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Magazines: The Real Factor

NEW YORK — Print media, like television, has begun an extended flirtation with reality. But unlike the cruel pseudo-real world of "Fear Factor" or "Survivor," some women’s magazines have evolved into a safe haven — a girls’...

NEW YORK — Print media, like television, has begun an extended flirtation with reality. But unlike the cruel pseudo-real world of “Fear Factor” or “Survivor,” some women’s magazines have evolved into a safe haven — a girls’ club welcome to all shapes, sizes, ages and colors. In these pages, so-called “real women” outnumber models, and personal style, not designers and marketers, rules.

Led by relative newcomers such as O, Rosie, More and the new plus-size magazine Grace, this breed of magazine debunks the forever-young, size six ideal, replacing it with a mantra of empowerment and acceptance. Beauty and fashion dominate, but other areas such as food, travel and financial issues address the entire lifestyle of women, opening up advertising opportunities in the process.

Chris Tinkham, media director, DeVito/Verdi, a New York advertising agency, said the new focus on realism reflects the honesty that consumers are now seeking from the media. Tinkham said the movement was in the air before Oprah carved a niche with O. “We’re seeing books for the consumer, rather than for the media,” he said. “Realism is the new curve. Idealism and aspiration has been around a long time, but there’s room for both.”

The success of certain titles is causing other publishers to follow. As reported, Hearst Magazines will launch a magazine called Lifetime, a joint venture between Hearst and Lifetime Entertainment Services, owned by the Hearst Corp. and the Walt Disney Co. Lifetime’s tag line is “Real Life. Real Women,” and it will cover fashion, beauty, psychology, relationships, inspirational stories and health issues. The bimonthly magazine will debut next March with a rate base of 500,000.

And it’s not just the newcomers who are getting real. The phenomenon is entrenched in mainstream books such as Ladies’ Home Journal and Redbook, fashion magazines like Glamour and Marie Claire and it has even infiltrated the fantasy world of Vogue, with recent issues devoted to all sizes and ages.

Ellen Kunes, editor in chief of Redbook, said, “It’s an amazing time, when everyone’s open to trying new things and pushing the envelope.” Kunes was also the launch editor of O, the Oprah Magazine, which began in May 2000. “These areas of empowerment, inspiration and positive force were untapped. No one knew they existed, but now they do.”

Though O magazine propelled the current reality explosion, seeds were planted in the Eighties, said Lesley Jane Seymour, editor in chief of Marie Claire. “There was a moment of democratization in fashion, around 1988, when things shifted from designer dictation,” she said. “Michael Kors began talking to women, like women talked to each other, about how and where to wear his clothes, offering options.” Magazines that followed, like Elle and Marie Claire, focused on personal style, rather than specific designers.

As designers became less dictatorial, women’s magazines followed suit. In a fundamental attitude change, magazines became less authoritative and patronizing to women, said editors.

“Women’s service magazines went from ‘let us help you dear, we can fix it,’ to ‘we know you’re smart and we’ll be there for you,’” said Carol Straley, beauty and fitness director of Ladies’ Home Journal.

Redbook’s Kunes noted a sea change in Redbook and other mainstream magazines. “The idea used to be ‘life’s a drag, isn’t it, but we can fix it,’” she said. A recent survey of 3,000 Redbook readers said they were “basically happy with their lives,” said Kunes, which led to more empowering features designed to help active, productive women balance their lives.

The shift contrasts sharply with the classic fashion magazine formula.

“In our core values, there’s no mindless greed, no anxiety about perfection,” said Amy Gross, editor in chief of O magazine. “It’s not what the market wants, but what women want; fashion serves women, not the opposite.” Gross said that not too long ago, anything less than the ideal would have been scorned by fashion journalists. “There was such a nastiness, as if all the meanest girls in high school became fashion editors,” she said.

Judging by the performances of O and others, the new approach resonates with readers and agrees with advertisers. O magazine currently has a circulation of 2.5 million and through the July issue, its ad pages were up 1.7 percent, according to Media Industry Newsletter.

Rosie, the former McCall’s that was converted to a magazine inspired by Rosie O’Donnell, launched in May 2001, with a current circulation of 3.5 million. The June 2002 issue is up 48 percent over last year in advertising pages, with July up 40 percent, according to Media Industry Newsletter. However, O’Donnell herself was quoted in Mediaweek this month saying she’s disappointed with the year-old magazine and doesn’t like the editorial direction it’s taken. Nor does she want to be on any more covers after September. In general, she said the editorial is just not “riveting.”

The magazine recently changed its editors, replacing Catherine Cavender with Susan Toepfer, effective July 8. Toepfer had been with People since 1987, most recently as deputy managing editor.

With obvious comparisons to O, Rosie has the same message of empowerment, but takes a different tack.

Reflecting the interests of O’Donnell, the magazine focuses on fashion, beauty, food, crafts and decor. Beyond product information, fashion sections add entertainment and human interest elements. Only one fashion story featured models, while others showed real women or celebrities. A fashion spread on coats used the Radio City Rockettes as models, and a “Great White Shirts and the Great White Way” used Broadway stars, including the cast of “The Full Monty.” Readers responded with over 14,000 letters and e-mails in May, almost entirely positive.

Despite the quantum leap in editorial, advertisers are just beginning to take their own reality check. Traditionally, advertising aimed at women stirs anxiety over flaws. While most say advertising messages are slowly becoming more positive, it’s easy to see a disconnect between features that stress acceptance alongside ads urging readers to lose 10 pounds, banish wrinkles or cover gray hair.

“Smart advertisers will try to connect on a personal level with consumers and stay real,” said Peter Levine, executive creative director of D/G Consulting, a New York brand image design and consulting firm. “Advertising still lags behind editorial, but some cosmetics and apparel lines like Eileen Fisher, Banana Republic and Dockers get it. Cosmetics companies are using more realistic models, and emphasizing beauty from within — ‘radiance’ and ‘luminosity,’ rather than correcting problems.”

The contrast in advertising and editorial was so striking that Ceslie Armstrong, editor in chief of Grace, the new magazine targeting large-size women, rejected two ads as inappropriate before the May launch.

“One photo was a young girl in a size-two bikini that we knew would alienate readers. Taking a big chance of alienating the client, we sent it back asking for new creative material. They thanked us, and provided it,” said Armstrong. The other reject was a diet product ad, a category Grace won’t run. All models, a mix of “real people” and professionals, are size 12 and up, reflecting 68 percent of American women, said Armstrong. Her research shows that retail sales for plus sizes in the year 2000 increased 18 to 20 percent, compared with a 2 to 3 percent growth in misses’ sizes.

Armstrong was formerly editor of Mode, a large-size publication that folded last year, when California-based Freedom Communications closed its New York division. Grace, published by newly-formed Grace Media Inc., was launched with a guaranteed rate base of 200,000. It printed 325,000 copies, and has distribution in major grocery stores, newsstands, Wal-Mart and Kmart. Advertisers include Liz Claiborne Woman and Marina Rinaldi, MaxMara’s large-size division.

In addition to beauty and fashion, Grace is incorporating lifestyle coverage, columnists and a ‘Role Models’ feature of inspirational stories.

Glamour magazine has devoted pages to special sizes many times, and is now taking it a step further. In the May issue devoted to body image, it incorporated photos of plus-size women in regular features, including those on relationships, exercise skin and hair care, rather than just size issues. The May issue drew 2,300 letters. “Readers had told us they liked the large size features, but asked why we only showed thin women throughout the magazine,” said Cindi Leive, editor in chief.

Another important but underserved market, women over 40, is being mined by More.

Lois Joy Johnson, beauty, fashion director, said More stresses personal style for women she describes as “confident, adventurous, and self-accepting.” Features such as “Four Women — One Look” dress four “real women” in one outfit and use feedback from them on how to tailor it to specific lifestyles.

“Baby boomers are the largest, richest demographic,” said Johnson. “They have more fashion experience under their hip-belts than anyone. They love fashion and know by now what works for them. It’s not about looking young but looking good.”

More’s circulation has grown from 320,000 four years ago to a 750,000 rate base this September, increasing to 850,000 for February 2003. For July/August, More is up 12 percent in pages and revenue, according to Carol Campbell, publisher.

Expanding from beauty and fashion, advertising now includes financial, insurance and lifestyle areas such as home furnishings.

Even Vogue has reached out to so-called real women. Last year’s “The Age Issue” featured clothing for all ages, albeit on gorgeous models, included stories of women in all stages of life. The issue was well received and the theme was repeated this August. In May 2002, Vogue delved into special sizes with “The Shape Issue,” which included in-depth interviews with women of all shapes. Vogue’s July issue includes “What Women Want to Wear,” with “real women’s” feedback to designer offerings.

“This was a real departure for Vogue,” said Eve MacSweeney, associate editor. “We still have one foot in fantasy and one in reality, which puts our own stamp on it.”

Other editors sense little danger that Vogue will venture too far into the real world.

“Vogue may be doing real people, but it’s still all about Park Avenue princesses. There will always be a place for fantasy wish books,” contended Ladies’ Home Journal’s Straley.

While some see the current trend as cyclical, others point to a “reality revolution.”

“Feminism has been propelled into women’s real lives,” said D/G Consulting’s Peter Levine. “Women are in tune with honesty, versus what magazines have always tried to shove down their throats.”

Still, magazines shouldn’t let reader empowerment get out of hand, said Straley.

“Magazines should always retain a voice, and maintain authority,” she said. “We should never be taken over entirely by our readers.”