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Children of privilege find substance in ink

October 13, 2003|GERALDINE BAUM

Molly Howard, in chandelier earrings and low-rise jeans, took a meeting at an Italian cafe last week about a new magazine she is launching with her best friend, Lauren Abuaf.

Molly is 17 and had to cut religion class to meet for lunch.

"I want to sit next to you while you look through it," she said, eagerly pulling page proofs from a big manila envelope and flopping down on the same side of a white-clothed table in the cafe a few blocks from her school. "If you see any mistakes pleeease don't tell me," she added, giggling nervously. "It went to the printer today so I couldn't stand it if you found something wrong."

Then, as though flipping some switch, she moved from the loopy cadence of teen-speak to that of a New York sophisticate, confidently ordering a bowl of penne fungili and a Diet Coke.

Molly is a student at the elite Trinity High School, one of the best in Manhattan. Last year she and Lauren, who graduated from Trinity last spring , were incensed by an article in a fashion magazine that they thought unfairly stereotyped their peers at private schools. Altogether, they were characterized as entitled rich kids who party too much with drugs and sex and care too little about anyone but their own kind.

Frankly, the take on these urban upper-crust adolescents is horrific -- whether in "Twelve," a recent novel about overindulged teens written by a 17-year-old insider, or in the "Gossip Girl" books about shallow teens. If you believe what you read and hear, New York preppies are all party brats who have an excess of everything but good values.

Molly and Lauren were fed up with this portrayal. So in between classes and after tennis practice and yearbook meetings, they wrote a three-page proposal last spring for a magazine that they hoped would show the outside world who they really are, as well as entertain their friends. Instead of another trip to Europe or unpaid internship, the girls spent their summer vacation birthing a magazine they named NYCircuit. Next week, if all went right at the printers, 7,000 copies of the first issue will be distributed for free at 20 private schools in the city.

Turns out their 88-page magazine disproves some of the worst stereotypes but reinforces others. Take the list of the 10 best blue jeans; only one pair costs less than $100. One of the items in the "Must Haves" sections is a $220 cashmere sweater with elbow patches. (But then, there's also $4 lip balm.)

Still, the table of contents reveals that this crowd is blessed with a sophisticated sense of humor as well as a humble sense of their vaunted position in the world. There are articles on why teens should do public service and on the bias in college entrance exams against disadvantaged students.

There is a list of the five most hated New Yorkers that is funny even to someone over 40. The book review section aptly gives Toni Morrison's "Song of Solomon" an A- and Lauren Weisberger's "The Devil Wears Prada" a C+. And these aren't the opinions of the magazine's young founders. They solicited articles and photographs and ideas from students at each of the schools, which meant calling friends of friends of friends to do everything.

Probably the most important networking, however, was done by Molly's dad, John Howard, a Bear Stearns banker who also happens to be an investor in Niche Media, owners of Gotham, Hamptons and Los Angeles Confidential magazines. Howard asked his friends at Niche to look at the girls' proposal. They apparently were impressed enough to give Molly and Lauren a list of 60 advertisers and a letter of introduction. They also lent them professional staff to help design and put together the magazine.

The rest was left up to Molly and Lauren.

All summer they were on the phone, working out of one of their East Side apartments and keeping track of everything in Lauren's laptop. During a phone interview from her dorm room at Boston University, where she is a freshman, Lauren said they kept each other going simply by working nonstop.

There is no doubt that a couple of teenagers from Wichita or even nearby Queens could have created a magazine as clever as this. But let's face it, no one but two teenagers with family connections who happen to live in the publishing capital of America could have rounded up $20,000 in advertising over their summer vacation. The fact is, Molly and Lauren used some of the very stereotypes they deplore -- wealth and entitlement -- to prove that children of privilege can also sometimes be children of substance.

But not every door was easily opened for them. "When we had to interview graphic designers, we always did things first by e-mail or phone but we never said how old we are," said Lauren. "Then they'd meet us and it was like, 'Oh, you're teenagers.' You could see them struggling to take us seriously."

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