The Tale of Justine Cullen - The Grace Tales

The Tale of Justine Cullen

Back in 2011, a film starring Sarah Jessica Parker was released, titled "I Don't Know How She Does It". What should have been a celebration of mothers everywhere instead became an opportunity for women to collectively exclaim, "Duh!"

Unnecessary meetings. All-too-frequent bake sales. Head lice. It was nothing new. Because whether we’re stay at home parents, working full time or a combination of the two, we all do it. All. Of. The. Time. 

But one woman who really seems to have earned the exclamation of, “I don’t know how she does it,” is not SJP in her stilettos and pussy bows. It is Justine Cullen.

 As the current editor-in-chief of JONES Magazine, Justine previously sat at the top of the masthead at Shop ‘Til You Drop and Elle Australia, where she was twice awarded with the honour of Cover of The Year at the Australian Magazine Awards (including the iconic Elle cover featuring supermodel Nicole Trufino breastfeeding her son). In an industry that is known for its penchant for long hours and gruelling deadlines, she’s also managed to do all this while raising four (yes – you read that correctly – four) sons. 

But rather than sharing a glossy story of seamlessly managing school drop off with client meetings, Justine tells it how it is.

“The time I found the most challenging was earlier in my career, when I was a single mother with two kids dealing with the horror that is the lack of affordable childcare in this country,” she says. “If I hadn’t had my mum to help me I’m sure I would have stepped off the ladder altogether and I can absolutely see why so many women find going back to work too hard. ‘Leaning in’ is a mission impossible for more women than we want to acknowledge.” It’s not hard to see why her 35,000 Instagram followers delight in Justine’s every heartfelt, honest move.

We had the joy of sitting down with Justine and her gorgeous clan in their spectacularly serene Palm Beach home, to talk about motherhood, career, 4:30am starts, binge-worthy television, not returning text messages, mentors and so much more, and she was every bit as inspiring yet humble as you’d imagine. 

Justine, we still don’t know how you do it.

Photography by Bridget Wood

Can you tell us a bit about your childhood and where you grew up?

I grew up in suburban Sydney in what I think is referred to these days as an ‘environment of scarcity’ – but what we lacked in money we made up in love. 

Who makes up your gorgeous family?

My husband Hayden and our boys Milo (15), Iggy (13), Scout (6) and Odie (7 months). I’m pitching for a daughter or a dog at the moment. Odds are slim to none.

As a woman who is not only the mother of four children, but has had one of the industry’s most impressive careers, you’ve experienced the work/motherhood juggle more acutely than most. What have been some of the biggest challenges in making it “work”?

The time I found the most challenging was earlier in my career, when I was a single mother with two kids dealing with the horror that is the lack of affordable childcare in this country. If I hadn’t had my mum to help me I’m sure I would have stepped off the ladder altogether and I can absolutely see why so many women find going back to work too hard. ‘Leaning in’ is a mission impossible for more women than we want to acknowledge.

Later on, my issues became more about how much travel was required of me. I missed every one of Milo’s birthdays for the better part of a decade because it falls during Paris Fashion Week. Travel is easier to manage when kids are very young, but as they grow up a little bit and have more going on and can tell you they don’t want you to go, it’s a real emotional battle. I think the hardest thing for any working mother, at work or at home, is just dealing with your own feelings of guilt and inadequacy. It’s relentless.


Have you seen any great changes in the way motherhood is approached in the workforce in the time between your first and your most recent baby?

I feel like when I had Milo 15 years ago there was a need to pretend you weren’t a mother and carry on working as you would have before. It was frowned upon to use your kids as an ‘excuse’. These days I feel like there’s a real understanding that having women in the workforce is not only good for the individual woman, but it’s good for families, it’s good for society, it’s good for companies and it’s good for the economy – and that means that we don’t have to hide our motherhood anymore. I know that for me personally that means I no longer feel like I have to skulk out the door hoping no-one sees me leaving at 4pm even if I got into the office at 6am. Or maybe I’ve been doing it for so long now I’ve just stopped giving all the fucks.

You have children across the spectrum of ages. What age have you found most challenging? And what has been your favourite?

It is one of the wonders of parenthood to me that you love your babies to absolute capacity the minute they’re born, but that as they grow older that capacity just gets bigger and bigger. I definitely enjoy parenting kids I can talk to and laugh with and who I don’t have to remind to brush their teeth over tiny babies and toddlers, and I have excellent, kind, compassionate, smart, funny teenagers so I’m loving that. But actually with Odie, for the first time ever, I really loved that newborn stage. Every kid is different.

How has your parenting changed throughout the years of raising your four children?

I was never really very helicopter-ish but I’ve probably become even less so. I don’t think you can deny that you get more relaxed about parenting the more tired you are. And I’m pretty tired. 

What’s been the hardest jump in load when it comes to the number of children you have? One to two kids? Three to four?

Two to three, but I think in my case that was because I had two boys very close in age so they always entertained each other. Then Scout came along and he was not only the wildest human on the planet, he didn’t have a buddy close to him in age so he needed a lot more active parenting and play dates than I was used to.

Four doesn’t feel anything like what I thought it would. I thought it would be insane and crazy and noisy and chaotic, but actually, we have it surprisingly under control. Maybe it’s that Odie is so chilled he’s been a calming influence on the rest of us.

In the world of #metoo, how are you approaching raising boys?

How we raise our boys as a society has never been so important and something Hayden and I give lots of thought to as parents. The first thing is that we have a really open relationship with them. Nothing is off limits which can lead to some pretty hair-raising conversations, sometimes earlier than you think you’ll have to have them, about consent and sexuality and even porn. We also talk a lot about the news in our house, about politics and the issues facing the world. Like most of their generation, they’re pretty evolved humans. 

They also have an incredible teach-by-example role model in my husband. They get to see a man treat a woman with absolute equality and respect in every way, every day. What more can you do than that?

What does an average day look like for you?

I wake up at 4:30am, roll into the shower and am ideally out the door at 5am, although depending on how well I slept the night before might be closer to 5:30. Usually in our house, I’ll do the early shift, meaning early to work and home in time for daycare pickup, and my husband does the late shift, so he does the morning drop offs and gets home later. I drive an hour to the office and on the way in I listen to podcasts, get my brain up and running and generally enjoy the alone time. My day can involve anything but generally is made up of lots of meetings, events and coming up with ideas for anything from JONES magazine to a David Jones food catalogue. I work like a maniac – I thought I was busy in consumer magazines but I had no idea how fast the pace would be on this side – and then drive home at about 4:30pm. Then homework with Scout, dinner with the family and some kind of mindless TV with my husband while I finish off work emails until bed.

How do you approach the morning rush in your family?

I’m usually not there for it! I find that the most effective approach.

Do you ever feel completely overwhelmed? If so, what helps to get you through?

I do often feel overwhelmed but it tends to be momentary and I’m pretty good at working through it before it spirals. I find a good list makes all the difference. 

What does self-care or ‘me time’ look like for you?

I need to always have a holiday on the horizon. Traveling with my family brings me joy and keeps me going.

The Bugaboo Lynx is available online and from Baby Bunting from AUD $1,499

How do you approach your (assumingly never-ending) daily to-do list?

I do love an actual list, but actually over the past few years I’ve become ok with not ticking it all off. I used to be very rigid about Inbox Zero and that sort of thing. I’m much more ‘meh’ now. I don’t beat myself up. I think there’s self-care in that.

What’s the best book you’ve read recently?

I’m meant to be writing a book so all my spare minutes go to that and I haven’t had time to read anything at all lately, which is very unlike me. It’s a sorry state of affairs.


What would you say is your parenting philosophy?

Whatever gets you through the night.

Have you leveraged the notion of “the village” when raising your children? If so, how?

Absolutely. My mum pretty much raised my first three children while I worked. I have a big family who are always stepping up. And a lot of my best friends live close and have children the same age. The kids call all the other mums their ‘spirit aunties’ and everyone is pretty on-call when needed, which is often. I feel so lucky to have that as I know motherhood can sometimes be pretty isolating. 

You have made a number of editorial decisions over the years that have helped to put motherhood in the spotlight – including the gorgeous Elle cover of a breastfeeding Nicole Trufino. Why was this important to you? And what are you most proud of?

I think that cover is the one that has stayed with me the most, because it really did have a huge impact and ignite a new conversation about breastfeeding globally. As someone who breastfed and had no qualms about just pulling the puppies out wherever I needed to, I don’t think I even realised how important that conversation was until I started reading the comments and editorials around the cover. It shocked me that people could still feel that way in the 21st century.

Has it been important to you to champion and mentor mothers in the workplace?

Hugely important. But you can really only do that though by creating a culture that allows mothers to thrive in a way that works for them and their families. I’ve worked for companies that talked the talk but still unknowingly made it difficult for mothers to come back to work. I’ve always tried very hard to create that culture within my little bubble for my teams, even when its meant bending some corporate rules because my company didn’t necessarily feel the same way. The business never suffered for it, and in fact I think it really benefited from the skill, experience and loyalty that resulted.

Who do you look up to, in both your career and your personal life?

In my career I’ve always admired editors and former editors like Lisa Wilkinson, Jane Pratt, Graydon Carter, David Granger.

On a personal level the people I look up to the most are women I know well and see nailing it every day – friends like Zoë Foster Blake, Bronwyn McCahon, Sheree Commerford, Jamie Blakey, Rachel Wayman, Paula Joye… there are really too many to mention.

Taking a step away from your title at Elle must have been a huge decision. What led you to that decision, and does your work life look different now?

I’d always hoped to ride out my career at ELLE, but I’d known for a while that with the changes happening at the company and in media at general that this wasn’t going to be the case. I’d been contemplating an exit strategy for a while but it was incredibly hard because I truly loved that brand and the team – ELLE was very much a part of me and I think always will be. Eventually it was like a perfect storm. I was asked to take on a role overseeing both ELLE and stablemate Bazaar, which I don’t feel comfortable with, and at the same time (actually on the very same day) I was offered a pretty amazing opportunity to look after content for David Jones at Medium Rare Content Agency. It felt like destiny.

Starting a new job after that long in the same company and in very similar roles was a complete shock to the system. I learned more in my first week than I had in years and I was way out of my comfort zone. But it felt like the shift came at exactly the right time. The only part I really miss is being in Paris multiple times a year. I miss the shows.

The media landscape – including your own career – has changed dramatically in the past few years. What do you think is ahead for the industry?

The business of media is completely different, the way we consume it and sell it and make revenue from it is unrecognisable, but the skills are the same. We just need to be prepared to put those skills to use in a way that’s relevant for the world we live in now. Part of the appeal for me in moving to custom was that I’d be learning a whole new part of the industry and ‘future proofing’ myself, while still getting to play in the area that I knew and loved. We put JONES together very similarly to all the consumer magazines I ever worked on, it just happens to be for a single client. The rise of client publishing, alongside digital, social and podcasting, is just one of many pivots the industry has taken. It’s all content.


What media do you consume? Social media? News? Magazines? Podcasts?

All of the above. I am a voracious consumer of media. But I’m in the car a lot so podcasts are my #1.

Do you have any vices?

I do like wine. And mindlessly trawling the internet. And watching US reality shows. And I am a hardcore emotional eater. But I have never drunk coffee, smoked a cigarette or taken heroin so that’s a plus!

Women are often (rightly) hailed for all the things they do and achieve, but rarely talk about what falls off their list as a result. What have you let slip?

So many things! I have not exercised in literally years. I am so much less groomed than I used to be. (Lucky my husband loves me for what’s inside.) I’m sad that I have no time to read and I honestly have no idea about any music from the past three years that’s not Old Town Road. I’m terrible at returning text messages and it keeps me awake at night. If I wasn’t living a hamster wheel life, I’m sure I could be a better friend too.

How do you approach dressing each day? Do you subscribe to a uniform?

It’s 4:30am when I’m getting dressed, so whatever is clean and fits. I’m lucky to have access to beautiful clothes as part of the job.

The Bugaboo Lynx is available online and from Baby Bunting from AUD $1,499

What are some of your favourite stores/labels for your boys?

The older boys dress themselves these days and I have no power over it until they come and tell me none of their pants fit and we do an online shop together. Scout also likes to dress himself and as a result he is mostly wearing dress ups. For Odie, the only child under my sartorial control, I love Jamie Kay, Zuitton, Cotton On Kids, Goldie and Ace. He also gets quite a bit from Mamapapa in Avalon and Etsy.

In a house full of males, how do you snatch away moments of femininity?

I am a girly girl through and through and they cannot change me! They don’t even try – that’s how we have pink dining chairs. But I have amazing relationships with my nieces and nearly all of my best friends have daughters who I’m really close to and love to bits. I’m also lucky that I get to work with lots of wonderful women every day. And sometimes I force my boys to watch Grease. 

What’s ahead for you and the Cullen clan?

We’ve had a big couple of years so actually I’m looking forward to no big news and just being in our house over the summer. And I’m in heaven planning a trip to Japan, Italy and the Greek Islands for everyone next year. 


What are some of of the products or hacks that help you to live life on the go?

I love a good pair of white sneakers (mine are generally Saint Laurent or Superga), a cross body bag (currently Loewe), a streamlined pram (the Bugaboo Lynx) and an iPhone (mine is the 11 Pro and it is life). They’re the things I need to go anywhere, anytime without any fuss and bother.

Where are some of your favourite spots to take your child/children in your neighbourhood? 

We love to walk to Whale Beach. It involves a big hill but there are scones at the Whale Beach Deli at the other end so it’s worth it. I also love to take Odie in the pram to watch Hayden and Scout kayaking at the little beach across the road from our house.

How do you navigate time out with your kids? Do you pack activity packs? Involve them in conversation? Screen time? Hope for the best!?

Odie is my reward for having three crazy boys before him – he’s so mellow and happy to be dragged anywhere and just sits there taking it all in. For the others, I always have a pack of cards in my bag and we have pulled them out for games of Shithead (or as the boys say, Poohead) in all kinds of places to keep everyone engaged without screens – even silver service restaurants. 

Have you had good sleepers? How have you managed getting your babies/toddlers to sleep in the crazy times?

I don’t know if I believe in naturally good sleepers. I’ve had to teach all mine but while I’m pretty rigid with the night-time routine, I’ve never been one to be militant about staying home for day naps because we’re always on the run. Mine have managed to learn to pretty much sleep anywhere.

What are your tips for first time parents?

Don’t overthink it. You will do the best job you can and it will be perfect. You’ve got this.

What is one thing you wish pre-parent you knew about?

I actually can’t remember my life pre-parent. But the one rule I learned pretty early on was to never let a baby have more than 90 minutes of wakefulness. That’s the one tip that can change your life for years to come.

What is on your list of loves?

  • Egypt- my husband and I are leaving the kids behind and doing the Nour el Nil cruise down the aisle for New Year and I cannot wait.
  • Kevin Auction Volumising Mascara – I stopped getting lash extensions just to be able to use this mascara because I love how it peels off in your fingers with water. It’s a sick fetish.
  • The new Hermes Apple Watch Series 5 – it has a period tracker for the first time and I actually remember to input the data because it’s right there on my wrist.
  • Maker and Son sofas – I’m so glad we invested in ours, we all fit on it (miracle) and it’s like sitting on a cloud. I fall asleep on it almost every night.
  • Belvoir Fruit Farms Elderflower and Rose cordial – with vodka and lots of ice, this is my drink of the summer.
  • Hey Tiger chocolate – I love everything about this company, it’s handmade, ethically sourced and socially minded. The Vegan Best Mates coconut and caramelised popcorn flavour is my fave (and I’m not even vegan).
  • Succession – I love this show so much I made the theme my ringtone, much to my husband’s disgust.
  • Aire Baths in NYC – my first stop off the plane every visit.
  • Wellco Super Elixir – I really feel so much better when I remember to take this regularly.
  • Matin – I love this Sydney label – beautiful fabrics and totally wearable.