Reading our own Clover Hope’s excellent piece about fanboy journalism today sparked a memory that’s never far from mind: In the early 1990s, beloved cool-teen magazine Sassy perfected the art of anti-fangirling, running several feature profiles on then-famous teens that reveled in brutally excoriating their subjects. (Presumably because they knew if they didn’t, their readership of smart, hip teen girls would definitely see through the bullshit.)
The most savage of these, as I recall, was a piece on mid-Saved by the Bell career Tiffani-Amber Thiessen. It ran with the headline “Tiffani-Amber: Something Does Not Compute,” beneath an original, styled photo of the young actor herself, but that was nothing compared to the cover line: “Saved by the Bell’s Demi-Bimbo.” The article, written by Mary Ann Marshall and archived here, begins as follows:
That badly written, lowest-common-denominator show Tiffani-Amber Thiessen’s on is a total affront to anyone with half a brain. It’s like the poor man’s 90210, with its ensemble cast of high school students, lame jokes and cardboard-looking sets. Although it’s filmed in front of a live studio audience, even the laughter sounds canned.
While it’s not uncommon for a hit piece of criticism to wield such a blunt instrument, this was actually a profile; Marshall was granted time with her topic, but very clearly found her insufferable:
When I ask her if it’s hard to play a cheerleader type, she says, No, because I’m really like that. I’m really very outgoing.” When I ask what she brings to the role of Kelly, she looks deep into my eyes and responds, “I think any actress puts something of herself into a role or it wouldn’t be true. I mean, that’s what acting is about,” as though this were the revelation of the century.
The whole piece plays like that, Marshall clearly not taken by any of what she obviously perceives Thiessen’s answers to be canned, fake, and unimpressive. She concludes the piece by, essentially, saying she is not smart.
These days, none of that would get by an editor in a trillion years, as Clover noted, but Sassy in particular was special even at the time because it built its brand on being feminist and relatable in a landscape of teen magazines that most definitely were neither of those things. For profiles and cover stories that weren’t focused on subjects the authors liked—cool, smart people like Mayim Bialik, LL Cool J, Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love—their writers would go in, and go hard. They may have had to play the game once in awhile, featuring more mainstream young celebrities likely to pull more ads the way magazines still do, but they didn’t have to like it.
A profile of Blossom-era Joey Lawrence in Sassy’s August 1993 issue went even harder. Headline: “Joey Lawrence, Product.” Pull quote: “If you could program a computer to create a teen idol, it would spew forth this young man.” Writer Marjorie “Margie” Ingall, now an author and Tablet columnist, was less than impressed, but she did have something with which she could compare the experience:
When I interviewed Joey for “What He Said” two years ago, we’d discussed the Persian Gulf War. He’d started out talking in platitudes, then became more thoughtful and awkward when pressed for specifics. It was endearing. He’s much smoother now, having learned the celebrity art of not really answering a question. Racism, “negative energy” and drugs are bad; education and honesty are good. “You can say something that’s a negative, but in a positive way, you know?” Joey believes in sex education, but adds that it’s even more important to teach morality. “So many times today kids have sex for sex. So wrong. So wrong. We can cut back on that if we make sure we do it only when we love somebody. Or if we really, really like ‘em.”
Ingall concludes her piece with this withering bon mot:
As fodder for our beloved consumer culture, Joey’s a dream: Content to create nonchallenging, nonalienating work; politically savvy but not politically explosive; no vices other than nail-biting.
Please Margie don’t hurt ‘em! For perspective, it is also worth noting that the same issue features a reported story on two young teen migrant workers entitled “These Girls Live Like Slaves.” Mary Ann Marshall of the Tiffani-Amber Thiessen profile wrote it—all Sassy’s relatively small staff of writers wrote in most every genre, so you can imagine the amount of patience it took to deal with pre-fab network stars shilling their personal brands (before personal brands existed) to oblivion.
Still, they weren’t all hit pieces. Perusing through the stack of Sassys on my bookshelf, I’ve found the following lines:
“He is sooooo much cuter in real life.” (“Free Ben Stiller,” Margie Ingall, March 1994
“At this point I was lovin’ Jennie, I must say.” (“Jennie Garth Rebuffed My Rice Krispies Advances,” Margie Ingall, April 1994
“On the way to the front door, our hands accidentally touch. Oooooh. By this point, I am nursing a mammoth crush.” (“LL Cool J: Man of Depth,” Mary Ann Marshall, February 1993)
Everyone’s susceptible to the fan-out, I suppose, but it’s also worth noting that even Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love weren’t completely exempt from criticism, despite very clearly being the king and queen of the magazine’s readership. In an infamous cover story by Christina Kelly, she paints a stark portrait of a couple at the cusp of a meteoric rise, but also proves honesty, as Clover notes, makes the most interesting piece:
Courtney says she’s 24, but I think she could be older. She’s not classically pretty, but wears her offbeat looks well. Kurt, who probably really is 24, is very cute, with incredibly blue eyes which are set off nicely by his pink streaked hair. However, he is so skinny that I would like to force-feed him a solid meal. He’s wearing disintigrating jeans and a cardigan over an ancient Flipper (the band, not the TV show) t-shirt. His black sneakers have holes in them. “He’s got the number-one record,” says Courtney, in her scratchy voice, “and he only has one pair of shoes.”
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image via scan/Sassy magazine.