As SA magazines close so too does our escape hatch to a more fabulous world
An ode to the local glossies that are no more now that Caxton and Associated Magazines have become casualties of the coronavirus pandemic
I fell in love with magazines when I was 12. It was the result of a school project for Mrs Feldman. She was a daunting presence in my life. Small, scathing and acute - like an angle. She demanded excellence. The only other option was shame and possibly a short, sharp smack to the outstretched palm.
In her class I sat opposite two Richards. We still used the diminutive "Dick" without guile in those days to differentiate them. The exquisite anxiety of accidental foot-brushing under the desks is still fresh in my mind. Whose foot was it? Richard's or Dick's? Anyway, we had to create our own magazine and the boys were unimpressed.
The public library had bound copies of Victorian ladies' journals. It was a rabbit hole and I dived right in - delighted by everything in those ancient, slightly mildewed texts. The quaint advertisements, the ladies' fashions — the crinoline and whalebone, the serialised Dickensian novellas, the peculiar articles, the Gothic typeface — the entire, marvellous, printed periodical shebang.
I created my own version of those Victorian magazines for the project and immediately became a card-carrying mag hag for life.
My next paper-based obsession came when my high-minded mother bought me a subscription to Ms. magazine — Gloria Steinem's gun-toting, hip-shooting second-wave feminist fiesta, a credible alternative to the female narratives of domestic interest that had prevailed since those late 19th-century editions of The Lady and such. My brother subscribed to Oink.
Ms. was everything one could wish for in terms of right-thinking material for a young woman embarking on a life of the mind. There were serious articles presented in a serious font, lots of line drawings, and absolutely no fashion shoots, not now, not ever — imagine sullying this hallowed environment with commerce, much less commerce that used the female form to sell its wares.
But in the background at Books Unlimited — my local bookshop — the siren call of the glossy magazine was tempting me over to the dark side. Shamefaced rifling through the Cosmopolitan was now a thing.
It was not a magazine that would have been welcome at my home. After all, my mother was the founder of the Greek lending library — the hallowed resting place of the private library of the Bishop of Alexandria, no less.
This mag was not quite on that level. But Cosmo at the back end of the book shop, with its alluring glow of good health and unabashed sex appeal, held the promise of much-needed information — material to a girl's development — that Ms. sadly didn't cover.
Or perhaps didn't cover in the graphic, highly informative, light-hearted, non-judgmental manner of Cosmo, with its content explaining all the mysteries of below-the-desk activities with the Richards and the Dicks.
I suppose Cosmo was the female equivalent of Scope — and God forbid we looked at that — but somebody had to tell us how it was. Jane Raphaely bravely bore that burden.
She was our Helen Gurley Brown, leading the fun, fearless female into the boardroom and the bedroom with style and smarts. Perhaps even presaging the third wave of feminism without ever fully acknowledging it to herself or her young, covert readers.
I became a convert to the glossies. They were a ticket to a bigger, more fabulous world than circumscribed sterile 1990s tail-end apartheid SA. Here was a curated parallel universe where everything was glamorous and fun and above all explicable.
They really did seem to know it all first and their currency was the currency. What to wear, how to be, how to live, how to think — the editors of these magazines edited the reader's life as well as their pages. Better yet, most of the stories ended on a hopeful note. The promise of those pages was that things would be fine. And if not, well at least they would look fine.
The magazine was a repository of taste but also a repository of hope for a better world into which we could all escape. Vogue, Tatler, Vanity Fair, House & Garden, World of Interiors, Elle, Marie Claire — a never-ending proliferation of finely calibrated viewpoints for specific types of readers and, let's face it, readers mostly of the female persuasion who responded to the gradations of tone with unfailing commitment to their brand.
It was a marvellous seduction. At the checkout in the supermarket as you queued glumly with your trolley, caught up in the humdrum of quotidian existence, multiple escape hatches were lined up in front of you.
"Pick me, pick me," vied the covers, images we editors, art directors and fashion editors agonised over for days — the magic formula we thought we understood. Jane maintained that you must always have sex on the cover (obviously), and a number. Each cover a portal to a magic world. We made it for you.
We magazine people are a special breed, wedded to the creative force of 124 pages of escapist pleasure, rigorous in-depth journalism (I promise this is true) and a strong sense of female community
When I took my first job in glossy magazines at Elle, I left a high-paying consulting job to follow a pied piper of an industry. We magazine people are a special breed, wedded to the creative force of 124 pages of escapist pleasure, rigorous in-depth journalism (I promise this is true) and a strong sense of female community.
I also left any semblance of a salary commensurate with the work we were actually doing. The trade-off for creating women's stories is to get paid women's wages. Our colleagues over at the male-dominated newspapers couldn't quite believe what we got paid. And we did this work with ever smaller teams and shrinking budgets.
It was a gut-wrenchingly competitive and highly creative endeavour that became harder and harder to do as free digital content sucked up all the attention, and people's reading habits were set off against the tanking economy. The financial crisis changed the glossy magazine from a necessity to a luxury. Women who had unhesitatingly thrown the mag into their trolleys suddenly thought of it as a guilty pleasure — akin to my youthful Cosmo reading.
It didn't help that in SA our market is so fragmented, and that the glossies continued speaking to readers segmented by race and culture.
Now, as the industry struggles with a seemingly fatal crisis and magazines fold by the dozen on a daily basis, it strikes me that the glossies should have addressed the intersectionality and fourth-wave feminism that was washing over the world in a direct, hard-hitting, head-on manner.
The lessons of Ms. should have met the glory of gloss somewhere on the high ground, finding a way to speak to women in a way women wanted to be spoken to. It's a conversation and for many the conversation has been shut down.
The apocryphal story at Vogue was that a young editor once tendered her resignation because her father couldn't afford to send her there anymore — a telling anecdote for this industry in this time.
I don't think magazines will become archival artefacts like Victorian periodicals — though some clearly will only live on in the archives. These ephemeral pleasures of so many readers and creators are transcripts of the times.
They tell the stories as much through their omissions as through the editorial choices made.
In remaking them for the future, for those of us still left at the coalface, this time offers an opportunity. To remember why we do this job, to tell the stories of women's lives and to celebrate all our beauty and our life-affirming creativity — to remember and honour the sprinkling of magic dust that is a magazine.
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