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You Brits Keep the Sex Please, We’re America’s Teen Angels

NEW YORK, NY – A few weeks ago, Amy Astley was passing through Heathrow when she decided to check out the competition from across the Pond. Flicking through the British teen magazines on the newsstands, the American editor of Teen Vogue was nothing short of shocked.

‘They are really bad,’ she says, leaning across her desk in a high-rise office overlooking New York’s Times Square and instantly shedding the traditional politeness that keeps rival editors from each other’s throats. ‘They are really smutty. They have a real focus on sex and that’s not what we are doing at all. That is not our focus.’

Astley admits that she has no respect for the magazines that British girls are buying. ‘I don’t know if those magazines sell better when they have particularly smutty covers, I suppose that they must, but I believe it is a misunderstanding of teenage girls to overemphasize sex,’ she said.

The 36-year-old petite blonde, a former ballet dancer, looks every inch the immaculately coiffeured Condé Nast editor. If it weren’t for the husband and two kids, she would be Sex And The City incarnate. But Astley sees herself as a good friend to America’s millions of teens – and that involves keeping a firm grip on their exposure to sex. Not for her the graphic advice columns of British teen mags. Nor super-sexualized images of teen idols Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera: ‘I hate stripper beauty and I hate stripper clothes.’

Astley – who spent 10 years at the Vogue ‘Mother Ship’, including a stint as beauty editor – has created a magazine firmly in the Vogue tradition. Teen Vogue is fashion, fashion, fashion, shot from every conceivable angle, using the best photographers that Condé Nast’s considerable resources can buy.

‘Spring fashion! 137 looks at the right price’ shouted the first issue. ‘Summer splash!’ declared Teen Vogue issue number three. ‘Get Fall’s best looks,’ advises the latest cover. Fashion appears to be a year-long commitment.

But behind the (sex-free) headlines is a story of an editor very much on the rise. Teen Vogue is Astley’s first time in the editorial hot seat and has created a stir throughout Condé Nast’s power brokers, so famed for their ruthlessness that the company has been referred to as the ‘Evil Empire’.

Astley is seen as the protégée of legendary Vogue editor-in-chief Anna ‘Nuclear’ Wintour and – some might whisper – her natural successor one day. In a recent newspaper profile, she was dubbed ‘Anna’s Mini-She’. If Teen Vogue is pitching itself as weaning young readers on to the adult version, might it also be grooming a young editor for the Top Job as well? Not according to Astley: ‘That is a rubbish question. Too many people make mistakes by not concentrating on doing the job they are doing now.’

But – denials aside – Astley’s magazine is a powerful new guardian of taste in the world of American teenagers, and therefore by extension the world of non-American teenagers about six months later. But she is guiding a magazine into a crowded market.

Teen Vogue arrived fashionably late to the sector, following previous launches of CosmoGirl and Elle Girl. However, the magazine has been a solid sales success, averaging 374,900, with the last two selling close to 400,000. In February, it will increase its frequency from six to 10 a year. This has come at a time when other magazines are treading water and some traditional names, such as Teen , have fallen by the wayside.

While the market may still be crowded, no one doubts that it is lucrative. Teenage girls – especially in America – have spending power like never before. US teens spend more than $129 billion a year. Some surveys have shown that part-time jobs and generous parents provide typical teens with monthly shopping budgets that often approach $400. That is a lot of clout at the till, and advertisers have rushed to fill the pages of the glossy new magazines advising those youngsters on how best to part with their cash.

Astley’s tactic is to use celebrities to sell clothes. Many fashion stories are shot around celebrities or feature them wearing the latest fashion. But the no-sex rules still hold. The first cover girl was rock chick Gwen Stefani, but the mid-riff baring singer was pictured wearing retro 50s clothes, posing in front of a beach hut. In fact the 50s appears to be a bit of a theme. Next month’s cover girl is actress Katie Holmes (from ultra-wholesome TV series Dawson’s Creek ). She too was shot on a beach, donning 50s- style clothes.

Other models are shot with care: no sheer clothing that reveals what’s underneath, models (while, of course tall and thin) are chosen to at least look vaguely natural. There is no hint of the waif-look or heroin chic.

Perhaps that fits with Astley’s mid-western upbringing in East Lansing, Michigan, where her mother, fearful of the corrupting influence of the Fonz, stopped her from watching Happy Days . Astley sees her readership as much in the so-called ‘flyover states’ of the mid-west as in the coastal style capitals of New York and Los Angeles.

Teen Vogue has recruited an army of teenagers to scout for fashions and act as a springboard to bounce ideas off. ‘They scout. They find other girls we might want to shoot. They call us and say “Hey, here’s what’s really big in my school at the moment”,’ Astley says.

The magazine is not all fun and games. Each issue has tackled a serious subject too. One profiled a gay high school girl and her fight against discrimination. Another looked at the perils of plastic surgery. A third examined the benefits of a new oral contraceptive, although it focused on its effects of lessening period pain rather than birth control (still no sex).

But in the end, fashion is the be-all and end-all. One trick is to use the teenage daughters of designers as a way to make haute couture accessible to America’s mall- goers. A huge coup for the magazine (at least on Planet Fashion) was a piece showcasing Donatella Versace’s daughter, Allegra. It was one of a regular series called ‘Fashion in the Family’ that has also featured the daughters of actress Nastassja Kinski and Carine Roitfeld, edi tor-in-chief of French Vogue . But are teens really aware of fashion at such a young age? Do they really need their own dedicated fashion bible? ‘Everyone now has heard of Gucci,’ says Astley. ‘Kids carry Prada bags.’ But is that a good thing? ‘That’s debatable, of course. But that’s the world we live in now.’

If Teen Vogue continues to grow, Astley will become an increasingly powerful figure in the media and style worlds. Despite her friendly demeanor she has a hard edge that has carried her thus far in the Darwinian world of Condé Nast. ‘There isn’t room to not do it right. Fashion is pretty brutal. But I enjoy my job. I find it fun.’

But one place Astley will not be looking for inspiration is Britain. Teen Vogue sells well in London, but won’t be taking any cues from the mags Astley found at Heathrow. ‘Not those,’ she says with a shudder. ‘We are just in a whole different league.’


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