Bonnie Fuller: The Big Life (and New Book!) of a Geeky Canadian

The Fishbowl Final: FishbowlNY Editor Rachel Sklar interviews American Media Editorial Director Bonnie Fuller.

This is the fourth interview in our impromptu “Fishbowl Final” series.

bonnie-4.jpgOn April 11, 2006, American Media Editorial Director Bonnie Fuller‘s mouthful of a book, The Joys of Much Too Much: Go for the Big Life – The Great Career, The Perfect Guy, and Everything Else You’ve Ever Wanted (Even If You’re Afraid You Don’t Have What It Takes), hits the shelves. A thirty-three word title is atypical for Fuller, who has learned to be succinct by trade (consider this coverline on the current issue of Star: “BRIT PREGNANT AGAIN?”), but when it comes to this book, that’s the point. Fuller’s book is all about cramming everything you want into an impossibly full, rich life, with herself as the primary example (and sometimes, cautionary tale).

It’s fairly obvious that Fuller has applied that philosophy to her career, having held the top spots at a whopping six magazines (Canada’s Flare,, the now-defunct YM, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, and Us Weekly before moving to American Media, where the publications she oversees include Star, her flagship, Celebrity Living and 21 other titles under her purview. She is also arguably responsible for the recent explosion of celebrity weeklies at the newsstand, proving there was an audience for endless nuggets about celebrities and the news they made just by walking from Starbucks to their car, packaged in candy-colored, irresistible covers and pic after shiny pic with pithy captions. I have a clear memory of experiencing this phenomenon firsthand in a D’Agostino’s and seeing a bright blond Britney Spears smiling against a deep orange background. I don’t even know what the cover story was about; I just remember needing to have it. (Dude. You saw Superbowl XXXV. Those tube-sock armband things had legs.) It was sometime between February 2002 and June 28, 2003, during which time newsstand sales jumped, overall circulation hit 1.1 million and Fuller was named AdAge‘s “Editor of the Year” a full 9 months into her tenure.

You all know this story; suffice to say that Fuller’s jump to David Pecker and AMI was a surprise to the industry and her boss, Jann Wenner. Wenner appointed Janice Min to lead Us from strength to strength thereafter (winning her own “Editor of the Year” award), and Fuller went from reviving a moribund magazine to taking on the challenge of taking a downmarket brand and raising its profile, ad pages and newsstand sales.

Bonnie cover.jpgThrough it all, she’s clearly learned a few things, through the bumps and leaps that led her from the wilds of Toronto to the halls of Cond&#233 Nast/Hearst/AMI. I had the opportunity to read The Joys of Much Too Much earlier this year and found that I really connected to Fuller’s advice and experience. Full and obvious disclosure: I, too, hail from the wilds of Toronto (indeed, as it turns out our childhood homes were about a twelve-minute walk from each other), and am hardly disinclined to like a book with a chapter called “Embrace Your Inner Canadian.” That said, I also greatly enjoyed her account of going from the ultimate “geeky girl” outsider (she is by turns “geeky” “klutzy” and “loserish” in her account) to a creative and market force in the industry she loved, knocking through obstacles like a battering ram along the way (she recounts her first jobsearch in New York, being dinged instantly by Seventeen, and it was only after numerous, persistent phone calls to WWD that she was finally granted the interview with a resigned “Come on in to WWD if you must”)(she got the job).

It’s a mixture of pragmatism and inspiration, with straightforward messages like “use envy as a butt-kick for yourself,” “don’t be a needy worker” “position yourself to be noticed” and “the biggest hurdles you will ever face are the ones in your own self-critical mind.” (Sometimes the pragmatism veers into harsh reality: I enjoyed the part about Bonnie’s madcap Canadian rise more than the section entitled “Biology Waits For No Woman“). There are also some dishy parts with hard-to-get references (example: “I was criticzed by one of my former bosses for not being computer-savvy, but in the meantime I took his magazine from a $15 loss to a $15 gain, a swing of $30 million, in a year and a half…Numbers talk.” Hmm. Who could that be?) Some of the more excruciating stories from her rise include her account of being told no, you can’t join us for lunch by a group of ladies in the lunchroom on her first day at WWD (charming) and being cold-shouldered by colleagues in the biz during her early days covering the shows (before retiring to cockroach-infested hotels. The magazine world is so glamorous!).

I had the opportunity to ask Fuller about the book its message, including her impetus to write it, the long memory of the business, being under the microscope and what’s up with her inner Canadian.

Join us in going for the Big Job, the Big Love and the Big Life after the jump!

Who is the intended audience?
Every young woman in her 20s and 30s — looking ahead and thinking what their life choices and wondering if they can manage to have a career, a family a love life, and they’re scared that they’re not going to be able to. I wanted to encourage them and say, “Yeah, you can do it.” It’s not just for women in media, it’s for women everywhere. I don’t want them to feel that having the best life possible is unattainable. It’s not. I do believe that the road to happiness is to have all of this in your life.

What was the impetus? Why did you think there was a need for a book like this?

There were too many negative messages, too many articles where women were telling each other than they shouldn’t try to have it all….there was an article in I think New York magazine about women giving it all up, and it bothered me on a couple of levels. (Ed. Fishbowl couldn’t find the New York piece, though Fuller and I also discussed The Opt-Out Revolutionfrom the New York Times magazine.) That is such a luxury! For most women, that door is not open to them. Even if it is an option and you can financially afford it — and it’s a wonderful thing to take time off to raise your children — but the message of this particular article wasn’t just to opt out for a couple years and then come back, it was just…opt out.

I’d seen friends who had “opted out” — and it’s amazing how quickly ten or twelve years go by and your kids are really busy with their own lives, and these women were feeling very much like life had passed them by, and they didn’t know how to jump back in. I saw that there was a lot of regret about their decision and they became very fearful of jumping back in, and I just don’t think it’s necessary to have to opt out in order to enjoy raising your children. You can still have a wonderful relationship with your children and get so much out of it without having to give up your whole other life — your intellectual life, your passion, whatever it is.

One of the things that I really wondered about were the women from the cafeteria. That’s awful. You can’t even script that – it’s right out of Mean Girls.

star.gifThe interesting thing — as I said in the book — is that they actually became really good friends. And so the message was, yes it was very “Mean Girls,” but I don’t think there’s a lot to be gotten by holding long grudges. I’m not a huge grudge holder. A really embarrassing losery thing can happen to you and you can still carry on. And you can overcome it and live through it (after you turn bright red and walk to the other end of the room), but you can’t just write people off.

That also struck me with respect to your examples about people in the industry being dismissive or unfriendly during your early days. How was it when you would run into them again professionally?

What it taught me is that you certainly shouldn’t be that way — you should certainly try not to be that way — because you never know when the tables are going to be turned. Life is long. Just as you’re on your way up, you can be on your way back down again. You don’t want to bruise too many people that way. And I thought that was something valuable for people starting out. No career pool is that big.

This all feeds into some stuff that I was going to save to the end — I was going to work up to it — about the bad rap you’ve gotten for pushing people or working very hard. I felt like you were addressing that. Was that a conscious thing, or was it like setting the record straight a bit? You make the point a number of times that if you were a man nobody would say boo. And I agree with that — I see that all the time. Was there an element of responsiveness to this?

I didn’t write the book to set the record straight. I really didn’t. I really set out to pass along what I’d learned and my best advice. And I think that having those experiences made me want to pass them along, and I think that, having gone through this…[it will be helpful] for other women setting out. You don’t run into a lot of [those experiences] until you are a certain way along in your career. You’re not going to bump into the glass ceiling until you get up to a certain level.

I want my readers to feel, “you’re not alone – there’s nothing wrong with you if this happens” but also “you can expect that it might happen.” So I wanted to prep them but also to counsel them a bit that if it did happen this could help them see a way around it or up through it.

You write “Many of the women working for me in their mid and late thirties aren’t married, and I wonder if they ever will be, given that they expect to meet Mr. Perfect.” You talk about the ridiculous standards some women have (“I’ve met women with a $100 first date minimum…Puleeze!”) and why it’s okay to give a man an ultimatum (like you did your husband on your fourth date). Have you shown the book to these women? Is it hitting visceral notes?

Yes, definitely it’s hitting visceral notes with people. Young women have definitely responded, and it’s sparked debates.

What kind of debates? That’s interesting.

Well, what you brought up: Should you give a guy an ultimatum, should you settle, is it settling or is it having high standards? That’s what it is — “are your standards ridiculous?” or, “are you settling?” Women in every city feel that way.

In the chapter “Eating Humble Pie, Even at the Ritz: How to Come Back from Personal and Professional Disaster,” you discuss your departure from Glamour, and how you had let Si Newhouse know that you appreciated the opportunity, and thanked him for that. These are all people that you must see — at events, etc. — is there still a relationship there at all?

Of course, like I said before, the career pool isn’t that big. I haven’t seen Si in a while. I need to get out of the office more — it’s rare!

(NB Bonnie advises her readers not to bad-mouth former co-workers and employers: “Professional exes are not the same as romantic exes, even if they too have broken your heart.” She declined to speak on the record regarding Jann Wenner, but I was reminded of that passage when I saw this, and then subsequently this.)

You’re a pretty polarizing figure, and it is well-known that you are often criticized in the press. How do you handle that?

(Ed. There is a pause here, and then a shrug) You gotta get out your armor. Most women are not in as public an industry…we happen to be in a very public profession. It’s a good lesson for anyone, though. Even if you’re not in a public profession you can still feel the whispers.*

You wrote about fighting against your “Inner Good Girl” who didn’t stand up for herself. Is she Canadian, by any chance?

(laughs) Yes, definitely. It’s a cultural thing — we’re considered more reserved. I think we are more reserved! Americans are so forthcoming, I remember thinking that when I went away on an exchange and going to camp in Wisconsin. Ameircans are more forthcoming about everything. We’re less about being instant best friends, we take a little time.

(Then Fuller turned the tables and started asking me about blogging, where there’s no need to cram it all in because you can go on for as long as you like. Fishbowl readers are well aware. She seemed a bit jealous, I have to say.)

Being in the print, you cram so much in – you’re limited so much by space and by time, it’s all about cutting it down to the essence whereas, as you said, in your work — it’s limitless, it’s infinite.

Have you thought of having a Star blog?

Yes, we have…we’re actually getting our website for Star is going to be redesigned, and we’re going to be starting on that shortly. We’re very excited about that.

The Joys of Much Too Much are even greater on the internet!

(laughs) Indeed.

What Makes Bonnie Run? [New York]
Bonnie Fuller: Queen of the Tabloids [Forbes]