Hillary Coe for America
An air force brat standing six feet tall by the age of 13 and oft-covered in more mud, grease and blood than an entire platoon, Hillary Coe was smashing stereotypes before she was even old enough to drive - let alone set drag racing world records. Having inherited a thirst for adventure and inquisitive mind from her pilot-turned-agency exec father, by the age of 16 Hillary wasn’t just a scholar identified by G.M as a future tech leader but the very definition of a juxtaposition - welding and working the spanners on old cars and training for her pilot’s license to boot. But the catwalk was calling, Google, too, and in a matter of years Hillary’s extra curricular pursuits were limited to the weekends as she graced the cover of Vogue and established herself as a creative director at some of the world’s biggest ad agencies. Yet despite the commercial and catwalk success, Hillary’s but a rock-climbing gear-head at heart – forever the self-described “weird girl”.
THE RED BULLETIN: You’re barely 33 and a drag-racing, rock climbing, jet-flying, ad executive model. Where’s all that drive come from?
HILLARY COE: Not to dive too far into the dark depths of my upbringing, but I was a weird kid. I was six feet tall and was consistently covered in blood, dirt or paint. I was motivated by a tremendously talented father who understood the creative mind and everyone else who challenged it. Both motivators were (to me) essential for building that strong and driven foundation, especially when breaking tradition with cultural norms. Every time, I speak at a school, especially to girls looking to get into the tech field, I have this uncontrollable urge to shake them and tell them it’s worth the war. Just like that scene in Billy Madison, but with a more sincere and motivational undertone.
You hold the NHRA drag racing world record for fastest female in a diesel truck at 8.72 seconds. How did find yourself on the drag strip?
The idea of breaking into the unknown and unexpected is a life mantra, not just a career concept. I jumped out of planes because I was terrified of heights. I started working on cars because I enjoyed puzzles and was told too many times that a girl can’t weld. I spent every weekend turning wrenches for a racing team in Texas until they gave me a shot in the driver’s seat, and that didn’t stop me until I was shattering every record in my division. The drive to pursue the things that fascinate me, regardless of fear, uncertainty or difficulty is what makes this life worth the time. And sure, I believe a competitive mindset is a great motivator. This goes back to what got me through growing up the only girl I knew grinding rails, swimming in oceans and throwing paint on walls. I wasn’t just competing with the men, I was competing with the idea of what it meant to be a girl.
And then there’s flying jet-fighters. Please explain…
Anyone who grew up with Top Gun doesn’t need to answer this question. But I will still answer this question. My father was a pilot and I come from a long line of Air Force brats. That being said, I love flying because for one, we aren’t supposed to. Flying is one of the greatest gifts human ingenuity has bestowed us. We can throw ourselves at the ground and miss, and then shoot ourselves into the stars. As a creative I have stumbled to find the words to accurately describe what flying does to me. I can only say it’s as close as I’ve come to seeing God.
You seem to be constantly on the move. What is it about the globetrotting life that attracts you?
How can we define ourselves as human beings without a sense of adventure? A pursuit for exploring the unknown and discovering ourselves as something more that’s what makes this whole thing worth doing. For me, seeing the world opens up something that constantly surprises me—how small I am and how much I have to learn. I take that humility and apply it to every adventure I seek and pursuit I take on. This is important because in all honestly, no one likes ego-driven asshats and you’ve got to find that thing that keeps you grounded. Sometimes I find mine in the air.
You featured on the cover of Vogue Italia in 2005 among others magazines, has modeling been a help or hindrance to your advertising career?
I took up this brief career as an opportunity to travel the world on someone else’s dollar. What I didn’t expect was a lesson in learning to embrace what makes me female (beyond the mascara), and seeing it as a strength instead of something I had to fight against to be taken seriously. I see a lot of female leaders still battling this in order to survive a male-driven culture, and it’s a hard line to walk. My worst experiences are teachings on how I never want to be treated in a professional environment, and I’ll leave it at that.
What more important to you - beauty or brains?
Someone much smarter than me once asked “if the world were blind, what would you contribute?” I see a lot of beautiful women seeking out rich men because they don’t believe in the potential of their actual worth. I was an awkward, flat chested undesirable until I was about 22, and because of that had to get off by having a big personality, cunning wit and sharp intelligence. That has never left me.
What’s the scariest and most enlightening experience you’ve had on adventure?
I have had many, but one in particular comes to mind. I had just reached the top of Muana Loa, solo, which is the highest active volcano in the world. At around 12,500ft, exhausted and at the complete mercy of the gods I realize my jetboil (cooking device) decided to take its last breath. Surviving on marshmallows (for lava toasting) and a protein bar, I make my way down to find a group of two locals and mountaineers on their way to the lava fields. We trek eight miles through mud up to our waists in the dark, emerging through the trees to find the most incredible site of fiery cracks in the ground beneath a smoldering martian surface.
The mud dried on the lower halves of our bodies and as the sun came up and we looked like lost astronauts in search of lifeforms. Quickly we realized the landscape was moving under our feet, and every minute or so we ran as lava found its way up to chase us. I was in awe of the energy this force created, stunned by the sight we were a part of and absolutely terrified of how powerless we were surrounded by it. In the end I discovered that marshmallows are not to be toasted in excess of 1,000 degrees.