Tonya Russell: Health, Wellness & Travel Freelance Writer

 

Angela Tuell: 0:05

Welcome to Media in Minutes. This is your host Angela Tuell. This podcast features in-depth interviews with those who report on the world around us. They share everything from their favorite stories to what happened behind the lens and give us a glimpse into their world. From our studio here at Communications Redefined, this is Media in Minutes. Today we are talking with freelance writer Tonya Russell. Tonya is a South Jersey based writer who specializes in health, wellness and travel. She’s written for many top tier outlets, including the New York Times, The Washington Post, Conde Nast Traveler, and Self. When she’s not writing or traveling, she’s running and is an avid marathoner. Hi, Tonya, welcome.

 

Tonya Russell: 0:51

Thanks for having me.

 

Angela Tuell: 0:52

Yes. You know, I would love to start with you walking us through your career, and how you eventually landed in journalism, because you didn’t start that way. Right?

 

Tonya Russell: 1:01

I didn’t. But what’s crazy is that I’ve known since I was like a little kid that I will be a journalist.

 

Angela Tuell: 1:07

Really?

 

Tonya Russell: 1:09

Yeah. So that was like, the only thing I guess is the only thing I was good at as a kid but like my stand out thing. Like people wouldn’t remember my name, but they’ll be like ah you were that writer, so that worked.

 

Angela Tuell: 1:20

So how did you not go into that initially, then?

 

Tonya Russell: 1:23

So I majored in journalism in college, and I didn’t get any internships or anything. And I was in school, during the recession, you know, and everybody, you know, you’re either going to be at a town hall meeting, or go, you’re going to be at a crime scene interviewing the family, like –

 

Angela Tuell: 1:40

And you’re not going to make enough money to eat.

 

Tonya Russell: 1:44

So like, well, you know, NBC didn’t, you know, accept me, Philadelphia Inquirer, New York Times, I got to figure something else out. So I just at that point, I just took jobs.

 

Angela Tuell: 1:53

Okay.

 

Tonya Russell: 1:54

And that’s what I’ve been doing for the most part. And then I got into some social media marketing, learn the ropes of like, Instagram, and Facebook marketing. So I did that. And then, when COVID came along, I got furloughed, and I was back in college mentally kinda like, Okay, so what’s next?

 

Angela Tuell: 2:15

Yeah.

 

Tonya Russell: 2:16

I pitched some articles based on, you know, the current events, or current state of the world, and things took off really fast.

 

Angela Tuell: 2:26

Wow.

 

Tonya Russell: 2:27

That’s how that happened.

 

Angela Tuell: 2:28

That’s amazing. And then you were where you always wanted to be initially. Right?

 

Tonya Russell: 2:33

Exactly.

 

Angela Tuell: 2:34

So you went from kind of the marketing side, right to freelance writing journalism. And that’s a little bit of a unique perspective, too, because a lot of times the opposite happens, you know, going from journalism into the PR, or marketing world. What were you surprised about when you, you know, started the freelance writing?

 

Tonya Russell: 2:52

How easy it was.

 

Angela Tuell: 2:54

Really?

 

Tonya Russell: 2:55

Yeah, I thought it was going to be more of a dog eat dog thing. I thought like, I wasn’t, nobody was going to be answering my emails, I thought it was a crapshoot kind of, but part of that is because of PR. Because even though I did like the social media marketing, right before I got furloughed, they kind of wanted to train me to do some PR stuff. And they’re like, I’ll email these people, now email them like four more times today. And nobody was answering these emails. But then like, two weeks, actually, like a week before the world shut down because of COVID I got a TV opportunity for a client. And I was like, well, maybe I’m not so bad at this. I’m an idea person.

 

Angela Tuell: 3:37

Yeah.

 

Tonya Russell: 3:38

I guess I was an idea person because the idea started to flow with writing. I learned quickly that oftentimes, we become experts on whatever it is that we’re writing about.

 

Angela Tuell: 3:50

Oh, yeah.

 

Tonya Russell: 3:50

You don’t just know these things off the top of your head. That’s kind of what I mean. Like we’re not –

 

Angela Tuell: 3:54

Yeah, and that’s it, that’s, that’s one of the fun, but also difficult parts too, is you do have to learn enough to become an expert in the topic to write about it. So you broke into some very top tier publications, like the New York Times, and Washington Post, did you just reach for the stars?

 

Tonya Russell: 4:15

Yeah. So New York Times was my third published piece. And the Washington Post was a day later. That was my fourth. Okay. Then my fifth was SELF magazine. Like, people always like ask like, you know, what was your secret? Like? I don’t know. I just, I think it was right place, right time and right idea.

 

Angela Tuell: 4:33

Yeah. Right. Or that goes along with what they’re looking for at the

 

Tonya Russell: 4:33

I wouldn’t have that luck moving forward. After same time. Yeah. What were your articles like for them? that, it obviously people think that you know, you write for the So the article for The New York Times, The headline was Checking New York Times once and then oh, no, you always have something in In On Your Black Employees Now. And that was in response to New York Times. And that is not the case at all. Every editor is different. Every assignment is different. You know, and you don’t always have like, a brilliant idea. And that’s just the way it works. George Floyd’s murder.

 

Angela Tuell: 5:13

Yeah.

 

Tonya Russell: 5:14

I actually came up with that idea, because a lot of really, because of social media, like I’m looking on Facebook, and you know, you have this viral footage, and a lot of people close to me were talking about they couldn’t refer focus at work, how they were having to have difficult conversations with their kids. And so what I did was I found someone to, I found an expert, and together, like we came up with guidelines for employers on how to like, not even just black employees, but like marginalized employees, because, you know, 2020, we also saw Asians being attacked, we started some anti semitism rise up. So I think it was like it actually trended really well. And I got a lot of opportunities out of that it was actually kind of crazy. But the one the very next day for The Washington Post was very similar. It was. I know a lot of people were wondering how to talk to their kids about everything that was happening. And my friend group is pretty diverse. Not only were my black friends talking about their conversations, but so were my white friends. For The Washington Post was how white and black families are having these conversations.

 

Angela Tuell: 6:22

I love that.

 

Tonya Russell: 6:24

And I was able to connect with some parents who were saying, According to experts, who were kind of having the same very good conversations, even though they might look differently, depending on your race.

 

Angela Tuell: 6:36

Right, and advice on how you should approach it, right?

 

Tonya Russell: 6:40

Yeah.

 

Angela Tuell: 6:40

Yeah. So I know you write about fitness and travel, wellness, you know, what are some of your favorite types of stories to write?

 

Tonya Russell: 6:49

So I’m currently like, in love with history. And that could be history of a destination, history of like, just lesser known history. And my, I started to take interest in that travel writing, honestly.

 

Angela Tuell: 7:05

Okay.

 

Tonya Russell: 7:06

Um like, I was in Alexandria, Virginia. And I took a freedom tour, which was like, a slavery theme. But through that tour, I discovered that I’m related to an a famous abolitionist.

 

Angela Tuell: 7:21

Really?

 

Tonya Russell: 7:22

Yeah. And that became an article.

 

Angela Tuell: 7:24

We’ll, we will link to all of these, what was that – what outlet was that one in?

 

Tonya Russell: 7:29

That was for Viator.

 

Angela Tuell: 7:31

Okay.

 

Tonya Russell: 7:32

And, yeah, so the history like really, like, I feel attached to history and telling lesser known stories, whether that’s, you know, a prominent figure in health and wellness, or that’s like, at a travel destination. So that’s what I’m obsessed with right now.

 

Angela Tuell: 7:51

I love that about travel, too. You can, there’s so many things that can change, change you, change the things that you learn or experience or your perspective. And I do love that about travel for sure. We talked about this a little bit just a minute ago, but you know, how do you feel your voice is unique or different than others in the wellness and travel space?

 

Tonya Russell: 8:14

A few reasons. For one thing, when it comes to wellness, I’ve been on all sides. So I’ve been I’ve been the the person the gym rat with the six pack. I’ve been that person you know, but while quiet quietly, like hiding an eating disorder. And I’ve also, like my weight fluctuates. I’m on like the larger side for myself these days.

 

Angela Tuell: 8:39

Okay.

 

Tonya Russell: 8:40

But also I’m more peace. So I feel like a lot of times, there’s like push and pull in wellness. Like where it’s everything is like entirely too healthy and unrealistic. Or we’re supposed to like completely forget about weight loss and body goals. Like it doesn’t have to be either / or. There’s like, you know, there’s something for everybody.

 

Angela Tuell: 9:04

Yeah. A healthy mix.

 

Tonya Russell: 9:07

Exactly. And I feel like I’ve taken more of that approach as far as wellness, but also making wellness fun. Running, I mean, depending who you are, running can be fun.

 

Angela Tuell: 9:16

Yeah. Some people are like, Oh, I don’t know. That’s really

 

Tonya Russell: 9:20

It’s not the running. It’s the after the running like when you’re taking like the last few steps.

 

Angela Tuell: 9:26

Yeah.

 

Tonya Russell: 9:27

Like you’re having a Gatorade after. That’s when you love the running.

 

Angela Tuell: 9:30

Yeah. We’ll talk about that more too because I definitely want to hear more about that. But one of my favorite articles of yours is a personal essay for The Washington Post. And you talk about your perspective on travel and your family. And you talk about travel being a privilege and one that you were not born into. But now we’re sharing the world with your family through your travels and it’s just so fantastic reading it. We’ll link to that article as well, but we’d love for you to share your perspective on that with our listeners.

 

Tonya Russell: 10:01

That is my absolutely favorite. Absolutely favorite article that I’ve written it really is. Because as like as, like I said in the article every time I traveled like there’s a family member in mind. Or like, I’m always having to explain to them what the heck I’m doing, because why were you in Korea again? I was in Korea to eat noodles and do karaoke. Okay. Well, more than but um, yeah. And the fact that I get to share with my little cousin and in that article, I mentioned that, like I said, I wanted to take her to Paris before she turned 12. I actually took her to Paris this spring.

 

Angela Tuell: 10:40

I saw photos on social. Oh, my goodness, was that amazing?

 

Tonya Russell: 10:46

Well, she’s ruined.

 

Angela Tuell: 10:49

Like what’s next, right?

 

Tonya Russell: 10:50

She’s absolutely ruined. I don’t know what how her parents are going to travel with her now because like, nothing is off limits when we travel. If she wants to try the escargo. She can try the escargo.

 

Angela Tuell: 11:03

Did you stay in very nice hotels, and – ?

 

Tonya Russell: 11:05

We oh, it was okay. But when we were in Quebec City, we had, we stayed in a we got a press rate. I did some some writing on Quebec City. But we had the Fairmount, which is like the castle on top of the hill, and they give fabulous room. And I’m like, You’re she’s never going back to another Hojo after this. No more Howard Johnson. No more Best Western.

 

Angela Tuell: 11:28

Never again. We did that. We took our two kids to Panama over the summer. And they’re right now it’s definitely a lot more affordable to travel there. There’s a five star hotel, the first time we stayed in one with our kids, that was oh my goodness, 100 and something dollars a night, you know, for a beautiful five star hotel. And they are like, so what are we staying in a five star again? You know, like, maybe when you’re an adult. They’re, you know –

 

Tonya Russell: 11:53

You gotta earn it after this.

 

Angela Tuell: 11:54

Right, exactly exactly. What places have been your favorite or, you know, changed your, helped shape your perspective on the world, that you’ve traveled?

 

Tonya Russell: 12:05

So I have strange favorites, because of the reasoning behind it. Like, I know, there are a lot of places that are like bucket list destinations. And I’ve been to a lot of them, but they weren’t, you know, they weren’t at the top of my list. For instance, August 2022, I went to the French Alps for the UTMB trail race. No, I did not run it. I did run on the trails. But I always think of that trip. Even though we were like sweating and like half dead every single day. At the top of every trail was a cute little cafe that had like the best blueberry or pear tart. And, like cows and like a fluffy Border Collie that was just running around. Like it was just an amazing, like olfactory. It’s not even just like a –

 

Angela Tuell: 12:55

Like a fairy tale?

 

Tonya Russell: 12:56

Yes in all the senses, the smells and the taste and the views and just that was just all amazing. So the Chamonix was amazing. I loved Australia, that was pre journalism. I went to Australia by myself.

 

Angela Tuell: 13:12

Oh, wow. How was that solo too?

 

Tonya Russell: 13:15

That was a lot of fun, very challenging. I learned how to surf when I was there. I really loved Lamington the little chocolate sponge cake with the coconut out, I should look for that today. Coconut coating on the outside. I love the coffee. I’m such a coffee person. I did not realize I was gonna have quality coffee when I was there.

 

Angela Tuell: 13:41

Yeah, I don’t really think of Australia with that either. It doesn’t come to mind, you know?

 

Tonya Russell: 13:45

That was like European coffee. I’m like, I feel like I’m sitting like in a Parisian cafe, which is right outside of there.

 

Angela Tuell: 13:54

That’s great. So what are you most proud of about your career so far?

 

Tonya Russell: 14:00

I think saying the right things at the right time. Because I actually get to write about meaningful topics.

 

Angela Tuell: 14:08

Yeah.

 

Tonya Russell: 14:10

Like I have friends who write about running. And running is, I mean, I guess it’s meaningful to some people. But like she reviews, all that stuff is great. But I really want somebody to feel inspired or actually learn something from what I’m writing that they’ll take with them and like writing about health and wellness really does that because I write about tough topics like maternal mortality, or even history. I have something coming out in the Washington Post should have been out like three days ago. But you know, how the back and forth goes me and the editor just like one or two like okay, well, can you clarify this? I clarified that two weeks ago, so –

 

Angela Tuell: 14:46

Right. But um, that’s that went on.

 

Tonya Russell: 14:50

That’s on the Maritime Underground Railroad. A lot of people don’t know that most enslaved people who escaped from the south escaped by water, by boat. They were smuggled –

 

Angela Tuell: 15:00

Oh, really?

 

Tonya Russell: 15:01

Yeah. And I’m really excited about that. And, um, I want somebody to walk away from what I’ve written, like with a wow, I didn’t know that, like. That’s something that I’m really proud of because I’ve had a few of those moments and I’ve gotten those emails and comments a lot.

 

Angela Tuell: 15:17

Yes, I feel like that’s what’s happened with me when I’ve read your articles as well. So very, very impressive. What other types of stories and outlets are you currently working on?

 

Tonya Russell: 15:27

I’m working on something for Self that’s really important on women’s health. Voting, Voting Magazine, I have some cool things that I’m working on with that. And I got some stuff in the works with Shape and something really important with Women’s Running.

 

Angela Tuell: 15:45

Wow. Sounds like a lot. Keeping you busy, right?

 

Tonya Russell: 15:50

Always. Always.

 

Angela Tuell: 15:51

What really – talking about PR people a little bit – I always have to do that, right? What really gets your attention when your pitched from a PR professional?

 

Tonya Russell: 16:00

Sometimes funny headlines. Like the headlines that have me say, No, she didn’t put that in the headline.

 

Angela Tuell: 16:07

Oh I like that.

 

Tonya Russell: 16:10

Yes. Like, I can’t believe – but in like a funny way in an offensive way.

 

Angela Tuell: 16:13

Right, right.

 

Tonya Russell: 16:14

Um, but I know that every topic doesn’t like, like, need to like make you laugh.

 

Angela Tuell: 16:22

Yeah.

 

Tonya Russell: 16:22

But I think somebody who knows what I write about and has something that’s going to enhance an experience for my readers. Which that sounds like a lot. Like that’s like very wordy, like a very wordy way to say, like, simply somebody who knows what I write about.

 

Angela Tuell: 16:40

Yes, that leads into the next question with pet peeves. What pet peeves do you have when it comes to working with PR professionals?

 

Tonya Russell: 16:48

Um, it’s less a pet peeve. And more like a, like a Huh?! Some of the pitches that I get, don’t match my niche at all. Like, I have written some wine theme pieces, but like they’re cultural, like soul food, wine pairings. So that was cultural like, because you don’t people don’t think of soul food as high in food. And that was an opportunity to talk to black, black Somalis and winemakers. And so that was a cultural piece more than like a wine piece, per se.

 

Angela Tuell: 17:31

Yeah. So now you’re labeled as a wine journalist too in like those databases.

 

Tonya Russell: 17:35

Yeah, exactly. And like parenting, like, I’ve written a few things about parenting topics. I can’t take on, you know, the fight for, you know, for the formula shortage or single moms getting more pay. Like that’s a little too far. It’s a little too niche for me.

 

Angela Tuell: 17:56

Yeah.

 

Tonya Russell: 17:57

Like, um – I’m more talking to like, prospective parents who are like, should I have children, not the ones who are like, maybe maybe that’s a bit nitpicky of me.

 

Angela Tuell: 18:08

No, I think, I mean, that’s the best writer is when you, when you write from your experience as well. I mean, you can also learn and write about anything, but when you bring in that, that perspective, you know, your personal perspective is when I think the articles really shine or very interesting, you know. What about your preferences on press trips? You know, is there anything you’d like to let PR professionals know when it comes to hosting you?

 

Tonya Russell: 18:32

Um, so I get invited on a lot of like, relax, and like relaxation trips, which- great. But in order for it, like I have turned down a few like in the last six months that are like, Hey, come hang out at this hotel, this resort in Cancun or in Puerto Vallarta, and I’m like, so and then what will I do?

 

Angela Tuell: 18:56

Right.

 

Tonya Russell: 18:58

Will I run? Will I try, you know, will I learn about the local culture, or will I just be at the resort, drinking, you know, tequila?

 

Angela Tuell: 19:09

Right?

 

Tonya Russell: 19:09

Having chef tastings.

 

Angela Tuell: 19:11

So they don’t know you very well, if that’s just the relaxation part.

 

Tonya Russell: 19:15

Yeah, I just need something, I need something a little more – like I was just in Calgary in July, and I would not have accepted that trip if I, if I were, if it weren’t known to me that I would be learning about local indigenous culture. Otherwise, I would have just been at stampede getting my cowgirl on which Listen, right. But it was the extra element of learning about how about the local like, POC business thing that was great. Seeing that there are still thriving native community, First Nations communities. That’s really, that’s the stuff that I’m going to write about, not necessarily the rodeo, so –

 

Angela Tuell: 19:58

Right. Have a pool, hanging out by the pool. And that’s a great tip as well, you know, when you’re offering a trip to make sure you’re really putting that information in there for you. So you can consider could you actually write about this as their cultural information that’s interesting to you. Before we go, we do have to talk about your passion, though – running. I know you’re a runner, and you’ve covered races and some amazing places and you’ve ran in some amazing places. We would love to hear more.

 

Tonya Russell: 20:23

About the running?

 

Angela Tuell: 20:24

Yes.

 

Tonya Russell: 20:25

That’s like the least fascinating thing.

 

Angela Tuell: 20:26

I think it sounds exciting. You were telling me about it’s one that you, a race that you’ve covered.

 

Tonya Russell: 20:34

Um, so yeah, UTMB that was in the French Alps. So unfortunately, like of all sports, that’s the one thing that just like kind of comes easiest to me. And I guess it’s like, the less the least exciting sport because unless you’re like, on a track, passing a baton like there’s, it’s, it’s not fascinating to watch people run marathons for hours. You know what – I’m ok with that. So that’s what I do. But I have run in some cool places. Of course, the French Alps. I was in Vail in July for a hut to hut trailrunning trip. That was very intense. One of the hardest things I’ve done, and I did it with like, no electricity, and no running water.

 

Angela Tuell: 21:14

Wow, how much running was it?

 

Tonya Russell: 21:17

So it was I did 23 miles over three days, which may not seem like a lot, but we started out at like, 10,000 feet of elevation and went as high as 12,000.

 

Angela Tuell: 21:27

Wow. 100. So a lot of uphill running.

 

Tonya Russell: 21:31

In one day we, we covered 2600 feet of elevation.

 

Angela Tuell: 21:36

Wow. And then you stayed in little huts without electricity or running water?

 

Tonya Russell: 21:41

Yeah. But you know, we did have? We had an accordion.

 

Angela Tuell: 21:46

Hey –

 

Tonya Russell: 21:48

We had an accordion and we had a theragun. And what else do we need?

 

Angela Tuell: 21:52

Exactly? So you had you had fun? Is what you had? And it seems through your social media posts that you’ve been training for a triathlon?

 

Tonya Russell: 22:01

Yes, yes. Yes.

 

Angela Tuell: 22:03

How’s that going?

 

Tonya Russell: 22:03

That’s 20, September 23. I’m doing Ironman

 

Angela Tuell: 22:04

Yes, you will, you will. Is that you’re – so that’s New York. How’s it going? So the key is me not drowning. And race day, I’m going to show up. And as long as I don’t drown I have the part that you’re the least excited about? a good story to tell.

 

Tonya Russell: 22:22

Yeah. I have in the past had experiences with open water where like, just out of nowhere, like I was suddenly aware I was in water and I didn’t know how deep it was.

 

Angela Tuell: 22:34

When you have to think about it.

 

Tonya Russell: 22:36

Yeah, that happened me in the Maldives. So it’s gonna really I’m hoping that my adrenaline just like, doesn’t allow me to freak out that, you know, like, there’s, oh, there’s something swimming underneath of me or somebody swimming over top of me. So I’m just gonna let my adrenaline push me through that swim, bike and run. No sweat, just swim.

 

Angela Tuell: 22:56

That’s great. I can’t wait. We will follow on social and be rooting for you. Definitely.

 

Tonya Russell: 23:01

Thank you. Or maybe don’t follow me. Maybe just afterwards just peek and see if I finished.

 

Angela Tuell: 23:06

Okay. Make sure you didn’t drown. Right. So how can listeners connect with you online?

 

Tonya Russell: 23:13

Okay, so I’m on like, every social media platform. I am chronically online. Instagram is My name is the T-H-E Tonya Russell and that’s Tonya with an O. And it’s the same for my Twitter. My Twitter is kind of boring. And I’m on Tik Tok @TRuss, R-U-S-S, Writes. Like not right turn but like writes with a pen.

 

Angela Tuell: 23:40

Yes. All right. Great. Yeah, we will definitely link to those in our show notes as well. Thank you so much, Tonya. It was great talking with you.

 

Tonya Russell: 23:48

You too. Thanks for having me.

 

Angela Tuell: 23:52

That’s all for this episode of Media in Minutes, a podcast by Communications Redefined. Please take a moment to rate, review and subscribe to our show. We’d love to hear what you think. You can find more at CommunicationsRedefined.com/podcast. I’m your host, Angela Tuell. Talk to you next time.

Russell found herself at the right place, right time with the right idea to launch her writing into top-tier publications. Listen to learn how Tonya embraced this luck to enhance her journalism career.

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