August 22 2014

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celebrating BUST’s 15th


When the first issue of BUST came rolling off the presses 15 years ago, observers would have been hard-pressed to call its debut anything so official as a "launch." After all, the "presses" amounted to a photocopier in the Viacom offices where Debbie Stoller and Laurie Henzel worked back then, and their friends were pretty much the only "observers." But if the culture-at-large paid BUST no mind, the minds behind BUST were turning a close feminist eye on the culture, and for a generation of women primed on Liz Phair and "Heathers," BUST filled a void. It wasn’t long before the Xeroxed and stapled-together ‘zine went glossy, and in the years since, BUST has emerged as the puckish and punkish voice of young feminism. Last night, the magazine celebrated its 15th anniversary with an Amy Sedaris-hosted, Morningwood-headlined event at the Spiegelworld tent in Manhattan; here, Stoller and Henzel talk to about bad girls, good news, and a decade-and-a-half of DIY.

What inspired you to start BUST?
Debbie Stoller: Oh, you know, a sense of dissatisfaction with the available options at the time. Me and my friends, we were in our late 20s, and yet our favorite magazine was Sassy, because it was smart, and it made us laugh. Most of the other women’s magazines struck me as condescending, whereas the stuff for men—like, Details—those magazines existed to make men feel great. They were all about pleasure. I thought there should be a magazine that did that for women.

How do you feel BUST has evolved in the past 15 years?
Laurie Henzel: Well, obviously the physical magazine has changed a lot. The first issue was black and white, Xeroxed, arty, very "zine" But right from the start, we were focused on personal stories from real women.

DS: We’ve kept adding to the magazine, though?I think one of the strengths of BUST is that we’re willing to embrace a lot of content that often gets derided as frivolous, because it appeals to women. Sewing, for example. I mean, we’ve been really ahead of the curve on the DIY stuff in general, and that’s turned into a movement much bigger than BUST. Or, it’s like, OK, is there room for lip gloss in a feminist woman’s life? We think there is, and we try to look for opportunities to add features that celebrate any kind of pleasure women claim for themselves. But well always have our own slant.

I wonder if you’ve seen a change in your readership over the years? I mean, when BUST launched, it was at a very particular moment in the culture. There was Sassy, for example, and the "Buffy" movie, and the music scene was being completely revolutionized by women like Kim Gordon, Liz Phair, PJ Harvey? The spirit feels different now.
DS: I think everyone looks back on their teen years and thinks, boy, things were sure different back then. The good news and the bad news is that our readers still grapple with the same basic problem, which is that our culture is very male-dominated. Women are still represented as supporting players; types. Sexy girlfriend, sexless mother, bitch. Pop culture comes to us through male eyes, and women internalize that. We try to present a woman-centered world. But these issues, I swear, it’s like playing whack-a-mole. One thing gets better, and then—BAM!—some other thing pops up.

LH: It’s also worth mentioning that our readership is much larger now than it was back in ’93, we reach almost half a million people. But I think even if young women are coming to us for different reasons, or in different ways, they’re as grateful to find BUST as they ever were.

Do you have any particular favorite issues or articles from BUST?
DS: The"Bad Girls" issue. Courtney Love wrote an article for the back of the magazine, "How to be a Bad Girl"

I remember that.
DS: Definitely one of my favorites, I mean, that’s BUST in a nutshell. Take a way of condescending to women, and make it empowering. Even if—or especially if—it’s controversial. Some of my other favorite features have turned stereotypes on their head that way, like, post-9/11 there was all this talk about, oh, if women ran the world? Let me tell you: Women are just as capable of nasty brutishness as men. I’m not saying that’s a good thing, but come on, can’t we drop the gentler sex clich?? So we ran an article about these women in the Tamil Tigers?:apparently, they’re considered the very best terrorists.

LH: We’ve also been pretty ahead of the curve in terms of picking up on celebrities. We had Tina Fey on our cover before anyone else. Amy Poehler, too. And Jon Stewart! In fact, I have to say, one of my favorite things to work on is our "Men We Love" issue. Just because we make a magazine for women, it doesn’t mean we can’t love men, too.

Dept. of Culture