By Whitney Little
Cooper High School graduate Jess Cagle conquering the entertainment industry
If you stop by New York City restaurant The Palm, you’ll see celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Liam Neeson drawn on the walls. And if you search hard enough, you’ll also see a caricature of Jess Cagle, the editorial director of PEOPLE magazine and Entertainment Weekly. As he’s climbed the ranks in the entertainment publishing industry, appearing on popular morning shows like Good Morning America and co-hosting the official ABC Academy Awards red carpet pre-show, he himself has become a household name – but if you point that out to him, he’ll quickly become uncomfortable. It turns out the man who is arguably one of the most important names in journalism today is incredibly humble, and he credits that to his upbringing in Abilene.
That’s right: You may see him in a guest appearance on the TV show Nashville or palling around with Cate Blanchett on the red carpet, but Cagle’s place in the media world really began after moving from the small town of Tulia, Texas, to Abilene at the age of 11.
“To me it was the biggest city in the world, because it had a mall and a McDonalds,” Cagle says. “I felt like I had arrived in the big city. It really seemed like the land of opportunity.”
Cagle enjoyed the perks of “big city” life: marching band, drama class and the Classic Film Society at Cooper High School. It was there that he met his mentor, Robert Holladay, who will present Cagle with the Lifetime Achievement in the Arts Award on Oct. 18 at the Paramount Theatre.
“So many great stars of Hollywood and New York have commented about how nice and intelligent Jess is, and many of them have said that Jess is the best in the business. I could not be more proud of him. His success is so richly deserved,” Holladay says.
Holladay, now retired, taught film and literature classes at Cooper and now serves as film director for the Paramount Theatre. Cagle connected with his high school teacher over their shared love of cinema.
“Jess always thrilled me with his love and interests in the very things which I, too, have always loved,” Holladay says. “He could talk to me about the old days of Hollywood and New York – very, very rare for someone his age.”
Cagle recalls Holladay as someone who gave him confidence to pursue his interests, and in fact, Cagle’s first visit to New York City was on a school-sponsored trip.
“I remember Mr. Holladay had a gift for making the world seem so available to you,” says Cagle. “And he just made it seem possible that, oh, I could be a movie critic, and I could go live in New York and work in that world.”
But while many students had dreams of settling down in Texas, Cagle had other thoughts. “I was very happy in Abilene growing up, but I knew that I had to go make a life for myself somewhere else. I wasn’t comfortable doing something that was prescribed to me. I thought, ‘I’m going to have to go figure out my own life.'”
After graduating in 1983, Cagle went on to attend Baylor University, where he majored in journalism and Russian and felt “kind of like a misfit” due to his liberal views and writings in the school paper, The Baylor Lariat. And although Waco and Abilene are similar in their conservative atmospheres, he says he never felt like an outcast during his time in junior high and high school. “I had great friends, I was in the band, I worked on the yearbook … I was very active in church at Pioneer Drive [Baptist Church]. And it was generally just a fun time.”
Indeed, Cagle has fond memories of his time at Cooper – particularly the practical jokes he would play on Latin teacher Rose Williams: “We’d tip-toe up to her door while she was teaching class, and we would tape her door totally shut, then we would knock on it and run away. When she came to open the door, she’d push and it’d just be this deafening sound of tape ripping. We just thought that was the funniest thing in the world.”
That same student now spends his days overseeing the staffs at PEOPLE and Entertainment Weekly during a time when pop culture is everywhere you look. It’s a job he loves and has strived for as long as he can remember — despite what was expected of him.
“I’m sure there were people in my family that wanted me to do football,” he said. “Well, I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to be in the arts. When I went to college, everybody I knew was majoring in business, but I wanted to write for the school paper.”
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