FASHION : The Allure of Allure : Why is the young magazine a winner? It might have something to do with Editor Linda Wells’ beauty-biz-not-as-usual style.
If we were talking girlfriend to girlfriend about Linda Wells, there might be some downright dirty dishing going on. She’s smart, funny, pretty, petite, seven months pregnant and still looks fabulous. She isn’t swollen or bloated. Nor does she have any of those nasty side effects of pregnancy, nor thank God, does she want to talk about them. Plus, she’s the editor of 3-year-old Allure magazine, which has become a smashing success.
We could let envy get the best of us and trump up some reason to hate her, but we can’t. She’s too nice.
Wells was in town last week on a farewell tour of her advertisers before maternity leave lays her low. “It’s just a friendly hello before I can’t travel anymore,” she said.
She often comes to California. It’s home to her largest audience and she likes to check out the fitness centers.
“I can’t do all the things I usually do here, like go the gyms and the treatment places. It’s just not the same being pregnant,” she said. “What are you going to do? You can’t take a really hard exercise class.”
(OK, maybe a little bit of loathing will be allowed.)
Between breakfast and lunch dates, she arrived for tea at Shutters Hotel in Santa Monica wearing barely a lick of makeup and a navy blue maternity suit, looking like CEO material. No wonder Si Newhouse put her in charge of a beauty magazine.
Wells weathered the first tumultuous years of her magazine’s launch and came out smelling like $100-an-ounce perfume. Allure was named one of the best magazines by Advertising Age two years running. Adweek ranked it No. 1 in its list of the 10 Hottest Magazines of 1993 and the publication just landed a National Magazine Award for design.
In the past year, advertising pages are up 54% and the circulation is more than 700,000. (Californians scoop up 111,086 issues a month.) Wells put her publication at the top of subscription lists by not doing beauty business as usual.
“We took away the pretensions of beauty writing. The old style of beauty reporting was to be pretentious, florid and kind of patronizing. The magazines treated the readers like imbeciles who didn’t know how to wash their faces. We wanted to be the voice of a friend who is really well-informed, who can talk to doctors and get the scoop.”
Readers, though, are conditioned to the old school. A story about juice fasting in the December issue has solicited angry calls from readers, especially since the same issue contains a story about Christy Henrich, a world-class gymnast who died in July of multiple organ failure as a result of anorexia. Readers thought that if juice fasting was in the magazine it must be recommended and were troubled that it might promote anorexic behavior.
They hadn’t bothered to read the story, Wells said. “If they had, they would have seen we were quite critical of it. We presented what we found--that it’s not smart. If you try juice fasting, you’re going be in a cranky mood and really hungry.”
While Wells takes great pains to run criticisms of dangerous health fads and articles that promote self-acceptance, the fashion section of the magazine is filled with the beautiful, young, long-legged models who foster feelings of inadequacy in anyone who is not young, thin and flawless.
This does not cause her any loss of sleep.
“I don’t think these two things are in opposition. Our message would be lost if we used average-looking women wearing the clothes average women wear. It may sound cynical, but the reality is, beauty is appealing. You are more likely to pick up a magazine with Cindy Crawford on the cover than me or my cousin.”
Once again Wells blames our conditioning for any conflict we might find between page 76 of the November issue, where author Alice Thomas Ellis admits to living her life presuming she was a tall blonde, only to realize she wasn’t, and page 164, where a tall blonde stalks the boardwalk in organza hot pants and sequined knee-high boots.
“In the past, the stories that went with the pictures of models told how to look like her. Here’s how she exercises, here’s what she eats and if you were to follow these routines you’d look like her. But we don’t do that because it won’t happen.
“We don’t print diets, step-by-step exercise programs, what to do to get in shape for bikini season or any of those horrible compulsive stories that made those pictures more potent. Those stories said you should try and achieve that and we don’t even imply it.”
Over a year ago, Wells ran a story by James Dern arguing that society still thinks it’s acceptable to discriminate against fat people. Six months later she followed it with a story by Fay Weldon stating that it was better to be thin and receive all the good things and privileges accorded the svelte.
“It was the most politically incorrect story you’ve ever read in your life,” Wells admitted. But she insisted: “This is not a one-note, one-message magazine. I want a forum for a lot of voices.”
Her voices come with clout. “We got off the block with good writers,” Wells said. “Edna O’Brien was in the first issue, Fay Weldon, if not in the first was in the third issue. And good writers are clannish. If one has a good experience, they tell their friends and it spreads.”
She’s found spas to be a big carrot enticing writers into her stable. “I bet I could probably, almost, get John Updike to write for Allure if I sent him to a spa,” she said.
While her writers want to loll in the hot tub at Canyon Ranch spa, her readers want advice about their hair. Everyone, Wells said, wants different hair.
“We’re never happy with what we have,” she said. “It’s women’s biggest insecurity. I think sometimes people who get their hair colored have the truer stereotype personality than the ones born that way. I have a friend who is blond to her bones and she has to have that realized through a bottle of chemicals.”
Even Wells is not immune to hair-dissatisfaction syndrome. “I don’t think of myself as a blonde. Even though I have this white-blond hair, I don’t have a blond personality. I’m a brunette.”
But not all perceived personality defects can be treated by chemicals, and Wells said this is one of the problems in the beauty industry. It preys upon women’s insecurities. “Women suffer from the desire to completely remake themselves through frizzed-out perms and bleach jobs and then wonder why it doesn’t look good. It makes me crazy.”
Her mix of big-name writers, controversy and blasting the beauty biz has enhanced her reputation to such a degree that earlier this year a rumor made the rounds that Wells would soon replace Vogue Editor Anna Wintour.
Wells attributes the rumor to a competitor of Vogue’s who was trying to erode the power of the venerable fashion magazine. Most people in the fashion world read it as a testament to Wells’ success rather than a slam at Wintour. At the time Wells was vacationing in Europe, lending more credence to the rumor. Even her own assistant and publisher suspected it might be true and tracked her down to verify or discount the rumblings.
If Wells aspires to another office under a different masthead, she’s keeping it to herself.
“I don’t think about my job, or my career. I think about how are we going to make the magazine better, what are we going to do next month. In terms of my fate, if the magazine does well, things are good--and if it doesn’t, it’s bad. It’s not magic,” she said with a pragmatic shrug.