“Nothing in my past had prepared me to start and run a business, much less one that made money. I’m what The New York Times once referred to in an article as an accidental entrepreneur.” — Nikki Hardin, Founder and Editor of Skirt! magazine.
If the Brothers Grimm were still around, they would write the story of Nikki Hardin’s life just as fairytales used to be written — with plenty of twists and turns, dark days, seemingly insurmountable challenges, and glimmering moments of hope before finally, there is an ever-after to the story, one that is both happy and richly deserved.
Hardin’s path wasn’t short, and it wasn’t easy. After eloping with her boyfriend at 17, Hardin became the mother of three children. Twelve years later, she found herself in the unenviable position of being divorced, with few career skills. At 29 years old, Hardin enrolled in college where she eventually earned a B.A. in literature. She moved onto graduate school on a Governor’s fellowship, but didn’t complete her master’s because, as she says, she spent “most of the year crying and watching Kojak reruns.”
Still, the divorced mother had her college degree, and an accomplishment like that usually signals some neat happily-ever-after ending — at least in the contemporary realm of women’s stories, where even years of hard times are often condensed into a bite-sized afterthought, making success seem easy or somehow inevitable.
Hardin’s story isn’t that neatly packaged, perhaps because she tells it herself, with unflinching honesty and very little romantic glow. After her graduation, Hardin went to work as a secretary for a book publishing company in Northern Virginia. In 1985, on a whim, Hardin moved to Charleston, SC, where she “nursed a midlife crisis”, cleaned houses, clerked in a liquor store with a “psychotic” parrot, and picked up the occasional freelance writing job.
In 1994, a “broke and bored” Hardin found herself venting to a friend about the state of her life, feeling like a failure, and wanting more.
He asked me what I would do if I could choose from anything at all, and I said, “Start a magazine for women”. Then do it, he said. I can’t, I protested, I’m 50. I don’t have any money. I don’t know how. I wanted it to be easy, and I was scared. I thought of a million reasons NOT to answer that calling, but the idea wouldn’t go away.
Hardin began Skirt! magazine with $400 and the support of her friends. She had no business plan, no collateral, and no experience in the magazine industry, but she did have a vision. She wanted a publication that she would be interested in reading. “If we had an ideal reader,” Hardin explains, her name would be ‘Martha Steinem’ because most of our readers are kickass liberals who also like to shop and cook and don’t think wearing lipstick means you don’t have a brain.” It was a pleasure to interview Hardin, whose passion is apparent not only in her flagship publication, but in her personal stories.
In The Glass Castle, Jeanette Walls goes from college to success with seeming ease. As a single mother of three, you returned to school at 29. I imagine it wasn’t easy. What was that process like, and how did you get from there to starting Skirt?
It wasn’t easy because I was so broke all the time, but on the other hand, it was one of the best times of my life because I finally felt as if I was where I belonged. I think it was hard on my kids because we were living kind of a chaotic life, but we all survived it. I graduated from American University in D.C. when I was 33 and found an entry-level secretary job with a branch of a national publishing company. I was lucky that I had a great boss and mentor and he really pushed me and gave me more and more responsibility and promoted me to the editorial staff—unheard of at that time in that company for a secretary to become an editor. By the time I left, I was a Sr. editor and an assistant vice president. I left to take a job with a software company, which was just not the right for me, and at the same time, the relationship I’d been in for the past 7 years went bad and my two older kids had left for college and the military—so I had a clichéd and classic midlife crisis.
As a result I made what seemed to be an irrational decision—I moved with my high school-age daughter to a tiny barrier island off the coast of Charleston, SC. I had no money, no connections, no clue what I was doing (except that I wanted to write), so I embarked on a series of kind of dead-end jobs that turned out to be just the right thing for me. At the time, it felt like I was vegetating—leading a bohemian day-to-day lifestyle at the edge of the world—but I think I was gestating instead. After cleaning houses, working in a liquor store with a psychotic parrot, waitressing and other odd jobs, I finally began freelance writing, but I was not making much money and I felt I’d run my life into a dead-end alley. That’s when the idea for Skirt! came along. I was 50 and started a pro-choice, liberal publication with about $400 in one of the most conservative states in the south. Another irrational decision! Women were hungry for something authentic, though, and they weren’t getting it in the daily paper. Skirt! was different in that it combined local features with nonlocal content in a highly visual style — not like your usual free alternative publication. And we made sure that the ads were just as interesting in terms of design as the editorial—a simple idea, but one that nobody else had picked up on.
What are your goals for Skirt? What overall message do you hope your publication will carry to its audience?
I’d love to see editions across the country. We’re in 20 cities now and hope to keep expanding. I never set out to change the world or be a standard bearer for women’s rights, but since that’s one of my interests, that plays a big part in the mission of skirt!. Advertisers know that we’re pro-choice, liberal, and sometimes controversial, but they also know our target demographic is one they want to reach. It’s been incredibly instructive for me, too, to have a dialogue with women who don’t agree with us on those issues but read Skirt! anyway. Having those exchanges has proven to me that women in this country have so much in common, and if we could just get past the surface disagreements, we could change the world!
We’ve spoken briefly about the “too much” factor – how passionate women are often called “too much” of something or not enough of another by people who expect us to be more docile. What have you been called “too much” or not enough of? And how have these attributes contributed to your life and career?
Being “too much” is not something I can help, although I do find myself at times trying to be “nice,” using a kind of camouflage in order not to threaten people, especially men, with my sometimes radical views and large ambitions. It never works, of course. I think being an ambitious woman in this culture definitely affects your personal life and your work life. Just look at Hillary Clinton—her campaign failed for many reasons, but one of them was the way the press beat her up about her clothes, her laugh, her coldness and then her tears. I think the real reason was because they didn’t know how to deal with her ambition and somehow in a woman, it was unseemly.
Many people feel that the country turned back the hands of time in the last ten years, and that passion for politics, social issues, and noble causes has lessened. Do you believe this, and if so, do you see passion, particularly for females, making a comeback?
I see this every day in the area where I live. The size of a woman’s engagement ring or how much their wedding cost often seems a bigger achievement than someone getting promoted, but I also see that salaries and opportunities for young women are in some ways still very limited in comparison to men. Beyond that, I’m discouraged that women in general seem not to be fired up by political and social inequities, and there is a real dearth of women running for public office. In South Carolina, we have one (!) woman in the state legislature, and she is retiring. It’s still a boy’s club with not much hope in the near future of changing that. Why aren’t we outraged?!
You’ve met many women through your work with Skirt. Do you believe assertive women are still largely considered “bitchy” whereas assertive men are viewed as “competitive”? Do you see this as something is changing?
Yes, I think it still happens and unfortunately, I think much of the criticism or negative remarks come from other women. I hear a lot of, “what kind of mother could she be to be that single-minded about her career?”. Ugh.
Have you taken any of your life lessons from women you view as passionate? If so, who were they, and what lessons did you learn?
Gloria Steinem has always been a huge role model for me, because she is so focused and unwavering even when she’s under attack. Women’s ideas often get ridiculed as a way of marginalizing and neutralizing them. Steinem has endured a lot of that and yet she never loses her dignity or her core values. I’m also a big fan of Frida Kahlo (my blog is named after her) because she kept on creating throughout a life filled with physical and emotional pain. Her passion jumps off the canvas, and she’s an important personal icon for me.
In 2003, with a legion of loyal readers, Hardin sold Skirt! magazine to the Morris Group but continues on as editor, lending both her vision and her voice to the original publication as well as its newer book-publishing arm. In her sixties now, Hardin’s passions haven’t faltered or waned — they have only grown stronger and more focused as she finds ways to share them with other women.