AN INTERVIEW WITH CASSIE LIVINGSTON
BayouLife Magazine’s publisher/owner exits her comfort zone and talks about herself. Laura W. Clark asks Cassie to talk about everything – joyous, tragic and hopeful – that landed her here this month, celebrating her magazines 10th anniversary.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY KELLY MOORE CLARK
ARTICLE BY LAURA W. CLARK
The best way to describe Cassie Livingston is to share how she has impacted my life. And I know I’m only one of many. I moved to Monroe in 2005 to work as ULM’s Director of Media Relations. I was a young, naïve Midwesterner, and she was the cool girl working at Delta Style Magazine. We often spoke because she was passionate about covering ULM arts and culture. She was creative, kind, and honest; she’s still all those things. She loves fashion but also appreciates comfort. You’ll see her wearing a New Orleans flat bill cap paired with a Mr. P’s t-shirt or a Sue Sartor kaftan and beautiful heels. She paints. And she’s a graphic designer. But we’ll get into that later.
We worked together professionally for years but didn’t become close friends until 2018, when our children attended Pre-K with Miss Linda Maddox Crawford at Lexington Elementary. I was leaving work one night when she, while laughing the entire time she spoke, left this voicemail: “Uh, Laura. I’m sure you’ll get a call from Miss Maddox because Vivian tackled Weston and kissed him.” I found this hilarious, and I immediately called her. For whatever reason, I haven’t enjoyed talking on the phone since high school, but our first phone conversation lasted three hours; I think our record is four.
A few months after the birth of my second child, I told her I had to have a minor surgery the next day. She asked: “Well, who’s taking you?” Upon learning I planned to have my husband drop me off at the hospital so he could stay home with our new baby, she said: “No, that’s not happening. I will pick you up at 5:30 a.m. and stay with you until your surgery ends.” Normally, I would have said, “No, that’s ok,” but her tone told me that wasn’t an option.
It takes a lot for me to feel genuinely overwhelmed, personally or professionally. When I feel that way, I usually don’t talk about it, and I definitely don’t answer phone calls. One morning, I was staring at my to-do list, thinking: “What will I do?” And it was minutia – just a long list of things I had to accomplish, but it seemed like too much, especially with a new baby. Then, Cassie’s name appeared on my phone, and before my brain could catch up with my hand, I answered the call. Hearing her voice allowed me to be vulnerable, and through my tears, I started talking. I still smile when I think of her rapid-fire, business-like response: “Ok, your first problem, this is what we’re going to do. And I can handle your second issue with an email. What’s the third thing?” When we hung up, my cloud lifted.
A year later, when I received my first clean cancer scan in 15 years, I texted her, and she responded, “Hold on.” Cassie was traveling, and she had pulled over so she could (loudly) tell me how happy she was; she was crying. I was kind of stunned because even I didn’t have that reaction. But that’s Cassie, strong when you need her to be and unabashedly emotional when she is rooting for you.
When we served together on the ULM Women’s Symposium Board of Directors, she donated advertising space, offered speaker ideas, and agreed to speak at the event. Speaking to a large audience about her experiences as a female entrepreneur meant overcoming her public speaking fear. She stayed long after her session ended so she could answer the questions of every ULM student and area professional.
When I drove out of Monroe for the last time in March 2020, I stopped by BayouLife’s office. Cassie was already outside, waiting. My usually introverted 6-year-old Weston exited our SUV first, walked over to Cassie, hugged her waist, and said, “I love you, Miss Cassie.” She cried, hugged him close, and whispered something to him. I’m still not sure what; it’s their secret.
More than two years later, Cassie casually told me that October 2022 would mark BayouLife Magazine’s 10th anniversary. I encouraged her to have her photo taken. “You’re so beautiful,” I told her. She quickly replied, “I’m a goober, Laura.” I told her we also had to tell her story. She was hesitant—and still is—to talk about herself. I told her that her journey would empower the aspiring Cassies to realize life’s possibilities. She paused. And then, she agreed to the below interview. To be candid, I knew she couldn’t say no to the thought of helping young women.
On the evening of our scheduled Zoom Interview, I knew Cassie was juggling a lot as she always is. She was leaving her 10-year-old Stella’s evening softball game after a full day working at her BayouLife office. That day Cassie had also made several renovation decisions on a property she and her husband Trent purchased in North Monroe. She was also ensuring her 8-year-old Vivian was fed and doing her homework. And finally, she was checking on Max Porter Provisions, a men’s store in Antique Alley, that she and her husband purchased last year.
We connect, well, kind of, around 8 p.m.
Cassie’s brown hair is in a bun, and she’s wearing clear glasses. And she’s laughing. I can’t hear her laughing, but I can see it. She’s on mute and can’t make her computer behave. How relatable is that in 2022?
Boom. Zoom is working.
Laura: Ok, I’m going to get my word document ready because I’m a big nerd.
Cassie: I love you.
Laura: I love you, too. I am so excited about this. Ok, please spell your first and last name.
Cassie: Uh, huh.
Laura: Alright, I will be serious. Have you always loved magazines?
Cassie: Oh, definitely. For me, there was always something about the feel and read of a magazine. When I was a teenager, I had “Bop,” “Seventeen Magazine,” and several others. Kirk Cameron! (Laughs). My dad loved magazines, too; he collected National Geographic Magazines.
Laura: How did magazines become your career?
Cassie: When I was 21, I began my internship at DeltaStyle Magazine, owned and operated by Maré Brennan. Later, I worked at the Austin American Statesman and the Austin Business Journal; I sold ads and worked in graphic design. When I had the opportunity to return to Monroe to work for Maré, I jumped at it. She was a true mentor and taught me everything about publishing a magazine. She also served on many non-profit boards and was very much embedded in our community, which helped DeltaStyle. She was incredible at what she did.
Laura: I remember when Maré sold DeltaStyle to Gannett. You then worked as the magazine’s publisher, and later, with six-month-old Stella on your hip, you decided to start your own magazine. What was going through your mind?
Cassie: That I was leaving a 401K, insurance, and bathrooms stocked with toilet paper. (Laughs) Really, I figured if I was doing that much for somebody else, I could do it for myself, and I could help others. I could pay our contributors, implement glossy pages, and feature more of our community. Honestly, after giving birth to Stella, I felt like I could do anything; I think I was fueled by hormones. It was also a difficult time because Trent’s parents had recently passed away. We had just enough money to consider launching one magazine issue. Trent looked at me and said, “Cassie, I believe in you; I know you can do this.” So, I started Redbird Publishing. The Redbird is the favorite bird of my mother-in-law and my aunt. But I needed more funds to actually print the magazine. I asked area businesses to pre-pay for their ads, even though I had no actual product to show them. And they did.
Laura: Your entrepreneurial spirit says a lot about you, and that kind of support says a lot about our community. I know you graduated from ULM with a graphic design degree. And you layout the magazine. What exactly does that mean for those who aren’t familiar?
Cassie: Laying out—or designing—a magazine is taking beautiful photography and excellent writing and organizing it in a way that’s easy to read, appealing, simple, yet beautiful. You can have the best photography and writing, but nobody will look at it if the layout gives you a headache.
Laura: That makes sense. It’s all in the presentation, like so much in life.
Cassie: Exactly. I inherited my art appreciation from my parents. When I was a child, they made sacrifices for me to take private art lessons. My mother, who wrote grants and secured technology for schools in Richland Parish, could also draw. I still remember her teaching me how to draw Snoopy. And my dad, who was an avid photographer, often developed photos in our bathroom. He also worked for an architecture firm.
Laura: Speaking of architecture, that’s a love of yours, too. I can see it in the magazine’s home features; you and your team work so hard to highlight these unique homes. And you’re taking on a considerable home project, personally.
Cassie: That’s one word for it. “Nutty” might be another word. But yes, after building our dream Acadian-style home in Start several years ago, we decided we needed to live in Monroe. So, we’re living in a rental while renovating a mid-century modern home. It’s a lot of work, but I love it.
Laura: Let’s talk about your other work. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced?
Cassie: I mean, there have been so many. (Laughs) We occasionally couldn’t deliver magazines because a hurricane came through. I rented our first office on Honor Street, the same office I worked at DeltaStyle in my 20s. Anyway, that office was small, like 200 square feet. We would walk on top of trash bags because it was so small. When the magazines were delivered, they arrived on pallets, but the magazines weren’t individually wrapped like they are now. We would put the pallets inside tents so they wouldn’t get ruined. We would individually wrap each magazine, place them in trash bags, and then put them in our cars so we could deliver them. Thankfully, we moved to our office on Royal Avenue after that.
Laura: It’s not a secret, at least to you, that I struggle with perfectionism. I rarely write stories for you because I research them and pour over them 100 times before sending them to you. And then I think of you; you do this every month, with 200 pages. How?
Cassie: Oh, I definitely agonize over the magazine, and I’m never 100 percent okay with it, which has nothing to do with what my team did. It’s the expectations I set for myself. I second guess myself on design or story ideas. I feel a certain amount of closure once the issue is printed, but the anxiety still lingers. I hope the people we feature like their stories and the businesses are pleased with their ads.
Laura: The other side of perfectionism is a strong work ethic. Who taught you about work ethic?
Cassie: My parents taught me about dedication, about committing to something. I started competitive swimming when I was five. They also pushed me to explore a lot of different things. I danced, played tennis, was a cheerleader, and took piano and art lessons.
Laura: I’m still stuck on something. Did you start swimming competitively at five?
Cassie: I did. I swam about 12,000 yards a day, which is about four hours. Then, when I was older, I woke myself up at 5 a.m. to drive from Rayville to Monroe so I could swim before school. And I swam after school. I spent a lot of time talking to myself during those laps. I remember motivating myself: “You’ve got this! Just one more flip turn!”
Laura: Do you self-motivate at the magazine?
Cassie: I do it a lot, especially during a late night when I’m tired and want to go home. I tell myself: “You only have eight pages left. You can do eight pages.”
Laura: How we talk to ourselves matters.
Cassie: It does. I don’t get much regular feedback about the magazine because I’m not the point of contact. I’m more behind the scenes. However, the feedback I do receive is incredibly meaningful. I have every hand-written note ever sent to me.
Laura: And the food deliveries from Butter, A Louisiana Bakery.
Cassie: Yes! It’s delicious and gluten-free. In addition to the hand-written notes and the food, I remember a phone call I got from a local woman we featured. I would never have guessed this, but she was struggling emotionally. She said that the article pulled her from a dark place. I was so grateful that we could help her, even though we had no idea we were doing so.
Laura: That’s really heartwarming. I bet that happens more often than you realize. Going back to challenges, I know COVID-19 was a difficult time for your business, as it was for many others.
Cassie: COVID still affects my business. Financially, we’re still not where we were in 2019. I know I’m not alone in that. When the pandemic began, everything shut down: our schools, restaurants, and other businesses. Medical facilities were on diversion. And it was press week. We had enough content and ads to finish the April issue, but many people pulled advertising because they had nothing to advertise. The following month was our May issue. Due to COVID, there weren’t any events happening, and we didn’t do our regular feature stories out of respect for everyone’s safety.
Laura: And your May issue was strictly online, correct? How did you do that issue without advertisers?
Cassie: Yes, that was our first and only issue that was not physically printed; everything was online. And the advertisers … now I’m getting emotional. Business owners called and said they would advertise, even though they didn’t have a message because everything was closed. They advertised simply to help us, and half of them were really, really struggling because of the shutdown. (Crying)
Laura: They believed in you, just as they did with your first issue.
Cassie: It’s that sense of community, you know? We cut our rates in half, paid our staff more than their average commissions, and I didn’t pay myself. I had to keep our people afloat. We actually had less income than when we had before our very first issue. I told our contributing writers—which was really difficult for me to do—that we didn’t have money to pay for their columns. I told them I didn’t expect them to submit anything. They all sent me their columns, anyway. I was so grateful. Everybody came together for it. And I don’t think that’s just a BayouLife story. That happened all around northeast Louisiana. Everybody was open to doing whatever they could to help each other, even though it was a terrifying time. More and more people were getting sick, and the future was uncertain.
Laura: Uncertainty is scary, but it never seems to stop you. When I think about you moving to Austin when you were young and starting your own magazine a few years later, I think about courage.
Cassie: I learned about the brevity of life at a young age. I lost my high school boyfriend to suicide, which stirred something in me. I was devastated. I also knew I had to keep moving.
Laura: I get that. I asked you once why you left Austin, and you told me you missed the feeling of a community.
Cassie: I wanted to be closer to my parents and little sister. Monroe doesn’t have all of the bells and whistles of Austin, but it has so much more of what’s truly important: connections. This community is very generous.
Laura: When I think about your magazine, the community is the catalyst for everything you do.
Cassie: That’s true. For example, when ad sales reps visit Herringstones and other retailers, they make connections and buy things from their stores. We also get a lot of story ideas when we’re out in the community.
Laura: Speaking of connections, I had the unique opportunity to edit it for you a while ago. I was in your production room and was so entertained by the camaraderie among you and your staff. It reminded me of working in ULM’s communications office. When working so collaboratively and often long hours, everyone becomes family.
Cassie: It’s true. They each have their defined roles, but they also do whatever they can to help each other. I’ve been fortunate; many of my staff members have worked for me for several years.
Laura: What do you attribute that to?
Cassie: I know people say, “Don’t get too close to your staff.” But when you have a small staff, it’s almost impossible. I think they know I genuinely care for them and would do everything I can to help them succeed. I also think it’s essential to be present. I would never ask my staff to do something I’m not doing. If they’re working at 2 a.m., so am I.
Laura: Your travel issue is one of my favorite features. I bet your staff feels the same.
Cassie: We call it our family vacation; it’s a great time to bond and show my staff how much I appreciate them. We’ve been to some fantastic places. Everybody we feature is from Northeast Louisiana, so if that means traveling to New Orleans or a beach somewhere to feature that person, we do it. Our travel issue has evolved over the last several years as we’ve visited more and more places.
Laura: Speaking of evolving, I’ve been really impressed by the variety of your content during the last several years.
Cassie: We have hunting, fishing, and high fashion. (Laughs)
Laura: Exactly! I just heard Vivian. What does she want?
Cassie: She wants me to watch TV with her when we finish talking.
Laura: I won’t keep Vivi waiting. What impact do you think your job has had on your daughters?
Cassie: Now, that’s a sad question for me right now, Laura.
Laura: Tell me why it’s sad.
Cassie: Stella and I went to dinner last night. I asked her, “If you were to describe me to someone, what are the characteristics you would use?” Stella said: “hard-working and successful.” I asked her, “Do you think I’m kind?” She told me she did. I want my girls to think I’m hard working, but I feel like they hear and experience me working so much. So I ask myself, what am I not giving them because I’m giving so much to the magazine?”
Laura: My mother started working in a primarily male-dominated field when I was eight. And I remember being so proud of her. She worked evenings and weekends – whatever it took. She was stressed sometimes, but she was also incredibly fulfilled. She set an important example for me. She was with me for all the important stuff, just like you are. When I call you, I ask, ‘What are you doing?’ The answer is almost always: “cuddling with Vivian or Stella.”
Cassie: That’s true. I guess there’s always going to be some kind of guilt. But I am proud of myself, too. Ten years means something. Hey, wait a minute. You didn’t say anything about my new hair color.
Laura: (Laughs) I like it. I think I’m accustomed to you changing your hair color.
Cassie: (Pauses) Laura, I want my kids to grow up and think their mom was good. That’s the measure of success I want to have, and the rest is lagniappe. I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to really enjoy my job: produce a magazine that is a portrait of our culture and our people.
From Cassie: Thank you to everyone who has supported BayouLife Magazine through the years.