From magazine queen to the MySpace scene
By Nola Weinstein

Atoosa Rubenstein sits down to breakfast at Café Luxembourg, a bistro on New York’sUpper West Side. Dressed in a black fleece jacket and striped warm-up pants, she is in no rush. In a few hours, she will work out with her personal trainer, but for now she has time to enjoy her granola, yogurt, and berries—and to talk about the big changes in her life.

Her black mane is pulled back in a high ponytail, her angular eyebrows are clean, and she isn’t wearing any makeup. Yet she is glamorous. Sitting across from me is this larger-than-life character whose words informed my teenage years.

Not long ago, there was a time when American girls waited expectantly for the next issue of their favorite teen magazines to arrive. Devouring their contents was a rite of passage. Their advice on clothes and makeup, relationships and sex, was gospel. Rubenstein was the editor of two of those magazines—CosmoGIRL! (which she founded) and then Seventeen—and for her, the opportunity to disseminate her insights to an enthusiastic readership was a dream come true.

But in the past year something changed. “I realized that magazines were no longer a pivotal part of my readers’ lives,” Rubenstein said. So she quit.

In an era of instant gratification, blogs and chat rooms, and, teen magazines are losing their appeal for young adults, and some are going out of business. The surviving titles have sought to adapt to the internet, but editors are struggling to keep them afloat. “There was a hole in the bottom of the ship,” Rubenstein said, “and instead of really sailing the ship, I was just filling the bucket and kicking water out of the bottom. But there was a digital ship that was happening.”

Rubenstein has always prided herself on being ahead of her time and her peers. Instead of wallowing in industry pity, Rubenstein has moved on to a venture aimed at taking her readership with her into the digital world: she is about to launch “[Teenagers] feel much more comfortable in the digital world than the executives running those companies do,” she said. “I want to learn from them; I want to dance on their stage.”

Two teen publications from strong magazine companies have terminated their print editions and are now operating exclusively online. Last April, Hachette stopped publishing ELLEgirl to concentrate on the magazine’s internet properties. “It wasn’t some brilliant strategic move but a face-saving move,” said Rubenstein. “Going out of business would be bad for the ELLE brand; they are just buying time before they get out.” In July, Time Inc. followed suit and announced that it would close Teen People magazine but try to keep it alive on its website.

And Condé Nast recently launched, a web entity enabling teens to develop and share their own scrapbooks. “I credit them with creating their own property, but there is arrogance in thinking scrapbooks are powerful enough to build a community,” she said.
Only three magazines remain in print in a once-burgeoning market: Teen Vogue, Seventeen, and CosmoGIRL!. Teen Vogue, which bought its subscription list from the now-defunct YM, does well with readers and its ad pages are up this year, but Rubenstein considers the magazine a “small player.” Seventeen and CosmoGIRL! continue to thrive and are numbers one and two in circulation; both were shaped by Rubenstein.

Atoosa Rubenstein came from modest roots. Born Atoosa Behnegar in Tehran, Iran, and raised in Queens and Long Island, she is a graduate of Barnard College.

After interning at Sassy,she knew she wanted to be in magazines. Her first job out of college was at Cosmopolitan, where she was an overworked and underappreciated fashion assistant. But she paid her dues and worked her way up. Five years later, she became the magazine’s senior fashion editor. In 1998 she married Ari Rubenstein, an independent commodities trader on Wall Street.

“I was obsessed with clothes and being skinny,” she said. “I was so superficial and out of touch with reality.”

A day before she was scheduled to leave for the Milan fashion shows, she had the opportunity of a lifetime: to pitch a magazine idea to Cathleen Black, president of Hearst Magazines. CosmoGIRL! was, she said, conceived in her sleep. She recalled waking up in the middle of the night and seeing her late father, who had died when she was sixteen, sitting at the foot of her bed. “He whispered the entire concept to me,” she said. “I kept blinking to see if it was real, but he was still there giving me creative direction.” Black loved the idea, and Rubenstein had her magazine—and her dream job—at the age of twenty-six.

And she had a powerful supporter in Helen Gurley Brown, the former editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan, who had been influential in the lives of women of a previous generation. “Helen would come up behind me, purr and whisper, ‘Pussycat, you’re the only person here with a skirt as short as mine,’” said Rubenstein. “I’m weird, I’m so weird, I just am, and Helen was her weird self no matter who was around.” Brown served as a mentor for Rubenstein when she was launching CosmoGIRL!. “When she called and asked how I was doing, I decided to be honest. I told her that late at night, after the staff went home, I would sit under my desk, sobbing. Helen said she was the same way.”

Rubenstein can be simultaneously self-deprecating and self-assured. “I am not smart and I’m not creative. I’m just brave,” she said. “I won this opportunity; I’m good at it.” Her results speak for themselves: CosmoGIRL! has more than 1.25 million readers. When Rubenstein took over as editor-in-chief of Seventeen in 2005, she proceeded to reverse a five-year decline in the magazine’s newsstand sales and produce growth of 23 percent.

I remember the day the premier issue of CosmoGIRL! arrived. I was sixteen and had just emerged from my awkward phase and was slowly learning to tame my own frizzy mane. There, in her editor’s letter, instead of a stylized glamour shot, Rubenstein used a photo of herself as a pubescent teen. She was immediately someone her readers could relate to.
At Seventeen she used real girls in all different shapes and colors as models. Curly-haired girls with freckles modeled the latest in eye shadow; plus-sized teens with glasses donned the latest back-to-school fashions. This realistic image appealed to teens, thousands of whom submitted their photos with a legitimate shot at making it into the magazine.

The relationships Rubenstein built with her readers transcended the pages of her magazine. She transported them to her profile, where she now has more than 43,000 “friends.” It’s a base she will use to build her brands: and Big Momma Productions. She said that she considers herself a “virtual Robin Hood—someone that my audience can go to with any problem any time of the day. This is what I spend the bulk of my time doing. Which, frankly, is just why I left—to get closer to my audience.”

On her page, Rubenstein is open about things most people hide out of shame and embarrassment. Self-mutilation and loss are among the topics she has written about, offering support and resources. In the restaurant, gazing down at the fingerless workout gloves that conceal her wrists, she recalled a time when she felt alone. “I was a cutter in college, and cutting is the new bulimia,” said Rubenstein. “I want to scream at my girls: ‘Don’t hurt yourself! Get help!’”

Rubenstein is now thirty-five, twice the age of the magazine she recently left. She has already achieved her dreams and is plotting her next moves. She is working on a book and planning a teen-focused consultancy. Though she is no longer an editor-in-chief, Rubenstein remains a chief of sorts. “I want to gather my tribe and lead them into their future,” she said.

Her ambitions are not modest. Following the Oprah Winfrey model, Rubenstein hopes to utilize the internet, as Winfrey used television, to build her constituency and take it with her into a variety of media, ultimately turning Atoosa into a potent brand. “I want it to be a place where we support each other that is cool,” said Rubenstein, who sees her future as an advocate for young female consumers aged thirteen to thirty. “Cool can be good, and I have a moral obligation to create content and marketing that is positive.”

Rubenstein’s staff will likely include people she has worked with before. At Seventeen, some on staff found her to be controlling, but others thought she was a genius. Many had followed her there from CosmoGIRL!. In late September 2006, shortly before Rubenstein announced she was leaving, the New York Post’s Page Six ran an extensive item titled “Bloodbath at Seventeen,” in which they wrote: “Seven editors have left Seventeen in the last few months . . . due to Rubenstein’s ‘maniacal’ ways, her ‘huge ego,’ and her obsession with becoming a TV star. Part of the problem is that Rubenstein is smitten with fame and has long dreamed of being on television.”

She categorically denied this. “I don’t yearn to be a television star. I don’t yearn to be any of the things people were saying about me.” Nevertheless, she is proud of the reality TV show she created with MTV: Miss Seventeen, in which seventeen young women competed for a cover shoot, college scholarship, and a paid internship at Seventeen. She also appeared as a judge on another reality show, America’s Next Top Model.

Explaining her decision to leave Seventeen, she said that when she received her employment contract this past fall, her mindset was this: “They would have to pay me an amount of money that no editor has ever made in order for me to justify staying. Even then, it would be like using currency as a drug to anesthetize the fact that I felt like I was dying. It was a life decision; I had to ask myself, ‘Will I be OK if I have not one more ounce of success? Will I be OK with that?’ And the answer was yes,” she concluded, “because it was a matter of survival.”

When I finished with my questions and we walked out of the restaurant into the New York sunshine, Atoosa said she had one for me. “Am I exactly how you thought I would be?” she asked. And she was. She is the embodiment of a teen magazine: honest, silly, changeable, histrionic, but excited and optimistic nonetheless.

Illustration by Gerry Dy


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