s the type of high profile role that never ends well – there was so much at stake in terms of sales. I edited Woman’s Day for six years.”
What were some of the biggest selling Woman’s Day issues?
“Princess Mary’s marriage and the christening of Prince Christian of Denmark was absolutely huge. People in Australia were very excited. We were paying stupid money for photos and stories at the time – hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Tell us about ‘bidding wars’ and how you secured photos and stories?
“Bidding wars were incredibly stressful. I had to balance the Woman’s Day budget and if I broke it, I had to give management an explanation. The biggest disaster was buying Sandra Bullock’s ‘secret baby’ photos. Her husband at the time had been having an affair, and all of this came out right after Sandra won an Oscar. We bought the ‘exclusive’ photos for a ridiculous amount, but social media was just beginning to boom. By the time our story hit the newsstands, everybody already knew the details and had seen the photos.”
Was it difficult to leave magazines?
“After Woman’s Day, I went on to become Editorial Director across ACP’s weekly titles – TV Week, Woman’s Day and Take 5 magazine. But by then I had been at ACP (Australian Consolidated Press – now Bauer Media) for 20 years and I wanted a break. So, I left magazines in 2011. It was a very hard time in my life. I’d battled some very difficult situations in the workplace and as a consequence, was struggling with anxiety issues, which contributed to my marriage unravelling.”
What was the impetus behind launching House Goes Home?
“I launched my blog in 2011, a few weeks of leaving ACP. I’d gone from a high-powered career woman to being a stay-at-home mum and it was a pretty confronting transition.
“The blog started just as my marriage crumbling, and I wrote about the whole experience, though I didn’t realise it at the time. I was in a very bad place, but I couldn’t see it then. I look back now on some of those first posts and feel pretty rattled by how much I was struggling. The blog has always been very real – how I feel, no censorship!
“Everyone pretends on social media that things are amazing – they are too scared to talk about the bad things. So many people have reached out to me after reading my blog posts to say how good it’s been to read they’re not alone in the way they’re feeling or the difficult situations they’re going through. I get virtual strangers asking to meet me for a coffee or lunch and pouring their hearts out about their relationship problems. People feel comfortable talking to me because they know so much about me from the blog. I feel it’s a valuable thing to be able to make people feel they’re not alone.
“I’ve had many friends and family members advise me to stop being so honest about what I was going through, but it’s been a therapeutic outlet for me.
How has House Goes Home evolved?
“Today, the pillars and themes of House Goes Home are a bit different. I still cover recipes, single motherhood, marriage separation and celebrity, but it’s also about how I’ve fallen in love again and ‘found’ myself in my late 40s.
“I’ve become more open to new experiences since my marriage ended and feel much more comfortable in my own skin.”
You joined Mamamia in 2011, shortly after launching your blog. How did that come about?
“Mia and I had worked together for three years on Cosmo magazine and had sporadically stayed in touch. It was no longer an option for me to stay at home as a single parent and not earn money! I had to find a new job with part-time and flexible hours, so I could pay the bills and balance being a mum to my two daughters. So I joined Mamamia as editor of its parenting site, ivillage.com.au [now defunct].
“It was an amazing experience. Mia is the digital guru in Australia. Not many people are making money out of online but she has built a successful brand from the ground up. I learnt a lot about working in digital but by marriage was reaching breaking point and I needed to take some time out.”
After a break, you moved to travel writing. How was that?
“It was great! Although it’s difficult to travel as a single mum. I worked on News Limited’s Excape.com.au and then moved to Kidspot.com.au for two years. Digital is a very competitive, fast-paced and low-paying area. Journalists are constantly being replaced with staff at half the salary.
“It was confronting to walk away from a 30-year career, but I realised it was time to get out. I’m now working as a social media and communications manager. I’m really excited and passionate about my new role, with a not-for-profit organisation called the drinks association.”
You’re still blogging daily six years later – while juggling motherhood and your new job! What drives your commitment?
“I started House Goes Home to exercise my writing muscle. You don’t get to do much writing when you are overseeing a magazine team.
“There is a real pleasure for me in blogging. You know immediately if you have written something that strikes a chord with people because it takes off immediately online.
“It’s usually the emotional stories that do well. But you can’t be emotional every day, so I temper the posts out with what the stars are wearing at the Cannes festival or other red carpet events, or the curry I cooked last night!”
Who is your audience?
“I have readers in Europe, the United States and Australia – a small but loyal audience who have been a part of my journey over the past 5 ½ years and follow it. Some tell me I’ve become part of their daily routine, they read my blog posts with their morning coffee, or they get a ‘beep’ on their phone when my blog comes through that’s their alarm clock!”
Your daughters were young when you started your blog. Are you concerned about how they might be affected by the stories you share?
“If it made them feel uncomfortable I’d have to examine whether it was time to stop.
“I don’t write for ‘clicks’ or notoriety. It’s an organic following I’ve created. I’m writing for me and for people who are feeling similar things. Being a single mum is hard – you are doing everything on your own, have to work, and you feel guilty that your kids aren’t living in a nuclear family.
“But, I have to admit, blogging has become a part of me – it would be very hard to give it up.”
“I’m loving my new role in communications, but I still blog six days a week! I’d like to write full-time, but it’s hard to monetise a blog so I’m happy to keep it as a creative outlet.”