I specifically remember my first day at Vital VOICE: November 3, 2014. I had never worked in an office environment before, so sitting at my glass desk surrounded by pretty people quietly clicking away at their Macs with the sound of Taylor Swift’s then new single, “Shake It Off,” playing in the background was a delightful change of pace. I’d also never explored the area of print journalism, let alone a niche LGBT life and style publication. In college, I had my sights set on broadcast while strictly avoiding being a part of the school newspaper because, in my mind, print journalism was boring, dry and [not so] slowly dying. Little did I know that this was Vital VOICE Magazine, a wonderland on a media island of its own, with no signs of slowing down. Furthermore, it’s owned and operated by Darin Slyman and Jimmy Lesch, two of the least restless people you will ever meet. Darin would later tell me that they were on their best behavior those first days I was in office so I could “get a feel of things.” By Thanksgiving, I caught on to what really went down here: organized chaos where every single day is an experience, from interviewing a reality star to editing a cease and desist letter, awkward silence to impromptu karaoke sessions, laughing uncontrollably to occasional emotion—because, after all, there’s no crying in LGBT media.
Working for a monthly publication, you get into this cycle of “giving birth” to a new magazine every 30 days or so. You have one week following the day you click “print” that is a slower time to catch up on ignored emails and work on creative side projects, followed by two weeks of steady and strict workflow, ending with one week of hell that we call “Production Week.” It’s seven days of 11th hour add-ins, last minute interviews, transcribing, writing, editing, harassing your sources, editing again, cutting, cropping—you name it. The labor pains are real in those final few days, until you finally push out another Issue and get ready to do it all over again. It’s a fascinating process that you build your life around. And whether or not you should start seeing someone, go on a trip or make a life decision, it all depended on if it was “that time of the month.”
In college, one of my professors would give us impromptu AP style quizzes on the regular, and I treated them like scavenger hunts. Going into the job at Vital VOICE, I treated every story that I received to edit as just that. I had fun with it, and became obsessed with catching errors while discovering a new way to write altogether. I self-taught using my best friend—the AP Style Book—and reading the likes of other successful local writers at St. Louis Magazine and ALIVE. Although I became obsessed with it, it didn’t necessarily mean that I became great at it.
My first big mistake as an editor was, naturally, my first story in my first Issue: the New Year’s Eve Guide in our December 2014 publication. I left out just one word, the one word that is most important in regards to whether or not there is a cover charge: “no.” The blurb for the Just John New Year’s Eve Bash said “there will be cover,” omitting that quintessential “no.” After offering to be a shot boy at the bar on weekends, bar manager Harrison Roberts decided to not hate me forever, and Darin and Jimmy, while I’m sure hesitatingly, kept me around.
Our variety of in-house graphic designers was abundant, each with their own set of skills and talents, both job-related and completely random. Sam Sanchez was the first I worked with. He got fussy at times and wasn’t afraid to talk back. I admired the sass from afar because I was the new guy and wanted to cement my “nice guy” status. Melanie Layer-Gaskell bonded with the entire team right away, mostly on Murder She Wrote references that went right over my head. On a personal level, our obsession with peanut butter-filled pretzels was a bit obnoxious and drove the office insane. Grant Swanson started as an intern in 2015 and soon after joined the team. He was a fresh college graduate, and I don’t think he realized how talented he really was—the guy was a professional hula hooper, an Irish step dancer and, clearly, out of our league. Romana Mrzlyak was Grant’s successor, also a former graphic design intern. Romana is a bully, plain and simple. She made fun of me and called me the “weak link” of the team. I loved her for it. When I had a sarcastic quip to throw at her, she threw back something bigger and better every time. Audrey Scherer is our current graphic designer and, well, have you seen how these last few Issues of Vital VOICE have looked? Her themes, color schemes and sharp details make it a clean and polished magazine I am proud to be a part of.
After two and a half years of being a part of Vital VOICE, I say goodbye while fully knowing that there will never be a work environment in my future remotely close to this one. It’s a place where you can call in late if you’re having a bad hair day or leave early because a “client” is having a happy hour too good to pass up. There was a never a dull moment, as any former intern would advise their peers. Besides just being a fun job, it pushed me completely out of my safe zone, challenging me to ask uncomfortable questions, speak when it wasn’t necessarily safe to do so, and grow bigger balls than I thought I was capable of. Working among big personalities taught me impeccable social skills, something that I desperately needed to re-learn as a newly-sober recovering alcoholic. And then there were the wide variety of characters I interviewed: politicians, actors, musicians, activists, chefs, authors and an array of D-list celebrities. I once mistook my favorite author, Augusten Burroughs, for a homeless man before I interviewed him, but other than that, I managed to not offend any of my subjects. I’ll always be grateful to Darin Slyman for offering myself a position here. It would be impossible for me to be in the place that I am in today without that offer, let alone be going in the direction that I am now. He’s one of those people in your life that, if you can manage to keep him on your good side, he is the most loyal supporter of your efforts and the biggest champion of your successes. Yes, he is St. Louis’s Miranda Priestly, and I hope he never changes. You can’t beat him, as many have tried. It’s best to join him.
A very popular local drag queen made a good observation when she stopped by our office one day: Darin and Jimmy are the “VOICE,” and the rest of us were the “Vital.” It made sense. We work in a small office with a small staff. Everyone has his or her role and we are all encouraged to have a voice in the company—and we all do—but some have, well, a louder voice. Like clockwork, Jimmy will break into tune at 3 p.m. daily for a variety show that includes but is not limited to various showtunes like “Springtime For Hitler” and “Times Have Changed,” to Demi Lovato, Shakira, Spice Girls and my personal favorite, Lady Gaga’s “It Wasn’t Love.” Jimmy was like the brother that I never had growing up. He knows what he wants, and he goes for it. We also shared common interests and laughed uncontrollably at the most immature things—sorry again, Slyman. I will never forget getting thrown off a runway in Kansas City because, as I suspect, our dance moves were simply too provocative. Love them, adore them or can’t stand them, Darin and Jimmy are doing something right—with each idea, vision and concept executed in the most original fashion—and it’s something to be admired.
I’ve lived in St. Louis for a little over three years, and now I’m off to new cities with new adventures. But during these three years, St. Louis has easily become my new home base. I love it here: the culture, the architecture, the history, the food and, of course, the people. My only critique of the city is that I jokingly refer to St. Louis as the “Used To City.” I always read or hear locals boast that the city used to be the busiest [blank], used to feature the best [blank], used to have the biggest [blank]. A rich history and a strong foundation is key for any respected city, but a thriving metropolitan area is one that looks to the future, not the past. The 1904 World’s Fair was great, but c’mon. I trust Darin, Jimmy and the team to continue to showcase how special and unique St. Louis is in the present, and where it’s going. For now, I close with a big “Thank You.” It has honestly been a pleasure working with and for the St. Louis LGBT community. V
by Kevin Schmidt