IN CONVERSATION WITH: Jan Masters
When it comes to the world of media, Jan Masters holds an impressive list of achievements – and yet another strong woman I’ve had the privilege to meet. With many years in publishing behind her, and having just celebrated her 60th birthday, she’s as resilient and driven as she ever was. Previously editor of the entire Harrods’ portfolio of magazines, currently a columnist for The Telegraph magazine, as well as a contributor to their features and beauty sections – not to mention editing, marketing copywriting, hosting writing workshops, shoot direction and a passion for travel photography – Jan Masters is one of those women whose skill and dedication to her craft alone is empowering and inspiring to all midlife women. And I’m loving her weekly column in The Telegraph Saturday magazine!
With a long and impressive career across numerous UK and international titles, can you tell us what inspired you to be a writer?
I always wanted to write. Even as a young child, I preferred to make up my own stories rather than read those by grownups. As well as a beautiful way to express yourself, writing is also like figuring out a puzzle – for example, if a brand asks me to write an ad and has space for only five words, that’s every bit as challenging as composing a 1000 word article.
The way in which you begin a feature is crucial in order to intrigue the reader enough so they dive in. When I write an intro, I usually have my final line in mind too. Signing off in a (hopefully) clever way leaves readers feeling satisfied, glad they’ve devoted their precious time to hearing what you’ve had to say. I also think great writing has a lot in common with music and dance – it has amazing rhythm. It’s what carries your eye and accompanies your mind along the lines.
I’ve written on all kinds of subjects in my career. I started out as a beauty editor and had various beauty columns in UK magazines and newspapers, as well as one in Japanese Vogue that ran for seven years. I’ve also interviewed a lot of celebrities, which I really enjoyed. The formal interview is a delicate situation. You are two complete strangers brought together, often to discuss personal issues. You have to gain their trust by being genuine and asking questions in engaging and sensitive ways. Now, I’ve moved on to writing a column about being 60. And I’m not being shy about it! It’s proving very liberating.
Your passion for travel writing and photography has taken you to some incredible places – which one held the most challenges for you – and which left the greatest impression?
Although I’ve travelled extensively in some challenging environments, I’ve always been guided by incredible experts who not only recognise the beauty of those places, but also respect the dangers. It’s a great privilege to have seen polar bears in the Arctic and mountain gorillas in Rwanda, and in such cases, it’s imperative you behave as you’re instructed to by the professionals. Such trips have gifted me astonishing moments that have made lifelong memories.
I’ve also visited many countries where people survive on very little and that is immensely humbling, even more so when they welcome you so warmly. We sponsor the schooling of a little boy we met in the Himalayas – if a trip inspires and touches you, it’s important to touch it back with gratitude.
A country I love is Japan – if I could speak the language, I would happily live there. The people have managed to fuse the contemporary with the traditional in a very seamless way.
In terms of the region that has made the greatest impression on me, it’s definitely Antarctica. It is so otherworldly, so very remote and special, it is the one place where the anxiety from which I suffer tends to melt away like a snowflake on my nose. I’ve been twice and want to return. The White Continent has cast a spell over me.
One place you haven’t yet travelled to that you’d most like to explore and write about?
I love expedition cruising and Greenland has been on my list for a while. In terms of a bucket-list dream, as I don’t scuba dive (too nervous) I would love to go in a submersible and explore some of the glories and natural treasures of the deep.
Past or present, who has been your greatest inspiration?
Every single person who survives adversity and still appreciates the wonders of life … and enjoys laughter.
Hardest challenge you’ve had to overcome?
The mental anguish of suffering from severe anxiety and responsibility OCD, which is a form of OCD that means you feel overly responsible for anything and everything that can go wrong, not just for yourself, but for others around you. OCD, in various forms, has been a huge battle throughout my life. When I was young, it was a condition that wasn’t really recognised, diagnosed or understood. I used to feel very embarrassed about it and hid it because I didn’t really know what was wrong with me. Now I’m older, I think it’s important to be brave and acknowledge how it has affected me, if only to let other sufferers know they are not alone. Mental health issues can be very isolating.
Accomplishment you’re most proud of?
Passing a lot of ballet exams throughout my youth; finding the courage to travel the world, even though I was of a nervous disposition; and landing my new role as a columnist at The Telegraph – when I was hired, I’d been in the work doldrums for three years after leaving a job in in the corporate world and I thought my professional life was over. Now, when I receive so many wonderful comments from readers (and a few not-so-great ones but that’s to be expected) it feels like finally, at 60, I’m doing what I’m meant to be doing. Sure, things could go awry in the click of a finger – life is unpredictable – but I’m enjoying every moment while I can.
You recently celebrated your 60th birthday – what’s the most significant lesson you’re taking into your next decade?
Age is just a number. Wisdom is always a work in progress. Life is a gift. And making others a focus in your life helps you get out of your own way.
For many women, reaching 60 can be an unsettling milestone – what would you say to midlife women who are beginning to feel more invisible and less confident?
I think it’s more unsettling if you try to pass the milestone under the radar. Why not see it as a moment to start behaving with more lightness of spirit? Give yourself permission to try new things, make mistakes, reach new heights. If people say at 60 you’re more invisible, then use that excuse to try a whole heap of different things, looks and styles without worrying you’re being watched or judged.
We know that there’s still a societal pressure on women of any age to ‘look good’ – even more so with social media – but do you think we are starting to see a shift in ageist and stereotype attitudes – particularly media representation of midlife and beyond women?
First of all, we have to accept that youth will always be prized – that’s simply hotwired into our genes. It’s the way species continue to exist into the future. We were all young once and now I’m older and have looked at photos of all my young friends, we were all beautiful too in our own ways – we just didn’t realise it at the time! Don’t forget, the young can be just as hard on themselves as us oldies can. But yes, I think we are beginning to see more older people represented in the media, and given we have an ageing population, on top of the fact a lot of Boomers are on this road together, it’s not a demographic group that’s likely to enter old age quietly! I think if you can have fun expressing yourself through your sense of style, whatever age you are, you can always make a statement.
Best beauty travel tip – and top beauty must-have in your makeup bag?
Travel light and do as much groundwork as you can before you go – brows, lashes, nails etc. Top beauty must-have? A high SPF and base that evens up your skin tone.
Desert island disc, book and luxury item?
For the disc, I’d have to have a classical piece – Max Richter On the Nature of Daylight – and a pop song from the 80s, Everybody Wants to Rule the World by Tears for Fears. If you confiscate one, I’ll just smuggle in the other! As for the book, it would be Bill Bryson’s The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid – it’s one of the most cheerful and optimistic memoirs of childhood ever. Hm, a luxury item? My camera with endless digital storage space.
And finally, your favourite quote?
A Zen proverb: “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water”.