It was the young women Lena Dunham met on the road last fall on her sold-out, 12-city tour for her best-selling memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, who first lit the spark. Her millennial fans—earnest-minded, eager, spilling over with their own stories, and blissfully free of the toxicity that pollutes the average comments section of websites—convinced Dunham of the need for a different kind of gathering place online. In March, she emailed her best friend, producing partner, and Girls showrunner, Jenni Konner, with the wisp of an idea: They needed to create an Internet presence, something more than what was available to women at the time.
Six months later, Dunham and Konner launched Lenny, the weekly online newsletter and website whose far-reaching goals include getting the first woman president elected and hawking the cutest nail art stickers. In addition to the interview with Hillary Clinton that appeared in the first issue in late September, Lenny includes personal essays, political features, and a weekly “Letters to Lenny” column in which Dunham and Konner offer advice on everything from relationships to professional crises and ambitions. “We wanted to create a space that was funny and smart and feminist without the snark and infighting,” says Dunham.
There’s been a temptation to lump Lenny into the growing dough ball of lifestyle websites created by actresses such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Blake Lively, and Reese Witherspoon, a reflex the Lenny women find reductive and insulting, as though all these efforts are cute but indulgent side projects. “When George Clooney starts his tequila line, nobody bats an eye,” says Dunham. “But when a woman wants to take on a very serious project where she already has expertise, suddenly it’s, ‘Stay in your own lane.’ ” What’s more, Lenny has little in common with other celebrity-helmed websites. Whereas Paltrow’s Goop, for instance, offers readers a clean window into an enviable life, Lenny is more interested in encouraging an engaged one for young feminists. And although e-commerce will be a growing part of Lenny, its editorial thrust will remain social-minded content. “Our fantasy is we’re building an army of women,” says Konner.
Their first move in bringing Lenny to life was enlisting Konner’s ex-husband, Ben Cooley, a former music tour manager, as their CEO. From there, they assembled a team (now installed in a Brooklyn coworking space) that reflects the unapologetically liberal interests of the newsletter. Editor Jessica Grose is a veteran of Jezebel and Slate; editor-at-large Doreen St. Felix brings an interest in pop culture and race. Rookie alum Laia Garcia, Lenny’s associate editor, took over Lenny’s social media accounts, curating a rousing collection of pop-culture memes, book and music recommendations, and subscriber selfies. And to create an intimate, journal-bound aesthetic, Dunham and Konner brought on graphic designer Howard Nourmand, who was responsible for the logos of both Girls and Dunham and Konner’s production company, A Casual Romance. “I like to think Lenny looks like something that 20 years ago could’ve existed as a pamphlet passed out on a corner of Bowery and Houston,” says Dunham.
Even with a breakneck schedule that includes work on Girls and a forthcoming documentary about gender and fashion, Dunham and Konner have their eyes on everything Lenny publishes. Before the newsletter’s launch, Lenny already had 160,000 subscribers, thanks to Dunham’s galvanizing social media presence and the release of preview items like the summer fiction issue and a moving interview between Dunham and Chenai Okammor, a friend and collaborator of Sandra Bland’s, who had previously only been known to the public from the brutal footage of her traffic arrest in Texas. Dunham and Konner are also using their connections to secure personal essays from the likes of Reese Witherspoon and J.Crew creative director and president Jenna Lyons. “We want to talk to celebrities about the things celebrities don’t normally talk about,” says Konner. “Like, we’d love to get Kim Kardashian to talk to us about finance. She is a businesswoman, after all.”
When it comes to the crucial task of figuring out an advertising model, Dunham and Konner are proceeding more cautiously. “Advertising is a brave new world for us,” admits Dunham. “I’ve never done a sponsored tweet in my life; we’ve never done any version of product placement on the show.” Within weeks of Lenny’s official launch, Dunham and Konner had yet to commit to any ad partners and were still paying for everything themselves. “But we want to be able to expand,” Dunham says. “We want to give our staff health insurance, and we want to be a place where when you write for us you don’t feel exploited.”
They’ll also soon debut an e-commerce wing. The collection of products, primarily made by women, will include everything from leggings to “totally random housewares,” says Cooley. Most items will be exclusive designer collaborations with the site and priced between $50 and $100, so they won’t break the average Girls viewer’s bank account. “We’re not expecting to build an e-commerce empire,” Dunham explains. “We just want to share a couple of really great things at a reasonable price that are special and ethically made.”
One thing that Dunham is amply prepared for: the inevitable sneering of her ubiquitous troll army. “So much hostility has been directed toward me on the Internet already that it’s like getting an immunity shot,” she says. “If everything I do is going to be dissected, but I also know that it’s going to be valuable to x number of women, then why not just go for it?”