Aaliyah, J-Love and Britney: My 20s Pop Culture Education

When I first heard mop-topped goth girl Alison Reynolds utter this dismal pronouncement in John Hughes’ 1985 now-classic The Breakfast Club, it sent shivers down my spine. Like her, I was a teenager at the time and imagining myself in college — forget about later on, as part of the work force — was enough to make me break out in zits. But the idea of spending the subsequent 75 years or so wandering the earth as a bored, numb, jaded adult? That was downright terrifying.

Today, at 44 (an age my teen self couldn’t fathom; back then, I thought 30 was ancient), I can honestly say I’m almost as unjaded, wide-eyed and goofy — not to mention, passionate about my obsessions — as I was as a teen, and I have my 25-year-old self to thank for it. That’s how old I was when I hit my stride as a teen magazine editor.

I knew I’d wanted to be a journalist since age 11, but “teen magazine editor” wasn’t the specialty I had in mind. An eighties kid, I’d collected tween poster mags like Tiger Beat and Bop, but in my adolescence I’d steered clear of Seventeen and YM (Young Miss), then the bibles for all things boys, prom and pimples. Instead, I devoured music mags like Star Hits and Rolling Stone, plotting to one day meet and interview my favorite band, Duran Duran. As a junior in college, I scored an internship at Spin, what I considered a front-row seat for musical and cultural revolution, to get closer to my dream.

Gwen Stefani taught me about being “just a girl” in a male-dominated world, and it wasn’t always fun.

When my internship ended, I wanted to tackle something equally as edgy next, so I accepted another apprenticeship at Sassy, the mag for young alterna-chicks. While YM and Seventeen had covers with perfect-looking, longhaired blond models, Sassy appealed to my brown lipstick-wearing, pixie-shorn self by showcasing the intriguing likes of Johnny Depp, River Phoenix and Juliana Hatfield, as well as Kurt Cobain and then-girlfriend Courtney Love.

This being the early nineties, however, full-time jobs were hard to come by. So come college graduation, I ended up not at Spin or Sassy, but at the Jersey Journal, a gritty daily newspaper in Jersey City, NJ. My daily duties: overseeing the movie time clock, the lottery numbers and the obituaries. Needless to say, I continued to poke around for magazine positions. Six months later, a friend told me I should throw my hat into the ring for an assistant entertainment and features editor job…at YM.

The cool kid in me wanted to turn up my nose and say, “Nah.” But as an obituaries editor who spent her days gathering info from funeral home directors — “I got another two stiffs for ya” — I decided to give it a shot.

Impressed by my experience, YM offered me the gig. While I cringed at the idea of working at a teen title whose idea of a hard-hitting feature was a spread called “Hunks in Trunks,” the salary paid 10 grand more than the Journal which had just assigned me their idea of a hard-hitting feature about a new mom who gave a dozen donuts to the firefighters who delivered her baby. It wasn’t long before I was convincing myself that YM’s preponderance of shirtless male models was actually pretty awesome in a post-feminist kind way. Maybe thats why theyd changed the name to Young & Modern, I reasoned.

And then I caught myself. Was this what Allison Reynolds was talking about? Was this it — Sayonara, heart? Was I about to become the epitome of everything Ethan Hawke’s character in Reality Bites despised, someone like Winona Ryder’s Lelaina Pierce, who’d sold her unvarnished documentary footage of her slacker friends to Ben Stiller’s opportunist TV producer so he could turn it into a pathetic facsimile of MTV’s The Real World?

But like Lelaina, I had bills to pay. I’d just flown the parental nest, and rent was coming due. Thus, I sold my long-held “I’m better than your average mall girl views” for $30,000 a year.

It was one of the best decisions I ever made.

Teen girls don’t get a whole lot of respect, but the chance to see things through their eyes again (this time with the advantage of having one’s own apartment and spending money, as well as a bit more experience in the love and hair-styling departments) made me realize how fabulous they really are. “Authentic” is the most overused word in the world these days, but, really, what’s more authentic than a teenage girl whose heart is exploding with undying love for her favorite pop star while simultaneously refusing to give up on one’s high school crush, no matter how impossible a dream that might be?

And I didn’t just learn from my readers — I learned from their idols too. Gwen Stefani taught me about being “just a girl” in a male-dominated world, and it wasn’t always fun. When she shot her YM cover sans her No Doubt-mates, the guys were still stewing from not being asked to join her on the front of Spin. (See the video for “Don’t Speak.”)

As one of the first American journalists to interview the Spice Girls, I learned about the importance of female friendship and, of course, “girl power.”

Teen R&B sensation Aaliyah taught me “age ain’t nothin’ but a number,” a sentiment echoed by Jennifer Love Hewitt, who was 17 when I booked her as the first face to cover my next teen mag adventure, Teen People. When I asked J-Love why she wanted to be our inaugural cover star, she answered without hesitation: “Because it’s a magazine about being who you want to be and doing what you want to do now and not having to wait until you grow up.”

Then there was the lesson I took away from Britney Spears: It’s okay to be not a girl, not yet a woman. It’s a state I still inhabit.

I figure if I don’t totally grow up, my heart can’t die. That’s why, this year, I’ve seen eight Duran Duran concerts in three months (and married a man who’s as big a fan as I am). It’s why I flew across the country to attend the premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, then flew back and saw it again on opening night, just a few days later. It’s also why I still listen to boy bands, wear Converse high tops and turn cartwheels in my condo building’s courtyard.

Having spent the early part of my career as a teen magazine editor, I’ll never be that person who looks down my nose at teenage girls. That energy, excitement, that specialness — those are ingredients we need baked into the cake called the rest of our lives. How sweet it’d be if more adults remembered that.

(Photo credit: Ebay.com, Illustration: Divya Gadangi)

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