Debbie Stoller Talks About What Makes Bust a Hit

A Very Different Kind of Magazine Carves Out a Niche

A Bust Read: Debbie Stoller launched Bust as an answer to women’s publications that put women down while giving advice.
Aliya Naumoff
A Bust Read: Debbie Stoller launched Bust as an answer to women’s publications that put women down while giving advice.

By Michael Kaminer

Published June 19, 2013, issue of June 21, 2013.
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Debbie Stoller, 49, always had lofty aspirations for Bust, the genre-smashing, stereotype-shattering magazine she and Laurie Henzel launched in 1993.

“Even though it just started as a [photocopied], stapled-together thing, we always thought it would take its place on the newsstand, next to all the other women’s magazines,” Stoller said. “We hoped it would provide an antidote to the mainstream.”

That’s exactly what happened. With recipes, erotica and very funny cultural criticism, Bust practically invented its own category. Rather than “presenting the woman you had to become to get a man,” as Stoller put it, Bust took a tip from men’s media. “They would flatter their readers and make it all about the pleasure of being male. Women’s magazines just made you feel inadequate. We wanted to do something that would flatter our readers the same way men’s magazines flattered theirs.”

Two decades later, Stoller and Henzel, respectively the editor-in-chief and the publisher, are marking a milestone that neither imagined. With Courtney Love on its 20th-anniversary cover, and a birthday bash planned for July in Brooklyn, Bust is enjoying a well-earned moment as a kind of statesperson for a fresh, fearless kind of feminism. Stoller spoke to the Forward’s Michael Kaminer from her office, near Manhattan’s Madison Square Park. “I’ve always believed change comes through pop culture, not politics,” she said

Michael Kaminer: When you two launched Bust in 1993, did you ever think you’d ever get the chance to celebrate a 20th anniversary?

Debbie Stoller: I don’t think either of us ever thought about 20 years, but I did have big hopes. I wanted it to make a difference. That wouldn’t work if it was something no one knew about it.

Your web site says Bust has been “busting stereotypes about women since 1993.” What stereotypes?

That women only care about fashion and beauty. That feminists only care about abortion and rape. There’s an entire litany of stereotypes about women and feminism. In every issue, we try to go against the conventional wisdom. Our 20th-anniversary issue has a story about flappers. We didn’t just cover them because of Gatsby; They were the Riot Grrrls of their time — the first teenagers, the first modern women who broke free of restrictions society had on Victorian women. They were more sexually free, too. And they had to fight for the right to wear makeup.

Are there Jewish women who’ve influenced Bust over the years?

My mother was a convert, and she was a big influence. She’s Dutch born, and always had one foot inside and outside a culture. I’m as Jewy as they come. Something my own Judaism gives me in my feminism is holding on to your own culture and not assimilating into the larger culture. It’s really important to embrace and celebrate women’s culture. Bust writes about recipes and crafting. It’s important to incorporate those elements. Some of that stuff has been devalued because it’s associated with women.

Your online store is called the “Boobtique.” The magazine’s name itself is pretty in-your-face. Do people get that humor?

The name “Bust” was probably the biggest mistake I ever made. It carries a suggestion about being aggressive and busting stereotypes, along with being sexy and ladylike. But people only seem to get the breast-y meaning of it.

Your 20th-anniversary issue includes a look at what’s changed since 1993. What would you say is the biggest change in the pop-culture landscape as far as women go?

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. Tina Fey had her hands in so many parts of pop culture, from [“Saturday Night Live”] to her own show to playing Sarah Palin. Amy Poehler is also all over the pop-culture landscape. They’re two girls in the mainstream, but they represent the kind of person we represent — smart, funny, sarcastic, outspoken pop-culture feminists.

It’s tough out there for print media. How have you and Laurie Henzel managed?

We just did the whole thing scrappy. Started scrappy, still scrappy. We can never pay anybody what they really deserve, which is unfortunate, but it’s one way we’ve been able to stay in business. We live within our means.

What do you think Bust will look like in 20 years?

I have no idea, and I don’t want to have an idea. One thing that’s been so great is how much things have changed, and how feminism has changed. Cooking, crafting and domesticity are part of youth culture. They have a place. Feminism has worked its way through that. It’s not something I would have been able to predict 20 years ago. When surprises come up in the culture, that’s fun.

Bust magazine is rooted in feminism, but we don’t talk about feminism that much. I’d never say the way we’re seeing feminism right now is the be-all and end-all. That was the problem of second-wave feminism in the ’70s: There was an agenda of what feminism must be. Bust embraces some things that feminists have rejected. I’m hoping that in the next 20 years we’ll be able to work through this Rubik’s Cube of what feminism looks like. You have to keep rethinking and rethinking and rethinking, and eventually you hope society will get it right.

You own Bust.com. That must be worth a lot of money.

I don’t know. Nobody needs Bust.com to make money.

This interview has been edited for length and style.


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