NEW YORK — It was supposed to be the year the magazine world got its substance back. After Graydon Carter declared 9/11 to be the end of irony, journalists were poised to break free of their celebrity-induced stupor and begin anew.
This story first appeared in the December 27, 2002 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
In the end, it didn’t happen. In fact, the biggest success stories in journalism this year turned out not to be the newsstand surges of Time, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic Monthly, but rather Bonnie Fuller’s revamp of US Weekly and The New York Post’s 10 percent increase in circulation. Talk about journalistic integrity!
So, in the end, media reporters continued doing what they do best: writing about the downfalls and comebacks of diva-esque magazine editors. From the aforementioned Fuller to Tina Brown, from Martha to Rosie, it was yet another year in which the publishing world’s favorite pastime was watching one powerful woman fall down in her Manolos while another got up to shout, “I’m still here, baby. Now give me back my magazine!”
Of course, magazine editors have been doubling as divas ever since Diana Vreeland came down the pipe, but the trend of pitting glamorous women in publishing against one another really picked up steam in the mid-Nineties with Anna Wintour and Liz Tilberis, the two British editors (and former colleagues) who found themselves competing against each other at Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. It only gained steam from there, reaching greater pitch in spring 2001, as Tilberis’ successor Kate Betts (a protege of Wintour’s) found herself on the chopping block just days after Fuller was axed at Glamour, and increasing even further this year despite war, recession and terrorism dominating the headlines.
Even Annemarie Iverson, far from well-known enough to be called an a-list magazine diva, found her downfall this summer as the editor of Seventeen chronicled in The New York Post, The New York Daily News, and WWD. The future of fellow Primedia editor Caroline Miller was an equally debated topic, despite the fact that New York Magazine remained the most successful consumer publication in the company’s stable and that Primedia’s genius ceo Tom Rogers’ biggest problem was figuring out what to do with the rest of his company after he ventured into dot-com hell.
But, hey, diva dish sells newspapers. So, in keeping with tradition, WWD gives you its first roundup of the year’s top diva moments.
January: Talk folds and its editor Tina Brown goes down in a blaze of schadenfreude.
The mission of the magazine was to capture what people in the country were talking about. But from the start, all anyone seemed to talk about was the magazine’s ostentatious launch party in 1999, and, within weeks, the editor in chief’s impending doom. The New York Times blamed Talk’s downfall on the magazine’s leadership. The magazine’s leadership blamed The New York Times and, just weeks before they closed it, unleashed a vicious campaign against Times reporter Alex Kuczynski in The New York Observer for having written that Talk was going down. “I would expect this from a real blonde,” Brown’s editorial director Maer Roshan told them, “not a bottle blonde [like Alex Kuczynski].” Of course, this logic would suggest his own editor’s hair color was the, ahem, root of the problem, but never mind. What everyone really relished was the chance to see two of the publishing world’s most notorious blondes go at it like mud wrestlers.
Diva Rule #1 : Everyone loves a good catfight.
February: Suzy Wetlaufer, editor of the Harvard Business Review, gets a bit of a reputation.
The office sex scandal of the year began in the unlikeliest of places: the esoteric Harvard Business Review. In February, word spread that the magazine’s editor, Suzy Wetlaufer, had begun an affair with former General Electric chairman Jack Welch while she was doing an interview with him for the magazine. Shortly afterward, Business Review staffers began leaking to the press that Wetlaufer had also had a romantic liaison with a 24-year-old editorial assistant (he was 22 at the time) and with two more ceo’s she’d covered. So much for Journalism 101’s rule of not sleeping with your subjects or your staff. By April, Wetlaufer had resigned from her post, citing her inability to do her job. The affair tarnished the indomitable Jack Welch, too, as the Times’s business section gave a blow-by-blow account of his divorce proceedings and the Wall Street Journal questioned whether his retirement package had been too high. But hey, at least Wetlaufer didn’t have to worry about when the unemployment check ran out.
Rule #2: Romantic relationships with married ceo’s almost always turn divas into pop tarts and bring their devos, the male equivalent, into court.
March: She made it through the wilderness…to US. Who would have guessed that Bonnie Fuller, an editor known for generating newsstand sales by telling women how to have 15 orgasms in 15 minutes, would take the sleepy US Weekly and make it not only a success, but…hip? Since she’s gone to work for Jann Wenner, Fuller has turned US Weekly into the guilty pleasure of the season, a European-style tabloid for American audiences. And if the behind-the-scenes drama — including absurdly late closings, constant staff defections, and the revelation that a cover story about a blossoming relationship between two Aussie film stars was entirely fictitious — was worthy of a soap opera (or a tabloid), that only seemed to make Fuller’s comeback more delicious.
Rule # 3: When dealing with divas, sometimes there really is no differentiating between good and bad publicity.
June: Martha and Sam, sitting in a tree…t-r-a-d-i-n-g.
Poor Martha Stewart. Sure, she was known for being a bit of a diva at work and at home, but weren’t the divine sheets, paints and pots and pans — priced to fly off those Kmart shelves —enough of a contribution to a bourgeoisie of style Neanderthals? Apparently not. From the moment her role in the ImClone scandal was disclosed, Stewart found herself drowning in a sea of (to quote Tina Brown) schadenfreude as the press mercilessly executed her over and over. The saddest part is that if she does go down for trading on insider information, it won’t make her a big time crook like Michael Milken, but rather, a petty thief, guilty of being a cheapskate. We already know that Ms. Home Economics only saved $40,000 for unloading the stock a day early. Nevertheless, few seemed to want to cut her any slack and her silence only seemed to make matters worse. The low point (which was, not coincidentally, the high point for the press) came on The Early Show as Stewart chopped her salad as ferociously as if it were then-SEC chairman Harvey Pitt’s head and deflected questions about her dealings with ImClone and Sam Waksal. Meanwhile, she was in as much trouble for dumping shares in her own media empire as for ImClone, and Omnimedia suddenly began giving the spotlight to her longtime sidekicks to ensure that, if she does serve time, there will be life after Martha worth living.
Rule # 4: Divas who bend over to pick their fallen pennies off the street rarely get anything but a swift kick in the…
July: A Rose by any other name?
If it’s now common knowledge that a lifestyle diva in the middle of an insider trading scandal is not good for business, it’s also fairly obvious that talk show queens who come out of the closet as lesbians, chop off all their hair, and get into catfights with the publishers of their namesake magazines also do not necessarily advance their careers. The irony of course, is that Gruner and Jahr approached her to save a magazine, McCall’s, that was hemorrhaging money. And didn’t G and J ceo Dan Brewster know that taking on O’Donnell, whom he agreed to rename the magazine after, meant dealing with a diva? Or did he actually buy that whole “queen of nice” title?
Rule #5: Divas that behave like divas are so outre, but poor be the ceo who underestimates them.
September: Tina Brown returns
If the press seemed to relish Brown’s downfall, it sure didn’t take long to forgive her. Within weeks of launching her column for The Times of London, she was again generating buzz. The New York Times proclaimed her column a success, The Wall Street Journal praised its “feast of wit and language,” and Entertainment Weekly declared a moratorium on Tina Brown bashing. People only seem to want to see divas fail until they actually do. Then, they get sent to editorial rehab (i.e. an unread title at Wenner Media or an unread foreign newspaper), turn them around and become…hot again!
Rule #6: Never count out a diva.