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At BUST, it's not sex quizzes and lingerie. It's tequila and black boots.

February 15, 1996|GERALDINE BAUM and TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — This is a new universe and I'm about to meet the captain on the deck.

I'm meeting Debbie Stoller for fried clam rolls at the Howard Johnson's in Times Square, across the street from her "straight" job as a multimedia producer at Nickelodeon. Her real work is as co-editor of BUST, a 'zine for "girls"--girls in quotes because the youthful readers have one thing in common: a bust.

By definition a 'zine is a self-published, low-budget, amateur-night magazine printed on crummy paper, sold in music stores and funky shops and with a superabundance of self-expression about something--a cause, a movement, a generation. BUST stand outs among thousands of girlzines because it has survived six issues. And because of its relatively large circulation of 6,000.

As Stoller plunks down in an orange Leatherette booth, I flash back to the time I watched a big-shot Conde Nast editor ease his Armani-ed self into a velvet banquette at the Royalton hotel a few blocks away. Stoller and BUST are all about not being Armani--or Mademoiselle or Cosmo or any of the magazines that advise women at the end of a bad day to take a hot bath and scrub dead skin off the bottoms of their feet. Stoller's impulse would be to relax with a bottle of tequila and an 18-year-old boy.

"Helen 'Girly' Brown?" says Stoller, hurling out a big laugh when I mention the competition. "I like that the sex talk in Cosmo is over the top, but the rest is like 'Every girl for herself.' . . . It's these soap opera-y characters in a big cat fight. There's never a sense of women being friends. It's so stuck in 'Valley of the Dolls,' like a lot of magazines."

Which is why in July 1993, after years of bonding and complaining, Stoller and Marcel Karp, then podmates at Nickelodeon, stayed late at the office one night making 500 copies of the first issue of BUST.

"There is a whole generation of girls our age who are being ignored," Stoller says. "We're smart, funny, cool, angry, wild and don't care only about fashion and aren't all anxious and unhappy about being girls the way the magazines portray us."

I am half listening to her wildly articulate description of this third wave of feminists and half trying to figure out why her black sweater is unraveling at the wrists. Is this another fashion statement I've missed, or is she broke?

I examine her a little closer. No bolt in the tongue. White fingernail polish and combat boots. But that's pretty mainstream. And only three body piercings--all on one earlobe. In fact, stringy dyed-blond hair and heavy brown makeup can't mask her Dutch good looks. Without even a touch of lip gloss, in my black wool slacks and pink sweater, I'm probably the Fashion Don't at the table.

Stoller is as distractingly smart as she is attractive. After growing up working class in Brooklyn, N.Y., she graduated from a state university and earned a doctorate from Yale University. It's almost suspicious that she can blow away the academics and still keep faith with the 20-year-olds. (Later I call Yale and find she not only has the doctorate in social psychology but also two masters', in philosophy and in science.)

Stoller says her first feminist inspiration came at age 14 upon reading an essay by, of all people, Gloria Steinem. Finally, someone I've heard of. "But Steinem has gotten so lame," she says before I get a chance to quote from "Outrageous Acts & Everyday Rebellions." "If she was cool," Stoller continues, "Ms. would have a cover story on BUST." The early feminists, Stoller says, were "women" aching for the freedom to be like men. Now, they're grown-up "girls," such as Madonna and Courtney Love, who want the freedom to be "girly" for their own pleasure.

Courtney Love? Ugh. Isn't she the one who has had a tough time taking care of her little kid, dabbles in hard drugs and always looks as if her mascara is bleeding?

Stoller squirms a bit when I question Love's maternal instincts but quickly rebounds: "Listen, Courtney isn't a role model in all things. But she's busting a stereotype. She's angry and acting on her every desire like the bratty, aggressive girls we were before age 10 when we got all stuffed up and refined."

Tired of siphoning from their paychecks to support BUST, which has become fat and slick, Stoller and Karp hit up some big-media suits for backing, but they refused. Something about advertisers being put off by the frank talk about sex, porn movie reviews and an erotica section. "Playboy doesn't have a hard time getting advertisers and they have naked ladies on the opposite page," Stoller complains. "[The message is] women should be seen naked but not heard."

In BUST, girls write in the first person about sex and life. In BUST, "I" is not an egotistical statement, rather, it's descriptive. The erotic writing, when it isn't sophomoric, isn't bad. I'm amused by one girl's fantasy of awakening on Christmas Eve to find reindeer in her bedroom and a tired Santa in the living room. She makes him two BLTs and later they make love.

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