Monday, October 1, 2012

The Most Obvious Secret in the World: Changing Your Byline

Now we come to the topic that male journalists never have to face:

A name change.

I was married in 2001, and at the time, changing my name and my byline was a no-brainer. I'm a traditional girl at heart, and I actually enjoyed explaining to people why my name was different. After all, a wedding is a happy affair.

Fast forward to this year, when my divorce was finalized after a 2-year separation ... and I had a tough choice to make.

For a lot of women, the question of returning to a maiden name usually involves the emotions and well-being of their children from a marriage ... and beyond that, you have the hassle of changing the name on everything from the water bill, to voting records, to the Social Security card.

For a woman journalist, whose byline advertises her "body of work," especially now on the Internet, that name change comes with a much larger price.

I ran the whole thing by a few friends in the business, and one person who represents celebrities in LA as a publicist warded me off of changing anything. "You'll have to explain yourself to people," he said. "It's information they don't need to know."

I chewed on my lip for a few weeks after that, considering it.

In the end, I decided that my name represented more than what was on a mailing label -- or even what was printed over articles I'd written.

It went to the core of who I was before I was married ... and that I have returned to that same "person" today. When all was said and done, I wanted people to know me or remember me by the last name with which I was born, not the one that tied me to a memory of a failed marriage.

Changing a name is a very individualized decision. For sure, this one created a lot of confusion! But in the end, I'm really glad I went this route. I tell people, "My friends call me, 'Heidi,' but my closest friends -- those who know the details of my life -- call me, 'Russell.'" Since I was a teenager, "Russell" was more than a last name. It was a warm nickname. In it is tied up the feisty, mischievous and devil-may-care person who first decided she wanted to break balls in a newsroom. I still get a charge every time one of my confidants calls me on the phone and says, "Hey, Russell, what trouble are you causing today?" I still love to hear from someone who will say gleefully, "I'm so glad you went back to your old name!"

Yes, it may confuse people when they search, "Heidi Lynn Russell" and only find a handful of articles on Google. It may have been better for my own credibility to keep the moniker, "Heidi Russell Rafferty" as my official byline, because if you search that name, you'll find far more than you want to see.

That's okay.

Because Heidi Lynn Russell really isn't the same person that Heidi Russell Rafferty was.

And with that small change, even though I may not get the recognition for the volume of work that exists under the married name, I'm back to the person I was before, except stronger, better ... and wiser.


  1. Hi Heidi, I know this is an old post but I'm hoping you'll see this and respond anyway.

    I'm a writer/photographer a month away from graduation and already have a print job lined up. My boyfriend and I are pretty serious and talk about getting married once we are both more financially stable. What I'm wondering is, should I keep my last name to avoid confusion? That's what I'm getting from your post. Also, how would I explain that to our traditional families? And to him? He is old-fashioned and probably expects me to take his name. He is a mechanic so he doesn't have this dilemma.

  2. Hi Anonymous, and thanks for your question. Sorry it took me a while to post it! I just discovered it and because of my schedule am not the best about checking my comments on this moderated blog. :-)

    If you want to go with his name officially, change your name. But for your professional work, I would keep your maiden name for your byline and your professional name -- anything in print, keep the maiden name.

    In the past, I would not have given this advice, because I'm also incredibly "traditional." When I got married at age 36, I figured I'd waited so long to get married and that marriage would be for life. I happened to marry a U.S. serviceman, however, and 9/11 happened just 3 1/2 months after my wedding day. Life takes a toll, and even those of us who would never imagine divorce occurring to us can experience it. In my case, my marriage was one of the casualties of the war on terror.

    So all of that said ... Your name is your identity. Treasure it, because it signifies your hard work. If you have concerns about your family's reaction, just explain that you are "Mrs. So-and-So" personally, but professionally, you have to maintain a consistency in your presentation of yourself to the world.

    Of course, this has to be a decision with which you are comfortable. If you decide to change your byline after marriage, no one will fault you or think less of you. Do what makes you feel the best and happiest.

    On the other hand, if you decide to change your byline to reflect a new last name, just keep in mind that if the unthinkable should happen, you may have to go through the same machinations that I did five years ago. It's not pleasant, and if I had to do it over again, I would have still changed my name on the Social Security card and Driver's License legally but kept the maiden name on top of all of my stories, present, past and future.

    Best of luck and heartiest of good wishes to you and your lovely man.

    --Heidi Lynn Russell