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How Sassy Changed My Life: A Love Letter to the Greatest Teen Magazine of All Time

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How Sassy Changed My Life: A Love Letter to the Greatest Teen Magazine of All Time [Paperback]

Kara Jesella , Marisa Meltzer
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In the late '80s and '90s, when teen fare was homogeneous, Sassy magazine,a teen cult favorite,was the cool new kid on the block, speaking to girls on their level, giving them an in to alternative pop culture while acting as confidant and wise dispenser of advice. New York–based writers Jesella and Meltzer were part of the Sassy demographic and decided that a "love letter" to the publication was in order. The result is a behind-the-scenes, warts-and-all look at the magazine's office culture, including sections on the glossy's coverage of feminism, celebrity and girl culture. Struggles with advertisers, publishers, religious conservatives and other detractors are described in detail (in a very us-against-them tone), allowing insight into how editorial content was developed. Much of the book is written in a cooler-than-thou tone, often at the expense of every other teen magazine on the market and of the typical American girls who read them. This attitude arguably contributed to Sassy's demise in 1996. In the end, the book—written in a style reminiscent of the magazine itself—is a testament to a publication that changed the face of teen media. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


"Around the time you read that a publicist for Tiffani Amber-Thiessen once accused Sassy magazine of 'terrorist tactics,' you realize that this book isn't simply a smart and funny ode to a smart and funny magazine; it's the record of a short-lived insurrection against a powerful social code, one that tells young women what they're supposed to think and how they're supposed to act."—Alex Ross
"There are people—and I'm one of them—who define their adolescence as pre-Sassy and post-Sassy, who found a respite from the dominant culture of proms and mall-crawling in its pages, and who mourned its death like it was that of a best friend. For us, Jesella and Meltzer offer up some much-needed closure, as well as an engaging snapshot of a time when teen culture was full of vivid, inspired, yet-to-be-co-opted cool."—Andi Ziesler, editorial/creative director of Bitch magazine

"A page-turning romp through the secretive and cut-throat world of teen journalism. Sassy was the one magazine that attempted to subvert the usual diet of mind control and hypnosis employed by its establishment peers. And while she may have destroyed herself in a fit of confused self criticism, she left a generation of precocious women in her wake."   —Ian Svenonius, The Original "Sassiest Boy in America" (not to mention former front man of Nation of Ulysses and author of The Psychic Soviet)

"In its brief life, Sassy offered teenage girls a new way of seeing themselves—and their parents, perhaps, a new way of understanding them. It was very much a product of its historical moment and, as this insightful narrative suggests, Sassy, like all truly significant magazines, clearly helped shape the social realities of its time."  —David Abrahamson, Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University

"Sassy really did change my life. If I hadn't read the magazine as a confused pre-teen, I doubt I’d be the person I am today and I doubt I’d have started Venus Zine. I always wanted to know what really happened behind the scenes at Sassy and now I do. This book provides the inside scoop on the rise and fall of one of America’s most important publications."  —Amy Schroeder, editor and publisher Venus Zine
"It's a rise-and-fall narrative of a departed magazine that tapped into the zeitgeist, a tale of a particular cultural moment, and of daring that has since become commonplace. Its progenitors have gone on to more prominent planets of the media universe, and yet they long for those halcyon days. No, it's not Spy: The Funny Years, but rather next season's media self-obsession: Kara Jesella and Marisa Meltzer's How Sassy Changed My Life." --Women's Wear Daily
"Sassy was always more than just a teen magazine--it was a beacon for outcasts, feminists, and the rest of the people who went on to create the early 90s indie culture. How Sassy Changed My Life is just as interesting, opinionated, and funny as its subject. Read it and weep again for a magazine that, for many of us, is a long lost friend."  --Jennifer Baumgardner, co-author of Manifesta and author of Look Both Ways

"An entertaining and thought-provoking look at one of the most influential magazines of the 90s. I felt like I was back in those cramped offices, surrounded by the funniest, sharpest women in New York."  --Blake Nelson, author of Girl and Paranoid Park

About the Author

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.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

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 t...
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