In conversation with

Helena Lee

Features Director at Harper's Bazaar

Helena Lee

Introduction

Introduction

Representation in women’s media can be problematic. From interviews to beauty shoots, the female narrative on the covers of magazines has historically been one of homogenous identity. As a writer, editor and host, Helena Lee is on a mission to change that.

In her role as Features Director at Harper’s Bazaar, Helena has penned a poignant piece on global beauty standards and reconciling her Chinese heritage with a Western education. She also landed “the dream commission, a joy to write,” which took her on a journey to Hong Kong and China, following in the footsteps of her father.

Now she is about to launch a series of events called East Side Voices, a new platform where Asian writers will be invited to discuss their work at The Standard Hotel Library Bar in London each month.

We spoke to Helena about writing advice, representation and the conversations she’d like to be having in this new space.

Question and Answer

You started your career in advertising, cutting your teeth at agencies like Lowe, Ogilvy and Saatchi & Saatchi. What made you want to make the transition to editorial, and has your advertising experience stayed with you?

There were two things I loved about advertising: the people and the creativity. Everyone was irreverent and ridiculously talented. But when I looked around, I wondered where everyone went when they grew up. At the same time, I also I realised that I wanted to write – something I’d always done, but never had the confidence to turn into a profession.

I learned from working in advertising that great ideas need to be protected and nurtured to flourish. As an editor, it’s important for me to lay the foundations for writers and artists I commission to feel that they are able to deliver what they do best. And, of course, how to be commercial, but not at the expense of the integrity of the creative.

Who are some great storytellers for you?

I think Sally Rooney is such a brilliant storyteller. Her essay ‘Even if you beat me’ in the Dublin Review, which illuminates the esoteric world of international debating is gloriously deadpan. I also love Deborah Levy, Ali Smith, Truman Capote and Homer.

helena lee

You’ve had a longstanding career at Harper’s Bazaar. What are the most important lessons you have learned about writing, reading and editing while there?

I’ve been very fortunate to have worked with Justine Picardie for seven years. She was a great mentor. One of the lessons she taught me was about taking the time to understand what the writer loves, what drives them, what draws out their words.

“Keep writing whenever you can, on the train, late at night, when you’re tired – perhaps especially when you’re tired. Access your feelings, and develop your voice.”

Is there any one article you have written which stands out for you?

I had the dream commission when I went to Hong Kong and China for a week and followed in the footsteps of my father, who scampered round Kowloon in Hong Kong causing havoc. I picture him as a cheeky Marty McFly-type character, without a care in the world. Weaving in the history of the area with my father’s own journey was a joy to write.

You are just about to launch a new monthly series, East Side Voices, which will take on a literary salon format to give Asian writers a platform to be heard. What prompted you to start this initiative?

I was frustrated with the lack of visibility that East Asians and Southeast Asians are given, especially in popular culture. There is hardly an Asian character on our screens, and when there is, they are often portrayed as cultural stereotypes – the doctor, the maths whizz, the strange silent one (think of Pitch Perfect!). Similarly, there are fantastically talented writers of East and Southeast Asian origin living here whose visibility is not proportional to their talent. I wanted East Side Voices to be a platform to help change the status quo, and inspire people to cast more Asians, think about Asian protagonists, pick up more books by Asian writers. Given that countries such as Korea and China are becoming more prominent, I thought it was important to help give an insight into the rich cultures that exist there.

"Sharlene, Rowan and I will be talking about identity in fiction - breaking out from writing about the standard – probably white – main character and what that might mean."

What conversations would you like to be having in this space?

I’m so fortunate that the amazing award-winning writers Sharlene Teo, Rowan Hisayo Buchanan and Tash Aw will all be interviewed as part of the series, as well as the brilliant fashion designer Rejina Pyo. At our launch event (on 19th February) Sharlene, Rowan and I will be talking about identity in fiction and breaking out from writing about the standard – probably white – main character and what that might mean. East Side Voices is for everyone: I’m hoping it will be a space where people can ask honest questions, and learn about cultures they might not have considered before.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given about writing?

Keep writing whenever you can, on the train, late at night, when you’re tired – perhaps especially when you’re tired. Access your feelings, and develop your voice.

The Storylist

Helena's Storylist

Books

  1. Dear Girls by Ali Wong
  2. Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell
  3. Starling Days by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

Magazines

  1. The New Yorker
  2. FT Magazine
  3. Harper's Bazaar

Newsletters

  1. Conversations On Love

Podcasts

  1. Open Ears Project
  2. Elizabeth Day's How To Fail
  3. The Happy Vagina
  4. The Great Women Artists
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