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How Sassy Changed My Life: A Love Letter to the Greatest Teen Magazine of All Time

How Sassy Changed My Life: A Love Letter to the Greatest Teen Magazine of All Time

by Kara Jesella

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For a generation of teenage girls, Sassy magazine was nothing short of revolutionary—so much so that its audience, which stretched from tweens to twentysomething women, remains obsessed with it to this day and back issues are sold for hefty sums on the Internet. For its brief but brilliant run from 1988 to 1994, Sassy was the arbiter of all that


For a generation of teenage girls, Sassy magazine was nothing short of revolutionary—so much so that its audience, which stretched from tweens to twentysomething women, remains obsessed with it to this day and back issues are sold for hefty sums on the Internet. For its brief but brilliant run from 1988 to 1994, Sassy was the arbiter of all that was hip and cool, inspiring a dogged devotion from its readers while almost single-handedly bringing the idea of girl culture to the mainstream. In the process, Sassy changed the face of teen magazines in the United States, paved the way for the unedited voice of blogs, and influenced the current crop of smart women's zines, such as Bust and Bitch, that currently hold sway.

How Sassy Changed My Life will present for the first time the inside story of the magazine's rise and fall while celebrating its unique vision and lasting impact. Through interviews with the staff, columnists, and favorite personalities we are brought behind the scenes from its launch to its final issue and witness its unique fusion of feminism and femininity, its frank commentary on taboo topics like teen sex and suicide, its battles with advertisers and the religious right, and the ascension of its writers from anonymous staffers to celebrities in their own right.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

In the late '80s and '90s, when teen fare was homogeneous, Sassy magazine, a teen cult favorite, was the cool new kid on the block, speaking to girls on their level, giving them an in to alternative pop culture while acting as confidant and wise dispenser of advice. New York–based writers Jesella and Meltzer were part of the Sassy demographic and decided that a "love letter" to the publication was in order. The result is a behind-the-scenes, warts-and-all look at the magazine's office culture, including sections on the glossy's coverage of feminism, celebrity and girl culture. Struggles with advertisers, publishers, religious conservatives and other detractors are described in detail (in a very us-against-them tone), allowing insight into how editorial content was developed. Much of the book is written in a cooler-than-thou tone, often at the expense of every other teen magazine on the market and of the typical American girls who read them. This attitude arguably contributed to Sassy's demise in 1996. In the end, the book—written in a style reminiscent of the magazine itself—is a testament to a publication that changed the face of teen media. (Apr.)

From the Publisher

“Around the time you read that a publicist for Tiffani Amber-Thiessen once accused Sassy magazine of 'terrorist tactics,' you realize that this book isn't simply a smart and funny ode to a smart and funny magazine; it's the record of a short-lived insurrection against a powerful social code, one that tells young women what they're supposed to think and how they're supposed to act.” —Alex Ross

“There are people--and I'm one of them--who define their adolescence as pre-Sassy and post-Sassy, who found a respite from the dominant culture of proms and mall-crawling in its pages, and who mourned its death like it was that of a best friend. For us, Jesella and Meltzer offer up some much-needed closure, as well as an engaging snapshot of a time when teen culture was full of vivid, inspired, yet-to-be-co-opted cool.” —Andi Ziesler, editorial/creative director of Bitch magazine

“A page-turning romp through the secretive and cut-throat world of teen journalism. Sassy was the one magazine that attempted to subvert the usual diet of mind control and hypnosis employed by its establishment peers. And while she may have destroyed herself in a fit of confused self criticism, she left a generation of precocious women in her wake.” —Ian Svenonius, The Original "Sassiest Boy in America" (not to mention former front man of Nation of Ulysses and author of The Psychic Soviet)

“In its brief life, Sassy offered teenage girls a new way of seeing themselves--and their parents, perhaps, a new way of understanding them. It was very much a product of its historical moment and, as this insightful narrative suggests, Sassy, like all truly significant magazines, clearly helped shape the social realities of its time.” —David Abrahamson, Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University

Sassy really did change my life. If I hadn't read the magazine as a confused pre-teen, I doubt I'd be the person I am today and I doubt I'd have started Venus Zine. I always wanted to know what really happened behind the scenes at Sassy and now I do. This book provides the inside scoop on the rise and fall of one of America's most important publications.” —Amy Schroeder, editor and publisher Venus Zine

“It's a rise-and-fall narrative of a departed magazine that tapped into the zeitgeist, a tale of a particular cultural moment, and of daring that has since become commonplace. Its progenitors have gone on to more prominent planets of the media universe, and yet they long for those halcyon days. No, it's not Spy: The Funny Years, but rather next season's media self-obsession: Kara Jesella and Marisa Meltzer's How Sassy Changed My Life.” —Women's Wear Daily

Sassy was always more than just a teen magazine--it was a beacon for outcasts, feminists, and the rest of the people who went on to create the early 90s indie culture. How Sassy Changed My Life is just as interesting, opinionated, and funny as its subject. Read it and weep again for a magazine that, for many of us, is a long lost friend.” —Jennifer Baumgardner, co-author of Manifesta and author of Look Both Ways

“An entertaining and thought-provoking look at one of the most influential magazines of the 90s. I felt like I was back in those cramped offices, surrounded by the funniest, sharpest women in New York.” —Blake Nelson, author of Girl and Paranoid Park

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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Read an Excerpt


“Why would you write a book about a teen magazine?”

We’ve lost count of how many times we’ve been asked some version of that question since this project began.

Luckily, the floods of emails we got from people saying they couldn’t wait until its publication and asking how they could help served as an excellent emotional buffer from the blank stares. Smart, cool women who grew up reading and loving Sassy offered to be interviewed; staff members and interns assured us they would let us know what really went on in the magazine’s offices; celebrities who had special relationships with the publication—like Spike Jonze and Michael Stipe—wanted to pay their respects.

Because more than a decade after the publication’s untimely and much-lamented demise, Sassy matters as much as it did when it was in print. Though Sassy was never able to match the advertising or circulation of the other teen magazine giants of its day, the magazine more than made up for this lack in terms of reader devotion.

Even now, it continues to incite cultlike dedication among its fans. Copies on eBay inspire heated bidding wars. (“Fifteen years later, a weird kind of muscle memory takes over when I finally get my vintage Sassy,” said Rebecca L. Fox in a paper called “Sassy All Over Again” for NYU journalism school. “To my surprise, I read Sassy now the same way I read it in my teens—voraciously.”) Magazines feature sentimental stories mourning it: “We Still Love Sassy” was the bittersweet title of an article that ran in The New York Review of Magazines. On the Internet, message boards and open love letters to the Sassy staff abound: “You gave us thirteen-year-old girls stuck in rural Wisconsin a glimmer of hope, a pinky-swear promise that the world could be a funny, smart, and even sexy place,” wrote one Harvard student in the Crimson. “I loved Sassy so much, and needed it so much, and it was there for me,” a Swarthmore student said on her Web site.

A 1997 article in Spin magazine’s Girl Issue noted: “When the best teen magazine ever, Sassy, was sold to the owners of Teen magazine in 1994—and the entire New York–based staff was put out to pasture—readers went into revolt. Teen magazine exemplified everything that was wrong with America’s youth, and Sassy was its antith-esis. Distraught teenagers tracked down staff members at home, calling with a simple question: Why?”

“Why?” is just one of the questions that this book will answer. How Sassy Changed My Life is the inside story of how and why the magazine came to be, what happened during its six short years of life, and the real reasons behind its demise. More important, it is a tribute to a monumentally significant cultural artifact that has been given short shrift.

Understanding Sassy’s importance begins with a chronicle of the early days of the magazine and how it distinguished itself. Sassy’s story is intricately tied to the societal transformations that occurred in the late eighties and early nineties. As teen-pregnancy rates soared, AIDS became a very real threat, and debates over what kids should be taught about sex in school raged, the magazine heralded a new way of thinking about girls and sexuality; we will discuss how this led to a battle with the religious right—then just becoming a force to be reckoned with—that almost put the magazine out of business.

To best explain the scope of Sassy’s impact, and the major themes that characterized the magazine’s middle years, it’s key to bear in mind events that were happening simultaneously. At a time when the cultural mainstream and underground were two distinct entities, Sassy relentlessly covered indie celebrities and tenets of indie culture for the masses, while at the same time deconstructing pop tarts. As the victories of Second Wave feminism and the new ideas of the Third Wave crystallized, Sassy heralded a changing of the guard in the women’s movement and brought a new version of feminism to high-school girls. And while teenagers who obsessed over 90210, lipstick, and just wanting to have fun had long been denigrated as silly and fluffy, the magazine made being a girl seem vital and important, creating a new kind of female persona—one that very much still exists today. In an era of political and economic flux—first a Republican president, then a Democrat; first a boom time for magazines, then a recession—Sassy struggled to maintain a resolutely progressive voice, which by its very nature couldn’t last. “Every six or seven years something comes along that’s just exactly right,” says writer Blake Nelson. “Sassy was just exactly right.” And its considerable legacy is no surprise. As we’ll see, for readers, pining for Sassy is about more than revisiting another era.

Certain institutions link people together irre-vocably: a fifty-year-old Tri-Delt meets a twenty-five-year-old Tri-Delt and they are instant sisters; Sassy serves a similar purpose, but for a different psychographic. Julianne Shepherd thinks she got a former job as arts editor of the Portland Mercury, a weekly in Portland, Oregon, because “in the interview, I noted Sassy as a major influence on my inchoate writing voice, and the publisher, Tim Keck [who co-founded The Onion in 1988 when he was a junior at the University of Wisconsin], was essentially like, ‘Right on! You’re hired!’ ”

In other words, Sassy has become a kind of code. “I meet people now and occasionally ask them if they were Sassy readers,” says fan Catherine Bowers. Upon meeting a fellow Sassy fan, we feel like we understand something essential about that person: their life philosophy, what their politics might be like, what their artistic preferences are, what they were like in high school, what kind of person they wanted to grow up to be. (By contrast, we find non-fans of a certain age slightly suspect.) We seem to recognize kindred spirits even now. “A lot of us Sassy-ites found each other,” says fan Lara Zeises. None of her friends read it in high school, she says, “but most of my friends now were of the Sassy generation, and it’s like we have this special bond because of it.”

It’s faith in that “special bond” that enabled us to decide to write a book about Sassy together about half an hour—tops—after we met.

To explain: “I really think Sassy changed my life,” said Marisa, over drinks. We were discussing a story she was going to write for the teen magazine Kara worked for at the time.

“I know!” Kara agreed. “I don’t understand why no one has ever written a book about it.”

We talked about how much we would love it if there was a Sassy tribute book, something that would tell Sassy’s unusual story and explore the ways in which it affected thousands of girls like us—not to mention its legions of non-girl fans.

“We should write it,” said Marisa. We started immediately. Although we didn’t know anything more about each other than that we were both feminists and writers with an interest in teen magazines, we were pretty sure that our shared love of Sassy meant that we were going to be similar in other ways as well.

And we were right. Sassy aficionados have always been a self-selecting group, people who wanted to establish a chosen community. “As someone who felt ‘different’ from a lot of other girls in my peer group, it was extrem

Meet the Author

Kara Jesella and Marisa Meltzer are New York–based writers. They have written and edited for publications such as The New York Times, Teen Vogue, Elle Girl, Bitch, Jane, Spin, Entertainment Weekly, Nylon,Nerve, and Elle.

Kara Jesella is a New York–based writer. She has written and edited for publications such as The New York Times, Teen Vogue, Elle Girl, Bitch, Jane, Spin, Entertainment Weekly, Nylon, Nerve, and Elle. She is co-author of How Sassy Changed My Life.
Marisa Meltzer is the coauthor of How Sassy Changed My Life (2007) and author of Girl Power (2010). Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Slate, Elle, and Teen Vogue. She attended Evergreen State College and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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