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How Sassy Changed My Life



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About The Authors

By Kara Jesella and Marisa Meltzer

Kara Jesella and Marisa Meltzer are New York–based writers. They have written and edited for publications such as The New York Times, Teen Vogue, Elle Girl, Bitch, Jane, Spin, Entertainment Weekly, Nylon,Nerve, and Elle.

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EXCERPT

HOW SASSY CHANGED MY LIFE
chapter 1
The Rise
b.s., or before sassy
Later, there would be the infamous Kurt and Courtney cover. There would be the R.E.M. flexidisc. There would be the seminal junk food taste-off and the first-person sex stories. There would be Jane and Karen and Catherine and Mike and Neill and Margie and Kim, and there would be Christina Kelly, regaling the world with stories of the menstrual cramps she endured while interviewing future talk-show hostess Rikki Lake. But before that, there was Seventeen magazine, and it regularly ran cover stories like "Bridal Sweet." "This was the day I'd always dreamed of," reads the copy. An accompanying photo pictures a beaming adolescent bride in her new husband's paint-splattered oxford shirt, eating takeout on the floor of their brand-new first apartment. But this wasn't 1957; this was 1987--three years after Madonna seduced a generation of teenagers by singing about premarital sex in a wedding dress.
Despite the fact that it was spinning its wheels in a different decade, Seventeen retained its place as the grande dame, the de facto how-to-be-a-teenage-girl guide. It was the nation's first teen magazine, and ithadn't veered from its civic-minded mission to create the world's most proficient wives since its debut, right after World War II. The magazine was essentially an etiquette guide for the all-American girl, doling out no-nonsense advice on appearances and relationships in between fawning celebrity profiles, home-decorating how-tos, and a parade of Nordic-looking models. Its owner, Walter Annenberg--a Nancy Reagan crony and millionaire with a gold-plated toilet seat in his private plane--called it "a national trust."
From the beginning, Seventeen practically invented the teenager as a category that could be marketed to, and the magazine lost none of its muscle over the subsequent forty years. Though it had spawned teenybopper wannabes like YM and Teen, its million-plus circulation and seemingly unassailable brand name made Seventeen the most coveted vehicle for advertisers. Big companies were convinced that if they could convert young consumers to their products, the girls' loyalty would remain after a walk down the aisle effectively ended their adolescence. Half of all Seventeen readers would graduate to the decidedly retro Good Housekeeping and the mildly liberated Glamour in their adult years, and they were a marketer's wet dream: soon-to-be happy homemakers and pink-collar office workers. They were the girls beguiled by the Jostens class-ring ad in the September 1988 issue, which featured a pretty young girl with a boyfriend's lips pressed to her cheek; the tagline reads "Guaranteed for Life."
But to achieve this promise of matrimonial bliss--not to mention a spot in the homecoming court--there were a number of things a teenage girl needed to know, and to that end Seventeen served up dieting tips, recipes, and relationship advice. "High kicks and cartwheels aren't the only things that count in cheerleading tryouts. Appearance can make or break you, too," a beauty story admonishes. "Could you have possibly put on a few pounds over summer vacation?" worries one of the de rigueur diet articles. Seventeen could help: "Busy Bodies" features two girls and their editor-approved exercise routine.
Sure, there were plenty of things to worry about in high school: getting fat, wearing the wrong clothes, body odor. But Seventeen taught girls how to master these traumas, and once they did, they could participate in all kinds of teenage fun, like rushing a sorority or trekking to Florida for spring break--something, one article enthused, "you should do at least once." The beach, after all, was "hunk heaven." How to get one of these hunky guys? "Be patient, not pushy."
But Seventeen wasn't just invested in girls' present; it was also invested in their future. Nestled beside the ubiquitous ads for modeling schools, weight-loss camps, and "High School at Home in Spare Time" were blurbs for fashion-merchandising colleges and courses like "Learn How to Be a Secretary." The magazine's editorial component was slightly more ambitious, featuring regular stories like "How to Make the Most Out of Your College Visit." But lest you think that higher education was valuable for much morethan getting a Mrs. degree, an article called "College Cool" from the August 1988 issue should change your mind. It's a greatest-hits list of "Wild Weekends," "What They're Wearing," "Where to Spy on Guys," and "Hot Dates." There's only one concession to academics: a severely truncated list of "Best Classes." Other articles for the aspiring coed (a word Seventeen used liberally and entirely unironically) include "Fighting the Freshman Fifteen: How Not to Eat Your Way Through the First Year of College" and a fashion story featuring students at Tulane, a school best known not for its academics, but for its parties.
Seventeen was most American girls' first piece of direct mail; 50 percent of them received the magazine. "Hillary Clinton read it when she was a teenage girl, and so did the girl who grew up to be a hairdresser," says Caroline Miller, who became the magazine's editor in chief in 1994. As such, its tastes were oppressively mass, with treacly profiles of mall queen Tiffany and hair band Nelson. It touted parentally approved entertainment in parentally clueless language: "It's the underage rage these days as adult dance clubs open their doors to the under-twenty-one crowd. Fruit juice flows and the music pounds as the younger generation rules the night!"
Typical Seventeen magazine fare included articles on how to write a check and how to handle a sudden downpour while driving. "Pizza: Have It Your Way" achieved Seventeen's dual directives of teaching girls how to cook ("Read recipes to make sure you have the ingredients and understand the directions") while simultaneously making sure they didn't actually indulge in the fruits of their labor ("When ready for dessert, serve salad"). The magazine preached the middle-class ideals of common sense and moderation.
Seventeen's downmarket sisters were more of the same beauty, fashion, diet, celebrity, and trauma-rama stories, but half as sophisticated. YM and Teen paid breathless homage to high school's alpha males and featured mind-numbing articles like "Quiz: Are You Your Own Best Friend?"
hello, dolly
"The teen magazines here were like Good Housekeeping for teenagers, speaking with parental voices and looking like they were suspended in aspic," Sandra Yates, Sassy's founder, told The New York Times in a 1988 profile.
In the early 1970s, Sandra was a single mother, just out of her teens, struggling to bring up two kids on a secretary's salary in Brisbane, Australia. It wasn't easy, but Sandra was used to that. She had grown up in poverty, left school at fifteen, and barely survived two disastrous relationships--both times, she lost her home. The only way she could make it, she figured, was by crawling up the corporate ladder. But the women's movement was just kicking into gear, and no matter how smart and ambitious they were, few females ever made it past the assistant level. But Sandra was an optimist. She was also a feminist. During her lunch break, she would abandon hertypewriter, change into jeans and a T-shirt, and attend rallies for the Women's Electoral Lobby, the Australian equivalent of the National Organization for Women.
She hit some serious snags--a male manager who refused to have a woman working for him, another who made clear he would never promote one--but Sandra eventually landed an advertising sales manager position at one of Australia's premier newspapers. She worked with thirty men and one other woman--her secretary. Next she took a job, also in advertising, at Fairfax Publications, a big player in publishing, where she was quickly promoted to a top position. In 1987, Fairfax sent Sandra to New York City to investigate the company's potential to make its mark overseas. It was there that Sandra got the idea for Sassy.
Sandra thought American girls needed something different, something more like Dolly, the edgy, outspoken, Fairfax-owned Australian magazine. In other words, the Times reporter stated, "one that would discuss issues like sex, fashion, or suicide, without cloaking them in euphemisms, one that would take a tone of, in her words, 'Hey guys, we're in this together.'" Dolly ran stories like "Masturbation--It's Not a Dirty Word" and made fun of cross-eyed pretty girls in a story on model bloopers. It was the highest-selling teen magazine per capita in the world.
Sandra convinced her bosses that they should invest in her idea. She packed up her husband and kids, and she and her business partner, Dr. Anne Summers (who had headed Australia's Office of the Status of Women and had written a book on Australian feminism), moved to New York. They immediately began putting their team together.
"I passionately believed that the key to Sassy's success would be her very young staff," says Sandra. Dolly's Australian employees were just a few years out of high school themselves, and this was evident in the way the magazine sounded. But the recruiting experience in the United States was difficult--"No one seemed to believe that we were genuinely expecting to hire a very young editor"--and firms kept sending much older candidates. The New York publishing world is a clubby, competitive place, and there was no dearth of corporate-clad, razor-taloned, senior-level editors who were ready to try their hand at the top slot of a brand-new, big-budget publication. But Sandra wasn't impressed by the usual suspects.
you sassy, me jane
Enter Jane Pratt, then just another twenty-four-year-old recent New York City transplant trying to make her name in the notoriously hierarchical publishing industry. But the relative newbie had impressed Marty Walker, who was helping Sandra with her search. Jane had worked with Walker at McCall's and was currently toiling at a struggling start-up called Teenage. Though she was young and inexperienced and didn't have a backer, she had begun telling people that she wasstarting her own publication for teens. "At the time, I thought I had labored so long," says Jane. "I had assisted, I had xeroxed, I had answered phones. It felt like, 'Damn it, it's time for me to have my own magazine.'"
As a lonely junior transfer to Andover--the elite prep school in Massachusetts that both her father and uncle had attended--Jane had devoured teen publications, trying to find girls like herself. "I just remember all these pictures of girls with tennis rackets, and they always had a boyfriend, and they all looked exactly the same," she says.
Jane was born in 1963 in Durham, North Carolina, the second oldest of four kids (two boys and two girls). Her parents were both art professors at Duke. Though she has said she was the "absolute worst" on the basketball team, she did well academically at the Carolina Friends School, a Quaker-run facility where there were no grades and no pressure. In fact, she started to get a little bored. So at fifteen, two years after her parents divorced, she left home for boarding school.
Right away she felt out of place on the preppy East Coast campus. "All of a sudden I was an outcast," she said in a January 1991 Sassy article called "When We Were Depressed." "The standards we were judged by were totally different. Being me wasn't enough anymore, and I had to give people specific reasons to like me--like being pretty or extremely smart or having money or a family who's somebody." She didn't really fit any of those criteria; in fact, her mom had gone on unemployment briefly, and worked a paper route to support the family after the split. And it was hard to get to know the kids, many of whom had been boarders since they were in elementary school; no one was particularly interested in befriending the junior transfer.
But Seventeen, which Jane turned to for consolation, didn't exist to validate; it existed to proscribe. And it gave a lonely girl plenty of reasons to think her inability to fit in was her own fault. "Are you a bore?" asked one story that appeared during Jane's high-school years and preyed on young girls' deepest fears about themselves. "Your chatter may be driving friends away in droves."
"I felt completely disinterested in all the things I was supposed to be interested in," says Jane. "I held no passionate response to any of it, whether it was the pop stars being foisted upon me or the clothing that I was supposed to love to wear, or the kind of guys I was supposed to want to date and the kinds of things I was supposed to want to do with them on dates." In fact, dating itself seemed like a deeply foreign concept, yet another entrée into an inauthentic world. "The idea of dating was always like, 'Ugh! Gross!' To me, it just means that you are going to go somewhere and you're going to act like someone else, and it's tiring."
But there was no real place for Jane, who didn't feel that she fit into her high school's social strata. "It wasn't like I was so cool, like I knew about these bands that other people didn't knowabout and that I loved," says Jane. "Sassy was part of helping create those outlets for people like me. But at that time, there just weren't any." If she had been an adult, maybe she could have taken refuge in a feminist persona, listening to Joni Mitchell, reading Kate Millett, wearing hippie skirts, and letting her hair go gray. If she were a boy, maybe she could have been a punk, starting a band and dyeing her hair. But in the days before John Hughes peppered his oeuvre with smart, independent, not classically pretty, kind of freaky, kind of geeky, but also very cool girls who win in the end--though winning always means getting the guy--there were simply no role models.
She promised herself that if she ever got the opportunity, she would start a teen magazine for girls like her--girls who felt like they were outsiders, but who could still pass for normal in the high-school cafeteria. Girls who didn't want to completely reject mainstream culture, but didn't want to completely embrace it, either.
In the meantime, she wouldn't give up her destructive teen magazine reading habit. "I was addicted to them in a way, because of that terrible thing I think a lot of women's magazines do, which is to tear you down, but then tell you how they can help you fix yourself," she says. So one month Seventeen would run a guide on how to buy an engagement ring, and the next they'd run "Are You Really Ready For Marriage?"--a story about teen divorce. A story on how women spoil men too much is published just a few months apart from "Are You Too Assertive with Boys?" Jane would look to the magazine "to see what I should be, and when I wasn't, I would feel really bad. But I would think, 'Maybe through these pages I'll get some help, be more like those girls.'"
For a year, she was so stressed and upset that she practically stopped eating, and she started cutting herself. But the summer before her senior year, she became determined to change things. If she joined the cross-country team, she could go back to school two weeks early. She figured this would allow her to meet the other athletes and the new students, who she thought might be more open to her. So she trained all summer and got a new haircut, new makeup, and new clothes. It was exactly the kind of transformation that Seventeen would have endorsed; when she got back to school in September, no one recognized her. She had remade herself. "I had a great senior year," she said in Sassy.
After graduation, Jane matriculated to Oberlin, a small, liberal-arts college in Ohio, where she double-majored in English and dance, and where being a bit offbeat was prized, not denigrated. While there, she interned at Style and Rolling Stone and, afterward, at McCall's, before landing her gig at Teenage. Then she was called in to meet with Sandra Yates about a new teen magazine based on an Australian publication. She infamously showed up to her job interview in big black workmen's boots, a polka-dot skirt, and a vintage top. She looked, said Sandra, like she "got it."
"She asked me the craziest thing or wildest thing I had ever done, so I told her the story about when I met Michael Stipe," says Jane of her oft-repeatedfirst encounter with the R.E.M. frontman, in which she chased down the van he was in as it left a club after a show. She had exams the next day, but "you know, whatever," says Jane, who could tell Sandra loved her response.
Jane seemed like the grown-up teenager Sandra was looking for. But Sandra wanted to make sure there was some substance to go with the style. She asked Jane if she gave money to any causes. Jane replied that she had given to the pro-choice organization National Abortion Rights Action League since she was a teenager. "I think that sealed the deal," she says. "I saw on her face, 'Okay, we got the girl.'" Sandra sent Jane to Sydney for six weeks.
sassy gets a staff
"She just sort of looked over the shoulders of everyone and asked us questions constantly," says Neill McCutcheon, Dolly's art director, about Jane's time in Australia. "And you know, it was funny for us, because we were going, 'They hired her? Really?'"
If Dolly's Australian staff wasn't yet quite convinced that the bouncy young American in miniskirts, anklet socks, and heels was right for the job, neither was Jane thrilled that she was inheriting a number of employees. Despite her exalted new job status, Jane didn't have complete control over staffing decisions. Sandra's boss had hired Cheryl Collins--Dolly's former art director, who had spent the last eight months in the United States at Mademoiselle--to head Sassy's art department even before Jane was brought on board. Jane hired Neill as associate art director. Jacinta Dobson, Dolly's Australian fashion editor, was also being shipped over to Sassy. Manhattan-born and -bred, RISD-educated Mary Clarke, who had toiled in the bland domesticity of McCall's (where she had recently been fired), and before that had worked at Seventeen (where she was scolded for wearing jeans and vintage clothes), was signed on as beauty editor.
Jane wasn't pleased to find out that one of the magazine's writers had already been hired. Karen Catchpole was a Californian who had skipped out on her last year of high school to move to Australia. She was working at a trade magazine about publishing and advertising, where her assignment was to write a story about Fairfax's launch of Dolly in the United States. "So I'm on deadline and I'm writing the story and I think to myself, 'That's where I want to work,'" says Karen, who had written exactly one freelance article--a profile of a male model--for Dolly. It was seven o'clock at night, but she called Sandra, who picked up. "I made some probably completely transparent pretext asking some question about the story, and then I basically just said, 'I want a job at this new magazine that you're doing,'" says Karen. There was a long pause. "Oh, yeah, you're American," said Sandra. Jane felt pressure to hire someone that Sandra liked, and, even though she was less than thrilled with Karen's ideas (Jane thought Karen's proposal to call the letters column Vox Pop was lame), hired her with the plan to "edit her like crazy."
Instead of arguing with her new boss, Jane concentrated on filling the remaining two writing slots. Jane had edited Catherine Gysin, an assistant with minimal writing experience, at Teenage. And though they weren't great friends, they had talked about Dolly and Jane's vision for the new magazine. Catherine was a midwestern girl who loved Yeats; had seen On the Waterfront thirty-six times; nursed a deep, abiding love for Sting; and was very close to her family. Jane thought Catherine was suited "to be the serious girl, the bookish kind of girl" the magazine needed. So she called Catherine late one night and offered her the job and a hefty raise. Catherine accepted immediately. "Being a staff writer was what I always wanted," she says. "I was thrilled."
There was just one slot left. A help-wanted ad in The New York Times had attracted a lot of prospective candidates, but most of them weren't very promising. It wasn't that they didn't have enough experience; plenty of people from publications that were both reputable and cool, like Rolling Stone, had met with Jane. But what Jane was looking for in a writer was "less about the way they wrote and more about the way they spoke, and their actual personalities." So far, no one had the right voice. She liked the way one cover letter that had come in was worded, but she kept bypassing the candidate, Christina Kelly, who certainly wouldn't bring any cool cred to the new magazine: Christina was an inexperienced writer who worked at Footwear News, a trade publication that covered the shoe industry in excruciating detail. But Jane was getting desperate, so finally, with nothing to lose and without interviewing her first, she asked Christina to do an edit test, a mock version of a story she would write for the magazine. The topic: friends talking behind your back.
Elizabeth Larsen remembers the day they received Christina's test. Jane's new assistant, Elizabeth, had just spent three months in South America after graduating from Barnard. She, too, had answered a Times ad, though Jane's requirements for her position were notably less stringent. (Elizabeth claims she was hired for the boundless enthusiasm she showed for the magazine's prototype; Jane claims she was swayed by Elizabeth's resemblance to Shirley Temple.) "[The test] was what we would later recognize as vintage Christina. And Jane and I were looking at each other and being like, 'This is it!'" says Elizabeth. They were particularly impressed by a reference to pop princess Lisa Lisa of Cult Jam. "It sounded like a teenager speaks," says Jane. "It was perfect."
Jane called Christina in. "During my interview she was like, 'So what do you want to do?' and I was like, 'Um, I want to interview celebrities and cute boys,'" says Christina. It was the correct answer, but Jane was worried by how quiet Christina was in her interview--nothing like the attitude-filled article she'd written. So Jane had her come in again. Christina says she just knew that this was her ticket out of Footwear News. She called Jane "persistently, constantly,and then finally Jane was like, 'I have to get her off my back,' so she hired me."
the first issue
In October 1987, the full launch staff finally arrived at Sassy's offices, located in prostitute- and peep show-infested pre-Giuliani Times Square--1 Times Square, to be exact. Though there would eventually be desks in their pink cubicles, on the first day there were just typewriters strewn around the pink shag carpet. Jane's office had just recently been finished--it fit nicely into the color scheme, and was soon to be dubbed "The Pink Cave"--and everyone crammed in, arranging themselves on the floor for the first of many editorial meetings.
"I think we looked at Dolly and wanted to model ourselves after that," says Elizabeth. "But Jane had her own ideas."
There were plenty of Sassy columns--like the horoscope, quiz, and fiction sections, plus fawning profiles of no-name actors like Charlie Schlatter--that mimicked the usual teen-magazine fare. But there were many other aspects of the magazine that didn't resemble anything else in the genre, like "On the Road," which featured real kids--not models--talking about what's cool in their towns. (In the first issue, it's Miami.)
In the inaugural "Diary," a monthly note from the editor in chief, Jane is photographed wearing a T-shirt and denim jacket and, oddly, a faux Chanel baseball cap. She presents her persona as part hapless, part hip. "We're all still trying to figure out what being an editor in chief means," she says, then introduces each of her staff members, who appear again, just a few pages later, as reviewers for "Listen Up" (the record reviews) and "Watch This" (the movie reviews).
Jane wanted everyone to have a voice and used the magazine's first relationship article to establish her cast of characters. "It was a typical Wednesday-morning meeting," the piece opens. "Elizabeth and Catherine were having their usual argument over who's better-looking, Dweezil Zappa or Sting. Karen was cramming her second blueberry muffin into her mouth. And Jane had that I've-got-a-brilliant-idea look on her face. 'Why don't we do a story on how to flirt?' she said. 'Getting ready is the biggest part of flirting, ' counsels Karen. 'I'm not admitting that I flirt, just that I think I'm good at it,' says Neill, in one of his earliest appearances as the magazine's resident lothario. 'I hate that word, flirting. It's such a giggly word,' says Mary derisively, adding that she never does it." Besides giving the reader a peek into how magazine stories are made, the piece's use of first-person journalism acknowledged that there wasn't only one way to flirt and that, in fact, it was totally acceptable not to partake at all--a potentially validating acknowledgment for the magazine's less sexually precocious readers.
The writers' voices were even apparent in their more serious pieces. "I caught the flu while working on this story. I gained five pounds andsmoked a cigarette for the first time in a year," says Catherine in "Life After Suicide," a story about three teenagers who killed themselves and the devastating effect it had on their families. In a less grim but equally enlightening piece, "Backstage at Miss America," Catherine clued her readers in to the dark side of an event that teen magazines normally sold to girls as something to aspire to. "The judges have a complicated list of abbreviations that they write down next to each girl's name to keep track of the various body parts. For example, WC stands for weak chin. H means heavy. But my personal favorite is BB, which stands for big butt. Ah, the wisdom of the judges. As I overheard one judge say, 'This girl has to represent America. Someone with a big butt just doesn't do that for me.'"
The wink-wink, exasperated, bemused tone was completely unlike the vaguely disguised parental voice of Seventeen or the saccharine ditzi-ness of Dolly. The writers and editors spoke to girls in their own language, which didn't come across as condescending or fake, since they were mostly in their early twenties themselves. In "Talk Behind Your Back," Christina's job-clinching story, her reader identifies with the heroine who is being ragged on by her friends. "You wonder what aspect of your personality has loosened the traitorous tongues of your friends, the wenches," she writes, sounding like Shakespeare's sister. Still not knowing what she's being shunned for--"Have you developed dandruff, severe acne, a nervous tic? Or is it your weight?"--the beleaguered high-school student goes to class. Her hot English teacher informs the group that "'Oscar Wilde once said that it is better to be talked about than ignored.' You derive some comfort from these words. More controversial people have said the same type of thing, including Madonna, who emerged from the mud bath of gossip a shining star." Christina invokes the totality of a teenage girl's world, in which pop-music divas, great dead white authors, best frenemies, and alluring adults figure equally. And she assumes they all get the joke.
Even better is that Christina conjures the real ambivalence of adolescence. At the end of the article she writes, "In college, I got into writing newspaper editorials stating that fraternities were sexist institutions that should be abolished (there were eleven fraternities at my school, all filled with good-looking guys). I was talked about pretty brutally by some of these guys, who thought I was weird. They also didn't ask me out much."
This level of honesty and intimacy was unprecedented in an American teen magazine. And both qualities were also particularly apparent in the magazine's first sex story. It's not that other teen magazines didn't cover this territory; Seventeen ran its clinical "Sex and Your Body" column every month. But in an article called "Losing Your Virginity: Read This Before You Decide," written by Karen, Sassy sounds more like a cool older sister than a high-school nurse.
Sassy looked as different as it sounded. All the other teen magazines were a mess when it cameto art direction--unsophisticated and mostly black-and-white. Sassy was extra-wide and full-color from front to back. Still, photographers looked down on the idea of shooting for a new teen publication, and it was hard for the magazine to get the kind of top talent it wanted. But the design was in good shape; by the time Jane appeared at 1 Times Square, Cheryl had already put together a prototype, pages of Dolly with the Sassy logo added, which the sales staff was showing to prospective advertisers. It bore the brushed-ink logo that she had come up with one night because she wanted something handwritten. And the art department was happy, because for the most part, Jane left them alone. "You'd go to Jane and say what do you think and she'd say, 'Yeah, whatever you want, whatever you think,'" says Neill.
Beyond being pleased with her new boss's hands-off approach, Jacinta was excited by the American fashion establishment. "The clothes were so much better here. The models were better. Budgets were bigger," she says. In Australia, Jacinta had used lots of vintage because she didn't have access to big-name stuff. Here, she not only got to use the designer clothes, she got to go to the shows, too. "Betsey Johnson always gave us seats; Donna Karan wouldn't give us the time of day," she says. But it didn't matter because her mandate was to buck what was on the runway. Their shoots "had nothing to do with what was going on in the fashion industry. You could come up with things to start a trend." Jacinta, Cheryl, and Neill worked closely on choosing models, but Jane retained final approval. She was looking for girls who would "be not model-y"--that is, a little off-kilter, not necessarily all-American.
To that end, "the cover was a big issue, trying to get the exact right feeling," says Christina. So, although the girl on the magazine's first cover is a blue-eyed blonde, her bandanna gives her a quirkier look.
On the last page of the magazine, there's a picture of a smiling, pixieish brunette, along with a note from Jane.
It goes like this: There was this great idea for a new magazine. But it didn't have a name. Well, actually the big guys who were putting it together had a whole list of names they liked--but whenever they asked anyone under the age of twenty-five, none of the names went over too big (to put it mildly). So one day, one of these guys went home and started explaining all of this to his daughter--thirteen-year-old Sara Walker. And she said, "Why don't you just name it Sassy?" Just like that. (Well, not just like that--the big guys then went and asked about two hundred more people her age what they thought, just to make sure.) So that's how Sassy was born ... Oh. You want to know what some of the other choices were? Well, okay ... things like Chloe and Dawn and Amy and She and Me and Dee.Now aren't you glad Sara came along? So are we.
the response
The day the first issue of the magazine was being printed, Jane and Cheryl drove hours to visit the plant in New Jersey to see the cover and make sure it looked exactly right. "On the drive back, that was like the highest I've ever been in my whole life," says Jane. "We were giddy happy." It was partly exhaustion, but it was also a sense that they were on the verge of something new and important. Even though George H. W. Bush was favored to win the election--which didn't make the intensely liberal Sassy staff very happy--there was a sense that change was possible. Said Jane, "This is an amazing moment, because we could be doing something right now that could change the way an election could go! We're shaping these minds when they're really young. This is really important."
But the goal for the first issue was a little less ambitious: everyone just wanted it to sell. Sassy already had a small subscriber base. Charlotte Robinson was one reader who signed up for the first issue: "They got my name and address from Seventeen or some other shitty magazine I subscribed to and they sent me a big David Bowie poster with a description of Sassy on the back. Sold!" she says. But Sassy also needed to make a splash at the newsstand. Cover lines like "So You Think You're Ready for Sex? Read This First" and "Justine Bateman Speaks; Robert Downey, Jr., Freaks" did an excellent job of reeling in thirteen- to eighteen-year-olds who saw it while grocery shopping with Mom or at the mall.
Becky Mollenkamp was thirteen when she bought Sassy in a Kmart because she loved the logo. "My friends all read Glamour, Cosmo, Marie Claire. I hated those things," she recalls. When she read Sassy, she says, "I just remember thinking, 'Finally, a magazine for me.' I wanted a magazine that spoke my language, discussed issues that were important to me, and made me feel special. Sassy did that. It was topics I cared about written in a, well, sassy voice, and it never seemed condescending. It wasn't a bunch of skinny models wearing expensive clothes and talking about how to please a man." Sarah D. Bunting's mom got her a subscription for her birthday and "my initial impression was that it was a trick--I was so used to the pink sparkly 'you're not allowed to sweat or get pissed off' Seventeen-speak that I couldn't quite believe it was a magazine for the same demo." Allison McPherson found it through a magazine fund-raising campaign at her high school in her small town (population 2,500). "I thought it was an exceptionally cool mag and I loved it from the start," she says. "With only thirteen other girls in my grade, I stuck out as the odd or desperately trying-to-be-original girl. I felt the rest of the girls were stuck in saccharine Seventeen or Tiger Beat." And "I was so excited that there was finally a magazine with a voice like 'ours,'" says Jen Hazen, who borrowed a copy from her high-school friend, loved the "funky" cover design, and read it cover to cover. "I was asubscriber to Seventeen at the time and was going through quite a rebellious stage, so it wasn't speaking to me. It felt too puritanical."
At least one Seventeen staffer agreed. "[Sassy] was like a lightning bolt," Annemarie Iverson, a beauty editor who later became her alma mater's editor in chief, told a Mediaweek reporter about the first time she saw the new magazine. "Everybody else felt the need to disparage it, but I felt terrible, like I was standing in my tracks. I missed something totally. It was a whole different voice and a different generation, and Seventeen suddenly felt antiquated to me--like it was a wearing a chastity belt."
Copyright © 2007 by Kara Jesella and Marisa Meltzer

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