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Bust Magazine Refuses to Go, Well, Bust


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."

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