Bust Magazine Refuses to Go, Well, Bust

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On Sept. 10, business was not only good it was about to get better for Bust, the women's magazine with a sexy, sassy spin on feminism. The New York Times had just run a front-page business feature about feminist magazines that included this grass-roots 'zine that had grown from 500 to 100,000 subscribers, and billboards across New York City were touting the imminent launch of an even bigger, better Bust.

Then came Sept. 11 and what looked like its demise. Citing financial difficulties, Razorfish Studios, the Internet content provider that had bought the magazine one year earlier, went out of business the following month, leaving Bust's founders with a tough decision: Let their magazine die or buy it back.

"When it folded, I was like, 'OK. I'm done. I don't want to do it again,'" said editor in chief Debbie Stoller, 39, who, like her partner, had devoted thousands of unpaid hours to the project. "I couldn't even put on my own Bust T-shirt."

But magazine co-creator Laurie Henzel, 37, thought otherwise. "It's one thing to lose your job," she said. "It's another thing to lose something you created and built from the ground up."

In December, after two months of negotiation, Stoller and Henzel bought back the rights to the magazine they'd spent eight years creating. This month, they are putting out their first issue since last summer, using their own money and cash from subscriptions and two fund-raisers.

It is a humble--and humbling--new beginning for the publication that had grown into a 100-page glossy from its printing-by-photocopying start. Bust was the brainchild of a couple of New York secretaries and a graphic designer who wanted to create a new kind of magazine--and did--but that wasn't enough to prevent its crash landing. Can it reconnect with its former readers? Attract new ones? Succeed at a time when many magazines, feminist and otherwise, are struggling?

It's a gamble Bust it going to take.

The magazine "for women with something to get off their chests" was founded in 1993 by Stoller (at the time, a secretary for Nickelodeon), Henzel (a graphic designer) and Marcelle Karp (also a secretary at Nickelodeon; she left the magazine last year to take care of her baby). The three shared the belief that feminism had morphed since Gloria Steinem founded Ms. magazine in 1972, that it had become less angry, more playful, with struggles for individuality as much as equality.

"We wanted to make a feminist magazine that was reflecting some of the stuff younger feminists were talking about and also one that would serve as an antidote to all the mainstream women's media," Stoller said. "There were a lot of things going on in the early '90s that other bastions of feminism like Ms. were ignoring. There was all this stuff with ... [the] Riot Grrrl [movement] and reclaiming and more pro-sex feminism and just pop culture in general as a site for criticism and critique. We wanted to make a magazine that the effect of reading it would make you feel good and un-alone."

What makes Bust different from other feminist magazines is its sense of humor, said Samir A. Husni, a journalism professor and magazine tracker at the University of Mississippi. While Bust's approach is appreciated by its readership, Husni is less sure the magazine's overall message is necessary.

"I don't think there's a need for a mass feminist magazine anymore because the women's magazines that are already on the market are doing that job," he said. "How many magazines do we have now that promote women staying at home to cook for their husbands? Even Ladies Home Journal and Woman's Day no longer have that approach."

Ms. Magazine, he said, "was like the candle that lit the way to other women's magazines, but then the candle melted. Now there's light all over the place."

Despite its long history, name recognition and support of the Feminist Majority Foundation, even Ms. is suffering. Once a monthly, it is published quarterly. It also decided recently to accept advertising, when it once prided itself on being ad-free.

"If Bust stays small and targeted, they have a good chance," Husni said. "As long as they continue serving their cult, and I mean that in a positive way, they will survive. If they have expansion plans to be all over the country, that's not going to work."

The September 2001 "living single" issue, the last to be funded by Razorfish, contained articles on single motherhood by choice, spinster pride, sex and the single gay girl, and TV singles from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" to "Sex and the City," as well as an essay titled "Single Fat Female: When personal ads rule out your body type, it's hard not to take it personally."

Bust was and is a sort of two-way street--a place for readers to learn about unique and unusual women and a place to contribute through heartfelt essays, often submitted under pseudonyms such as Betty Boob and Girlbomb. In many ways, Bust picked up where the groundbreaking teen magazine Sassy left off. Founded by Jane Pratt in 1988, Sassy taught girls to value their own opinions and claim their own power, not pander to male interests.

"There's a ton of stuff out there in the media that supports all these stereotypes about women," said Stoller. "As a woman you get lost in all those lies. It's difficult and it's really empowering to reach through and bust some of the stereotypes [so] you know that you're not alone."

It was an idea that caught on quickly. In 1993, about 500 copies of the 30-page 'zine were surreptitiously Xeroxed and stapled together at someone's day job, then sold through independent record and book stores. In 2000, before Razorfish Studios bought the magazine, it had grown from a AA cup to a C, its founders joke. It was a four-color, 100-page glossy with 35,000 subscribers. "It had grown into this giant thing that sucked up all our time, and while it was fun and rewarding, after a while you can't do that much work for nothing," said Henzel. "It just takes away from the rest of your life."

Bust's founders made the decision to join Razorfish because they felt they couldn't build the magazine any further without new funding. The three-year contract with Razorfish allowed Stoller and Henzel full creative control and enough cash to hire a small staff. For the first time in Bust's history, the two were able to work on it full time, pay their contributors and take home a paycheck. And, in one year, they saw circulation triple.

Before then, the magazine had been a "try-quarterly," as Stoller called it, meaning they tried to be quarterly but usually squeezed out just two issues a year. Once Razorfish stepped in, that problem seemed to be solved. The magazine went quarterly in 2001 and was poised to go monthly in January this year, in the hopes Bust could grow to 250,000 by the end of 2002 and compete with Cosmo, Jane, the now-defunct Mademoiselle and other glossy women's mags. It never got that chance.

Now that Bust is back in the hands of Stoller and Henzel, however, they are determined to keep it quarterly. To help offset costs, Bust's founders held two fund-raisers--a concert, headlined by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, in New York in early March; the second was this past weekend, a cabaret-style party in Hollywood.

Bust is starting over at a time when nearly all magazines are experiencing a decline in ad sales and are contracting in size, said Steve Cohn, editor in chief of the New York-based Media Industry Newsletter. But, Cohn said, "Sometimes to relaunch in a bad time is good because there's less things out there going on."

He pointed to Allure, a women's magazine that launched during the 1991 recession and remains in business today. "Anything new at a time when you're seeing contraction certainly raises eyebrows."

Bust's new issue is themed Fight Like a Girl, a metaphor for the magazine's trip from rags to riches to starting over and finding a way to survive on its own. Indie actress Lili Taylor is on the cover. Inside are stories on the Power Puff Girls, fighting breast cancer, joining the Army and being a suicide bomber.

"We're working harder than ever and getting paid zero, but ... I have to say," said Stoller, "it feels great to have it back."

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