Bonnie Fuller is in the awkward position of having to spend the next 18 months as lady-in-waiting to Helen Gurley Brown, editor of Cosmopolitan.
In an arrangement that few in the magazine world understand, with the obvious exception of the Hearst Corp. bosses, Fuller will shadow Brown before taking over at Cosmo. And like thegood Cosmo Girl that Fuller claims she is, the understudy shows no discomfort with a situation that will get her ahead.
"Actually, I think we're going to get along just fine," Fuller said in an interview at her office here Monday. "We're both very professional. We're both looking out for the good of the magazine."
And Fuller clears up any doubt about what she'll be doing at Cosmo, besides ingesting 73-year-old Brown's every thought and action before Brown shoves off to head the magazine's 29 international editions.
"It's Helen's magazine," Fuller said. "These are going to be her decisions as they've always been and I respect that and I think that's the way it should be."
Several top editors of other women's magazines choked on hearing of such cheery resignation. Speaking anonymously between cocktails before a fashion awards dinner Monday night, they confided that, of course, they understand. You have to be polite. You have to show respect for Brown for all she's done. For three decades Brown has captivated her readers with candid sex talk the way all the diva editors try to do today. But please. You become a magazine editor because you want to be in charge of something. And for more than a decade Fuller has been in charge of something--most recently the U.S. version of Marie Claire.
"Sure," sniffed a masthead princess from a competing glossy, "it's wonderful wearing a leash."
"Please, I don't want to say anything that will be perceived as negative about Helen, she's so marvelous," gushed Liz Tilberis, editor of Harper's Bazaar and a Hearst sister. But as she observed Fuller, in a black velvet gown, accepting yet another air kiss of congratulations at the awards dinner, Tilberis smiled. "Bonnie will work her magic on Cosmo," she said. "She's always focused about her market. She can do it."
Fuller isn't somebody who invites pity. She's doing fine in the year she will turn 40:
The U.S. Marie Claire, which she started in September 1994, has shown promise, with healthy circulation and ad revenue growth; her husband shoulders the largest part of caring for their two young children and Westchester suburban existence; and if Fuller isn't quite a super-slim fashion babe, she at least looks presentable in evening wear.
"It's borrowed," she said of her velvet Armani creation. "I've already blown my clothes budget for this year."
A Canadian who went through Toronto's city schools and public university, Fuller trained as a fashion journalist at such newspapers as Women's Wear Daily in New York. In 1982, she became editor of Fanfare, a Toronto fashion magazine, and five years later landed her first big magazine job in New York at the teen monthly YM, where she is credited with boosting the circulation from 835,000 to 1.8 million with brilliant packaging and over-the-top--for a teen magazine--sex talk.
"She delivered a Cosmo for teenagers and she did it without causing a huge commotion," said one editor.
But a grown-up girl's magazine and perhaps the Hearst Corp. were always her destiny.
When asked if she wrote to a Hearst executive more than a decade ago with a proposal to revamp Harper's Bazaar, she narrowed her eyes and said, "Where did you hear that?" And then: "But I didn't do it completely unsolicited."
Menswear designer Tommy Hilfiger introduced her to a Hearst executive he knew from his gym. That connection led to a meeting with Gil Maurer, now Hearst's chief operating officer. He solicited the Bazaar proposal and then brought Fuller together in the early '80s with the grand dame of Hearst editors--Helen Gurley Brown.
"Helen asked if I would give her some ideas," Fuller said. "She was checking me out. So I sent her 100 ideas, really good ideas. I really wanted to get a job in New York."
All of this is just more evidence that Fuller is the Cosmo Girl, which isn't a hard case to make if you compare her path to the big time with Brown's trajectory.
And so goes the legend: Brown, a poor kid from Green Fork, Ark., survived 17 secretarial jobs and a stint as a copy writer before marrying movie producer David Brown and becoming a best-selling author ("Sex and the Single Girl") in 1962 and three years later the editor of Cosmo, which would become one of the most successful magazines of all time. Pivotal to that success was Brown's philosophy that nothing is better for a woman than to be sexually desirable and to get a man and a job and power. To have a life. (Children never figured into Brown's equation.)
Cosmo, with its dense package of 45 articles per issue, lingerie fashions and "sexycises," was designed to give hope to all a girl's goals.
"I believe most 20-year-old women think they're not pretty enough, smart enough, they don't have enough sex appeal, they don't have the job they want, they've still got some problems with their family," Brown has said. "All that raw material is there to be turned into something wonderful. I just think of my life. If I can do it, anybody can." (Hearst would not make Brown available to comment for this article.)
Fuller is just the type of woman Helen Gurley Brown might have taken on as a project: Although she seems socially uncomfortable and must work at her appearance, she perseveres with great drive and direction.
"I mean, I came from a fine family," said Fuller, whose father was a lawyer and mother a teacher, "but it wasn't like there . . . was anyone with connections to help me. It was really just through hard work and one job leads to another job and just trying to achieve that I was able to get to where I am."
Former colleagues say Fuller depends on a few staff members to carry out her vision of clean graphics, punchy cover lines, straightforward articles on beauty, sex and women's lives. She also has a very good sense of how far to go with graphic or coarse material without being controversial. "She knows exactly what she wants articles to say and is relentless about saying it," said a magazine editor who has followed Fuller's work.
"A trademark comment from Bonnie Fuller after she has edited one of your pieces is 'Huh?' " said Jessica Marshall, a Harvard PhD who worked at Marie Claire for a year. "Sometimes you would grit your teeth, but in the long run she was right. Cut out the fancy stuff was Bonnie's philosophy and reach your reader."
If Fuller parts ways with the Cosmo Girl attitude it is perhaps in the self-confidence she clearly has had since her mid-20s.
Just read "Marry Me or Else! Why Ultimatums Work" in the March issue of Marie Claire and pay attention to the story of ex-bachelor No. 2--David Green, 40, an architect from Chicago.
It turns out David is modeled on Fuller's husband, Michael.
David relates how he met 25-year-old "Andrea" at a party. At night's end she handed him her telephone number but then called him before he could call her. On the second date Andrea gave David an ultimatum: If she didn't see a serious commitment in six months, she'd boot him out. Every so often she'd remind him: "You've got four months, six days left," then laugh. After five months he proposed, but she was skeptical because there was no ring. So she made him call his mother with the news. They were married and 12 years later have "two beautiful children and a happy life together," writes David. "We've been lucky and I have no regrets."
Fuller lightened up when reminded that this Marie Claire story is her own.
"I was fed up," she said, laughing. "I wanted to get married."
But how does the Cosmo Girl meet the challenge of her life as Cosmo Editor? How do you buff up a magazine with a phenomenal 2.5-million circulation and $160 million in annual advertising revenue and not lose a single reader or dollar of the $50 million in profits?
Fuller never uses the word "change." "I don't think I could say that anything that sells 2.5 million copies, that there is anything that isn't working," she said.
Yes, but. The magazine's ad pages hit a high in 1985 and circulation peaked at 3 million in 1988. And newsstand sales are down as trendier competitors seeking the same readers have gained ground.
While most magazines have seen their numbers slip since the heady 1980s, Brown was perceived as the problem at Cosmo, Hearst's cash cow. There were no signs she was grooming a successor; there was evidence she was resisting retirement, and she was displaying a reluctance to get on with such issues as AIDS and sexual harassment. So Hearst executives found their own successor and sprung the news on Brown two weeks before their public announcement last month.
For some loyalists, Brown's persona is so much a part of Cosmo that it's difficult to imagine the magazine without her. But Fuller says Brown's philosophy will remain.
"Every magazine will evolve and every magazine will carry the stamp of its editor and so I think that when I'm the editor in chief," she said, lowering her voice as if it's almost rude to state the inevitable so soon, "the magazine will gradually, just as it has been all along, continue to evolve and gradually, my personality, or stamp, whatever, will be added to the magazine in a kind of a natural process."
Will she get rid of those photos of men looking like extras from James Bond movies and of those women in red teddies? When she's plotting with readers about their extramarital affairs will she caution them about HIV?
"It's really difficult for me to answer questions about something that is going to happen in 18 months," she said.
Fair enough. And now for the final quiz question, the test every Cosmo Girl must meet: Should a Cosmo Girl ever fake orgasm and, if so, under what circumstances?
"You should probably ask Helen whether the Cosmo Girl should fake orgasm. She's the editor in chief," Fuller said.