Photograph by Autumn de Wilde
The GP Interview: Lena Dunham & Jenni Konner
We pounce, twice-weekly, when Lenny Letter lands in our inbox. Curated by the badass duo behind the television show Girls and the production company A Casual Romance, Lena Dunham’s and Jenni Konner’s year-old newsletter has quickly become a must-read on topics ranging from politics to style, culture, and career. We already look forward to recurring themes, like their seasonal fiction issue, the Lennyscopes (“existential predictions” by writer Melissa Broder) released at the beginning of each month, as well as the Lit Thursday roundups that tell us what’s in Lenny staffers’ to-be-read piles. We love that Lenny eschews listicles in favor of long-form essays and interviews; we forward them to friends and discuss them endlessly in the office.
GP caught up with Lena and Jenni to discuss the making of Lenny, and their plans for scaling it as a growing newsletter business. Their conversation below is a window into the brilliant partnership that Lena and Jenni share, and the lessons they’ve learned together as entrepreneurs of two businesses, neither of which is afraid to disrupt the status quo. It’s also a reminder that women don’t have to choose between being passionate about a fashion trend or a political candidate—our varied interests and complications do not make us less, but more compelling. (To see what GP had to say when the pair quizzed her, read here on Lenny.)
A Conversation with Lena Dunham & Jenni Konner
GP: How did you decide to take your thing—the shows you’ve done together are such a clear partnership—and start Lenny? Why did you decide to do it?
LENA: I think one of the first conversations that Jenni and I had about it was that when you’re making TV—and you know this from making films, I’m sorry if I’m about to bore you to tears with my answer—is that you don’t actually have that much direct contact with your audience. It wasn’t until I went on my book tour that I had the experience of actually engaging with the people who watch our show. And I saw how cool and complex they were, and how getting together all in one place seemed to be really exciting and generative for them. I always use this example, but I saw these girls in line being like, “How did you get your hair that color pink? That’s the color pink I want my hair to be.” They were exchanging information, talking about politics, trading t-shirts—it seemed like friendships were being formed. And there was a space for these women who connected to the show, and who I was getting to connect with through the book, to get more information on a more diverse range of topics—and for us to be even more direct about it.
JENNI: And then Lena came to me and said, “I really feel like I need a space where it’s more than 140 characters to express myself.”
LENA: And Jenni had said recently, “I feel like we need to have some kind of web presence. We love the internet, we’re on the internet, but we’re not expressing ourselves online.” But we didn’t know what that meant. Once I got back from the book tour, and called you, Jenni—I literally remember being in my bathroom, circling on the phone with you, and you saying, “Oh yeah, totally.”
JENNI: I think you maybe thought I would say no because I’m often the person saying, “You know what, we can’t do that event, we’re in production.” Because Lena, in her dream life, would say yes to everything. But I thought it was this amazing idea and I had gone out on Lena’s book tour with her and seen this experience—these women responding not only to her but to each other, and it was incredible.
LENA: The role that Jenni is describing now is the role that she’s played for so many of the girls in our writer’s room. Jenni was the person who sent me to the gynecologist who diagnosed me with endometriosis. She was the person who told me you can’t make everyone pay $6 a head for your freaking twenty-fifth birthday party. Just like, life advice that we didn’t understand. Jenni was almost preparing us all to enter the world. Then I could feel myself, in turn, stepping into that role with my assistant and the younger girls who work for us. And I was like: That energy that you gave to all of us that made us understand that we could still be ourselves while also embracing adulthood in a certain way—how do we offer that to people?
GP: It’s like creating a line of energy.
JENNI: In fact, Lena’s assistant—she’s like twenty-three—the last two days, has made this mistake where instead of saying, “Hey, Mama,” she keeps saying, “Hey, Mom.”
LENA: To me! Ha. And finally I’m like, “Mom’s here, Liz.” She just can’t stop calling me Mom.
JENNI: But that’s how powerful that line of energy has become.
LENA: All the girls in our office have always asked Jenni for advice—and she’s always been my go-to. And for the first time when someone asked me a question, I was like: Oh wait, I’m actually equipped to answer this. With the site—even though it’s obviously not just about Jenni’s voice and my voice—I wanted the energy of our friendship and the connection that we have to be the underlying spirit of the whole thing.
JENNI: And also we didn’t know what it was going to look like, but we did know that it felt like there was something missing on the internet—which was a positive vibe for young women. A snark-free, safe place where you can talk about anything. Where you can talk about politics, and you can talk about nail stickers, and reproductive rights—anything you want, without it being a place where you’re making fun of another person. That’s the energy that we want to be a part of.
GP: So is that why you don’t have a comment function on the site?
JENNI: Yes. I’ve always said that Lena’s gravestone will read: I read the comments.
LENA: Jenni once had to come over to my house because Gawker said something negative about my dog.
JENNI: This is really true.
LENA: This is a true story.
JENNI: I was on Twitter and Lena was in a full Twitter war about it. And I said, “You have to stop.” And she was like, “Totally, I’m going to stop.” And she wouldn’t stop. I took a cab to her house.
LENA: She rang the bell and took my computer away and said, “You’re going to bed. You can’t fight this battle for your dog on Twitter tonight.” It was the most loving thing anyone has ever done for me.
When we thought about comments—and I’m sure you’ve had experiences like this—it was just so clear from the kind of angry reception that our show sometimes got that our comment section wasn’t going to be a positive place. And also the bummer thing about comments is that most of the time the negativity drowns out the six people who are there to have a real conversation.
GP: I think you’re absolutely right. It creates opportunity for a type of negativity that is just projection and very unhealthy. It’s also not what you’re trying to do: You’re trying to put something positive into the world.
JENNI: That’s right. You can have a debate, and there are plenty of places to have a debate.
LENA: And we have an Instagram account, we have Twitter—people make no qualms about contacting us there.
JENNI: Yes, and that is where we do get a lot of feedback. But we wanted to keep our newsletter pure.
GP: Do you take feedback from Facebook and Twitter?
JENNI: Yeah. The thing that we have learned the most from is the survey we did. There were really surprising things in there that we didn’t know—like people are desperate for us to do more international stories, which was something in a million years I wouldn’t have known.
LENA: We had been thinking, Oh, maybe someday Lenny will go international.
JENNI: Right. We were like, Lenny Latina is going to happen. And we couldn’t wait for that. But to hear that international stories were something people really wanted was really exciting for us.
LENA: Also, we do a lot of fashion on the site and it was exciting to hear people say: We want more beauty. Not because we just want beauty, but because we want beauty that exists in this voice. Now we’ve put out a makeup tutorial with Busy Philipps teaching Jenni to put on her own makeup for an event.
LENA: It’s in the spirit of the show.
LENA: I mean—whatever we’re doing…It’s in the spirit of the newsletter. There’s a DIY element and a connection element and a kind of wink-wink element.
JENNI: Busy learned from the top makeup artists—and from YouTube tutorials. She grew up putting on makeup, like Apple. And now she’s teaching me—at my grown-ass age—how to do it.
GP: Is that how you envision Lenny scaling—going into different countries?
JENNI: That’s one way we are interested in doing it. Another is—we’re working on a short film series…
LENA: And a book imprint. We’re going to make so much of that hot book money.
JENNI: Ha! Two of the smartest people we know both told us (you about Lenny, and J.J. Abrams about our film company): Scale slowly. There’s no hurry. We really are trying to adhere to that. We have a lot of other things that we’re doing, and we chose the newsletter format—beyond the fact that it feels very personal, you get this letter in your inbox—because it was something that we could do while still doing the show.
LENA: And something that we like is that there is no piece of content that we haven’t been able to read and give notes on. That’s something else that you said to us early on: There is nothing that crosses my desk that I don’t see and that I don’t feel connected to, or at least see what its purpose is.
LENA: Jenni and I actually had a conversation months ago where we were talking about going international. We’ve always liked the idea because the web is a really safe, great place for women to get information. So if we could be of service to women in the Middle East, if we could be of service to women in Spain, if we could be of service to women in countries that don’t have the same reproductive rights or justice system that we do—we would love all of that. But during that conversation, we said: Oh wait, there’s no hurry, all we need to do is really perfect what we’re doing right now.
JENNI: Yeah, we’re still figuring out every day what Lenny is.
GP: So you guys have basically started two completely separate businesses: You have a production business and then you have a newsletter business. Has one informed the other? Have the challenges been similar in both business? More pronounced in one?
JENNI: I think we learned a lot about human management in making the show. We’ve had five great years to make a ton of mistakes and learn from them.
LENA: We’ve been incredibly lucky because we’ve been making the same show now for almost six seasons and we’ve always known that we were going to get to express ourselves. But regardless of what level you’re at, there are so many variables in film and TV, and it’s so stop-start, and you’re so dependent on so many factors in order to be creative. What’s so exciting about the newsletter is that we have this place where we know we’re able to have a creative dialogue every week. I don’t know if you feel this way, Jenni, but I feel like it’s freed us up in a certain way to open up our minds about our production business.
JENNI: That’s interesting. Yeah, I could see that.
GP: This is something I respect about you guys so much: Your voice is so pure—whether it’s on Girls or in Lenny. And that’s how you build trust—that predictability. You’re pushing boundaries, and it’s edgy and it’s forward thinking. That permeates—that goes across both businesses. That’s what a real brand is. You can start anything as long as you keep with the brand.
LENA: Thank you.
JENNI: It’s funny, I remember reading goop and the issue that I was like, Oh wait a minute, this is something totally different, was the postpartum issue.
I had some version of postpartum with my son: It didn’t happen after he was born. It happened when I stopped breastfeeding. Every feed I went down: I got more and more depressed. It was a really strange thing. I’ve actually now talked to women about it, and found it fairly common. But because it happened far after postpartum, technically, it’s kind of perceived differently.
I remember reading the issue, reading your intro, and reading the Bryce Dallas Howard piece, and just being like—Okay, f*ck, this is not just a lifestyle magazine. This is not just a lifestyle newsletter. There’s something about it that has informed us—not just you as a business person—but that has informed us as personal storytellers. You did that at a time when no one was doing that. (Everybody cannot wait to tell their truth now.) It’s so interesting because you did that in the middle of: Try this restaurant in London. Or, make this Spanish tortilla.
GP: Women are very multi-dimensional—isn’t that the point?
JENNI: Yes! But there was a level of authenticity to it that was very moving to me at the time. This is a word that people use for Lena all the time that I tend to get sticky about—brave—but there was a bravery to it. And it was such a different direction at that point. I just remember being really moved by that.
GP: Thank you.
LENA: I second everything Jenni said. And I love what you’re saying, GP, about how if you stay true to your voice, anything is okay. Because I think about this all the time, even just on social media: We support candidates we care about and we talk about political issues, and we have super-serious posts about body image, and then we really want to recommend an eyebrow pencil. People want to pretend that women don’t contain multitudes, and that you can’t do all of that at once. And I feel like you’ve actually created the space where you’re like: Yeah, I’m going to talk about these emotional things, and I’m going to let you know that it’s just as important to me what I put on my skin. As long as I’m sharing something that I know in my bones I can get behind, there’s no real difference between those two experiences.
GP: Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. And, Lena, obviously in the partnership, you’re the more visible person—
JENNI: Thank god. Ha. I feel so lucky every day.
LENA: Jenni has said to me: You’re the one who is taking bullets, and you have to be the public face of our company, and you’re absorbing so much. But that’s just me existing. It’s so hard for me to think of that as work. Because all it is, is walking down the street.
JENNI: But it is. It’s a fucking drain.
GP: And you also have sort of taken on this voice-of-a-generation thing.
LENA: Which is a line Jenni wrote as a joke. But it’s still my favorite thing in the world. She wrote it for our pilot: I’m the voice of my generation. Or, a voice of a generation. Jenni pitched it—and I was like that’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard. But if I had known it would literally be written on my gravestone…I would probably have still wanted to use it, because it’s the best, but I just always love that it’s something that Jenni wrote—as a joke.
JENNI: And people really treated it like Lena was saying it about herself.
GP: But, it’s true. I mean, not that you were saying it about yourself, Lena. But it has become true.
JENNI: Right. She willed it into being. Ha.
LENA: Joke-willed it into being.
GP: Do you feel pressure or a responsibility? Or, do you understand the power that you have?
LENA: Remember that thing Beyoncé said in her documentary? (It was my favorite thing ever.) She said: Sometimes I can’t even wrap my mind around my own power. I can’t even believe what I’m powerful enough to do. Even though that’s not how I feel when I wake up in the morning, I loved so much hearing a woman be like: Yeah, I actually do know. Because that’s not something that’s easy for me to access—I feel like I still move through the world as a person who is apologizing a lot. It’s something I’m working on constantly—not to be a person who is apologizing for my presence. Especially because that doesn’t actually correspond with who I am and what I’ve achieved. To see someone be like, Yeah, my own power boggles my mind… Well, that’s something to aspire to. Someone who actually connects to that.
GP: But—in a different way and probably for different people—you are powerful like that.
LENA: It’s interesting: I think one of the reasons I’ve loved the opportunity to start Lenny so much is because it’s been about taking all the opportunities I’ve had with my voice, that Jenni has had with her voice—and offering those to other people. And being like, Oh, actually what a generation looks like is a bunch of different people. A generation of women is such a crazy constellation of women of different races, gender identities, sexual orientations… The thing that is going to be the most powerful is all our voices in concert, even when we don’t agree. So acknowledging that I can take the platform that I’ve been given and say, let’s all get in here—that’s been the most comforting thing. I think that in a way, it’s saved me. It’s hard to know what begets what, but I feel like since we started Lenny, there is a certain calm that has come from all of those people entering, if that makes sense.
JENNI: Yeah, and taking control of your own voice, too.
GP: And also bringing the clarity and confidence of being who you are, and providing a context and a structure for all those people to move in and be who they need to be.
LENA: It’s the luckiest thing.
GP: I remember watching you in the first sex scene in Girls that I saw, when you took your clothes off. And you blew my mind. Because you really, in a single moment, reframed how beautiful you could be while being completely nonconformist.
LENA: It’s funny you say that because this thing just occurred to me the other day about getting naked on TV: People have always asked: How long do you want to do this for? Why are you still doing this? At first, I thought, I’m going to do it until people think it’s normal. And the other day, I was like, maybe I’m going to do it until people think it’s sexy. Maybe I’m going to go a step further until everyone wants to jerk off about it… And that’s when I’m going to stop.
GP: I love it. Amazing.
LENA: I’m lucky that Jenni is always asking, What’s a really funny new way to be naked?
GP: What has surprised you most thus far about Lenny?
LENA: Because we are in some ways used to a firestorm reaction to every episode of Girls, or this crazed negativity when I might speak publicly, or that exists around my book—I think I was surprised by the amount of from-the-jump positivity that existed around Lenny. It was pretty mind-blowing, and I thought: Oh, sometimes things can just be great.
I’m not naïve enough to think we won’t ever have an issue. Who knows what is in store. I remember the difference between having 500,000 Twitter followers and 4 ½ million was really big—because a bunch of people who aren’t there to join the party have come to the party. But right now, we’re at this place with Lenny where we’re getting so much love and appreciation. And it’s really driving us to just do better and better for those people.
JENNI: And I would say also surprising is—even though you warned us, and everyone warned us how hard it would be—how hard it is. It’s like parenting: People can tell you that it’s going to be hard and challenging and the strangest, weirdest thing you’ve ever done. And you still can’t feel what that feels like until you’re doing it.
GP: And in both examples, it’s relentless—content production and parenting. Relentless.
JENNI: Absolutely. And insanely rewarding.
GP: How do you think if you were men it would be different—if it would be?
LENA: I don’t think that Jenni and I would have the same relationship if we were men. I haven’t gone around and polled all the male producing partners, male creative partners, but I have witnessed, up close, some pretty tight relationships between creative men (whether it’s my boyfriend, or my father, and the relationships that they had with other artists). There’s an ego-less-ness and a desire to feed the joint project that exists between Jenni and me, and I have not seen a pair of men with that symbiosis. I’m sure it exists but it’s a different vibe.
JENNI: There are male artists who are mind-blowingly great, obviously. (There are artists of all genders who are great.) But I think there’s an expansiveness that you need in your brain when you’re starting something and you don’t know what it’s going to be—and that feels inherently female to me. Like at any minute, the plan is going to change and you’re going to have to go in a different direction. That feels like something that, as women, is easier for us—we’re so used to getting up and not having the day we’re expecting.
LENA: Yeah, having the day you’re expecting—I don’t even know what that would feel like to have the same day you thought you were going to have. Ha.
JENNI: And I feel like that’s inherently female—I might be wrong, though.
GP: If you guys were going to tell one of the people writing into Lenny, or someone you came across at a book signing, who wanted to sort of imbue the spirit of what you guys are doing in her own life—what would you tell her?
LENA: Here’s something that I say when young women—particularly young female writers—ask me: What do I do if I want people to see my work? Even though there were a lot of ways in which I wasn’t confident as a young person—which I still struggle with—I always felt like I had something to say that was particular to me. And I wasn’t thinking, Well, right now, people seem to like rom-coms that have a dog in them, so that’s what I’m going to try to do. So, trust that your story is one that hasn’t been told, and trust that your perspective is one that the world might need. I think it’s a big leap to take, and it’s also really rewarding.
JENNI: Yeah, I mean, the thing that I learned from Lena—and Judd, too—is to be really brave about telling your truth and telling your story. And it doesn’t have to be your personal story but there is a personal nature to all of the art you make it. And if you’re truthful in it, it will be good.