So you were too intimidated to send that letter to the school paper, then you get out of college and within three years you’re editor-in-chief of a national magazine. How did that happen?
When I got out of college I felt really free. I felt free to go out and get internships at magazines and show people my work there. I felt qualified, too. I think there was something about that insular community at college that made me feel I would be judged more harshly. I also felt like the kind of work I wanted to do was maybe not intellectual enough for the college environment.
Where did you do your internships?
My school [Oberlin College] had like a study-abroad program, but it wasn’t abroad, it was a semester in New York. We came and did different internships and got credit for one semester. I did that my junior year. I interned at a magazine called Sportstyle. [Laughs] And then I interned at Rolling Stone. And this is why I say that college itself wasn’t necessary for my career—because that semester away from college was the most helpful to me in terms of what became my job. That was where I really learned about magazines and figured out exactly what I wanted to do.
Were you paid at either of those?
What happened next?
OK, so my senior year I came to New York again and started another internship. This was was at McCall’s magazine, which doesn’t exist anymore. I couldn’t believe I was gonna be doing yet another internship, but this one at least paid minimally. I had a friend in the same internship program who had a room at a Salvation Army home for women, and she let me sleep on the floor there. I would have to sneak in past the guards at night—it was a really fun time. So that’s how I was able to live in New York and do this internship at McCalls’s. They eventually hired me as an editorial assistant.
It’s funny to hear the way people talk about it—like the way you said I got to be an editor-in-chief so quickly—because at the time it did not seem quick at all. I actually did work my way up—I went from editorial assistant to assistant editor to associate editor, all at McCall’s—but then I felt like I hit a wall and I couldn’t see how any of this was leading anywhere. There were so many times I just felt like a loser; I felt like, This is never gonna happen. I don’t mean becoming an editor-in-chief, but just making a living doing what I wanted to do in the field that I wanted to be in. I was utterly depressed at that point about where my life was going. I ended up leaving New York and moving back in with my mom for nine months in North Carolina.
Finally, I decided to come back to New York and try again. I got another magazine job, at a magazine called Teenage. And from there I went to Sassy.
It sounds like you had the good kind of internships—the ones that teach you a lot.
Oh, yeah. The main thing I learned was that I really wanted to [work on magazines]. It was just so exciting and fun that doing it without being paid was no problem at all. [Interning] also taught me which parts of magazines I was most interested in.
What were those?
The fashion department and the beauty department. I was really gravitating toward those—and not so much toward writing, but more editing.
I’m interested in the fact that you were so downtrodden right after college that you felt like your dream of working on magazines was never gonna happen, and you were also this person who was too intimidated to send a letter to the school paper, and so what gave you the balls to apply for an editor-in-chief job [at Sassy]?
You know, it was a funny thing. I just thought that I really knew what was right for a magazine for teenage girls. I knew that I could do things really differently, and I knew that I could do a really good job. My intimidation [in college] and my feelings that it wasn’t gonna happen [in New York] were more about the politics and the process of getting to the place where I could do what I knew I could be good at. I just felt like there were so many rules, and so many things I was afraid I was gonna mess up.
How did you find out about the Sassy job?
They [Fairfax Publications, Sassy’s Australia-based publisher] were scouting around, and they asked if I was interested in applying. I went in for an interview and gave them all the plans for what I thought the magazine should be. And I felt like they were really listening to me. Until then I had felt that people were looking for what I was going to do wrong. No one seemed to have faith in me. But once I found someone who seemed like they believed in me, that I could do this, it was just like BOOM.
What did you tell them you wanted the magazine to be?
A lot of it was about how different it would be from the other magazines that were out at that time for teenage girls, and what it was not going to include.
Like dieting tips?
And getting a boyfriend and that kind of thing. And I wanted it to include fiction and politics, and one of the main things was that I wanted to have the writers write a lot in the first person and be real people that [readers] got to know.
What gave you that idea, that you wanted the writers to seem like real people?
I saw that in a lot of British publications and a lot of publications from other parts of the world where they didn’t have the budgets to make them as slick as the American magazines, but because of that you got a lot more of a sense of what was going on behind the scenes to put this thing together, because they couldn’t gloss over it in the same way. I found that really appealing—it made me trust those magazines more, because I could see what was going on, even when things didn’t go right. I could relate to them, because they weren’t this holier-than-thou thing.
Your vision to do a magazine for girls that wouldn’t tell them that their worth depended on their looks or their ability to “get a guy” was totally revolutionary. Were there naysayers?
Oh, yeah, definitely. Because what I ended up doing at Sassy was stuff I had been trying to do at that magazine Teenage, but I was told that advertisers wouldn’t like it and readers wouldn’t get it. I remember hearing that 95% of the subscriptions to Seventeen were gift subscriptions, meaning the the mothers or teachers or whatever bought them for the kids, so that’s who you had to cater to—the adults. But I had this idea that I could get directly to the kids.