Cosmopolitan magazine secures first Chelsea Manning interview

chelsea manning
Chelsea Manning seen in a photo she sent to a military supervisor in 2010.

Cosmopolitan magazine, historically known more for sex tips than political banter, surprised the media world this week by publishing a long-form, exclusive article with imprisoned former solider Chelsea Manning.

The article marks the first time Manning has spoken "as an army private who leaked classified documents, went to military prison, and sued for the right to transition into living as a woman in jail," according to the story, which is in the magazine's May issue and online.

Manning was convicted of violations of the Espionage Act in 2013 for turning over a trove of classified data to the website WikiLeaks. Since the conviction as Private Bradley Manning, the soldier has transitioned, in prison and aided by federal funding, into a transgender woman.

"I'm fascinated by the character of Chelsea Manning; I'm fascinated by the fact that Julian Assange was played by Benedict Cumberbatch, the hottest thing in town, in a big Hollywood movie and yet Chelsea Manning disappeared from view," Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief Joanna Coles said in an interview with CNN.

She pointedly added that without Manning, there would be no WikiLeaks as it's known to the public today.

Manning has penned opinion pieces for The New York Times and The Guardian from prison. With Cosmopolitan, she shared a more personal side, detailing her experience as a transitioning woman in prison.

Writer Abigail Pesta, an investigative journalist and contributor to the magazine, communicated with Manning through letters since the military does not allow prisoners to speak to the press by phone.

Coles estimated that the piece was in the works for about a year. Pesta brought the idea to Coles.

We "were very interested in the transition to Chelsea and the idea of transitioning to being a women in a men's prison. I couldn't get my head around it," she said.

Coles called it an idea that was "hiding in plain sight," but no doubt a huge get for the women's magazine.

"As an editor I like to have something unexpected and a surprise in each issue. I imagine our readers will be as fascinated as I am by this story," she said.

Though Manning declined to comment on the WikiLeaks reveal, she talked about life behind bars: studying in the prison library, working out in the gym, and visits from friends and family.

Thus far, she said, there has been no harassment from other inmates regarding her transition.

"The guys here are adults ... There are some very smart and sophisticated people in prisons all across America — I don't think television and the media give them credit," she says to Pesta.

Manning said she receives fan-mail from around the world, including from celebrities and even Edward Snowden.

The Cosmopolitan article is reflective of the way gender identity is increasingly receiving mainstream media attention.

Coles pointed out that Netflix's "Orange Is The New Black" is a "huge show" among Cosmo readers.

More broadly speaking, "transgender people are having a moment in our culture right now," she said, illustrated by the success of Amazon's TV series "Transparent" and Bruce Jenner's rumored -- but not confirmed -- gender transition.

As for Cosmo getting the Manning scoop, well, it might be an example of how Coles has given the Hearst brand a 21st century face-lift. She took the helm in 2012.

Earlier this year a New York magazine profile connected Coles to a new ("4th -- or Is It 5th?") wave of feminism.

Coles shrugged off this definition in an interview, though, and insists she's pragmatic.

"I come from this point of view of being an editor," she said. "I never have an agenda; my only agenda is finding interesting stories, and people have interpreted that as being political."

Last June, Cosmopolitan snagged an exclusive interview with ousted New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson. The magazine has beefed up original reporting with hires like Jill Filipovic, an attorney and senior political writer for the magazine.

"Women's magazines get patronized," Coles said. "And that's unfair."

But as news organizations continue to chase Cosmo's reports like the Manning profile, or Elle's recent profile of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, that will likely change.

Chelsea J. Carter, Ashley Fantz, Jethro Mullen, and Larry Shaughnessy contributed to this report.

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