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Cosmo's New 'Girl' : With Helen Gurley Brown out, Bonnie Fuller's in. Her plan? With the magazine's winning mix of sex talk and fashion, who needs a plan?

February 15, 1996|GERALDINE BAUM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"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.)

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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."

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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.

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