Sassy inspired a cult following that echoes today. So, like, why is that? Elizabeth Woyke asks the big questions you want answered.
Throughout its eight-year life, Sassy trailed behind the other giants in the teen magazine field (Seventeen, YM, Teen) in circulation and in advertising. But if magazines were measured by reader devotion, Sassy would have been the leader. With its mix of irony, irreverence and straight talk, Sassy inspired slavish devotion among teenage girls, a group with notoriously fickle tastes. Even now, eight years after its last issue was printed, Sassy remains a cult favorite of twentysomething women. Aficionados continue to post highly personal in memoriam essays about it on the Internet and snap up old copies on eBay.
And it continues to make an indelible impression on the industry through its talented alumnae. Former editor Jane Pratt now edits an eponymous magazine, Jane, owned by Fairchild Publications. Sassy writer Kim France heads Condé Nast’s Lucky. Atoosa Rubenstein, once an intern at Sassy, was head of CosmoGirl! until she took the helm at Hearst’s Seventeen. And Christina Kelly, a Sassy writer and editor, was in charge of YM until she resigned in late February, in a dispute with the publisher, Gruner + Jahr.
Perhaps more important than the rise of Sassy‘s staff at other magazines is the way Sassy’s first-person voice and big-sister tone live on, shaping the way teen and women’s magazines are written and edited today.
So, in the Sassy spirit, NYRM tracked down some former staffers to get caught up. Like, what do you miss most? Where are you now? And why did NYRM love Sassy so much?
NYRM: How come so many cool chicks first worked at Sassy?:
Marjorie Ingall, contributing editor, Glamour and a columnist for The Forward: The women who worked at Sassy were superduper smart and interesting. We didn’t really respond to focus group stuff. Instead, we thought, ”Here’s what I like and I think the reader will like it too.”
Mary Kaye Schilling, executive editor, Entertainment Weekly: I give a lot of credit to Jane Pratt for hiring opinionated, idiosyncratic women, and for fostering an atmosphere where writers were encouraged to follow enthusiasms, speak their mind and write with passion.
Mary Ann Marshall, freelance magazine writer: Everyone at Sassy was very serious about working in magazines. And, since Jane Pratt had been so successful, we all saw that it could be done.
Diane Paylor, editor of STANK magazine: The Sassy staff was a bunch of leaders in an industry where all people do is follow.
NYRM: What was it like to work there?
Schilling: Working there was a lot like being back in high school, with all the idealism and enthusiasm, but also the high drama and superficiality.
Andi Zeisler, editorial/creative director, Bitch: It was very casual and seemed really fun. The entire staff, interns included, would pile into Jane Pratt’s office for staff meetings. It seemed very egalitarian in a way I’d never imagined would be true at a woman’s magazine.
NYRM: Do you like your new job better?
Ingall: Sassy was the best staff job I ll ever have. Fortunately, I think I knew it at the time.
Karen Catchpole, senior editor, Jane: The environment here at Jane is practically the same as it was at Sassy. We are, after all, simply the grown-up version.
Schilling: EW is sort of like the adult Sassy grew up to be. At EW, the camaraderie is just as essential and fun.
NYRM: How come NYRM is allowed to, like, write in this teenybopper voice?
Ingall: There s this terribly annoying trend of ”Hi, I’m your editor in chief, I’m your pal,” in teen magazines now – a lot of we, we, we. Sometimes Sassy went too far with it, but I think we were writing smart and challenging pieces.
Schilling: Sassy created a certain kind of journalism in America, where the writers became personalities. First-person journalism ultimately got old, but for the time Sassy was around, it was genuine and refreshing and trailblazing.
Zeisler: The casual tone with which Bitch often addresses readers and the audience in general may be, in some ways, cribbed from Sassy. We envisioned Bitch as Ms. crossed with Sassy.
Marshall: I got spoiled at Sassy because it was all about writing with a personal voice, which every other magazine frowns upon.
NYRM is aching for a Sassy fix. Any advice?
Schilling: Probably Time Out and EW are the closest in tone and energy. But there are no teen magazines that come close to Sassy.
Catchpole: The only thing close to Sassy is Jane, but we’re obviously for an older audience. Teenagers, unfortunately, are left to sift through the same old teen titles which did get slightly more progressive and rooted in reality after the success of Sassy.
Zeisler: There’s not much to compare with Sassy on the newsstands now. The role of celebrities as salespeople has really increased since Sassy first launched, and that’s had an effect on how teen magazines speak to their readers.
Ingall: Different teen magazines have had different moments of smartness since the 90s. YM had a golden age, and Seventeen had its moments. But Sassy had an evangelical, loving vision of helping girls it’s not the same thing.
Marshall: I think the industry is crying out for another Sassy, but no one has the balls or the money to make it happen.
NYRM: So, what’s the Sassy moral here?
Paylor: When you know who your audience is, and your audience knows who you are, they will be with you forever. Every upstart publication is looking for the type of bond Sassy had with its readers.
Zeisler: Staff frustration that the parent company was allowing advertiser bias to dictate what the magazine could print got me interested in alternative publishing. Sassy empowered teen girls to create their own media.
Marshall: If you get together a group of women who believe in what you’re working on, the sky’s the limit in terms of quality and creativity.
Schilling: To respect readers and not to make generalizations.
Catchpole: You can’t fool readers. Ever.
NOTE: This article appeared in the 2004 issue of the New York Review of Magazines, a publication of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.