What the world needs now: A feminist bikini

Ms. Magazine Lightens Up; Maxim Plays the Bloke Card; Salman's Vision Thing.

Published April 1, 1999 5:26PM (EST)

"WE'RE BACK! Wake up and Smell the Estrogen." With this bold, if vaguely inscrutable, cover line, Gloria Steinem's revamped 26-year-old feminist rag hit newsstands on Tuesday afternoon.

The estrogen line, says Ms. editor Marcia Ann Gillespie, "is meant to convey a sense of who we are as women -- powerful and smart. Plus it's a great goof line and I hope it makes people laugh. We want to signal, 'We're laughing!'"

Anxious to shed its dowdy, menopausal image, the new Ms. tries hard to keep the laughter up. Hip to the new media-saturated sensibility, the magazine offers lots of what Gillespie calls "light bites and tastes." "Many women don't want to read a whole article," she says, "but they do want to be enlightened, jarred, awakened or simply amused." The magazine's pages are sprinkled with telling facts and observations. Examples include: "Graham crackers were invented in 1829 by clergyman Sylvester Graham, who believed that they, along with a vegetarian diet, cold baths and fresh air, could curb young men's urge to masturbate"; and information about a financial service, sexquotes.com, that reportedly relieves the tedium involved in checking one's stock portfolio by combining "real-time ticker information with erotic images of women."

It's not all fun and games inside the re-tooled pages of Ms. There are pieces about the limits of Title IX, terrorist assaults on abortion clinics and the rise of religiosity and conservative sentiment among women. In fact, there's a little something for everyone here: a sports story about the defunct women's basketball league, the ABL; an article about Turkish headgear; a fashion essay in which fat-girl zine creator Nomy Lamm reveals that though she once "figured nobody would want to see a fat, hairy amputee dressed up like a hussy," she now enjoys doing same; and, for feminist cooks, an article that probes health questions surrounding the use of soy.

Ironically, the best pieces are the ones you'd be most likely to find in conventional women's magazines, including Laurie Stone's story (accompanied by inspirational photos) about her face lift, and a package about adultery with perspectives from the unlikely crew of Andrea Dworkin, Candace Gingrich, Betty Friedan and pornographer Candida Royalle.

Ms. suspended publication in October while Steinem rounded up financing for the relaunch. Now owned by Liberty Media for Women, a consortium of feminist investors, Ms. bills itself as "the only national publication that is truly women-owned." Liberty investors, who paid $3 million for the magazine, include Walt Disney's grandniece Abigail Disney, Steinem, Cisco Systems co-founder Sandy Lerner and 15-year-old Anne Kiehl Friedman and her sister Alison, an undergrad at Stanford.

The magazine has been reader-supported since its last relaunch in 1990. It will continue to publish without ads in its new incarnation. As part of its general plan to attract young readers without alienating its 200,000 core readers, Ms. promises a number of newfangled ventures, including a Web site set to launch sometime in the months ahead, and merchandising ventures. "Ms. clothing is a possibility, maybe even makeup," says a magazine spokeswoman, who acknowledges there has been talk of possible Ms. bikinis. "We want to do things that are consumer-oriented, that are fun," she says.

Meanwhile, over at Testosterone Central

Maxim, the wildly successful men's magazine about sex, sports, beer and gadgets, is betting that a Brit knows what American guys really want. Mike Souter, the driving force behind Britain's equally wildly successful babe-filled bloke's book, FHM, will cross the pond to helm Maxim.

In a press release Wednesday, Maxim said, "Mike drove FHM from being a free magazine given away in fashion outlets through the half-million paid copies mark in just three years." Souter has not yet arrived in the country and could not be reached for comment.

FHM is the largest-selling monthly magazine in Europe, and its imminent arrival (an American version plans to launch this summer) has men's mags a little nervous.

Maxim also announced the appointment of James Kaminsky and Steve Perrine as co-editors. Kaminsky, a senior editor at Condé Nast Sports for Women, told Media Circus, "I have a Maxim sensibility." From the first time he saw it, Kaminsky says, he was "always in love with this magazine -- it's accessible, easy to get into, it talks to guys the way guys talk to each other in bars. It's not like going to a boring poli-sci class and getting lectured." With reliable lingerie spreads and features on subjects such as a year in the life of the man who accepted a $100,000 bet he couldn't get breast implants and keep them for a year (Kaminsky's favorite Maxim piece), Maxim certainly isn't that.

Perrine, who just celebrated his first anniversary as a Cosmo editor and who, prior to that, was the No. 2 editor at Men's Health, describes Maxim as "one of the few places where you can reliably go for a good belly laugh."

Neither Perrine nor Kaminsky has yet met Souter but both co-editors suggested that, under the new team, Maxim would continue to deliver what Perrine termed "relevant but irreverent" content. "Given Maxim's great success, Kaminsky says, "we're not going to throw the baby out with the bath water, but we might make the baby a little more useful around the house and a little smarter." More service pieces are likely, he says.

Introduced to American readers in 1997, Maxim recently announced ad figures that left competitors reeling: The magazine now guarantees advertisers that 950,000 people will buy Maxim each month, significantly more than GQ and Esquire and nearly twice the number Details promises. In a move that confirmed widely held suspicion that Maxim's rivals are copying the newcomer's astoundingly successful formula, Condé Nast hired former Maxim editor in chief Mark Golin as the editor in chief of Details earlier this year. Maxim reportedly held Golin to his three-year contract but, a Maxim spokesperson says, he is now free to leave.

In its press release, Maxim quotes Felix Dennis, chairman of Dennis Publishing, which owns Maxim, as saying, "If this team doesn't drive Maxim through 2 million paid copies in the U.S., I will eat my shorts, in public, at any location chosen by our hapless rivals."

Eye-opener for Rushdie

Writer Salman Rushdie, who until recently lived under death threat from the Iranian government, has had an eye job. The droopy-lidded author told the Times of London that the surgical procedure, aimed at keeping his eyes open, was done entirely for medical reasons. "I am long past beautifying myself," Rushdie told the Times.

Both the procedure, which received remarkably extensive coverage in the British press, and the condition that occasioned it could have been lifted from a Rushdie novel. The writer told the Times he suffered from ptosis, "which basically means falling down." Though surgery was recommended five years ago, Rushdie said he stalled and "chickened out, " possibly because corrective procedures for ptosis can leave patients unable to close their eyes. According to the British press, Rushdie agreed to surgery after he began to find it necessary to prop his eyelid up with his finger in order to see.

A publicist at Henry Holt, which will publish Rushdie's new novel, "The Ground Beneath Her Feet," on April 13, said that no one there knew much about Rushdie's malady. Holt's spokesperson did confirm that Rushdie had written lyrics for the book, which focuses on a rock 'n' roll superstar, and that the band U2 had put Rushdie's lyrics to music. She said she had no idea whether the song would be released. American readers will have a chance to see the newly bright-eyed lyricist: Rushdie is scheduled to make several public appearances in connection with publication of the new book.

By Susan Lehman

Susan Lehman is a staff writer for Salon Media.

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