The Next Big Thing

'It' magazine Teen People has grown up so fast by knowing its audience and really getting int the scene

August 11, 1999|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- This may be the most important performance of Michael Fredo's career.

The soon-to-be pop sensation isn't playing to a jam-packed arena of swooning pre-pubescent admirers, or a panel of star-making agents.

Today, his audience is the staff of Teen People. His venue is their midtown New York office.

Clad almost entirely in Tommy Hilfiger, he sings his latest single, does a pseudo-moonwalk and sashays through the small crowd. The 20-year-old, who's been opening for Britney Spears on a concert tour this summer, even does a little choreographed chair dance.

The editors often invite up-and-coming talent to perform in their office. It's a way for them to calibrate charisma and judge how they'll play them in the magazine.

And when you're taking the stage for a magazine that launched in January 1998, and already boasts a circulation of 1.3 million, putting it just behind perennial teen mag industry leaders Seventeen, YM and Teen, you had better shine.

Like People, Teen People focuses on entertainers and pop culture. Articles on Columbine, gay rights and sexual harassment set it apart from the pack. Such standard teen mag fare as fashion and beauty are also there, but not in the prom-obsessed, "How to tell if he really likes you" quiz kind of way.

"We're finding young people are so much more into entertainment and celebrities, which is why Teen People is right on the money," says Irma Zandl, president of the Zandl Group, a trend research firm specializing in under-30 consumers. "Teen People rocks."

It's all about The Echo Boom, Generation Y, call it what you will. By now, the numbers are well-known. More than 30 million 12-to-19-year-olds are roaming the nation. By 2010, their numbers will have expanded to nearly 35 million. Every industry is trying to turn their heads. After all, U.S. teens spent $141 billion in 1998.

The clothing industry has responded with such brands as Mudd, FUBU and Steve Madden; music with the Backstreet Boys,'N Sync and Britney Spears; Hollywood with "Scream," "Felicity" and "Buffy."

And it didn't take long for the publishing industry to dive in.

"About a year ago, everything was very stable," says Michael Wood, with Teenage Research Unlimited, a Northbrook, Ill.-based firm similar to the Zandl Group. "Then everyone and their brother came out with a magazine."

Teen People has left such fellow fledgling teen publications as Jump, Twist and All About You in the dust, Zandl says.

In its "New Teen Spirit" issue, Rolling Stone declared Teen People the bible for teens.

If it's the bible, then editor-in-chief Christina Ferrari, 34, must be some kind of prophet.

A sign in her office says: "Remember what it was like to be a teen-ager."

The philosophy is reflected in a curiously cynicism-free staff of mid-twenty to mid-thirtysomethings, and the surroundings.

Oversize posters of previous celebrity covers line the walls. Here's a smile from Leonardo DiCaprio sure to get teen girls' hearts pounding. There's a smile from Jennifer Love Hewitt, sure to get teen boys' hearts pounding. Glass cases containing clothing worn by stars in Teen People fashion shoots are set into the walls. A gold lame jacket Puff Daddy wore, for example, berry-colored bikinis sported by Gen-Y it-girls. Every week, the offices open for tours.

We see the glossy covers with Alicia Silverstone, Drew Barrymore and 98 Degrees beaming with fresh-faced stardom.

But what goes on behind the scenes at a teen 'zine? How do its writers and editors tap into the psyches of this rich, savvy market without being patronizing or passe? A glimpse into the staff's offices, which reveal a devotion to teen immersion, is the first clue. Hot pink and animal-print decor, CD players surrounded by stacks of discs from new artists, TV screens tuned to MTV, and even photos of editors with their old teen dreams ...

A teen-ager at heart

You didn't have to lust after Brit-pop heartthrobs Duran Duran in the '80s to become one with the new teen spirit, but it helps.

Lori Majewski, senior entertainment editor at Teen People, was wild about the band.

She has brace-faced pictures of herself with Duran Duran keyboardist Nick Rhodes tacked to her office wall. Her bangs were higher back then. She's since turned into a ravishing redhead with dramatic, blunt bangs and perfectly arched brows.

Alongside the photos of her fantasy '80s boys are shots of her mugging it up with current bubblegum princes 'N Sync. When she needs a dose of adolescent enthusiasm, she looks to her stacks of vintage teenybopper magazines for inspiration.

"When I look at these pictures, I want to be reminded of what it really felt like to be a teen-ager," says Majewski, 28. "It's so important to remember what it was like. I am really a teen-ager at heart."

Rolling Stone called Majewski Teen People's "Secret Weapon." Her colleagues claim she has an uncanny next-big-thing instinct.

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