NEW YORK — 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.