brad or britney? Britney or Brad? It’s 9 o’clock

brad or britney? Britney or Brad? It’s 9 o’clock on a Monday night at Us magazine and Janice Min, staring intently at the cover-photo candidates, chews her salad and mulls. The difference between an OK-selling cover and a great cover is about half a million dollars. In one week.

Observing any cover meeting can be unpleasant. Generally, by the end, the staff is a raw nerve and the editor looks like she’d like to pull a Heathers and set the place on fire. Even those entirely removed from the process are ready for Scotch with a Xanax chaser.

There is none of this sense with Min, Adweek Magazines’ Editor of the Year—no drama, no hissy fits. The puppyish staff (the news editor and photo director are both in their 20s) is jazzed, and a little punchy. While they wait for Min’s decision, they buzz about, bringing other photos for her approval. Photo director Peter Grossman shows Min one of those classic paparazzi shots of an almost-unrecognizable Courtney Love sitting in her car, arm shielding her face. Min rolls her eyes. Grossman announces in a stentorian voiceover: “Us Weekly: No one brings you closer…to their windshields.”

By 10 p.m., the dilemma has not magically resolved itself. The problem is this: There is absolutely nothing new to say about Britney Spears, yet the magazine has paid a reported $15,000 for honeymoon photos. There might be something new to say about Brad Pitt since, as Min sits there, an aspiring starlet named April Florio, who claims to have had a relationship with him during his marriage, is being interviewed and photographed. What will Florio admit to?

Everyone drops by Min’s office to weigh in. Wenner Media chairman Jann Wenner, in a bespoke suit and three-day growth of beard, flops down on a chair when Florio’s transcript comes in. The starlet has confessed that Brad tried to steal a kiss. “A kiss?” Wenner says, exasperated. “There are only two things I want to know: ‘I did it’ and ‘Here’s what it looks like.'” A few minutes later, Kent Brownridge, the vulpine senior vp/general manager of Wenner Media, marches in. “No boning?” he says. “No story.” Then he marches out again.

Ultimately, what with the lack of any discernible boning on Brad’s part, Min goes with Britney and her trailer-park prince. Brad, who’s been the main cover photo for five weeks thanks to his separation from what’s-her-name, is demoted to a tiny side photo. The next day, Us’ photos get front-page coverage in the New York Post and Britney goes on a tear against the magazine’s invasion of her privacy. Us shoots back: “Coming from a celebrity who sold pictures of both her wedding and her stepdaughter, it’s unlikely the issue here is privacy.”

That week’s magazine sells 935,000 on the newsstand. This puts it in the top 25 percent of Min’s covers, though it does not quite make the new Us benchmark of 1 million copies. Through February, there already had been three such issues this year.

Over the last year, the world of celebrity journalism has changed, and that change is largely due to a petite, unpretentious, perpetually bemused Korean-American named Janice Min. Us has become a part of popular culture, shorthand for trashy-but-irresistible celebrity fluff that’s referenced regularly on Saturday Night Live and Letterman. Min herself is an idea machine, packaging and contextualizing photography that would be tiresome without Us’ arch commentary. (A personal favorite: “Do Kabbalah Bracelets Work? When Good Luck Charms Go Bad!”) So indelible has Min’s mark been on the magazine that some People staffers have taken to calling the rival rag “Jan-Us.”

The magazine’s transformation began, of course, in 2002 under the leadership of Bonnie Fuller, whose career has hewn to one guiding principle: Nobody likes to read. Or, rather, they don’t like to read about celebrities, since celebrities don’t have much to say and we presume they’re lying to us anyway. Fuller’s genius was to take other magazines’ front-of-the-book photo spreads and make them into a full-blown magazine.

The ship Fuller ran wasn’t exactly the Love Boat. Still, by the time she left in an ocean of bad blood in 2003 and Min, her executive editor, took over, Us was prospering. Critics predicted Fuller’s abrupt departure to rival American Media would be Us’ death knell. Not so.

“By the time Bonnie left,” says Brownridge, “we were overjoyed circ had gone from about 300,000 to 500,000. Now if we had a 500,000 week, we’d all be in tears.”

In the second half of 2004, average circ at Us was up 12.7 percent, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. Revenue is up 59 percent, according to Publisher’s Information Bureau. Last year, People magazine’s ad pages were down 2.2 percent and The Star’s were down 9.8 percent, while Us’ were up 27.6 percent, with a 62 percent increase in beauty advertisers—highly unusual for a weekly. The magazine’s mantra of “young, better educated, richer” is reflected in the roster of new clients. “This year, we’ve got Christian Dior, a full spectrum of L’Oréal, as well as clients like Coach and Mercedes-Benz,” says vp/publisher Vicci Lasdon Rose. The Oscar issue was Us’ biggest ever, with 76 ad pages and a total book size of 160.

People’s dominance of the celebrity-weekly category is still unquestioned; it earned $768.9 million in ad revenue in ’04, according to PIB, versus Us’ $144.3 million. But some in the industry can envision a time when that might change. “I think by focusing strictly on celebrity in this sort of upmarket way, Janice has broken further away from the pack [of celebrity magazines],” says Pattie Garrahy, CEO of PGR Media, which represents Tommy Hilfiger. “Some of our clients embraced [Us] for the first time last year. We feel more positive about them than we did three or four years ago.”

Min’s particular sprinkling of stardust is not so much how she’s positioned the magazine as how she’s positioned the celebrities themselves. They are generally under 35. And if they are subjects of news at People, objects of awe at In Touch and objects of envy and scorn at Star, at Us they are friends. You love them, but you talk about them behind their backs—and you know they can take a little good-natured ribbing.

“My generation thinks of celebrities as their peers—like neighbors, or people you went to high school with,” Min says. (The average age of the Us reader is 32; Min is 35.) “They’re on a first-name basis with them.” And through some mysterious alchemy of her great instincts and America’s short attention span, Min has become a kingmaker. Us has become a barometer of hotness for everyone in Hollywood, giving it the power to create celebrity out of—well, pretty much nothing. There were a slew of cover-story cuties Us readers were on a first-name basis with two years ago who, in this age of reality TV insta-fame, are not quite our pals anymore.

Not that Min is under any delusions that this power of hers is doing anything remarkable for mankind, or even for entertainment itself. She’s cheerfully candid about Us’ place in the culture, about who she picks and why. “When you sign up to become a celebrity, it’s not because you necessarily think you’re the best actor in the world,” she says. “If that were true, Dame Judi Dench and Ben Kingsley would be on our cover every week.”

When you think about it, Min isn’t asking for much. She just wants Us to be America’s guiltiest pleasure. Is that so wrong? “This is the job Janice was born for,” says a former editor at People who worked very closely with Min. “Whether it was celebrity gossip or office gossip, she was always the first to know what was going on.”

Janice Byung Min was born in Atlanta and grew up the youngest of three in Littleton, Colo. Her mother was an agent for the IRS; her father, who would become an executive for a medical-supplies company, was first a professor of zoology who, perhaps, taught Janice something about keeping sentiment in check. “Dad always brought home these animals from the lab that became my pets: guinea pigs, rats, mice, hamsters. And at some point, they would just sort of…disappear, back to the lab.” Today’s darling is tomorrow’s dead meat: A valuable lesson for a celebrity journalist.

In 1992, Min, only 23, landed a job as a staff writer at People. At first, she struggled. “Her stories read like bad wire copy,” says one editor. “When you’re considered a poor writer at People, you’re kind of palmed off from one section to another and not given much to do. Janice would sit in her office, crying.”

But that changed. An oft-told story involves then-senior editor Paula Chin sitting Janice down and passing to her the “Sacred People Recipe.” “She didn’t get the People ‘snap’ at the beginning—and then she did,” says Carol Wallace, former managing editor of People. “Once she got it, she never looked back.”

In the mid-’90s, the old guard at People still liked to think of their magazine as a purveyor of news as much as a celebrity sheet. So many lifers rolled their eyes as the magazine became ever more interested in Tinseltown fluff. Janice embraced the fluff. She wasn’t merely good at the lighter stories—she shined.

“Let’s see, I had the JFK Jr. beat, the Lady Diana beat, the Oscars,” she says. “I wasn’t a feature-well girl. My covers were like, ‘Hero Pets!'” She’d always loved clothes, even as a child. But when she discovered her unholy love for Prada in the mid-’90s (“I could wear it 24/7, seriously—and sometimes do”), she also realized she could write about it with distinction and wit. She transformed People’s “Style Watch” page from an occasional feature to a weekly destination.

Min was promoted to senior editor at People but within a year decamped to Life magazine. In the Kremlinology of Time Inc., this was considered bad form—and there were some screaming matches between Wallace and Min that the whole office overheard. Today, though, Wallace is much more understanding. “Janice was extremely ambitious, and I identify with that, because early on in my career I had an alarm that went off every three years that dictated I had to change jobs.”

Once at Life, Min was bored and miserable—the pace of a monthly seemed positively glacial compared to a weekly. Again, in less than a year, she wanted out. In 1998, she was named assistant managing editor at In Style under managing editor Martha Nelson—now managing editor of People. At In Style, Min oversaw wildly successful spinoffs In Style Weddings and In Style Makeover. But by 2001, Min left and began yet another job search.

Min originally had applied for the job of editor in chief at Us, but Wenner didn’t consider her seasoned enough. When Fuller got the job, she was called in for the executive editor position under Bonnie. “Janice told friends, ‘I know this is going to be crazy, but I’ll learn so much.'” And however crazy it was, Min seems genuinely grateful to Fuller. “We had great chemistry,” she says.

Today, Wenner, no fan of Fuller’s, says that much of the original thinking of Us under Bonnie could be credited to Janice. But whatever the case, when Fuller decamped abruptly in 2003 for the editorial director title and a $1.5 million salary at The Star, Min was the obvious choice to take over.

Min knew she had to act fast to buck up a demoralized staff. She started with small, symbolic gestures, like not moving into Fuller’s huge office. (Fuller’s old digs eventually were converted into three smaller offices for staff.) She also changed the tone of the conversation about celebrities. “She just had this light, sort of amused approach,” says Wenner. “Bonnie really disliked the people we covered. There was a meaness and a schadenfreude. With Janice, that just doesn’t exist.”

After the tumultuous Bonnie years, Wenner is palpably relieved when he talks about Min. “She’s this completely steady, organized, inspiring person to be in charge,” he says. “She knows how to bring out the best in everybody.” This is critical for a weekly, Wenner adds, “because we’re not burning people out. In a very fast-moving situation, she knows how to keep her head and treat everybody well. There’s no big, brooding firestorms and adrenaline frenzy.”

In media coverage of Min, the editor inevitably is depicted as the “anti-Bonnie,” a characterization to which those who know her well don’t subscribe.

“The problem with that is, it makes her seem as if she can’t be tough or demanding, and she’s obviously had to be both,” says Jim Brosseau, another former editor at Us. “But she understands that the magazine isn’t all there is in the world.” Brosseau recalls the sweltering day of the New York City blackout in 2003. “We were evacuating the building, and she tried to get as much of the bottled water she kept in her office to the staff [as she could] for the long walks home. It’s not the sort of gesture that makes good gossip-column copy.”

Min has a life outside the office. It takes place in her Meatpacking District loft with her husband, Peter Sheehy, a history teacher at Horace Mann, and their eight-month-old son, Willis. It’s this life, perhaps, that keeps the celebrity life in perspective.

Min knows there will be a time when she will be able to put Britney, Brad and Jessica on the shelf and not miss them. In fact, colleagues who say they’ve never had a serious discussion with her might be surprised to know that her favorite show, besides The Sopranos, is Meet the Press. She dreams of one day running a political magazine. Or, perhaps, a magazine about furniture, or kitchens. A girl is entitled to more than one obsession.

But apologize for giving America a sweet tooth for all this eye candy? Never. Min sincerely believes that the kind of escapism Us offers is critical today. “The more polarized this country becomes, the more celebrities matter,” she says. “Because they provide common ground. I could walk into any situation, with any group of people…and we could bond discussing J-Lo’s third marriage. I mean, you can overload on beheading videos.

“I realize,” she adds, “that some people see Us as a sign of the apocalypse. I see it as a safe place.”

Judith Newman writes for Vanity Fair and is a contributing editor at Allure, Self and Ladies’ Home Journal.