Tackling the tough issues is how Glamour appeals

September 06, 1992|By Deirdre Carmody | Deirdre Carmody,New York Times News Service

When Glamour won the 1992 National Magazine Award for public interest for two articles on teen-age pregnancy and abortion, a tall, elegant woman threaded her way through the audience to accept it.

"It is a special thrill," she said, "for a magazine named Glamour to win in a category called public interest for a topic as seethingly controversial as abortion."

The applause from more than a thousand magazine officials gathered at the Waldorf-Astoria in April was thunderous. Ruth Whitney, editor in chief of Glamour, is one of the most respected editors in the industry. It is a respect tinged with awe because as of last month Ms. Whitney has served 25 years as editor in chief of Glamour, an achievement that is particularly remarkable at Conde Nast, where job security is hardly an editorial perk.

Ms. Whitney's one-sentence acceptance speech at the 1992 awards underscored the tough and graceful balancing act that she constantly performs. On the one hand, Glamour lives up to its name, giving its readers -- women in their 20s and 30s -- pages and pages of features on fashion and beauty.

But Glamour also focuses on controversial and often unpopular subjects, like infertility and the rapidly proliferating array of reproductive technologies ("The Frightening Future of Baby-Making") and women's anger because their lives do not seem to be getting better ("Why Women Are Mad as Hell").

"You have to keep giving them something they have never read before," Ms. Whitney, 63, said in an interview.

An article in the March/April issue of the Columbia Journalism Review reported that in the nearly 20 years after Roe vs. Wade established a woman's right to choose abortion, the 12 largest women's magazines published only 137 articles that dealt with abortion. Glamour, with 37, lead the pack.

Glamour, which has a circulation of 2 million, is a magazine with attitude. Even its beauty and fashion articles tend to be more skeptical than adoring. A piece last August in the "Truth in Fashion" section questioned why dress sizes no longer mean much, since one designer's size 8 is another's size 12. The July issue explores which designers actually design clothes that carry their labels. (Not too many; in fact, some of the designers are dead.)

And to show that a magazine edited for so many years by the same editor need not become stale, the July issue is not about women but about men ("How Real Men Relate to Women Now"). In a first, seven men appear on the cover. Interestingly, it is not clear whether they and the one woman pictured are clothed or not. When asked, Ms. Whitney simply smiled.

"Ruth is an extraordinary person," said Alexandra Penney, editor in chief of Self magazine, also published by Conde Nast. "To keep a name like Glamour dealing with unglamorous subjects is really, really quite a coup. She is revered."

Nothing succeeds like success, of course. While Conde Nast declines to give figures, Glamour is generally believed to be one of the biggest money makers, if not the biggest, of the Conde Nast magazines.

Nonetheless, circulation was down 3.5 percent last year. And, as in most other magazines, advertising pages have declined, falling 10 percent in 1991. They are holding just about even for the first five months of 1992, however.

This is the second consecutive year that Glamour has won a top National Magazine Award; these are the Oscars and the Tonys of the magazine industry. Last year, Glamour won the prize for general excellence for a magazine with a circulation exceeding a million, beating out, among other finalists, Time and Money. Glamour also won the general excellence award in 1981.

A conversation with Ms. Whitney dispels any thought that she might be getting bored with magazine editing. (Before coming to Conde Nast, Ms. Whitney was executive editor of Seventeen magazine for 11 years.) She laughs readily, and her enthusiasm is manifest.

"The general excellence award kind of spurred me and the whole staff to think that if we were good enough to do that, then we were good enough to do even better the next year and the year after that," she said.

The magazine gets 10,000 letters a year from readers, and Ms. Whitney says she reads them all.

"I love it when they start writing letters back to the letters," she said. "One letter that we ran said something or other about these women being dysfunctional and of course all kinds of people are answering that. You get these wonderful wars going on."

Indeed. "These women" were the subjects of an article on virginity. That particular letter was from "A. G." in Los Angeles, who went on to accuse Glamour of "glamorizing these socially dysfunctional women."

"You glorify virginity as if it were some coveted prize at the state fair," A. G. wrote, steaming. "The subjects of your story set the women's movement back decades by their manipulative acts."

Ms. Whitney describes her readers as "very savvy, very knowing young women" who have become more skeptical and sophisticated in their approach during the years that she has edited the magazine.

"And I think we're more opinionated," she said. "We have committed a deliberate effort not to be bland, and if you are not going to be bland, you are going to be opinionated."

Then she laughed.

"I think the magazine has more energy that it used to have, and I'm having more fun than I ever had."

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