The Power of Authenticity and Taking Risks

Harper’s Bazaar Culture Editor, Bianca Betancourt, delves into the importance of embracing and celebrating our cultural identities in storytelling and how taking risks landed her the opportunity of her dreams.

NB: As a Latina, how has your background played into your work?

BB: My dad is Puerto Rican. My mom is African American and Native American. My dad didn’t learn Spanish growing up because he was of the generation in the mid-1960s where if you had an accent in America you’d get made fun of or even beat up and his parents enforced speaking perfect English— so my siblings and I didn’t get to learn the language in the usual organic way. Since I always had that disconnect with Spanish, I wanted to make sure I was well-versed in everything else within the Puerto Rican culture. I was grateful that my grandmother taught me how to cook Puerto Rican recipes and music was also something that always surrounded us. Even though I didn’t know what they were saying, just hearing salsa music around the house and listening to it with my grandfather, are formative memories that shaped how I viewed myself. 

In terms of my work, when I first started writing, I always wanted to center stories around my identity and those around me with similar stories. One of my first stories for the Huffington Post about 10 years ago was about Afro-Latina identity and why no one was talking about it and highlighting it as a different sector of Latinidad. So, now at Harper’s Bazaar, I always try to ensure I’m spotlighting the latest musicians or artists who are killing it, Latina women especially who are moving mountains in the music, film, and art industries. 

NB: Can you give us your POV on what it means to be an Afro-Latina in the U.S.?

BB: I think there’s two sides to it. For brands, when they want to promote the “Latino story” or what’s ideal for the masses, they often have a very one-sided point of view of what that looks like. Even within our communities, there’s a lot of denial about who is and who isn’t. If you go to any Latino country, whether it’s Central America, the Caribbean, or South America, you will find Afro-Latinos everywhere, and sometimes they’re the majority. But there’s still this bias and it’s not just in Latino communities, based on how we look. Before we get to the brand side of it, we need to have these difficult conversations with ourselves and our families on what’s acceptable and what’s not and preach that for generations to come. We are all from the same place, and we have many of the same ideals and traditions. So, it starts with us first, and from there, brands, corporations, and companies will follow.

Latina-owned brands have already begun tackling this, especially with the concept of “good hair” versus “bad hair,” which we hear often in the Latino and black communities. These brands have done a phenomenal job of seeing the full spectrum of who we are and celebrating that—but it’s just the start.

NB: How do you use your work as a vehicle to bring about change in our community?

BB: It’s always been about the power of storytelling and giving people an opportunity on the platforms I’ve been able to have. I’m lucky to have been at Bazaar for almost five years now and have become someone they believe in and trust. That doesn’t always mean that my stories are going to generate a traffic win for our website but sometimes it’s about telling those stories no one else is talking about. Seeing the comments or shares on social media of some of my stories and reading about the joy people get in seeing themselves reflected in these narratives is priceless. 

I remember we did a fun story a couple of years ago about RBD’s fashion and how it has lasted over the years. People have been so inspired by it and most people in the Bazaar audience would have no idea who RBD was, let alone recognize one of their songs. Their impact was huge. So I went rogue and didn’t initially tell my bosses we were doing this story on their fashion.

We posted the story on Instagram and it did really well! All the comments were people being so excited and saying “I never thought I would see Harper’s Bazaar talking about RBD.” That to me was a moment worth it all.

NB: You wrote the very first September cover for Harper’s Bazaar featuring a Latino and a solo man, Bad Bunny. Tell us more about it.

BB: Yes, he was the first solo male featured on a September cover which, in the magazine world, is the biggest cover of the year. And we had never in our 150+ year history had a Latino on the September cover. So he was kind of a double whammy, and that was an instance of years of advocating. People close to me know how much I was fighting for that because I wanted to feature him far before Un Verano Sin Ti even existed and before we knew what it would become in terms of him coming over to the mainstream. I got a lot of questions on why a women’s magazine, “Why not a GQ?” “Why not a men’s fashion or XYZ?” And I replied, “Because women love him.” “Do you have any idea how many women love this guy?” Every meeting when people asked about the latest trends or artists, I would always say the same thing at every meeting, “Benito, Bad Bunny.” My mind hasn’t changed. This is the person who’s most interesting right now. Finally, when Un Verano Sin Ti came out, you couldn’t deny it anymore. No matter who you were, or where you came from. Bad Bunny was everywhere. He was it. And then I heard rumblings that they were considering him for that cover, and I knew I had planted the seed for that because his team had reached out to me probably a year before.

They waited for the right moment and I think he’ll have many more massive moments in his career. He’s just getting started, but that was the moment that changed everything. When I found out we had confirmed him, I basically cornered my executive editor and told her “No one else should be writing this but me,” and she agreed. 

NB: What is the biggest risk you’ve had to pay off in your career?

When I got the job at Harper’s Bazaar. Before I started, I was freelancing for several different outlets and I was doing great, had regular work, and felt great. But I wanted a full-time role. I felt ready to move to New York. I just didn’t know what was going to get me there. So, I applied for a lot of jobs and was interviewing at a lot of places, and everything seemed to go well, but they would always go with someone else. Finally, I was sitting at my day job I had at the time, a fashion copywriting gig, and I got an email from Hearst’s HR that said “We’re looking for an assistant digital news editor, would you be interested?” Never in a million years would I have even applied to Harper’s Bazaar because I love fashion and I follow it, but that was a level of luxury I couldn’t even fathom at the time. 

I knew it was a great opportunity. From all the interviews I’d done before that, I knew they couldn’t know I wasn’t in New York at that moment or they wouldn’t consider me. So, essentially I don’t condone lying, but I did lie and pretended I was in New York already. I asked for a few days and said “I can be there on Friday!” Then, I called my big sister and I said, ”I need you to book me a flight to New York, and I’ll pay you back, can you please help me out?” She did, so this became more than an opportunity for me, now my family was investing in me and I needed to make it work.

I flew to New York, did the first 20-minute interview and went back to JFK to fly back to Chicago. I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I gave it my all. Needless to say, it all worked out, and I got the job. It was a pretty fast process. I did all the rounds of interviews within a week, and I think I found out later that month. Then, from there, I had three weeks to move, and I made it happen.

NB: What advantage do you think Latinos have to disrupt the collective zeitgeist?

BB: Diversity is our superpower. When you’re looking at music, people keep saying this is the second Latin boom, but I think it’s been more gradual than people have seen it. Look at the diversity of the different Latin music that’s taking over. You have Peso Pluma, you have a Bad Bunny, you have a Karol G, you have a Tokischa. Just those names alone are all doing things that are different and diverse. 

I love seeing the diaspora on display when it comes to the entertainment that we put out. Even when you look at people who are taking over the movie world and how obsessed people are with Pedro Pascal. It’s been fun to see that because they are inherently being themselves. You don’t see them trying to play a certain game, they’re just being themselves. I think Omar Apollo is another musician who is being inherently himself and it’s paying off and people are enamored by it. Kali Uchis is someone who’s always been herself, paved the way musically, and now she’s surpassed Shakira as one of the top-streamed Latina artists. I love seeing people be true to themselves and not be worried about watering themselves down for the sake of hitting it mainstream or making it in America. The key is being authentic.

NB: Whose work right now do you find really exciting and why?

BB: Omar Apollo is someone who has a cult following and I feel this year is going to be big for him. He’s going to venture out into other mediums in the industry. I think people are going to resonate with that. I also love the band “The Marías,” they already have a bit of a following, they’re an American rock band, but their lead is this amazing Boricua who has the voice of an angel and writes beautiful songs. She reminds me of a Boricua Gwen Stefani in her No Doubt days. I find them to be true artists, so that’s super exciting right now. Lastly, she’s definitely not up and coming, but I’m just so excited for Cardi B’s next album because I love that she’s someone who came from nothing and made everything and I will always support someone like her.

NB: Do you think the media is covering our stories enough, be it fashion, music, business, or politics? Do you think we’ve got enough Latinos in newsrooms? And what can we do about it if the answer is no? 

BB: I definitely agree it’s better than 10 or 20 years ago. It’s less surprising to see a Latino anchor on TV, hear them on a podcast, or see them behind a byline. But I do think the powers that are running media, whether it’s TV, magazines, or anything else, need to take more risks and take more chances. Sometimes there’s a fear because everyone has metrics they have to meet, sales they have to meet and they’re afraid to bet on centering Latinos, whether that’s a cover or booking a Latina actress for a show. We’ve seen over the years that we show up when we see our people front and center. We want to support them. We don’t let them fail. I think once the powers running the media have a better understanding of our supportive culture, then we’ll see it even more.

NB: Who is your Atrevido Preferido/Atrevida Preferida?

BB: When I think of someone bold and unapologetic about who they are, I think of Cardi B. Her first album was over six years ago and she’s been bold enough to say, “You’re not gonna cut me out, this industry is not gonna swallow me up, I’m still here off one album, and I’m still relevant, and you still care.” I think that’s gutsy and I admire seeing it. I also love her attitude of “I’m not doing this to be famous, I want to make sure my kids are good. I want to make sure my family’s good. That’s what’s important. That’s why I work so hard.” Being in New York, in the fashion industry of it all, sometimes I see the opposite of that. I see people who don’t have to work that hard for what they have. So, when I see someone like her, it really drives me, and I think this is why I do what I do. This is why I support the people I support because you can’t compete with true work ethic and true drive. 

She was my secondary when I did the Bad Bunny story, and I’m forever grateful to her for that. It kind of goes back to what I said about Latinos showing up. She showed up and she could have talked about him for 45 minutes and would have been happy to do it. Even when the story came out that day, she shared my tweet. Not the Harper’s Bazaar tweet, but my own and she did a little quote tweet getting even more engagement on the story. She didn’t have to do that but she was truly a believer in that moment and was so supportive. I’m so grateful that at the 11th hour, she accepted to be a part of this because she not only supported him, she supported our people. That was so important for me to see.

NB: Suerte o Sudor? What percentage do you attribute your success to in terms of luck vs. hard work? 

BB: I’d definitely say 80% work and 20% luck. I was in the trenches when I was a young writer. I learned a ton in my college experience, but once I graduated, I had to figure out freelancing, how to file taxes, invoices and all this stuff. I had to just run with it and learn through trial and error and working hard. Then when I was reached out to for the Bazaar job, they were like “Your resume was floating around.” I mean, these companies get hundreds of thousands of resumes weekly and monthly. I know I worked hard towards where I am now, but the fact that my resume was at the top of thousands still feels like luck. Everything that’s come afterward has been hard work, for sure.

NB: Is there any last piece of advice that you want to share for anyone who wants to make it to where you are?

BB: It’s no secret that media is tough, especially now. I think if it’s an industry you want to be in and you want to build a career in, you have to know why you’re there. You have to know what your mission is and what your purpose is. Since I was 18 years old, I always knew I wanted to tell stories that no one else was telling and to highlight the vibrant communities influencing the culture at large. I wanted to be the whistleblower in that sense. For me, challenges are what has kept me going. Being in this industry can have a lot of perks, you have a lot of access to celebrities and cool moments, but sometimes people get lost in the “why” they’re doing what they’re doing.

After the Bad Bunny story came out, I told myself I was not going to write just anything and everything anymore. I want people to understand that if my byline is on something, it’s something I believe in, it’s important to me and it’s something that people need to see. It’s important for me to be purposeful and have true intention behind everything that has my name on it, that way if people who don’t know me Google my name they’ll understand who I am and what I believe.