Passionately discussing her magazine’s mission, Atoosa Rubenstein suddenly gets so worked up, she’s on the verge of tears.
“Remember when this normal suburban girl in New Jersey ran away from home for like five days?” asks Rubenstein, 28. “When they found her and asked, ‘Why did you do this?’ she just said, ‘I don’t know.’ It made me so upset!”
Rubenstein’s voice wobbles and her dark eyes well up. “I wrote her parents a letter, because they said, ‘We didn’t see it coming.’ Well, if you had listened to your daughter, you would have seen it coming!” She takes a deep breath and composes herself.
Listening to the daughters of America–and serving as their emotionally available big sister–has been Rubenstein’s modus operandi since the former Cosmopolitan fashion editor hatched CosmoGirl!, Adweek’s 1999 Startup of the Year.
“I wanted CosmoGirl! to be the voice that the reader can trust,” she says, “that can give her comfort, like a refuge. I’ve heard some editors say about their readers, ‘Oh, they don’t know.’ But I feel very in sync with mine.” Rubenstein gets between 500 and 1,000 e-mails a day, like this one from a girl in Indiana: “I love your magazine, the tips and advice, and the way you somehow make me feel normal at times when I feel like a total freak or weirdo!”
Since CosmoGirl!’s August/September 1999 debut, Rubenstein’s sisterly empathy for her 12-to-17-year-old audience has pervaded every page of the magazine–even its lipsticked cover logo, which is in her own handwriting–and helped it carve out a niche as the truth-teller and self-esteem-builder in a crowded field of frothy teen titles. (Plus, every issue has a whole page of stickers of cute guys!)
Group publisher Donna Kalajian Lagani calls CosmoGirl! “the most ambitious test-slash-launch that Hearst has ever done. The original intention was to do it slow, but it was like spontaneous combustion–BOOM!” The first printing was 850,000 copies; even before sales figures came back, Hearst immediately upped the number of planned 1999 issues from two to three, and then starting this February ramped up to 10 times a year, with a guaranteed rate base of 500,000.
It’s still a pipsqueak compared to category leaders like Primedia’s Seventeen (2.6 million), but Lagani says, “We believe it can be as big as Cosmopolitan.” (CosmoGirl!’s big sister has a circulation of 2.7 million.) Several international editions are already in the works, and the corresponding Web site that was launched simultaneously–www.cosmogirl.com–is already getting nearly 3 million hits a month. .
Teenagers were magazines’ hot target audience in 1999; TV had already been currying teens’ favor (especially the WB, which has already provided three CosmoGirl! cover subjects), and teen taste dominated the pop charts (like March cover girl Christina Aguilera). The astounding success of Teen People’s 1.5 million circulation showed there was ample room on the newsstand to cater to the largest, most free-spending teenage American generation ever. There are 33 million teenagers today; by 2010, that figure will increase to 35 million.
“It’s a volatile market,” says Kristine Welker, who Lagani hired from Ladies Home Journal to become CosmoGirl! publisher once the title went to 10 times a year. “Tommy Hilfiger told us they’re introducing new inventory every two weeks, because that’s how fast these kids move. And that’s why Seventeen really needs to watch their brand franchise. Because that magazine is 50 years old and hasn’t really been evolving.”
In the past, says Lagani, publishers in the category had to prove that a teen market even existed, but now, “Everybody knows this is a really important market for them to go after. And they don’t yet understand them so they’re looking for a way to connect to them.”
Yet the success of CosmoGirl! was far from assured. Though Lagani says that the Cosmo name helped her make the easiest ad calls she’d ever done–she was able to land L’Oreal, Calvin Klein, Lancome and Ralph Lauren for the debut issue, which sold a total of 56 ad pages–CosmoGirl! has distanced itself from its big sister.
“The minute somebody says Cosmopolitan is going to do a book for teens,” says Roberta Garfinkle of Universal McCann, “the concern on everyone’s mind is, will it be sexually oriented and driven [like Cosmo]? But what they’ve put together is really good in that it isn’t Cosmo Junior. It’s kind of wholesome. And it doesn’t focus solely on beauty and fashion like a lot of teen books. It has some substance to it.”
Hearst had been kicking around the idea of a teen title for a long time.
“We would have loved to have bought Seventeen back when it was for sale,” says Hearst Magazines president Cathleen Black. Hearst’s research revealed that both parents and daughters felt that most of the magazines in the market were talking down, and didn’t exude the quality of adult fashion and beauty magazines. When Teen People debuted, Black says, “We said, let’s wait and see what it does to the circulation of the other magazines. And all it did was explode the market.”
When former Redbook editor Kate White took over Cosmopolitan from Bonnie Fuller in August 1998, Lagani mentioned the idea of a teen version of Cosmo to her. White was intrigued, but immediately had to fly to Europe for the fashion shows, where she was accompanied by one of the staffers who didn’t leave with Fuller for Glamour: senior fashion editor Atoosa Rubenstein.
“Atoosa is magical,” says White. “Smart, articulate and breathtaking. She wore these incredible Union Jack shoes, and she never wore stockings.”
Indeed, when Rubenstein married her husband Ari a few years ago, the New York Times’ Vows column described her as “a cross between a runway model, an Addams Family character and a Shakespearean maiden from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” But it was not always thus–which is why her readers can relate.
The wild-haired Rubenstein–who is named after an ancient Persian queen–emigrated with her family from Iran when she was five, and grew up in decidedly un-hip Malverne, Long Island, “a bit of a nerdy-pie” (yes, she really talks like that). Her parents were devout Muslims, so she couldn’t shave her legs and had a 6 p.m. curfew. Still, she devoured all the teen magazines, she says, “but I was never fulfilled by them. I always thought they were written for a girl that was richer than me, that had boyfriends, which of course I never did. So I just felt like an outsider.”
Not until college did she see Sassy, which she connected with. “I loved the personality I got from it, from Jane Pratt [who is now editor of Jane]. She made me feel good, like it was O.K. to be myself.”
Despite her family’s hopes she’d become a lawyer, she found herself sneaking peeks at Sassy under her desk in her poli-sci classes at Barnard, and after sophomore year landed an internship at Lange Communications, publisher of Sassy–where she was so aggressive about being noticed, she’d follow Sassy’s creative director Mary Clark to the bathroom.
Another internship, at American Health, gave her experience copyediting, fact checking and writing. On graduation day she fielded calls for interviews at both Seventeen and Cosmo; she was offered both jobs, and took the one at Cosmo, she admits, “because they offered it first.”
But she soon realized that the magazine “had a real positive influence on women, and I wished I’d had it when I was a girl.” She was also inspired watching former Cosmo editor Helen Gurley Brown in action. “She’s the mouseburger that could–a girl who’s normal, who isn’t the star athlete or most beautiful girl in school, but inside always wanting to be so much more. Her message to women was, ‘If I can do it, you can.'”
After bonding with Kate White, Rubenstein asked about the rumors that Hearst was starting a teen title, and started rattling off ideas she’d been nurturing. White was impressed enough that she told her to go meet with Cathleen Black.
So on a Tuesday in mid-December 1998, Rubenstein sat outside Black’s office, with her “crazy hair,” made all the more insecure when she saw soon-to-be Talk publisher Ron Galotti leave. But she went in and started pitching. Rubenstein recalls, “I told her what CosmoGirl! should be about is how a girl like me, with a not-very-connected family, gets to be sitting in a room with you. A playbook to being able to realize your dreams. Not just on a career level, but on a personal level. And to give empowerment and inspiration to girls.”
Black was intrigued. “I told her to put together a dummy,” recalls Black, “and asked for it sooner rather than later.”
Rubenstein decided that meant she had to get it done by that Friday, “because that’s just the way I am.” She checked with White about what exactly was expected of her; White explained she should come up with a mock cover and several tables of contents. “I told her how important it is to do show and tell,” says White. “Particularly with an executive, it makes everything leap to life.”
Since Rubenstein had already been obsessing about it, she says, “the entire concept was down on paper in one night,” including many of the section names that would end up in the finished product, like the title of her editor’s letter–“Hey!”
She pulled two all-nighters and worked on the lipstick logo in bed. “I woke up in a cold sweat and my husband was covered in lipstick shards and splotches, and our comforter that we’d just gotten for our wedding was ruined.”
Why the exclamation point? “I’m an exclamation-point kind of girl,” she says. “I sign my e-mails with one. [Indeed, responses to reader e-mails include bursts of Zoiks! and Sorry Atari!] But when I think about it, it’s probably because of the positive, upbeat voice that I envisioned for the magazine.”
When Rubenstein met with Black at 7:30 p.m. on that Friday, she hadn’t slept, she’d imbibed a lot of soda and she was a basket case. “I was going so fast and was so nervous,” she recalls. “Cathie put her hand on mine and said, ‘I’m not going anywhere. Slow down and calm down.'”
“I was blown away,” says Black. “I hear Atoosa speak and literally get chills.” After a couple of demographic questions, Black told her, “I think we have a magazine.” Rubenstein was only 26.
By Jan. 20, 1999, Rubenstein had an office and a staff of five. She hired designer Deanna Filippo Stesner, who she’d worked with on a one-off called Cosmo College and who had worked on Condƒ Nast titles Allure and Glamour. Stesner developed a busy but clean look, with a handwritten font for the columns, which Rubenstein had given casual names like “Ouch,” “Pssst: Read His Mind,” “Holy Hair” and “Nice Bod!” Stesner also enlisted classy, hip photographers–like Bumper, Andrew MacPherson, and Kate Garner–whose work usually doesn’t appear in teen books.
And Rubenstein made sure that none of the touted fashion or beauty was out of the typical teen’s price range. And she and then-editor Dana Hudepohl set about recruiting real teens from high schools around the country to start the all-important reader-magazine relationship. (Today the staff numbers nearly 30.)
Rubenstein adapted many aspects of big Cosmo–embarrassing stories, advice, guy ogling–to the teenage years. Her monthly editor’s letter usually includes a homely picture of her teenage self, and recounts self-deprecatory tales, like spending her prom night scooping ice cream at Carvel because no one asked her to the dance.
“I don’t mind sacrificing or embarrassing myself as long as someone learns something from me or feels better about herself,” says Rubenstein. “They get a real sense of empowerment and inspiration to know that I was just a regular girl like them. Not to say I’m a big superstar now, but I’m happy. ‘Cause they don’t right now see how they can ever be happy.”
In that spirit, CosmoGirl! pays extra attention to what Rubenstein has labeled the “Inner Girl”–the issues of self-esteem and peer pressure that she felt have always gotten short shrift in competitors like Gruner+Jahr’s YM, Teen and Seventeen. “We did a story about how a girl can be dumped by her friends. Other magazines usually address hot topics like school violence. Not to say that’s not a big issue, but there are very simple things that were being ignored.”
It’s not all sturm and drang. “There’s a real sense of fun in the magazine,” says Kate White, noting she has given Rubenstein no guidance since that initial dummy counseling. “And the magazine addresses things beyond boys and celebrities–things to be inspired by, things to tackle.”
In just five issues, CosmoGirl! has been able to strike a balance between dependable features and surprises to keep readers happy. One month there was a Cosmo-ish centerfold; another, posters of boys. Hearst has spared no production expense, not only on the thick-stock stickers but also on tear-out booklets on subjects like astrology, the new year and college.
The Web component has proved particularly enticing for the new e-generation. Publisher Welker says, “On every page there’s something interactive.” She points to how the online adjunct to the print magazine’s “Boy-o-meter” allows girls to vote on that month’s candidate, and “Emale of the month” subjects himself to an online chat.
E-mail is also crucial to the magazine; Rubenstein is often at the iMac in her office until 3 a.m. answering hers. “The great thing about this generation is, ask and ye shall receive,” she says. “They are dying to give their opinions, and with us their opinion really matters.”
Cyberspace also has opened up some business opportunities. In a few weeks they will be naming a sponsor for the site. And the May issue will feature a 32-page beauty section, highlighted by a “cyber beauty” spread touting a summer makeup bag that will be sold on the Web site via hyperlinks to e-commerce sites. “Atoosa really believes that teen girls are shopping the pages of the magazine,” says Welker, “and the magazine will evolve so you’ll see more and more of that.”
The CosmoGirl! team are mindful of why Sassy ultimately failed and pledge they will not fall into the same traps. “Sassy was over the edge, in terms of language and some of the sexual coverage,” says Lagani. “Advertisers didn’t want to go near it. CosmoGirl! deals with sex more as a health issue.”
“Or an empowerment issue,” adds Welker. “How to take the pressure, how to stand up for yourself.”
Rubenstein did recently run a Sassy-like first-person story by a teenage girl who had a baby. “The message wasn’t don’t have sex, because it’s not my place to say that,” she says. “But to say, the girl went through this, she made one mistake and her life was changed. Her spirit is still up, but this does happen to ‘normal’ girls. What killed me about that story was she was a viola player and he was a violin player and they met in orchestra. So these aren’t just things that happen to kids in the streets. Because when girls say ‘that can’t happen to me,’ that’s when they get in trouble.”
Rubenstein says she doesn’t edit the magazine to impress her peers or to make headlines, but for her readers. “It scares me that 12-year-old girls know about oral sex because it happened in front of their eyes with the president. This girl today is the same girl we all were, but the world around her has changed so much, and she doesn’t have any of the experience that we have as adults to buffer her. CosmoGirl! is about epiphanies that women have when they’re about 25 but wish they’d had when they were 15, so they wouldn’t have to go through all of this.” n
David Handelman is a contributing editor to TV Guide and a magazine columnist for Mediaweek.com