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Ceri Marsh looks like a giddy 16-year-old, with her high ponytail, sleeveless T-shirt, and long denim skirt. Sitting at the head of a long boardroom table at 59 Front Street East in Toronto, she welcomes guests to what is essentially her party. Marsh is actually 35 years old, the senior editor and powerhouse behindFashion 18, a magazine aimed at the lucrative teen market. The editorial team is here this morning to deconstruct the launch issue, which hit newsstands last summer. Page by page, they dissect what worked and what didn’t. Story ideas, layouts, captions, and models are all up for discussion. Teenage opinion is gospel; the oft-repeated “What did the readers think?” determines success and failure. But while the 30-somethings laugh and chat, three interns, the youngest people here by a decade, it seems, sit silent along the exposed brick wall like dateless girls during slow songs at a school dance.

When Leanne Delap, 35, editor-in-chief of Fashion 18 and its older sister publication, Fashion, walks into the room, everyone scrambles to find her a seat next to Marsh. An editor points to a photo of Cameron Diaz: the lighting was too bright, probably because it was a pickup shot from when Diaz was on TRL. “Sorry, what?” asks Delap. Total Request Live, a popular American music video show on MTV, is as familiar to Fashion 18‘s target audience as belly rings and Avril Lavigne. “Oh, I thought she was on some drug or something,” says Delap. Everyone laughs.

Unlike at other teen magazines, the staff of Fashion doubles as the staff of the teen book, and while that can mean a clique of talented writers and editors, even the hippest gen-Xers won’t be completely plugged into the teen scene. It’s a group with fickle members whose tastes change randomly and who, as Flarepublisher and vice-president of Rogers Publishing David Hamilton says, “are a hard bunch to reach. Teenagers are always striving to be something different.” Hamilton says that to his knowledge, Rogers has no plans to launch a teen publication, a decision that sets the company apart from the publishing crowd.

Since the launch of Teen People in 1998, it seems as if every successful women’s magazine has come out with a teen version (CosmoGirl!,1999; Teen Vogue, 2000; Elle Girl, 2001). And until recently, Canadian girls got their fashion content from those American titles. But this summer two Canadian books joined the race hoping to cash in??Fashion 18, published by St. Joseph Media (which, besides Fashion, also publishesToronto Life, Wedding Bells and Gardening Life), and Elle Qu?bec Girl, the fourth teen publication in the international Elle family. (Elle Canada Girl is slated to launch later this year.)

But so far Canadian teens seem satisfied with YM (Canadian circulation 119,000) and CosmoGirl! (Canadian circulation 60,000). The people at Fashion 18 are hoping to sell about 62,000 copies of their next issue. Still, Giorgina Bigioni, publisher of Fashion 18, believes there’s room for a Canadian teen book because Canadian teens want relevant content. “It’s clothes you can buy here in Canadian dollars, contests you can enter, prizes you can win,” she says. But the market may already be tapped out: American circ and ad numbers for this niche have been declining since last year. Hard to believe that home-grown contests will keep readers coming back. It hasn’t worked in the past.

In 1988, Michael Clarke, president of custom publisher Clarco Communications, launched Sass, a magazine for teenage girls. American publisher Matilda Publications launched Sassy that same month and despite a ruling by the Federal Trademark Tribunal that Sassy violated Clarke’s trademark, Canada only saw the one issue of Sass, while Sassy went on to become a magazine legend. Then, in 1993 Clarke teamed up with Maclean Hunter to create Ing?nue. Despite a multimillion dollar launch, the perfect-bound glossy ceased publishing after barely a year. An outspoken member of Ing?nue‘s teen advisory council wrote a piece forThis Magazine about her role at Ing?nue. Leah Ross, now known as Leah McLaren, the columnist for The Globe and Mail, was 17 at the time. She had hoped to “excite the substance-starved minds” of her peers. Instead, she found her job at Ing?nue was to shop and look at makeup. Teen Generation, a free monthly lifestyle magazine, was Maclean Hunter’s second foray into this genre. (Miss Chatelaine, now Flare, was the first.) Launched in 1940 by high school students, it was acquired by Maclean Hunter in 1978 and sold to Quadrelle Publications in 1982. It is now an online publication (funded by the federal government and organizations like TVO) called Tiny Giant.

While American magazines have no trouble pinpointing what teens are looking for, Canadians can’t seem to find the right formula. Sarah Bull, director of marketing and initiatives at Fashion and special project associate publisher for Fashion 18, thinks she knows what our teens want: “A thick, glossy magazine that can compete with U.S. magazines.” Bull was director of business development at Key Media Ltd. before it was sold to St. Joseph Corp. last year. “What that meant was essentially looking for revenue opportunities or brand extensions.” (Fashion started as a brand extension of Toronto Life in 1977. Originally a quarterly, it now comes out nine times a year, and annual ad revenues are over $6 million.) In 2001, Bull toured local schools, speaking to students about what they were looking for in a magazine. Bull also approached teens outside malls and movie theatres, interviewing girls who looked like magazine readers (those wearing trendy clothes).

A group of girls sporting the current teen uniform (sweatshirts and tight jeans or sweatpants and jean jackets) walks by Indigo at Yonge and Eglinton in Toronto. It’s lunchtime and high school students dominate the area. Inside Indigo, Laura and Sachi, both in Grade 9, stand in front of the magazine rack labelled “Young People.” They like: Britney Spears, Triple 5 Soul clothing, and hot boys, like Josh Hartnett. They hate: Christina Aguilera (“She’s slutty,” says Laura) and diet articles (“Because,” she says, “that’s really demeaning”).

Laura, in jeans and a hooded sweatshirt, points out her favourite magazines: CosmoGirl! and YM (the 47-year-old American monthly). Sachi, wearing sweats, reads Seventeen and Twist (both American). The arrival of Fashion 18 didn’t register with Laura, and the first issue didn’t impress Sachi. “I don’t like all the beauty stuff and the makeup stuff and the clothes stuff. I’m not actually gonna buy anything so it doesn’t do any good.” The numbers, however, tell a different story (North American girls spent $30 billion on cosmetics and fashion in 2000). Still, Sachi’s tastes could be more suited to Elle Qu?bec Girl than Fashion 18.

Unlike English Canada, Quebec has paid-circulation teen magazines: there have been three issues of Full fille, published by Amylitho Inc.; Cool! is a monthly owned by Quebecor Media (circulation 100,000);Adorable (circulation 45,000), six years old, is independently published. Suzanne Goudreau, editor of the first issue of Elle Qu?bec Girl (circulation 75,000), says that although some girls in Quebec read American magazines, Quebec culture is different enough to sustain its own uniquely francophone teen magazines.Cool! and Full fille, however, resemble Tiger Beat and other poster-filled pop-star gossip magazines more than fashion magazines, leaving even more room for the heavier editorial content Elle offers. “We falsely think that teens just want to take a look and turn the pages, but they do read,” says Goudreau. With stories like “Je suis homosexuelle,” about a young lesbian, and “Est-ce cool de fumer du cannabis?,” a compilation of teens’ opinions about smoking marijuana, Goudreau has included issues that other magazines wouldn’t touch. “A lot of girls have written, ‘Finally, an intelligent magazine,'” says Goudreau. It’s working for Elle, but intelligence may not be what the majority of teens are looking for.

Until Elle Canada Girl launches, Fashion 18 is the only paid-circulation English-language Canadian teen book, and, according to Bigioni, Fashion 18‘s competition is the American titles. But it’s not only teen magazines that pose a threat. The teen market is notorious for reading up (which is why Fashion named its teen version, aimed at the 12 to 17 market, Fashion 18); women’s magazines also steal teen readers. Sachi likes to read Cosmopolitan‘s Cosmo Confessions, where women write about their exploits (think sex in public places), the grown-up version of YM‘s Say Anything, where teens write about their embarrassing moments (imagine falling down the stairs at school or blood-stained white pants). In its January 2003 issue, Quebec’sAdorable, originally geared to girls 11 to 17 years old, included a sex how-to booklet in an effort to entice readers aged 16 to 24.

And while sex obsesses teens in a pretty universal way, Canadian kids do see cultural differences between themselves and their U.S. counterparts. In focus groups, Toronto teens explained them to Bull this way: Canadian girls generally are not cheerleaders, they have semi-formals not proms, and they not only watch hockey??not football??they play the game too. Despite these differences, Canadian teen magazines may be seen as uncool. “I just can’t think of Canadian magazines as being good,” says Sachi. When it comes to Canadian books she thinks of Maclean’s??the ultimate in boring. American titles, like lip gloss for 12-year-olds, have more glitter, and glitter sells.

Elle Girl launched in the U.S. a week after September 11, 2001. Brandon Holley, editor-in-chief, says that despite the dismal economy, Elle Girl managed to find a readership and keep advertisers. She explains the magazine’s survival in the crowded teen market by pointing out Elle Girl’s differences. It’s aimed at 16- to 20-year-olds, an older audience than most, it’s fashion-heavy whereas most teen mags, she argues, are lifestyle-based, and it’s global, covering trends in other countries. As for brand extensions, Holley says there is no research proving readers will move through the magazine family, but she points to success in the fashion world to back up the theory. Calvin Klein seduced young shoppers with his CK Jeans and cK one perfume (hipper, cheaper knock-offs of the main lines), until they were old enough for the adult versions and hooked on the Calvin Klein label.

Despite Elle‘s successful launch, CosmoGirl! is still the most popular kid in class. Launched in August 1999, it already has a monthly circulation of one million. Executive editor Susan Schulz attributes this success to the magazine’s credo “The reader is queen.” (She also points out that the staff of CosmoGirl! are mostly under 30.) Schulz says that both CosmoGirl! and Cosmopolitan are “relationship bibles.” The women’s magazine focuses on sex and men (with a nod to friends, family, and work); CosmoGirl! focuses on friends, fashion, and self-esteem.

The original magazine was repositioned during the sexual revolution and was supposed to empower women, but became a “how to please your man” manual. Cosmo may be a curious role model for teen empowerment, but the magazine makes loads of cash (U.S. $274 million in ad revenues last year), so it’s a strong business model. The teen book is a slightly confusing compromise??a mix of standard Cosmo-type fare (Boy-O-Meter, where girls rate a boy based on a photograph) and esteem-boosting sections like Girl Talk, where girls write about pet peeves, what they wish they knew in high school, and what being aCosmoGirl! really means. (A London, Ontario, reader answered this way: “Being able to eat a pint of ice cream and feel no guilt after.”) There are also sections on finding jobs and managing money.

Even Fashion 18 focus group participants were captivated by CosmoGirl! The girls were asked to bring examples of what they liked and didn’t like from magazines they had at home. CosmoGirl! was the favourite. Marsh admits she was happy about that?she likes CosmoGirl! too. “It’s not saccharin. It’s not overly prescriptive and teen readers really appreciate that.”

On the second floor of the Royal Meridien King Edward Hotel on King Street, in Toronto, the Knightsbridge room is full of round tables covered in white tablecloths, crystal water glasses, and silver decanters. This is definitely not the mall. Potential Fashion 18 advertisers are here to study the spending habits of the teenage girl.

They learn that teens spend for the sake of spending. Teens love extravagance and magazine readers spend more money than non-magazine readers. (There are 938,000 12- to 17-year-old girls in English Canada alone.) Approximately 70 percent of them read between six and 10 magazines a month. One presenter changes his tone and reminds the advertisers to be careful. Young girls are very vulnerable. Companies should be responsible in the way they advertise and the products they promote. (According to Statistics Canada, over 400,000 girls between the ages of 12 and 19 are regular drinkers.) The last presenter is a teen psychologist who stresses the importance of giving teens the chance to “be true to themselves.”

This is what Marsh hopes to bring to her readers. “We just want to tell girls how fantastic they are and that the world is wide open to them and to go ahead and be a weirdo,” she says. The first issue of Fashion 18included articles like “Globetrotters,” about exchange programs, and “You Are Dead at Recess,” about bullying and how it affects people. The issue also featured teen girls who design their own clothes or run small businesses. It may not be the kind of hard-hitting content that McLaren would ask for but it’s more intelligent than “Survival of the Sexiest” (from CosmoGirl!).

Sharlene Azam, former editor of Reluctant Hero, a Canadian quarterly, and editor of several books for teens, states the obvious: being a teenager is a strange place to be, because you’re not only striving for individuality, you’re also hoping to fit in. Reluctant Hero, no longer in print (but soon to re-emerge as an online publication) was written entirely by teens except for Azam’s editorial. Topics varied from politics to sex to beauty. “Teens are interested in reading what other teens have to say. It’s kind of like validation and that validation is so crucial,” she says. Azam acknowledges the importance of a grown-up voice in teen magazines since teens are looking for a nod from the adult world that confirms what they are saying is important. But she says the fastest way to lose their trust is to pretend you’re like them.

Another way to lose their trust is to tell them which celebs aren’t worth idolizing. “Is it our place to be saving girls?” asks one editor at the Fashion 18 planning meeting. The editor is wondering about how far they should go when making fun of celebrities. In the first issue, the caption under a picture of Christina Aguilera (the pop diva best known for her risqu? music video “Dirrty”), with bright red lipstick, white-blond hair, and thick black eyeliner, reads, “Whoa. Does she own a mirror or what?” It may have been catty but readers didn’t seem to mind.

They did mind editors poking fun at the more innocent Olsen twins, who have a financial empire, a TV show, a cartoon, movies, their own dolls, and a fashion line. The editors complained that the fresh-faced sisters showing up at the Oscars was inappropriate and that they should “just go away already, because they make us really hostile.” E-mail poured in. It turns out that girls love the Olsen twins. This is taken very seriously. “So I guess that’s the rule: we can rip on Christina, just don’t touch the Olsen twins,” says one editor. “We just have to remember that we’re trying to tell these girls ‘Don’t get bullied’ and yet we’re basically bullying other girls.”

Before becoming a staff member at Fashion 18, Leah Rumack, who wrote “Who Says Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend?” for the magazine, about the benefits of having a guy as your best friend, acknowledged the difficulty of writing for teenagers. “You just Toronto Star it,” she said then. “You can’t be too raunchy or too ironic or too clever. I don’t think 17- and 18-year-old cool chicks are reading teen magazines. I think you’re probably talking about 13- or 14-year-olds.” Since becoming features editor, Rumack looks at it differently. She says you have to go back in your mind to when you were 17 and couldn’t wait for your Sassy to come in the mail. “You try to write to the girl who was cool, who was you,” she says. Rumack says she’s doing her best to make the second issue as radical as you can make a publication that is heavily dependent on advertisers (the second issue had a story on the first gynecological exam and a feature on the word “slut”). “And you can’t piss off too many parents.” They write letters to the editor and cancel subscriptions. (One mom was disappointed with the prices of the products featured in the beauty section; her daughter could not afford $25 Chanel lip gloss.)

For Marsh, it was important to have contributors like Rumack and Lynn Crosbie, a feminist writer, poet, and cultural critic who wrote a quiz for the magazine called “How Do You Know if He Likes You?” “We all seemed to have a similar vision and the most important thing to us was to keep the magazine as smart and as good and as beautiful as the main magazine,” says Marsh.

Posters of pop idols ripped from the pages of magazines adorn the wall above Laura’s bed. The black-and-white shot of a young shirtless hunk came from CosmoGirl!, her favourite magazine. Sitting on her bed, a Tiffany bracelet dangling from her wrist (she used all her Chanukah and birthday money to buy it), she talks about the first issue of Fashion 18 months after it was released. Laura is impressed. She’ll buy the next issue. Still, Fashion 18 and Elle Canada Girl are up against some established glamourous titles. Their audience is smitten. Despite all her praise, Laura still ranks her top five magazines this way: CosmoGirl!,YM, Teen People, Fashion 18, and Twist. “Fashion 18 is really good,” she says, “but I am addicted to CosmoGirl!

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About the author

Vanessa Grant was the Visual Editor for the Summer 2003 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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