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A Monthly That Speaks Teentalk : Birth of a Salesman : If there's a salesman's heaven, an honored place is reserved for Bob Anderson. : It used to be that a catalogue was something given away, with the hope that those perusing it would see something they wanted to buy. But Anderson turned his catalogue into one of the hottest newsstand magazines of the 1980s. There is a kind of genius in getting people to buy an opportunity to order your products. : Anderson got his start in publishing in 1966 when at age 17, he founded Runner's World, the first--and most successful--running magazine. In time, Runner's World would beget FIT, a women's fitness magazine similar to Shape, and FIT would beget Swimwear Illustrated ($2.95). At the time he sold Runner's World to Rodale Press in 1985, the magazine had a paid circulation of 500,000.

February 18, 1988|JOHN GABREE

Sex and death. The stuff of best sellers, tabloids, hit movies and, especially during sweeps week, the 11 o'clock news.

So why not the stuff of a magazine targeted at teen-agers?

With teen pregnancies and suicides at epidemic rates, isn't there a need for a magazine that talks to young people in their own language about the real world?

For Sassy ($2), a colorful new monthly that appeared on the nation's newsstands on Tuesday, the answer is an unequivocal yes. Unfortunately, in taking on serious topics in what its editors hope is a candid, nonjudgmental way, Sassy reduces life and death matters to the level of squibs on fashion and grooming.

Karen Catchpole's "Losing Your Virginity," for example, answers such questions as "What's love got to do with it?" (plenty), "Will it hurt?" (maybe), and "Will people be able to tell?" (no). The three monologues that make up the bulk of Catherine Gyson's "Life After Suicide" trivialize the pain and guilt of families and friends left behind by teen-agers who kill themselves ("For the last week of his life, he was like totally paranoid about his appearance.").

Complex Emotional Issues

"My main commitment," declared Sassy's editor, 25-year-old Jane Pratt, "is to my readers," who she defines as 14- to 19-year-old girls who have questions about complex emotional issues that other magazines ignore.

According to publisher Helen Barr, Sassy was inspired by an Australian periodical called Dolly, "the most successful teen-age magazine per capita in the world," as she called it, published by Fairfax Publications, which began its challenge to American publishing last year with the purchase of Ms. magazine. "When one looked at the teen-age market in the U.S.," Barr added, "one found that only 4 million of 14 million teen-age girls at any time read any teen-age magazines."

Barr believes that Sassy is sufficiently unlike such rivals as Seventeen and Mademoiselle to find an audience of its own. "Visually, Sassy is very different, more on the cutting edge of fashion," she said. "The larger format"--inevitably, Sassy is Elle-sized, "high-quality paper, sophisticated design, and the fact that 90% of the book is four-color, make it stand out." She admits, however, that there is no way of knowing how many new readers will be attracted by Sassy.

Editorially, the debut issue includes, besides the suicide and first sex articles, a look backstage at the Miss U.S.A. contest, a staff seminar on the art of flirting, advice on what to do when people are talking behind your back, and a profile of actor Robert Downey Jr. The first "What He Said" column asks teen-age boys, "Why did you break up with your girlfriend?"

The magazine will strike most readers as more sissy than sassy. The lead articles promise tough, straight talk, but deliver platitudes. The layouts, though less clunky than Mademoiselle's, are bland and repetitive and don't stand up to the lively and imaginative art direction of a magazine like Elle. Whether by accident or design, the ad and editorial pages are virtually indistinguishable. The fashions may be on the cutting edge in somewhere like New Hampshire, but won't raise much interest in Los Angeles.

The writing, with few exceptions, runs to giggly, is either embarrassingly mediocre or odiously condescending: the staff interrupt each other's articles with cute bracketed asides. The reviews and service pieces read like they were transcribed at a pajama party. The most daring person on the staff is the one composing the cover teasers.

Pratt insisted the tone of the magazine was a reflection "of our personalities."

"We are pretty much just writing our honest opinions," she added. "If it sounds young, it's because we are!"

Sassy promised advertisers 250,000 paid circulation for the first issue, with subscriptions making up 60% of the total. According to Pratt, Fairfax expects to reach 400,000 by March of next year and 1 million within five years. The publisher sent out more than 3 1/2 million pieces of direct mail advertising by publication day. Barr said the magazine is already exceeding early projections.

Upcoming for April is a feature article on a 19-year-old boy who has AIDS, advice for readers on handling parents' divorce, and "the truth about boys' bodies."

"We don't believe in sugar-coating things," Pratt said.

Generating His Own Ads

When he was having trouble selling ads for FIT, Anderson began generating his own. In 1982, he ran an ad for mail-order bathing suits, and the response to it was so large that the publisher found himself in the swimsuit business.

By 1984, the entrepreneurially-minded Anderson was manufacturing his Ujena of California swimwear line from offices in Mountain View. It was then he hit upon the concept of disguising his catalogue as a magazine devoted to girls in bikinis.

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