NEW YORK — If a picture is worth a thousand words, can an opinion cost a couple of ad pages? Editors, especially of mass magazines, don’t seem inclined to find out, while others don’t seem to care. There’s no shortage of evasions and surprises in the six August editor’s letters that WWD is grading for substance and, of course, style.
This story first appeared in the July 26, 2002 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
If you had to name one mag where you’d expect the editor’s letter to be utter gloss, it would be Allure. Yet it never seems to work out that way. Every month, Linda Wells uses her letter page to unfurl some soul-wrenching psycho-moral conundrum, making her the Albert Camus of beauty journalism. This month, Wells dives over the edge completely, deconstructing the very premises of her editorial existence. She begins by observing that she can’t tell one young female celebrity from the next, that the Sarah Michelle Gellar on the giant billboard outside her office “could be Monet Mazur or Naomi Watts…or one of the Kates — Bosworth, Hudson, Beckinsale.” Then Wells throws down the gauntlet: “The formula for beauty is so precisely defined that many girls make themselves into copies of Sarah or Julia or Jennifer, then march off into their 20s and 30s, an army of pretty clones. Sometimes beauty can go too far, edging dangerously close to fetish.” Ever mindful of her own advertisers, by labeling extreme beauty a “fetish” Wells cannily makes the problem she’s assailing sound sexy and desirable. Perhaps realizing that she has subverted the very raison d’être of her magazine, Wells concludes: “Perhaps Allure should come with a warning label: Use in moderation.” Now that’s backbone. Next month, Linda will weigh in on what Plato would have thought of the MAC cosmetics line.
This month, Anna Wintour takes a page out of our own Suzy’s book, whisking the reader through a breezy itinerary involving C.Z. Guest and Nantucket cottages. If the true test of an editor’s gravitas is her willingness to say things that everyone might not agree with, then Wintour is clearly not afraid to court controversy with the assertion that cover girl Jennifer Aniston is “an actress of ever-increasing substance” who hasn’t “made a style misstep for about two years.” While clearly not an iconoclast, the editrix occasionally uses her letter page to let her alter ego loose. In an homage to Bill Blass, Wintour writes: “I remember being advised by him at numerous fittings that I ‘looked awful’ in various of his creations, and when was the last time one heard that from a designer?” Probably not a lot lately. Still, Wintour’s letter is a Vogue-patented truffle and the accompanying fashionista photos are sure-fire.
Harper’s Bazaar: B
First off, kudos to Glenda Bailey for removing the paper clip that was faux-fastening her photo to the letter’s page in earlier issues. Firmly affixing her come-hither portrait is a great way of saying ‘so what if Hearst president Cathie Black is known to have an itchy trigger finger, I’m digging in’. The lead paragraph, however, is still too downmarket in tone. “Now that fall clothes are beginning to hit the stores, the pressing issue is ‘What am I going to buy?’….You won’t want to make your shopping list without including at least one or two items from this issue.” Glenda, this is about as subtle as the product placement in “Minority Report.” No one wants to be hit with a telemarketer rap as soon as they pick up your letter. Mercifully, this ‘Attention K-Mart Shoppers’ vibe segues abruptly into a heartfelt paean to stylist Kevyn Aucoin, who died in May. “He not only enchanted every celebrity and supermodel he worked with,” waxes Glenda, “but he could make woman, famous or not, look and feel like the most gorgeous creature around.” Unimpeachable sentiment, and the visual display of Kevyn’s Bazaar covers — including those from the all-too-recently-disavowed Betts tenure — make for an eye-popping page.
You know the universe is off-kilter when feminist Jane magazine and t&a-laden FHM are following the same game plan — mining syndicated TV roadkill in a joint attempt to resuscitate Pamela Anderson (FHM’s August and Jane’s July cover girl), whose on/off relationship with the zeitgeist is in a prolonged off phase everywhere but in the magazine world. Jane’s current editor’s letter is part of a larger promotional campaign for Pam’s monthly column, “Pam Honestly,” debuting next month. It’s also an explanation for hooking Pam up with said column after Anderson complained about the harshness of last month’s cover story on her. “Sometimes…you put a celebrity on a cover and they hate a) the photos, b) the story, c) the captions or d) all of the above,” writes Pratt. “Not that we always care.” This time, Jane not only “cared”; she turned Pam’s discontent into a branding opportunity for her magazine. Pratt and Anderson appeared Tuesday on Larry King Live (“Pamela Anderson: She’s bared it all, now she tells it all,” ran the CNN voice-over promo), where Pam described her approach to journalism as “just rambling” and then shrieked “I’m a columnist!”
Granted, it’s becoming de rigueur for editors to have a pet project and Jane Pratt has Pam, who she seems to view as a ghetto Malibu Barbie version of her spokeswoman self. In her letter, Jane summarizes Pam’s child-custody battles with Tommy Lee and laments: “When I see the struggle she’s having, I think about the millions of women who have gone through this who don’t have Pam’s money, and I’m horrified.” But will Jane readers be, too?
Before even reaching the text part of the Glamour editor’s letter, prospective readers have to pass through the smiley-faced crucible that is Cindi Leive’s photo. Anyone who has ever met the Glamour editor in chief knows she singlehandedly redefines the word ‘perky’, so the photo doesn’t lie. But is it appropriate to appear this happy-looking nowadays? Much more apropos is Lesley Jane Seymour’s ‘what you looking at?’ pose, or Jane Pratt’s ‘confused editor’ stock photo which runs in the ‘Jane Needs Help’ section of every issue (page 44 this month).
It’s hard to argue with Cindi’s estimation that women who have “backbone” — like whistle-blowing FBI agent Coleen Rowley — are a “Do” while people who lie on their résumés — like former U.S. Olympic Committee president Sandra Baldwin — are a “Don’t.” The point is equally applicable to the Glamour editor in chief. Cindi, the Do/Don’t thing is a longstanding Glamour convention, one that was really mined by your predecessor Bonnie Fuller. Don’t be afraid to show some backbone yourself by imbuing Glamour with your own personality, vision, and lingo instead of refried Fullerisms.
Marie Claire: D
This review will be short, lest it exceed the scant 170 words that constitute Lesley Jane Seymour’s maiden editor’s letter in the current Marie Claire. Though she took the helm last July, Seymour held off on having an editor’s letter page, and now we know why: she doesn’t have anything to say. In this attempt, she speaks in vague superlatives about the reader: “Your opinions inspire us more than you can imagine,” “everything we do at Marie Claire is intended to help you find that reality factor in your life,” “keep telling me your thoughts.” It’s almost burdensome to be a Marie Claire reader given all the things Seymour seems to want from you. We all know its a tough market and editors don’t want to risk alienating readers with anything as risqué as a personal opinion, but why not throw caution to the wind? Your August ad pages are up 15 percent over last year, Lesley Jane, live a little! (Great photo, though.)