Walking into a story meeting for the magazine Reluctant Hero is like walking into a rowdy pyjama party-minus the nightgowns and slippers. Eight teens crowd around the sofa, flipping through the glossy pages ofSeventeen‘s current issue. An angry discussion is under way about how Seventeen,YM and Teenconsistently sugarcoat the reality of teen life and grossly underestimate the intelligence of their audience. Sarah Wayne, 14, snatches up a copy of YM from the coffee table, feigns an expression of naïveté and starts in: “I, too, can have great hair and get my dream guy?” she asks. “Tell me more, I must know how.” Her Barbie doll impression triggers a loud outburst of giggling and chatter.

This group of independent young teens is not too likely to chant the mantra of “Buy that product, follow that trend, get that boy,” which has become the established theme of the mainstream teen magazine genre.

Until very recently, that category has offered little alternative to the shallow pap produced by the American publications Teen,YM and Seventeen. These three magazines all claim to represent the interests of North American teenage girls, but with articles such as “Buff Your Bod” and “31 Signs the Boy’s Sweatin’ You Bad,” their grasp of these interests seems limited at best-girls are seen as thin trend-followers utterly consumed with boys and dating. Malissa Thompson, a former staff writer for Seventeen, believes this portrayal is outdated. “They have been putting out the same message on the assumption that teenagers today are facing the same things that they did 50 years ago, which is completely bogus.”

A look at several recent issues of YM,Teen and Seventeen shows that each pays little attention to serious teen topics. Most issues usually include only one weighty article out of some 20 stories. And despite their first-person titles (“My Friends Lured Me into a Cult,” for instance, or “Heroin Killed Our Best Friend”), they are always told by professional writers. Put together by people who have long since forgotten their adolescent years, these magazines strain to sound hip and brave but make too many incorrect assumptions about teen life. And the Big Three depend so heavily on advertising that their editorial content seems shaped more by the mandates of their corporate sponsors than by the needs of their audience. Stories on zit remedies won’t help the teenager who has a drug addiction. Nor will articles on the hottest fall hair colour aid a teen who is being sexually abused by a parent. It’s no wonder that, these days, Seventeen,YM and Teen are being dismissed by more of their target demographic than they likely realize.

North American teens are beginning to turn to publications that talk seriously about the issues that affect their lives. In the last few years, several low-budget teen-zines have emerged that break the traditional mold and meet this need. In Canada, Reluctant Hero and Spank! are two such publications. And they’re part of a growing trend. Along with American magazines 360,Blue Jean and Teen Voices, these new titles are written, edited and designed by teenagers and don’t depend on advertising.

Founded in October 1996 by 28-year-old Torontonian Sharlene Azam, Reluctant Hero is titled in tribute to 20th-century American mythologist Joseph Campbell. He believed that we are all the heroes of our own journey and should follow our passions to find fulfillment. Written by and for girls aged 13 to 16, Reluctant Hero‘s mandate is to give its young writers and readers a forum for expressing themselves and discussing their concerns in their own words, without having to cater to advertisers. Although still a fairly primitive newsprint quarterly, Reluctant Hero has drawn rave reviews. It has been featured on CBC Radio and TV, as well as in The Globe and Mail and Maclean’s magazine. Its covers show confident young women in provocative poses that other teen magazines wouldn’t touch. The current issue features a teenage girl pretending to perform fellatio, with the coverline “What Your Sex-Ed Course Should Teach You.” A previous issue’s “covergirl” winks, unabashedly displaying her unshaven armpit.

The strictest rule at Reluctant Hero is that anything goes. Covering topics like smoking and leg-shaving, the girls are given free rein to write about their life experiences and the complex society in which they live. The magazine’s style is up close and personal; reading it is sometimes shocking.

“At the Time of My Latest Arrest” was written by former street kid Christine Andrews. She was introduced to life on the streets when she left home to escape sexual abuse at the age of 12. “The days I spent high turned into nights. I started dealing crack and cocaine to junkies or ‘crackheads’ as we called them on the street, and the money started to roll in, increasing all the time….I was hooked on the freedom of the streets, which, even without the drugs, is addictive.” Numerous arrests for robbery, assault and selling drugs finally convinced Christine that her life was self-destructive. She got off the street, but even as she supports herself with full-time work, she says, “I still feel the urge to work in prostitution and indulge in other criminal activity.” Reluctant Hero never forces its stories to end on a happy note.

It doesn’t pander to conventional views on teen sexuality either. In “Whatever Happened to Sexual Equality?” Penelope Jackson, 17, encourages her readers to do what feels right to them. “If there is a role you don’t feel comfortable in, don’t play it just because it’s easier. You are not a madonna; you are not a whore; you are YOU, and your sexual feelings are as valid and as real and as fun as his are.”

The magazine receives many letters of praise from readers each month. “These stories make me feel like I’m not alone,” wrote one. That’s exactly the kind of response Azam thrives on. Born in Fiji, she moved with her parents and two brothers back and forth between her homeland and Canada before she settled in Montreal in 1983. The frequent moves made it difficult for Azam to make friends in her teen years, and she had a hard time fitting in at school because she had skipped two grades in elementary school. “I was always younger than everybody, and spending so many hours a day in a place where you don’t fit is really uncomfortable,” she remembers. “I was completely isolated, and so I built up a bubble and decided I never wanted to be affected by other people’s bad ideas. I wanted to believe that anything was possible.”

After studying political science at the University of Western Ontario, she transferred to the University of Toronto and graduated with an honours degree in literature. Next, Azam volunteered as a reporter at the local community cable station in Vancouver and became interested in the media. She applied to Ryerson’s journalism program, was rejected twice, and then received a full scholarship from the radio and television arts faculty. Already working at the CBC as an editorial assistant, she tired of RTA after two months and dropped out.

Azam became interested in Third World development issues and volunteered as a gender policy writer for Save the Children Canada. She was asked to write a booklet, A Girl’s Right to Development, for the 1995 U.N. Conference on Women and her hard work earned her a trip to the conference in Beijing. While there, Azam decided it would be more practical to focus her attention on girls in Canada. “I didn’t have any power to affect girls’ lives in the international spectrum because there is so much red tape,” she says. “Girls here may not be worrying about sanitation or child labour, but I think their issues of self-worth are as important, if different.”

Initially, she decided to write a book for adolescents about self-esteem, and it seemed like a good idea to test the concept with teens first. She arranged to talk to groups of girls at alternative high schools in New York and Toronto. The girls told her they preferred magazines, but couldn’t find any good ones for teens. The idea for a magazine began to germinate and Azam realized that any publication she might produce would have to be written and designed by teens themselves to make it truly reflective of their lives.

She knew that convincing established publishers would be a challenge. “People assume that teenagers can’t write and that they don’t know what to think or what to say.” She created a mock-up magazine as part of a presentation package that she hoped would demonstrate the capabilities of her young staff. Azam also extensively researched the buying trends of the teen demographic to prove that the magazine would be marketable. She first showed her package to the late Catherine Keachie, then president of the Canadian Magazine Publishers Association. Keachie was so impressed that she herself arranged a conference for Azam at Maclean Hunter. Later, she met with Telemedia, Key Publishers and Hearst Book Group of Canada.

At meetings, she was told that it was a “sweet” concept, but that it would flop without advertising and a focus on fashion, boys and stars. “I felt that these were 50-year-old men who didn’t know a single teenager, who didn’t know this market, and who couldn’t believe that there was anything other than the formula that works. I thought it was a personal failure that I wasn’t able to show them. Sometimes I would leave those meetings and walk home just weeping.” (Despite not being interested in Reluctant Hero financially, the publishing community has since offered Azam advice and support.)

Refusing to admit defeat, she decided to go it alone. She hired a graphic designer and a printer with $14,000 she had saved while working in corporate communications in New York. Revisiting her initial five target schools, she recruited 50 volunteer writers and spent days bombarding media outlets with press releases and phone calls about the launch of the premiere issue. The media blitz resulted in an onslaught of telephone requests for subscriptions. Azam printed just enough copies of the first issue to meet the requests she received-she was overwhelmed by the intricacies of newsstand distribution and decided to forego it the first time around.

Azam recalls her reaction to the physical appearance of the first issue; 32 pages of pamphlet-sized newsprint failed to measure up to her high expectations. “I didn’t even feel like it was a magazine. The Globe and Mailsaid it looked like the Jehovah’s Witness pamphlet, Watchtower, but they obviously hadn’t read Watchtowerbecause it has four colours and I only had two!”

Disappointment aside, the first issue repaid Azam her $14,000. Its editorial content was both well written and insightful, with stories on underage sex, vegetarianism and buying earth-friendly products. Its strongest piece was a 600-word personal essay on eating disorders written by a teen who weighed 67 pounds when she was 12. She wrote: “I was out of control and although I felt lonely and afraid, I wouldn’t let anyone touch or help me. I was an emaciated little girl who thought she was indestructible.”

In addition to discussing serious topics, the first issue also devoted some space to standard teen subjects like zits-but with a twist. Fourteen-year-old Guila Mandel on acne remedies: “When I watch ads by companies like Oxy, they make me feel as though it’s the end of the world if I get a zit….I think all the hype about pimples comes from the fact that teenagers are insecure about the way they look, and some company decided to make a million bucks off of it.”

The girls and their opinions went national when some of them appeared with Azam on CTV’s national news and CNN. As the story of Reluctant Hero began to circulate, people started calling to ask where they could find it. Several bookstore chains such as Chapters and Coles contacted Azam, eager to carry the new teen magazine that everyone was asking for.

Now selling up to 75 per cent of its 6,000 newsstand copies, Reluctant Hero has changed its look. The magazine went up to standard size with the second issue and, although it’s still on newsprint, covers are full-colour. Now available in most major bookstores, Reluctant Hero has a solid subscriber base of 3,000. The title is self-financing without advertising and, for now, Azam plans to keep it that way. “I want to shape its editorial personality without having to think about the conflict between my writing about tampons polluting the oceans and my back-page ad.”

Part of the reason for Reluctant Hero‘s success is the growth of North America’s teen market, particularly in the past five years. As baby boomers’ children grow up, the teenage population is skyrocketing. According to census statistics, the number of teens in Canada and the United States combined is expected to grow to around 34 million by 2010, up from 28.3 million in the early ’90s. YM,Teen and Seventeen have been cashing in on this population surge. For the first six months of 1996, Seventeen‘s circulation increased to 2.3 million from 1.8 million in 1993. Over that same period, YM‘s circulation jumped up to two million from 1.5 million andTeen‘s increased to 1.3 million from 1.1 million.

The expanding teen demographic also has an increasingly significant amount of disposable income. According to StatsCan, Canadian teens earn an average of $4,861 a year. Their heightened role as consumers in the marketplace has recently caught the attention of the advertising industry. “There is a realization that teens actually have money and that they are doing more of the family shopping,” says Lisa Lombardi, the former executive editor of YM.

Anxious to get in on the action, advertisers are lining up to buy space in several new glossy teen publications that have emerged in the U.S., like Twist, a five-month-old title by Bauer Creative Services, Time Inc.’s Teen People and Jump, published by Weider Publications.

Since the established teen titles depend on advertising for at least half their revenue, contentious editorial content often gets dumped or tamed in order to appease ad clients. The industry watched one big title stand firm, and its eventual failure still serves as a reminder to tread lightly with advertisers. Sassy, launched in February 1988, drew tremendous reader feedback in praise of its realistic, direct coverage of gritty topics like gay teenagers, incest and losing one’s virginity. Within five years, its circulation soared to 800,000. But its success drew unwanted attention as well. Upset by the magazine’s frank sexual content, a group of outraged parents joined with the Moral Majority to launch a letter-writing campaign to Sassy‘s primary advertisers demanding that they cancel their ad contracts. At the time, editor Jane Pratt chose not to make any editorial changes and five of the magazine’s advertisers cancelled their contracts. But after bouncing from publisher to publisher, Sassy eventually softened its content and finally folded in December 1996.

One way around the problem of being ad-dependent is to publish on the Internet. The monthly overhead for an on-line magazine is low; it can cost as little as $350 for a net server, $900 for telephone charges, $1,200 for office space and supplies, and about $300 for promotional costs and miscellaneous expenses. That’s howSpank!, a new Canadian e-zine for teenagers, manages to stay afloat while running controversial stories most advertisers wouldn’t want any part of. While the magazine has carried a couple of small ads for the Alberta Institute of Technology and a Calgary vintage clothing shop, ad revenue only covers about 10 per cent of the magazine’s expenses. If every advertiser were to pull its support, the Calgary-based publication would still be able to carry on as usual.

Good thing, since Spank! has already experienced advertiser fear firsthand. In August 1996, it lost the interest of Greyhound Air when it posted an account from a young girl who discovered she was pregnant again. She decided to have and keep this second baby after undergoing an abortion only three months earlier. Some excerpts from the story are stark. “At the clinic, they inserted seaweed sticks to dilate me….I could not have laughing gas and was aware of what was going on. I cried and cried, hating myself. Hating the world….The baby’s bones had calcified and his limbs had to be snapped off. The doctor at the clinic had punctured a tiny hole in my uterus….I was beginning to hemorrhage-I was bleeding inside.” Spank! and Greyhound were only in the process of negotiating a contract, so no actual money was lost. But the article has also scared away several other potential advertisers.

Launched in November 1995, Spank! has had difficulty making a profit from the electronic medium because it doesn’t charge its readers a fee. Now in need of money, the magazine is beginning to actively pursue ad accounts. Some products, though, will never appear on Spank!‘s site. Editor Robin Thompson, 34, and her 27-year-old publisher, Stephen Cassady, categorically refuse to entertain offers from companies selling diet aids or tobacco. They can afford to be choosy, having managed without significant ad revenue for two years. Still, the magazine requires about $2,700 per issue in funding from its core staff. Cassady and Thompson dip into their own pockets to fill that gap. “That effectively makes us poor and hovelling,” says Cassady. “But we believe in what we’re doing, we’re having a lot of fun and it’s really exciting to work with the writers.”

Cassady is behind the slick design of the magazine-he uses bright blocks of colour and relatively simple graphics to jazz up the site. And during his time at the University of Calgary, where he earned a degree in political science, he developed skills that now help him promote the magazine. “I always dealt with extracurricular activities that focused on approaching a target audience with material delivered in a way that’s useable and that generates feedback. I’m still using the same skills I learned in university.” The year after he graduated, Cassady interned with a small group trying to start a weekly newsprint magazine for teens. Thompson was leading that venture.

Thompson, who did a smattering of freelance writing after graduating from the University of Lethbridge, had noticed that there weren’t any publications for teens in Calgary and decided to start one up. In the early stages, it became apparent that the high price of paper would make publishing in print an impossibility. The Internet was a more affordable venue and Cassady had the know-how to make it happen.

Thompson sold her car and Cassady used some money he inherited to come up with $24,000 to fund the magazine. They depended heavily on Cassady’s MasterCard for awhile. To recruit writers, they visited 18 schools in Calgary and within a couple of months had gathered a big enough staff to launch the first issue.

Two days later, Spank! received its first Internet award for design and content-Web Specific’s “Spider’s Pick of the Day.” Eighteen more have followed, including the C-Net Award (October 1996) and the Snap On-Line “Best of the Web” (October 1997). The monthly magazine prides itself on its edgy content and witty style. Thompson is very clear about how Spank! differs from most teen titles: “It’s simple. We don’t give a shit about dating tips. We treat our readers like intelligent human beings.”

Spank! has published tips of a different kind, though. In “It Ain’t Easy Being Queen,” Carly Milne describes the evening preparations of two young performing drag queens. “Since Dan is wearing a red suit with a long-sleeved bodysuit underneath, he only has to shave his hands, face and a little patch on his chest….To do a proper tuck, the rule is control top, control top, control top!….Dan can’t find any of his panty hose. Luckily, the vest on his suit covers the offending penis, so he can get away with it tonight.” Spank! also includes popular culture features on sports (Susan Auch, the Canadian speedskater), music (54-40 and the Rolling Stones) and literature (Paul Quarrington).

Thompson works hard to promote the magazine in the media. “Every few months I send out press releases on something interesting we’re doing and spend days faxing stuff all over the world.” So far, the media haven’t shown that much interest, but Spank! was featured in The Globe and Mail‘s business section in July 1996-the article dubbed it “one of the most serious teen magazines available in printed or electronic form.”

To continue to be taken seriously, Thompson demands a lot from her young writers. Although initially, she and Cassady planned to pay contributors five cents a word for their stories, they’ve only been able to afford to pay a token penny per word. Between them they devote about 80 hours a week to the magazine, but neither Thompson nor Cassady is drawing a salary from Spank! Cassady is now looking for a computer-related job, and Thompson still lives off her work as a graphic designer and writer, but she defines her real job entirely differently. “My job is to make sure that teens have a voice because I think that they are the most intelligent generation ever.”

In an industry that largely ignores the voice of its audience and instead speaks to please corporate ad clients, magazines like Reluctant Hero and Spank! serve an important purpose. The teens at Reluctant Hero certainly have a voice, though individually they sometimes have to shout over one another to be heard. Back at the story meeting, Julia Dow, 16, stands up and hollers for attention. She suggests that the magazine’s inside back page be turned into a heroine section, featuring women from history whose great achievements were ignored by their contemporaries.

Dow tells the group about a 12th-century female scholar and nun named Hildegard von Bingen. She was among the first to describe the taboo phenomenon of female orgasm. She also started a vibrant convent that ignored the traditional rules of piety-Hildegard’s nuns wore white gowns and tiaras to celebrate their exalted relationship with God. At that time, nuns were forbidden to speak lest their purity be contaminated, but Hildegard flouted this edict and developed a secret language that she and her nuns could use among themselves.

Some 900 years later, Hildegard’s keen intellect and visionary spirit are still legendary, making her the perfect idol for Azam’s young writers. Continuing in her iconoclastic tradition, they set their own rules, bucking the status quo all the way.